After a year in the mudslide zone, Elaine Young finds peace in acts of kindness

OSO — A road made of bark and sawdust leads from Elaine Young’s driveway down into the mudslide debris fields.

For months after March 22, the road ferried rescuers into the mud. Elaine walks the path with her black Labrador, Bo. It’s quieter now, though traffic moves again along Highway 530.

The McPherson house is gone. A broken water line burbles in the mud where the Kuntz house used to stand. Pink and orange ribbons that once marked helicopter landing zones dangle from apple trees.

The frogs have come back to the disaster zone. A heron takes flight as a car starts up the Youngs’ drive. “Don’t wipe your feet,” Elaine tells visitors. “It’s fine. I’ve learned in a world of mud not to worry about stuff.”

A year in the disaster zone

Elaine’s husband, Don, bought the land south of the highway in 1985. For 30 years he’s had a view of Mount Higgins, the 5,100-foot peak just east of the slide. The acreage came with pastures, a creek and a ridge overlooking the Stillaguamish Valley.

The mud flowed up their creek. Water and silt filled the bottom floor of their house, up to the tops of the windowsills. Their son Coby, now 21, spent the first week helping recover bodies.

Workers tore down fences and dumped gravel. The whir of heavy equipment filled the valley.

And that was OK. Decisions were made in the first few days with one mission: Saving lives and recovering the dead. For months, the Youngs listened and watched the work around them, meeting strangers who came and left.

A year in the disaster zone, amid the chaos and grief, isn’t something explained over a cup of coffee in town. Some memories can be pushed down but others trickle through. It’s hard to predict. Tears are sneaky, with faulty floodgates.

Elaine finds her peace in bringing comfort to others, making them coffee, planting them flowers or offering to run an errand. That means staying busy.

The Youngs’ neighbor, Linda McPherson, was the retired manager of the Darrington Library and a longtime Darrington School Board member. She was among the first victims found.

The Youngs pulled the blanket from their bed to cover her body. Months later, with family permission, Elaine gathered up Linda’s gardening supplies. She planted daffodil bulbs in the clay pots and planter boxes, knowing they’d be gifts for Linda’s family when the flowers grew. By February, green daffodil shoots were pushing up through the soil.

In the debris fields, daffodils also are growing where Linda’s ashes are buried. Nearby, Elaine cleared a spot for Julie and Cory Kuntz to park their camper in the summer, close to Linda, who was Cory’s aunt. There, the trees obscure the scarp of the slide, leaving only the view of Mount Higgins.

“Here you go buddy,” Elaine told Cory Kuntz. “Here’s your piece of paradise back.”

Yellow flowers — daffodils and forsythia — remind Elaine of Day 2, the Sunday after the slide. The world around her had turned gray with mud. “I don’t even know how to describe the gray,” she said. “Everything was one color. It was this concrete gray color. There was no color anywhere but this concrete gray.”

Bringing the color back

In her fields, though, were yellow flowers untouched by the mud. She picked handfuls, and laid them in the debris, for the people working there. She kept thinking about what she could do for them, and for those who lost brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers.

In the months after the slide, Elaine planted daffodils along her fence line and creek, and in little clumps. She scattered wildflower seeds, too.

Someday, she knew the spring would return, and that life wouldn’t stop, not even in this valley of mud. She knew the daffodils she planted would bloom when March arrived. The bulbs are hardy. They will grow every year, and multiply.

The flowers recall the ribbons that appeared on bridges and fences after the slide. Yellow ribbons can be a symbol for battle, loss and hope that those who are gone will come home.

Honoring sacred ground

The Youngs have reworked the drainage on their property. The water can’t come up again around the house, short of a catastrophic event. The lower half of the home was redone, much of the work donated or discounted. Bruce Blacker of Oso gave Elaine the rough-hewn slab of maple for the downstairs kitchen counter. The neighbors got together and helped with the sanding and polishing.

Elaine doesn’t mind if people stop at the slide, though the turnout holds only a handful of cars. She worries about those making U-turns in her driveway in highway traffic. People have to understand this is sacred ground, she said. You can’t traipse around, and yet it must be witnessed because “you can’t get a feeling for the magnitude of it unless you actually see it.”

Elaine rented a garage in Arlington to work on the crafts and antiques she sells at different shops. The garage wasn’t meant to be a safe place away from the slide, but that’s how it turned out. She also started as a waitress at Oso’s Rhodes River Ranch to get out of the house and avoid sleeping all day.

She used to be immaculate, organized. She saw herself as a mom who aspired to be Wonder Woman. That version of her is gone. She’s left feeling as though she’s running a marathon with no finish line. Sometimes she gets angry at her tears, for thinking of herself instead of others.

She leans on Don for strength, and comes up with reasons to get everyone together again, around a fire with food and drinks. She’s told many of the strangers she met last March it’s OK to stop by, anytime.

But it’s not that simple. One friend quietly told Elaine that the Young house is too painful a reminder. For some, it was where they were when the mud was moving, the water was rising and so much was unknown.

Mountain angel

In June, Don came inside and asked his wife to look at Mount Higgins. He’s a practical man, a sharp mind honed by hard work.

Don pointed to a spot on the mountain where a piece of granite had calved off, unnoticed.

“It’s pure white,” Elaine said. “It looks exactly like the outline of an angel looking down on the slide.”

The angel only appears on clear afternoons, as the sun is setting. The Youngs and others find reassurance in its presence.

Some see a loved one lost. Elaine sees a reason to keep helping.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449;

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