After Fire And Mud In Washington's Methow Valley, Some Choose To Leave

Sep 5, 2014

Hunkered low on the front deck of a yurt are two 20-somethings. The hut is plopped in the middle of a winding mountain canyon in Washington’s Methow Valley near the town of Twisp.

Patty Cho and Sal Asaro are picking out a few tunes. They felt the urge to sing Creedence Clearwater’s “Bad Moon Rising.” Asaro tunes up his banjo, and Cho, cross-legged, starts singing softly in tune while picking her guitar.

“I see a bad moon a-risin’,” she sings. “I see trouble on the way, I see earthquakes and lightnin', I see bad times today.”

This was their new theme song.

Escaped with their lives -- and their yurt

Asaro nearly got roasted in this canyon by this summer’s Carlton Complex fires. He was trying to help save their yurt, moving farm irrigation line. They made it.

“As long as you have your life,” Asaro said. “You know there’s always hope that there are other people that will help you through it.”

Weeks after the fire, Cho says they were getting back into their normal farming routine.

“Day-to-day we harvest oats and we do this process called garbling,” she said, “which is sifting through the oats and pulling out a bunch of stuff. So we just finished the day doing that. We were heading to town to get pizza and a movie.”

On the couple’s way back a massive thunderstorm and flash flood hit their canyon home. As they headed back to the yurt, law enforcement blocked the way.

“I’d never seen anything like that,” Cho said. “Right here out in front of our yurt, the road was broken up, like the water had come up under the asphalt and just crumbled it to pieces. There was no way my little Toyota Corolla could get past that.”

Their instruments, credit cards, identification -- everything was in that yurt. So they hoofed it.

“We were in flip-flops,” Cho said. “We didn’t expect the floods to come down. So, obviously, we left the pizza in the car.”

Mud, water and rock were flowing down the canyon. In some places it got hip high.

“We walked up here, we have backpacking backpacks,” she said. “And so we stuffed them with all our valuables and walked back down to the car.”

Cho and Asaro waited in town until morning. The yurt made it through the calamity again, mud on both sides. Two mornings after the storm, they appeared sort of dazed.

That’s when they were sitting on their porch, picking; planning their next move.

“It doesn’t feel right to stay,” Cho said. “It feels like it’s about time for us to move on.”

Western adventure

Turns out these guys are real city – New York and Los Angeles. They met in college up in Massachusetts. They were just looking for a little Northwest roughing-it.

A day or so after the flood, they made their way to Dayton, Washington, nearly five hours south of Twisp.

They’re in a lush valley farm that produces high-end goat and sheep cheese—a farm I told them about.

Cho and Asaro pull weeds in the farm’s overgrown kitchen garden. They feed wheelbarrows full to the ravenous herds. Sheep and goats attack the piles of green like schools of piranha.

“They just devour everything,” Asaro said. “They start with the leafiest and then leave the stems for later.”

It turns out Asaro’s father owns a small farm in upstate New York. Cho and Asaro want to raise organic goats and a family there. Far from the mud, Cho says now they’re sleeping better.

“The shower is an actual shower,” she says. “There is an actual flushing toilet.”

'The time in between'

Cho said corporate jobs made her sad. No sun, no grass. She knows she’s only hacked a few weeks of farming so far.

“But I don’t know,” she said, “I need to get my hands in the dirt and make something out of, out of it.”

Cho and Asaro know their city folks and friends won’t get how they’re living: in a yurt with no heat or air conditioning. In Twisp their toilet was a bucket with cedar woodchips. That was plenty of material for Asaro’s blog. When he posted about the fire and mud, Asaro knows his friends were shocked and worried. He isn’t. Instead, he likes to focus on what he calls “the time in between.”

“Enjoy it,” Asaro says. “Enjoy the fact that there is a relief. That you’re not panicking; that you’re not suffering. Regardless if it could all vanish in an instant, the fact that it’s here right now is what makes it fragile but also makes it beautiful."

Right now the time in-between is weed-pulling. The couple gingerly sort invaders from the intended.

“I mean it’s just a forest of weeds,” Cho said. “But once in a while you’ll find this little plant here. This one looks like it’s a tomatillo but it doesn’t look like it’s grown too much ‘cause it’s been blocked out by the weeds. It hasn’t gotten too much sun.”

A herdsman with deep-wrinkled eyes leans on a metal gate. Roberto Ruiz eyes these fresh-faced farmworkers a bit. Then, adjusting his cap, Ruiz whistles like he’s done hundreds of times. He keeps his steps soft; his arms down. Cho and Asaro study him for a moment. This is how they will learn even the simplest routines on the farm.

Sure enough, the herd flocks toward the milk parlor.

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