Pasayten Pete

Chapter Seven: Winter Lodge

Winters in the Methow Valley were cold, sometimes bitterly so. Temperatures ranged well below zero. The snow would pile up two and three feet deep. It fell to Graydon to keep the driveway into the Wolf Creek homestead shoveled out when the snow got deeper than his step-father's sedan or the panel truck, their faithful Blue Goose, could push through.

Graydon would wax a flat-bladed shovel and begin cutting blocks from the deep snow, lifting and heaving them aside. It took most of a day to remove the snow between the tire ruts. If the snow had fallen that deep, then he would also get out a ladder and cautiously shovel snow off the porch roof and the chicken house, lest the weight collapse them. The other roofs, the house and outbuildings, had been built with steeply-pitched roofs. They would clear themselves. Sections of snow would slide off before the weight could threaten the structure.

The ditches froze over. Every day Graydon chopped through the ice so their animals could drink. If sub-zero temperatures confined the goat herd to the barn, he would carry water inside to fill a watering trough made from a cut-down water heater shell.

He forked hay down from the loft into the mangers, and pitched the trampled bedding and manure through a shuttered side window onto the outside manure pile.

The barn, divided into stalls with feed mangers at their head and wooden-bar milking stanchions behind, was good protection during the coldest sub-zero nights. The sociable goats clustered together and their body heat warmed the enclosing space. Each morning when Graydon opened the door he was greeted by a chorus of bleats and jostling bodies. The nannies were eager for feed and milking. He'd bring a bucket of feed pellets to supplement their alfalfa hay diet. It was a challenge to get the bucket emptied into their feed trough before an eager goat's nose knocked the bucket from his hand.

Chickens thrived on hot feed, a mix of hot water and a three-pound coffee can half-filled with mill run, a cheap flaked grain mixture. The chicken run lay littered with bowl-shaped blocks of ice he'd knocked from their water bowl before refilling it with warm water.

Other winter chores included splitting firewood blocks to useable size. His job was to keep the wood boxes for both stoves full. Sometimes a block would hold a tough knot and Graydon would swing a sledgehammer to drive a splitting wedge down through the knot until the block would snap apart, sometimes violently. He'd save the heavy split-knot chunks to bank their parlor stove fire at night. Despite that, the parlor fire would burn down to ashes and a few embers by morning. He'd get out of bed surrounded by clouds of his breath in the frosty upstairs air.

It was a long, cold run to the outhouse. He'd carry the bed pans out to be emptied at morning call.

Winter life on their Wolf Creek homestead seemed very closed in for Graydon. His world centered around the heated house and the sheltering barn. He swaddled himself in boots, sweater, a heavy coat, hat and gloves before coping with the frozen elements outside. His chores centered around feeding the animals, splitting firewood, chopping ice, carrying water, and shoveling snow. Trips to town were infrequent and challenging. The Blue Goose was reluctant to start and it was hard to drive without sliding off the rutted, icy roads.

Then the winterscape changed for Graydon. He found a pair of war-surplus hickory skis, seven feet long with leather bindings that laced over his greased work boots. Matching ski poles stood shoulder-high with laced leather grips and big snow baskets. Painted white for camouflage, these outfits were used by WW II ski-troopers.

Graydon weighed only a third what an equipped ski-trooper would weigh. When he strapped the skis on and glided off across the barnyard he literally floated across the snow. A new teacher at school was a ski enthusiast who encouraged the few students who showed any interest in the sport. Downhill skiing was becoming popular in the rural Cascade region; Leavenworth was making a name for itself for its ski-jumping hill and people began to notice. Yet cross-country ski-trekking remained virtually unknown in the region.

Graydon got a beginner's book explaining kick-turns, climbing steps, and long, sweeping telemark turns with long skis. He studied Scandinavian cross-country ski history and techniques.

To make a standing kick-turn to face the opposite way, he had to balance on one ski, plant his poles behind to steady himself, then lift his inside ski tip up high to get its tail clear of the snow. He could then swing the ski around and plant it backwards. He'd shift his weight and lift the other one around in an arc to stride off in the new direction.

It seemed simple in the book but the first several tries left him buried in a tangled heap of poles and skis. He was two feet shorter than his seven-foot skis, but he was blessed with long legs so after a few weekends of practice he was able to kick-turn at will and zig-zag across the barnyard in long gliding strides. He was ready for wintertime trekking across the snow-bound fields and slopes.

Wolf Creek was to be crossed with extreme caution. Hay-stack mounds of snow covered boulders in the ice but sometimes concealed open water between. An unwary step could lead to disaster. The crossing had to span between gentle slopes that Graydon could traverse with his long skis, down one side at an angle, then across the snow packed ice, and then up the other side, carefully lest he slide backwards to bury his ski tails and fall over in a heap. He might roll down into open creek water. That could be fatal.

Canyon slopes sheltered by the forest held deep snow, soft and yielding. He sank up to his knees in the soft stuff, his skis sinking out of sight with only their tips breaking out ahead as he lifted each in turn to move forward. His ski poles sank deep beside his skis; a heavy cone of snow would come up with each basket while he poled ahead.

He could travel! Winter snow was no barrier between himself and the long, solitary stretches of the abandoned homestead fields tucked under the Virginian Ridge slopes. Or more often he climbed the spur road beyond Purdy's cabin, up the long grade and its switch-backs, and emerged to trek another half mile to Jim and Violet Brightman's ranch.

Their ranch, alone on Virginian Ridge, comprised three hundred acres of dry land hay fields, a modest house, and a low, sprawling barn that sheltered a handful of cattle, a saddle horse, and a team of dappled grey workhorses. Jim Brightman lived a simple life with his wife and his ranch. Their home became a second home to Graydon. Their sloping hay fields became his winter park to make long, swooping runs on his oversize, floating skis.

But of all his solitary treks, the most secret one was a lodge, hidden in a circular meadow high up on a bench south of the canyon's mouth, surrounded by heavy forest. It lay abandoned and neglected. Perhaps some absentee owner knew when and why it had been abandoned. Graydon didn't know. He discovered the two-story building with its huge stone fireplace during a fall hike. A massive rock chimney rose up through a hand-split cedar shake roof. The main room inside the front porch doorway was huge. A kitchen and utility room lay behind . A stairway led upstairs to two empty bedrooms and a game room and a dusty felt-covered gambling table with wrap-around poker chip trays.

The windows were unbroken. The back kitchen door stood half open, sagging on loose hinges. The big front door swung freely on stronger hinges and latched securely. Groundhogs had burrowed under the kitchen porch at the back corner. Apple trees stood scattered in a near corner of the meadow. A rhubarb patch grew along the front path. Several acres of tall meadow grass stretched below the lodge but small trees and chokecherry bushes were encroaching around the edges. No fences remained but for a few half-rotted posts that hadn't yet fallen over.

It become Graydon's private refuge, welcoming and secluded. It was a long hike from the Wolf Creek homestead but if he had the best part of a day he could hike over and spend a few hours exploring and varmint hunting. He'd make a mid-day meal beside the open hearth in the main room, then by late afternoon hike back home in time for evening chores.

With his skis, he got winter access to the lodge. It became a closely-guarded secret. No one would follow his ski tracks after they threaded through the red willow thickets and across the creek. He ski-trekked up and through the pine forest and across the snow-smothered bench to the lodge at meadow's edge.

During late autumn he gathered fallen pine limbs and snapped them into useable fireplace lengths, then stacked them in the woodshed outside the kitchen door. He piled more by the fireplace. He split fat pine blocks into slender lengths for fire kindling. He found a broom to keep the main room swept and tidy.

Dee Johns knew that Graydon was different from other boys, but he was competent at whatever he chose to do. She trusted that he would keep himself safe. She didn't interfere with his solitary absences or his overnight trips into the nearby hills. She asked to know where he was going, and when he expected to return. A quiet trust developed between mother and son. Of all things for which he'd later be grateful, his freedom to roam the mountain-bordered expanses, the meadows and forests of Virginian Ridge and the Wolf Creek canyon, was what he treasured most.

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Pasayten Pete © Graybyrd 2010

Last modification: 2016/8/25 at 19:03