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On the Stafford Trail
by Janet & Edward Granger-Happ

Our search for the signs began in Pateros, WA, north of Wells Dam, where the Methow river meets the Columbia. We had trouble finding the first one. Curtis had said it was where the rivers met, at the end of a parking lot by the side of the road. We tried every parking area we could find, stopping at docks, boat ramps, even a real-estate office where two agents looked at us as if we were a bit off the beaten path. "You're looking for roadside signs that have poetry?" they asked, eyes wide. But we searched on, finally seeing a gravel pull-off by the side of the road, next to the river, across from a fruit stand. And there we found it -- the first poem by William Stafford-- "Time for Serenity, Anyone?".

We were so excited, we were hardly serene. After photographs, cheering, and high-fives, we celebrated by purchasing Stella cherries back at the fruit stand, as well as our first jug (and taste) of cherry cider. We sat at a picnic table by a row of apple trees, soaking up our success and spitting pits. In the calmness of the warm afternoon, we reveled in the poetry of the moment. It was fitting for Stafford's words: "this world is still alive."

In the summer of 1994, just a year after his death, William Stafford's Methow River Poems were "published" on road-side plaques along the river that runs from the heart of the Cascade Mountains to the Columbia River. The seven poems were selected from seventeen that Stafford wrote to fulfill an unusual commission. Two Forest Service rangers, Curtis Edwards and Sheela McLean, had written the poet in 1992 asking him to provide the words for the 'interpretive' signs that appear throughout our national and state park lands. Stafford quickly and enthusiastically agreed, writing what were to be some of his last poems, which were published by Confluence Press in 1995 as The Methow River Poems and again in 1996 by his son, Kim Stafford, in the volume Even in Quiet Places. Kim wrote in the afterward: ".. I believe the Methow poems display in the extreme a habit of mind that ... characterizes ... my father's life work." Work that reflected his "customary prolific generosity," somewhat random, with "nuggets of insight" that were universal despite an easy-going, particular, relaxed style.1 It was these words about the river poems that became the thread of a journey for us in the summer of 1998 to the Pacific Northwest.

We headed up the road to find the next sign outside the town of Methow-- a town you could blink and miss-- at McFarland Creek. It was a beautiful overlook, and this second poem "From the Wild People" matched it. "Time used to live here," Stafford wrote, "It likes to find places like this." After more pictures and happiness, we climbed back into our rented Ford Explorer and kept going, our journey continuing, past the tiny hamlets of Carlton and Twisp (which boasted to be much bigger, with the Smokejumping Base nearby). The first day we had only planned to travel far enough to see the first two poems. We spent that night in a decadently rustic lodge on mountain top, somewhere between the towns of Twisp and Winthrop.

The next day we ventured into Winthrop, in search of the origins of our journey-- the two Forest Service rangers who had commissioned Stafford's work, and who had graciously faxed us the details of where to find the signs. We ate lunch outside in a California-style bistro in the middle of the old-western town, listening to the tunes of the 60's and 70's, enjoying the abundance of fruits and vegetables on the menu. Afterwards, we strolled along the wooden "sidewalk" to explore the stores and talk to people about the poetry. No one we asked had heard of the Stafford poems, except an elderly woman at the local bookstore, who did know of Stafford's work, but not the signs. Finding them was turning into solving a private puzzle or mystery...

The second poem From the Wild People, by William Stafford, at McFarland Creek, Methow, WA.

In a sequence of serendipitous discoveries, we ran first into Curtis Edwards, then Sheela McLean, the Forest Rangers who had commissioned the Stafford River poems. Meeting Curtis was a strange convergence. We had passed through the town by foot and stopped by the first parking area with the telltale brown Forest Service signs. (It ended up being a residence and a storage yard.) As we searched for signs of life, a car pulled into the lot. A young boy and a stocky man with a beard and plaid flannel shirt got out of the car. We approached them and asked the man if he knew where we could find Curtis Edwards. He said "that would be me," smiled, and extended his hand. We introduced ourselves and immediately began asking about the poems he had requisitioned from William Stafford.

Curtis graciously told the story of "how they came to be." He explained that it was a responsibility of some Forest Rangers to write interpretive signs as part of their job. These signs are the ones found throughout the national and state parks, providing brief ecological or geological details to lend a bit of education to accompany the scenery. The problem, Curtis admitted, was that they had grown tired of their own language. They wanted a professional writer.

A writer friend of the family's, John Straley, suggested they contact Bill Stafford, who was in turn a friend and poet. He said that Bill might be open to their project, and that they should ask him. So they wrote Stafford a letter. He replied quickly and within several weeks had sent a total of seventeen poems. And that is how the project of placing seven signs with Stafford poems along fifty miles of the Methow River began.

Stafford took an avid interest in the project, driving out to visit each of the proposed sites. He also did a reading of the poems in Twisp to help raise funds for the project. A booklet of these was published and is available for purchase at the ranger station in Winthrop. We made a note to ourselves to stop in and buy one.

When we told Curtis how difficult it was to get any information about the poems from the usual tourist sources --even the information booth in Winthrop knew nothing about the project-- he smiled and said that they didn't want to publicize it that way. As an aside, he mentioned that they just had the sign repaired north of Winthrop; it had been knocked down by a snow plow last winter.

So what was Stafford like? Curtis said that he noticed every detail and was curious about everything. When he visited Sheela and Curtis' house he was immediately "at home," and within 90 seconds was rummaging through a closet to explore the solar power system. He also had a wry sense of humor. Curtis told of how, when Stafford had attended a seminar with Robert Bly, Stafford had gotten up early to leave. Bly had stopped him and asked if he had a poem. Stafford had said, "Yes. It's called "The Trouble with the Empirical Method." Then he said: "Some haystacks don't have a needle."

Curtis encouraged us to stop by the Forest Service workshop to see his partner, Sheela McLean. We thanked him and returned to our intrepid Explorer. Then, after stopping at the correct Visitor's Center, purchasing the booklet of the Stafford poems and a video of readings, we drove up the steep hill to the ranger station. We asked for Sheela and were soon seated in her cubicle, talking about Stafford and his poetry. On her bulletin board, Sheela had pinned Stafford's "When I Met My Muse." Curtis had given it to her; "It is one of his favorites," she said with a touch of a smile.

Sheela said she remembered Stafford as very soft spoken, kind, and generous, but with a "kind of fierceness" about him. "I was ready to shave my head and follow him," she said with a laugh. We talked about various aspects of the man, from his being a conscientious objector during World War II to Sheela having heard that he was part native American. She said that he never talked about that part of his heritage, however. In all, she had thought he was quite humble.

When we asked about the genesis of the Methow River poems project, she said that she had wanted something that would emote, yet be concise; to help create a feeling with few words. She had felt, and still feels, that this is what poetry does best.

According to Sheela, Stafford liked the "populist notion" of poetry by the roadside. She said he had pantomimed a person reading poetry from a sign by the side of the road, looking first behind the sign to see if there was something more, something else, or perhaps the "hidden" meaning -- wry humor at work.

When we asked about the reason only seven of the poems were used, she told us that she longed to see the project go further, down the other side of the mountain, west of Washington's pass. She talked about having other poets join the project, like Patty Ann Rodgers or Gary Snyder. But for the present, these remained part of the dream from which the work began.

By 3:00 PM we left the Ranger Station even more curious than we had arrived, and drove up to see the third and fourth plaques, located right next to one another on Highway 20. The first, and perhaps most famous, "Ask Me," was the only previously published piece of the seven used.2 Here Stafford wrote, "You and I can turn and look / at the silent river and wait ... " The other poem --"Is This Feeling About the West Real?"-- was one of the ones he wrote after visiting the site. As he aptly said, "These people look out and wonder: Is it magic?"

When we left the town of Winthrop the next day it was to drive up the mountain, to Washington's Pass. But before we got too far there was the fifth poem, a short hike in from Highway 20, back-tracking past the town of Mazama. (We're not sure you'd call two stores and a gas station a town, but that's all we could see of it.) We found the trail-head by the side of the road and parked just inside the fence. Rain started drizzling on us as we approached the suspension bridge, just past a salmon spawning area, where we stopped to look but found no salmon. Just before the bridge there is a sign to be careful of horses "spooking" on the bridge, since it bounces and sways. The walk was refreshing, and the poem, as we found it, more beautiful. Until we wrote the poem down, with the words "but rain / will feel its blind progress along the valley," we had no idea how perfect it was that it had started to rain as we crossed the bridge.

On our way back, we took one last look up and down the riverbed, saw intriguing tracks in the crusty road that we imagined were a mountain lion's or cougar's, and got back to the car as it started to rain in earnest. Back in Mazama, we stocked up on sandwiches and snacks for the long drive ahead, and headed out.

The drive this day was nothing less than spectacular. As we headed into the mountains, we were amazed by one breathtaking vista after another. Giant crags, snow capped, with rivulets of water flowed down into clefts of dark gray rock. After a while we even stopped talking about it, just gazing and gasping, trying and failing to take it all in, overwhelmed by the beauty and wonder of it all. Mountains soared in and out of view, water cascaded down the rocks at every turn; the clouds kissed us, then moved on, waving from above, wisping below.

Below Silver Star Mountain was Stafford's "Silver Star," clearly dedicated to the majesty of this craggy peak, fingers craving the sky. "To be a mountain," he wrote, "you have to climb alone..." The temperature dropped quickly as we drove higher and higher, the rain falling harder. The road switched back and forth, our ears popped, and after an hour we were at the top-- the Washington Pass Overlook. We got out, dressed warmly in sweaters and anoraks, and walked to the top, drawn as if by a magnet to see it all-- where we were, all that surrounded us, and where we had come from. As if by magic, we stumbled upon the final plaque, there at the rail. And in his poetic twist, Stafford had written not about the sky and peaks around us, but rather about the valley below. "...maybe sometime you will look out and even / the mountains are gone, the world would become nothing / again." We wandered as high as the visitor's path would go, at one with the tops of the trees, the birds, the clouds, and sky. And we were at the end. After walking the wet paths and trying to breathe it all into our souls, we collapsed back into the car and continued the journey-- down the other side of the Pass.

Looking back through the Methow Valley from the overlook at Washington's Pass, site of Stafford's seventh poem A Valley Like This.

For a list of the Methow River Poems and sources for further reading, click here.

1 William Stafford, Even in Quiet Places, Lewiston, Idaho: Confluence Press, 1996, pp. 110-111.
2 William Stafford, Ask Me, Stories That Could be True: New and Collected Poems, New York: Harper & Row, 1977, p. 19.

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