Once one really begins to look for the stories, they appear along every trail and byway. Sometimes they take you by surprise even when you aren’t looking. That happened last weekend here on the farthest NW corner of the contiguous 48 states while we were hiking one leg of the amazing loop trail from Lake Ozette to the the coast. We stumbled upon the remains of a homestead after meandering through the Ewok country of the Olympic National Park.
Stumbled is not a mere literary affectation. While we were hiking west, nearly to Cape Alava, a young couple told us of the homestead just off the boardwalk. On our return we looked for the small opening leading north off the main trail. It wasn’t obvious, but a narrow path did appear. Looking more like an animal trail at first, we were a little uncertain that we’d found what we sought. We had just heard a bull elk bugle off to the south making us a little jumpy about trekking too far off the trail. After a few steps, the ground showed clear signs of recent human tracks.
Expecting the “homestead” to be little more than ruins, we nearly turned back. Then, through the trees, the structure rose up like the “Shack” from novel and movie fame. Creepy and wonderful at the same time, it invited investigation so we made our way up the gentle rise to the front door. Our first thoughts were to marvel at Washington’s seemingly casual attitude toward allowing the public to explore such historic sites. No fences surrounded the one-story building and only one small sign gave us stern warning not to deface the property.
What remains of Lars Ahlstrom’s shack at the edge of the prairie is a single room with loft. History reports he had a fine house once, but it was destroyed by a fire that grew out-of-control when his friend and neighbor attempted to clear the prairie of brush. The forest is reclaiming the land, encroaching on the house walls. But it stands quite confident in itself. Such a discovery for a writer is the stuff of inspiration. My stories have been rooted in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Until seeing the house and since learning of the history of this area there was little to inspire my muse. This Scandinavian community thrived at the same time as the stories I’m writing. I can imagine it now.
And there were love stories.
Of course, there were. Faith, hope and love are interwoven into the human experience. At one time, the land surrounding Ozette was home to not only the Makah but 130 homesteaders. They thrived in relative isolation, clearing the land by burning trees and brush, growing crops and raising livestock. By the time they abandoned their dreams and left the lake community, they had constructed a church, a school, three post offices and stores. All came to an end when in 1909 President Theodore Roosevelt decreed the land should be used as part of the Mount Olympus National Monument.
But the love story? That is worthy of further research. Conflicting reports exist of the mysterious disappearance of handsome boat-builder, Alfred Nyland. The accounts of the discovery of his skeleton eleven years later agree, but the reason for his sudden departure vary. One report explains how his boat was found floating in Erikson Bay after his disappearance in April. The story proposes that he lost his way as he returned home through the woods. It’s certainly plausible when one sees the density of the forest.
The second report includes the personal tragedy of a love for a woman who rejected Alfred’s offer of marriage. Some suggest that sorrow sent him into the woods to seek consolation. Those who know the answer are forever silent. The fact that he was found, back against that tree with his hand over his chest, makes one wonder. Did he die of a broken heart as this story proposes?
Love and loss – dreams and failed expectations – hardship and courage. All are strong elements for story and character arcs. Heady stuff for a writer’s soul.
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Strong Like Wyoming
A war to win, a promise to keep, a heart to reawaken
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