Winning the Mildred, and other highlights of the season

Halloween brought a respite from storms, as Mount Baker towered over Skagit Valley blueberry fields ablush with autumn color.

GETTING OFF OF THE ROCK means even more to me these days when it includes an actual social event, with real people who are all vaccinated and not wearing masks.

Well, there were a few masks at the social event of which I speak, but not the kind you’re thinking.

Halloween was a treat last Sunday, as it always should be, and moreso this year because it brought the almost-post-COVID return of the annual Burns Family Halloween Party, a highlight of the social year for me and my late wife’s family since, oh, probably the late 1970s. The pandemic caused its cancellation in 2020.

Mary and her monster. Note the clay heart in Lillian’s hand, and the jumper cables hanging from my pocket.

Since its inception, it has been a highly competitive costume party, with a trophy awarded. The legend is that my sister-in-law Kathleen went to Goodwill decades ago and acquired an old bowling trophy that had been awarded to a woman named Mildred. Kathleen replaced the bowling figure with a little waxen witch on a broomstick. Thus was born the Mildred Award for Best Costume, which has been passed around among champions of the sartorially macabre for lo these many years.

Barbara and I took the competition seriously, and over the years came up with thematic costumes that paired together. I was Ichabod Crane and she was the Headless Horseman. I was Edgar Allan Poe, she was the Raven. To mark the 50th anniversary of the first American ascent of Mount Everest, I was an ice-ax wielding Jim Whittaker and Barbara was a crazed-looking, prayer-flag-bedecked yeti. (Thanks to friend Suzy Burton, who has compiled this digital album of costumes from the party over the decades.)

It was tough this year without Barbara. But she was sweetly memorialized in the elaborately decorated Day of the Dead altar that my sister-in-law Margaret always creates as a comforting adjunct to the Halloween celebration. And daughter Lillian stepped up with a brilliant costume pairing idea: She went as “Frankenstein” author Mary Shelley, circa 1818, and I was Shelley’s monstrous, galumphing literary creation.

In keeping with the spooky holiday, Mary Shelley fit right in. Not only did she create one of history’s iconic creatures of every kid’s bad dreams, she was certifiably odd in her own way. After her husband, the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, drowned at a young age in a boating accident, she is said to have carried his preserved heart with her wherever she went. So Lillian molded an authentic-looking human ticker from modeling clay and carried it around at the party.

Like the Addams Family, we were creepy. We were kooky. We were altogether ooky. We won the Mildred.

Halloween weekend offered a welcome sunny and calm break from the gales and rainstorms that have beset us of late. It was but a respite, however. As I write this in Nuthatch cabin, the towering firs and maples outside my wall of windows sway alarmingly in high winds. The lowering sun, just emerging from rainclouds, flickers through the teetering trees like a blinding locomotive headlight of cold, pastel yellow. Cast in stark shadow, waving branches bearing autumn’s last leaves dance enchantingly across my cabin wall.

It’s November in the Northwest. I enjoy clement weather, but when I think on it, to live without seasons would be, well, monstrous.

A daughter’s birthday with Eggs Benedict, herons and beer

A Great Blue Heron wades through grasses along the Padilla Bay Shore Trail in the Skagit Valley.

ONE OF MY ISLAND HOME’S GREAT ASSETS isn’t in the San Juans at all. It’s the nearby Skagit Valley, which one crosses to get here. It’s a beautiful agricultural valley bisected by one of the West’s great rivers and edged by snowy mountains. Its saltwater sloughs, scenic bays and verdant farming fields attract migratory geese and swans, along with countless Great Blue Herons and soaring raptors that make the valley home.

With a day off from work to celebrate, daughter Lillian chose to meet me there Monday to mark her 30th birthday.

We started the day with deliciously vulgar breakfasts at our favorite La Conner cafe, the Calico Cupboard, perched on the edge of Swinomish Channel. Lillian’s platter of Eggs Benedict swam with smoked salmon circling a giant island of hash browns made from Skagit potatoes. My Morning Glory Omelette’s three eggs were a happy vessel for crisp bacon, avocado, tomato, baby spinach, and cheddar cheese, topped by sour cream and green onion. Lil eventually had to cry “uncle” to that Greenland-sized mass of taters, but I was a proud member of the Clean Plate Club.

After our late breakfast, we toddled (or, maybe, waddled) in and out of La Conner’s shops, easy targets for merchants of kitchen gadgets (she really needed that cheese slicer) and the latest books appealing to 30-year-old readers of fantasy fiction. We enjoyed poking our noses into the new nautically-themed boutique that now occupies what was the one-room town library where Barbara was the sole librarian in the early 1980s.

After a pleasant wander along the town’s delightful new (in the past decade) waterfront walkway looking across to a tribal park’s pavilions fashioned to resemble woven-cedar hats, we motored northward and parked the car for a breakfast-burning 2-mile hike on the Padilla Bay Shore Trail. Beneath a blustery autumn sky split between patches of gingham blue and darkly scudding clouds, we watched wading herons hunt for their own brunch along the muddy banks of meandering sloughs.

Back in the car, we followed Bay View-Edison Road to its terminus: the village of Edison (est. 1869, pop. 147), which holds up bravely under a massive overdose of charm.

I’m not sure what it is that makes the place so appealing. Maybe that there are only about five businesses that manage to keep their doors open, and you’d better be prepared to pay cash because credit cards are too newfangled. Or that “downtown” is only about three-quarters of a block. Now with a decidedly Rural Bohemian vibe, it has the air of being stuck interminably in the 1920s (a decade when its high school produced famed journalist Edward R. Murrow). Probably key to its commercial survival today is that it is world headquarters to Breadfarm, which might be my favorite bakery on the planet (and I’m not the only loyalist).

After Lil bought a black-olive ciabatta loaf to take home, we reviewed the “fun things to do” list I’d compiled for the day (travel editor, remember? it’s what I do). We looked at our watches, noted that the day was marching on and decided we didn’t feel like rushing up Chuckanut Drive (which doesn’t deserve to be rushed) to a Bellingham pub I liked (Aslan Brewing, which seemed appropriate because Lillian and I have been reading “The Chronicles of Narnia” to each other).

As we hesitated, we noticed a sign pointing to the end of Edison’s main drag. It included the words “brewery” and “pizza.” Perfect! A bird in the hand.

The Birthday Girl with a loaf from Breadfarm, the planet’s best bakery.

Indeed, looking out over lazy Edison Slough, I could spy yet another heron from our cozy window table at Terramar Brewing, where Lillian and I sipped some tasty brews 20 minutes later. Lil (her Guinness-devoted mother’s daughter, for sure) had a pint of Red-Eye Porter “with notes of fresh-ground coffee and bittersweet chocolate,” while I quaffed a glass of Old Number Six, described as a Blonde Steam Beer with a rounded malt profile.

Those generous breakfasts were still with us, so instead of pizza we snacked on a starter portion of roasted Shishito peppers, spiced with anchovy and garlic. Boo wah! (Burp.)

To end the day, we headed for a picnic table edging Cap Sante Marina in Anacortes where we would celebrate with massive chocolate cupcakes I had baked and a Thermos of hot tea. But as soon as we stepped out of the car a cool breeze reminded us with whirling gusto that it was almost friggin’ October.

So we parked with a view of the boats and gobbled cupcakes in the car. As far as I can remember, these might be the first cupcakes I’ve ever baked, so I had no idea how much batter to spoon into each cupcake paper. And my Barbara, who didn’t believe in doing things in a small way, kept only an oversized cupcake pan in the cupboard. So not only were they big cupcakes, they had overflowed the tin. They were Cake-zillas.

But topped with chocolate icing and maraschino cherries, they were pretty tasty.

Hard to believe she’s already 30. My daughter is a wonderful young woman. She gets most of the credit for that. But Barbara and I did good.

Living (and baking) off the fat of the land

The “before” picture: Raspberries from Hayton Farms on Fir Island, the fertile island nestled between the North and South forks of the Skagit River where it flows into the Salish Sea.

SURPRISINGLY, LIVING OFF THE FAT OF THE LAND, as George and Lennie aspired to in Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” isn’t too hard on my small island in the summer. Having the fertile Skagit Valley as a neighbor doesn’t hurt.

Returning from a visit with friends in Portland and Olympia earlier this week, I stopped at two favorite purveyors of such “fat”: the Hayton Farms berry stand on Fir Island, where freshly picked organic berries of just about any variety are offered from June to August, and the Pleasant Ridge Farm stand, a short distance north of the North Fork of the Skagit River.

The “after” picture: Raspberry-Apple Crumble, destined for a family barbecue in Seattle.

I picked up a four-pack of fresh raspberries at Hayton Farms and a couple of summer squash and some kale at Pleasant Ridge, a self-serve farmstand that Barbara and I patronized for years. Besides offering bins of some of Skagit’s best sweet corn it has the added charming feature of a field of you-cut zinnias (50 cents a stem) behind the barn. Somehow I got into being a fanatical zinnia grower when I was about 10, and I’m always cheered by these simple, vividly colored blooms ranging from lemon yellow to rich claret.

The squash I supplemented with a pretty orange pepper from my neighbor Monique, proprietor of the Under Sail Produce Stand on Center Island. (The name derives from the old Hobie sail she and husband Chris have rigged up as a shelter for the stand.) Together the summer vegetables went into a tray bake I contributed to a Wednesday dinner with neighbors Carol and John “The Mad Birder” Farnsworth. It nicely complemented the Mad Birder’s salmon cakes and Carol’s pasta dish.

The raspberries are also for sharing. An hour ago I pulled a raspberry-apple crumble out of the oven, my intended contribution to a family barbecue tomorrow in Seattle. Back on the water taxi for me and Galley Cat in the morning.

The dessert is my second outing at baking berry crumbles, a simple treat that my brother Tom liked to create while he was visiting. Barbara was always the Nuthatch’s baker and head chef. I was glad for Tom’s inspiration.

So, the Nuthatch is perhaps a bit like George and Lennie’s dream of a little place where they could live “off the fatta the lan” and maybe keep rabbits (Lennie’s idea). But I don’t need rabbits. Galley Cat, who ducks in and out of my writing hut for another kitty treat every five minutes, even as I write this, keeps me busy enough. Bless her fuzzy little heart.

Galley Cat, my sole housemate these days, trots across the rocky knoll behind the Nuthatch cabin.