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Breakfast in Skykomish

An old railroad town is on the move -- sort of.



Working through bacon and eggs at the Cascadia Inn and Cafe, it occurs to me that Henry, the guy who owns the place, has quite a challenge ahead of him.

It isn't just that he's alone in the kitchen with several orders, or that he also has some rooms to clean up, or that he'll have to handle any check-ins that arrive, or that his lone, teenage staffer doesn't seem to understand the cash register. No, even if he gets all that figured out, there's still the fact that he, and his hotel and cafe, are in Skykomish.

Never heard of Skykomish? Folks in Seattle have. They take Route 2 past it on their way up to the ski hill at Stevens Pass, and 99 percent of them don't stop. Just some old town along the road. "Sky," as they call it, is a Chevron and a deli along the highway, a rusty old bridge, a few buildings across the river, and some big construction project. There's good fishing in the river, but that's lower down.

We had been on the Pacific Crest Trail, and when we walked out of the woods up at Stevens, we'd hiked 75 miles in six days, without a shower or a bed. We knew all about Skykomish because it was the closest place we could get clean and fed, and there were a couple of cheap places: one that lets you pitch a tent in the yard and the Cascadia, Henry's place, where two people can share a room with bunk beds and a bathroom down the hall for $20 each. For another $5, Henry does your laundry, and there's a TV room with cable. The only table-served food in town is just off the lobby.

Across the road from the cafe was evidence of all that Skykomish once was, for good or ill: the rail yard. The Great Northern built the town back in the 1890s, when giants hacked the line over Stevens Pass and then dug an eight-mile tunnel under it. They needed Skykomish to hold coal and water and extra engines for the long haul over the pass, and the town boomed.

Then came the diesel engine, and now the trains hardly stop in Skykomish. Amtrak hasn't even slowed down in Sky for 30 years, and the cargo trains might stop to exchange a car here and there. Timber played out years ago.

Now the railroad's mess supplies most of the work. Seems that for several decades, when they had oil to get rid of, they just dug a hole and poured it in -- so much of it that Skykomish septic tanks were said to float on it sometimes. When it finally leached into the river and started killing fish a few years back, about 435 government agencies got involved, and now the whole town is a cleanup zone. They pick up buildings, some of them over 100 years old, and move them so they can dig up the soil underneath. They had moved the river when we were there. Of course, the construction guys are all from out of town, but some of them share rooms at the other hotel, and they keep the Cascadia busy at lunch.

So I guess the town is on the move again -- in a sense. My friend pointed out that they could put the buildings back wherever they want, sort of re-create a town. Maybe they could run a scenic train through the valley. The trees are growing back now, the old railroad grade is a trail, and there's some fish in the river. Of course, that's a little lower down.

Finishing up a Wednesday breakfast and about to hit the road myself, I felt like the town felt: waking up from a long sleep, comfortable, clean, rested, feeling good ... just not sure where I'm headed today.

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