Winthrop is a small western town on the dry side of the Cascade Mountains in the Methow Valley. That there is a “dry side of the mountains” is just another amazing feature of Washington State. It is full of wildly varied climate islands. This plays perfectly into my personal brand of ADD existence. On the west it is ancient mossy rain forest and then just a few hours away you get arid high desert conditions. I’ll spare you the annoyance of listing each little micro climate in tedious travel brochure lingo. Not that there’s anything wrong with travel brochures. They make excellent coasters. Let me just say that if you are tired of Seattle’s notoriously wet grey skies all you have to do is drive an hour or so to find bright sunny blue ones.
Winthrop is one of those blue sky places. The town was founded in 1883 by men drawn out west during the gold rush. They thought they would find gold just drifting in the rivers but soon found that those dreams would have to be extracted from the hard mountain rock in what they call lode mines. Talk about a bait and switch. I suppose these men had come too long and hard a way to turn back. And so they stayed to beat out new lives from a rough and intolerant land.
Those men and women are long gone, lost to the dust of history. What remains is a charming resort town that boasts year round activities including a Rhythm and Blues festival, Wine festival, skiing and even hot air ballooning in winter. The town is alive with tourists who have replaced the miners. SUVs and motorcycles have taken the place of the horses and buggies the used to line the streets and board walks.
I look at this quaint little town dressed up in the finest of self caricatures and I long to look beneath the artisan rust and factory aged wood. I want to look into the dust that is now covered with asphalt to find the ghosts of Winthrop past, those hardy souls who were seduced by gold and all her promises of a better life. Did they ever find their seductress, did she deliver on her promises or did she string them along, sucking dry every last drop of hope? I wonder how many men sat on hastily made wooden bar stools only to ponder why they had come so far just to be alone? What grand dreams had they dreamed with the lure of easy money just waiting to be sifted out of those rivers?
The town seems to have taken root in those dreams and has survived over 126 years. In 1893 the town burned to a crisp and they rebuilt from those ashes. During the grueling recession of the 1970s construction of Hwy 20 gave the town yet another opportunity to rebuild and she seized it with greedy hands. Winthrop dug down and hammered out a new life from the rock and dust of its history. Today it is easy to get distracted by the quaintness of “history for tourists” especially when it is done well but, history isn’t a glossy travel brochure. It is lives and dreams hammered out against the rough rock of time. It is struggling through hard and difficult days not knowing that you are making history because you’re just making your way. It is long lonely moments waiting on a barstool for the courage to go on and seizing that courage when it finally comes. But most of all, history is made by those people who seize the courage to go on even when it doesn’t come.