Heart’s Gold, a Story of Monte Cristo Ghost Town


h 01 entrance to monte
Monte Cristo in the 1890s, showing the end of the line for the Everett & Monte Cristo Railroad

In 1987, the Everett & Monte Cristo Railroad deposits Melinda Mcrea at the end of the line, a rough little mining town high in Washington’s North Cascade Mountains. Monte Cristo’s jumble of unpainted board buildings crowd a tilted triangle of land. Rugged peaks pierce the sky. From their heights echo the blasting of tunnels.

Optimistically, early prospectors named the area after the wealthy Count of Monte Cristo in a popular book by Alexander Dumas. Their town is doomed to struggle from the start by its wild, remote location, the ill-chosen route of the railroad, a poorly-timed recession, and most of all by the vagaries of weather as wild and untamed as the location.

But Monte Cristo refuses to give up. Each spring, crews repair the flood-damaged railroad and mining goes on. Hopes for a bonanza are still high in 1897, although a country-wide depression is devastating Everett, the town planned by Rockefeller and other Eastern financiers to become the center of a burgeoning West Coast empire. The ore from Monte Cristo is  part of their plans.

Melinda unwillingly postpones her dream of education in order to help support her family. She becomes involved in the life of the town while filling in as temporary schoolteacher.

Despite her vow to never marry a miner, she finds herself attracted to Cornish mine captain Quin Chenoweth, the uncle of her young friend Evan. When Evan and other boys get lost in the depths of a mine, she helps Quin search for them. Labor discord leads to an “accident” that nearly kills Quin and his crew, causing her to realize the depth of her feelings for him.

Then autumn rains bring a deluge that once more destroys the railroad. When the Eastern financiers decide to recoup their investments, upheaval for the citizens of Monte Cristo is complete. Is Monte Cristo finished? And how will Melinda solve the conflict between her dreams and her love for Quin?

Heart’s Gold is Book One of Monte Cristo Memories, the true story of Monte Cristo. Melinda, Quin and the other characters exist only in the author’s and reader’s imaginations, but they represent the real people who experienced the story.

Heart’s Gold by Joan Rawlins Husby is now available on amazon.com.

Sun Breaks

This is the post excerpt.

(Archived Sun Breaks blogposts are now included in Rain Song Diaries.)


When the sun breaks through a rip in the clouds and floods the vistas with golden light, heads go up and lungs expand. It’s like a mini-vacation, a kiss of beauty from the heavens, a note of encouragement that brighter days are coming. I hope these posts will be “Sun Breaks” for your soul.


Turning Back Time on the Mountain Loop Highway

Hank and Sauk Mountain along the Mountain Loop

When the sun came out on the first Thursday in November after weeks of rain, we realized our annual drive around the Mountain Loop Highway, one of Washington State’s most scenic and historic byways hadn’t yet happened. We decided it was then or never. Within weeks, snow would likely close the road for the winter. We grabbed some snacks and a thermos of coffee and headed east on Highway 530 toward Darrington.

A rain-soaked, steaming world awaited us, but White Horse and Three Fingers Mountains stood brilliant in new snow against blue skies. Beyond the nearer mountains, we even glimpsed massive Glacier Peak, its volcanic slopes glistening like a mound of ice cream .

After a stand-up picnic at Squire Creek Campground, one of our favorite picnic spots, we turned south at Darrington. Almost immediately we left civilization behind and soon reached the start of an unpaved dirt road that would connect us with the western leg of the loop at Barlow Pass.

Rain forest moss shrouds the trees
Sword fern decorated for fall

We drove through rainforest that burgeons with life and decay at the same time. The greenest of moss wraps standing trees like untidy mummies. On the forest floor, it blankets rotting logs among gardens of sword fern. Between the last leaves clinging to maples and alders, vistas of mountains and the wild Sauk River, hidden from sight in the summer, now revealed themselves.

Dozens of large and small creeks tumbled down the steep slopes, sometimes only yards apart. We drove through spots where recent rock slides had spilled down the mountain and across the road.

Sections of the route badly needed grading . . . for long stretches the road was pitted with large, water-filled potholes. We couldn’t guess how deep they were, so we had to pick our way through a slow obstacle course to find the least jarring route. We also dodged broken trees and downed branches.

Old Man’s Beard glitters with raindrops and steam rises in the sun

In the hour or more it took us to travel the approximately fourteen miles of unpaved road, we saw only four other vehicles. We were especially glad to meet no oncoming traffic at two places where the flooding Sauk had, in years past, washed the road completely away, causing a closure of five years. Crews cut new roadbed, the width of a vehicle, into the rock cliff and the Mountain Loop Highway reopened in 2008. Those rebuilt stretches were now pocked with potholes upon potholes. The river boiled menacingly below us, but we made it safely across.

Sauk River scenes

Twilight had fallen when we reached Barlow Pass, where the railroad once ran from the Stillaguamish Valley up the last few miles to the 1890s’ mining town of Monte Cristo.

Fog rising below Big Four Mountain

Would we go again so late in the season? Yes. In summer, more people drive the route, and many drive too fast for the narrow, twisting road. They stir up dust that coats the roadside greenery. Autumn rains bring a new perspective, a different beauty. It’s easy to imagine how it might have felt to be a miner following the original wagon road to Monte Cristo.

Should you go? Yes, if you have a sturdy, dependable vehicle that won’t easily bottom out on rocks or potholes. Yes, if you’re willing to take your time and drive carefully. You can check weather and road conditions at the Verlot Public Service Center or the Darrington Ranger Station. Pack some food and warm clothing. Let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to be back.

Then enjoy a one-of-a-kind autumn adventure.

Microbursts, Sneaky and Dangerous

Damage resulting from a microburst near Butte, Montana in 1999
According to Green Gables General Store owner Edith Farrell, who runs
the information center near Granite Falls on the Mountain Loop Highway,
microbursts are common storms in our Washington State mountains.
A number of years ago, wind felled a patch of trees on both sides of the Mountain Loop Highway, near Big Four Mountain. As years went by, their bleaching trunks lay pointing west, as if pushed over by a mighty hand. Each time we passed them, I wondered why so many had fallen simultaneously in one small area. It looked as if a powerful but short-lived wind had blasted through, toppling everything in its path.

As I found out, that’s exactly what happened. In a microburst a bubble of cold air drops rapidly from the clouds and bursts like a water balloon when it hits the ground, sending winds at speeds of up to 100 mph or more racing outward from the center. In dry climates, the storm might be invisible except for the dust kicked up as the winds shoot out from the point of impact. In more humid climates, it may be accompanied by thunder and rain.

Until Edith mentioned microbursts, I had no idea that the trees near Big Four had been destroyed by such a storm. And yet, microbursts are relatively frequent, occurring ten times more frequently than tornadoes.

Any strong winds descending from showers or thunderstorms are called downbursts. A microburst is a downburst covering an area of 2 1/2 miles or less in diameter. If the storm is larger it’s called a macroburst. Microbursts’ small size and short duration make them hard to predict. That’s why I call them sneaky.

You can differentiate a downburst’s damage from that caused by a tornado. In a tornado, winds spiral upward into the storm, leaving a swirling pattern of damage. In a microburst, the wind blasts downward, then outward. The pattern of damage lies in straight lines, which is why they are called straight-line winds.

In 2007, a macroburst with straight-line winds of 120 mph felled long swaths of timber along Highway 101 near Grays Harbor on the Washington coast. We drove through that area the following spring, and saw hundreds of acres littered with trees like toothpicks spilled from their container. This spring, in 2016, a new forest had sprung up. Only the broken stumps of the older forest poked through.



Broken trunks from the storm of 2007 rise above the new forest.

Microbursts are particularly dangerous for aircraft since the storms’ small size make them difficult for pilots to detect. Wind shear, a radical shift in wind speed and direction that occurs over a very short distance, has been perhaps the biggest cause of weather-related plane crashes.

The following graphic, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
illustrates what happens when a pilot unwittingly flies into the wind shear inside a downburst. As the plane encounters the winds rolling outward andupward, the plane is briefly lifted up by increasing airflow over the wings. Then the sudden shift of wind speed and direction slows and drops the plane.
Before the pilot can adequately increase airspeed, the plane collides with the ground.

Our friend Dave Penz, former director of the Kako Retreat Center in western Alaska, had a frightening experience one day on the Center’s airstrip, within a few hundred feet of his own front door. Following the annual retreat for bush village educators, he took off with three teachers aboard. They were barely aloft when a microburst hit them. The plane lifted momentarily as the front of the air current rolled under them, but as they flew into the tail wind, the plane plummeted into the evergreens lining the airstrip. One tree sheared off a wing and the tail. The rest of the plane caught on the next tree and slid to the ground, landing upright on all three wheels. Except for bumps and bruises, no one was hurt.

There have been no downburst-caused commercial plane crashes in the decades since improved weather detection systems have been installed at major airports and on commercial planes. But downbursts, whether micro- or macro-, are sneaky and dangerous. They are nothing to fool with.

photo credit: Trees blown down by a burst 1 via photopin (license)

A Downburst from the Inside Out

In the heart of the storm

Downburst: a strong downward current of air from a cumulonimbus cloud, usually associated with intense rain or a thunderstorm.

See Sun Breaks for 7/11/16 (Microbursts, Dangerous and Sneaky)

We’d been following Highway 2 that morning through Alberta’s high, rolling fields of grain and canola. The land lifted gradually toward the Rocky Mountains in the west. Somewhere east of Crow’s Nest Pass in neighboring British Columbia, high in open hills, thunder suddenly exploded above us. A thick murk blotted out the light. Along with it came a downpour that the wipers couldn’t clear.

We groped our way to the side of the road along with other blinded drivers, marveling as bigger and bigger hailstones joined the rain crashing down on us. I opened the door to try to grab a picture.

Water and hail churning the torrent pouring down the road

Water and hail churned into the air six inches or more above the torrent pouring across the road. I spent the next few minutes drying myself and the interior of the car and collecting hailstones from the floor. Then it was over and we joined the rest of the vehicles making our way gingerly through thick slush on the highway. A few hundred feet further on the road was sunny and dry!

In all the noise and excitement, we didn’t notice any wind. But if we were right in the center of a descending downburst, as I think we were, would we have noticed the usual wind barreling outward? Until someone tells me otherwise, I’m convinced we’d been caught in the very center of a mountain microburst.

Hail floating on the road

Proceeding with caution

Hail…melting fast

Storm over

Summer Camp, Kako, Alaska Style

Kako Retreat Center and the Yukon in the distance

I haven’t posted about Kako recently, but the work is carrying on after the homegoing of director Dave Penz two years ago. That’s in spite of huge challenges hurled one after the other at new director, Dave’s son Jonathan Penz, and the staff. The latest happened just prior to the first camping session of the summer, when lightening set the forest ablaze. The fire burned through tall black spruce to within 6 1/2 miles of Kako Retreat Center. Smoke jumpers set up camp on the runway and started clearing brush away from the Center. But they didn’t think they could save the surrounding forest, which is what makes the place so attractive to visitors from the treeless tundra villages.

The word went out to pray. God sent rain last Thursday to dampen the fire, and more rain the next day, which quenched the last of the flames.

(For readers who don’t know, Kako is located near the village of Russian Mission, on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in western Alaska. The nearest connecting road is 400 miles away. Transportation is by bush plane, and fuel for all energy needs comes via barge on the Yukon River.)

Guest blogger Jeanne Rodkey, Jonathan’s sister, grew up in bush villages. She gave permission to reprint this letter, which offers her insights into the native culture. She also gives us a glimpse into running a summer camp in far western Alaska.

From Jeanne: Hello, everyone.
Although John and I are no longer at Kako, we keep in close contact to hear what is happening next!

Week One of Kids Camps at Kako is underway with 51 elementary age campers from twelve different villages. This number is high for Kako Kids Camps, because usually we have just two airplanes to pick up campers from multiple villages. But this week, we have one additional airplane and extra pilots available from MATA, Missionary Aviation Training Academy, based out of the Seattle, Washington area. This organization has been helping get kids to and from camp at Kako for many years. Flying in bush Alaska is great training for their pilots interested in mission aviation. Thus, they get real mission experience and we get extra transportation help, so it’s a win-win!

Children at Kako with staff and pilots  Photo: Gordon Bakke

To see pictures on their website from their pilots at Kako, go to their website at http://www.mata-usa.org/  The two little smiling girl passengers pictured are very cute and give you a good idea of the thrill it is for these children to get to come to camp! You can also see a picture of a young pilot helping with a repair at one of Kako’s cabins and another of  him cooking up pancakes in Kako’s kitchen.   [To find the picture, go to the website and notice a box in the lower right hand corner — you might have to page down a bit – that says Facebook ‘like’ pages]

Valuing native culture at Kako
Because the native people of Alaska speak English, and mostly dress the same as we do, it’s easy to think that there are no cultural differences. But as all cultures do, each one has parts that are unique to them. A big part of any culture is the food. The Alaskan native culture is based on eating the local animals and fish so it’s always been a normal part of Kako life.

One of the ways that the native culture was given value at Family Camp two weeks ago was including foods that they love. Not only did we have native foods such as moose and salmon as part of the menu as Kako always does, but we also had native people assisting with making these favorite native foods:

Moose soup.
Fry bread
Fish head soup

This came about because it just so happened (which mom always said showed God’s presence in the background) that I was in the kitchen when the cook, Sarah, wondered aloud how she could be sure that she would be cooking Moose Soup authentically and also how she’d be able to make Fry Bread for the one hundred plus people!?! Some time later, I met an Eskimo couple, Joe and Florence, over lunch where I learned that Joe just absolutely loved to cook, and that his specialty was fry bread! It was an easy thing then to introduce them to Sarah.  I  got to see huge smiles from Joe and Florence over the idea of them getting to help cook and as well as a huge sigh of relief from Sarah! Later, another Kako guest asked if he could make fish head soup with the left over salmon heads from the salmon that was going to be baked, and when Sarah gave him a green light, there were other happy smiles as well over that addition to the menu! [Just for the record, I did not taste that soup, but I did enjoy very much the moose soup and fry bread!]


Photo: Gordon Bakke

How to say ‘Yes’ native style 
As a child growing up in the bush, it was a fairly quick thing to learn that my friends didn’t say ‘Yes’, like one normally does, when asked a question, but instead would raise their eyebrows to indicate a yes.

Back in Alaska this May, I realized I had forgotten my childhood training. I had asked a question and not hearing an answer looked more closely at the person’s face for an explanation, and realized my listener’s eyebrows had gone up. Oh! Right!I

My school teacher friend, Jim, who teaches in the bush,  says that this eyebrow lifting response is difficult in a classroom situation. He has to encourage hand raising or has to switch to his long distance glasses so he can see if the child’s eyebrows are going up or not. He says that his students often remind him to ‘wear your other glasses’ so that he can see their eyebrow responses.

The way of saying ‘No’ is more subtle, a slight shaking of the head, but so slight, that one needs to confirm by glancing at the person’s eyebrows so see that they are not raised. This is so because saying no, often could be offensive or disappointing to the listener.

The Alaskan native cultures are more closely connected with Asian cultures in their preference for indirect communication. As you may know, the person from this cultural background places a value on saying to their listener what their listener wants to hear. This concept is invaluable to know when one is communicating about a topic where accurate listener response is critical, such as matters of faith. Instead of responding with a yes just to make us happy, we give the listener time to absorb the information and then to ask for more information when interested and ready for more.

As a result of this, we’ve always been careful to have this sharing about God’s Good News done in way that communicates the good news in a culturally sensitive way.. both with using illustrations that are familiar and with allowing the camper to seek out more information as desired.
Additionally, a key part of each week of camp is on Thursday evening — the last night of camp – when a native pastor gets to share with the kids about his faith in God and God’s love for them as well. Having him share with the campers is very important for communicating to them that faith in God is not a ‘white man’s religion’ but relevant to their people.

Camp at Kako brings fun for the kids in all the traditional ways that summer camps offer — games, activities, new friends. But the main goal is for these children to hear that God loves them and cares for them and that they can choose to be His own.

As you think of the campers, pray that they will follow up on their internal responses to that Good News that is happening in their hearts, and that they will share with their cabin leader/counselor about what they are thinking.

     Barge off loading fuel for Kako.  Gordon Bakke photo

Cookies out of fuel!
You have read before about the need for help in paying for Kako’s fuel. The high cost of fuel is mind boggling to be sure. The barge this month will be delivering Kako’s order of aviation gas,  the fall barge brings diesel, and the combined cost is over one hundred thousand dollars! Add to that tally is the cost for propane for the cooking stoves and it all costs so much. Is it worth it? We believe it to be so.

As you probably know, relationships developed with loving staff at camp can open a child’s heart to God in a way that can positively change their life. Additionally, it can make a connection for the child’s whole extended family to be interested in coming to Kako to learn more about God too, and can even make an opening for future connections for a whole village! Kako’s long term goal includes helping people of the Delta reach their own people for Christ. We desire for them to have a faith in God strong enough to help them withstand pressures and temptation for alcohol and drug use and offer hope against suicide as they grow into the teen and young adult years.

When you choose to help with Kako’s fuel costs, you are not just helping buy fuel but you are partnering with Kako’s total ministry.

Take for example, the cookies that are made for camp. The ingredients, flour, sugar, and chocolate chips, are flown to Kako, which requires aviation fuel. The cook needs electricity to make up the cookies in the big mixer, which depends on diesel to run the generator, and then the stove fuel (propane) is required to bake the cookies.  Kako requires all three kinds of fuel and enough for the full year, which comes the most economical way, by barge in the summer. Fuel is the ‘life blood’ for running Kako and must be paid for on delivery. The first fuel barge is coming soon. Would you like to help?

for the whole Kako team

If you would like to help, send a check to
Kako Retreat Center
Box 29
Russian Mission, AK 99657

Also, giving is available at their website:


For more about Kako Retreat Center, search for the following posts on Sun Breaks:
6/18/14 Making Good Use of Resources at Kako
9/1/13 Ladies’ Berry Picking Retreat at Kako   
8/28/13 Kako’s Beginnings
8/22/13 We’re at Kako!   

8/9/13 Adventure Ahead in Kako   

7/29/13 Two Heroes   

Only One Life

This month, the high school seniors of 2016 are launching into adulthood. It’s their season of profundities and pontifications, of mortar boards sailing through the air, of hard-earned diplomas, of inner quavering. “I’ve graduated. I’m done with school. What do I do now?”

Traditionally, high school classes have chosen mottos to live by, some silly, some far-reaching.
The other day while driving through a small town, we saw a big signboard on which the local class of ’16 had posted their motto: “Only one life, right? Don’t blow it!”

The thought was right on.

How many young people let the months coast by without a thought that some day they’ll run out of time?

How many older people look back at their unfulfilled dreams and think with regret about their wasted years?

In our retirement community, the people who are most satisfied and joyful are those who’ve devoted their lives to what they feel is a high purpose. It might have been staying at home to raise children. It might have meant faithfully sticking with a less-than-ideal job in order to care for one’s family. When people know that God has called them to a specific task or tasks, there is no satisfaction higher than accomplishing that task.

My mother had a small picture on the wall, which we children passed every time we went up or down the stairs. A silhouetted woman in an old-fashioned hoopskirt sat at a spinning wheel. Above her was lettered,
    “Only one life.
    ’Twill soon be past.
    Only what’s done for Christ
    will last.”
          —Charles Thomas Studd (1860-1931)

Once upon a time, spinning yarn was a time-consuming but essential, daily task. Even in silhouette, that woman looked so content and satisfied, she made an impression on me that’s lasted through the decades. Whether she was real, whether she even had a name, she wasn’t blowing her life. She was doing—and doing well—the task she was given.

Whatever the life God gives each student in this year’s crop of young people, we who love them pray that they’ll realize early that they get only one chance to live the moments of their lives. May they live those moments well, in accordance with God’s good plan for them. Don’t blow it, graduates!

photo credit: As The World Keeps Turning … via photopin (license)

The Rufous Hummers are Back!

A male, showing the typical rufous coloring and the white eyespot of both sexes.

    Hank and I were sipping coffee on our deck the other morning when my heart jolted into my throat. A miniature buzz bomb whizzed past my ear, reversed course, and zipped back to an evergreen shrub near the steps. Had a smaller buzz registered a split second earlier? Yes, it had.

Female Rufous, with rufous sides, green back, and speckled throat.

    The maker of the outsize noise hovered next to the bush, vibrating wings a blur. The copper-colored body glowed orange as a firebrand in the sunlight. Its iridescent throat flashed red; its fan of black and green tail feathers and its head curved together in a backward C. The display must have been irresistible to the little female perched in the bush. She dropped to the ground, her green back and white belly glistening, her long black bill tilted upward. She gazed adoringly as any teenager while her magnificent suitor swung, pendulum-like, above her.

    It was one of God’s jewel-moments and it lasted only a few seconds. When I made a slight movement, both birds flashed away.

    The rufous hummingbirds had returned to the Pacific Northwest. These medium-sized, feisty hummers are noted for their lengthy migration route. Our visitors had probably spent the winter in Mexico or the southern U.S., but their breeding grounds are to the west of the Rockies, from Oregon to southern Alaska. In the fall, they migrate through the Rockies and back to their wintering grounds. They play an important part in pollinating plants year-round throughout this vast habitat.

    Like all hummingbirds, the Rufous feed on nectar and tiny insects which they either catch in flight or steal from spider webs. They breed as far north as Alaska, more northerly than any other hummingbird. The female constructs her thimble-sized nest of soft plant materials held together with strands of spider web. She adds a layer of moss and decorates it with camoflaging flakes of lichen. She feeds her young by placing her long bill into their throats and regurgitating a mixture of nectar and insects.

    A rufous hummingbird weighs only about as much as a penny and a half but it’s among the most pugnacious of hummers. It will chase away other hummingbirds, even those that weigh twice as much, from any feeder or patch of flowers it considers its territory.

    Rufous hummingbirds are a fascinating example of the adaptability and variety of the creatures with whom we share the world. And because of the huge territory they cover during the year, they need our help in protecting places where they can feed and nest.

Photos courtesy of Photobucket

Never Too Late for Romance

    It’s never too late for romance. Though young people may find this idea incredible, we never get over the longing for someone special in our lives, no matter our age.

    I don’t know how old Nellie Johansen is, but her face still reflects the blond, blue-eyed Nordic beauty of her youth. She’s tall, slender, and impeccably dressed. She walks her accustomed mile each day, rain or shine, even though she now depends on a walker to keep her balance. Recently she began a program of water aerobics to build her strength. She does everything with a positive, smiling attitude that draws others in.

    Our senior community is a happy place to live, although nearly every month there are memorial services for members who have finished their earthly journey. Many people here carry a burden of loss. Nellie herself recently said goodbye to her husband of many years. She moved into a smaller unit in the community but continues to be a part of as many activities as she can.

    One evening in April she came to the dining room alone and asked if she could join us at our table. We were soon engaged in cheerful small talk, but Nellie had something on her mind. “Did you know Orville James?” she asked.

    We’d seen him, a distinguished looking man who always seemed alert and ready with a quip. “He passed away Sunday,” Nellie said. “He was 99 years old.” Obviously Nellie needed to talk about him. “I had a date with him for Tuesday, last night.”

    A date? I had to know more.

    “He had invited me to go with him to the Sweetheart Breakfast on Valentine’s Day,” she said. “It was almost a year since I lost my husband and I guess Orville remembered that. The invitation really lifted my spirits.”

    They’d arrived at the breakfast early and took seats at a table for eight. They conversed for a while, although Orville had had throat surgery that left him barely able to speak above a whisper. He communicated mostly by writing notes. “But I could understand him,” Nellie said proudly.

    Then six ladies walked in, looked around, and sat down at their table. Orville wrote a note that Nellie passed around. “I’ll be the escort and helper for all of the ladies at the table.” A flutter of pleasure greeted the reading of the note, and true to his word, Orville saw to it that each lady had what she needed.

    Nellie teased him about having all those dates. “But I was the one whose breakfast he paid for,” she said.

    Shortly afterward nominations were being taken for “Volunteer of the Year.” Nellie planned to nominate Orville for the way he’d taken care of his “harem” at the Sweetheart Breakfast, but she arrived late to the meeting and nominations were closed.

    She sat quietly a moment, then told us that at church the previous Sunday someone had announced that Orville was in the hospital. She tried to call when she got home and spoke to his son, telling him who she was. The son regretfully informed her that Orville had passed away only fifteen minutes earlier.

    Nellie spoke of her friend with a smile. Of the almost century of his life, she’d shared only a few weeks. But she’d had someone special in her life once again, and it was good.

photo credit: Goa India Beach Sunset via photopin (license)

*The names in this story have been changed.