Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Concrete, Cascades and a Cool Cowtown

July 25-26

We spent just one day sampling North Cascades National Park. We drove from the western edge of the park to the eastern edge on the twisty North Cascades Scenic Highway, stopping along the way for little hikes, scenic overlooks, an exceptional bus and boat tour, and a torrential rainstorm that threatened to wash us off the road. To get in a full day at the park, we spent the night before in the town of Concrete (pop. 800), which lies just west of the park, and we spent the night after in the town of Winthrop (pop. 349), which promotes itself as the eastern gateway to the park.

As one might guess, Concrete was named for its main industry back in the 1890s. Unfortunately, its namesake industry closed in 1968, and it doesn't look like much has happened there since.

There are two motels in Concrete, and only one passed our drive by test. When Dick went to check in, only desperation to sleep somewhere other than our car tonight kept him from turning around and leaving the office when he looked through the open door behind the desk to see multiple cat food bowls, spilled cat food littering the floor and a generally untidy living space in the motel owners' apartment.

We got the last room in the hotel, and they charged us $85 for it, claiming it usually went for $120. The room was clean—evidently the owners contract out the motel housekeeping services to someone with higher standards than their own.

However, there was hardly room to move around the room, because it was stuffed with oversize furniture—a king size bed and a super-sized recliner chair that was almost as wide as the bed, plus a wide-screen television inside a massive armoire which was set on an angle in the room so that the television could be viewed easily from the mega-recliner. There was a big box fan blowing away on top of the desk, because the room had no air conditioning, and the Northwest is in the middle of a record heat wave. (Normally a big fan on the desk would be a problem, because we like to put our computer on the desk, but since there was no wi fi, we didn't use the computer much.) The only small thing in the place was the shower, which was about three feet by three feet, and had a nozzle that delivered water with about the same force as the power washer we use to clean our deck.

Someone must have convinced the owners that the key to customer satisfaction is not a comfortable and tastefully decorated room which can be adequately temperature controlled, but rather lots of take-away amenities. Our room included the normal shampoo, conditioner, and soap, but also offered body wash, cologne, a sewing kit inside a fancy zippered patent leather change purse, and an address book (none of which we chose to use or take away with us as fond reminders of our stay).

After checking in, we headed for the two block long downtown business district. It was empty as a ghost town. All the businesses were closed, except for two saloon-type restaurants across the street from each other. We chose one of them, and ate at the only free table. The other dozen tables were taken up by six Harley Davidson riders and all their clothing spread out to dry after a trip over the mountains in a torrential rainstorm.

As we were settling in for the night back at our motel, a storm warning siren blared into our window. After it continued for about five minutes, Dick went outside to check on what kind of disaster might be imminent, and he discovered that the shed next door to the motel is the volunteer fire department, and the siren was to alert the fire fighters of a fire somewhere. Maybe the natives have trouble getting a cell phone signal around here, just like us.

Enough about Concrete. Dick has the succinct analysis: "It's a little town that's trying hard, but has more spirit than assets."

On to North Cascades National Park, which boasts the steepest mountain range in North America. The mountains are so steep here that they have trouble finding flat land to build upon, which is why the park is truly mostly wild. The ranger office that issues backwoods permits was abuzz with activity, a long line of backpackers and camping kayakers and canoers lined up to register.
Everyone else we saw in the park seemed to be doing just what we were—driving through for the day and taking short hikes and stops at scenic overlooks along the way. (There are a few overnight accommodations in the park, but they book up months in advance, and you can only get to them on a passenger ferry, leaving your car and all you cannot stuff in a couple suitcases behind—not our style this time around.)

The water here was all shrouded in clouds of mist. It was a warm day, nearing ninety degrees by 11 a.m., and the water was all freshly thawed snow and ice. Where they met, the water vapor in the air condensed, and the border between air and water blurred. It was very beautiful to see, hard to capture in a photograph. Some of our experiences we are just going to have to keep in our mind's eye.

We called this morning to see if we could get on a two and a half hour bus and boat tour of the Diablo Lake and dam area. It books up weeks in advance, and there were no spots available, but the person on the phone took our names and put us on the waiting list. Amazingly enough, when we showed up at noon, there were two seats available for us.

The tour is conducted by Seattle City Light, which supplies 89% of Seattle's electricity from hydroelectric power. The three Skagit River dams within North Cascades National Park supply 25% of the total hydroelectric power. And, they supply the park with some beautiful lakes, which counter the forever wild theme that runs through the rest of the park, but make it nice for people who want a milder canoeing or kayaking experience than can be had on the swiftly flowing waters elsewhere. You don't want to capsize in Diablo Lake though—the water is forty degrees, fresh from a melting glacier.

We enjoyed breath-taking scenery, learned a lot about the landscape and the water (which gets its other-worldly aqua hue from glacial flour—rock ground so fine from the movement of the glacier that it remains suspended in the water, reflecting light),
and had a leisurely afternoon, letting other people do all the work while we just sat back, relaxed and appreciated the wonders of man and nature around us.

As we continued east on the North Cascades Highway after our tour, we could see the clouds gathering on the peaks of the mountains ahead of us. We climbed right up into those clouds and they let loose on us with a gully washer of a storm—right when we got to the aptly named Rainy Pass at 4,855 feet. This is probably exactly what hit those Harley riders we saw drying their clothes all over the restaurant last night. I'm not really happy with the lack of visibility or with the rivers running down the road, but at least we are dry. Nothing's so bad it couldn't be worse, as we optimistic pessimists like to say.

By the time we get to Washington Pass at a little over 5,400 feet, we catch a little break in the weather, and skies are clear again as we drive into Winthrop.

Winthrop is our favorite small western town so far. Its frontier storefronts and weathered signs are unabashedly fake western, but they are charmingly so.
You can't walk 200 feet down the wooden sidewalks without seeing someplace selling espresso, there are at least six good restaurant choices along the three blocks comprising downtown Winthrop, there are flowers everywhere, and there are lots of places to sit outside and enjoy an ice cream or a locally brewed beer.

The 349 people in this town sure know how to make a tourist want to stop and stay awhile.

We stay downtown in the Hotel Rio Vista, where all the rooms overlook the river swiftly flowing behind it. We open the door to our deck, listen to the roar of the water and enjoy the view, while catching up with our computer work. They have a great wi fi signal here. Everything about it is great, actually, especially in contrast to our lodging in Concrete last night.

The hotel burned to the ground in 2001—they have pictures of the conflagration framed in the office. The place was rebuilt, bigger and better than ever, opening one year, almost to the day, from the date of the fire. The woman at the desk tells me that no one was hurt in the fire, almost a miracle. But, people lost everything in their rooms, and most of the cars parked out front were destroyed. The fire was started by a guest who left a candle burning unattended in her room. "They prosecuted her—I don't know what happened to her, but I bet she doesn't burn candles anymore," the desk clerk says.

We eat dinner on the pleasant outdoor terrace of a restaurant just down the street. We can look down at the light traffic and the strolling tourists on the street below, while catching a bit of a cool breeze. Afterward, we wander over to the open air espresso, bakery, and ice cream establishment a bit further down the street, and we eat our ice cream cones while seated on saddles mounted tableside.

The next morning we return there for a freshly baked and frosted cinnamon roll, an apple fritter and our morning lattes. This is a fitting end to our time in Washington, the state we have lingered over longest during our journey. We know more western towns await us as we head to Idaho and Montana, but we will miss Washington's latte stands and all its clean green rugged spaces.

1 comment:

  1. I notied that one of the soldiers killed in Iraq honored on the Newshour last night was from Concrete WA. Hmm