(Please note: I have completely updated this story. Rather than reading this one, I recommend you find my story entitled, “The Magical Place That Was Bum Canyon”. It tells the story, from A to Z.)
I spent a happy childhood in Yakima with my dad, mom and older brother Al. From 1954 to 1959, we lived at 707 South 2nd Avenue in a little white house rented from the Dugger family. I attended my beloved Hoover Elementary School. Our neighborhood was located near a geographical feature that was really special: to the north and east of our neighborhood, sat a sort of canyon (gulch?). Everyone – kids, grownups – called it Bum Canyon. It was a naturally carved-out area that was perhaps a mile long and a quarter-mile wide. I was only five to ten years old when we lived near it, so it may have seemed larger than it was! – I wonder if it’s still there, in the condition it was in, back in the 50’s? I tried looking at Google Maps, and I think it is now the site of various warehouses and other commercial buildings.
The canyon was located fairly close to Rock Ave. to the east, and Lennox Ave. (now called Nob Hill) to the north. To get to the canyon floor, one had to travel downhill, taking either the steep slope near 2nd and Lennox, or the more-gentle slope, somewhere east of Rock Avenue (it’s been too long for me to remember which street is right next to the canyon). Just a block or two north of our house was a city-built barrier fence, erected to prevent out-of-control cars from going over the canyon’s edge.
Walking into Bum Canyon was like entering the Old West. It was mostly an empty, arid area, home only to tumbleweeds, sagebrush, wildflowers, and maybe a few trees. When we kids played cowboys and Indians, we played in authentic surroundings!
Freight trains traveled north and south through the east side of the canyon. There was a large, brick ice house where trains stopped to allow boxcars to take on huge blocks of ice. Sometimes we went to the ice house and visited with the ice house workers, who used ice clamps and picks in their work. Some had fingers missing from their hands! Occasionally they’d chip off a little chuck of ice for us. — A real treat at our young age, especially on a hot Yakima summer day.
On the northwest side of the canyon’s edge, was situated a large apple warehouse. We would stop by the office, and in return for a dime, friendly folks would hand us red delicious apples the size of grapefruits. They were the best apples I ever ate.
Flying a kite in or near the canyon was fun, because there was nothing but sky overhead. There was nothing in which to entangle the string or tail. The canyon was always a great place to play. In summer, we would build tumbleweed forts and pretend we were cavalry soldiers. Or, we’d ride bikes all over the place, our tires making snake trails in the dry, dusty dirt. The ultimate sign of bravery would be for a boy to ride his bike down the very steep hill near the barrier fence, and live to tell about it! In winter, we sledded speedily down the hill; or we would spend hours building and playing in awesome snow forts. We were blessed with plenty of snow!
The hill leading down to the canyon floor was not nearly as steep when you approached it from the west, and that is how I entered the canyon to go bird watching. I read an article in Weekly Reader about being a bird watcher, which totally piqued my interest. So, outfitted in my special bird-watching gear (hat and shorts, binocs and bird book), I would venture to the canyon, mainly spying sparrows, robins and crows, the occasional dove or flicker, and in the evenings, nighthawks. (I saw few if any true hawks or falcons. That was the era when various agricultural chemicals had decimated the predatory bird population. Thankfully, raptors and the like have made a great comeback in Eastern Washington.) I had a little sketchbook in which I drew primitive pictures of the various birds I spotted – I was not exactly an Audubon! – If I was really lucky, a jackrabbit would bolt out from under the brush. They looked huge and so wild! Not like the little bunnies you see on some hiking trails. – I have always enjoyed solitude, and I found plenty while birding in Bum Canyon.
Which is not to say no one else ever frequented the canyon! Hobos would jump off the freight trains and occasionally make camp overnight, just blocks from our neighborhood. We’d bump into them in the canyon once in a while. They’d sometimes have things to say to us, sometimes profound, sometimes profane. We children played unsupervised; but I never heard tell of anyone being hurt by any hobo. The hungrier, perhaps more desperate men among them would sometimes go door-to-door on our block, asking for handouts. I remember when my mom gave a hobo a can of tamales. At the end of the block, a police car sat waiting. An officer motioned to the man, who climbed right in like it was a taxi. There was no look of surprise or regret on his face. – I remember this.
Near the barrier fence at the end of 2nd Ave., an old metal pipe stuck up a couple of inches out of the ground. Cool water bubbled up from the pipe. We pretended it was our spring. A lot of us kids had Native American in us, some a little, some a lot. We once held a ceremony to bless the spring; then we drank the cool water. It tasted funny — metallic. To this day I don’t know what that pipe was doing there. I don’t believe it contained irrigation water. It looked really old. I think we were lucky to not get ill from our activity. My mom told me to stop drinking that water.
A building contractor, Mr. Munger, lived very near Bum Canyon, in a house he built on property which overlooked it. One afternoon, Mr. Munger decided to burn a few tires in the canyon. We kids thought this was just swell. Mr. Munger saw how excited we were, so he told us he had dozens more tires which we could burn. So we went back and forth between his house and the ever-growing fire, rolling more “fuel”. Mr. Munger fed more and more tires into the fire, which soon sent thick, acrid smoke into the air. After sunset, the fire department came to extinguish the noxious fire, and we kids ran away. We heard Mr. Munger got into a little trouble. I didn’t ask him about it. He was scary and nice at the same time. He didn’t like many kids, especially after little David Ellis broke into his back yard and killed a bunch of baby rabbits. But he took a liking to my brother and me. He would invite us in for a visit. Every visit was the same: Mr. Munger would take a small cabinet down from a shelf, and he would show us various keepsakes kept in the cabinet’s little compartments. The piece de resistance was always this: the old man would open the last compartment and extract a little cloth-wrapped bundle. He would slowly, solemnly unwrap it. When he had removed the cloth, he was left holding a very small box, perhaps a small matchbox, lined with cotton. On the cotton lay what looked like a very old tooth. Mr. Munger would say, “This is an old Indian tooth. And because I have it, this Indian will not go to the Happy Hunting Ground.” My brother and I would stare in awe at the tooth, pondering the heavy meaning of Mr. Munger’s words. Every visit led up to, and ended with this ritual. – I remember this.
I’ve always been a light sleeper. In the middle of the night, I would stand and look out my bedroom window. By the light of the moon, I would see and hear the trains going slowly by. We were just close enough to hear the rumble of the steel wheels, or to hear the cars banging into each other. I would think about where the trains had been and where they were heading. – Looking a little southward, off in the distance, I could see a revolving metallic or lit sign slowly turning in front of a business, probably on 1st Street. I’m going to take a guess and say it was Goddard’s sign.
Very close to the west side of the canyon, there stood a huge, abandoned, old stone, or wood and stone, house, built in in a style that I’d say was akin to the craftsman style. I believe it would have been in the 600 block of S. 3rd Ave, right on the corner. We once got in through a window and slid big, old stuffed chairs and at least one couch down the long stairs, and we threw smaller pieces of furniture around. I think we were too young to realize we were vandalizing the place. We were just having fun in an old house that had not been lived in for ages. – If I could go back in time and visit now, I would be looking for treasures that had been left behind by a family who, for one reason or another, had to pick up and leave suddenly. – When I was 22, not long before I left Yakima for good, I moved back to 2nd Ave. I remember riding my bike on 3rd, toward town, and seeing that the house was still standing. I’m not sure, but I think it was still abandoned. I wonder if it remains?
I’m 65 years old now. Fifty-five years have passed since I explored Bum Canyon. I doubt much of the activity I’ve described takes place now. — I don’t know. Do kids still play in the canyon? Do men, and perhaps women of the road make camp for the night? Do jackrabbits jump out of the bushes, causing one to experience fright and delight simultaneously? Does the sun beat down on the tumbleweeds? Those are questions I won’t be able to answer for myself. I live in a “senior building” in the Lower Queen Anne neighborhood of Seattle, and to this day, I just walk or ride my bike. I have no way to get to Bum Canyon, nor do I have folks to stay with in Yakima. So: tell me what you know!