An ugly intruder invades perfection

The Confederate flag I spotted last week could have been darn near anywhere. It could have been in Everett, rural Snohomish County or on Whidbey Island. But it wasn’t. It was flying from a house along a roadside in my favorite place.

It was a sight I had never seen on dozens of trips to Priest Lake, Idaho, where I have gone every summer for years. I can barely remember the first time I visited Priest Lake, which is 30 miles south of Canada. It was love at first sight, and first swim.

With my parents, and later my husband, I camped along the 19-mile-long lake’s gorgeous west shore. It’s a perfect spot, with sand beaches, clear water, and thick forests of cedar, fir and tamarack trees. For more than 25 years, my family has rented a log cabin at a Priest Lake resort built in 1932.

Every summer, I sit on that beach and gaze at the view across the lake. The focal point is Chimney Rock, a granite tower atop the mile-high Selkirk Mountains.

I daydream about winning a Lotto jackpot and buying a cabin on Priest Lake, certain that in retirement I could be a happy hermit. My wish list isn’t long: sturdy cabin, classic rowboat, piles of books, and a car that’s good in snow.

But this isn’t a travelogue, although I do have a vacation hangover. This is an admission — mostly to myself — that all is not well in that idyllic place.

So my younger son and I were on Idaho’s Highway 57, which connects U.S. 2 with Priest Lake to the north. Through the trees, not far off the road, I noticed the Confederate flag on a house.

It’s true that it could have been anywhere. But in northern Idaho, especially, a Confederate flag gives me pause.

To some, the flag that represented the Confederate States of America during the Civil War is a sign of Southern heritage or states’ rights. To some, it’s a symbol honoring those who died for the Confederacy.

It may be about those things, but to me the Confederate battle flag first sends a glaring message. It represents slavery. The subjugation and dehumanization of a race of people is the most indefensible chapter in our nation’s story.

To remember, research or re-enact the Civil War is one thing. To fly that flag at a home or public place is a vastly different thing. It says something ugly.

In 2004, after a cross burning outside a black pastor’s Arlington home, some Arlington High School students defended their display of Confederate flag imagery, calling it a local sign of being “a hick.” Bob Penny, the school’s principal at the time, countered that the flag is “a symbol of hate and racism” in today’s world. I agree.

I love north Idaho, but there’s no overlooking hate groups’ efforts to put down roots there.

In the 1980s, Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler drew hundreds of followers to his white-supremacist compound near Hayden Lake, Idaho, smearing the region with a reputation of hate. Butler died in 2004, after the compound was sold following a civil lawsuit.

To this day, the infamy that Butler and his Nazi-salute followers brought to Idaho persists. A place once identified with logging and mining became known nationally for hate-mongering.

In 2012, on his property near Priest River, Idaho Ku Klux Klan member Shaun Winkler hosted a cross burning. Winkler was an unsuccessful candidate that year for sheriff in Bonner County, Idaho — where Priest Lake is located.

How beautiful it is, my dream place. How sad that it may not be the perfect place for me.

Back in Snohomish County Saturday, I attended the Stillaguamish Tribe’s Festival of the River and Pow Wow. At River Meadows County Park near Arlington, tribal members danced, played music and honored elders. Diversity was on spectacular display as a crowd enjoyed concerts and chatted with festival vendors.

I hit traffic driving to Arlington. Already, I was missing that vacation cabin. But it was so good to be home.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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