Finding the Way Through

Stehekin, a remote mountain village fixed in an earlier time, taught me how to survive in the world today. Located in the North Cascades of central Washington, this community of less than 100 year-round residents is a place and a way of being (people talk of being "Stehekinized"). Translated as "the way through, " Stehekin once was a passageway for Skagit and Salish Indians at the end of 55-mile-long Lake Chelan. Later, highways were blasted through parts of the North Cascades, but luckily none ever made it to Stehekin. Today, most people get "uplake" by a commercial, passenger-only ferry that makes one trip daily. Others arrive by float plane, and the hearty, by hiking a full day over National Park and Forest Service trails.

Telephone lines from the "downlake" world never made it to Stehekin either. Communication there takes place face-to-face. Contact with the rest of the world is by mail. A single public telephone, for outgoing calls only, haltingly relays voices via satellite when communication is urgent.

It was to this tiny, isolated village that my family and I moved in search of our own way through disillusionment. In May 1994, my husband and I quit our jobs in human services, found renters for our house, and prepared our twin son and daughter to enter seventh grade in the valley’s one-room, K-8 school. Our transition was eased by a support committee from our meeting, the encouragement of family and friends, and the availability of a rental house and jobs that first summer.

We had gotten to know the people and the way of life in Stehekin over ten years of vacationing in both summer and winter, so we didn’t have many illusions about living so far removed from the mainstream. We learned during one July visit we could cope with picking our groceries up at the boat three or four days after mailing our order to the Safeway store at the other end of the lake. We survived mosquitoes in droves and temperatures in the upper 90s without air conditioning. During winter holidays we experienced extended power outages, the challenges of waking in three feet of fresh snow, and the trials of driving vintage vehicles over narrow, snow-packed village roads. We had heard springtime was wet, muddy, and filled with flooding dangers and that fall, with its warm days, crisp nights, and spectacular colors, rarely lasted long enough to complete preparations for winter. We worried about the lack of easy access to everything, especially emergency medical care, but we trusted the Stehekin spirit of interdependence would tolerate our inexperience and support us with the lessons we would learn there.

Mostly I went to Stehekin because I wanted a break. For 20 years I had worked as a nurse, primarily in public health. I felt called to a healing profession. Later, I realized I was led to serve the poor by being at their bedsides, visiting in their homes, and advocating for their care. I believed that to bring about health and wholeness I had to witness to suffering. I felt deep affinity with the people I cared for and was driven to respond to their needs. Even though I knew I couldn’t save the world, I had lived my life as if I could.

My drive had taken its toll. Like so many others in helping professions, I arrived at a point of burnout. The early signs nudged me to move to a smaller town, take a job in a smaller organization, and get back to hands-on nursing care after several years as a public health bureaucrat. Within a couple of years I was overwhelmed by the never-ending stream of pregnant teens and young women ill-equipped to deal with parenting complicated by poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, or domestic violence. I battled to survive by moving into middle management. The impotence I had felt in direct service was magnified in my new role, caught between those with power and those in need. I finally realized that, in response to overextending myself, I was withdrawing and nearly extinguishing my compassion.

At the same time, my family was feeling squeezed by Middle America’s compulsion to move faster, consume more, and question less. The treadmill was circling at a frantic pace, leaving us all gasping for breath and grabbing for a handhold. When I proposed a year in Stehekin to renew, their positive response was unanimous.

Despite my yearning for retreat, there was one worry I carried with me to Stehekin. As I moved to one of the most removed sites in our country, I feared I would forget: forget the effects of abuse, disenfranchisement, oppression, and limited opportunities; forget injustice’s aftermath if I no longer looked in the eyes of people who lived with it daily. In Stehekin, there would be no newspapers to link me to the rest of the world, no radio or TV newscasts. I couldn’t call colleagues for updates about families I had worked with or responses to the latest communicable disease outbreak. The mountains that blocked the winter sun until midmorning and swallowed it in the early afternoon kept me in the dark about events beyond my quiet refuge.

Our one-year sojourn turned into two. I hadn’t expected that the boundaries of water and rock that divided me from others could restore a sense of communion, but nestled in the comforting arms of the valley, I regained awareness of my place in the circle of humanity. It wasn’t the din of the media or the mass of case files that reminded me of my kinship with the Earth and her creatures. My closeness to the beauty and power of nature that instructed my heart, rather than my head. My senses noticed interrelationships in different ways.

The gurgling of the Stehekin River told stories of its origins in the glaciers towering above me. Cycles of melting snows, rains, and droughts marked the passage of time in eroded river banks, sandbars, jams of boulders, and fallen, ancient trees. I saw clearly how the river’s course was changed by eons of subtle events. Old-growth ponderosa pines and Douglas firs reaching 100 feet upward exalted the long history that preceded me, while new saplings that followed a forest fire were proof of future growth. Timid black bear cubs and spindly-legged fawns nibbling on plants sprouting through the melting spring snows just outside my door cued me to the mystery of new life.

There was no Quaker meeting in Stehekin, but I went often to my favorite place of worship, a rock outcropping we named Boris’s Bluff. It was Boris, our tabby cat, who showed me I didn’t have to venture far behind our house to be deep in a wooded sanctuary. To my surprise, he always hiked along with me on my treks there. Together we walked through pine needles and scrambled over boulders that had rumbled down from mountain peaks over the centuries.

One day, sitting on a moss-covered rocky mound, I breathed in the pine scent of the surrounding woods and was warmed by the sun’s radiation off the stone. Encircled by mountain walls that gave the illusion of there being nothing beyond them, I was awed by an unexplainable feeling of connection with all people. It was in solitude, sitting alone on a rock, that I had a palpable awareness I wasn’t alone. I realize now it was God’s presence I experienced. Though I couldn’t see or hear others, I felt their closeness and no longer feared that I would forget. And I felt released from the responsibility to do it all; I grasped that it’s not up to me alone.

Maybe my new eyes, seeing the effect of the melting snows, the rush of the river, the delicate balance in nature, showed me that the smallest touch, the briefest contact, the quietest diligence, can make a difference—can change the course of a river. In the quiet safety of the forest and the mountains, I embraced both my smallness and my greatness.

I don’t live in Stehekin anymore, but it lives in me. I didn’t go back to the old house, or the old job. My family and I moved to a rural farming community on Lopez Island in Puget Sound. It has some of the best of Stehekin but is not so isolated. There’s a grocery store, a high school, and a library. We still get to our home by boat, but we are sometimes too well-connected to the world by phone, e-mail, and fax. I have figured out how to do only the parts of nursing I enjoy the most and now have more time to pursue other passions. My mainland friends presume that island life is uncomplicated and comprised of long, contemplative hours . It is, I suppose, in comparison to the pace and style of their lives. Yet I learned in Stehekin that I can create distractions anywhere, even on Boris’s Bluff. So I continue to experiment to sustain balance and preserve times of solitude. But I will never forget that "the way through" to communion is in silence.

Iris Graville

Iris Graville "polished" this essay at a Pendle Hill workshop—"The Ministry of Writing for Publication," led by Tom Mullen. She is a member of University Meeting in Seattle and attends the Lopez Island (Wash.) Worship Group.