By Bob Difley
The craggy mountains of Washington’s rugged North Cascade Range rise like the teeth of a woodsman’s saw, it’s jagged peaks tearing gashes in the saturated winter storm clouds blown eastward by the powerful jet stream. Swirling blizzards spill out of the wounds smothering peaks and valleys with an impenetrable white blanket, clinging to trees like wet cement, filling chasms, and piling high over streams and trails.
Until the spring thaw, you can forget about travel. Until the first road was strung over the North Cascades even fair-weather travel was indomitable.
From the top of 5477-foot Washington Pass, the eastern boundary of North Cascades National Park, the Methow River drains off the high country’s snowmelt, spilling in torrential rapids and chiseling steep ravines into the rocky slopes. Enough waterfalls somersault over abrupt precipices to fill a coffee table book with stunning photographs.
For centuries Mother Nature’s dynamic forces of wind, rain, ice and snow have battered the cliffs and crags, pummeled and cleaved the exposed rock, scoured and abraded even the tough immutable granite faces. An efficient network of streams and rivers carries off tons of eroded sediment in a tumultuous descent, spreading the mountain shavings and muddy rich earth over a widening, lush, green Methow Valley.
Thirty downhill miles to the east of Washington Pass, the town of Winthrop nestles in the heart of the valley. Trappers and mountain men were the first non-Native Americans to pass through the valley in the 1800s, but the lure of gold brought the first permanent settlers in 1883.
Among them was Guy Waring, who operated his Methow Trading Company up into the mid-20th century. His Duck Brand Saloon, built in 1891, now serves as the Town Hall. Drinks are no longer served. Owen Wister, Waring’s Harvard roommate, penned America’s first Western novel, The Virginian, after spending his honeymoon in Winthrop.
He wrote in his journal in 1892, “At about eleven we drove up to Guy Waring’s gate in the rain. My huge journey was done, and I was glad indeed to see him and his new venture on the frontier…. The weather cleared, leaving the valley shining with yellow autumn and the high peaks all in snow.“
Once only a small trading post for local homesteaders, miners, loggers and sheep ranchers, Winthrop was totally inaccessible from the more populated areas to the west. Then came the construction of Route 20 over the rugged terrain and into the valley in 1972, signaling the inevitability of the coming of new visitors in bright colored shirts and shorts, with children licking ice cream cones, and dogs straining at leashes. Winthrop would never be the same.
Fortuitously, the owners of the local sawmill, Otto and Kathryn Wagner, wanted to give something back to the area in which their mill flourished. They conceived the idea of a restored old frontier town, one that would attract these new wayfarers and sightseers. With their own sizable monetary gift, and with additional contributions from local merchants and landowners thrown into the pot, they hired an architect and sign painter.
Before long, the town’s plain pragmatic face underwent a Pollyanna makeover emerging as the reborn old Winthrop. In typical Western town fashion, decorative facades now hid the rough-hewn log construction of utilitarian buildings. Today its board sidewalks, mercantile stores, cowboy saloons, and eateries – and the modern era’s required espresso house and ice cream parlor – delight squealing children and retired RVers alike.
When the long-awaited warming spring rays from Old Man Sun melt the snows and awaken an explosion of wildflowers, the forest roads and trails fill with winter-weary hikers, mountain bikers, horseback riders and explorers of all types. Fly-fishing and whitewater rafting draw enthusiasts to the Methow River and its tributaries.
The woodsy and primitive National Forest campgrounds, RV parks and resorts, and country inns provide any kind of accommodations that suit your fancy.
But the land, green and spread out, is still wild and free, and Winthrop’s ambiance still exudes old West cowboy. Don’t be surprised to come face to face with a cacophony of cattle herded down Main Street by a trio of wranglers headed for seasonal pastures.
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