Road report: A niece fledges

Alice's graduation cake, decorated with a burning tree

On Sunday afternoon, my youngest niece, Alice, said good-bye to the attendees at her high school graduation party, and climbed into the car with her mother and me, headed for north-central Washington for her summer job as the only female crew member on an elite wild land firefighting crew.

“The mountain is out!” said my sister-in-law, Lucy, as we drove north on I-5 and then northeast on US 512, aiming for our route over the Cascade Mountains. Sure enough, there was Mt. Rainier–Tahoma, “Mother of Waters”–shining white with the dozens of glaciers that feed some of Washington’s largest rivers.

Mt. Rainier or Tahoma floats above the Puyallup River valley east of Tacoma

At I-90, we headed east and uphill, climbing over the ragged, rugged ridges of the Cascades with their fringes of forest between clear-cuts. Up and up and up, into the high country were snowbanks lingered, dirt-etched and deep still.

We stopped at the summit, Snoqualmie Pass, all of 3,022 feet elevation, which doesn’t sound very impressive unless you begin the drive at sea level, which we did. Out of the forest nearby came the queer nasal fluting call of a single varied thrush. The sun was beginning to slant low, the air was cooling, and we had miles and hours to drive.

Eastern Washington's expansive skies and rain-shadow savannas

Alice took over the wheel as we headed down the east side of the Cascades, the forests changing from rain-nourished to rain-shadow, with wide-spaced trees towering over a park-like, grassy understory.

Our route took us south and east to Ellensburg, north over Blewett Pass, and then down into the orchard country along the Columbia River. Cherries hung red and yellow on glossy-leaved trees; apples, peaches, and pears were still ripening.

The Columbia River flows through volcanic buttes and sagebrush in central Washington.

We turned upstream and followed the Columbia north to where the Okanogan River flowed in from Canada. The light began to slant low as we drove north up the Okanogan Valley, through Omak and along the edge of the Colville Indian Reservation. At Tonasket, we turned back west, climbing over a rolling divide dotted with small lakes ringed by cattails and bulrushes.

At tiny Loomis, we turned south again, following a winding two-lane road along the valley bottom past waving grasslands, through ponderosa forest.

H20, the fire crew that is "better than water."

Where a sign proclaimed the home of the Highlands 20 fire crew (H20, “Better Than Water”), we turned uphill. In a saddle shaded by ponderosa pines, we parked by a row of cars and two bright yellow crew-hauler trucks (“crummies,” in firefighter parlance), across from three barracks-like buildings painted forestry green.

The air was still, rich with sun-warmed pine sap, and quiet. A lone guy sat reading at a picnic table. My petite niece, tall in her new firefighter boots, strode over and asked where she should check in. He pointed to one of the barracks.

A few minutes later, she emerged with the fire boss in charge of the camp and the crew boss–the only other female on the crew. After a few minutes of talk, Alice walked back to the car.

“I have my room,” she said. “They said to get settled in.”

Highlands 20 Fire Camp, south of Loomis in the Okanogan Highlands, Washington

We helped her carry her duffel, heavy with firefighting gear, into a spartan single room. Back out at the car, we checked for forgotten items, and she grabbed her pillow. I gave her a hug, and then walked to the car so that she and her mom could say a private good-bye.

Then Lucy and I drove away, watching the sun set through watery eyes. Our tears weren’t just for the ritual of parting, or that this is Alice’s fledging, the beginning of her leaving home. Lucy is a forester, and she and I have both worked as wild land firefighters; we know how hard and dangerous, how exciting and important the job is.

At the bottom of the drive, we turned right, taking a gravel road down the little valley, headed south past quiet lakes and green meadows grazed by deer in velvet, the highlands with their stately forests rising around us.

Sunset over Sinlahekin Wildlife Area, Okanogan Highlands, Washington

“Leaving her at college will be a snap after this,” said Lucy as we climbed over a divide and dropped down to the main road, headed on the six-hour drive back to their home in Olympia.

At twenty to three that morning, Lucy and I staggered out of the car and upstairs to bed, each thinking of Alice–now far away, beginning the leaving home, her initiation as a firefighter and an adult.

Wear your boots proudly, niece of mine! Be courageous, but not foolish. Come back healthy, knowing yourself to be strong and whole….

Stumbling on stories

The mother-in-law apartment in back of my grandparent’s house

In my family, we don’t tell stories. We are reserved and refrain from either gossip or boasting, in part because of our northern European heritage with its inherent emotional reticence, compounded by a Calvinist view of gossip and boasting as two sides of the same sin, pride. The result is a family lore as depauperate as forest on exposed granite; stories—like plants—struggle to sprout on its meager soil.

I wrote those words in my memoir Walking Nature Home, to illustrate a challenge in finding my writing voice: I know so little about the people I come from. Their stories are as obscure as the view of my great-grandmother Mira’s apartment in the photo above.

The Big Sur Coast, by my great-grandmother, Jennie Cannon

My parents, both only children, didn’t share my fascination with their families. The only clues I had of the fascinating lives of my forebears came in the artifacts scattered through my grandparents’ houses, including my great-grandmother Mira’s writing and my great-grandmother Jennie’s impressionist landscape paintings.

The people who could explain those artifacts are gone: my great-grandparents, including the botanist great-granddad who studied deserts around the world, and whose research I discovered only as an adult; my grandparents; and now my mom, who died a year ago February.

My great-grandmother, Janet Maclay (Cannon) with her horse, Danny Boy

My grandmother, Janet Maclay Cannon with  Danny Boy (~1918)

As a story-collector, I cherish those tales that come my way, like the one my grandmother Janet told then-ten-year-old Molly, about riding her horse, Danny Boy, all the way up the East Bay when her family moved from their farm near San Jose (what is now Silicon Valley) to a house in the Berkeley Hills so she could attend UC-Berkeley.

Molly shares my fascination with family stories, so when we were planning my recent visit to she and Mark in San Francisco, I asked if she’d be interested in spending a day in Berkeley exploring the neighborhood where my mom grew up. Molly was all for it.

On the appointed day, they drove me through downtown San Francisco and across the Bay Bridge. Molly navigated through the UC-Berkeley campus, where my parents met, he a grad student in Organic Chemistry, she an undergrad majoring in history and music.

The top of the campanile from 1631 La Vereda Road

Our destination: 1631 La Vereda Road, the address in the north Berkeley Hills I had found for my great-grandparents, Dr. William Austin Cannon (the desert botanist) and Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon (the painter). We wound uphill on steep, narrow and switch-backing streets, and not only found the house, I recognized it from childhood walks with my granddad. We parked there, admired the view through the trees of the iconic campanile, bell-tower, on the UC-Berkeley campus, and set off downhill to explore the rest of the neighborhood.

At mid-afternoon, we puffed our way back up those same steep hills to La Vereda Road and the car. I noticed a man unlocking the front door at my great-grandparents’ house.

On impulse, I called, “Do you live here?”

He turned and looked down at the street.

My great-grandparents’ house at 1631 La Vereda Road

“I don’t mean to be rude,” I said. “This was my great-grandparents’ house.”

“Who were they?”

“Dr. William Austin Cannon,” I said, and he interrupted,

“Any relation to Jennie?”

“She was his wife,” I said. “How do you know her?”

“Everyone here knows Jennie,” he said. “This was an artist’s enclave back then, and she was a key part of it.”

I was stunned. I had no idea. A guy who had never met my family knew more about my great-grandmother than I did.

I thanked him, and he turned to go inside. I didn’t even think to ask his name.

“The Campanile,” by Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon

As Molly navigated carefully down that steep bit of street, I looked one more time at the view from my great-grandmother’s house. And another chunk of family story fell into place.

I had always wondered about the odd foreshortened perspective in one of her paintings, “The Campanile,” a view of that bell-tower. Now I could see Jennie had painted it from her front porch high above the campus, only she turned the tower a quarter turn in the painting.

Having seen her view, I feel a bond with the great-grandmother who died not long before I was born, and the world she lived in. She was a noted California painter in the early 20th century, a time when the terms “noted painter” and “woman” did not often go together.

I’m no artist, but I’ve always gone against the tide in my work. I have also always loved to find a high point and look for the stories in the landscape spread out below. Perhaps those are her gifts.

Thanks, Molly and Mark, for exploring Berkeley with me. And thanks, Jennie, for sharing your view.