An Upriver Life: The Skagit Beyond Highway 20
The North Cascades are full of secrets. One must have a specific intention to discover the scenic treasures of the peaks, and that intention is usually accompanied by a backpack, several days of supplies, strong legs, and fortitude. Some treasures are only available for viewing from one particular point, on one obscure trail, after one has hauled body and gear up several thousand vertical feet. Although the drive along the highway is loaded with landscapes that suspend the breath and inspire the imagination, those who choose to linger a while and explore will reap the greater reward.
The same highway twists through dwellings that serve as no more than mile markers to most travelers. A few sporadic gas stations and convenience stores denote the entry to and exit from places that would be missed if one sneezed or got a bit of dust in one’s eye. However, these places that line the highway to the North Cascades hold their own magical secrets. Just as travelers are rewarded for finding their way beyond the sole strip of bitumen through this wild and scenic space, so do delights await those who choose a side road, and saunter rather than a sprint through the surprising upper Skagit River Valley.
Like many, I had mentally reduced the small town of Concrete to what was visible from the highway: a small market, a few gas stations, a speed limit not to be tested by risk-taking passers through. The town’s name did not inspire exploration. My assumptions were tested at a meeting of the Upriver Poets (a story for another time) when I was told that there was a remarkably good, entirely gluten-free bakery hidden on the town’s main street.
One sunny Sunday, I drove to discover this aberration. I turned right off the highway and left onto Main, and stopped dead in the middle of the street with my brow furrowed and my head cocked to one side. Street lamps were adorned with wreath and garland, Christmas lights draped every fanciful store front, and people were walking around in Dickens-era frocks complete with top hats, tails, and petticoats. I peered into the rear view mirror to check for any obvious signs of temporal disturbance, and seeing none, I continued down the whimsical lane. I soon discovered that it was the exact day of the annual Christmas parade, wherein townsfolk dressed in period costumes and a variety of events filled the day with fellowship, entertainment, and Christmas Spirit. It was incredibly pleasant to discover two things: the lovely little downtown filled with cheer, and that I had not passed through a quantum anomaly (although that might have been really cool).
Upon arrival at the 5b’s Bakery, I was again taken aback. The bakery was a beautiful open space filled with natural light and delightful aromas. The pastry cases, counters, and freezers were bursting with tempting treats of every variety. To the left there was a full espresso bar and soda fountain that provided coffee drinks, milkshakes, and old fashioned sodas to complement any baked good.
5b’s was started by the Beals family: Em, Walter, Lizzie, Bowen, and Tavish. Em Beals was diagnosed with celiac sprue disease 18 years ago. Her twin sons, Bowen and Tavish were diagnosed when they were four years old. Em’s mission for the 5b’s was simple: to make delicious food to satisfy every craving while being dedicated to a 100% gluten-free facility with no risk of cross-contamination. She makes sure that people who live with celiac disease still get pizza, cookies, and birthday cake. The bakery also serves lunch specials including soup and sandwiches. I partook in a tasty soy latte and a scrumptious pumpkin cookie.
Shortly thereafter, I learned of a Celtic Christmas concert being held at the Concrete Theater. In 2012, the community rallied around the historic theater, and raised over $53,000 from individual donors and grants to obtain a digital projection system with 3D capability. In addition to delivering first-run major motion pictures for the community, the theater also serves as a venue for live performance and fitness classes.
The theater was warm and inviting inside with a myriad of concessions for the theater goer. The performer was Geoffrey Castle, who plays an electric violin with flair and talent. He brought with him his entire five-person band plus special guests Beth Quist of Cirque du Soleil and Don the Bagpiper. Even Santa Claus made an appearance, and rightfully so, because that show rocked. Castle is an exceptional performer and is accustomed to considerably larger venues and crowds, but he played with enthusiasm and often left the stage to walk up the aisle and interact with audience members.
The concert truly felt like a community affair, with friendly greetings amongst audience members prior to the performance. Valerie Stafford is the theater’s owner, “The community has been absolutely amazing at supporting the theater. They attend our movies regularly and take part in lots of our other events. I also use the facility for Encore Fitness, and have a great following of fitness fanatics at my classes.”
Head nine miles east of Concrete and slow down, or you might miss this place where the Skagit River runs wide and the eagles come in droves each winter to pluck plump salmon from the pristine waters. Howard Miler/Steelhead Park provides river access and wildlife interpretive trails with views of the sublime Eldorado Peak and its giant glacier to the East.
Just south of Highway 20 is Blue Heron Farm and Nursery. This local staple has been around since 1979 and has provided farm fresh fruit, vegetables, bamboo, and plants to the community. The farm is also home to National Park Service ranger-extraordinaire, Mike Brondi. Above the barn, Mike built an extraordinary space for Tai Kwon Do, meditation, and Yoga. Classes are provided by local instructors by donation, and the space has been well appointed with mats, blankets, blocks, and meditation cushions as a result of the generosity of participants. The intention behind the space was to provide a venue for spiritual practice and recreation that was not cost prohibitive. Truly a community space, the Rockport Yoga Studio is for and by the people of the upper Skagit.
Hidden a mile or so up a gravel road along Diobsud Creek you will find Marblemount Homestead. There, Corina and Steve Sahlin raise their three children on five acres of farm and forest land. Corina was born and raised in southern Germany where she learned the art of cheese making from the ubiquitous artesian cheese makers in her homeland. As a child, Steve spent ten years in primitive Papua New Guinea where his parents served as missionaries. The simplicity and happiness of the people of Papua New Guinea inspired Steve. He became passionate about wilderness and tool crafting, and brought that passion to the upper Skagit where he teaches bow-making and wilderness survival classes. Corina raises goats and teaches classes in cheese making and goat husbandry. She makes and sells goat milk soaps and hand knits and felts beautiful hats, scarves, and other garments which she sells on her Etsy webpage.
Steve and Corina believe strongly in the power of community and they feel fortunate to have found a close community in their neighbors. When their oldest boy, Kai, wanted to learn to play the fiddle, Corina was supportive, but skeptical as to where a teacher could be found and considered the challenge of commuting long distances for lessons. When her neighbors learned of Kai’s interest, one gifted the boy with a fiddle, and another has provided lessons while refusing any kind of compensation. Last year, community members came together to create the Marblemount Community Market where local crafters, including Corina, offer their wares and musicians provide entertainment at the Marblemount Community Hall. Steve and Corina believe that strong community bonds and relationships happen organically, and that they cannot be forced. They have happily made Marblemount their home for nine years.
When I first arrived in Diablo as a North Cascades Institute graduate student this past September, I felt overwhelmed by what appeared to be a remote and isolated place. I had left behind irreplaceable friends and a rich community in Eugene, Oregon. However, when I took the time to linger a while, and when I made the commitment to stay for my winter break and seek out the community I hoped was here, I was blessed to find an abundance of creativity, warmth, and connection hidden just beyond the highway.
Lead Photo: The Skagit River from Howard Miller/Steelhead County Park. Photo by Elissa Kobrin
Elissa Kobrin is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. She is a co-editor of Chattermarks. When not tracking down moose, she is keeping the world safe, one Band-aid at a time.