Wes Smith Day

Have you never heard of this day? No surprise, really. It’s not a national day, or even a state or county celebration. But it’s a celebration in a little mountain town happening on November 18th.

Wes was born and raised in Index, Washington. All the locals know most of his stories, his growing up years, his years as a young man, a married man, a father, a grieving father, a grandfather. And always a part of the town like the granite and trees and river.

The Wes Smith Bridge over the North Fork Skykomish River.

He liked to come in to the town hall where I worked and sit with me on Tuesdays. He expected coffee on those days so we had a little pot and he showed me how to make it. He would then sit by the door with his mug, and hold court. Every person who came in, every phone call I got, he had commentary and strong opinions. Sometimes it was challenging to get work done. Sometimes work was forgotten.

The little red town hall where I worked for almost twenty years.

He told me that he met his wife when she was five years old and he was maybe seven? I don’t remember now how old he was. She was walking down the boardwalk and dropped a nickel, which went down between the boards. When he saw her she was crying (that would have been a lot of money a hundred years ago). He managed to retrieve the nickel, and he told me it was love at first sight and love from then on.

I should add a caveat here that stories he told me in his nineties might not be the same stories he told others. Details may have faded and grown foggy over the years. But Wes was a no-nonsense sort, a man who’d worked hard and probably played hard, and a bit impatient with people who came into the town hall and showed a lack of common sense.

Anyway, Wes was a fisherman and a hunter and he’d walked those mountains and woods for many years. He bushwhacked, he followed no trails, he went alone with his dog, a fearless one used to treeing bears. Wes and his dog knew those mountains intimately, and what walked there.

Which of course led me one day to ask him if he believed in Bigfoot. I asked half-joking, fully expecting him to scoff. But instead he got quiet. After a long moment he said he was going to tell me a story he hadn’t told many people.

He was hunting Philadelphia Ridge off Mt Index one chilly fall day. They were way off the beaten track. He made a point of telling me how his dog was afraid of nothing, had taken on all sorts of wild animals. But that day they heard someone walking through the trees and smelled something awful like nothing he’d smelled before. But what left the biggest impression on him was that his dog was scared. Plastered up against Wes’s leg, tail tucked, shaking. Wes said he knew if something was out there that scared his dog, it was nothing he wanted to come in contact with, so they got away from there. He told me that he didn’t believe in nonsense and fairy tales but after seeing how scared his dog had been, he’d always wondered what was out there in the woods with them that day.

And he also made a point of telling me that when he first heard the noise he immediately thought it was another hunter. Because the sounds were ‘step, step, step’ just like a man.

Heybrook Ridge – another area Wes hunted extensively.

When Wes was failing in health, I would take him homemade chicken noodle soup with fresh tarragon. We would sit at the little table in his kitchen and swap stories while he ate. Several times my son went with me. He was about six at the time and he and Wes would talk non-stop. We weren’t the only one visiting. In a small town, everyone rallied around Wes.

When he was in his last days, I took my son there to say goodbye. Wes was in a hospital bed in the living room of the old house he’d brought his wife home to and raised his kids in. Family and friends came all day long to tell Wes goodbye. It wasn’t clear whether he knew we were there or not. But my son climbed right up on the bed, lay down next to Wes and cuddled right up to him and started talking. I don’t know what he said, but he chattered on and on, his little hand in Wes’s old gnarled one.

And Wes talked with him. Whether he was coherent or not, or even aware who was there with him, I have no idea.

I’ve always wondered what those last stories were, that none of us could hear.

I think about Wes now, with his Day approaching. What was it like to be born, to grow up, to live a full life in one tiny mountain town? Our world now is so big, between the ease of travel and the internet. I don’t know if Wes ever traveled. But I do know that his home place was a tiny footprint in the Cascade mountains, where he knew the land more intimately than most of us ever will.

And where, according to one old man and his fearless dog, Bigfoot once walked.

4 thoughts on “Wes Smith Day

  1. Ah Wes. I was walking (on a trail this day, not cross country) and thinking about how I could happily stay here in Index and local environs for the remainder of my days and continue to get to know this landscape. And as I walked, I thought of Wes. He was the one wo came to mind as the last grand example of a local who understood the greatness of the local terrain and who was content to be here for most of his days, certainly for all of his last years.
    I miss the old timers, realize I am one now and hope that I can carry a little of the Wes Smith spirit forward at least til my time ends and it’s my turn to pass the torch.

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    • Wise words. There are a few more people like Wes that come to mind but that I won’t name publicly, who know the land as intimately as Wes did, and by that I mean off-trail, and yes, I see you as one of those. You also know and understand the rivers and the flow of water more intimately than most.

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