Out here, below the snowcapped mountain slopes and along the rivers, folks know the risks.

While nothing as bad as last weekend's devastating mudslide had ever happened around here before, they've always known about the dangers of the earth collapsing, and how easily streams can flood when it rains.

And yet this is where they choose to live.

Many came to work in the timber and mining industries and stayed for the scenery, the isolation and the sense of community.

"It's just beautiful. You wake up in the morning and you can hear the eagles," said Jason Henry.

His wife, Vanessa, added: "It's like a big family here. A lot of outsiders don't understand that."

The small lumber-mill community of Darrington sits about 10 miles east of the area where a huge wall of mud, trees and other debris wiped out an entire neighborhood Saturday morning, obliterating houses and killing at least 24 people, with scores still missing.

At the Red Top Tavern on the edge of town in the shadow of snow-capped Whitehorse Mountain, bartender Debbie Meredith served up cold beers this week and dished out hugs to crying customers who stopped in to share stories about some of the people they may never see again.

Gathered around the bar, patrons talked about the wedding that was planned for a young couple whose bodies haven't been found, and of the man they call "the Indian" — everyone has nicknames here — who was still waiting for word about the fate of one of his relatives.

"It's OK. You let it out," Meredith told a man as she gave him a hug and served him a beer while he wiped away tears and cursed aloud in frustration.

"That's what we do here. We let them vent," she said, moving back behind the bar. "This is our community."

By big-city standards — Seattle is 75 miles south — Darrington isn't much, with just about 1,300 residents and a median annual household income of roughly $31,000. The main employer is the nearby Hampton Lumber Mill.

There's also the Burger Barn, the Mountain Loop Country Store, the Darrington Motor Inn and a smattering of other small businesses, but most people either make their living off the land or commute for work and then return to the hamlet to enjoy the peace and quiet amid the lush pastures, steep peaks and winding two-lane roads.

"We came here for the logging and the mining, but we stayed for the connection," said Laura Grimmer, a teacher who has been helping distribute donated food and clothing to people who lost their homes. She said locals refer to the outside world as "down below."

Oso, where the mudslide happened, is even less of a town, largely just a grouping of several hundred homes along a river. It is tucked into a narrow valley below the steep mountain slope that suddenly gave way, crushing everything in its path.

Many in Oso would make daily trips to Darrington for groceries or a cocktail or just to catch up with friends. The entire area here is like one big community of friends and family where folks exchange hellos on the street or at the post office or the town library that also doubles as City Hall.

Frequent rainfall and the loose glacial soil make the area prone to landslides. One happened as recently as 2006, but no one was killed, while smaller ones occurred in 1988 and 1967.

The grief around these parts is palpable, but as talk turns slowly to the task of recovering and getting state or federal aid to help rebuild their lives, no one seems to have thoughts of leaving.

Many say it's no different here than in parts of the country that get hit by hurricanes or wildfires. After Hurricane Katrina wiped out entire neighborhoods across Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005, for instance, many rebuilt right where their homes were destroyed.

"Every day I wake up and think to myself, 'God, it wasn't just a bad dream,'" Meredith said, consoling yet another customer at the Red Top Tavern who broke down in tears. "It can be dangerous out here, the rivers and flooding, the mountains and landslides, but we love it, and I wouldn't leave. ... We all know the risks."


Associated Press writers Manuel Valdes and Phuong Le also contributed to this report.