I tend to think of mossy realms as existing only where the rains are plentiful and dampness settles across the landscape in misty layers. But there are mossy realms everywhere, even in extremely dry places.
I recently spent 12 days above the Okanogan valley, near the small town of Tonasket Washington (north central Washington, about 17 miles from the Canadian border), where we have a 20 acre parcel of unimproved timberland in the Okanogan Highlands between Mount Annie, Bannon and Tunk mountains. The area boasts 300 plus days a year of sunshine and there are summer days when the temperatures reach well above the 100 mark. Winters can be snowy, frigid – and often quite magical.
The land is rugged, remote. Although electricity is available, it is costly and many people living above the valley have chosen to stay “off the grid” with the use of solar power, generators, composting toilets or outhouses. Once off the main highways or paved secondary roads, driving is generally slow on wash-boardy gravel, then degrading in jolts and jostles to narrow dirt roads that are full of deep ruts and pot-holes, often with home-made signs pointing the way. There is no cell service where we are, other than an iffy spot on a steep hilltop we have to hike to where sometimes we can get a single bar – but only if the cloud cover is just right, the wind isn’t blowing too hard and you have the ability to stand without moving even an inch. It is 30 miles from our property gate to the town of Tonasket but we are lucky to have a tiny general store nearby, open 7 days a week, run by a wonderful couple. “Nearby” is about 12 miles down the hill from us. The store in relation to our property is considered extremely close in terms of most parcels in the highlands.
Some of the nicest people I have ever met have made the decision to live in this wild seclusion. People who are incredibly hardy, capable pioneers, neighbors who wave when you meet them on the road and stop to make sure you’re ok if you have pulled over. People check on each other and willingly lend a hand.
The land itself is stunning, wild in a way the coast simply can’t be. These are the foothills of the Cascade Mountains where wild flowers bob in high breezy meadows, where open ponderosa forest gives way to dramatic granite cliffs that rise from the steep hillsides. It is dynamic terrain where sweeping bedrock domes, exposed by thousands of year’s erosion, hump up from the earth like the bald scalp of some buried giant. These are the vast expanses where elk, deer, black bear, moose, wolves, coyotes and even herds of wild horses roam, where lichen covered boulders lay everywhere in interesting jumbled piles providing protection for small mammals, lizards and snakes, and where old fallen trees, mummified in the dry heat, create beautiful gnarly sculptures in meadows, on rocky ledges and under stands of pine and tamarack.
And there is even moss here! Mossy, ferny shady places, thick olive blankets of it covering sections of rocky outcroppings, or in long sheets down smooth rock walls like the cascade of a fuzzy green-brown waterfall. There are hairy tufts of neon moss clinging to gray weathered wood and crisp black patches dried on the sunny rock faces where there is no shade. There are long brown strands of beard moss dripping from the lower branches of ponderosa, as if clumps of fur from some mammoth beast were left snagged on the bottom limbs as it meandered through the forest.
It is always difficult to leave the Okanogan. There is something about the solitude and rustic beauty that resonates deep in my soul. Every visit leaves me with renewed gratitude for the two worlds I get to inhabit, traveling in a single day from the cool damp-misty, to the jagged, dehydrated, dusty. As always, I return to the coast carrying a heart full of coarse-craggy, dry wind etched, wildflower nodding adoration.
Mossy whispers: There is softness to be discovered even in the stony and the rugged. Consider leaving the convenience of pavement. The bumpiest roads can lead to the most amazing places.