Lady of the canyon
The amazing story of Martha Rowe, who calls a tree house home
In December Martha Rowe called the Butte County Sheriff’s Office to report her common-law husband of 42 years, Lowell Sutton, was missing. In fact, she said, he’d been gone for six days before she called.
His body was found by a search-and-rescue team four days later. He’d apparently died of exposure while lost in a remote box canyon located within Butte Creek Canyon, about two miles south of Forest Ranch’s Doe Mill Road.
At first take, the story may sound a bit fishy. Why’d she wait so long? What was he doing in the canyon?
But you have to understand: Martha and Lou were apparently the stuff of legend around these parts, at least for the back-to-the-earth generation that lived in Butte County’s foothills in the 1970s.
Here’s why: Martha, 60, and Lou, who died at the age of 85, met 42 years ago in Chico, moved in together soon after and then lived for most of the next several decades in a tree house in the canyon where Lou was found on Dec. 15. They kept to themselves and were seldom seen, emerging from their Eden to Helltown Road every two months to hitch a ride to Chico, where they would secure their living provisions before heading back to the canyon.
They had no electricity, no phone, no plumbing—except for the plastic pipes they used to siphon water from the year-round spring that feeds a nearby creek.
It’s a story that is difficult to comprehend; one of those you-had-to-be-there yarns. I interviewed Martha about a month after Lou died. She was staying in a room at the Quality Inn in downtown Chico while tending the business that comes after the death of a loved one. Martha is an interesting mix of new-age spirituality, old-age hippie, gritty realism and an obvious tenacity for survival. And she occasionally offers reverence to God.
Plus, she is a talker, rattling off thoughts, accounts and memories with a stream of consciousness that rushes like the creek that flows past the three-story tree house in the canyon where she has spent her adult life.
Present at that first interview were Ron and Fran Toburen, owners of the property where Martha and Lou lived. They purchased the land, 518 acres, in 1974.
“Lou and Martha were already there,” said Ron. “They came with the land.”
The Toburens had purchased the property from a man named John Hettle, who owned the Seattle Mining Co. Hettle had no problem allowing the elusive couple to live on the land. And neither did the Toburens.
“They were on a spiritual path that meshed with ours,” Ron said. “Not the same, but we had mutual interests.”
Martha grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and came west soon after high school in 1970. Her father had died and she did not get along with her mother. Plus she had a sister already living in Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. She flew out and met her sister, but she said soon after she arrived a voice told her to go to Chico.
“It wasn’t a like voice in my head,” she explained. “It’s more of what I call ‘inner guidance.’”
During the summer of 1970, she lived in a house on Salem Street that had been temporarily vacated by Chico State students. She met Lou about three months after she’d gotten to Chico at a full-moon get-together in Whiskey Flats, an area along the Feather River about five miles northeast of Paradise.
“He had come down for a full-moon party,” she said. “He was a recluse back then. He had already started the tree house. He’d tried living in a cave, but that didn’t work.”
She said their connection was instant.
“He looked at me and I looked at him and he said, ‘Is that really you, Martha?’ He recognized me—if you believe in past lifetimes; if you’re into that kind of thing. Well, we recognized one another. And we bonded.”
She said he had lived in Southern California where he went through two marriages and two divorces.
“He was very intelligent and had a job with the Braun Chemical Co. After the second divorce he went down to Mexico to clear his head out decided to go back to school, so he went up to San Jose and got a job up there as a foreman in the Silicon Valley in Sunnyvale. It was right at the chip boom and he said to me, ‘Martha, I feel like I was getting too good and I didn’t want to earn a lot of money and do that path.’”
By then, she said, she was tired of men, even at that young of an age, but she was impressed with his maturity. She and Lou started seeing each other at the house on Salem Street.
“It was perfect,” she continued. “He and I understood each other. As far as legal marriage, he asked me about that and since he had gone through the wringer and I said, ‘Look, I am just going to marry you spiritually.’”
That would come back to haunt her 42 years later. She does not receive Lou’s social-security benefits because, like most states, California does not recognize common-law marriage.
“That’s not panning out so well in these times,” she said. “But I’ve got other work I’m going to be doing if I’m going to remain on the planet.”
Over the years, she said, they each did odd jobs for income; she worked for Continental Nut from time to time and he did some industrial work.
“We didn’t have a lot of money,” she said, “but we didn’t have a lot of expenses.”
Martha recounted the week when she lost Lou. He went missing, she said, on Monday, Dec. 5, which was a full moon.
“He was supposed to stay,” she said. “We had this buddy system and it was our protocol to always leave a note if we went somewhere. He would leave one that said, ‘Gone for wood,’ and leave a dog paw print on it. We’d always tell each other.”
She said when she last talked to him Lou was anxious about work that had to be done and the fact he was not feeling well.
On Tuesday she fixed dinner for herself and Lou. He was still gone. She got up the next morning to fix some damage done by a bear. Still no Lou. She told herself that maybe he had gone up to visit the neighbors.
“I calmed myself down. I was working both days on food and shelter. Something we had to with the cold coming and the bear damage.” On Wednesday she finished the house cleaning and repairs and got ready to head to town.
“I get up early with plans of asking if anyone on the top of the Buttes or in town had seen Lou. I didn’t know he was in the woods until Thursday when I walked out to go into town that morning and I heard him call, ‘Martha.’
“So I wandered around like a little duck in a circle for about an hour and I told him, ‘Go home.’ And I kept saying that. ‘Go home.’ He knew that canyon like the back of his hand. I said, ‘I’ve got to go get the mail and I’ll be right back. The bills are coming in.’ I said, ‘I’m not staying long.’
“I hit Winco and went right back up the hill, jamming up Highway 32 at 70 miles per hour. I get home and put boots on and run over [to Lou’s studio] to give him a beer and fix a good meal. No Lou. I panic.”
She went back out and called to Lou. It was getting dark and she told him she’d be back at first daylight. She made up a rescue pack with food, medicine, water and Lou’s heavy coat, which he had left in the tree house.
She awoke early on Friday morning, grabbed the rescue pack and headed back up the trail.
“I get up to where I last heard him and he calls out of the woods and says, ‘I can’t see.’ That’s the tragedy. That part. That was really the worst thing I’ve ever been through in my life.”
She said she tried to cut through the thick brush without luck.
“I told him to go back down towards the water. I figure if he’s blind he can go downhill. But you get in those ravines. This is where I made my choice of rescue rather than going to the authorities. The last words I hear Lou saying is, ‘Maybe this will work.’ That was so Lou. But he’s in a place that is all overgrown. The deer can’t even get through.”
The next morning, Sunday, she hiked up to a neighbor’s house to call the authorities.
“The search team arrived and they came up with everything,” she recalled. “Helicopters, vehicles, bikes. Everything. But no Lou.”
Monday morning’s search did not locate him. They looked again on Tuesday. Martha came to town and checked into the Quality Inn. Nothing on Wednesday. Lou’s body was found about noon on Thursday, Dec. 15.
A few weeks after interviewing Martha within the comfort of the Quality Inn, I made the arduous trek down to the “homestead,” as the sheriff’s office press release had labeled her and Lou’s residence. I had to see this for myself.
I drove up to Forest Ranch with CN&R sales rep Brian Corbit, who had met Lou and Martha through Matt and Debra Lou Luksic, a Forest Ranch couple who live off Doe Mill Road. The trail that now leads to the tree house begins on the Luksics’ property.
Lou and Martha gave up the five-mile hike to Helltown when they bought a car, which happened after Lou began collecting Social Security. The car is parked in the Luksics’ driveway. Martha now drives it down the hill for supplies every two weeks.
The Luksics have owned the property 20 years, initially living in a trailer while Matt, who used to own Chico’s Absolute Audio, built the house. The house sits on the edge of the canyon and from the balcony you can see the Thermalito Afterbay and the Feather River.
The Luksics are friendly and welcoming, but enjoy their privacy. Like most who were aware of the elusive couple, Matt Luksic said he didn’t know them well, but guessed that Lou, who was born in 1926, had had his fill of society.
“I think Lou was tired,” he offered. “He lived through two wars, two wives and had kids with each.”
He remembered the first time he saw Lou.
“I didn’t know they were there when I bought the property,” he said. “At first I thought, ‘Well, gosh, this guy actually is just trespassing.’ But then I got to know him and I realized he was a good old guy. He’d paid his dues.”
Almost as soon as we started the trek down, we were met by Martha and her walking stick coming up. It was her day to drive to town for supplies. She greeted us with enthusiasm and offered to turn around and go back down with us. We said no, not after she had walked this far out, that we could come back another time.
She immediately told us to go ahead and help ourselves. We said goodbye and headed down.
The path to the humble abode is hardly a path at all. The incline is extremely steep and the trail, if you can call it that, doesn’t switch back and forth to help ease the way. It’s knee-straining travel over moss-covered rocks, through red manzanita, past towering oaks and double-trunk bay trees.
At one point, perhaps halfway down, Lou installed a railing of rope and quarter-inch gas pipe, strung together and fastened to the trees. Its flexible bur offers enough support to take the pressure off your knees. About two miles down and a half-hour later, the ground levels out and you can cross the creek stepping on rocks strategically placed by Lou who knows how long ago.
The first structure we could see was the studio Lou built as a temporary shelter when the tree house was damaged by a falling oak tree on Thanksgiving 2004. Nearby are two tarp-shrouded structures that serve as the outhouse and the shower. Water is siphoned from the year-round spring that feeds the creek that runs nearby.
The tree house looks to be cobbled together with sheets of both corrugated plastic and tin, tarps, chicken wire, tree limbs, 2-by-4s, plywood, glass and screen.
Three galvanized metal tubs and a series of clotheslines tied between trees serve as the laundry. There are the tools needed for such living conditions: shovels, axes, hand saws.
We poked around, tried to imagine living here for a week, let alone 42 years, and then headed back up the trail. During the trip up, which took close to an hour, I had to stop numerous times to catch my breath and give my heart a break from its elevated activity.
I swore I’d never do this again. Two weeks later I was back with my son, Dugan, dragging him along as the photographer. As we got near Martha’s homestead I began yelling her name. She finally answered, “Tom is that you?” I was startled at first, before remembering she had invited me back two weeks prior and doesn’t get many guests. She hugged us both.
“Boy, I’m really glad somebody came,” she said. “I really thank you for coming all this way. I do like company. And I do miss the company Lou gave me.”
Martha was hospitable, offering us glasses of Tang and then giving the tour, beginning with the first floor of the tree house, which had a very low-hanging ceiling.
“This used to be my room for years. It had a mattress and now it is storage. We were always glad we were off the ground because of animals.”
She said she and Lou had been working for some time to repair damage from the Thanksgiving tree fall seven years earlier.
“I’m still working on it and I just got a clue from Lou to use that window over in the studio and put it over here. I’ll work that one out later. So, Lou’s been guiding me all along.”
Then she showed us the evidence of claw marks where bears had climbed wooden steps, entered the third floor and ransacked the place.
“Isn’t that a trip?” she said. “I think the mother came in and threw stuff out the window to the cubs. I imagine the cubs were out there catching it—peanut butter, coffee and rum. Lou and I drank rum. It was our medicine.”
She was quiet and reflective for a moment and then came back to the present.
“What a mess,” she said, recalling the bear story.
She pointed to a shelf that looked a bit crooked.
“This board is connected to this tree, which is growing and that’s why this is all askew,” she said. “There are certain dynamics when you are living in a tree.”
In the last years, the third floor was Lou’s space, she said. There’s a small wooden chair by a window that offers a spectacular view of the canyon walls and top to the east.
“That’s what Lou saw and that’s where he is,” she said. “In the old days we lived up here, this was a family room. Lou slept downstairs and I slept upstairs ’cause we just kicked each other, we just slept better alone! It was just that simple.”
She said she noticed Lou’s health had started to decline soon after he turned 85 Oct. 13.
“We were redoing the roof but getting the supplies in was hard. He wasn’t carrying as much at the end. He went down fast. His legs were thin.”
It was getting time to make the trek back up the trail to the canyon top, and we reluctantly said we had to go. She gave us walking sticks.
“This is my staff so leave it up at the head of the trail there. I’ve got an extra one. I’ve been making them because people need a stick to get up that hill.”
She stopped and looked around.
“This is God’s space in my mind,” she said.