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Cross-country skiing in the Methow Valley, Washington

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Winthrop, Wash.

The sign along the Methow Valley Trail is stern: Remove skis before crossing the highway.

But civil disobedience is alive and well in Washington state's pastoral Methow, where old-time ranch values meet Left Coast liberalism. Snowy snail-tracks across the asphalt of Washington 20 indicate that many individuals have, as Ronald Reagan put it, voted with their feet.

I figure they're locals. We're just visitors on rental skis, happy that valley residents have banded together to create one of the finest trail networks on the continent. Hoisting our skis to our shoulders and hiking 15 feet north, my wife, Leslie, and I remount and continue our afternoon journey into an exceptional landscape.

The Methow Valley is tucked into the eastern slope of the Cascades 150 miles northeast of Seattle, four hours by car but infinitely farther in spirit.

Ponderosa pine, aspen, cottonwood and sage scent the air. The sun is frequent; the North Cascades spill snowmelt streams; a traffic jam is two cars at a stop sign; and the most commonly seen pedestrians are the whitetail deer that browse the roadside pastures. Drivers must keep a watchful eye for deer, though most of the creatures seem car-savvy and wait patiently like well-trained school kids for us to pass.

I suppose that's the intent of the warning sign for skiers, but truth be told, there isn't a car for miles. After crossing the highway, we ski along split-rail fences through snow-blanketed hay meadows, into winter woods of birch, aspen, alder and cottonwood, then up along the banks of the Methow River, a musical stream born in Cascade glaciers.

It's 10 degrees, but seems balmier than that in the still afternoon. The sun slants through bare branches to glisten on a feathery fall of ice crystals that rest on the trail like lace tatting. Woodpeckers clap tree bark. Squirrels shred pine cones overhead. It's a poetic trek.

I mean that literally. Poems line the Methow Valley Trail.

The first we come to pays homage to the valley's cottonwoods, a short rhapsody on the blazing glory of the trees in autumn. It's by local resident Marjory White, printed on a paper framed to look like an embroidery sampler. Hanging on a cottonwood, of course.

A mile farther on, by a riverside picnic shelter, is a Plasticine plaque offering William Stafford's "Where We Are." Stafford, former poet laureate of Oregon, completed a series of poems about this valley for the Forest Service in 1994.

"Whatever fits will be welcome, whatever steps back in the fog will disappear and hardly exist," Stafford wrote. "You hear the river saying a prayer for all that's gone."

At the picnic table we peel oranges. In the clean, cold air their scent lingers, like a prayer.

The Methow River tumbles pebbles 20 feet away, framed by a footbridge arching over the water.

The area is known for dry, cold winter weather in which enough snow falls to provide a sturdy base along 108 miles of dedicated cross-country trails. (The Methow Valley was spared in the recent, destructive wind and rain storms in the Seattle area, according to news reports.) It's the second-longest such network in the nation, and one of the few that includes lengthy stretches of river-bottom through private farms and ranches.

There's an infinity of cross-country trails in snowy mountains from Yosemite to the Yukon, but none quite like this. As we head back down the trail, the tree-shadows have lengthened into lattices.

I declare my partiality to the huge, corduroy-ribbed cottonwoods we have just skied past. They put me in mind of J.R.R. Tolkien's ents, arboreal magisters with deep voices and the scent of time.These are my favorite trees in the West, which my wife knows well.

"They're great, but -- " she step-skis over to a copse of lean birches and glides a hand along a glistening coppery trunk -- "these are my favorites. They remind me so of the woods in Sweden."

This is a fact well known to me, and we smile at the intrinsic comfort of the exchange. We're not here for discoveries.

The Methow Valley in winter is a place for affirmation rather than invention, recollection instead of renaissance. It's right for this trip, which differs from all others before.

In just a few days, Leslie will begin seven months of treatment for cancer: surgery, chemotherapy, radiation. So we've transformed our annual wedding anniversary trip into a retreat. We rented a cabin for three days in downtown Winthrop, the heart of the Methow Valley, population 371, a place in which the word "downtown" demonstrates the relativity of things.

The street at our end of downtown isn't even paved, not that it matters in midwinter with snow piled several feet high beside the road and boardwalks.

There are two blocks in downtown, and at the end of the one opposite our cabin, in the Rocking Horse Bakery, we are anomalies -- nonresidents.

At a nearby table the local planning department is having a staff meeting. Each newcomer in the door greets almost everyone already in the cafe. It's a place for muffins and mocha, and we park ourselves in a corner and peruse the Methow Valley News, whose columnists are musing about power outages in a recent storm.

"Things shut down in midafternoon, after the washer had washed and the dryer had dried," reports Bob Spiwak, up the valley in Mazama, an even smaller burg than Winthrop. "Luckily, it was warmish. There was no need to worry about the pump house freezing, as it has in the past two episodes. . . . Dinner was beans and franks cooked in and on the wood stove, accompanied romantically with candlelight."

Today's weather is storm-free, so we decide to head up the road to Loup Loup Pass and a high-elevation trail network that winds its way among wine-red pines. There's one other car in a parking lot built for 50; we press up a small hill and around a semicircle through the pines.

This South Summit trail is as mild as the weather. We stop to admire two old ponderosas whose sturdy bases have developed bark as luminous as amber.

Leslie drops me off half a mile away for two hours on downhill skis at Loup Loup, one of those local hills where even I can head down a black-diamond run.

With one lift, 1,240 feet of vertical drop, and 10 runs, it has a charm that's worth every bit of the $30 half-day ticket. There's chili in the day lodge and plenty of room for wet feet on the fireplace ledge.

But downhill skiing is the spice rather than the meat of this trip, and we spend the rest of our outdoor hours on Nordic skis, marveling at the simple grace of gliding along on fresh-groomed dry snow and the sheer beauty of the country.

Once more, by the bridge up the trail, I stop to take in Stafford's verses. "Friend, are you there? Will you touch when you pass, like the rain?"

Heading back down, I stop one last time by the biggest cottonwood to run my hands along its coruscated skin. Leslie skis on ahead, and when I catch up she's stopped beneath a pine, lifting her face to a mist-fall of snow crystals freed by a chuckle of breeze.

We take the moment as a prediction, a reprise of Stafford's promise about whatever fits, and head home.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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