By Don Nelson
Being neighborly is sometimes a challenge in the Methow.
We’re a spread out-community, a narrow strip of settlement ranging about 60 miles along the Methow River from Pateros to Early Winters. Habitation has sprung up on the adjacent hillsides, in the draws and narrow canyons and close by the Methow’s tributaries. Our dwelling options are limited (a blessing, in my opinion) by the fact that most of the valley’s land is owned by the federal or state governments.
Thus hemmed in, we still look for a little separation. Even at that, most of us, except the most-isolated, can likely see another residence or know that one is reasonably nearby. Some of us convene around the more-contained clusters we call towns. Others choose the communality of planned unit developments that don’t resemble suburban subdivisions.
After more than a century of serious in-migration, there still aren’t that many of us. Even if, as some anecdotal evidence suggests, our population has spiked during the pandemic, there’s likely no more than 6,000 people living in the Methow. There are compact neighborhoods in Seattle with more people than that.
So it’s not proximity that makes us close-knit. It’s knowing that there are a limited number of us sharing this elongated space, and that we depend on self-reliance and mutual support more than many small communities, even other remote, rural places like our own.
Anyone who has been here for a while (at 9-plus years, I’m still something of a “newbie”) pretty much knows where things are and how things happen, even if their familiarity is mainly with one part of the valley. If our sphere of acquaintances isn’t vast, we are probably no more than a few degrees of separation from knowing each other. Little that occurs is entirely impersonal.
For many years I lived in a small but charming cabin way out on West Chewuch Road. I loved the area, and endured the commute to Twisp over some challenging winters (this would have been the worst, I think). A couple of years ago, I moved to a small but charming house in Twisp, immersing myself in the full Methow urban experience and trimming my commute to 1 mile.
I live on West Twisp Avenue, near the Twisp River — which I can hear from my house when the current is high. There are critters in the area, including the municipal deer herd that periodically meanders through. I know some of my neighbors, but not all of them. We wave to each other when we’re driving, biking or walking the dog.
A week and a half ago, I had been out of town for the weekend and returned Sunday afternoon. I had not driven very far up the street when I saw the house. The night before, a little home near the Twisp River Suites had been gutted by flames. It was clear that the charred shell could not be saved, even by our highly capable firefighters. The real tragedy was that a person had died in the fire, which I learned later that day. And that was about all I knew.
Monday morning, on the way to work I stopped in front of the house to take some photos for the paper. Twisp Police Chief Paul Budrow was parked nearby in his official SUV, keeping an eye on the scene. We chatted for a few minutes, and I learned who the victim probably was — unofficially.
Many people in the community knew or had reason to believe they knew the victim. To a certain extent, it became common knowledge. But for stories involving accidental deaths, we never run the name of the victim without official conformation from a responsible source — in this case, Okanogan County Coroner Dave Rodriguez. Our story last week did not include the deceased person’s identity. This week, we learned that he was Sam Clarke. There will be an obituary in next week’s edition.
I didn’t know Sam Clarke. But he was a neighbor on my street who I probably saw around town. And by a single degree of separation I know people to whom he was related, whose lives were affected. That hits close to home. As a news reporter, I’ve covered a lot of residential structure fires over the years (the forest and range fires we’ve suffered in recent years are a different kind of story). They are terrifying close-up. Fire is explosively destructive. If you’re the least bit human, you can’t entirely separate your emotions when you’re a journalist on the job. At least I can’t. Human loss always saddens me. But it’s also a reminder of how important we are to each other.