Category Archives: Place and History

Legend of Tonopah

A prospector awoke to find his ass
missing in the early morning shadows
of a greasewood shrouded spring
hidden in the barren outcroppings
of the high Nevada desert.

Picking up a rock too heavy to heave,
a rock with weight greater than ought
to be, a rock, if he were to pelt it, would
break his ass, he discovered the state
of Nevada’s second richest silver strike.
Tonopah, Nevada

According to local legend, Jim Butler was the prospector who made the strike about 1900. Tonopah is derived from the Shoshone language. To-nuv means greasewood and pa means water.

“Dónde está el padre de agua”

I step from a van at the edge of Taxco, Mexico, onto mountainous paths too steep to drive, onto cobblestone walks away from water falls’ din, away from thunder known by Nahuatl and Zapotec as “where the father of water is,” high in the Sierra Madre Occidental, the “Madre de las montañas” of padres and conquistadors, a silver lode raped by Spaniards, Mexican and Catalan to build Santa Prisca, Catedral de los ancestros.

Here, I marvel at silver trinkets, glistening toys in merchants’ windows, picturesque jewelry crafted by generations of artisans.

Here, I dine on corn, beans and tomatillos, roasted pig, goat cheese and newly carved fowl; here, I drink fermented juices of hillside vines, terrestrial labor of aparcero Mexicana, where incessant winds and Pacific rains erode volcanos, Vulcan gods of Aztecs, Greeks and Romans.
Taxco de Alarcón, Mexico

“Dónde está el padre de agua”: “Where the father of water is.”
“Madre de las montañas”: “Mother of mountains.”
Catedral de los ancestros: Santa Prisca (Cathedral of the Ancients).
Aparcero Mexicana: Mexican sharecropper.

Gyppo Logger

When the 20th century was was young and timber claims new, Tom Porter split shingle bolts and sled them to the river. At high water, he floated them to mills on the Puget Sound. He felled the old growth firs, selected prime logs. The rest nursed hemlock and maple. Steam-spewing engines tugged and strained mainlines onto drums, skidding each log through underbrush and loading it onto hard-tired trucks on pole roads.

The War is over, now. This quarter section is Dad’s, to grub, to claim, hopefully, to farm.

I’m fourteen, my brother’s ten. We’re gyppo loggers, two boys and their dad, ignoring age and safety laws—equipment scrounged from scrap heaps and abandoned sites.

Valley fog is thick, freezes our limbs and evergreen foliage. We chop and clear decades of roots and decay smothering long butts to salvage one short log. On hands and knees, then bellies, ignoring mud and ice-encrusted clothes, we burrow like jackrabbits until we can stick one arm under a log. With all the strength two kids can muster, we tug on the haulback line, pulling slack in the mainline, trying to get it closer to our log. I unshackle a choker from the buttrigging between mainline and haulback. My soaked gloves stick to the icy steel.

We throw a choker over the log. Push its knob-end into its bell. It slips in my fumbling fingers. We slide the cable a half-turn on the log. Shackle it to the buttrigging.

I climb on the log, stretch to my tiptoes. Signal “Go Ahead!” to Dad standing on a donkey skid at the landing.

He fires up the little Model A engine, shifts into first gear, slowly tightens the mainline. We hold our breath. The log rolls free, inches towards the landing. There’s very little lift from a bullblock halfway up a spar tree.

There’s no romance, no money, no future in gyppo logging. There must be a better job in February.

Winter Chores During WWII

     This is one anecdote in an anecdotal childhood. No overarching meaning or underlying theme, no fatherson conflict, no prepubescence struggle; it is just an incident that if aggregated with those of similar youths, becomes a picture of growing up in the time and place.
     This barn was built be Tom Porter in 1912; the field is the one I crossed to go home when the fences were split cedar posts and barbed wire; and we had an excessive snow storm in Dec.-Jan., 1944-45.

                          Winter Chores During WWII

Six animals in their stanchions. Mangers filled. Freshly bedded. Gutter emptied. Shit-splattered floor scraped clean.

It’s a warm, moist, bovine world in this old barn. Temp will drop to ten tonight.

A pale moon, almost white, rises over Porter Mountain, cast the barn’s long shadow over its yard, down the bank, and onto the field below.

High above Sauk Mountain, Queen Cassiopeia and “Big Bear” dance around North Star.

Snow covers ground. Path through the field packed. Been there a week. No rain. A miracle.. No slush. Splashing girls at school is fun, splashing in the barnyard, not.

When the Skagit is high, the meadow swales in the old river bed pond. When a northeaster blows, enough ice freezes for kids to play. Don’t let Mom or Dad find out, or fall in.

Crystalline droplets glisten on straw poking through crusty snow. Ice settling on swale slopes crack. I’ll follow a fencerow home. I can almost see it from here.

Summer Shower

Which form works best: lined or prose?

Summer Shower

I lay here in the semi-light of our cabin’s loft,

dreaming to the rhythm of a summer shower

raining on moss-chinked cedar shakes,

collecting in rivulets coursing the pitch,

dropping softly on June roses,

drumming elephantine rhubarb.

If it stops, Dad will call me
to the pasture
to auger holes
for hand-split posts to
those homesteaders planted,

now rotted in the ground,

no longer defending hay meadows

with rusting, sagging, barbed wire.

             South side of the Skagit River

                      Rockport, WA

Summer Shower

I lay here in the semi-light of our cabin’s loft, dreaming to the rhythm of a summer shower raining on moss-chinked cedar shakes, collecting in rivulets coursing the pitch, dropping softly on June roses, drumming elephantine rhubarb.

If it stops, Dad will call me to the pasture to auger holes for hand-split posts replacing those homesteaders planted, now rotted to the ground, no longer defending the hay meadows with rusting, sagging barbed wire.
                                                                               South side of Skagit River
                                                                                             Rockport, WA

Bedtime reading

    My bedtime reading has always been kind of a ritual. Currently, I read a poem, if it is a page or shorter, followed by a couple pages of prose. That is, if I don’t fall asleep first. Right now I am rereading William Stafford’s ‘Even in Quiet Places,’ poems collected from several chapbooks that his son Kim and several associates made after Stafford’s death. I’m particularly attracted to ‘The Methow River Poems.’ For prose, I’m rereading ‘In Pharaoh’s Army,’ Tobias Wolff’s memoir of the Viet Nam War.
    Both of these writers share my valley, the Upper Skagit, with me. Stafford wrote some of his last poems at the request of two forest rangers as he traveled over the North Cascade Highway; and Wolff is an alumnus of my high school, Concrete HS. Two cautions: He came about 20 years after me and ‘This Boy’s Life’ is a highly imaginative memoir and the movie even more so.
    What is on your bed stand?

Remembering the Less Honored

Remembering the Less Honored

Richard Lee “Dick” Harris

Each Memorial Day we proudly wear our Red Poppies and decorate graves. And, when I attended two-room Rockport, WA, School, we recited, “In Flanders fields where poppies blow/Between the crosses row on row . . .” (John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields.”)

With each new Decoration Day, my thoughts turned more and more to the less honored who died in the service of their countries and our remembrance of them. These gradually coalesced into a poem.

As I drafted the poem, three individuals came to mind, giving the poem a face. Foremost, was my great-uncle Mark Harris who grew up in Maple Falls, WA,  died in the closing days of World War I, and is buried in Bayview Cemetery, Bellingham, WA. The others are a brother and sister from North Yorkshire, England, who died during World War II, and whose epitaph intrigued me.

I learned about my great-uncle in 1984 when I read my Aunt Belva Harris Poldervart’s newly published book, “On The Move” From Oxcarts to Motor Homes. With this information, his draft registration from, and The Trail Through The Woods (Frances B. Todd, 1982), I created a picture of Mark.

Harris was born to Lydia Baker Harris and Civil War Veteran Chancy Harris on March 20, 1893, in Bradford, Chickasaw County, Iowa, ninth of 12 children. In 1907, he moved with his widowed mother and six siblings to Maple Falls with a “colony” of destitute Iowa residents recruited by a team of Great Northern and Northern Pacific railroad agents to begin a new life in the Pacific Northwest. Their ticket: passage in a boxcar!

On June 5, 1917, when Harris registered for the draft, he was medium height and build, with blue eyes and dark hair, and had a crooked finger on his right hand. He lived at 2226 Franklin Street, Bellingham, with his mother and brother, whose dependency he claimed as grounds for exemption from war. He was employed as a shingle weaver by Holly Shingle Company in Mill Town, Skagit County, WA.

Bivouacked at Camp Vancouver, Washington, during the 1918 flu pandemic, Mark contracted bronchial pneumonia. He died on October 22, 1918, five days after falling ill. He was buried in Bayview Cemetery on October 27, 1918.

It is unlikely today, that those who pass by grave 8, lot 15, section 3, notice the unadorned headstone on, with scarcely enough room for great-uncle Mark’s name and mismarked dates of 1894-1919.

For the last verse of the poem, I chose the epitaph on a plaque in Fountains Hall, a Jacobean mansion now a ruin, in North Yorkshire. It commemorates the lives of  Elizabeth Vyner, an 18-year old nurse who died with encephalitis while on active duty in 1942, and her brother Charles, who was missing in air operations off Rangoon, Burma, three years later.

Memorial Day

for Mark Harris, 1893-1918


A cloudless sky,

    a day filled with spring,

    a day to remember those

    who lay in common ground,

Fallen without honor,

    unseen by us,

    whose flags they bore.

As volleys resound in sharp salute

    and banners dip to a trumpet’s call,

it is our day to remember

    plaques that cling to crumbling walls,

    and plead as we pass by:

Tell them of us and say,

for your tomorrow,

we gave our today.

“Memorial Day” was originally published as “Memorial Day, 1995” in Tough Guys Don’t Give Up, ed. Mary Hamilton [Gillilan] (Bellingham, WA:  SunPorch Productions, 1996). Currently published by the author in Reimagine: Poems, 1993-2009 (Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2010.)


‘Earth Day’ on the Upper Skagit River, WA State

               To Celebrate Wilderness 

                    I drive into the North Cascades

following the Skagit

past civilization’s blight

to celebrate its wilderness.


I gaze in awe, this fleeting moment,

at snowy ridges and glacial slopes,

alpine lakes and hanging valleys,

traces of ice from eons ago.


I see barren hills

stripped of hemlock, cedar and fir,

dammed rivers, meadows without life,

mountains raped for gold.


Traveling this trail of refuse,

I ponder our thoughtless greed.

Will we ever recover that which

                    we have destroyed?

From Rockport Bridge


I stand on Rockport Bridge,

this sunlit winter day.

My eyes follow the Skagit

past Washington Eddy

to Eldorado’s glistening ridge.


For a fleeting moment, I see

snowy ridges, glacial slopes,

alpine lakes and hanging valleys,

traces of ice from eons ago.


Framed by cottonwoods and purple hills,

the road edging Mount Sauk

scribes the river,

gently washing pebbles

beneath a winter sky.


Travelers pass me

in eagle search,

skimming the view—

a ferry barge,

a cedar canoe,

our log cabin—

artifacts of my youth.


These incidental visitors
will never hear eagles call,
see black bear fish,
trout rise to the fly,
witness stars outshining the night,
all that I see from Rockport Bridge.

In These Years of Reflection

In my childhood,

when cold winds swept the slopes,

I warmed myself by father’s fire

and read of life beyond the river.


In my youth, when summer rains

washed the garden and ruined the day,

I did my chores in a myriad of dreams,

leaving the Skagit behind.


In my adulthood, when fortune

shunned me, I recalled neighbors

and yesterdays across the river,

memories that renewed me.


In these years of reflection,

I return to the valley to hear nature’s melodies
and see ancestral spirits in harmony,
as the wild Skagit tumbles to the sea.

Published in The Storytellers, SunPorch Productions, Bellingham, WA, 1994. [out of print].
Read at
North Cascades NP Earth Day & National Park Week Celebration, Newhalem, WA, 1998; Bald Eagle Interpretive Center (Old Rockport School), 2000 and 2001; Upper Skagit Bald Eagle Festival, Concrete, WA, 2/4/01; Concrete High School Class of 1951 Reunion, 2001.

Frank Tom, Skagit River Ferryman

Frank Tom

Circa 1875-1949

Skagit River ferryman

When I was a child and crossed the Skagit River on the Rockport ferry in the back seat of my parents’1929 REO ‘Flying Cloud’ or huddled with my brother and sister under an old quilt on the flatbed behind the cab of Dad’s 1927 Chevrolet truck, Frank Tom was “our ferry man.” As I grew older and crossed the river to school, get the family mail, or play in the school gym, he was the omnipresent ferryman who got us safely over town and back. Since leaving the valley, Frank has become more than “the Indian” who operated Rockport ferry during the years I lived on the south side of the river. For me, he personifies transportation on the Upper Skagit River before high dams controlled floodwater; ferries were mechanized, or replaced with bridges.

Although listed as Upper Skagit-Suattle on Indian census rolls, Frank Tom was known around Rockport as a “saltwater Indian.” This notion is supported in the Washington Death Index, 1940-1996, and by June McCormack Collins in Valley of the Spirits. The first gives his birthplace as Skagit,[1] which is quite likely Skagit City, a trading post community founded on the Skagit River delta in 1863.[2] In Valley of the Spirits, Collins writes that Frank “was the direct descendant of the saltwater ‘chief,’ Patíus, of the last [19th] century.”[3] Patíus, or Pat-teh-us, was the Upper Samish Tribal signatory to the Point Elliot Treaty of 1855.[4] Additionally, the Upper Skagit and Upper Samish tribes lived in winter houses on the same tidewater sites, spoke a dialect unlike other tribes in the area, and shared prairies on which they cultivated native vegetables.[5]

According to his World War I military draft registration, Frank Tom was born on June 20, 1876.[6] In other documents, his year of birth ranged between 1874 and 1878.[7]

Tom’s physique and countenance were those of a Northwest Coast Salish male, relatively short and stocky with flat facial features. He never showed it, but he must have been very strong to winch the cable that angles the ferry in the river current for every crossing with a hand-operated windlass. Additionally, with a pike pole he pushed the ferry free from the sloping gravel river bottom of each landing into the current, an especially difficult task during low water.

Frank always spoke softly, except when shouting over the noise of the river or truck engines, telling drivers where to position their vehicles to adjust the ferry load for the river level and current speed. Never appearing bored, he operated the ferry at least one round trip an hour for just about every daylight hour, the year around, year after year, regardless of weather. Likewise, with apparent self-assurance, he transported foot passengers, automobiles, and short-log and freight trucks across the river, unless he deemed it unsafe.

Frank wore clothes similar to upriver loggers: a long-sleeved chambray work shirt and Levis held up with suspenders over “long-handle” wool underwear. Unlike loggers who “stagged” their pants, Frank turned his cuffs up.[8] I do not know if he was balding, I never saw him without his well-worn fedora. His hands must have been as calloused as shoe leather from years of operating the ferry or poling his canoe on the river without work gloves. I do not recall ever seeing him wearing any.

When he first knew Frank in 1916, Will Jenkins wrote in Last Frontier in the North Cascades, that Tom was a “renowned crafter of canoes” on the Upper Skagit.[9] Although I do not remember him in any canoe other than his shallow, snub-nosed, freighting canoe, nor recall seeing him work on any, I can still picture the racing canoes he housed in a weathered shed near his home.

To touch one of those exquisitely fashioned, sleek artifacts with their razor-edged bows raised goose bumps on young Caucasian boys. This was especially true when they sneaked into Tom’s yard and traced their fingers over the painted totems on their sides, all the time imagining that they were racing war canoes down the river.

In Valley of the Spirits, Collins describes Tom as “very knowledgeable about hunting and fishing.”[10] Although outside my memory, I cannot help but believe that a man of his generation and culture who spent his life on the Skagit River was both a seasoned hunter and fisher.

Several incidents come to mind that demonstrate Frank Tom’s sense of community and his knowledge of the river.

The earliest happened when Jenkins and his brother were young men and before Rockport was taken up with World War I. Frank crossed the river with the brothers in a “little cedar dugout” before sunup after they had spent all night at a community dance and party in Rockport, so they could hike home to their mother’s timber claim, six miles up Illabot Creek.

Another incident involved cattle rustling during World War II. Fred Martin, whose family’s homestead was 5-6 miles up the road from the ferry, drove our school bus until the end of the war. The Martins took advantage of open range laws to run their beef cattle on the logged-off land between their ranch and the first student pickup. Periodically, Fred would leave early enough to stop along the way and see where his cattle had wandered. Once in a while, usually on Mondays, he would discover a butchered animal. Frequently, the hindquarters were missing and the rest left for coyotes and other scavengers.

On these Mondays, after Fred parked our bus and chocked the wheels, he and Frank would have a private conversation outside of our hearing. We younger riders always wanted to know what they were talking about. The older ones knew. Because Frank knew every local driver, the make and model of their cars, and their travel patterns, he could tell Fred about any unusual crossings, including the county designation on each car’s license plate and other telltale signs, during the past weekend.[11] I do not know if any of these rustlers were caught. I am sure they were.

When Frank judged the river unsafe, he’d tie up the ferry on the Rockport side, walk up the hill to his county-owned cabin overlooking the landing, and watch for the river to calm down. When he thought it was safe, he would untie the ferry and in his imperturbable manner begin crossing again. To my knowledge, everyone who knew him trusted him.

Everyone, that is, except Mom. She trusted Frank all right; it was the river she didn’t trust. She was terrified the first time she crossed it in 1937; a pregnant 22-year-old with two toddlers moving into further isolation until the last time she crossed it before the bridge was opened in 1961.

One incident involved me personally. Early in the summer after my tenth birthday, my mother began sending me to Rockport, once or twice a week, to get the mail and buy as many groceries as I could carry.

When it took me far longer than it should to walk two miles, cross on the ferry, go to the store, and return home, she probably suspected that I was playing around Rockport with some of my schoolmates. What took her by surprise was Frank telling her that I was “swimming” in the river!

What actually happened is that I would often arrive at the landing and see the three or four other boys from the south side swimming in an eddy caused by a boom jutting out from the bank to divert the current and ease the ferry’s approach.

Wanting to be one of the boys, but not knowing how to swim, I would strip to my skivvies and splash around in the eddy, going out as far into the river as I could and still touch bottom. Frank was concerned that I was venturing too close to a sudden drop-off and the dangerous undertow he knew was there.

The rest of the summer, my trips over town were restricted to once a week with strict time limits. I didn’t so much as put my toe in the river because I knew that Frank was watching me.

When the river was too high and turbulent for the ferry to cross and someone on our side had an emergency, Frank was always trusted to respond in his canoe.

My brother wrote about a time during a prolonged flood that Frank came to our family’s rescue in an emergency of sorts, the particulars of which Mom didn’t know until well after the event. He canoed Dad, who couldn’t swim, and Jim, only five or six years old, over town to buy gifts at Rockport Mercantile, the only store in town, so we would have presents under our Christmas tree.[12]

Frank operated the Rockport ferry at the time he registered for the 1917 draft, and he operated it until the close of World War II.[13] For almost half-a-century, he transported those of us living or working on the south side of the Skagit River, to and from Rockport and the outside world. As a child, if you had asked me who the ferry belonged to, I would have said, “Frank Tom.”

Frank died on September 30, 1949, in Rockport on the banks of the river beside which he was born, and on which he spent his life: working, fishing, and plying his shovel-nosed canoe.

[1] Washington Death Index, 1940-1996.

[2] P. 38, June McCormack Collins, Valley of the Spirits, 1974.

[3] P. 247, ibid.

[4] Pp. 2 & 67, Chief Martin J. Sampson, Indians of Skagit County, 1972.

[5] Both the Upper Skagit and Upper Samish were Northwest Coast Salish.


[7] 1920 & 1930 U.S. Censuses, 1934 U.S. Indian Census Roll; and Washington Death Index, 1940-1996.

[8] Loggers “stagged” their pants by cutting the cuff hems off so as not to catch on limb stubs while scrambling over felled trees or through underbrush. If a “stagged” pant leg did catch, it ripped, reducing the chance of falling on the sharp tools they always carried.

[9] P. 68, Last Frontier in the North Cascades by Will D. Jenkins, Skagit County Historical Society (Mt. Vernon, WA), 1984.

[10] P. 247, ibid.

[11] Each county in Washington was assigned an alpha designation as the first character for their car license numbers according to their population when licensing was established. King County (Seattle) was A; Skagit was M, etc.

[12] Jim told this story with more dramatic detail in his unpublished memoir.

[13] WWI Draft Registration (1917-18) Record.

Place and history in my poems

How does place and history play into my poetry? Place is in my blood. I trace it from 15th cent yeoman farmers in the Yorkshire Wolds and immigrant-laborers from Norway mountain valleys to migrant farm laborers crossing North America and homesteading in South Dakota and Saskatchewan on their way to the Upper Skagit River Valley. For fifteen years, my wife and I gardened a “Birchwood acre” in Bellingham, WA, living, to a degree, my father’s dream of owning and working land. Several years ago, Alaskan writer Nick Jans complimented me on the relationship of people and land in my poetry. Recently, Jack Nisbet, who writes about interrelated social and natural history of the Columbia River drainage, called me “a poet of landscape.”

My interest in history began with Mrs. Marjorie Baughman, my upper grades teacher in two-room Rockport (WA) School. Every Monday morning, she shared her Seattle P-I with us. Miraculously, to me, there were always books on history in the box of library books that arrived each month on loan from the state superintendent’s office. This interest continued through graduate study, teaching, travel, and into my poetry.