Towns along Highway 2 struggle to preserve a distinctly Small Town USA vibe with a congested highway slicing right through their front yards.

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The bright-green cow pastures and views of the jagged Cascade Mountains ridgeline make you think you’re leaving the urban world and its cares behind the moment you exit busy Interstate 5 in Everett and drive east on U.S. Highway 2.

There’s a thrill in the suddenness of it, as if by some miracle of civil engineering you’ve been instantly transported to a country road seemingly on the way to the middle of nowhere.

The rural scenes dotting this drive through the Skykomish River Valley roll by like a tease from the good ole days — horse barns in tilting disrepair, feed-and-seed stores, sprawling nurseries, an exotic snake zoo, a tiny wooden chapel ready for roadside amens.

In a sense, it is a tease, because it doesn’t take long heading out of Everett — about 10 minutes — before you’re slapped with the other realities of life along Highway 2.

This is the road weekend travelers use to reach ski resorts, hiking trails, tourist stops like Leavenworth and towns from Wenatchee to Spokane. When the much wider Interstate 90 has to be temporarily closed for avalanche control in winter, Highway 2 becomes the nearest, all-season link between us and the rest of the nation east of here.

It’s also the road home for more and more people who’ve escaped expensive, close-in suburbs for a more affordable shot at a middle-class life.

And that’s the dilemma fast-growing towns like Monroe, Sultan, Startup, Goldbar and Skykomish face as they struggle to preserve a distinctly Small Town USA vibe, complete with flags on front porches and smiles for strangers, with a congested highway slicing right through their front yards.

The Highway 2 that valley locals know is very different from the one outsiders use to pass on by.

It may feed our souls, but it simultaneously nourishes and threatens the everyday lives of those who depend on it most.

SOME OF THE first Mexican immigrants to make their way down Highway 2 into Monroe came more than 20 years ago as migrant laborers on the surrounding cow and horse farms. Many settled in and around the city’s historic downtown, where rent and homes were more affordable, opening markets and restaurants serving “real Mexican food, authentic,” Alberto Robles says.

In the kitchen of Robles’ Mexican bodega on Monroe’s Main Street, his tortilla machine cranks out 300 pounds of soft, piping-hot tortillas a day. Every day, he sells out.

Mexican workers, many of whom now seek out construction and landscaping jobs, have contributed to an explosion in the city’s population, which has increased some 200 percent since the early 1990s to about 16,000 today. While busy Highway 2 in Monroe is chock-a-block now with strip malls and fast-food joints, Main Street remains pleasantly quiet with mom-and-pop Anglo standbys and Hispanic shops like Robles’.

Manning the check-out counter in his shop — stocked wall-to-wall with everything from cactus fruit to piñatas — Robles says the city’s trying to build ties with immigrants. He boasts that while working-class Mexicans concentrate around downtown and “Americans,” meaning whites and others, in newer houses on the outskirts, there is harmony, and a comfortable lifestyle, here.

He’s raising four kids in Monroe with his wife, Esperanza, who helps run the bodega, and he owns his own home two blocks away.

Robles speaks proudly of Margie Rodriguez, the first-ever Latina on Monroe’s City Council. And he points to a wall of photos showing Mexican-American teen beauty queens who participate in pageants at the Evergreen State Fair, held a mile away on Highway 2, as signs of harmony between Mexicans and the mainstream culture.

“It feels like home,” he adds, referring to the tight-knit social life of Mexican towns.

A stop at the fairgrounds reveals a completely different aspect of life on the highway.

Robin Monteith, who moved from Seattle to the Sultan area five years ago, was on the grounds recently riding an Oldenburg breed of horse named Archor at a free horse show by the Washington State Hunter and Jumper Association.

She’s a stay-at-home mom who uses the highway each day to shuttle her kids back and forth to Montessori school but also to shuttle horses.

A relative newcomer to the valley, she’s always had to contend with the uneasy balance that Highway 2 fosters.

“There’s a lot of building out here that, since we bought 13 acres and a barn, we don’t want,” Monteith says. “But I understand — that’s how developers make their money. It’s good and bad. You get more resources for the town but you give up some stuff. And you get more traffic.”

DOWN THE HIGHWAY six miles in Sultan, Mayor Caroline Eslick and City Administrator Deborah Knight would love to have both more resources, meaning much-needed tax revenue, and more traffic, in the form of pedestrians shopping and eating at struggling local businesses.

But while they and other town leaders plot out how to encourage and manage growth in this town of 4,500, they also have to balance the needs of longtime locals and recent newcomers, which aren’t always in synch.

During recent winter storms in the valley, neighboring towns got flooded with calls for snowplows and other emergency services. No one called Sultan City Hall.

The citizens here “just cowboy up,” Knight says with a laugh. “These are people who own backhoes and graders. They don’t show up at city hall and ask you to do it.”

“There is a difference in mindset between them and the new residents who come in and have a different expectation of what their government can and should do for them,” she says.

The good and bad of small-town life — comforting stability on one hand, frustrating resistance to change on the other — keep clashing in Sultan.

And the disparity hasn’t been helped by recent controversies, including city budget cuts, debate over a stormwater-utility-tax idea and the ouster of police Chief Fred Walser and subsequent misdemeanor charges against him for interfering with an investigation of an assistant. “I think it’s a slow shift from kind of being an isolated community to being a community that’s on the verge of suburban and urban change,” says Knight, who previously worked as assistant to Woodinville’s city manager. “The motto for Woodinville used to be ‘country living, city style,’ ” she says. “But people were wondering, how do we maintain that country living?”

Don Marshall bought his first home, several blocks from downtown, three years ago, and he started Mountain Man Barbecue on Main Street last fall. As a child in the 1970s, his only exposure to Sultan was visits to see his grandparents. Now he and his wife are raising their own two children here. Still, he echoes the concern of many who were lured by an ideal but who find themselves fretting the town will become “a giant housing area with no perks.”

Maintaining that down-home lifestyle costs money and requires disciplined decision-making. Locals see that now, especially since the city is struggling to complete a state-mandated growth-management plan, Knight says.

As Mayor Eslick tours Main Street talking about all the volunteers who keep the city running, pointing out the Bank of America branch that residents petitioned to save, she’s constantly sidetracked by people waving and saying hello to her.

This is the effortless, almost irreverent interaction between leaders and citizens that growth management’s rosy visions often allude to but fail to produce.

You have to wonder, taking a left turn off the highway onto Sultan Basin Road — where real-estate signs advertise “Adventure at Timber Ridge,” “Excitement at Timber Ridge” and “Paradise at Timber Ridge” next to promising mountain-view lots — if the equalizing spirit of Main Street can survive the stratifying potential of subdivisions.

Sultan, like Monroe before it, is about to find out.

TO GET A FEEL for what this strip of road means to the people who’ve made their livelihoods alongside it, stop into The Dutch Cup in Sultan at 7 o’clock in the morning, any morning.

Suspend all political correctness and start up a conversation with Bill Mercer, 49, Denny Huff, 63, and Ernie Cashman, 83. Among the last of their kind, they gather here 15 minutes before the doors open each morning for coffee, gossip and rowdy debates about the issues of the day.

“The first b.s. session starts in the parking lot; then it continues in here,” Huff jokes.

These men make no apologies for their love of cutting down the trees most of us drive here to behold.

For them, a tree is a paycheck, plain and simple. And face it, they’ll remind you, the Puget Sound region’s prosperity was built, in part, on the timber industry.

Cashman, who retired only last year, spent his later years cutting trees as an independent contractor. “I’d hire a few men, and we’d go cut timber like it was going out of style,” Cashman recalls with pride. “And it did.”

But before it all came to a halt, he says, he put seven kids through college on a logger’s salary: “Two of ’em got master’s degrees.” Mayor Eslick, who used to own the restaurant, walks in to join the crew, and they all joke and yak like old pals.

“You’d come down here on the weekends to The Dutch Cup and it would be full of loggers,” Mercer says nostalgically. A third-generation logger from Monroe, he looks the part — handlebar mustache, heavy suspenders holding up mud-covered jeans, boots, ball cap. Logging is in his system.

“Once you start that saw, it’s like you don’t have blood anymore,” he says. “You have sawdust.”

He was looking forward to teaching skills based on his trade — think ax throwing and line splicing with steel cables — this summer at Sultan’s annual Shindig festival, a celebration of the town’s heritage. Passing down the “lost art” of logging, he says, helps keep the community alive.

He also shows a fierce independence that sometimes results in a resentment toward those who threaten his contract work. The freshly leveled patches of land in and around Sultan today are housing developments, not logging sites.

On the plus side, Mercer can take his own stroll around town and see storefronts occupied by a handful of newly arrived businesses, like the barbecue joint, that may keep the city viable, if not full of loggers.

And on the curving new streets behind downtown, with sylvan names like Wildwood and Whispering Pine, the teachers, nurses and dads mowing identical square-shaped lawns contribute their share in property taxes. But growth, in any form, can unsettle those who’ve come to know a place a certain way.

Under his ball cap, Mercer sports a tattoo of an eye on the back of his shaved head, an apt symbol for his nostalgia, perhaps. “This town ain’t small anymore,” he laments. “They used to move out here to get away from ‘town,’ ” Huff chimes in, referring to the usual list of urban trouble like rapid growth and traffic, crime and gangs.

“Now we have it here.”

LOCALS’ LOVE-HATE relationship with the highway is not a case of people whining about the onslaught of change and the pressures of growth.

Living near and using the road has become a life-and-death matter.

It’s hard to find a person in the valley who hasn’t either been in a traffic accident on the highway or known someone who has been injured or killed on it.

Sitting in a booth at The Dutch Cup with Sultan realtor Bart Dalmasso, Dave King talks about his campaign to bring attention to safety along the highway, where left-turn lanes are few, homeowners’ driveways spill out onto the road and pedestrians stroll on the shoulder for lack of sidewalks.

The stunning straight-aways can lull a driver into carelessness, only to be startled to attention by dangerous curves, suddenly slowed traffic or someone making a turn.

Back in 1998, King started posting signs on his roadside property that read: “State Sponsored Highway of Death.”

He’s been involved in two accidents on the highway. He says his wife, son and daughter have all been in accidents, too.

“Monroe isn’t the only town that has a prison,” Dalmasso adds grimly, referring to the state reformatory down the road in that city. “For us who live here, we’re prisoners in our own town. Sometimes to go left, you have to take a right, go down the road and turn a U-ie and come back.”

Mayor Eslick concurs that on weekends especially, many Sultan locals just stay home to avoid the traffic mess.

Gov. Christine Gregoire was among the dignitaries who showed up last fall when the highway was declared a state “safety corridor,” a move that resulted in stepped-up police patrols among other things.

Just two months later on Dec. 28, however, the death of Monroe High School student Thomas Turner in a collision reminded people once again how dangerous the highway can be. The Everett Herald reported that Turner’s death was the 47th on the highway between Snohomish and the pass since 1999. Largely because of the long-running public outcry, the state Department of Transportation has started adding raised “rumble strips” along the shoulders and between lanes to keep drivers focused, preventing cross-lane accidents. New guardrails near Skykomish will protect cars that skid off the road. Stop lights and extra left-turn lanes will allow traffic to move safely while enabling turns.

But this is about more than pavement and guardrails and lines in the road.

Highway 2 connects people in the valley to a way of life. The sense of belonging, of being known, remembered and, for better or worse, talked about, has a magnetic effect on those who come here.

Mayor Eslick and her husband quit their jobs in Portland, sold their Corvette and moved here 30 years ago after just one visit.

“From the moment we drove into town and walked down the street, there were people who looked us straight in the eyes and said, ‘Why hello!’ ” she recalls. “You didn’t get that in Portland.”

David Hose, a muralist who moved from Bellevue to Monroe five years ago, says he arrived with a bundle of stereotypes of small towns, figuring he’d get work only “painting flames on pickup trucks.” “Boy was I wrong,” he says. “There’s this thriving arts scene in Monroe.”

Now he feels a calling to tell the stories of life along Highway 2, drawing on its loveliness and its menace.

A drive around Monroe will reveal several of his colorful murals depicting small-town life painted on commercial buildings, such as a Napa Auto Parts store.

But it’s his work in Sultan that tugs at this heart today.

He was recently commissioned to paint a commemorative mural at the Sultan Post Office on a wall that faces the highway. In one vignette, people gather around a table for a game of checkers. Two of the attendees, though, are dead.

Standing behind the checkers players is well-known local Genevieve Jelinek, whose father-in-law was the former Sultan town marshal, police chief and city maintenance guru.

Jelinek was a member of the community-based Highway 2 Safety Coalition, cofounded by former police Chief Walser in 1997 after one of his closest employees died in a collision with a logging truck on the road.

“Ironically and tragically, (Jelinek) died in a head-on collision on that same highway” in May 2007, Hose says.

Hose’s friend, David Montgomery, was driving on the highway near town on Jan. 2, 2006, when a minivan crossed the center line and struck his car head-on, killing him and the van’s 76-year-old driver. “It’s bad karma out there” on Highway 2, Hose says.

Maybe because so many loved figures in the valley have lost their lives on the highway, the push to improve safety has an epic feel.

Hose isn’t just celebrating and defending small-town life in the Skykomish Valley for the sake of those who live there. With his in-your-face murals, he’s forcing us to roll down the car windows and take a closer look at what we all stand to lose.

“I love this valley,” Hose says. “I’ll never move away from it.”

The question is whether the rural culture depicted in his old-time vignettes can live on in reality.

Tyrone Beason is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. He can be reached at tbeason@seattletimes.com. Alan Berner is a Seattle Times staff photographer.