PEOPLE IN TWISP long ago stopped counting the ducks that had to line up on the Big Universal Pond of Life to get the perfect person in the perfect job, at the perfect time, to help pull their town — three times now, but again, who’s counting? — from the jaws of disasters that might have wiped less-stubborn burgs clean off the map.
For now, they are simply reveling in the arrangement.
The fact that Twisp has not only survived, but seems poised to thrive as an enclave of artists, growers, brewers, bakers, potters, printers, painters, weavers, skinny skiers, riders and roasters, through three federally declared disasters in a string of just more than five years borders on remarkable.
But it all comes together into one big, improbable success story once you see how that line of ducks delivered to the Heart of the Methow one Soo Ing-Moody, 51, the honorable mayor of Twisp.
It easily might not have been; look back and see:
It’s 2010. Twisp is a sagging lean-to of a town of 900 and some sun-hardened souls, living in one of those classic Northwest rural locales (lovely, job-challenged), which, like a Subaru death spin in a freezing rain on Stevens Pass, really could go either way.
A former timber town struggling to hold its ground near the junction of the Twisp and Methow rivers, Twisp is about to get broadsided by an all-new double-sledgehammer blow: consecutive once-in-a-century wildfire seasons, in 2014 and 2015, that nearly consume the place, later capped by the present coronavirus pandemic.
The town government, a collection of to-be-filled jobs, is in chaos. The last in a line of three short-termer mayors has hit the road to Pateros or, sheesh, maybe even Brewster. Town council members meet, grimace and declare: Somebody has to be mayor.
As it happens, the councilor least able to come up with a disqualifying excuse is a person no one in Twisp could have expected: a Chinese-Canadian-American mother of two sons, who is an accomplished multilingual scholar with master’s degrees in English and sociology and a certificate in human resources. And, oh: She’s done extensive graduate work on the sociological impact of wildfires on rural populations.
That was Ing-Moody, who, in the words of Twisp council member Hans Smith, a longtime local and biologist for the Yakama Nation, “definitely drew the short straw.” Like many other things in these parts, said straw has since been twisted into something of a piece of civic art, forged, literally, by fire.
THAT WAS A decade ago. In the middle of the next one, the wildfires left lingering scars on the stony hillsides of the blackened-pine-studded Methow Valley, and on the souls of all who lived through them.
The 2014 Carlton Complex fire burned 400 square miles in the valley and beyond. The following summer, another nearly 12,000 acres burned as the Twisp River Fire stopped just short of town, killing three firefighters and severely burning another. Smoke-choked skies again were present in recent summers, from fires just beyond, bringing whiffs of the same visceral fear on afternoon breezes.
And then came a third disaster, the dread novel coronavirus, which brings us to today. The midst of a pandemic, in a place without a major hospital, is an odd place to be identifying bright spots, but Ing-Moody, as usual, has her eyes on one.
Having been to hell and back twice, Twisp copes, she says. And so does she.
“As sad as it is when you go through these things, hopefully you learn from them,” Ing-Moody says. “We all hope we never need to do it again. I had that thought when we went through the fires in 2014 — the sense that lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same spot. Then the following year … fire, literally, was coming into town. The thought that ‘it can’t happen to you again’ doesn’t even cross my mind now.”
She doesn’t feel cursed, and is confident that rural Twisp isn’t.
“No, I’m an optimist,” she says. “I think, ‘It’s good we’ve been through this.’ It’s strange but true. Experience does help. I wouldn’t have chosen it, but now that I have no choice, it does have a silver lining, I suppose. I do think it helps you be more effective in moving forward.”
It is not just Ing-Moody saying Twisp has risen from the valley’s ashes to double down on the notion of repurposing an old mill town to an enclave of land-loving seekers-of-a-better way. Walk around town long enough these days, and you’ll hear plenty of unsolicited talk about shared vision, engagement, love of place. Community — the kind that lives in hearts, not on a map.
“I’m from Montana originally,” says Meg Donohue, co-owner of the now regionally famous Blue Star Coffee Roasters, which she and her husband, Dan, founded in 2007, after escaping Seattle. “I have a lot of experience with small towns. I swore up and down I would never live in one, honestly. But this community is so welcoming. Authentically, warmly, openheartedly welcoming. There’s just a lot of room for people to be who they are.”
OK; it sounds corny, but feels genuine. How this came to be, in a far-flung outpost of the Nation That Can’t Get Along With Itself, is a story in itself. But first, a short paddle back to the Honorable Mayor Ing-Moody, and those ducks.
RAISED IN THE Toronto area, she took on graduate studies at the University of Freiburg in Germany, the font of sociological study of the day. In the late 1990s, this path led her (in “the irony of my life,” she will say later) to eastern Mongolia’s Khan Khentii region, where she studied the impacts of wildfire disasters on nearby populations.
She was there for four months, and during her stay, she crossed paths with Bill Moody, a renowned American wildfire fighter and longtime manager of the North Cascades Smokejumper Base near some place called Twisp, Washington. Moody, who has spent years sharing firefighting techniques around the globe, had brought along his wife, Sandy — and a son, Michael, who met and took a liking to a certain Chinese-Canadian grad student from Toronto.
Soo and Michael went their separate ways but stayed in touch. Emails flew, and you can see the rest: Soo came to visit; the couple toured the Northwest — all of it. Surprisingly, for an urban-oriented person who had seen much of the world, no place really struck her heart as “home” like the diminutive town of Twisp, where Michael’s parents had spent most of their lives.
In truth, it didn’t really offer her preferred choice of international cuisine — or shoes — but more than made up for that in spine-tingling God light and whatnot.
“I just loved the beauty of the outdoors here,” she says. “It seemed so peaceful. This is the smallest place I’ve ever landed, for sure. But it’s home. I love the community aspect of it all.”
The couple married and moved to Twisp in 2000, living for a time with a delighted Bill and Sandy Moody while building their own home. They didn’t realize they were merging old Twisp with what would become Twisp, Act II, under a single roof.
They intended to raise a family here — and have. Sons Benjamin, 17, and Jonathan, 18, are both enrolled in Running Start at Wenatchee Valley College. They were still lads when Ing-Moody’s call to duty came knocking.
By then a dual citizen, she was approached about an open council position, and decided, “It was my time to serve.” She ran unopposed and dived in, and within nine months, was offered the mayor’s seat.
“I objected,” she recalls. “That didn’t work.”
Ing-Moody discussed the chronically musical-chairs mayoral job with Michael, and together, they decided to take on the task. Filling what remained of previous Mayor Bill Boosman’s term would be a stopgap service to their little town.
“I said to my husband, ‘It’s only a year and a half.’ ”
That was 10 years ago. Quack, deux. Cue the daunting-task music.
TWISP SITS EITHER halfway up or down the Methow Valley, depending on one’s orientation. But back then, most agreed it had nowhere to go but north.
When Ing-Moody first joined the town government, “We were kind of hobbling along,” she says, with no budget reserves and a raft of open leadership slots. “We barely had a council, didn’t have a mayor. The three main department heads had quit; the police chief had been fired; the public works superintendent was being fired.”
“There were a lot of long nights,” recalls Smith, a town council seatmate at the time.
She fell back on her social-science-instilled instincts.
“I look at the world as systems,” she says. “To me, it’s very scientific: human behaviors, and how systems interact with them.”
Ing-Moody summoned her HR training to fill vacant jobs. Cleaned up audits. Shored up a blue-tarp-patched City Hall, then fought for funds to build a new $4 million downtown Twisp Civic Building, which can serve as an emergency center in the next natural disaster, God forbid.
Her government negotiated secure water rights for Twisp, ending an 18-year building moratorium. New asphalt was laid, streetlights installed. People started looking up from their coffee mugs over at the Cinnamon Twisp bakery.
She launched a planning process aimed at a greener future Twisp, long considered the “working town” and commercial center of today’s tourist-dependent Methow. It stands in intentional contrast to the valley’s upper reaches, where a mélange of old-timers, trust-funders, transplanted telecommuters and second-home owners now occupies much of the sparse, lovely old ranch lands from Winthrop on up to Mazama.
Twisp had limped along for decades after the Wagner timber mill closed in 1982, killing some 400 jobs. A decade later, the local Forest Service ranger district, which had filled some economic gaps, was shuttered in federal consolidations.
Ing-Moody was “instrumental” in launching a public development authority to buy and repurpose that old, 6-acre, 17-building Forest Service campus into an arts, agriculture, education and business incubator, says Don Linnertz, executive director of today’s TwispWorks. (The purchase was made possible by a $1 million loan, now forgiven, by a donor who remains anonymous.)
Linnertz, whose pre-Twisp life was spent at Adobe Systems, says Ing-Moody has been “relentless” in pursuing similar opportunities in Twisp, attracting some $15 million in grant funding for local projects.
Ing-Moody ran unopposed in 2011 and 2015. All the while, she has kept a protective eye on the natural beauty that brought her and many of her generation here — and holds them fast.
In the spring of 2014, when a Canadian mining company announced plans to drill test shafts on copper claims in the upper Methow, Ing-Moody, activist Maggie Coon and a cast of hundreds launched a long fight to secure a “mineral withdrawal” for 340,000 acres of federal lands in the Methow headwaters. Federal legislation approved in March 2019 permanently protected the area from mining. The “Headwaters Campaign” was one of the largest such reclamations the nation has ever seen.
Today, Twisp has room, and permission, to grow — smartly, its leaders insist. Given its natural beauty and longing gazes from well-heeled, congestion-weary Puget Sounders, it might defy the odds and do just that — a rare prescription for small rural towns without major employers.
The mayor is quick to share credit.
“It’s not me,” she insists. “I’m energized by it, but so proud of the staff we have, and the community standing behind it, saying, ‘Let’s do this!’ ”
Others, even some long-timers won over by the mayor’s political agility, are less coy.
“We couldn’t ask for a better mayor,” says Katrina Auburn, a 36-year resident and proprietor of the Twisp Feed Store, who admires Ing-Moody’s savvy pitch for new projects as town “upgrades” (likable), not changes (scary!).
“I can’t imagine what we would do without her.”
MUCH OF THAT civic progress came after the valley’s daunting fire seasons. An optimist might say the town’s upgrades have occurred not despite the fires, but because of them, thanks to a sense of shared purpose sprouting like springtime camas from the blackened soil.
Ing-Moody’s leadership through the fires and their aftermath forged community bonds as solid as an anvil.
“That’s where she really blossomed,” says her mother-in-law, Sandy Moody, who runs a bed-and-breakfast and serves as president of the Twisp Chamber of Commerce. “She removed a lot of the fear.”
As the blazes spread, the mayor played a key role in communicating with townspeople — even going door-to-door to tell them what to do when other communications failed. It built trust.
After the fires, Linnertz says, the town’s question has been simple, but daunting: “How can we make Twisp more resilient?”
“This is a working-class town, but now we are a hub of creativity,” he says. “Do they go together? I think so. Soo and our various leaders are continually trying to deliver the message that it’s not one or the other; it’s both. That helps us be more nimble.”
Ing-Moody, again, was central to this effort, says Amanda Jackson Mott, executive director of Methow Arts. The designation, which provides matching grants for arts projects, gives locals hope for a future bearing marks of both the old grit and new polish.
That sort of synergy grows from the mindsets of transplanted Twispers who arrive with specific ideas about how they want to live, says Smith. Newcomers, he says, are “motivated in their lives, and here for a reason.”
The leading one is a no-brainer, the lure that drew him 20 years ago: a shared love of the physical place.
“We all value something that we share here,” Smith says. “The landscape is that for many people in this community. It’s something I value deeply.”
Ing-Moody feels this herself; always has. The valley’s allure as a place to breathe deeply and raise a family makes up for rural-life trade-offs, one of which has, in the town’s past, been a lack of diversity. As a lifelong world traveler often living as an ethnic minority, she says she is used to accepting differences and blending new cultures with her own.
“I know some Asian women here,” she says, with a short laugh. “There’s not many, but a few. It’s not Seattle. But I honestly feel that I can live anywhere, generally speaking. Obviously now, I’m very thankful that I can live here in Twisp, in this corner of the world. It really is a very unique place.”
THE TOWN LAST FALL returned that gratitude very publicly. In the November general election, Ing-Moody was challenged by Vern Nations, a former mayor who had resigned the post in 2008, setting off a succession of three short-timers that led to Ing-Moody. Two city council seats also were contested, forming what amounted to an opposition slate.
The election, which drew raised eyebrows early on with news that a shocking $5,000 in donations had piled up, culminated in a much-anticipated candidates’ forum, attended by 165 residents. But Nations and the other two candidates didn’t show up. The election went accordingly, with Ing-Moody and her council mates winning with majorities of more than 70%.
“Folks like the trajectory of the town,” Smith concludes.
And so Twisp bought itself four more years of Soo Ing-Moody — at a bargain-basement price of about $30,000 a year, for a job she now treats as full-time. Her rep as a get-it-done leader has drawn outside notice: She is tabbed to be the next president of the Association of Washington Cities, and has been named as a state “Woman of Valor” by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell.
Ing-Moody says she doesn’t have broader political aspirations, and still sees plenty of raggedy edges that could use filing around Twisp. It is, she says, a rare place where people have managed to keep their common interests above political bickering — at least during crunch times.
“We have differences in politics here,” she says, pointing to the Headwaters Campaign as an example of people freeing their hands of political leaning to embrace the old-fashioned notion of a common good.
“Why was that? It was because people value what we call home,” Ing-Moody says. “Simple as that. We succeed together.”
Please do not feed or divert those ducks, folks. Bask in the symmetry of the line.
On a given day, surely not everyone in Twisp is enamored with its overachieving, unlikely mayor. But going public with that might be tempting fate.
“It does make you kind of wonder,” says Smith, the council member who has watched it all happen. “They say sometimes a person either rises to the occasion, or the occasion selects the right person. It’s hard not to think there’s something else at play here that selected Soo, out of chaos.”
Twisp will take it either way.