Flag Mountain is a low forested ridge tucked away between higher Cascade Mountain peaks near Rhododendron, Oregon. When I need to get out of the house but don’t have a lot of time, this is one of my go-to hikes. It is relatively short, it is steep enough for a great workout, and it’s less than ten minutes from my driveway. It’s a perfect workout hike on short notice. For me, however, its appeal runs much deeper than that.
The first vantage point is ten steep minutes from the trailhead, at a little saddle beside a rocky knob where the trail first tops the ridge. It’s a natural spot to rest, perhaps snap a shot of Hunchback Mountain’s dark green wall across the valley. A short scramble to the side, hikers will find a wooden bench with a brass memorial plate on its backrest. It was dedicated in honor of Kathi Walsleben-Beck, a U.S. Forest Service Hot Shot who had grown up visiting Flag Mountain. Along with 13 other firefighters, she died on July 6, 1994 outside Glenwood Springs, Colorado on Storm King Mountain. The fire blew up, and flames overtook them as they tried to reach a safety zone. It is considered one of the worst modern day wildland fire tragedies.
After the installation of the bench, Kathi’s mother put a journal in a Ziploc bag and left it there. She told Kathi’s story and came back every so often to write a new entry or to change out the journal when it got full. She also encouraged others to share their thoughts. Denise and I discovered the bench shortly after moving to Welches in 1998. There were often other physical mementos resting in the Ziploc or draped from a nearby tree: prayer flags, special small rocks, tiny photos, and so on. Kathi’s bench was a shrine. It was sad and beautiful at once.
On a misty July day in 2000, Denise and I hiked to the bench with a few friends–and a judge. Originally we wanted to get married at the beach in Newport, Oregon, but planning got a little out of control. It seemed crazy to get married and have a reception hours away from an airport and further from home. Everyone would have to fly or drive a significant amount and have to get hotel rooms. There would be no good home base, so after some mutual handwringing, we scrapped the idea, frustrating a number of family members. We still have regrets about the decision, but I will never regret the moments of getting married on Flag Mountain.
When we hiked up the steep trail, Denise was clad in a long lovely white dress and hiking boots. I wore a mandarin collar white shirt and suit jacket, with my Lowe backpack on, along with, get this, wildland firefighting boots. Denise joked that I was just going to keep hiking. Nah. The judge perspired so much, she had to wipe her glasses off to see. One of Denise’s closest friends came with her family after cancelling a rafting trip for the first wedding date. Jen, the woman who introduced us, came with her tiny lapdog. There was a comical sequence we discovered late. Our friend Steve carried a video camera, and he accidentally had it on while we clambered up the steepest section. A few lewd bachelor-party-type comments unwittingly made their way onto the tape for all to discover later. In the end, it was a beautiful, simple ceremony. Nine year old Casey and the other kids sang “You Are My Sunshine”. Through the whole ceremony, I was aware of the bench in the background, putting the joyous moment in perspective.
I hike Flag Mountain at least a few times most years. There are two open spots that work as summits, and one secret spot in the woods above a large cliff that also gives great views. I don’t always go to the highest point, but I almost always visit Kathi’s bench, where I can see the spot Denise and I tied the knot. There was no Ziploc bag when I was there last week, nor any visible mementos, and perhaps that is fitting. Coincidentally, as I sat and enjoyed the view, Denise called my cell phone from Portland. As I subsequently hiked higher, I knew that one of the largest wildfires in Colorado history was blazing near Colorado Springs, threatening homes, and firefighters were once again putting their lives on the line. So many connections, for better or worse.
The sadness that obviously accompanied Kathi’s death has been tempered by time. The wood of the bench has been worn of its veneer, just as my marriage has become as comfortable as an old glove, and hopefully our families can forgive us for not having a large traditional wedding. In the end, I suppose, time takes care of everything.