By Kristi OHarran Herald Columnist
Some of my favorite memories happened in Darrington. Squire Creek County Park was the setting for Memorial Day and Fourth of July camp outs, since the mid-1980s, with all my rowdy dart friends.
It was our undiscovered hideout that was overlooked by those favoring fancier spots such as Flowing Lake, Camano Island State Park or Deception Pass.
We were treasured guests each summer in Darrington by Ranger Joe Miller. When we pulled off Highway 530 and entered the deep forest world of looming cedar trees, we escaped for long weekends with giggles, shared trail grub, a cool creek and hot camp fires.
Joe, 84, became our friend. We talked all year about seeing him again, knowing other tent sleepers fought hours of traffic to head east. We were little more than an hour from our favorite spots.
Joe left his job with the parks a couple of years ago. I thought he’d moved into retirement quarters here or there.
I visited his home Tuesday near Squire Creek. I am going on a few special missions before I leave The Herald Dec. 31. There is nothing like a nice hug from an old friend, fit as a fiddle, who looks about 60 years old.
How sweet that he asked about my husband and our buddies.
My best friend Jackie Williams said camping at Squire Creek meant an always-available spot, and Ranger Joe. One time during a weeklong stay, a wind- and rainstorm hit.
“We gathered the kids out of their tent and brought them into our tiny travel trailer and told ghost stories until the storm passed,” Jackie said. “We could hear other campers leaving, but we toughed it out.”
First thing in the morning, there was a knock on their door.
“It was Joe, making sure all were OK,” Jackie said.
Joe and I go way back in my work world, too. I introduced readers to Joe in 1999. I wrote, “He’s as welcoming as Martha Stewart at afternoon tea. Have a great time, but follow park rules, he said with such conviction you wouldn’t dare drop so much as a singed marshmallow on the forest floor.”
He said he took an interest in everyone who stayed at the park.
“I interview them when they come in. I want the kids to be safe. Kids need to have a chance to grow up decent and clean.”
Our dart troop brought a bunch of kids. I noticed Tuesday their favorite climbing stump was still there.
When I wrote about Joe in 2004, it was bad news: “Not to be able to get to his toothbrush, favorite frying pan, income tax receipts and high school annual was bad enough. Knowing he won’t be able to retrieve some of his possessions for another two years is enough to break a tough park ranger’s heart.”
Joe’s home along the Sauk River in Darrington was isolated when a flood wiped out a chunk of the only road to his place. Snohomish County Public Works didn’t know when it could rebuild the washed-out portion of N. Sauk River Road, which cut off about a dozen landowners from their properties.
Joe’s motor home was stranded along with his $10,000 backhoe.
It took longer than two years for them to fix a way back home. This year, a bridge was completed, but it added 22 miles round trip for him to get to his old place over a gravelly, muddy road. He made the bumpy trip once, then sold the place.
Joe is a Korean War veteran. The Illinois native served 17 years in the Army and earned a Silver Star, Bronze Star, Korean Victory Cross and two Combat Infantry badges. In the 1970s, he did security for Bob and Delores Hope.
When Delores died Sept. 19, at age 102, Joe got a phone call from her youngest son.
Joe was often with Delores Hope when her spouse began another humanitarian journey to sprinkle laughter around the world.
“There were times she would be on the back veranda,” Miller said. “Delores would have a tear in her eye and say, ‘There he goes again, Joe.’ She wanted Bob Hope to be near her. He was always on a flight.”
Former President Gerald Ford attended parties at the Hope mansion. Joe got to know actors William Holden, Peter Falk, Stephanie Powers, Steve McQueen, Natalie Wood and country music legend Charlie Pride.
What took the man away from Hollywood glamour?
He loved the land in these parts. He operated a resort and worked for the Forest Service before taking a job with Snohomish County.
He left the county job two years ago, spent time working at Arlington Lodge No. 129 Free &Accepted Masons of Washington, but last summer they asked Joe to return to Squire.
He was in his element.
Joe said he hopes to return next summer, too. He has a steady girlfriend, children who treat him like a grandpa, a neighbor dog, Gus, who pays visits to get a cookie and a magnificent view of Whitehorse Mountain.
“I take fantastic photos,” Joe said. “You should see the moon come up.”
Columnist Kristi O’Harran: 425-339-3451 or firstname.lastname@example.org.