Writer, Meet the North Cascades Institute
“I feel anxious.” A redundant admission, if Joel glances from the winding country highway to my white-knuckled grip on my travel mug. “What if they don’t like me? What am I going to ask in this meeting?”
Five months earlier, I’d approached the North Cascades Institute, asking if I could be their first writer-in-residence. They’d said yes. Now Joel and I are on our way to visit NCI’s Environmental Learning Center, two hours from meeting everyone and learning what this experiment will look like. My palms are sweaty and I’m afraid we left the house too late.
“Of course they’re going to like you. That’s what you do best, Tele – you ask questions. Hey, do you want to practice?” Initiating a role play to bolster my confidence: nine years shacked up with a former social worker has left a mark on Joel. He deepens his voice. “Well, hello, are you Tele? How was your drive up?”
I roll my eyes at the role play, then start talking it through anyway. What exactly are they offering? What can I offer in return? What’s their ideal outcome – what will make this experiment a success worth repeating? And other important details: Can I get mail there? Can Joel visit?
The discussion calms me, enough to notice the change in our surroundings. We are “Up River,” the Skagit’s green water bubbling along Highway 20. We pass a series of farms, one with a pair of goats kicking through the front yard, another with a scrap of plywood spray-painted “Chanterelles Here!” Marblemount passes in a blink of two gas stations and a warning that these are the last services for 74 miles. We shake our heads as we remember looking at a house here, trying to convince ourselves that the cheap price outweighed the moldy walls and remote location.
Joel has spent more time up here than I have, and now smiles like he’s encountered an old friend. “Now we’re getting to the wilderness. This is where it starts.”
As if agreeing, the highway narrows into a parenthetical afterthought. Mountains steepen, the drop-off sharpens. Black rocks tumble to the pavement’s edge, green with moss. My eyes widen as we cross the single lane road over the Diablo Dam. My driveway is a dam!
Signs on the closed gate simultaneously welcome us to the ELC’s smoke, pet, and firearm free campus, and warn that the facility is closed due to the government shutdown. Our Subaru joining a herd of others, we follow a trail up to the office.
I walk with my head craning up the cedar trucks, whipping around to the lake, and wonder aloud, “Do you think my book lives here?”
Joel doesn’t hesitate. “Yes. It does.”
A crowd is visible inside the office. Suddenly shy, I grab Joel’s hand and tug him away so we don’t interrupt the staff meeting.
Too late. Anne bounds out, greets us with hugs and enthusiasm. She’s just made an announcement about our visit, and pulls us into the group to wait as the meeting wraps up with chore assignments. It’s been 25 years since I was the new kid entering class midway through the school year, yet the same uncertainty rushes back, the same search to identify the open, friendly faces among this circle of established community. But the ELC proves different than school. Here, they’re all friendly faces. People greet us with smiles and welcomes, and I start to relax.
Kristofer, ELC program manager, invites us into his office to talk about the structure of our pilot project. Like me, NCI has high hopes that this experiment will result in a lasting program, and we quickly find we have similar values of reciprocity. Provide a debriefing evaluation at the end of the residency? Of course. Conduct a half-day workshop with the ten envrionmental education graduate students? Certainly. Do an event with NCI after publication? Absolutely. My excitement grows as we exchange ideas, inspired by the opportunities in blazing this trail for future writers.
Our meeting shifts from possibilities to practical details, including the realities of winter in the North Cascades. I scribble notes as Kristofer talks. I learn they plan to house me in Dogwood 2, half of a duplex that’s up the trail from the heart of the campus. Quiet, still more remote in an already isolated setting. Meals will be included when the dining hall is open, just pitch in with the dishes. My cell phone won’t work; bring calling cards for the landline. They’ll have room for me after Mountain School wraps up in mid-November, available through February.
It can snow “a lot,” or it may snow “a little.” Road closures, avalanches, and “roof-alanches” are all possible. I may be alone on campus at times in December, and will need to be familiar with NCI’s emergency response procedures. Keep chains, shovel, and emergency kit in my car. Headlamp and snowshoes are a good idea.
Without glancing over, I can feel Joel’s grin widening. How many winter hikes has he had to do solo, how many lone camping trips, when I’ve wrinkled my nose at the cold? Better toughen up, I warn myself. This is the gift that’s going to help you finish your book.
When Joel and I head back down the trail the next morning, a shadow passes over the sun. I look up and gasp. At the previous night’s dinner, naturalist Matt told us about Elvis, the resident raven. Now, on our way to the parking lot to leave, he appears, skimming over in a low fly-by, lighting in a branch above the parking lot. His partner Priscilla follows. Nuzzling beaks, they murmur softly to each other.
I haven’t heard murmuring ravens since I left Sitka. Ordinarily, if I wanted to find a good omen, a blessing for this new venture, they’d be it. But in this instance, all the affirmation I need has already been provided by human kindness. Kristofer’s thorough introduction to both residency and life at the ELC. Anne’s organizing of a welcome potluck. Chef Mike’s spectacular dinner – including Nerka–caught coho – and breakfast. Katie, Dogwood 2’s current resident, who interrupts her visit with her dad to offer a tour of my home-to-be. An inspiring group of students so diverse in their backstories (BA in mathematics; a year as a camp counselor in France; bicycling from Maine to Washington) yet all drawn to NCI by their passion for environmental education. Generosity abounded, so much so that honored as I am by Elvis and Priscilla’s visit, this is one time I don’t need a corvid send-off to know that the North Cascades Institute is the place for me.
Opening the car door, I take a final-for-now glance at the steep peaks surrounding the lake. This time my gaze is not speculative. There’s no uncertainty in my tone as I tell Joel, “This is where my book lives.”
I’ll let you know when I head up, friends. In the final days’ flurry of preparation now, and just like when we’re getting ready to go fishing, I’ve been terrible about responding to messages. As always, you’re in my best thoughts.