By Joanna Bastian

My house is still there. The fire burned underneath the bedroom porch and along the flowerbeds but stopped short at the house. The bees are still there, buzzing away happily in a square of green gardens amidst a blackened landscape. The beautiful backyard, creekside porch, fruit trees, humming bird feeders and strawberry patch are all still there, but our neighbor, Robert Koczewski, is not. He died of an apparent heart attack last week while helping defend his neighborhood against fire.

I first met Robert in the summer of 2009. He had called me on the phone after receiving my letter asking what was it like to live on Gold Creek. It was one of those phone conversations where words are forgotten, but not the way someone made you feel. Robert loved living on Gold Creek, and enjoyed talking about it even more. Shortly after that phone conversation, we became neighbors, and I started referring to Robert as my “neighbor-on-a-tractor.”

Robert Koczewski could often be seen giving children rides on his tractor. Photo by Joanna Bastian

Robert Koczewski could often be seen giving children rides on his tractor. Photo by Joanna Bastian

It is a common question for people in the Methow Valley to ask where the other lives. Perhaps what is not so common is the reaction, “Oh, you live next to Robert!” And then the conversation turns to their own recollection of interacting with our iconic neighbor. One woman stated, “I’ve been up there — Robert keeps that place looking like a five-star resort!” It is true. In winter, our neighborhood does indeed resemble a winter wonderland resort where all the paths are plowed with perfectly square edges.

Tall and rugged, deeply tanned, the retired U.S. Marine Corps officer and state trooper kept our little neighborhood running like a tight ship. He rounded up wayward cows, contacted the owners, and made sure the wandering bovines did not create too much havoc before the owners came to collect them. He mowed neat barriers along the length of the driveway and around our garden. He told off-color jokes, pampered his cats, gave kids rides on his horses and tractors, and was sweet on his wife.

All this national attention would make Robert blush. He never wanted recognition, never sought the spotlight. It spoke volumes of his impact in this world when the president of the United States called last week to offer condolences to Robert’s wife, Patty.

If Robert had to leave us, the only comforting thought is that he did so while protecting his wife and the life they built here on Gold Creek.

My house is still there. But the “home” with my neighbor-on-a-tractor is gone.