DARRINGTON, Wash. – On a sunshine/downpour day, I stood leaning against a fence at the Darrington Rodeo grounds, attempting to draw flood-rescued horses. The rodeo stands on the road that would normally lead westward up the Stillaguamish River valley to the village of Oso. That was before a mudslide wiped the road, some fifty or so homes, and possibly the same number of lives off the map.
In the near distance I can hear the sound of chainsaws. FEMA are setting up in the next field over. It starts to rain lightly.
Darrington is a much larger town than Oso, and it has a slightly more affluent feel. A massive log processing plant on the Sauk River provides employment for a good chunk of the community of about 1,300. The Gold Nugget “Guns, Ammo, Jewelry & Loan” store stands at the main crossroad – a testament to the not entirely stable economics. The town is surrounded by farmland, sloping quickly to forest and then snow-covered mountains. There are buffalo and bison in some of the fields; abandoned vehicles in others. Kids ride dirt bikes along the sides of the road. There are seven places of worship. At the cemetery on the road to the rodeo ground, the flags hang at half-mast.
The horses all seem a little exhausted and dejected, but maybe I am reading too much into that. Horses always look that way when left out in the rain. Yet static as they are, they remain frustratingly challenging to draw. Is that a knee? An ankle? A heel? In the end, I stop trying to figure out the anatomy and just draw the shapes. The bulky plaid jackets they are wearing don’t make it any easier. But even with this technique, just as I get close to drawing enough of one, it decides some other feedbag might have better grass and moseys over there instead. Eventually I just settle by one feedbag and let the horses queue up to have their portraits done. The horses all wear coats and bored looks, but other than that, they are all different — tall, short, wide, dark, light.
The sun comes out. Two teenage girls are out in the middle of the paddock walking the horses in turn. They seem happy and devoid of cares. A teenage boy in a plain, sleeveless undershirt throws a toy football for a big golden Labrador, which takes off like a rocket across the wet grass.
Focused on the sketching, I don’t even notice Mike Andrews when he first arrives and leans against the fence beside me.
Mike is a matter-of-fact bloke. Originally from Michigan, he met his true love out here and settled on an idyllic piece of property by the river. We chat for the next half hour or so — about hockey, and kids and wives and the like — in that order. These are all Mike’s horses. He rescued all seven of them from the rising floodwaters the afternoon after the slide.
Mike and his daughter, Lilianna, set off for a doctor’s appointment in Seattle that morning. They drove west along the Oso road less than 10 minutes before the hillside shifted. Oblivious, he got a call from a friend later to ask whether he was okay. “At first I wasn’t too worried because most of the images just showed a small portion of road covered in dirt. Then I started seeing reports that the river was blocked,” he said. For Mike, living east of the slide, this was a problem.
Mike and his daughter drove for nearly three hours to detour around the blocked route, only to be turned back by police a mile from home. “They said ‘We can’t let you through because of the uncertainty of the area,’ ” Mike said.
Undeterred, Mike and daughter, with the help of a friend’s local knowledge, circumvented the police barricade to get to his property. “When we got there I could see the water coming through the woods. But we got four horses loaded and got them out.” They dropped the horses at the rodeo ground. Then with the help of another couple they made another trip to get the remaining three horses out. “At that point I really didn’t think we could,” Mike said.
When they returned to the property Mike’s driveway was under six feet of water. “My daughter and another girl saddled up two of the horses and rode them through the water … to the highway … and that is how we rescued the next three,” he said.
I had previously visited the fringe of Mike’s farm with Brian McMahan, the assistant fire chief of the Mukilteo Fire Department. The highway was still awash in about a foot of gray water. Urban search and rescuers in muddied wetsuits trudged away from the mudslide slope through the gray pool. The slope had shifted again, and they were withdrawing for safety. Only the roof of Mike’s barn was visible above the floodwater. They had been very close to losing their horses and had risked themselves saving them — truly remarkable stuff.
The two teenage girls in the field take on a completely new cast when I realize it was likely these two who rode the horses through the flood.
For now, Mike and family are waiting to see what happens next, unable to, but lucky to have the option of, returning to their home by the river. “Just the vast scope of moving the earth and trying to create a route through there is just unreal,” he says. “This is going to be long-term thing.”
Even without a roof over their heads, Mike and his family continue to look after their horses out here at the rodeo grounds. The girls wander over, and I offer to do a glamour sketch of Tippy, her unbroken horse, for Lilianna — the horse rescuer. I’ll mail her the original sketch when they eventually have their stable, home and address back again.
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