It takes 50 seconds on Highway 530 to drive past the landslide. A few people sometimes pull into the small parking area that holds two cars by the memorial, to take a look around. But not many.
There will be no big commemoration on the two-year anniversary March 22 of the catastrophe that moved 18 million tons of sand, till and clay, and killed 43 people. On the one-year anniversary, the TV vans were everywhere.
“I think we’re all in an individual phase this year,” says Dan Rankin, mayor of Darrington, the town just east of the slide that was ground zero for the search efforts.
“We had conversations. But for the families this is a very private time.”
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Time is moving on, the community is moving on. Not that the residents want to forget. But you also can’t forget everyday life.
There was a memorable photo taken during the time Darrington volunteer firefighters were digging through the mud and debris, looking for bodies. It showed Jeff McClelland; his wife, Jan McClelland; and Eric Finzimer emotionally embracing and praying.
There’s never been a time you don’t drive through there and you’re not thinking about some portion of those days and weeks.
Dan Rankin, mayor of Darrington
Back then, Jeff would describe the scene at the slide, saying, “It looked like an atomic bomb had gone off.”
This week the McClellands, who manage a goat farm that makes cheese, were dealing with 32 baby goats that had just been born.
Jan says she and her husband will get together with some families to commemorate the tragedy.
“If you wanted to take a day off to reflect, you can’t do that,” she says. “It’s a working farm, a whole lot of stuff to do.”
Landscape slowly changing
The locals also get to remember March 22, 2014, every time they drive from Darrington to the Interstate 5 corridor. The highway passes literally a few feet from the edge of the landslide.
“There’s never been a time you don’t drive through there and you’re not thinking about some portion of those days and weeks,” says Rankin.
The half-square-mile landslide still looks in many ways like it did that day. You can’t cover what’s left when half a hillside drops off, with mud that would cover 600 football fields 10 feet deep.
But it’s looking better.
Gone is a lot of the debris. Snohomish County contracted to have 11,000 tons of man-made junk removed from the site.
The county did major replanting: 6,400 Douglas firs and Western red cedars; 1,300 Sitka willows; 25,000 shrubs, ranging from salmonberries to salal. It also scattered 11 million wildflower seeds.
So you’re starting to see greenery amid all the dark, gray mud.
There even appears to be a tree that survived the slide, now plunked vertically in the mud, and it seems to be sprouting leaves.
Even the salmon managed to make it relatively unscathed through the landslide.
Their numbers are way down in the Stillaguamish River. The forecast this year for the coho run, for example, is 2,700, when in a normal year it’d be 25,000 or 30,000.
But that’s not because of the slide, says Jason Griffith, biologist with the Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians.
The fishery has been hit by drought and by the “warm blob” in the ocean that reduced nutrients in the water column, says Griffith.
In reality, he says, the salmon in the Stillaguamish have learned over the centuries to adapt to the frequent landslides.
These days, a short distance from the landslide area, across Highway 530, there are even properties for sale.
“Country cabin sits on over 11 acres for you to enjoy Mother Nature at her best,” says a listing for a three-bedroom, one-bath cabin going for $200,000.
Somebody must have liked it, and be a very optimistic person. The sale is pending.
These days, the leaders in Darrington, and Arlington, are thinking about how the two towns made the semifinals of the “America’s Best Communities” contest, which could result in a $100,000 prize and eventually a $3 million grand prize for economic development.
The economy hasn’t been easy on the logging town of Darrington.
“It’s been 30 years,” says Rankin. “The spotted owl.”
These days the town is back to its quiet ways. The parking area by the fire station, which two years ago was crowded with crews from all over the state, is empty. Rush-hour traffic consists of one truck.
Memorial a quiet reminder
With the landslide, there are the inevitable legalities to be dealt with. Things move slowly.
A wrongful-death lawsuit brought by attorneys representing people who were killed in the slide was originally set for the fall of 2015. It has been moved to this coming September.
Snohomish County also has moved ahead, using $8 million to buy 100 parcels in the slide area that are now unlivable, with the feds contributing money and the state helping out.
But that, too, is moving slowly, with only 34 parcels having been purchased.
Especially on a sunny day, the drive on Highway 530 is beautiful. At Darrington, the jagged, sharp mountain peaks still covered with snow seem to come right to the town.
On a recent afternoon, Darcy Kirkman, 64, of Silvana, and his girlfriend, Sandy Adams, pulled their Harley-Davidsons into the memorial parking area.
43 Cedar trees planted at a roadside memorial on Highway 530, one to represent each victim of the landslide.
Kirkman loves to take off on this road. “I call it my highway to freedom,” he says.
The memorial, of course, contains 43 cedar trees planted in rows, one to represent each victim. They’re now maybe 5 feet high.
It’s down-home remembrances that people have left there. By one tree there is a rock with the word “Mark” painted on it and a couple of laminated photos of a man at a lake, holding a just-caught fish, and of a dog. There’s also an unopened can of Budweiser.
Another remembrance has a little, metal toy car, and five crayons in a row. Another has a Seahawks cap, a Seahawks shawl and a bunch of pennies.
Kirkman looks around.
“I feel sorry for the people,” he says. “But you can’t stop Mother Nature. You gotta stop and respect that.”
He and his girlfriend start to head out.
“Two years for these folks. I’m a Vietnam vet. It takes a long time to heal,” he says.