The sign maker

  • Mike Barnhart, Barnhart Photography
  • Mike Barnhart, Barnhart Photography
  • Mike Barnhart, Barnhart Photography

When you arrive in town, anywhere in Stehekin, his signs are the first thing you see. On slabs of wood chainsaw-ripped and elegantly routed, in rustic block print or flowing cursive, Phil's signs are never stenciled, never sloppy. They mark the post office, the school, the bakery. They mark trailheads and trail junctions. They are, in a way, a trademark, a large part of what makes this Washington valley seem intimate and authentic, the kind of place where someone will take the time to salvage a half-burned chunk of cedar and turn an outhouse sign into a work of art. The signs occasionally lay out rules: "No Parking" or "Horses and Hikers Only." More often, they offer direction or reassurance: You're in the right place! You're heading the right way!

For 14 years, I worked for Phil Garfoot on trail crew. His main job, like mine, was to clear logs and brush, to build bridges and blast rocks and grub in the dirt. On top of that, for him, came signs -- a thankless task, if there ever was one. People don't notice signs until there's something wrong: an unmarked junction, a rotted signpost, a camp name that's since been changed. Or even a slight misunderstanding: A hiker looks upslope when the sign is downslope or confuses High Bridge with Bridge Creek, and suddenly she's lost, and often enough, angry. Compliments are few, complaints are many.

Over the years, I saw Phil get mad about plenty of things, but never about that. He'd think instead about how to fix the problem, then he'd race up the trail with a replacement sign - a salvaged slab, usually, twisty or knotty - or perhaps an added arrow. He was vigilant, nearly fanatic, about those signs, and he demanded that we were, too.

There were rules about how deep to dig a signpost, of course, and how sturdy to make it. (Very!) But there were other rules, too, less practical: The height of the posts, low to the ground, the way to bevel the top of the post, to round off the hard edge. Lag screws and washers had to be countersunk and never shiny. Not in the backcountry. If I put a sign up with a bright new lag, he'd carry up a rusty one to replace it.

Once, a manager hiked past a boundary post that, because of space limitations, read: "North Cascade National Park." He wrote a memo to Phil explaining that the sign was missing an "S." Phil routed a new one right away; he carried it 10 miles and dug it into place. The new sign read: "North Cascade National Parks."

Phil's goal was not so much precision as appearance. He wanted to make the sign fit in, as though it grew there.

Phil was rough-hewn and leather-skinned from a half-century of working in the hot sun -- the hotter the better for this Fresno native -- and his shoulders bulged out of proportion to his modest height. I never noticed them when we worked together, but when I see old pictures now, I am shocked. Because once cancer got hold of him, he didn't look that way anymore.

There are things in life you note but don't notice; things you heed heedlessly, you register without registering. Signs are like that, or the best of them are. Phil taught me that much. On a trail, he'd say, you want to know which way is which. Nothing more. Now I'm not so sure that's true. Sometimes, in the woods, you want to see a sign to know someone came this way before.

That's where that other meaning comes in. People get lost in life, and they look for a sign. A bear cub sighting. A shooting star. A shiny dropped penny. An uncanny phone call. It's a sign! I've never been much of a sign-seeker. But once Phil died, I couldn't help myself.

Here he'd always been: stubborn and reliable as stone. Then he's gone. I knew that other people felt his presence. A red-winged blackbird on the tiptop of an apple tree sang comfort to one friend. Another watched the moon skim a ridge at sunrise. Me? Nada. I felt bereft -- lost. I had always counted on Phil to tell me: You're in the right place! You're heading the right way!

Now where would I look?  Everywhere. Anywhere. His signs are the first thing you see.

Ana Maria Spagna lives and writes in Stehekin, Washington.

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