Lou and Martha

Remembering two legendary tree-house dwellers

I hadn’t thought about Lou and Martha for years, until I read in the Enterprise-Record of his death early this month. It’s easy to forget about people who are hiding out in the woods.

Of course, that was what made Lou and Martha semi-legendary figures among residents of the Helltown area of Butte Creek Canyon. How many people do you know who live in a tree house four miles up a foot trail, hidden away in an isolated box canyon, with no electricity, no running water, no phone and no neighbors, for 42 years?

When I lived in Helltown, in the mid-1970s, Lou and Martha were popular topics of conversation. My friends and I would have “Lou and Martha sightings” when they walked out to Centerville Road, where they’d hitch a ride to town for provisions. They had an aura that said “Let us alone,” but a few people hiked up to their place for visits. They were friendly enough. They lived in an elaborate, multiroom tree house and had a big garden, a scene that visitors described as “Edenic.”

Another friend visited them just a couple of years ago. By then Lou was 83 and Martha 58, and they no longer lived together in the tree house. She’d moved into a nearby hand-built shack, apparently.

At some point, Lou started receiving Social Security, and that enabled them to buy a car. They parked it on Doe Mill Ridge, above their home, and carved a steep trail on the canyon wall to get in and out.

According to Greg Welter’s report in the E-R, Lou’s real name was Lowell Everett Sutton, and Martha’s last name is Rowe. Who knew? To us they were Lou and Martha, and that sufficed.

He’d been missing for 10 days when searchers found his body. Martha said she’d “heard him calling for her from somewhere in the canyon on Dec. 8,” Welter reports, and again on Friday, Dec. 9. When he hadn’t shown up by Sunday, she hiked two miles to call the sheriff. It took searchers another four days to find his body.

No doubt some folks are wondering why she didn’t go for help sooner, but that ignores an obvious fact: They weren’t like other couples.

Would Jesus have joined Occupy? I guess it depends on which Jesus you mean. The angry Jesus of the Religious Right who scorns gays and Muslims? Probably not. But the Jesus who came to Jerusalem to protest income inequality and greedy bankers and threw the money-lenders out of the temple? Count him in.

As some commentators have noted, the “cleansing of the temple” was in fact a protest against the transformation of the temple into a bank and tax-collection agency that benefited the wealthy at the expense of the poor. Jesus preached humility, generosity and compassion, but he was also fully capable of righteous indignation. That’s something worth remembering—and celebrating—this holiday season.

May yours be filled with joy and love.

Robert Speer is editor of the CN&R.