Instagram Trails

Photos by Juli Hills

On a weekday in early August—prime wildflower season in the mountains—I returned to an old favorite, the Skyline Trail at Mt. Rainier.   Along with several hundred other people.  Privilege gained me admission with a senior pass at the Longmire entrance.  Good luck found space for our car of four in the main parking lot at Paradise.  Although the Visitor Center was closed, the bathrooms and water fountains were working.  As hoped, the lupine, paintbrush, bistort, heather, false Hellebore, pasqueflower, monkey flower, phlox, and many others were in full bloom.  It was hot, and the sky was hazy—we did not see all the volcanoes from Panorama Point–but Mt. Rainier was close.  At 7000 feet, the chunk of ice I scooped from one unmelted snowfield cooled my head, chest, and wrists.   I enjoyed the young boy who told me the hike would be much more fun on the way down and the father who pulled his family to the side of the trail because “they’re climbing.” He, too, said the fun would begin at the top.

Despite these joys, the hike was not pleasant.  People frequently stepped off the rock-lined trail in ill-guided attempts to be polite and give way to other hikers.  A woman fed Cheetos to a chipmunk, to the amusement of her companions.  Another woman carried a chihuahua in her backpack (a chihuahua at Mt. Rainier?!).  Hikers tromped on meadows for an Instagram photo.  A procession of 15 to 20 people walked up the paved path from a tour bus. A young woman plopped herself down on a purple pad in a beautiful meadow of wildflowers next to a stream.  I do not envy the ranger I complained to.  Trails are too crowded; we are loving them to death, and good trail etiquette is rare. 

Media attention has focused on the overwhelming crowds at national parks this summer of 2021, even without foreign tourists.  Cooped up for months by virus and weather, people like me are thronging to the outdoors. Glacier, Yosemite, and Rocky Mountain now require ticketed entry. Hikers at Zion have waited four hours to access certain trails.  Arches is turning visitors away because the park is “full,” closing its entrance gate most days by 8 a.m.

If you hike for that iconic selfie with a dramatic skyline, the wait can be worth it.  If you hike for solitude, not so much.  For many, getting away to the outdoors means away from city noise or suburban irritations, away from commuting, from shopping, from robocalls, from scrolling Facebook.  Today, much of that distraction comes with us on the trails.  A hundred parked cars stretch down-road from popular trailheads on a weekend.  Gross blue doggie bags perch beside trail markers.  A fellow writer told me of a cartoon showing a person on a mountaintop with a laptop open, writing “I feel so connected.” 

 I remember hiking to the top of McClellan Butte, a nine-mile round-trip, 3700-foot elevation gain hike off I-90 west of Snoqualmie Pass in the 1990s.  It’s no easy stroll, and when I reached the narrow top, I had to share it with a guy on his cellphone, yakking away about his awesome hike, which made it much less than awesome for me. 

From another hike, I will never forget the image of a group of young people “mudding”—seeing how far they could dig a truck into and out of the mud in a meadow alongside the historic Naches trail northeast of Mt. Rainier.

According to the Wilderness Act of 1964, wilderness is an area “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.”  Fat chance.   

Alan Weltzien addressed this issue in Exceptional Mountains, University of Nebraska Press, 2016. He considered the tension between access and preservation, the difficulty of finding solitude in a steady stream of hikers or climbers.  Weltzien argues that the “endless freedom of high country close by reconciles many to urban life,” but if urbanites crowd the mountains, that endless freedom is lost.  The proximity of Seattle and Tacoma and Bellingham and Vancouver and Portland to the exceptional mountains of the Cascades promotes “quick thick visitation” or a “windshield wilderness” experience. 

How can we maintain a balance between wanting solitude in nature and sharing the wilderness with others? If we value remoteness from the sights and sounds of people, if going places untrammeled by man or woman is a transformative experience, all should have that opportunity, but how can we get away from us all?  Maybe writers should stop writing hiking guides, everyone should stop sharing pictures.  We could lift up the wet gray Seattle image so tourists won’t want to come here.  Should we mention earthquakes, mudslides, volcanoes, and even drought?    All of those efforts might help, but the Northwest is steeped in the ethos of going to the mountains.  Whether it’s the macho climbers of the 1800s or the weekend backpacker/hiker who shares exploits with colleagues on Monday morning, getting to the mountains is one of the reasons we live here. 

This question bedevils many who hike and many whose job is managing the wilderness experience.  Forest managers have experimented with a system of advanced reservations balanced with first-come, first-serve permits on popular hiking routes.  A lottery system is already in place for the Enchantments in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness of Washington.  Climbing is rationed on Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Adams.  Shuttles carry hikers to popular trailheads like Dog Mountain on the Columbia River. Timed entry or ticketing systems for national parks are being considered.  

The logistics of restricted access can be daunting for the hiker.  A backpacking trip over Cascade Pass to Stehekin requires elaborate planning and a great deal of luck.   When four of us, two mothers and two daughters, hiked it a few summers ago, the success depended on securing backcountry camping permits for two nights at a hikable distance apart.  We left Seattle at 5 a.m. on a Sunday to arrive at the ranger station when it opened at 7 a.m. Second in line to a Boy Scout leader who had camped out the night before, we scored rare permits for Monday and Tuesday nights, 12 miles apart.  Our anxiety much reduced, we happily shared Pelton Basin with the Boy Scout troop Monday night.   Cascade Pass was completely fogged in and the spectacular views nonexistent, but we had to give up any pretense of hiking when the weather was optimal.

Besides planning and luck, what can an individual do?  Avoid popular trails and popular times of the week, savor the experience without technology other than good boots and a pack, but most of all practice environmental ethics, attentive to the environment and fellow hikers.  Here’s what I have learned from experience and from Leave No Trace principles. 

  • Downhill yields to uphill hikers who need to maintain momentum, but just stop and step aside, not off the trail.
  • A diet of Cheetos and dependence on human food does wild animals no good. They may lose the ability to gather food themselves. 
  • In subalpine climates, where the growing season is about two months long between snow melt and fresh snow, meadows are fragile. One footstep can destroy a decade of growth.  All those signs that say fragile meadow, stay off, or stay on the trail between the rocks, are the rules not of government but of nature.  Plant yourself on rocks instead. 
  • Barking, uncontrolled dogs are no one’s idea of enjoying the wilderness. See “5 Common Trail Dangers that Could Kill your Dog” and ways to avoid those dangers.  (I have encountered a grieving man carrying a dog that had died from a fall off the trail.) Dogs are not allowed on trails in national parks. 
  • Limit the size of your hiking group. At Paradise at Mt. Rainier, a wide paved trail leads from the parking lot toward the majestic mountain and views of the beautiful meadows, but large groups disturb wildlife and other hikers. 

The task of trail education is huge.  Are people uncaring or unknowing?  If unknowing, we have a huge education task.  If uncaring, we have a huge political task.  Wallace Stegner said our national parks are “America’s best idea.  They reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” Let’s keep it that way. 

Women on the Trails

The Trail: It is dusty; it is wet.  It climbs; it falls; it is beautiful and terrible.  But always it skirts the coast of adventure.  Always it goes on, and always it calls to those who follow it.  Tiny path that it is, worn by the feet of earth’s wanderers, it is the thread which has knit together the solid places of the earth.  The path of feet in the wilderness is the onward march of life itself, Mary Roberts Rinehart. 

As I started researching Hiking Washington’s History, I visualized historic trails through the mountains, along the rivers, and even through the dry Grand Coulee.  I saw men on these trails. 

In 1889 The Seattle Press called for “men of vim and vigor” to explore the unknown interior of the Olympic Mountains and report back to the newspaper.  Records of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Northern Pacific and the Great Northern railways, the mining companies at Monte Cristo were all written by men and reported men’s doings—if you discount the occasional cost items for a laundress.   

When the first edition was published, I was seated at an authors’ table at a conference next to Karen Blair, history professor at Central Washington University, who asked me, “Are there any women in your book?”

My short, embarrassed answer: “Not many.” 

Fay Fuller was the first woman to climb Mt. Rainier.

A postcard image of Fay Fuller–the first woman to climb Mt. Rainier—sat on my desk the whole time I was writing the book, but I didn’t follow her to the summit or write about her climb.  I wrote instead about Forest Service ranger Hal Sylvester who named lakes in the Wenatchee-Snoqualmie National Forest for women—wives, sisters, sweethearts. 

I had fallen into the heroic nature-heroic men approach identified by Carlos Schwantes in his preface to the first edition of The Pacific Northwest, used as a textbook in college classes throughout the state. The theme of this approach is that “because nature assumed heroic proportions in the far Northwest, heroic men were needed to tame or subdue it.”  That tradition elevates the stories of men who “conquered” the wilderness and left their names on the trails in Hiking Washington’s History:  Stevens Pass for engineer John F. Stevens, Ebey’s Landing for pioneer Isaac Ebey, O’Neil Pass for Lt. P. O’Neill of the U.S. Army, Chief Joseph’s Summer Trail for the leader of the Nez Perce, the Mullan Road for army engineer John Mullan.

For the second edition I determined to include more women. I found Mary Roberts Rinehart.  Rinehart was an adventure tourist, not a trail builder; she merely left a compelling story of a woman’s trip through a little known mountain pass in the Pacific Northwest.

Today Cascade Pass is an iconic hike in Washington, a day hike that reaches spectacular views of towering mountain peaks in the North Cascades. The more adventurous can backpack all the way through to Stehekin at the head of Lake Chelan.  The hike just to the pass and back is doable for the average hiker—not quite four miles up, 33 switchbacks, 1800 feet of elevation gain on a well-maintained, easy to follow trail.


It was not so easy in early September, 1916when Cosmopolitan commissioned Rinehart to undertake and write about what she called “the first trip ever made on horseback over Cascade Pass.” The Great Northern Railway underwrote the expedition as part of its “See America First” campaign, hoping it would attract tourists to the Pacific Northwest.  

Mary Roberts Rinehart was a nationally famous writer, whose mysteries eventually earned her the title “the American Agatha Christie.”  She wasn’t a trail-blazer in the traditional Northwest sense of the word. She was following an ancient “way through.”  Native Americans had crossed Cascade Pass to reach “the Great Salt Lake” (the Pacific Ocean).  Native women had been trekking with their families into the mountains every summer for centuries, to gather berries, trade, and socialize.  

Mary Kiona often crossed Cowlitz Pass or White Pass on foot to visit her relatives on the east side of the Cascades.

It seemed to Rinehart that no one had been there before her expedition of 16 people, including her husband, three sons, cooks, guides, a timber cruiser, a photographer, packer, and 32 horses. The packhorses carried the cook’s sheet-iron stove; besides flapjacks, he served fresh grapefruit for breakfast each morning.  Despite this support and Rinehart’s adventurous spirit, the trip was daunting.

Mary Roberts Rinehart led a horseback expedition to Cascade Pass in 1916.

[N]ever had I dreamed of such a country; it was beautiful, but rugged and wild beyond belief.  There were abysses appalling to the mind, vast glaciers, towering peaks.

Camped below Cascade Pass, they found it was closed with ice and snow. But the horses were short of food, and they could not face going back the way they had come.  It was strange to go through that green wonderland and find not a leaf the horses could eat, Rinehart wrote.  It was all moss, ferns, and evergreens.

So on they went.  Crossing the pass mean climbing to a lake up “a tortuous cliff,” then scaling another 800 feet of mountain wall, without a visible trail.  

For the climb up that cliff the next day I have no words, and how they got down from the wall on the other side, I do not remember.  

My four trips to or across Cascade Pass have not been fraught with the same challenges Rinehart faced if you discount drizzle and fog twice shutting out the glorious views on top, in August.  The contemporary logistical challenge of backpacking is not finding food and water for horses but securing camping permits for the very popular trail.  Freeze-dried food can’t compete with a cook, fresh grapefruit, and someone else to set up the tents. Yet adventure and beauty still draw men and women alike, some no doubt lured by Rinehart’s vivid prose. 

Read more about Rinehart’s trip in my article in Columbia, the magazine of Northwest History, Summer 2021.  If you want to hear more from Rinehart herself, read Tenting To-Night, a book based on her travels in the Pacific Northwest.  It is available in print or online at or Google books. 




West Duwamish Greenbelt trails

Armed with more than 200 white plastic bags, neon-clad neighbors gather at the West Seattle Greenbelt trailhead on a cold sunny morning in late February, 2021.  Their mission is to make a trail visible from more than 500 feet above.  At precisely 8:45 a.m., a helicopter will circle the greenbelt with Jean Sherrard’s camera peering out, photographing the bright white squares revealing the trail through the overhanging branches.    Sherrard and Clay Eals are preparing a Now & Then column for The Seattle Times.

The bags are the brainchild of Paul West, member of the West Duwamish Greenbelt Trails group, who brings an ample supply from Puget-Ridge Co-housing.   (They will be carefully collected and folded for re-use with only a few splotches of mud.)  The volunteers start down the trail in small groups to drop their “bread crumbs” ten feet apart.  As the temperature climbs above the mid-30’s, the white helicopter circles three times against a clear blue sky, above waving Hansels and Gretels (or is it a Christo team?).

In the resulting aerials, the people are mostly invisible and the bag trail is faint, but the views of the ridge on the highlands between the Duwamish Waterway and Puget Sound are stunning.  The green fields of South Seattle College and the Riverview playfields frame the greenbelt.

Dotted trail line is faintly visible through the greenbelt. Photo by Jean Sherrard.

 Industrial companies hug the river, colorful containers park at port terminals, the First Avenue South Bridge spans the river, and a belt of late-winter brown separates commerce from neighborhoods. 

Industrial uses crowd the Duwamish Waterway with the West Duwamish Greenbelt in the background. Photo by Jean Sherrard.

A 1920 aerial shows the same ridge, with fewer trees.  Glacier action created the greenbelt ridge more than 60,000 years ago, leaving rocks resistant to erosion.  A conifer forest of Douglas fir, western red cedar, and Sitka spruce grew on its slopes. The Duwamish people lived below it along the Duwamish River and its tributaries for centuries. As settlers and land developers moved in, the Duwamish were dispossessed, but the spirits (and bodies) of their ancestors live on in the soil and the trees.

Then Puget Mill Company extracted what they wanted from the ridge before donating 20 acres to the City of Seattle in 1912 for a park at the north end.  The same photo shows Boeing Plant 1 sitting at the foot of Highland Park Way.  The newly straightened and dredged river is visible below the tip of an airplane wing. A streetcar line, which ran from the tip of the Duwamish Peninsula south to new communities, shows faintly on the ridge.   The green line indicates trails in the 2021 greenbelt.

Photo courtesy the Boeing Company

This trail is included in the second edition of Hiking Washington’s History.  A Now & Then column by Clay Eals and Jean Sherrard highlights the greenbelt in The Seattle Times, May 9, 2021. A more extensive description of this event and the trail is featured on their website. in a new tab)

25 Sugarland Road

I usually write about historic trails and walks in Washington State, but this spring the Indiana Historical Society Press published a labor of love from another Washington–Washington, Indiana.  25 Sugarland Road, Letters of Love and War, 1944-1945 is a narrative of letters my parents wrote to each other during World War II, many of them sent to and from my grandparents’ home on a rural road outside of Washington.  Bob McBride and Luella Hart had been married only two months when Bob was transported to Europe to fight in the last, fierce battles of the war.  Luella bounced around her sisters and in-laws’ homes in southern Indiana as she awaited the birth of their first child.  Their letters reveal the hardships of the war both on the battlefront and the homefront and their longing to see each other again.  Read an interview about how the book was written.  It may be ordered from Indiana Historical Society Press.  

Snoqualmie Tunnel: A cool surprise

When Seattle historian and journalist Bill Kossen told me about his experience on the Iron Horse Trail, I invited him to write a post.  As a Northwest native, he has some “cool” history to share:

It was a balmy, early fall day on Snoqualmie Pass and the sprawling parking lot at Iron Horse State Park was nearly empty. Good sign. I was on a mission and didn’t want to be surrounded by a lot of masked and unmasked people. Nearby Alpental was crawling with hikers.  I just wanted to see, and possibly hike through, the former railroad tunnel that I read about in Hike 18 of Judy Bentley’s excellent Hiking Washington’s History.

Didn’t know what to expect. The tunnel is hidden from view from the parking lot near the Hyak ski area (now called Summit East) and has a fascinating history that borders on the mystical, thanks to the book. The tunnel and ski area also has a strong, personal pull on me. One of my earliest memories is of taking the Milwaukee Road Olympian Hiawatha train as part of a family trip to the Midwest back in the summer of 1958 when I was only 3. The train went through the tunnel, but I don’t remember that, just the excitement on being on the rocking, rolling train and getting a souvenir “I Rode On The ‘Hiawatha’ ” bib in the dining car. One of these days, I might frame that bib.

From my parents, I inherited a 1940s brochure about the “Snoqualmie Ski Bowl” and the Milwaukee Road’s “Snow Train” that took them there, dropping them off at a ski lodge after exiting the tunnel.   Mom told me about it, but the train and the “Ski Bowl” were long gone by the time I began skiing in the early 1960s. Things had changed dramatically at Snoqualmie Pass by then. were three ski areas instead of one and plenty of chairlifts and rope tows instead of none. My parents wanted me to learn as they did, so for the first few trips, they wouldn’t pay for a lift ticket. I had to climb the hill with my skis on, clomping along in herringbone style while the other kids whizzed by on the lifts. That was OK; I learned to ski uphill, too.  

Those memories flooded back as I got out of the car. The temperature in the parking lot was 70, so I put on a light jacket and set out for a half-mile hike on a level, well-maintained gravel trail to whatever was waiting around the bend. A few minutes into the hike, I felt a refreshing, cool breeze. Figured there must be an icy creek or pond hidden nearby. But all I could see were trees and brush alongside the trail. Then as I rounded the bend, the breeze picked up and went from cool to chilly. The reason was looming ahead, the colossal opening to the Snoqualmie Tunnel, a huge and quiet air conditioner.

A lone biker passed me, switching on his headlamp, and disappeared into the tunnel. Two hikers with a small dog entered the tunnel, too. Tentatively. They stopped after going a few feet and snapped a few pictures while the dog stared at me. Even the pet appeared in awe. I kept my distance until they left and then entered the tunnel, past the ancient wooden doors so huge they could protect a castle. I had hopes of hiking and running to the other end, a little more than 2 miles away, until I turned on my headlamp and two handheld flashlights that suddenly felt very tiny. My, was I unprepared. The darkness sucked up the light like nothing I had ever seen.

But I hung around in the dark silence for a few minutes just to take it all in. Would I hear echoes of the hundreds of tunnel workers who chipped and blasted their way through the rock a century ago?  Would I see a ghost train roll by illuminating the pitch-black tunnel? The book had triggered my imagination. Hike 18 ended with this suggestion to those hiking from the other end of the trail (or closer starting points), 21 miles away on the west side of Snoqualmie Pass: “To relieve the long miles, imagine the headlight of an orange and black locomotive of the Olympian Hiawatha, carrying revelers high over the creek ravines, through the long dark tunnel, along the river canyons, and into the bright sunlight at the peak of the Cascades.”  It worked. I’m hooked and now looking forward to hiking to the tunnel from the other side, where you get to cross trestles high above those creek ravines and have a better chance of seeing that historic headlight. What a cool trek.

The Aboveground Railroad

The Aboveground Railroad

Be ready for briars, flies, and mosquitoes, I was told, and wear good shoes, long pants, and a long-sleeved shirt.  I had brought none of these with me to Dorchester County, Maryland, in August, 1988, expecting temperatures in the 90’s—I was not wrong about that.  I was writing a young adult biography of Harriet Tubman, who escaped from this county in 1849. I had never been to the Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay, a very different world than the Indiana I grew up in and the Pacific Northwest I live in.  I wanted to find traces of Tubman in the homeland she lived in and left.  I quickly bought jeans, a long-sleeved blouse, and socks to augment my sandals.

My search began on the front porch of the home of Addie Clash Travers, close to downtown Cambridge. Travers was known in the community as the keeper of local Black history.  Everyone who went by her house either waved, called out, or stopped to talk.  Her family had lived in the county since before the Civil War when many of her ancestors were enslaved.  She was in touch with the Rosses, the Pinders, and the Jacksons—other black families who received their names and sometimes land from the oldest white families in Maryland.  They wanted to reclaim that 300-year black history that is buried in the white. 

Travers learned about Tubman by talking to the “older folks.”  The history of slavery was not taught in the schools; it was invisible, underground.  “They don’t want to own it, that their forebears were slaveholders,” I was told.  It was a troubled history; Tubman, whose family name was Ross, spirited away droves of valuable enslaved people from the county in the 1850s.

Facing official indifference but determined to keep that history alive, Travers started an annual Harriet Tubman Day celebration in 1967, at an old church in the countryside.  “It’s hard to believe she did what she did, coming from here,” Addie said, and she wanted it known.  Only a few members of her family came  the first year.

I wanted to see the church, the farm where Harriet was enslaved, the countryside she knew.  Travers walks with a cane, so she could not guide me around, but Herbert Sherwood passed by her porch as we were talking and offered to be a guide.  He brought along a last-minute recruit, Monroe William Charles Edward Pinder, otherwise known as Buddy.  Buddy was the seventh generation of Pinders in Dorchester County.  He traced his height to a Choptank Indian chief, his blue eyes to a white great-grandfather, and his light brown, freckled skin to his black relatives who had lived “the hardest.”  Buddy turned out to be a talker.   

Our goal was to find the foundations of Harriet’s cabin, which Buddy said he had seen five years before.  We started at the only public acknowledgement of Tubman in the county:  a lone historical marker which told her escape story escape in two sentences:  “Harriet Tubman, 1820-1913.  The ‘Moses of Her People,’ Harriet Tubman of the Bucktown District found freedom for herself and some three hundred other slaves whom she led north.  In the Civil War she served the Union Army as a nurse, scout, and spy.”  The 300 number was closer to 70 as I discovered in further research. 

From the marker, we turned down a grass driveway through a field on what used to be the Brodess farm.  We alighted into the heat and crossed a ditch, which brings water from the area’s many creeks and rivers.  We high stepped over rows of soybean planted after the winter wheat was cut and reach the woods in back.  The Brodess house and slave cabins were right up against the Greenbriar Swamp.  Locals hunted deer there, for which nearby Bucktown is named. 

We didn’t find the foundations of Harriet’s cabin, just some crumbling bricks which Pinder and Sherwood said were brought from England at least a century before.  They vowed to come back in the winter when the vegetation would be sparse.  If we had kept traipsing through the woods, along the edge of the field, we could have followed the path slaves took to get to Sunday morning worship.As we drove out Greenbriar Road, passing farms and houses, Buddy told me who lived there and whether the family had owned slaves.  He pointed out land that was given by Harriet’s owner to his paternal grandmother, one acre for each of the three children she had by him. There was talk of how titles to the land were lost through forgeries or non payment of taxes.  His maternal grandmother, he said, was sold to a plantation in Georgia. 

We passed the Bucktown store where Harriet was hit in the head with a two-pound weight thrown by an overseer.  It was intended for a field worker but hit 15-year-old Harriet who was blocking the door.  The injury nearly killed Harriet and left her susceptible to sudden stupors throughout her life, a risk in the underground work she did. 

Down another weedy lane, we found a ramshackle frame house and gravestones dating to 1792. Pinder pointed out The Blackwater Wildlife Refuge, where his grandchildren used to roam before there was an entry fee.  We visited Scott’s Chapel on Bucktown Road where the Brodess family were members of the congregation.  Harriet’s family, the Rosses, may have worshipped at this site, too, in the balcony or at the back of the church.  White burials are behind the church, and the markers of Pinders and others across the road.  Early graves of enslaved blacks are unmarked, underneath 20th century vaults and stones. 

Later, to avoid flies which swarm and bite, I drove with Addie off the road and across weeds to get close to a different one-room frame church.  The church was built in 1911 on the site where enslaved peolpe gathered on Sunday morning for worship, walking through the woods from their cabins.  Addie had been unable to raise public funds to restore the building, but Sherwood regularly mowed the grass and weeds around it. 

The next day I roamed downtown Cambridge, noting small frame houses on Court Lane dating from the early 1800s and the steps of the courthouse from which, I was told, slaves were auctioned.  That’s why Harriet left—she had seen two sisters sold to the plantation-cotton factories of the Deep South, and she feared she was next.

This was a history begging to be told but kept alive only in oral history, unacknowledged by the predominant culture.  I went on to write and publish the Tubman biography, the first non-fiction account of her life  since the 1930s. 

Thirty years later, I reprise my trip with the aid of the Internet and feel like Rip Van Winkle.  The landscape hasn’t changed, but the attitude has. The underground railroad history in Dorchester County has risen, pushed up by the perseverance of people like Travers, Pinder, Sherwood, and Rev. Edward Jackson and the next generation—Joyce Banks, Sherwood’s daughter; Donald Pinder, Pinder’s son;  Rev. Linda Wheatley, also a daughter of a Pinder, John Creighton, a local white historian who did extensive research on Tubman, and James McGowan, who edited The Harriet Tubman Journal in the 1990s. Since my book was published in 1990, three adult biographies have been published. The movie Harriet, filmed in Virginia, brought her story to film in 2019.  People are ready not only to acknowledge the conflicted history but to celebrate those who challenged the status quo. 

Today Harriet’s legacy and name is everywhere in Dorchester County.  Her story is told in a small Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center in Cambridge, in a building purchased in 1992 by those determined to keep her history alive. This is not to be confused with the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center, in the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument and National Historical Park, a partnership between state and national park services. It was opened in 2017 with a ceremony that included the governor, the lieutenant governor, and a senator from Maryland.  The center and garden facing north, the direction of freedom, are based in Church Creek, Maryland, a formerly black community adjacent to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. Nearly 100,000 visitors came to the center the first year it was open. 

The visitor center is the gateway to the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, 125 miles of driving to 45 sites significant to Tubman and the Underground Railroad.  In 1988 I tried to track Harriet’s journey north from Bucktown on her first trip to freedom in 1849.  She followed the Choptank River 67 miles upstream to where it trickles over the Delaware border, then ran a gauntlet of towns.  She  crossed closely watched bridges to Wilmington, then crossed another state border to Philadelphia, a trip of more than 200 wandering miles when Harriet walked it.  Now you can drive it with ease with all the important sites pointed out

The people who first saved African-American history when it was underground have died.  Newcomers have moved in and bought the land the locals have been unable to retain. But Bazzle Church now attracts hundreds to the Harriet Tubman Day celebration.  The fourth generation proprietors of the Bucktown Store give tours.  The same historical marker, with the consistent with every other roadside marker in Maryland, still stands on Greenbriar Road, still claiming 300 fugitives helped.  The Brodess farm, now in private hands, is on the scenic byway.

And the foundations of Harriet’s cabin?  Slave cabins don’t last; the lives they sheltered lived only in memories through the generations.  That community in time has moved on, entrusting the history to interpretive organizations who make it visible and visitors who embrace it. 




Walking Nearby History

 Staying home and walking more in your neighborhood?  There’s more underfoot than you may realize.  Cities are rich in layers of history, some visible, some not. 

Heading out my side door, I find a clothesline pole still standing between my house and the condo building next door, trailing vines instead of drying sheets. A half-mile away is a monument marking the landing of the Denny-Low-Terry party at Alki in 1851. Those are the obvious finds.

Less obvious is the median sloping downhill in front of our house, separating two narrow one-way streets.  When we moved here 16 years ago, the hillside was overgrown with weeds.  One lone plum tree drooped with fruit each fall. In the early 1900s children walked to the neighborhood school along a one-lane dirt road paralleling a meadow. “We frequently preferred the trail along Chilberg Avenue,” recalled one resident, “to enjoy some of the most beautiful wildflowers in the open fields and leading up into ‘the woods,’ the hillside forest.” Pleasant memories for troubled times.

Troubled times are nothing new.  As I researched Walking Washington’s History:  Ten Cities, I often found conflict.  I had read about the Everett Massacre of 1914 when striking millworkers in the city were supported by Wobblies who arrived on boats from Seattle. The Wobblies were met with gunfire.  The dock where the clash occurred is long gone, but as I walked the waterfront in 2017, I found wreaths made out of dried cedar hung on a wire fence, each commemorating one of the 12 men killed. 

At the Chinese Reconciliation Park in Tacoma, the haunting figures of Chinese workers expelled from the city in 1885 are painted on stone, an attempt to remember and acknowledge.

There were moments of pleasure, too, when I found the cool bubbling spring behind the Bigelow House in Olympia, which supplied drinking water to the early residents.  Vancouver has not just one but three statues of women:  a pioneer mother, a Native American woman, and a World War II welder.

Where history is less visible, interpretive art recalls the work of ordinary people.  A sculpted fruit-picker’s bag sits on a square in Yakima. 

To find history underfoot, look closely as you walk, and ask why.  Then visit the local historical society when it opens again; you may find an oral history or memories that recall experiences like a walk to school.


Today the meadow along that old dirt road has been reclaimed by community volunteers with plantings of more fruit trees, native shrubs, and wildflowers. Some of the forest above remains, on a hillside too steep for development.  Walkers passing the wildflowers on this relatively quiet street are in good historic company.   



Eruption of Mount St. Helens

When our family visited Washington in August 1980, there were masks hanging in the garage of the house we rented.  They were a hold-over from the eruption of Mount St. Helens just a few months before (and perhaps a foreshadowing of our life in Seattle during the pandemic forty years later).  We moved out from New York City in January the next year and began to hear the stories of where everyone had been when the mountain erupted.  Here’s a new one I hadn’t heard from Gary Rose, friend of my good friend and writer, Joan Burton:  
“Forty years ago tomorrow at approximately 8:30 am two close friends, Dave and Maxine Nicholson and myself, were on our skis headed to Camp Muir located at the 10,000 ft, level on the south side of Mt. Rainier to enjoy a great day of spring skiing.  We were hoping to find a rather rare condition called “Corn Snow” found in almost no other area in the U.S. except the Cascades and sometime the Sierras.  It occurs in the spring time and  is caused by the freezing and thawing cycle, giving the snow surface a unique consistency that skiers “Die” for.
We left Paradise early and were near the 8,000 ft. elevation level on a beautiful cloudless morning.  Having just stopped for a short rest and bite to nibble on, we were putting on our skis when we noticed Mt. St. Helens, some 30 miles to our southwes,t blowing hot ash high into the air from it north side.  At first we assumed it was “showing its stuff” as it had done a couple of times in the last few weeks.  We resumed our climb upwards towards  Camp Muir keeping an eye on the growing ash cloud coming from St. Helens.  Within 10-15 minutes the black cloud had grown to an estimated 60-80,000 ft.  (15 miles) into the sky above the mountain and was drifting NE in our direction.  At no time did we hear a rumble or explosion which was heard in Seattle and as far north as Bellingham.  Our first indication that maybe we should forget Camp Muir was when we noticed lighting strikes between the approaching dark super heated ash cloud and the ground below.  I had experienced lightning storms before while on the Muir snowfield and for sure, it is not a place one wants to be in a electrical storm.
With haste we scrapped the idea of Muir, pealed off our climbing skins, adjusted our binding to down hill mode and made a few turns in ideal spring corn snow.  A few hundred feet below, the first rain drops hit us and the snow immediately took on a grey/brown color.  Each raindrop uncased a blob of ash and soon our clothes were sopped wet and covered in grey ash.  To add to our misery all of a sudden it was like our skis hit sand paper and they would not slide.  Snow and ash built up and stuck to the bottoms of our skis.  We took them off, tied them to our packs and proceeded post-holing on foot  towards the parking lot at Paradise.  Finally we staggered into Paradise to find a couple of inches of ash all over everything, cars, buildings, trees, everything!  The Park Rangers were going ballistic.  All uphill traffic had to be stopped at the park entrance and Rangers were making up car convoys of park visitors headed by a Ranger Patrol vehicle with flashing lights.  We, along with every one else, were  shuttled  down the mountain and out of the park.  About 10 miles west of the National Park we drove out from underneath the black cloud and into the sunshine.
Photos?  To save weight not one of  us carried a camera that day.  You will just have to believe my story.  Fifty seven people died in the eruption, 1,300 feet of the top of St. Helens was blown off and millions of trees blown over and destroyed.

Lost and Found in History

            As often happens in the writing life, authors may be immersed in a new book but recalled to another.  That was the case with Free Boy: A True Story of Slave and Master this week when I was interviewed by Rob Smith for his podcast, which showcases stories from Olympia, Washington. 

            The free boy in question, Charles Mitchell, lived in Olympia from 1855 to 1860 when he escaped on a mail steamer to Victoria Island in what is now British Columbia.  Mitchell was 13, a child of mixed race, living in the household of James and Isabella Tilton, and owned by them.  Slavery was legal in Olympia because territories did not have the right to declare themselves slave or free.  James Tilton was the Surveyor General of Washington Territory, an important job mapping the new territory so that incoming settlers could claim land.  Tilton brought the young boy to Olympia from a plantation in Maryland owned by Tilton’s mother’s family.  Mitchell’s father was an unknown white man, and his enslaved mother died of cholera when the boy was three.  Tilton promised to educate Charles, to train him for a job as a ship’s steward, and to free him when he turned 18.

            When given the chance to be free before then, Charles didn’t wait.  He was encouraged and aided by free blacks in Victoria who visited Olympia and by James Allen, the cook on board the steamer.  Allen hid Charles in the lamp room, and although he was discovered on board before the Eliza Anderson docked in Victoria, he was brought off the boat through a writ of habeas corpus and declared a free boy by a British judge. This was his moment of fame.  And then he vanished into history, after a brief appearance in a school for boys.

            That was the story Lorraine McConaghy and I wrote in Free Boy, published by the University of Washington Press in 2013, an inspiring story of a young boy yearning for freedom and the Victoria blacks who engineered his freedom.

            But then what?  The Civil War began months after Mitchell escaped, and by its end in 1865, he would have been free.  Did he ever come back to the United States?  Did he ever find his father or family in Maryland?  Did he have a successful life?  Lorraine and I did not know when we finished the book.  We could only speculate about which of many Charles Mitchells he might have been in the Pacific Northwest. 

            In fact, Mitchell roamed farther than we thought.  Inspired by his story, a researcher dove into the mystery.  With only Mitchell’s name, race, place of birth, and approximate birth date, Thomas Blake delved into census tracks, voter records, city directories, pension applications, marriage and death certificates.  He found that:

  • Mitchell returned to the United States right before the end of the Civil War and enlisted in a California infantry company that was stationed at Fort Stevens at the mouth of the Columbia River, named after Isaac Stevens, the first governor of Washington Territory—and a friend of James Tilton’s.
  • After that Mitchell worked as a ship’s steward, a cook, waiter, and all-around crew member, the job he had been trained for, on ships based in San Francisco.
  • He married twice, first to a mulatto woman named Elsie L. Browne.  They had a son, Charles, born in May 1870.  She died in 1885; the fate of their son Charles is unknown. 
  • At the age of about 40, Mitchell married a young white woman named Sarah Frederick in Liverpool, England.  Mtichell brought Sarah back with him to the United States, along with his mother-in-law, and they had seven children, four of whom lived to adulthood.  Their household in San Francisco was variously described as white or mulatto. 
  • He broke both knee caps in falls related to his work.  He also broke both ribs in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, injuries that eventually earned him an invalid pension from the military.
  • He died in 1910 in the Veterans Home of California in Yountville, at the age of about 60. 
  • He has no known living descendants.  His one known grandchild died in 1999 in Paradise, California and had no known children.   

            In some ways, Charles Mitchell lived a fairly ordinary life.  He married, had children, and worked hard at physical jobs that left him partially disabled.  His adult life as a free man was not as dramatic as his brief moment of fame as a youth, but his work as a mariner took him around the world, and he briefly enlisted in the cause he had left Olympia for, the cause of freedom for youth like him.  His courage at 13 earned the right to determine his own life.

Charles Mitchell Day

Last night the Olympia, Washington City Council proclaimed Charles Mitchell Day, honoring the 13-year-old household slave who escaped to freedom in Victoria on September 24, 1860.  This is the story told in Free Boy, A True Story of Slave and Master, co-authored with Lorraine McConaghy.  Lorraine, who did most of the research and the initial writing for this book, was unable to attend, so I made brief remarks, which I share with you here.  I was asked to talk about the educational impact of the story.  

I am speaking this evening for myself and for my co-author Lorraine McConaghy.  I cannot speak for Charles Mitchell, but wouldn’t he be surprised that more than 150 years after he lived in Olympia, we would remember him and the dark early morning when he hurried down the hill to steal away on the Eliza Anderson.

Since the publication of Free Boy, his story has captured the imagination and admiration of many.  A legal researcher, Thomas Blake, was challenged by the mystery of what became of the young boy and discovered that he returned to the United States just before the end of the Civil War, joined the Union Army (probably misrepresenting his age) and lived a fairly ordinary long life as a mariner, freed to make his own choices.

The 5th Avenue Theater in Seattle brought the story to thousands of schoolchildren Washington and Oregon in a traveling musical. The children I saw in the audiences were mesmerized and intrigued by Mitchell’s hard decision to leave a comfortable but circumscribed life for an unknown but free future.

Most who have learned the story are surprised that slavery was legal in Washington Territory and that an underground railroad—in the form of a Puget Sound mail steamer–operated to free a boy born into slavery.

With this declaration, you are lifting up an inspiring story of community action and individual courage during a time of deep political polarization, a city divided in its sympathies by the anticipated civil war. May this proclamation be one small step in recognizing the injustices in our shared history.