Tulip festival: A Skagit 'Valley girl' remembers her past

Editor's note: The annual Skagit Valley Tulip Festival opens next week, as always, despite the weather and any other vagaries of the budding process. To mark the occasion, Northwest Weekend presents an essay from a short-time, bulb-harvesting valley returnee and some information on where to go and what to do during the festival. Tulips, eat your hearts out!

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I grew up on a farm in the Skagit Valley, that sleepy agricultural outpost north of Seattle where the cows outnumber the people and the crops outnumber the cows. I spent my childhood in barns full of musty-smelling hay, riding to school on yellow buses full of beefy blond farm kids and — as was the way of the valley — laboring each summer in the fields.

Skagit Valley was lousy with fields — strawberry, raspberry, cucumber, spinach. Come June, I and every other kid age 7 to 16 would set aside our school books, pick up our sack lunches and climb aboard a shaky old bus — vehicles that put the rust in rustic — to trundle out to patchworked fields where we would spend the day picking blueberries, hoeing beans, digging potatoes and inevitably getting yelled at by querulous field bosses mad with power.

Manual labor was our summer fun — at least if you wanted to have new school clothes in the fall — and I spent 10 long summers picking, packing, sticking and stacking in the flat fertile fields of home. Because my father was one of the local strawberry farmers, I spent more time amid the rows than most. At 17, I moved south toward Seattle where I eventually learned to read The New York Times, wear lots of black and pretend that fresh strawberries were something that came from Larry's Market and not a muddy field with my name on it. Like Lady Macbeth, though, I continually saw red stains on my hands.

Considering the care I'd taken to disguise this earthy past, I was horrified when a visiting friend — a native of Egypt, no less — confessed last spring that she hoped we two could drive north to take in the annual Skagit Valley Tulip Festival. Despite Thomas Wolfe's warnings about trips home and my grim memory of five gruesome days spent digging tulip bulbs for the local Dutch gentry, I agreed to act as Mona's guide.

Playing tourist

On a bright April morning, we donned our practical shoes ("expect wet, muddy fields," the Web site had warned us), grabbed two strong lattes and pointed the car north to the land of my people.

Seattle's skyscrapers soon gave way to shopping centers which gave way to strip malls which eventually gave way to long stretches of rolling, bucolic scenery. After 45 minutes or so, I began to see signs — most of them of the hand-lettered, misspelled variety — that told me we were nearing Skagit Valley. There were other indications, of course: tractors off in the distance, crumpled barns by the side of the road, nurseries showing off their colorful flowerbeds like French cancan girls displaying their underwear.

Exiting in Mount Vernon, we navigated our way down narrow cobblestone streets for a quick snack at the City Bakery (home of the ham-and-cheese beetle), then trundled across the Skagit River Bridge and into the bovine embrace of the Skagit flatlands.

Within minutes, we were passing freshly plowed fields and meticulous rural estates, their grounds covered with massive barns, mysterious silos and mournful weeping willows.

Rounding a bend, our laps full of tulip propaganda, we were suddenly confronted by a jarring burst of color, like spillage in a paint store. A huge field of orange and pink stretched ahead of us, as far as we could see. Hastily parked cars lined both shoulders, and people milled among the colorful rows, feverishly snapping pictures. Grabbing our cameras, we wasted no time in joining them, and soon we were posing, hands on hips, in front of precise vertical rows or kneeling down to cap our grinning faces with a crown of vibrant petals.

Spying what appeared to be a train wreck in the distance, we walked along a hard-packed dirt lane to the end of the field where we found a hundred-year-old barn, collapsed in upon itself. Bird song twittered in the background; sunlight winked off passing cars on the highway. It was an immensely peaceful moment.

Strolling back to the car, we came upon a man zooming in on a tulip with his video camera and watched him tape the flower for a full minute. Much like the poppies in "The Wizard of Oz," these flowers seemed to possess a peculiar hypnotic power. (This power raked in approximately $12 million in gross annual revenue for the bulb growers, according to the literature we'd picked up back in Mount Vernon.)

Our next stop turned out to be the Roozengaarde farm, one of the biggest of the aforementioned bulb growers. Its fields stretched east toward the Cascades in a perfect Dutch precision. Patches of purple blended into patches of white which blended into patches of pink which eventually turned orange and then red and then yellow, on and on, the colors melding one into the other like one of those Christmas sweaters knitted by a frugal aunt.

Down memory lane

I began to wonder if this was the same farm owned by the Dutch family I had worked for, lo, those 30 years ago. It had been the summer of my 13th year, and I had signed on with a pack of my girlfriends to dig for bulbs, touted as the most lucrative of summer jobs. Although the details were fuzzy, my rancor remained intact.

Sure, the flowers looked lovely swaying gently in the breeze, but that was just a façade, mere window dressing for unsuspecting tourists. The real cash crop was under the dirt, hideous and gnarled; that's where the tiny bulbs lay hidden, and that's where I'd had to find them, hoe in one hand, gunny sack in the other. It had been backbreaking work, made worse by a field boss who gleefully produced overlooked bulbs from my wake like a crooked cop "discovering" bags of cocaine.

I lasted five days and then quit, taking my posse with me.

Back in the car, I recounted my tulip tale to Mona as we meandered along the country roads. When we came upon a fruit stand with the good sense to offer hand-dipped ice cream on a hot spring day, we stopped.

The scoops of Raspberry Cheesecake Swirl were as large as cabbages, and cones in hand, we crossed the road, plopping wearily into the weeds at the edge of an empty field. There, we lazily ate our ice cream.

"It's so lovely here," Mona said. "So peaceful. So quiet. What do you think of this place?"

I wasn't sure what to think. Staring out at the terrain, as comforting and dull as an old family joke, I realized that I had worked in this very field when roguing spinach was "the" summer job. It had been not too far from where I now sat that my best friend, Lynn Wallace, had casually flung her banana peel at a passing 18-wheeler only to watch it sail through the driver's open window and slap him full in the face. To this day, I could hear the truck's brakes squeal.

I felt the sun beat down on my back as it had beat down on all of our backs 30 years ago. Shutting my eyes, I could almost hear the sound of the kids out in the field. It was not a totally unpleasant sensation.

This was farm country, to be sure, and despite my urban trappings, I was still a farm girl at heart. Sure, I had learned to wrinkle my nose at the smell of cow manure and express disgust at the sight of a slug, but there was still something that spoke to me as I sat cross-legged, gazing at a field of clumpy, damp soil. I couldn't discern exactly what it said, but it had to do with the unmistakable beauty to be had in a bouquet of dirty daffodils, the honesty to be found in a bucket of cucumbers, the sweat that went into a punch card full of raspberry flats. It had to do with history, which was what existed between this girl and her valley.

Yes, the place was corny as all get out. What else would you call a Twilight Farm Vehicle Parade, the advertised highlight of last year's Burlington Berry Dairy Days? But it was also where I grew up.

"I think it's nice to come home," I said, returning my attention to my cone.


The festival: The Skagit Valley Tulip Festival, April 1-30, 2003 (www.tulipfestival.org, phone 360-428-5959), is different from most fairs and festivals in that some of the real action takes place in your car. Farmers plant more than 1,600 acres worth of tulip, daffodil and iris bulbs, then come April, pray the little suckers will be in bloom for the 300,000 visitors who wander in from out of town in their SUVs. Understandably, traffic can get a little thick, perhaps even more so this year as there will be no free shuttle buses. Best advice: Go later in the season and go on a weekday.

Aside from communing with the flowers, there's plenty to do during the festival. Here's a brief sampling:

• Kiwanis Club Salmon Barbecue: April 5-27. Lots of food served from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily inside Mount Vernon's historic Hillcrest Lodge. Cost is $5-$10. For more information or to schedule groups, e-mail kiwanisbarbq@hotmail.com.

• Llamas 'N Ttulips: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. April 5-6, 12-13 and 19-20. Call 360-428-8098 for more information.

• Woodfest: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 5-6. Chainsaw carvers, antique tools, wood turners and logging-related history, all at the Sedro-Woolley High School gym, 1235 3rd Ave. in Sedro-Woolley. Call 888-225-8365 for more information.

• Tulip Pedal 2003: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 12. This year marks the 23rd annual bike ride through the fields, sponsored by Skagit County Medic One and SAFEKIDS. Fee for adults is $23 (T-shirt included), kids 14 and under ride free (sorry, no T-shirt for kids). For more information, call 360-428-3230.

• Tour De Fleur: 9-11 a.m. April 26. This 5K walk for the American Diabetes Association takes you past tulip fields and farmlands. Fee is $25 for adults, $5 for kids 6-12, and includes breakfast, flowers and snacks. Call 800-950-8875.