By Ron Prichard
You know how sometimes terrible things happen to people that they can never get past? That can happen to places, too.
I’m going to tell you about that sort of place. A frozen place.
I went there on a winter day 10 years ago, give or take. The snow started falling just as Highway 2 led us past the little town of Scenic – or rather, that’s when we drove into the snow. Falling a few inches an hour, and more as we gained altitude.
Still, it wasn’t like that historic winter of 1910, when a foot an hour fell for nine straight days, burying the railroad tracks that ran up high in the forest above what is now a full-speed highway.
I worried about how our planned hike would go, but I was glad that at least we didn’t have to go over the pass to get to it.
The chokepoint of Highway 2 through Stevens Pass is a section of twists that rise fast to the crest, and then on past a ski area on the eastern side. If we crossed the pass and it closed, we wouldn’t get back to Seattle that night.
We were stopping a few miles short of the pass proper. “But it’s going to be deep. Seems fitting.”
“That’s what snowshoes are for,” Don replied lackadaisically, still looking at his phone. He’d driven this way often and knew he’d lose service before long.
He was fighting with his soon-to-be-ex-wife by text while looking over bills online. Dangerous combination. We used to read about 8,000ers and Stonemasters on the way to the outdoors. A couple of decades later, it was harder to put our own real-life obstacles out of mind.
I could have gone on about the spirit of the day’s adventure and tried to distract him. It was Feb. 28, the 100th anniversary of the great avalanche. Since we’d both had the day off and needed a destination, I figured we’d honor the site with a visit.
That site was the ghost town of Wellington, where the deadliest avalanche In U.S. history had stuck just after 1 a.m. The wall of snow erased a railroad train and 96 lives. The town never escaped the memory, and a fire five years later erased all but the legacy.
I’d read about the tragedy on an historical marker at a nearby rest stop a couple of years before and had always wanted to go. My literary side thought the voices of the dead might be waiting somewhere up in the alpine breeze.
Don was a more practical man and would have only cared that we were properly equipped and within our limits. It was just a couple of miles, an easy walk in summer. Probably why we hadn’t done it. Free days during the summer are too precious to waste on short hikes.
But winter means you can’t go as far, what with short days, deep snow and the ever-gray skies of western Washington. They render the deep woods a black-and-white panorama of cold gloom. Short trips are the ticket, just to get out there and justify all the spending on gear at REI. And we could do two miles in a blizzard.
Wait, there’s the highway marker. There’s a little turnout, plowed from the snow beside the highway where the road to the Iron Goat trailhead starts. The road is closed in winter, but you can walk in to where the summer hiking begins.
It was 2 p.m. We were never good at alpine starts, which in our 20s had made for some dumb adventures. We’d never conquered anything big like the world-class mountaineers we read about. But we’d gotten into world-class trouble a few times.
Think of us as mis-adventurers.
We had found time to stop in at a little pub in the river town of Skykomish, a new building but with a glorious old mahogany bar. A quick sandwich would provide needed fuel. And a warm-up beer always loosens the body better than stretching.
“What’cha coming back from?” asked the girl behind the bar, who we’d seen before and who did a little skiing in winter and hiking in the summer.
“We’re just on the way up,” I said. “Old Goat trail, and on up to the avalanche town. Wellington.”
She smirked. “I know that place. When I was in high school, we used to go to this old locomotive wreck. Drink some beers, maybe smoke a little.”
I didn’t ask what year that had been. Knowing how young she was would just make us feel old.
Don, as usual, just wanted the facts. “It’s just a couple miles in, right? How long did it take?”
She shrugged. “Hour and half one way maybe? On a dry trail. I wouldn’t go in the snow, so I wouldn’t know how long it would take right now. And isn’t it late to start? I know I wouldn’t go up there in the dark.”
“We’ll be fine. Should be out before nightfall. And it looks like a good trail.”
I could tell she was remembering her trips. “The trail is easy. But it’s a creepy place. They say it’s haunted, you know?” She said it like she meant it, and I’m sure I looked skeptical. She felt a need to justify it. “I know. But I grew up here and always heard it was. My mother had heard the stories, too. And my grandmother.”
Don was also looking dismissive. “Did you see ghosts up there?”
“I heard things. A voice like a little girl once. Mostly things you could dismiss as the wind. But others heard them, too. Enough that I wouldn’t go up there at night.”
“So you believe in ghosts?” Don was not one for such romanticisms.
“I don’t know about ghosts,” she said. “I do believe in haunting. It’s something my mother told me. Some places are just bad. Bad things happened there. And bad lingers.”
It seemed like evening by the time we’d suited up, strapped on light packs and tied our boots into wide Sherpa snowshoes. The sky was white with snow but starting its inevitable fade to black. The flakes falling were fat and wet. Steven Pass isn’t that high, and we were lower still, making for a heavy snowpack.
The trail was easy to find, the snow compacted into a tread several feet wide. You could see the remains of bootprints, mostly filled in. Someone had come here recently, and a few groups in recent weeks. No one today, by the look of it.
I stopped to pull the camera out of my blue Patagonia parka, shot the trail ahead and the path back to the car. Don pulled past and took the lead. “We should get on with it,” he said, lightly.
By the time I had the camera, a Sony SLR, packed away again, I had to do some catching up. He was 50 yards ahead, hunched over a little, his green coat a blur through the snow. His red fleece hat helped, but I huffed into gear for fear of losing him.
On snowshoes you sort of plod, especially in fresh snow. Press then step, almost consciously, not like just walking. When it gets steep you stomp so the small row of teeth on the bottom of the snowshoe can bite. Arms pumping, a hiking pole in each hand, sinking too deep despite the wide baskets attached to their tips. Try to find a rhythm. One two three breath, or whatever works.
Took a while to catch him, but all at once I was on his heels. He hadn’t been that far ahead. The turn in the trail, and the snow falling like a fog against a graying sky, just gave that impression.
“Hang on,” I told him as I pulled alongside and stopped. Caught his eyes, steely gray, as steely as his nerves. “Listen.”
I had to make Don appreciate nature every once and while. With no movement and no words, there was no sound but the falling snow, whispers like feathers raining down on our ears. The trees were tall and rose white on either side of us, the path now just a couple of feet wide. It was close to whiteout in the dimming light. What we saw beyond the trail in the trees was eerie and cold as a grave.
Finally, I spoke. “Should be a side trail just to the right. Not far.”
We didn’t have a map. We’d talked about whether we needed one the night before, but like I said, it was a couple of miles. We’d crossed the Grand Canyon and topped Whitney in our youth. We’d find our way, or if not, we could certainly find our way back to the car.
And we did find the path heading up. There was a clear if tight trail through the trees, though the snow was unbroken. Not surprising. Wellington is a ghost town. We’d probably be the only souls to visit that day.
Now two miles, on a summer trail, we could usually do in forty minutes. Steeply uphill, as this was before long, and it might take an hour. We were old enough to feel it, but we hadn’t slowed down much.
In deep snow, the miles take more time and effort. Snowshoes are made to float, but in powdery stuff, they still sink in three or four inches. Occasionally you hit a hole in the hard pack underneath and go deeper.
Don led for a while, then I took it on, then he passed me again. It was darker by then, the whiteout almost silver. Probably after 5 already. “Wondering how far we should go before we call it,” I told him.
“Can’t be much farther. I’d like to see the place now.” Typical. If your instinct lets you turn back easily you never get very far. But you also never end up dead on a cold mountain, looking like Nicholson at the end of The Shining.
It was at least another half hour before I caught up with him again. He had his poles standing up in the snow, phone out, trying to get a signal.
“Map won’t be good,” I told him. I shared his concern, but those map apps never include the off-road stuff. And he wasn’t getting anything anyway.
Finally, he just put it away and grabbed the poles again. “I’d hate to come back in summer and find it was just around the corner,” he told me.
Maybe the snow cleared a little then, or the light changed. I pointed ahead of us.
A looming structure, against a section of cliff, just uphill from our path.
He nodded. I took the lead. It didn’t take long to reach it. One of the old snowsheds, a wooden and steel structure below a cliff that marked the old rail line. Just the struts and some of the overhead beams remained. You could walk underneath, and it was almost like you were in a tunnel.
“Follow this and we should hit the townsite. The Cascade rail tunnel would be past it, the west entry. We’re close.”
The old iron tracks had been gone from what is now a trail for years, but the footing of the embankment was solid. And the struts and the cliff face guarded the path from much of the snowfall. The snow couldn’t have been more than a foot deep underneath them, and our Sherpas stayed on top of the white.
Outside our overhead protection, though, the snow had picked up. And it was evening now, the short winter day closing out. We almost paused to dig out our headlamps.
The Iron Goat path curved a bit, and ahead the white-gray sky lightened and opened. The metal struts marked almost a doorway. And then they ended.
“It should be here,” I announced, because I sensed the excitement of reaching a ghost town had lost its appeal to Don. He just wanted to arrive, say he’d done it and bail.
We stepped out of our covered path into a clearing on a steep hillside. Away from the shadows and trees we had our first real views of the day.
The raised embankment that had held the track stretched across the slope, splitting it in two, disappearing in cloud on the opposite side. Somewhere there it led into the west end of the original Cascade tunnel. Unused for almost a century. Not long after the avalanche, tracks had been rerouted lower to more protected spaces and a much longer tunnel.
Below the path, the hillside fell away and narrowed into a dark gorge. Above was a broad slope heavy with snow, leading ever more steeply up to the alpine heights of Windy Mountain.
The townsite was dead ahead, uphill from the embankment.
“Looks like there are still some cars on the tracks,” Don said, with a little surprise in his tone.
“Yeah, more than I expected to see.” Honestly, my knowledge of the place was mostly from the roadside marker I’d mentioned and a few hike reports. Still, this didn’t match. It wasn’t right.
That February in 1910, a train had sat stranded on those tracks for more than a week. A hotel and general store stood next to the tracks, and they were no doubt bustling. But the passengers slept mostly in the cars, as did the crew, more than 100 people in all.
Rains followed the heavy snows, and when the mountain came crashing down just after 1 a.m., it hurled the train downward into the gorge below us. Some of the wreckage was said to remain to this day.
Anything on the tracks now had to have come later. The tracks were in use for a few years after, as were the hotel and rail depot the avalanche spared. The town was renamed Tye to try to make a break from the past. But in 1915 it burned, and soon after was bypassed and abandoned.
I had thought the town was entirely gone, and we’d see an historical marker, maybe some rail machinery and a few building foundations. But as we walked closer, we could see that buildings remained on the site.
Adjacent to the track there was one large building, two stories and a tall roofline above that, with a broad porch. On one side of it was a wing that might have had three stories, on the other a shorter, squat structure.
“I thought you said the town was gone.” Don sounded stumped. I was, too.
“I didn’t see buildings in any of the newer photos I saw,” I told him. There are a half-dozen sites where people post trip reports for Washington hikes, often with photos. I’d seen remnants of the snowsheds and the mouth of the Cascade tunnel, but not whole structures. I’d thought it was because nothing was still standing.
“Probably a ruin,” I told him. Because, you know, there it was, a dark shadow against the snowfall.
Don paused, as if trying to look even harder through the precipitation. “I don’t know. It looks lit up.”
As we got closer, it did look like there was light in some of the windows. Electric light, which was a new thing at the time of the avalanche but had reached the town.
The light made the buildings look far from abandoned. Honestly, I couldn’t get my head around what I was seeing. I was wandering into a very wrong place that might not like visitors.
A place that shouldn’t exist. “This isn’t right,” I told Don, but he wasn’t going to turn around at that point.
“Stop now and we’ll always wonder,” he said. “Maybe we can get answers and warm up. It’s going to be a cold walk back.”
Clearly, we were going back in the dark whether we stopped or not. But I still had doubts. Don slapped me on the pack to keep me going forward. “Maybe they’re rebuilding,” he decided. “The way they fix up old cabins and logging roads these days, it’s possible. Shoot, maybe we could have driven here. Might be an easier way back.”
That did sound possible. Seattle has been a property boom town for a couple of decades. Many of the old mountain communities had become refuges for those priced out, and also for tech types looking for getaways. Don had fled the big city a few years before, rehabbing a house in Monroe; as a carpenter, he earned good money if not tech money. I’m a writer and a journalist. I won’t go into the earnings prospects of a local journalist, but I was lucky enough to have a standalone house and a job.
But who’d reclaim Wellington? This was a ghost town, not an existing community with easy highway access. There had never been a proper road up here, and the place sat in an avalanche gully.
I was thinking just then I should have done more research. I was sure I’d have read about Tye or Wellington reopening. But here they were.
Up closer, it was clear the building was fully lit inside. A wooden walkway, a bridge of sorts, led from the embankment to the broad porch.
And the walkway started right at the back of what was a long train, stretching at least a dozen cars forward. It was dark and cold but seemed freshly painted in black. The only variation in color was a name, painted above the elevated platform at the back of the caboose. In smaller type, Great Northern Railroad. Below it, larger, white lettering outlined in red. Spokane Express.
Across the way, the main clapboard building rose tall. Around the second-floor windows was painted the name, Hotel Bailets. Signage announced a general store as well. The building to the right bore a large ad for “Henrick Bros. Lager Beer.”
As we walked across, the walkway creaked and moaned. The railings, where there wasn’t snow clinging to them, seemed worn. I held one for a minute, felt it move, gave up on the idea.
The porch was just as old and weathered, and the clapboard of the building was worn bare wood. The porch space itself smelled vaguely of smoke.
The center double doors looked new, though. They were partially open, and the top halves frosted glass, so ample light was pouring out. They were like the living center of a dying tree.
Don was unstrapping from his snowshoes. I told him I wasn’t so sure we should go in. “This isn’t the townsite I read about,” I said, an understatement. “It’s doesn’t feel…”
What? Safe? Solid? Real? I didn’t have the word, and I still don’t. But it wasn’t right.
“It’s here,” he said. “And if we can get a beer before heading back, why not?”
The beer ad had pretty much made it impossible not to go in, despite my fears. The second half of a hike always goes faster because you know there’s beer at the end. Finding it midway was even better. And we were adventurers.
We left the shoes and our packs outside. We each picked a side of the double door, swung them open and stepped inside.
The room was well if dimly lit, with passages leading off to wings on either side. Electric lights provided most of the illumination, but a few gas lamps burned as well. It wasn’t a huge room – this wasn’t like those grand railway hotels up in Canada, more like a pioneer lodge — but there was a nice seating area off to one side with plush upholstered carved-wood furniture.
Opposite the door was a front desk that could have been a bar, all done up in carved wood. Velvet curtains behind, the whole room decked in some sort of floral wallpaper.
Stepping out from behind the desk was a dapper man in a formal grey suit with an old-fashioned string tie, his hair black and slick. White shirt, looking entirely crisp. He was so quick that we didn’t have time to even notice the three or four other people milling about the room.
“Welcome to the Hotel Bailets, gentlemen. Can I help you?”
I was at a loss. Stepping out of the storm into a place that should be dead was like walking into a movie. And not one with a happy ending. “Yes, we uh… we left our snowshoes outside, they’re OK?”
“But of course,” he snapped officiously. “You walked? We don’t get many visitors except by the train. And none since the storm began. Seems like forever since we’ve had anyone new.”
“Up the trail. Is there another way?” Don asked. “A road?”
“A logging road. Somewhere up above maybe. Are you staying? We have a number of guests from the Spokane but might have a room free.”
“I think just a drink,” Don said. “We have to get back.”
“Nothing moving tonight, I’m afraid,” he said. “The snow will end you on a night like this. Could swallow a whole town.”
And of course, I remembered that the snow did just that. Swallow. Bury.
” The bar is that way.” He pointed us right, where a large opening led toward a good bit of noise.
“I thought this town was abandoned,” I told him, more comment than question. “A ghost town.”
He waved us on. “You’ll find the bar and pool hall anything but abandoned. I hope it’s not ghastly.”
Through the opening was a broad, long room, painted wood walls, white above and brown along the bottom. A cluster of wooden tables, many of them occupied. The light was dim and flickering, some of it electric but also provided by oil lamps. In one far corner, pool balls rattled as a few men pushed them around the table. Somewhere there was a piano playing.
Along one wall was a wooden bar, trimmed out nicely. Someone had vaguely tried to pull off a room like the turn-of-the-last-century Bengal Lounge at the Empress up in Victoria. But they hadn’t had the skill or budget.
The barman was short and stocky, with a dapper felt hat and a white shirt under an apron. “Beer, sir… you have Manny’s?” The bartender just stared. Don asked again. “Redhook?”
“Just Henrick, mister,” he said. What the hell. What Northwest bar didn’t have the local brews? Don held up two fingers anyway.
By the time the two glasses arrived and he paid up – it was under a buck; must have been happy hour – I had my back to the bar and was looking around. “Notice something odd, Don?” I asked. “Not a damn bit of Gore-Tex.”
On an average night in a Seattle bar, you’d see enough breathable nylon, polar fleece and down puffiness to equip a few Everest expeditions. It’s not a matter of cheapness – a full Arcteryx ensemble can rival the cost of a fine suit – but practicality and style.
There was no outdoor garb here, though it wasn’t Brooks Bros. either. The men all wore some variation of suit, crisp shirts and in most cases, some sort of tie. But most of the garb was not high style. It was utilitarian, heavy and looked durable.
The mens’ hair was short or slicked, and most of it stuck out beneath some sort of bowler or fedora or, well, I don’t know the names of old-style men’s hats. There were no caps, beanies or hoodies in sight.
The women were in dresses, some as short as knee length, generally black or white. All done up, as my mom would have said. They didn’t need to be. There were easily a half dozen men for each female, so they all seemed to be getting ample attention.
“Almost looks like an historical reenactment,” Don said. “What the hell did we stumble into?”
In fact, on many of the walls were black and white photographs of train or town events, and when there were people in them, they wore similar formal garb or work overalls to the patrons. Lots of old photos; no new photos.
Before we had time to ponder, the guy next to us was clapping Don on the back and demanding our attention. “Come on boys, I’m celebrating. Buy you a whiskey.”
There were shots poured on the bar. The guy was maybe 30, younger than us, in a dark suit he managed to wear carefully. His fedora was on the bar next to his drink.
“You boys look… unusual,” he said. We’d pulled off our parkas, and underneath we both had colorful fleece pullovers and neck gaiters. Guess we looked as odd to him as he to us.
I covered. “Expedition wear. We’ve been outside.”
“Sure. You boys weren’t on the train. Would have noticed you.”
“No,” Don told him. “Just doing a little hiking. Walking. You?”
“Headed for Kansas City if the track ever clears. Me and Michael” – he nodded at the man next to him, a bit older and somewhat gray, and just turning to us – “we hit it big in the timber industry. Weyerhauser is our only rival. I’m going to get my woman, get married and get her here.”
Which didn’t make any sense. Weyerhauser is a giant in the region and the world, though financially facing some hard times. No new company could compete with it. No one makes fortunes in timber in this country anymore.
I guess my surprise showed on my face because his pal chimed in. “We should have stayed in Seattle. Old Fred W. will have it to himself if we don’t make it back. But my friend is in love. I’m happy with cash and a few rental ladies, but he has to have the one. The one from back home.”
Names were passed and shots downed. More than a few whiskeys were passed around. We met a few of the other men, all bound east, mostly on business. Their businesses weren’t exactly buggy whips, but they all sounded more than a little outdated.
It was a short, smiling woman in heavy makeup who was most memorable, in a tight black number with a bodice trimmed in red. “You boys here for the night?” she asked, and the intent was suggestive.
We said no but she offered more information anyway. “Most ladies don’t like working up here; too cold, too much sweat, not enough baths. We’re giving it a try, though. My partner is here somewhere if you’re both interested.”
She ran a hand with slender fingers and long, red-polished nails down her hip. We just kind of laughed it off. “Another night then,” she said.
“Afraid we won’t be here another night,” I told her, trying to make a joke.
“We’re snowbound. It’s like the same night over again,” she said.
Don found himself in a pool game, and I wandered off to relieve myself. I was thinking by then we should leave; I guess Don had thought it a few times during the evening, too. But we hadn’t thought it at the same time.
I took care of business, at a toilet with the water tank hung on the wall and a long chain for flushing.
Wandered a bit, looking at photos. Then found my way into a small parlor, with a fireplace and two long couches. A table in between.
Two little girls sat inside, near twins in curls, gray ruffled dresses, dark stockings and black shoes. Holding near-identical dolls in white dresses, with porcelain faces.
On the table was a checkers set, made of wood. “Mister, will you play with us?” one asked.
“Sorry, I don’t think so. I should go.”
“Are you going to the train? A lot of the people sleep on the train.”
That interested me. In 1910, most of the dead had been sleeping on the train. “And you’re in the hotel?”
“Yes of course,” said the other. “We heard bad things can happen on trains. I think a lot of people died on one of those trains. In their sleep.”
“You know about that?”
“Yes,” said the larger girl, quite calmly. “But we didn’t come on that train.”
“But I think a lot of the people here did come on that train,” the smaller girl said without looking up from her doll. “I don’t think they know, but they did.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I think maybe some of them are ghosts,” she said, voice calm and cold. “They’re going soon. I don’t want to go with them. You shouldn’t go with them either.”
I kneeled down near her. She wasn’t scared at all, which I suddenly found a little scary. “And how old are you?” I asked.
“I’m 10. My sister is 12. People think we’re twins sometimes but we aren’t.”
“Do you know when you were born?”
“Of course. 1905.”
There was noise from the hallway, and I needed the distraction. A steady stream of people, in heavy coats, going past. The girls noticed I was looking. The older one explained. “It’s time. They’re going back to the train.”
I checked my phone. Past midnight; time had flown. I remembered the avalanche had struck at 1 a.m.
“I think they’re all dead and don’t know it. My mom says you can get stuck in a terrible moment and never get out of it.”
Like an avalanche. Or the fire of 1915. “Girls I….” Should I tell them? Hell. If they’d seen this before, they knew. “I think you’re dead too.”
Suddenly they lost that dispassionate look. They looked worried. One started to cry. They nervously ran from the room.
I felt bad but more than that, creeped out. The skin on the back of my neck was buzzing. I felt the flight instinct, like being 50 feet up a cliff on a climbing route with no good protection.
I joined the group walking down the hall, which meant back through the bar. Their faces were blank, many of them white. “Have to,” I heard one man say to what might have been his wife and child. “Train might be ready to roll.”
Mostly they said little. It was like they knew they had to go but weren’t excited about it.
I spotted Don across the room, near the bar. He was looking around for me as well. This was wrong. Time to go.
But I heard a woman yelling, in my direction, from behind. “Hey, mister. How dare you? How dare you scare my girls.”
She was pulling my shoulder even before I could turn. Stern woman in a black dress with petticoats. A proper hat on top, with netting that weaved around her face. “What kind of man are you, claiming my girls are… dead.”
She brushed the netting away, and that’s when I saw the burns. Her right cheek, toasted black, still smoking. Her sleeves, too. “They made us stay, the train people. They caused it. But the girls don’t know. I made sure they didn’t know. I made it quick. How dare you tell them.”
She had a long knife in one hand. There was blood on it.
The passengers were thick now, pushing past her, separating us. I could dodge the rush, but she couldn’t. She was pushed aside, bashed against the nearest wall. In the push to get around her, the passengers knocked several of the oil lamps fell to the ground.
One caught a drape, another a sofa. Started to smoke. The woman was looking at me still, less mad and more pleading. “It’s their fault. Can you help the girls?”
I looked to the girls, who’d been trailing her. But they were different now. Their clothes were burned almost to ash, their hands and faces blistered. “I don’t think I can,” I stammered.
“Then just join us,” they said in unison, closing in and each grabbed at one of my hands. “The way we joined them. The ghosts.”
I looked at one of them in the face, dead on. Her mouth was closed, but I could see teeth through one side of a burned lip. One eye had been heated, expanded, exploded. Part of it lay on her cheek, held on by threads of muck.
And a line of red along her throat. The mother had realized they couldn’t escape the fire.
She was next to me again. “It was a better way to go,” she said.
But I wasn’t ready to go. I pulled free. Don was halfway to me, trying to hold his own against the increasingly clumsy throng. His eyes were wide. “This place. We have to get the out.”
His eyes then lit on the girls, still following me, their hems in flames. I glanced back. The mother was just behind them, the knife held loosely near her waist.
I reached as if to pull him along. “Just go.”
But as he joined me, something pulled him back. A hand on his shoulder, from behind. A voice that I could even amid the movement. “You can’t leave us now. No one can leave now.”
I could see her face over his shoulder as he turned back. The woman from earlier, but her face white, ashen. The hand is what I focused on, though. Still those long and slender fingers with nails made for clawing down a man’s back. But they were blackened now, and the fingers too were black and blistered, streaked with white.
But not burned. They were fingers frostbitten, frozen, turning black and rotting as they thaw.
Don turned back to me, pulled free, continued on the way to escape. “Get the hell out,” he said.
The way out led through the lobby. We came face to face with other new acquaintances, the loggers from earlier. They were facing us, back toward the bar, not moving, clutching glasses.
Blackened fingers. Faces ashen, hard, still frozen. They did not try to stop us.
I noticed the wallpaper, the colorful flowers now wilted, the texture peeling from the wall.
We made our way to the door, felt the cold of outside. We had to look around for the snowshoes and our little packs. Don had his parka on. Mine was still inside; the fleece would have to do. I was not going back in.
The moon was out, the clouds white but now broken, the scene glowing.
He started to fumble for a headlamp in his pack. But the mother was close now. I could hear her voice, thick and slurry. “You can’t leave. We couldn’t leave. No one leaves.”
“No time,” I yelled at Don, and we crowded across the platform that led to the tracks and the back of the caboose. The train was lit inside now and let off a deep rumbling. It was getting ready to go.
The crowd went toward the passenger cars. We stumbled back the way we’d come.
The snow had become a thick chill rain. I heard a crack and a crash high above. Then more cracking.
The fire was spreading, and now coming out the front door of Bailets. I doubted there were any fire crews around. I doubted a lot of what I’d seen.
We’d gone maybe 20 yards when Don stopped and yelled for snowshoes. We both tried, fumbling a bit; they can be hard to buckle on.
Then an even louder crack filled the valley from above. The sound of tons of snow separating from the snowpack in a thick slab.
“I think we just run,” I told him, and we did. The rain had compacted the fresh snow on the trail, but it was still a slog. Fifty yards, then 100. Halfway to the remnants of the old snowshed.
We heard the roar as the avalanche let loose. Looked back. A wall of white bright even in the night hurtled through the clearing, swallowing first the lead engine and then the center of the train. Just missing the hotel, but as the front cars of the train were downhill the caboose went with them.
The hotel was fully engulfed, flames now leaping from the higher stories.
And then a blowing dust of white swallowed us.
We came to an indeterminant amount of time later, on the far side of the raised path of the embankment.
The train was gone. The hotel and buildings around it were still burning and starting to collapse. The same blowing drift from the avalanche that had covered us had slowed but not stopped the fire.
Don and I got up at about the same time, brushed off and said not a word. We found the snowshoes and prepared for the hike out. I was cold, very cold without a parka, and needed to move.
As we found the snowshed and proceeded down, Don added an epilogue. “I guess it’s really a ghost town again.”
We didn’t report any of it. Because we knew there would be nothing there when would-be rescuers or fire crews reached it. I guess we were right, because there would have been news – there is whenever a single hiker or skier just goes missing in the Cascades. There would have been news if we’d lost a train.
I hiked back out there the next summer. There was no sign of a recent fire, and avalanches happen often there.
At the old town site, there was a marker mentioning the avalanche — 96 dead – and what followed. The town’s name change, the fire, the new tunnel and route, the abandonment.
Downhill from the site, I found parts from a few train cars, wood rotted and metal rusty. This was what they couldn’t salvage in 2010. The train had been named the Spokane Express. The Great Northern line hadn’t run in ages.
Except the train does carry passengers, sometimes. I’m sure of it. Maybe only on certain nights. Maybe just the anniversaries. But it does. I know it does.
I went there early in the morning and was down by noon. I wouldn’t have gone back at night and I haven’t been there since. Don wouldn’t go with me that day, and he moved back to Southern California not long after, so he hasn’t faced it either.
We never really talked about that night. Knowing we were both there, so it wasn’t just imagination, was enough. Maybe too much for a practical man like Don.
I’m a dreamer, and I ponder it sometimes, what it meant, what it was. I dream about it often, the blistered girls, the burned mother, the frozen boarding the train. And the wall of snow.
I guess I’m stuck in that terrible moment with them. At least for me, it’s only one moment in the dead of one winter.
The town of Wellington was a real place and the avalanche a real disaster of legend. You can read more about it here.