A Christmas Ski Trip, Day 1: The Road Trip

There’s nothing like a good little road trip.

(This story starts with a Prelude.)

I watched the weather pretty closely during the week leading up to my trip. We had some freezing rain here and I know they had some sort of weather up around Winthrop. But since I couldn’t change my plans, it didn’t really matter. I decided to bring all my gear — skis, snowshoes, winter hiking boots — so I’d be prepared for anything.

Packing Up, Moving Out

I packed the morning of the trip. There was no rush. I figured I’d leave by 10 AM and since I was up by 7 AM, I had plenty of time to pack.

I remember thinking to myself: I’m on vacation!

I tried to keep packing simple. Really. One bag for my clothes and a laptop. One bag for food, including snacks, a bottle of wine, and Penny’s dog food. Then the odds and ends: Penny’s dog bed, my skis, my ski boots, ski poles, my hiking boots, my snowshoes, my emergency road kit (jumper cables, blanket, water, etc.). I had to stop off at my shed to get my ski stuff and I almost forgot the boots. I also retrieved my daypack from my RV; I’d be using that to carry Penny around on the trails if the snow was too deep for her to walk in.

By the time we were ready to go, the Jeep’s back seat was full. I put Penny on her bed in the front passenger seat, locked up the house, and we hit the road.

It was 9 AM.

I wasn’t in a hurry so I made stops along the way. Caffe Mela for breakfast. (Not the best choice unless your idea of breakfast is a pastry. They do make an excellent eggnog latte, though.) Safeway to pick up a package of bakery cookies for a friend and his coworkers. Stemilt’s Bountiful Fruit store, where I bought 3 apples for the trip, including a 1.15-pound Honeycrisp. (Seriously: where else could you find an apple that big?)

I cut up one of the apples in the Jeep in the parking lot and munched on it as I continued north up route 97A. One more stop at Entiat to visit a friend who had to work that day. I brought the cookies into the construction office where he was overseeing a big park remodeling job. The guys were working on a rock retaining wall down by the river and he was there to inspect the work. The cookies were for him and his co-workers. I spent some time chatting with him and looking at the huge batch of blueprints for the park. Then, after a good Christmas hug, Penny and I hit the road, continuing up 97A.

The Photo Stops

The weather in Wenatchee had been clear with temperatures in the high 20s or possibly low 30s. But as I drove up the west side of the river, I saw low clouds up ahead. That’s a weather phenomena that’s pretty common here in the winter: fog. As the road climbed up toward the tunnel that would lead away from the river and toward Chelan, I stopped for a photo.

Up River Fog
As I climbed away from the river, I could see a fog bank off in the distance.

Tunnel to Chelan
Route 97A passes through this tunnel on the way to Lake Chelan.

I passed through the tunnel and into the hanging valley beyond. The area was familiar to me, yet strange. I’ve flown that way dozens of times in my helicopter, taking people to Tsillan Cellars Winery on the lake. But I very seldom drive that way. I kept expecting to see the lake revealed before me. It wasn’t until I began descending down toward the lake that I finally caught a few glimpses of it. The helicopter ride offers much more dramatic scenery.

There was a thin fog layer right over the water. It was probably about 10-20 feet thick and started at maybe 5 feet off the lake’s surface. To the east a thicker bank of fog hung over the town of Chelan. The sky and water were blue; the snow and ice and clouds were bright white. I could see for miles and miles, all the way uplake to the snow-covered mountains off in the distance.

I stopped for a few more photos, pulling down a street that hadn’t been plowed. My Jeep’s fat tires crunched in the icy snow.

Ducks on a Mission
These ducks were snoozing until I knelt down on the ground to put them in the foreground and the snow-covered mountains in the background. Then they marched toward me; I suspect they thought I was there to feed them.

Fog over Chelan
A layer of fog hung over the town of Chelan.

I drove into town. There were few cars on the road, few people around. Winter in a summer resort area. The road had patches of ice and, more than once, my rear tires spun as I moved away from a stop. Slow and easy; I was re-learning my winter driving skills as I went along.

The fog thickened as I followed the road through town and up toward the airport. At one post, visibility was down to less than 300 feet. Along the road I caught glimpses of the Columbia River far below me. Downriver, the sun was shining through the clouds. Up ahead it was cloudy and gray.

Marginal VFR
It was marginal VFR at the airport but no one was flying. The thick frost you see on the weeds is from freezing fog, another common weather phenomena here in Central Washington State.

Route 97A descended from the airport and joined up with Route 97 to continue up the Columbia River. It was a completely different day, with low clouds and a dismal winter feeling.

Refueling at Pateros

I didn’t stop until I got to Pateros, where I pulled over to top off the Jeep’s fuel tank. I took a short drive through town, getting as far as the Lake Pateros Motor Inn, where we’d stayed in back in 2008. I’d parked my helicopter on the lawn alongside the hotel in a spot that made it very convenient for the few cherry drying flights I did.

I stopped at the Sweet River Bakery, where my wasband and I had come for breakfast each morning during our 10-day stay. Back then, they made the best apple fritters. I ordered an eggnog latte and got an apple-cranberry fritter to go. I’d have it for breakfast in the morning.

We got back on the road, backtracking down to where route 153 turned west along the Methow River. I passed the farm stand with a cherry orchard I’d dried. It was closed.

A Drive Up the Methow

Along the Methow River
Snow, ice, river, sky, trees dormant for winter. I didn’t realize how much I missed winter scenery until I took this trip.

There was ice on the river — so much ice, in fact, that it looked as if I could walk across it. But as I drove upriver, the ice cleared out at the rapids.

The road climbed gently but persistently along the river. The amount of snow along the way increased as we climbed. Soon, we’d climbed away from the fog bank and the sun began to shine again.

It was a really amazingly beautiful day. I stopped for a few more photos. I wanted to remember this trip and the best way to do that would be to document it with photos to act as visual clues. Besides, it was just too darn pretty to pass up.

That’s another benefit of traveling alone; I don’t have to ask permission to stop so I can get out with my camera.

Red House on the Methow
At first glance, the reflection of the red house on the river was much more obvious than I was able to capture with my camera.

I passed through Methow and noticed a restaurant on the side of the road. I have vague memories of having dinner there and there being live music. But it was closed and quiet that Christmas Eve day.

Everything was quiet. I was just about the only car on the road. No traffic! How many other Christmas travelers could say that?

Carlton was a sign and nothing more.

The road twisted and turned along the river, crossing one bridge after another. I reached the junction of Route 20, where route 153 ended. A right turn would eventually take me to Okanogan — which I’d only been to by helicopter in a fly-by years ago. I continued on to Twisp.

The friend I’d visited at work earlier in the day had told me to stop at Twisp’s bakery and the health food store next door. I was hungry for lunch — it was nearly noon — but I didn’t feel like bakery food. The Grover Street Market had a lunch counter, so I went inside to see what healthy choices they offered. I wound up with a bowl of their Curry Stew, which was more like a soup and served so piping hot that I couldn’t eat it at first. It was tasty, with just enough spice to make it interesting. There was enough for two meals so I took half of it to go.

I didn’t visit the Cinnamon Twisp Bakery. I figured I’d visit it on my way back. (That turned out to be a mistake; it was closed on Thursday.)

I took Penny for a short walk through town. Not much was going on, although there were plenty of parked cars. It was sometime around then that I realized that plowing the roads in Washington was optional. All the side streets in town had a reasonably thick layer of icy snow on them. Not really slick — I think they spread gravel or something on them — but certainly not plowed to pavement. They apparently expect people to know how to drive in this kind of snow cover. And people do.

Of course, there were an awful lot of four wheel drive vehicles around.

Winthrop and Beyond

For some reason, I thought I had 20 or more miles to go before I reached Winthrop. I didn’t. It was just about 10 miles down the road.

I pulled out my driving instructions and followed them to Wolf Creek Road and, eventually, to the Chickadee Cabin Loft where Penny and I were staying. It was an upstairs studio apartment in a four-unit building. Next door was vacant but the two downstairs units, which were much bigger, were occupied. The place was at the end of a road in the woods but on the edge of a clearing. The roads weren’t plowed but the Jeep had no trouble getting us where we needed to go.

The “loft cabin” was nice, with a queen-sized bed, futon, TV with VCR and DVD player (and satellite TV), Internet access, kitchenette, and bathroom. There was even a sliding glass door leading out to a small balcony that overlooked a snow-covered meadow. All this was about 6 miles from town.

I unpacked the food and checked the cabinets. There was coffee and coffee filters and even sugar. All I needed was some milk and maybe some yogurt for breakfast. I’d get that in town.

We climbed back into the Jeep and headed into Winthrop. I wanted to find out what trails, if any, were open to cross-country skiing. I figured there would be some kind of ranger station with information in town.

What I found was the local office of the MVSTA. I parked out front and went inside, leaving Penny behind in the Jeep. I spent the next 20 minutes chatting with the two folks inside about which skiing trails were open and where I could get a lesson. It looked like Mazama was the place to be — 15 miles farther up route 20 was where there was more snow and most of the groomed trails. I bought a 3-day pass — in hindsight, two 1-day passes would have saved me a bit of money — and the woman behind the counter called the Methow Valley Ski School up in Mazama to see if they were still open. It was nearly 3:30 PM on Christmas Eve.

A while later, we were in Mazama and I was arranging for a cross-country ski lesson the following day. I brought in my skis and was told that waxless skis need to be waxed — something honestly I didn’t know. I paid for my lesson and a tube of ski wax.

I stopped in next door at the Mazama Store, a new agey market with lots of organic and overpriced food and other merchandise. (I do tend to tell it like it is.) I paid $7 for a quart of organic yogurt and $3 for a quart of organic milk. I also bought a fleece sweater that I wound up returning two days later. I do have to say one thing about the store, though: It has the largest selection of Lodge cast iron cookware I’ve ever seen under one roof. If Lodge makes it, the Mazama Store sells it.

By that time, it was after 4 PM and the sun was setting somewhere behind the mountains all around me. It would be getting dark soon. I loathe driving in the dark these days and had no reason to stick around Mazama so we headed back.

Along the way, I saw plenty of snow-covered fields with a thin layer of fog drifting over them. Advection fog? Radiation fog? I tried to remember what I’d learned in ground school about fog and came up empty. Fog was rarely an issue where I flew in Arizona; it was certainly an issue here in the winter time.

I stopped briefly in Winthrop to take Penny on a quick walk around town. I was curious to see what was open. There was a hotel with a restaurant in town and I walked up the steps to see if it would be open the next day for Christmas dinner. Closed. No big deal. I knew I’d be able to get Christmas dinner at the nearby Sun Mountain Lodge resort if I wanted to.

It was almost dark when Penny and I returned to our loft cabin. I put away the groceries and heated up some leftover smoked ribs for dinner. (I’d made them the day before on my Traeger just so I’d have something to munch while I was away.) We spent the evening relaxing, reading, watching TV.

A nice rest at the end of a long day.

(continued)

4 thoughts on “A Christmas Ski Trip, Day 1: The Road Trip

  1. Sounds like such a lovely trip to this point. As always, your writing makes me feel like I’m right along with you on your adventure. :-) I look forward to reading more.

    • Thanks, Shirley. I’m trying so hard to remember all the little details that made it special. The older I get, the worse my memory gets. Sometimes I think my blog is the best tool for holding onto those special moments forever.

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