I spent a happy childhood in Yakima, Washington with my dad, Al Bowles, Jr. (aka “Cowboy Pinkeye), mom, Jeannie, and older brother, Al III. From 1954 to 1959, we lived at 707 South 2nd Avenue in a little white house rented from the Cal Dugger family. I attended my beloved Hoover Elementary School. This was during an era in which kids, and dogs, roamed free. Our neighborhood was located near a very special geographical feature: to the north and east of our neighborhood, sat a sort of canyon (gulch?). Everyone – kids and grownups alike – 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 often wondered if it was still there, in the condition it was in back in the 50’s. I recently looked at Google Maps, and what I saw in the canyon’s location was an array of warehouses and other commercial buildings.
The canyon was located fairly close to Volker Avenue to the east, and Lennox Avenue (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, east of Volker. 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. Because, frankly, there was quite a bit of drinking and driving going on in our area, in the mid-50’s.
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 kids walked to the ice house and visited with the “icemen”, 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 for a dime, friendly folks would hand us red delicious apples the size of grapefruits. They were the sweetest, juiciest 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 or girl to ride his or her 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. And, of course, we were blessed with plenty of snow!
I heard from a former neighbor of mine, who responded to my request for Bum Canyon memories. She had this to say regarding her and her friends’ activities: “We would go down there and build fires, camp out all day, ride our bikes. The bums would steal them and the police would find them all mangled on the tracks by Union Gap. We sledded down the hills all winter. That was our favorite place to be.”
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. My Aunt Boo Boo (actually, Mary Lou), from Chattanooga, Tennessee, had sent me the huge John Audubon book, “Birds of America”, which I loved. 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 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 John Audubon! –
If I was really lucky, a jackrabbit would bolt out from under the brush. Although, I was always startled when this happened! 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 I always had only myself for company. Hobos would jump off the freight trains and occasionally camp in the canyon overnight, just blocks from our residential neighborhood. We’d encounter 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 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.
Recently, a woman who grew up near the canyon told me her mom would give the hobos sandwiches. However, her mom said they started getting aggressive, so she quit in the early 60’s.
Near the barrier fence at the end of 2nd Avenue, an old metal pipe protruded 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, where we innocently prayed the Great Spirit; 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 not to get ill from our activity. When I told her about it, Mom told me to stop drinking that water.
A middle-aged building contractor, Mr. Munger, lived very near Bum Canyon, in a house he built on property overlooking 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, and seeing an opportunity to get rid of his entire stockpile of “useless” tires, he told us he had dozens more which we could burn. So we went back and forth between his house and the ever-growing fire, rolling more “fuel” down the steep hill. 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 litter of baby rabbits. But he took a liking to my brother and me, because we knew how to behave. He would invite us in for a visit. Every visit was the same: Mr. Munger would retrieve a small curio cabinet from a shelf; then, he would show us various keepsakes he kept in the cabinet’s little compartments. The piece de resistance was always this: the older 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 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 Grounds.” 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 liked to stand and gaze out my bedroom window. By the light of the moon, I would see and hear the freight 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. Sometimes, they would blow their whistles, soft and low. (To this day, I stop cold, listening intently, when I hear train whistles coming through my apartment window in Seattle.) — I would think about where the trains had been and where they were heading. Perhaps they were travelling to Seattle, the far-away town where I was born, but not raised. — Looking a little southward, off in the distance, I could see a revolving metallic or lit sign, slowly turning in front of a business, which was probably on 1st Street. I believe it was Goddard Appliances’ sign.
Very close to the west side of the canyon, there stood a huge, abandoned old house, which I have learned was built in 1910, in a style that I’d say was akin to the craftsman style. 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 instead be looking for treasures 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 South 2nd Avenue. I remember riding my bike on 3rd Avenue, towards town, and feeling good that the house was still standing. And now, I’m so happy to share its photo with you. You can see how wonderfully it has been restored. Obviously, it is well-loved, serving the purpose for which it was built so carefully in 1910. (I learned that, in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the house served as the parsonage for the Central Assembly of God church. I find it very ironic that when I was a boy, I vandalized a parsonage, after having spent my early boyhood living in one! But I was still very young, and I didn’t realize what I was doing. My friends and I didn’t actually damage the house. We didn’t break any windows, or smash the sinks.)
I’m 66 years old now. Fifty-six years have passed since I explored Bum Canyon. 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 car, and no way to get to Bum Canyon, to see the area for myself. Nor do I have folks to stay with in Yakima. But I’m pretty certain that little-to-none of the activity I’ve described takes place now. I’ve heard from folks who wrote me to say that the jackrabbits are gone. They no longer explode out of the bushes, causing one to experience fright and delight simultaneously. I’ve heard that kids no longer play there.
Indeed, one of my correspondents confirmed that the canyon, as it existed in the 1950’s, is gone. She said construction of the Nob Hill overpass and the Shields buildings changed everything.
Much, if not all of Bum Canyon has been paved over. The micro-system where wildlife lived, where kids played, and where hobos occasionally camped, is a commercial area. Some might say it is the victim of progress.
Whether you think paving Bum Canyon and erecting buildings on it is a good thing or not, is up to you. I’m sure needed jobs were created. That’s a good thing. I’m just sad that the wildlife lost their niche, and that the kids lost a great place to play and learn a little about nature, right in the middle of town. Time marches on in Yakima, just as it does everywhere.
Do men, and perhaps women of the road make camp for the night? I highly doubt it. Does the sun beat down on the tumbleweeds? — I imagine there may be some growing up through the cracks in the asphalt and concrete.
Bum Canyon was like a little piece of desert, plucked out of New Mexico. The only things missing were the road runners and the cacti. It was a heavenly place to play, walk, enjoy alone time, look at natural plants and animals. I imagine it could have been developed in a totally different manner. We have a small nature preserve in Seattle that is in a highly developed, bustling area. I imagine this could have been done with Bum Canyon. It could have been made into a large park/sanctuary. But all that land was situated so near the railroad tracks, and near other warehouses. I can see how, from a business perspective, it made sense to do what they did. I am making these observations in Seattle, and from the perspective of a person who last saw the area years and years ago. But, I would have liked to have been present when plans were being made to change things so dramatically. It would have been interesting!
I don’t think I could stand to see the area now. I would probably shed tears. I would remember the nighthawks, jackrabbits and tumbleweeds, the wildflowers, and the good old dirt which we used to play in.
I realize that progress must take place. We all regret seeing something we loved replaced; but that is how it goes. Sometimes, no, often, we need to go with the flow.
One person who wrote me mentioned a feature which was added to Yakima after I had left: The Yakima Greenway. She described it thusly (paraphrased): “It is ten miles long, it includes the Yakima river, lakes, parks, nature trails. It runs from Yakima, south to Union Gap. There are wild life viewing platforms and nice walking trails.”
What I envisioned would have been totally different from the Greenway, because Bum Canyon was so dry. It was a desert-like environment, not green and leafy. It would have needed some work; but it could have been beautiful.
Here is a Google view of the area, as it is, not as it was.
Part of writing this story included asking my fellow members of the Facebook group pages, “Growing Up In Yakima, Wa” and “You Know You’re From Yakima When….” to share what they knew about the area called Bum Canyon. I received a good deal of information, in the form of comments. I’ve incorporated those comments here. My thanks to the following good people: LeAnn Evans, Cynthia Kimmel Keller, Debby Taylor Sanchez, Rick Schlosstein, Michael Johnson, Lourie Galutia, SalinaRose Morphis Mariscal.
Joni Mitchell weighs in on the conversation (just click below to hear it):