My Summer in Holden Mine
In 2017, I spent the summer working in a copper mine. Well, okay, a long-abandoned copper mine — Holden Mine`—to be exact. Near the upper end of Lake Chelan. The mine has been closed for years, since the 50’s, but none of the mess was ever cleaned up. Piles of mine tailings were left to degrade their heavy metals into Railroad Creek, which obligingly carried them down into Lake Chelan – a major reservoir for north central Washington State.
The company who owned the original mine moved on, leaving it dormant and dangerous for years until it sold out its holdings to Rio Tinto sometime in the early 2000s. By the time I went to work there in 2017, the major construction work needed to stabilize the mine tailings was already complete. My company was brought in to help reestablish native plants on the 100+ acres of disturbance.
During my summer in the mine, we worked 12-hour shifts (6 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.), 7 days a week. As one of the Project Managers for our company, I rotated 14-21 day shifts with the other managers. Generally, I stayed out for at least a week before returning, but many of the laborers and construction workers worked 21-days on, 4-days off, throughout the summer.
It was grueling work, often tedious and repetitive. The weather was hot and dry, and there were terrible fires all over the west, both to the north and south of us. Our valley was often socked in with smoke so dense it looked like fog.
The reason for our excessive work schedules was the location of the mine; in particular, the fact that there were no roads to get there. Everyone and everything entered Holden Mine by way of Lake Chelan. Equipment and supplies were sent “up lake” by barge, and people rode up on the Lady of the Lake, a local tourist ferry, which took about three hours.
We docked at Lucerne, where there are a number of trailheads and a few cabins on the lake. From there, a road snakes up into the mountains towards Canada for about 10 miles to the mine. Once you were in, you were there to stay, and you’d better have what you need in your duffle bag.
To make matters worse, Lake Chelan is in the northern part of Washington State, and my home is in Central Oregon. So, when my shift was done (around 1 p.m.), I had to take the ferry “down lake” (three hours), then drive home to Bend (7.5 hours), generally arriving around midnight on the nights I managed to make the whole trip in one day. Going in, I had to leave my home the day before and stay the night in Wenatchee. I did a lot of driving up and down Highway 97, which carried me all the way through.
One other thing: there was no alcohol allowed at the site and precious little to do in the evenings. People would sometimes go a bit stir crazy — something similar to Island Fever, I imagine. I was also one of only three women who worked there regularly, compared with 50-60 men.
Working at Holden Mine was one of those experiences that strip down your defenses and expose some pretty vulnerable parts. A friend I worked with in Ecuador said it was like you were an onion, and your layers were slowly being peeled away. I found refuge in writing poetry during my off-hours and ended up with a sort of a poetic journal at the end of my experience. I hope you enjoy it.
Up here the mountains stretch like crooked hands toward the heavens.
Gnarled and cracked, strong and enduring.
A testament to the passage of time; days rolling unnoticed, one into another.
Down there, time is marked by the passage of vehicles down the highway.
Speeding through the stretched valley, determined and oblivious.
A testament to human arrogance; each day dominated by insignificant crises.
Up here each day is Groundhog’s Day. The passage of time not marked by hours or days,
but by the accumulation of calluses; the diminishing supply of clean laundry.
Pressures of life down there fall away, and we need only to endure like the mountains.
Down there remains the siren call of real life, pulling at hearts and minds up here.
Yet once we descend, gnarled and cracked, determined and oblivious,
how long before we long to be up here again?
WELCOME TO OUR SUNDAY SERVICE
Come on up! Make yourselves at home.
Notice I didn’t say “Come on in”. You won’t find a church or temple here.
There are no doors, though there is a High Wall that seems to rise up toward the heavens.
You won’t hear bible thumping,
though if you’re lucky you may hear the bass rattle of a Pileated foraging nearby.
We don’t sing hymns at our service,
but the gentle music of our spring-fed ponds can do much to lift your spirits.
Welcome to Sunday in the Quarry!
Where we come to sweat out our sins.
If you’re feeling particularly repentant, you can carry something heavy on your back;
some trees to plant, perhaps, and a shovel.
You won’t find forgiveness here,
but you will find peace in the steady climb, and acceptance in the stoic faces of the mountains.
Stay awhile, then leave your sins with the trees.
Enjoy the lightness in your step as you descend.
We’ll see you next Sunday.
Smoke swirls through this valley and settles over us like a blanket.
Mountains obscured in a dense fog, but no moisture lingers to cool our lungs.
Fires blaze on distant hillsides, too far to cast their glow over us.
Even the sun is dim through the haze, and stars can’t penetrate this thicket.
How do you battle smoke that steals your air?
Everyone must be beautiful here.
Mother, lift your veil from off our state! Let this smoke flow off our backs!
Cry us a river to douse the flames, and breathe fresh air back into our valley!
Some of us have to work around here.
Why do people hate it here so much?
I understand the long hours,
The WHITE HOT days, the monotonous work.
Perhaps a lack of diversion to settle the mind,
Or a shortage of appropriate partners to settle the nerves?
But why not take notice of the trees?
They stand uncomplaining through long years,
Months of drought; the monotonous WHITE of winter.
Consider their paltry diversion: A hummingbird passing,
Squirrels collecting cones in their branches; a nighthawk settling in their duff.
Why not look up to the mountains?
They have no choice but to stand through long eons,
Stone bleached WHITE by the sun, uncomplaining.
What is diversion to a mountain?
Feeling the slow recession of a glacier, or the subtle shifting of tectonic plates.
It’s all a matter of perspective.
SOLAR ECLIPSE – 8/21/2017
I saw your shadow today.
A rare visit by a shy Queen,
Oft repeated but seldom seen,
A crescent halo lighting your way.
Last time you came I was but a child,
Gazing with wonder upon your face.
A different time, a different place;
Two worlds so close they must collide.
How strange to see you look so black,
When we are used to your pale glow
Lighting the darkest shadows;
The Universe alight upon your back.
How confused the birds and beasts!
Watching for the signs of night,
Befuddled by the fading light,
They bedded down for a restful sleep.
But as you slipped in, so you went:
Stealthily you packed your bags,
swiftly you were on your way,
And night’s brief toll was quickly spent.
ODE TO THE NEXT TRAVELER ON HIGHWAY 97
Oh, ye long hauler with the tired eyes, pushing your hours to reach a comfy bed;
Squeezing in those last few miles, you try to avoid stopping at a convenient head.
I understand the need to make more money; we all do what we can to pad that check.
But you aren’t the only one on the road, honey, and you’re making our highway a God-awful wreck!
Those golden bottles you chuck so casually speckle our roadsides like toxic jewels.
You might think I speak a bit radically, but I think you misunderstand The Golden Rule.
Maybe you’ve watched too much Wizard of Oz, and you’re trying to pave a Yellow Brick Road,
But those glistening bottles you fill and toss are spoiling the view from my 4-wheeled abode.
I’ve struggled to see from your point of view; I mean, stopping to pee can really suck!
But I’m sick of seeing your used Mountain Dew, so please use a Rest Area, you lazy Fuck!
This lady wears a myriad of faces, as many of us do.
She wears her resting bitch face in the winter.
Cold as ice, a snowy Shayla draped across her head and shoulders,
Her face remains exposed but unreadable.
On summer days, she puts on her social face.
Smiling up at the many boats that sprinkle her surface,
Chuckling along with the painted tourists who step onto her shores,
Her pleasant façade belies the depths beneath.
In the fall and in the spring, she wears her emotions on her face.
The wind ripples her calm demeanor, and thunderstorms flash in her eyes.
The sun might bring a temporary reprieve to her stormy mood,
But her temper lies just beneath the surface, unpredictable.
She is at her most radiant, though, of a summer night.
With stars shimmering in her cheeks, she slips on her dark dressing gown.
Lit from within by reflected moonlight, a warm breeze dancing gently across her face,
She may finally be herself: A Lady of the Night.
The wind changed direction yesterday, driving the smoke down valley.
We watched it settle in as though it meant to stay awhile,
Stretching out over the lowlands like an uninvited guest on the neighbor’s sofa;
It even brought a toothbrush.
Some days are like that.
Some wind of change moves through the valley of our lives,
And drives out the dense fog of negativity that has settled around us.
We feel it depart like breathing fresh air, then watch it stretch out across our neighbor.
Even bad luck must settle somewhere for the night.
And there is no telling what tomorrow may bring.
The wind may change again, pushing back up to fill our valley
with its heavy blanket of smoke; or perhaps with a suffocating wave of sorrow.
Who can tell what is carried on the wind?
Breathe deep this fresh air now.
Tomorrow, you may be the unlucky neighbor.