9. Ted and Sarah's Cabin
Published on 27 August 2022 at 11:57
© 2022 Robert Sickles
In the movie The Ballad of Cable Hogue, a guy finds a fresh water spring alongside a dusty Arizona wagon trail, and decides to open a tavern for stagecoaches, becoming the only place to whet one’s whistle between the towns of Dead Dog and Lizard. I always liked the names of those places, so utterly nowhere, so forsaken. Which brings me now to the trip out to Omak to visit Ted and Sarah’s new cabin.
Omak is a city in north central Washington State about 235 miles from Seattle. It is a good-sized town in a sparsely populated region that is adjacent to sparse forests, rugged mountains and buttes, lakes and tribal land. The climate runs in the extremes. One singular event in town makes big news every year—the Omak Stampede, which includes a death-defying horseback race down a very steep hillside and across a river. It is aptly nicknamed the Suicide Race. People go to visit a natural wonder near Omak Lake—a boulder the size of a milk truck which has been balancing on a skinny little pedestal for millennia. The tribes of the Colville Reservation refer to it as a symbol of the area’s natural perfection. I've never witnessed wither of these things, but I have been to see Ted and Sarah's property. I like to imagine the towns of Dead Dog and Lizard are out that way around Omak, and that somewhere halfway between them was the spot they chose to build their cabin.
Hank had been a school roommate for a time and we stayed friends for years, even when he went south to work with a dredging operation on the Mississippi. I thought he was gone for good. But one morning, as I was in the middle of a woodworking project, he showed up at my door and said “Hey, Bob, I’m back in town… will you come with me out to Omak to see Ted and Sarah’s new cabin.” I was glad to see Hank again and looked forward to getting caught up, so I was all in for setting aside my project and going for a day trip with him.
It was early winter and I knew to pack boots, hat and mittens for the much colder eastern Washington winter. Travel in that season in the Pacific Northwest always involves checking mountain pass conditions, and to get to Omak, we had a couple of snowy passes to drive over. We did run into delays while snow plows cleared the way and workers set off blasts for avalanche control. What could have been a 4-hour drive from Seattle to the other side of the state was close to 7 hours, and it was already mid-afternoon when we reached Omak., plus another half hour drive out to the spot where we’d park and hike in.
From where we parked, Hank said we had a mile hike ahead of us, so I was glad I had layers of warm clothing. The access to the cabin might eventually be graded and even graveled, but at that time it was pretty much a rough track. Hank thought Ted had a Jeep or off-road vehicle, and someone nearby would hire out a string of mules so they could carry in building materials and furnishings.
We passed a strange-looking pond. “That looks weird,” I said, kicking at white crusty deposits along the shore. The color of the water was a chalky turquoise.
“Minerals—that water probably never freezes over,” replied Hank, “and I bet you would float like a cork in there.” I noticed some dead birds and ducks. I had wondered why they named it Poison Lake Road when we drove out here. “I know Ted hoped to have a well drilled but he’d had to drill deep, all the surface water around here would be like that pond. I think he still has to carry water in on his ORV.” He added, “They put all their savings into the land and the cabin, so a real driveway—and probably a deep well—will have to come later if they can ever afford it all.”
Hiking along the trail beside the lake, I started getting over-heated and sweaty under too many layers of clothing. Daytime temperature was below freezing but not arctic like I was clothed for. “I hope Ted and Sarah have a fire going so I can get these clothes dried out.”
Hank slowed to a shuffle and made a sheepish smile. “Oh, I thought I told you… Ted and Sarah are in Mexico on a buying trip for their gift shop. I thought we’d just look around the property and peek in the windows. But I think we can get into the cabin and build a fire… don’t worry, I’ll figure it out. Really, you’re that sweaty? Man, you do need get dried out, you’d be in tight spot if you got stuck out here like that…”
When we reached the cabin, the sun was getting low over the hill. Fortunately, Hank was able to climb in through a small window. His assumed that Ted and Sarah would expect us to enter the cabin and make ourselves safe and comfortable. However, jugs of water inside were frozen solid. Except for a box of teabags, a can of green beans, and a few things like ketchup and soy sauce in the pantry, all foodstuffs had been removed. Hungry, thirsty and cold we built a fire in the cast iron cook stove and began to thaw some water so we could make tea. I got my wet clothing off and wrapped myself up in a quilt. Hank kept searching in vain for something to eat, finally announcing “OK, I guess we make green bean and ketchup soup. And, look at this! I found a little whiskey.” The fire felt so good, and the cabin warmed as we added more firewood. My clothes were hung over the stove and slowly getting drier—we were feeling OK. I poured us each some whiskey.
After a half hour, a remarkable aroma seemed to be filling the room, like something hot and fruity! I opened the door of the hot oven and found a bubbling hot, ready to eat cherry pie! We could only assume that it had been placed there weeks ago, unbaked and forgotten, then it froze like everything else in the room. No way to tell how long it had been there, but after our bean and condiment soup, we now had a fabulous finish to our meal.
It was to be a terrible decision, but we gathered up our things and headed back to the car rather than stay the night. Now it had gotten so dark outside. If there had been a bit of moonlight or a lighted town nearby, the snow-covered trail would have been easier to see. Why didn’t we make a torch or think to bring flashlights? We were like two sightless men with hands outstretched, fearful of stumbling into the pond or making a wrong turn into the forest. The only sound besides our trembling breath was the crunch of crisp snow under our boots. More snow started falling. I thought of Jack London’s To Build a Fire. Was this to be my last night? Damn, my clothes had not completely dried, I could feel the cold through my coat. Hank was usually self-assured and had a “let’s not worry, we’ve got it handled” manner. But he sounded panicky when he tripped on the trail and cussed our decision to head back after dark. That trail seemed to have tripled in length! A light wind picked up and was driving snow into our faces. White-out on top of black-out! Panting and stumbling, I suddenly thumped into something big and solid, assuming it was a tree or boulder. I pounded on it in frustration, and was amazed at the hollow metallic sound that told me it was our damned car! Relieved, laughing and shivering, we cleared off the snow and settled into safety. It took miles before our car heater could warm us.
Hank and I were mostly quiet on our drive back home, thinking over the awful turn of events. Now and then a cuss popped out through chattering teeth, but conversation took a while. He finally started with “Hmm, cherry pie.”
“It’s weird…” I said, “it’s the second time this year we’ve have serendipity pie from a wood stove in the mountains, isn’t it?”
Hank relaxed into a chuckle, “Oh yeah, Park Ranger Rick and the huckleberries!” And “Jeez, what are Ted and Sarah thinking? Hell of a place! I’d hate living out there.”
Exhausted, we finally pulled into my driveway some time before dawn. Hank stopped the engine and we sat in that kind of stunned muffled silence you experience when the day-long jackhammer stops. The trip was capped off with a rough time getting over the mountains, including slow driving with snow chains. After getting some sleep, Hank left the next day to see his brother in Portland, and I went back to try to finish the workbench I was making for my studio. In a small way, I had some trauma and stress to overcome, because it took a few days to feel like working or seeing anyone.
[Epilogue. After Hank dropped me off at my house, he moved to Portland and I saw him once or twice after that. We both lost touch with Ted and Sarah. I had left a note in the cabin explaining our stopping in for whiskey and pie, but as far as I know they never heard about what happened to Hank and me after we left the cabin that night. Someone told me later that they quit their gift shop business, sold the cabin and acreage and divorced. Et sic Omak.]
It's a good thing you guys were young and strong! That trip in the snow sounds like a terrifying adventure! Was the pie good? Love your memories!
Wonder if Ted and Sarah left that pie in the oven to welcome them on their next visit?
Robert, you're something of a pie magnet! About that rock you're holding up?
wow, that could've ended badly. Glad you survived to tell the tale : )