SEATTLE – Nancy Zingheim barely knew Rita Poe when Poe approached her office at a Washington state RV park. Poe, a shy registered nurse, had a request for the RV park business manager: Could Zingheim help her with her will?
Weeks later, the 66-year-old Poe died of colorectal cancer. In her will, she left nearly $800,000 to a dozen national wildlife refuges and parks, mostly in the American West. She named Zingheim the executor.
Zingheim knew little about Poe, who had moved to the Evergreen Coho SKP RV Park in the small town of Chimacum just five months earlier. She knew even less about national wildlife refuges.
That was in 2015. This year, Zingheim embarked on a 4,000-mile road trip to learn more about the woman who lived in an Airstream trailer with her dog and cat – and the wild places that captivated her.
“I wanted to see what they were,” said Zingheim, 62. “I decided that I wasn’t going to suddenly write checks to places at face value. I wanted to do my due diligence and find out what they needed.”
Over nine days, she drove Poe’s Ford pickup truck in a loop of the American West. She visited six national wildlife refuges in California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington – part of a vast network of reserves across the United States where wild lands are protected for wildlife.
President Theodore Roosevelt established the first refuge in 1903 at Florida’s Pelican Island. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages more than 560 such refuges. From wetlands in Florida to tropical forests in Hawaii, the lands are set aside for migratory birds, alligators, bears and countless other creatures. There’s at least one in each state, and a majority are open to the public for free.
At each stop, Zingheim asked around: Do you know Rita? No one did. One person recalled Poe’s 27-foot Airstream trailer but little else.
“To this day, I don’t think any of us knew a lot about her,” Zingheim said.
Zingheim also took a tour of each refuge. She asked refuge managers what they needed and wanted. And she tried to imagine how Poe connected to these places.
“The reserves, they’re quiet places. I could see Rita there,” she said.
In time, bits of Poe emerged. Poe grew up in Southern California, worked as a nurse at a suburban Los Angeles hospital and spent time in Texas.
Terry Poe said he last saw his sister in 2007. After their parents died, leaving them money, he said, she bought a trailer and traveled around the Western U.S. to various refuges and national parks.
“She enjoyed nature and being out in nature,” he said in a telephone interview from Southern California.
Rita Poe owned several high-end cameras. She was a birder. On her computer, Zingheim found stunning photographs of birds, bears, ocelots and bobcats. There were trips to New Mexico, Arizona and Canada.
Zingheim said that in the process of carrying out Poe’s wishes, she felt she’d been granted her own bequest. And she’s grateful for it.
“I saw things that I would never have seen,” Zingheim said. “I didn’t know a national wildlife reserve even existed. I don’t think a lot of people out there know about them. They should. They’re wonderful places.”
Brian Wehausen gave Zingheim a tour of the Camas National Wildlife Refuge’s high desert landscape and wetlands when she showed up last spring. Poe had taken photographs of bald eagles and moose on a visit to the southeast Idaho refuge.
“Our refuge is fairly small. It would seem to fit a personality like Rita’s,” said Wehausen, refuge manager. “She could come out here, bird, photograph, and she doesn’t have to see a lot of other people.”
Back on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula after her trip, Zingheim sat down last month and wrote checks. They included money to support Camas, the Merced National Wildlife Refuge in California, Little Pend Oreille National Wildlife Refuge in Washington, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon and Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah.
She also sent money to Yellowstone National Park, two state parks and a Texas birding center.
“There’s a spiritual connection that people feel about these places. They have a lot of meaning to a lot of people,” Tracy Casselman, project leader for the wildlife refuge complex that includes Camas.
Casselman said Poe’s gift will ensure more people enjoy such places.
With each check, Zingheim wrote a letter directing how some money should be used. “I think she would have agreed with me, I really do,” said Zingheim, who has since adopted Poe’s dog, Iggy.
Steve Gillard, the Washington attorney who handled Poe’s will, said it’s unusual for people to name someone they barely know to distribute their estate.
“But it’s very unusual for a person like Nancy to take on that responsibility. She’s a very good human being.”
Zingheim also fulfilled one of Poe’s wishes: She scattered the nature lover’s ashes in a wooded area surrounded by Washington’s snow-capped Olympic Mountains.
She added: “Every time I drive by, I say ‘Hi, Rita.’”