At 10:37 a.m. on March 22, a huge section of a hill in Oso, Washington, collapsed and buried an astonishing number of homes, automobiles, pets, and human beings. Though it's too early to say, it's possible that this disaster killed close to the number of people killed by the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens (57). At the exact moment of the landslide, Don Lein, a local retiree, was at a Shell gas station in Darrington, a short drive on Highway 530 away from Oso. Don says he did not hear the landslide, but he did hear the sirens of emergency vehicles. As he got in his car, he saw still more ambulances and police cars rushing down Highway 530. They were headed in the direction of his house. He followed them in complete ignorance. Then, all of a sudden, he saw something that terrified him: The emergency vehicles had turned around and were now rushing toward him, fleeing the area in a panic. He instinctively did the same. He turned and fled something he could not see or imagine.
A week later, Don and I are standing in the rain across the road from the Oso fire station, two miles from the landslide. He speaks slowly and clearly, but I'm failing to take notes because the rain is soaking the paper in my notebook. Whatever word I write, the rain almost immediately turns into a blotch of blue ink. The rain is also soaking my hat, coat, pants, shoes. I attempt to use the voice recorder on my cell phone, but the raindrops repeatedly pound the touch screen and make it impossible to press clear commands. The photographer with me, Kelly O, begins to take pictures of Don, but after two or three clicks, the rain shuts down her camera. She presses and presses the power button, but it will not come to life. It has had enough of this maddening weather. All of our reporting equipment has been rendered useless by the rain. To say nothing of the real problems the rain is causing. A USA Today story began: "Heavy rain and strong winds played havoc Friday with rescue teams looking for more bodies..."
"I live with my son," says Don, according to what is audible from the recording (which isn't much, because the rain has dialed my online answering machine and activated an android whose looped voice interrupts and distorts Don's). "He has a friend who is missing. He happened to call my son the night before the mudslide. He left a message on his cell phone. That was the last we ever heard of him. We recorded the message for his family, so they could hear his voice, his final words." Don is here at the Oso fire station to collect coupons for gas. The local economy has been hit hard by the landslide. You can't get to Darrington anymore, except by a long detour. A timber mill in Darrington that provides work for many locals is pretty much cut off from the world. The bus that used to run from Arlington to Oso to Darrington isn't running now. As things stand, we can only expect real estate values in Oso to plummet, recent mortgages to go underwater, and the only store in town, which closed a year and a half ago (according to Don's memory), never to open again.
Don moved here three years ago and has clearly acclimated. The rain does not seem to bother him, or the cigarette he is smoking, or the woman who appears from the fire station to tell him food and hot coffee is waiting for him, or the search-and-rescue volunteers who are entering a small school bus that will transport them to what has to be the worst place in this state—heavy rain, strong wind, giant trees snapped like toothpicks, crushed homes, mangled cars, lost toys, buried people. Don is worried about his house, which is down the road, near a river that's still gray with mud and could flood. "See that hill over there?" he says, pointing, the burning cigarette somehow defying the forces of nature. "People are now saying that it's also prone to mudslides." The hill, whose sharp slopes must have been logged by the most fearless (or desperate) men and women, is not that far away. He knows exactly what I'm thinking. A mudslide the scale of the one only two miles away from where we are standing would bury us in an instant.
"If another reporter asks to take a picture of me, I'm going to tell him to first pay for these bags under my eyes. I have had enough of the press and their questions," says the middle-aged clerk at Trafton General Store, which is roughly halfway between Oso and Arlington. Out here, the rain has stopped, nature seems to have been tamed, and the land is flatter. Inside, the grocery store is busy: One man is buying a case of Bud (it's noon), and another is buying a chicken sandwich and something fried under a heat lamp. I tell the clerk that I'm a reporter from Seattle, but I will not take her picture. She laughs and tells me it's fine, she was just playing around. The man working next to her asks which paper I work for. I tell him. He recognizes the name. We begin to talk. I express my amazement at the sheer amount of rain in Oso. "That's kind of normal of up there," he says. "It's the mountains, you know. There is going to be a lot of rain. Living out there is like living in a cloud."
Indeed, the road to Oso runs between a range of hills and mountains that are often covered in thick clouds. Out the car window, you see fields, a number of farms and animals, the base of a mountain, clouds clinging to the trees on a mountainside, and thicker clouds above a blue-green mountaintop. The farther you go into Oso, the closer the hills are on either side of the road. Eventually, there is no extended farmland, but just homes clinging to slopes, homes surrounded by giant trees, homes close to the flood-prone river. And the homes around here are weather-beaten and perpetually pressed by biotic forces—moss, shrubs, light-hungry branches. And these are the homes that are occupied. The ones that are abandoned are now so absorbed by nature that sleeping in them seems no better than sleeping under a tree.
Why would anyone live here—a place where nature clearly has the upper hand, a place where every day is a battle with mud, moss, and all the other elements of life and nonlife that thrive in this cloud environment? You might say it's cheaper out here, but Zillow has a listing of a house just steps "from the Stillaguamish River" for $400,000 (this price was posted before the mudslide). Houses go for around that amount in Columbia City, where you do not have to spend a fortune on transportation costs because all of the basics of contemporary civilization (grocery stores, cafes, bars, light rail) are nearby. Indeed, when I asked Don if there was a bar or cafe in town, he said, "No, there isn't. You have to go 20 miles either way just to get to a bar."
So why live here if it's not that cheap?
"You move to this kind of place to get away from everything," a KIRO cameraman said after I described to him an encounter I had with an irritable pastor. True, the pastor's annoyance with my questions about his congregation, his past, his thoughts on the situation had something to do with the exhaustion of coping with the flood of reporters (on the phone, on the church grounds, on the street) in his virtually unknown neck of the woods. But a large part of that annoyance must have had to do with the isolation the people of Oso are accustomed to and certainly expected when they moved out here in the first place. You did not move to Oso to be close to people. You moved here to be away from them.
Five days after the catastrophe, I was on a bridge watching the murky waters of the Stillaguamish River. The mud from the zone had colored the river gray.
"You people are just crazy!" someone yelled at me from behind.
I turned and saw a middle-aged man sitting in a boat-sized white pickup truck. I was not sure if he was going to spit at me, pull a gun on me, or walk out of the truck and throw me into the eternal river. He was mad, he had had enough, he wanted his town back to the normal rhythms before the landslide. The man abruptly shifted gears, drove halfway down the bridge, stopped, and, to my surprise, looked out of his window and apologized for yelling at me. I accepted his apology. The pickup then crossed the remainder of the bridge, turned right, and continued down an old country road. The man was clearly in a state of emotional confusion. Soon, all the attention from outsiders will be gone, and the folks around here will have plenty of time to process this extraordinary tragedy on their own.
Everyone I encountered (the preacher, the preacher's wife, the volunteers) was in a state of shock or confusion. Something from the deepest parts of time had erupted and shredded the thin layer of human reality to pieces.
On that rainy Friday, I also met Todd Shirley, a logger who was heading to the disaster area to cut trees for the search-and-rescue effort. He was voluble. He talked about his work, about how he was certified by FEMA, about how he wasn't sure if he would be cutting standing or fallen trees. But when I asked what he personally hoped to accomplish out in the zone, he answered: "I hope we can still save a life. But I also hope we can save some animals. More likely, if I come across a person, they will not..." He could not complete his sentence. "It's not something you want to see. But someone has to do it." That break in the sentence was the unspeakable erupting on the surface of human language, human thoughts.