It wasn’t your typical Labor Day weekend in the Methow Valley — although “typical” may not have much meaning in the future if our summers continue to leave us exhausted, grieving, and calculating our economic losses before we even get to the first weekend of September.
For all the three-day emphasis on tourism, the most heavily attended event of the weekend was a local gathering on Sunday afternoon at Liberty Bell High School, where a crowd estimated at 1,000 or more packed the gym to honor and commemorate Tom Zbyszewski.
Tom, a Methow Valley native and 2013 Liberty Bell graduate, died on Aug. 19, the first day of the Twisp River Fire. Two of his firefighting colleagues also died, and another is in a Seattle hospital facing a long-term recovery from serious burns.
The floor seating was filled, as were the bleachers. Singer/songwriter John William Sinclair started the event off with a lovely and powerful song that he said was not written about his friend Tom, but seemed fitting. Speakers included some of Tom’s teachers, mentors, friends and family — Adam Kaufman, Mark Wenzel, Rachel Layne, Jane Orme, Kurt Hoffman and Nick Saunders, all offering their powerful memories of Tom — and concluded with the poignant thoughts of Tom’s parents, Ski and Jennifer. David Asia read a couple of poems that Tom had recited in Poetry Out Loud competition.
I saw quite a few in the audience who traveled a long way, on a holiday weekend, to be there on Sunday afternoon. There were tears and hugs and a lot of lingering after the memorial, as if people didn’t really want to leave the company of others sharing both the joy of knowing Tom and the sorrow at his passing.
For context, consider this: Sunday’s attendance represents about 20 percent of the valley’s population. Twenty percent of Seattle’s population would be about 130,000 people showing up for one event honoring a single person, and there’s no place in the city that could hold that many. There almost wasn’t in the Methow Valley.
While the gym was full, the nearby rodeo grounds were empty. For the first time in its history, the Methow Valley Labor Day Rodeo was cancelled, largely because of uncertainty about whether fires and smoke would still be causing problems for participants and spectators.
It was a tough decision for the Methow Valley Horsemen, who put on the rodeo (and the Memorial Day Rodeo as well), and in retrospect, given how the weather conditions turned out, perhaps caused some regret.
However, the group had little choice but to conclude that assuring riders, stock owners and spectators that the rodeo would go on was too dicey a proposition. Logistics demanded a decision, and the Horsemen made it.
On a lighter note, the Winthrop Kiwanis Duck Race was back, a thoroughly goofy and wildly entertaining “competition” to see which rubber birds can bob most efficiently down the Chewuch and Methow rivers. Unlike some rodeo events, there’s no handicapping the duck race.
I had to go over to the coast for a couple of days, and it was the first time I had driven through the Upper Skagit Complex Fire area since Highway 20 re-opened. The scarring in the Skagit River gorge and around Newhalem is scary and dramatic. We had heard that the fire burned right down to the highway in Newhalem, and that was no exaggeration. Scorched areas marred both sides of the gorge.
Looking up at the extreme terrain in that area, it was obvious that huge swaths of the fire were nearly un-fightable. Like many valley residents, I had chafed at the road’s closure because it kept us from leaving in that direction, and prevented visitors from taking the North Cascades Highway route. But seeing the fire’s impact helps explain the thinking behind that decision.
I asked a clerk at the Newhalem store about the fire, but she seemed tired of talking about it. “I don’t want to go through that again,” was about all she said.
There’s a sentiment we can all understand.