Pass the Populism

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Catell Ronca /

The tables are overcrowded with chicken enchiladas, Swedish meatballs, organic salad greens, pasta with sun-dried tomatoes, dishes as varied and predictable as the 60 of us who sit on wooden benches waiting to eat. We’ve gathered at the Stehekin Community Hall this November evening to bid farewell to a family that’s moving. The day has been gray, as the past several have been, ever since an inversion settled into the valley. We needed, all of us, to get out of the house, to share some food and company. The kids feel it, and they romp excitedly in the tree-hemmed parking lot in the slopover glow from the hall windows.

Black-and-white photos dating back to the turn of the last century adorn the walls. They’re posed community shots, grainy and indistinct. Some of the faces are younger versions of folks here tonight; others are ancestors of people whose characteristics–large ears, toothy grins, a certain prideful tip of the head–identify them easily. Others are long gone and forgotten, short-timers. Native Americans named this place Stehekin, meaning “the way through,” because of the narrow mountain pass that facilitated east-west trade routes. The natives only used the valley seasonally, and the legacy of transience remains. Farewell potlucks, up here, are as common as weeklong inversions, and this one has given us a fine excuse to gather on the grim cusp of winter.

Ours is doubtless the largest gathering–of humans at least–for a minimum 30-mile radius in every direction. No roads go in or out of Stehekin. You can take a boat or you can take a float plane, or in summer you can hike. But you can’t drive. This time of year, the boat runs every other day, and a plane could not navigate this weather, so tonight we are effectively cut off. We’re tucked into the famously wet Cascades, in a small valley separated from the outside world by steep jagged mountains and long skinny Lake Chelan. By now, people who live in this valley in north central Washington do so precisely because there are no roads in or out, and if one were to be proposed, a furious uproar would ensue.

So here we are, about a hundred people who choose to live in comparative isolation. Like many other rural places, this valley has no stoplights, no fast food restaurants, no grocery stores. Like very few rural places, it has neither a church nor a tavern, though people do, of course, both worship and imbibe excessively. Stehekin has no town council, which is probably one reason we manage to get along. A locally elected school board governs the one-room school. We do without some conveniences, sure, but not many. We don’t have telephones–landlines don’t extend this far and cell towers are forbidden in designated wilderness–but we have internet service via satellite dishes that began to sprout on cabins like mushrooms a few years back. We can’t go to the movies, but we can rent DVDs from Netflix. We can’t go to the store, but we can send an email order to the Red Apple Market downlake and have groceries arrive at the boat dock. (We used to send a handwritten list and a blank check a week in advance. Now we live large.) The only thing we truly can’t do is escape one another.

My partner, Laurie, and I fall in toward the end of the queue, behind a gang of 3-year-olds snatching cookies while their parents are distracted with the casseroles. I look around at the crowd: a barge operator, a fabric artist, a music teacher, a retired engineer, a disabled vet, a self-described inventor. Gone this time of year are the seasonal Park Service employees. One guy I worked with on a tail crew, a seasonal worker from Chicago, mastered the art of simmering a pot of dried beans–cheaper than potato chips–to bring to the frequent summer potlucks.

“I’ve never really had to think about it before,” he told me.

“About what?” I said.

He glanced at me, confused and incredulous, and it took me a minute to catch on.

“You mean 22-year-olds everywhere don’t go to potlucks three times a week?”

We laughed. After several years of living up here full time, I sometimes forget what it’s like to live in what people insistently call “the real world.”

We spoon dollops of this, dabs of that onto paper plates, food that will likely meld in my gut later and set off alarms. When I was a kid, my stomach acted up at potlucks. The familiar acid curdling meant “I want to go home.” Usually it was because there were too many people I didn’t know. Nowadays, no matter how happy I am to be settled where I am, I sometimes want to go home because there are too many people I do know. I am not completely at ease here, I admit. Decorum rules the day, politeness born of our differences and our overarching respect for privacy.

The family that is leaving is following the career path that requires upwardly mobile park rangers to move to a different park every three years or so. Many Park Service families come to Stehekin as a stepping stone. They resent their tenure here and tick off the long weeks in purgatory. In contrast, this family liked it, and they’re leaving as much to be closer to their families back East as for any other reason. The father is a law enforcement officer of the Andy Griffith mold, who prefers a chat to a confrontation. His wife raises search-and-rescue dogs. Their daughter arrived as a long-lashed toddler and leaves now as a long-legged girl who, in springtime, runs with a pack of kids out on the wide mud flats.

This kind of life, ripe with heartbreak, is more norm than exception. Upwardly mobile or desperately downwardly so, Americans move an average of 12 times in a lifetime. Every place, really, is the way through. You bring what you have to offer. You fill your plate with what is there. You eat, then you leave. There is a privilege in movement: a richness of experience. (Another trail crew buddy once found a copy of Utne Reader in his bunkhouse shortly after moving to the Pacific Northwest from Texas. “Well, I’ve been broadened,” he said. And he had.) But there is a disconnect, too.

I should know. I lived much of my adult life moving semiannually from place to place, and I remember how it feels to know you’ll soon be gone. During wildfires, I remained coldly detached. Philosophy dictated my response: Let it burn. Ever since I decided to stay put, I’m too worried about my neighbors’ homes to ponder philosophy. If it’s disconcerting, this weight of responsibility, this heavy plate of mix-and-match food, it’s also comforting. My neighbors, after all, worry about my home too.

Around here in the summer, social life grows as rich and abundant as the deciduous trees. If I want to go to a potluck every night, I can. I can bring a bucket of beer and sit by a campfire, laughing and swatting mosquitoes. Summer is frenetic. In winter, silence pervades. You must get very close to the river, barely a trickle, to hear its flow. At home, we can no longer stand the buzz of the computer, or the freezer kicking on in the night, or the kathump of snow off the roof.

The last eaters are interrupted by a loud shrill whistle. Time for the formalities. Speeches are given, brief but heartfelt. A couple comes forward with a new backpack for the 8-year-old. My trail crew boss, who’s lived here for 30 years, brings forward a hand-carved wooden arrowhead. The ranger thanks them, teeters on the edge of tears, and steps back into the shadows. His daughter doesn’t bother with stoicism. She stands before us sobbing softly while her pals hover near the door, waiting for all this to be over so they can go back outside and play.

I’m humbled by the way my neighbors have learned the graceful art of making friends and letting them go. They invite new seasonals and summer folks to dinner. They make small talk in the post office even when they’d rather–just once, for godsake!–be anonymous. They gladly welcomed the family that is leaving, and they are sad to see them go. I aspire to their combination of openness and steadfastness. That, after all, is the rest of the potluck story, isn’t it? You bring what you have to offer. You fill your plate with what is there. You eat and then you leave. But while you’re there, you hope for warmth and light, courtesy and generosity. And after a while, you learn to bring more than your share.

Excerpted from “Potluck” from Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness by Ana Maria Spagna, copyright © 2011. Reprinted with the permission of Oregon State University Press.

Have something to say? Send a letter to This article first appeared in the September-October 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

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