Red Top Tavern provides refuge in Darrington

DARRINGTON — One week after the Oso mudslide, a few dozen people sat around the U-shaped bar at the Red Top Tavern. They drank Bloody Marys and tall blue cans of Busch, mingling as “Fat Bottomed Girls” by Queen played on the radio.

Then the 5 o’clock news came on, and everyone fell silent. They didn’t drink, they didn’t move — they watched. The segment was about Stephen Neal, a Darrington plumber killed while working on Steelhead Drive the morning of the slide.

The bartender turned the music up at the commercial break. People went back to talking, drinking, laughing. An hour later, all eyes were on the TV again for the 6 p.m. news, and no one talked when a victim was on the screen.

That’s because everyone in the Red Top Tavern that night was affected by the slide. In some way, the mud had reached them all.

None more than Nichole Webb Rivera. A week earlier, her daughter Delaney Webb, 19, died in the slide. So did her parents Thom, 65, and Marcy Satterlee, 61, and Delaney’s fiance, Alan Bejvl, 21. All four were at the Satterlees’ Steelhead Drive home on the morning of March 22.

Rivera, who had moved away from Darrington in 2007, flew in from Houston earlier in the week. She said FEMA was planning to take her out to the debris field.

She cried a lot, especially when struggling to explain the situation to her youngest daughter, but now she was remarkably composed, speaking bluntly about the slide.

“Drink every juice of life while you can, because you never know when a mountain is gonna fall on your head,” she said.

After a week of TV and radio interviews, Rivera said she felt that many in the media were “infantilizing” the residents of Darrington.

“The story here isn’t the tragedy, it’s the triumph that will come from it,” Rivera said. “This town is going to come back stronger. It’s resilient.”

She circulated the Red Top Tavern, talking with somebody for a few minutes and then moving on to somebody else. By night’s end she had at least greeted everyone in the bar.

“Bars are like churches,” she said. “For people who aren’t churchy people.”

She comforted others as much as they comforted her.

“You can grieve, but you don’t have to suffer,” she told a man whose cousin is missing.

Her friend Suzette Russell said being there for others who are hurting is how Rivera copes.

“Nichole likes to make other people feel better, that’s how she feels better,” said Russell, who has some extended family missing in the slide.

Russell’s husband, Dave Russell, works at a mill in Arlington. He said his daily commute used to be a “quick 45 minutes” down Highway 530 but is now 90 minutes each way. He’s grateful that his company provides a bus.

As he smoked outside, he recalled being in grade school and checking out books from Linda McPherson, a longtime librarian killed in the slide. The light from the overhead Red Top Tavern sign revealed a thick coat of dust and grime on his Seahawks Super Bowl hat.

“This is my work hat,” he said.

He pointed to the nearby mountain range.

“They used to mine for gold up there a lot. Then they realized that the gold was all around them,” he said, referring to the trees.

Darrington is known as a logging town because of those trees. The Red Top Tavern is made of them, and loggers come in to eat for free after they get off work on Friday nights.

Rob Green, who was a logger before a bad car accident, said his grandfather owned the Red Top Tavern in the ’60s, when it was at another location. His mom and dad worked there when he was a kid.

Green talked about a conversation he had with Jesus when he was in a 38-day coma after his car accident. He said it made him certain that the people killed in the slide will live on forever through the spirit of Christ.

Throughout the night he scanned the bar for people to play cribbage with. Eventually an elderly man walked up and patted him on the back.

“Go get that cribbage board,” the man said. “I got time for one game!”

Green hopped out of his seat and hustled back with a deck of cards and a wooden board. Five minutes later the game had ended, with Green shaking his head in defeat.

“Robby just got skunked in cribbage!” an onlooker hollered from across the bar. “He was halfway around the board and the other guy finished!”

“It don’t mean nothin’,” Green muttered. “Some people put an aura around it.”

A few minutes later, Rivera, who was still making the rounds, asked Green to teach her how to play. He demonstrated the way the pieces move around the board, mentioning that he had just gotten skunked.

“What do I get if I win?” Rivera asked.

“Nothin’,” Green said.

“What kind of beer are you drinking?” the bartender asked Rivera.

“Cold,” she said.

As the night went on, people didn’t come and go, they came and stayed. Everyone who was at the Red Top Tavern at 5 p.m. was still there at 10, drinking Bloody Marys and tall blue cans of Busch. They stood up and danced, hollering along to the music, then sat back down and drank. They talked. They listened. They laughed.

They found a way to have a good time. They found a way to hang on.

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