The other side of the woods

Ed Bush, a Vietnam vet, talks to Justin. Photo by: Juliette Lynch
Even the goats get sick of the rain. Photo by: Juliette Lynch
The census leaves their mark, even at abandoned homes. Photo by: Juliette Lynch
"They're private individuals, they've come here to get away from a lot of things, and they don't want to talk to anybody."
Mike Zorn
Point Man Ministries

One of the big draws that brought the Syracuse News21 team to northeastern Washington was the promise of rugged mountain veterans living miles from the nearest patch of pavement, their hand-hewn property surrounded by forbidding signage. After three weeks in the area, though, we were hardly closer to verifying the existence of any quasi-mythological recluses, much less meeting them.

Now we know. They exist.

Juliette, Bruce and I drove to Colville Thursday to meet with Mike Zorn, state president of Point Man International Ministries and a Vietnam veteran himself. After exchanging pleasantries, Mike led us off-road—way off-road—to find the men and women who didn't want to be found.

Near the top of a mountain above Beth Lake, on the way to Chesaw, we met Ed and Linda Rush and their placid flock of goats, rabbits and peacocks. Ed, a gregarious former prison guard with a husky laugh, was deployed in Korea during the Vietnam War and doesn't talk about it with anyone. He's a regional leader for Point Man himself, but doesn't have a telephone; most of his contacts come on trips into Chesaw, Tonasket and Oroville.

Leaving their tiny mountaintop home, Ed and Linda got into Mike's trusty Astro van and the three of them led us along an impossibly bumpy ridge overlooking a long wooded valley (it's a good thing Juliette and I left our rental Altima safely at home in Republic). After a long drive past abandoned homes, grazing cattle and at least one black bear, we arrived at our destination—a classic wooden cabin with brick-a-brack spread on the porch like a layer of manure.

Ed and Mike motioned for us to stay in the car; we did. The proprietor, a Vietnam veteran with wild, white, bushy hair, was unwilling to speak with us. No matter—we'd verified the rumors. Woods vets do exist. In fact, Ed said that in the rough quadrant edged by Oroville, Route 20, Republic and the Canadian border, he estimated there were between 500 and 1,000 veterans living in as deep seclusion as himself. We'd seen the land, and we believed him.

The next stop was at the community well, where we met a transgender woman filling plastic tanks in her truckbed while a dachsund yipped in the tall grass. Her husband, a homosexual veteran from the Vietnam era, had bad drug and alcohol problems and was often abusive, Ed said. It was a sobering encounter.

Before driving back to Republic, we swung by the Chesaw Tavern to see if any vets were hanging out. They weren't, so Ed, Linda and Mike ordered cheeseburgers and we headed for home. It was a long day but it reinforced our feeling of why this community is a special one and why veterans' stories so badly need telling.

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