I was nervous for days before we made the trip to Eastern Washington. I had been back to the States several times in the last few years and though I had gotten close, never quite squeezed in the time to visit the homestead where ten years of our lives transformed sweat into dreams-come-true.
Maybe not big accomplishments by another man's standards but that homestead meant something to me. I had never lived for so many years in one place. My daughters went through their adolescence and teen years there. Sandi and I shared our passion for horses with Risha while Kristen terrorized the forty acres with mini bikes, four wheelers, dune buggies and tractors.
The majority of time we lived in this breathtaking valley, I logged for a living. The unlimited wood supply was the deciding factor to purchase a state of the art, portable, sawmill and thus began the partnership between my father and me.
Dad would come from Southern Idaho and visit when time would permit and the routine would begin. Selection of the perfect logs for the current phase of whatever project we were working on. Setting up the mill, positioning the flat-bed to receive the freshly sawn lumber and when the stack was sufficiently large the construction would commence.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. It’s not like either one of us was really a builder. Our strategy was to never actually sketch the finished project ahead of time, for fear the final results would be noticeably different.
One board at a time is how the hay barn, horse shelters, storage buildings, porches and additional living space were finished and when the last nail was driven we would stand back and congratulate ourselves on a job well done.
The apartment above the shop was about halfway finished when we moved away. It had doors and windows, a large slider that opened onto a cantilevered front porch and a view of the only pasture land on the entire forty acres.
Deer, elk and an occasional moose would wander through during the cool of the evening and packs of coyotes made regular passes along the edge of the woods, tormenting the dogs and challenging them to come closer.
In every direction there was a father and son project. Some nicely completed and others in the very stage where we had left them. Sometimes the weather did not cooperate or the materials were more costly than I could afford at the time. Some projects got moved down the priority list because unexpected emergencies, took their place.
Those were good days and the bonding moments we shared during our construction projects filled some of the gaps left, between a busy father and over-involved son during those high school years. Spending time creating and accomplishing dreams with my dad not only bonded us together but it tied my heart and soul with the place I called home.
So why be nervous? What was the apprehension of returning to a previous home? I think it was the potential condition of the dreams I left behind. In those ten special years we had done so much. The cleared land, new roads, fresh pasture and managed timber, kids grown and gone, were a testimony to the importance this acreage held in my life and now I was almost there to see what was left of my dreams.
I wondered ahead of time how I would feel if some rich people had bought the property and found my projects to be inferior to their own master plan. What if the place looked better than we had ever managed to make it. What if there was no remnant at all of our history, sweat and passion.
As I rounded the corner at the low end of the property, the roof of the apartment we had never completed came into view. The unfinished rough-sawn boards were much darker from the three additional years of exposure but red fir is a good wood and the structure was straight and tall, just like we left it.
The grass was waist high in the area below the shop. Obviously they hadn’t chosen to mow it the way we had. Now, it was more of a natural area and I noticed right away the electric fence that the new owners installed to let the horses feed there. Good idea. Part way through our ten years on this property we had cleared this little area for just that purpose, great minds think alike.
Within seconds my heart fell in my chest. I had thought there was someone living here but turning into the driveway I could see the waist high grass was the common theme of the entire property. Is it possible that the new owners were gone?
No, I could see trails from the front porch, through the grass toward the hay barn and paddock area and four horses milling about in the same shade that mine used to covet. The garbage bags filled with kitchen trash were in piles located in strategic places close to the front and back door; piles that could be added to without many additional steps.
The broken screen on what used to be our bedroom window brought a lump to my throat and the paint-flaked walls on the storage building that housed our horse tack and Christmas decorations brought tears to my eyes. It was just beside this structure that our daughter built fences of twine to corral her hedgehogs… then promptly lost them in the woods.
The road that led to the upper property was barely distinguishable for all the weeds and fallen saplings that forbade our passing. The heaviness in my heart sank to my stomach and I fought the urge to flee but the wait had been too long and the desire to connect with my past pointed me to the front door.
The third time I knocked there was a sense of relief. No one was home so I would simply see what I wanted to see, and then leave. Halfway to the paddock I heard the front door open and a short obese woman appeared on the porch where we received our friends for ten years.
Her tent-like nightshirt billowed in the breeze as she spoke to me in a tone that was less than inviting. I stammered through a faltering explanation of who I was and why I was there. All along hoping there would be some warmth or friendliness or at the very least some spoken fondness of how much she liked the place we had vacated.
Her matted, gray and white hair blew across half of her face and she never raised her hand to brush it away. She reluctantly agreed with my request to just "look around a bit" and mumbled something about the cabin that I had moved from the top of her mountain to my brother’s adjacent land.... like she would ever walk up there to see it. Again, I turned and headed toward the barn.
There was so much more I wanted to see but the small loop I walked only took me past the horses. The same route Risha had walked a thousand times early in the morning or after returning from a long day. Often in the winter the snow was waist deep and I could follow her progress by the crunching sounds her footsteps made along the way.
The chain bolted to the cross member of the barn was still there. The girl's rope swing used to be attached and the hay bails had made the perfect launching pad. I had meant to take that with me when we left but in the process of moving I am sure there were many things forgotten.
Some old pallets were still on the barn floor. We used them to put distance between the damp earth and our freshly cut hay. I'm sure no one would guess how important they used to be or how diligent I was to select sturdy ones, just the right size, that could support twelve tons of hay.
I walked down the back side of the paddock toward the driveway where I parked. Half to see what else caught my attention, perhaps the other half to avoid this person who cared so little about the things that were so important to me.
The small deck of logs was still there. This was tamarack. I couldn’t believe that in seven winter seasons nobody used it for firewood. The sturdy woodshed between the log pile and house was gone. The second level we had used to store ice chests, camping equipment and empty canning jars that were waiting for the next season’s fruit. Who in their right mind would take down a woodshed when their house was built with wood heat as an option?
There was more to see but I had seen enough. It only took a few minutes for ten years of effort, to be transformed into the sad futility of human achievement.
I’m not sure I will ever go back. This is the place where I thought my grandchildren would learn to love me. I had often joked with my family about burying me somewhere on the property. I had visions of “puttering” around in my shop on those cold winter days after retirement making periodic trips to a well built woodshed for dry, split, tamarack.
It is clear to me that these pursuits are good ones:
“Whatever your hand finds to do….do it well.”
“Go to the ant, you lazy man, and learn from their work.”
The counter balance to this theme, however, is powerful and bears repeating:
“Don’t lay up your treasures where the moth and rust will ultimately consume them.”
“Your heart and your treasure will always be in the same place.”
These thoughts left that forty acres with me and led me once again to a place of reflection, re-commitment, and determination. I want to invest the energy, talents and resources that God has loaned me, to effectively bond with those in my sphere of influence for a common goal, that will last well into eternity.
If we invest in people..... love people..... protect and heal people, that is passion that will not return to us void. Partnerships of the heart pay big dividends. I chose to spend the rest of my life investing.