Oso: A village waiting to grieve

OSO, Wash. – Driving up the north fork of the Stillaguamish River valley in the pouring rain it almost feels like the road is shifting beneath my wheels. The ribbon of macadam seems to flow with the land, but not because it was laid down that way. The valley is wide and flat and fertile and malleable. Fantastic farmland fed with mountain nutrients from hundreds of years of seasonal floods.

Last weekend a landslide the size of a small moon rolled down a hillside, across the Stillaguamish, and flattened over 50 homes and structures. It was a Saturday morning. Most people were home.

I drive straight through the village of Oso without noticing. I am eventually pulled up short by a Snohomish County Sherrif’s cruiser blocking the road out of town. They politely get me turned around and pointed away from my goal. I am so busy cursing that I almost fail to notice Oso again on the way back through.

Oso is not much to look at so it would be easy to miss. There are a scattering of homes. Some few look affluent and well kept. Many others look hard worn, or stand empty or boarded, and there is the odd trailer home. Off the main drag is an odd mix of shabby fishing cabins near the river and large posh horse farms closer to the hills. A general store stands in the center of town, but the windows are dark and a For Sale sign hangs in the window. Oso has the look of a town on the brink. And that was before the disaster.

After driving through a few too many turns I end up back facing the same sheriff’s cruiser again. The officer standing in the rain eyes me suspiciously from under his plastic-covered Stetson. I wave and turn back into town again. What to do?

I end up parked opposite the old Oso Chapel. It looks like it was built and repaired by a town committee over generations. It stands right up against the roadway and seems to be leaning in all directions at once. A new looking Stars and Stripes hangs out front though. And an even newer looking cross made of flowers stands in the car park. On the side of the church a notice reads. COMMUNITY MEETING TONIGHT – COME SHARE AND PRAY WITH US. As good a first sketch as anything I have seen. If nothing else it will keep me out of trouble with the cops.

Over the next couple of hours as I draw, an intermittent stream of ambulances, police cars, fire engines and logging trucks barrel past. A mother and two pre-teen girls pull up and stand in front of the flowered crucifix for a few minutes. The rain falls steadily. Someone – the pastor? – comes out of the chapel and checks the mailbox. Then he stops and straightens the flag, which has stuck to itself because of the wet. A succession of TV camera crews come and videotape the cross against the white walls of the chapel before running back to their fancy vans. The rain falls steadily. A pair of Blackhawk helicopters thunder up the valley barely visible in drab green against the drab green of the hills behind. In the long gaps between vehicles it is eerily quiet — like the whole town is waiting. An old lady comes and pins a note to the crucifix. Crows call steadily to one another. And it rains.

The evening meeting is packed. I tuck myself against one wall and try not to sketch the journalists. I figure we are about 30 percent of the congregation. Pastor Gary Ray speaks. It was the pastor earlier with the mail and the flag. He offers a short prayer and thanks everyone for coming. He tells the group that once all of the dead have been counted they will find time to mourn and organize proper remembrance. For now though there are other issues. “I am glad that you are all here,” he says. It hangs in the air.

After a moment the pastor gives the floor over to the audience to offer their fears, suggestions or experiences. Over the next hour the people who are Oso talk openly about their individual concerns, and one by one, they are shouldered by the community, or a solution is found by someone in the group. It is heartening stuff. Many of the men sport road-beaten Carhartt clothing and have hands like brown leather shovels. Many of the women have laugh creases around their steel blue eyes and dirt under their nails. There is a lot of God in the air, but not in the evangelical way — more in a predictable, comfortable, useful way. Like a good tool in tired worn hands. There now because they need him now, but always kept handy. The whole scene reminds me of Rockwell’s “Freedom of Speech” painting. These are the idealized God-fearing, hard working, salt-of-the-earth backbone of the country people that you see in murals.

One woman in her 60s tells that group that she has been sleeping in a friend’s barn since being forced by the slide to evacuate her home — that is what they call it, “the slide”. She is too frightened to return to her home because of a potential “slide” dam burst. The offers of help roll in fast.

I sketch as they talk, but this is far more difficult than drawing motionless people on the train. I can’t honestly say that I captured any of these people accurately but hopefully seen as a group some of their strength and grief will come through.

After a chorus of Amazing Grace they all exit into the darkness and the rain. Alone. Together.

Got a question? Ask me. richard.johnson@washpost.com
Want to see more of my work www.newsillustrator.com

Richard is a field artist and visual journalist and works as a senior graphics editor at The Washington Post.
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