DARRINGTON, Wash. — The Miller family’s bluegrass band, Blueberry Hill, has deep roots in this little mountain town on the edge of the Oso landslide, which killed more than 40 people in late March in a few shattering seconds of geological upheaval. Aida Miller, 19, who sings and plays the mandolin, and her brother, Forrest, 17, a banjo player, were both born here.
So the Millers came back after the disaster, and they were playing a free concert for exhausted emergency responders at the downtown command center a few miles from the slide when a friend came over and whispered that a call had come in: Their house, far from the slide, had caught fire.
“There was nothing we could do,” said Kevin Miller, Aida’s and Forrest’s father, as he paused, guitar on his lap, during a rehearsal at the campground for the Darrington Bluegrass Festival, which is this weekend. The fire destroyed nearly everything the family owned. “We just kept on playing,” Miller said.
That could be Darrington’s motto.
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Through the landslide, the response and the aftermath — especially the three months when Darrington was cut off from its southern access route, Highway 530, by millions of tons of debris — questions about the future hung like the point of a knife. Would the summer tourism season, crucial to carrying the region through the lean winter months, fall short and take this isolated town of 1,400 people down with it? Would visitors be scared away by reports of devastation?
So far, town leaders, residents and business owners say, the news is encouraging.
The 38th annual Bluegrass Festival, where the Millers will perform Friday and Sunday on a roster of local and national bands, is the barometer of the moment. Advance ticket sales for the three-day event, which typically draws 9,000 to 10,000 people to an outdoor stage at the foot of Whitehorse Mountain, were down about 15 percent earlier this month, but a late surge brought them back to last year’s levels. The all-important day-tripper traffic from Seattle cannot be predicted.
Other economic indicators have improved, too. A ripple of real-estate transactions has swept through town in the last few months, with homes and commercial properties — some of them long boarded up — changing hands. This has prompted hopes that new residents or entrepreneurs have discovered the area’s charms, though some worry that speculators or absentee landlords are just buying at the bottom.
The Darrington Timberbowl Rodeo, canceled last year because the ramshackle bleachers were deemed unsafe, was reborn thanks to $25,000 in state money for repairs, and it drew a packed house.
Ernestine Jones, 82, a volunteer at the Bluegrass Festival who has fielded calls from around the country, said some prospective visitors had told her they were worried about the slide or fearful that another might happen. But others said they were coming with a purpose, specifically wanting to help.
“One gentleman said, ‘I intend to come and drop some cash in your little town,’” said Jones, whose family came to Darrington in the 1940s from North Carolina, mostly as loggers, and helped start the bluegrass scene, playing the hill country music they had known back home.
Snohomish County officials, who put together a marketing campaign for the Stillaguamish Valley after the disaster, using $150,000 in state money, said they were keenly aware that drawing people to the area would be a complex task. Hard-nosed marketing practicality, they said, meant acknowledging that the slide itself — however much an open wound it is to residents who lost friends or family — might be a draw that could help the area’s economy.
So while television ads focused on the glories of the Cascade Mountains and on music and arts events like the Bluegrass Festival and next month’s Summer Meltdown, a social media component talked about the impromptu rock piles, or cairns, that have arisen as memorials and guides through an area scraped clean of its old landmarks. Postings on the Visit Stillaguamish Valley Facebook page addressed questions about etiquette in visiting a place still wounded by loss and held as sacred by many residents.
“It will be a tourist attraction,” said Wendy Becker, the cultural and economic development manager for Snohomish County, referring to the slide zone, which will be a construction site through this fall as a new roadbed is built. “People don’t like to say that term,” Becker added, but human nature cannot be denied. “Curiosity will make them want to see it,” she said.