Travel

The Methow Valley, as white as the winter snow

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

I became a passionate cross-country skier mostly because I had the good fortune of living in Anchorage from 2004 through 2010. There I was blessed with a fabulous and publicly-owned set of multi-use trails and trail systems in parks. I could ski sometimes nearly six months a year, depending on when the first snows came and when the last snows melted.

I mostly remember skiing being very accessible to nearly everyone because the trails were close to home and because gear was not too expensive for the basic set up of boots, poles, bindings, and skis. You could even get used equipment.

The local group promoting the sport and maintaining the trails, the non-profit Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage, was committed to youth inclusion for all residents. That meant all young people, regardless of race.

When I lived there, Anchorage was more diverse than many outside of Alaska think, with about 65 percent of the residents who identified as white and 35 percent being non-whites, with the largest group being Alaska Natives. Some of that diversity could be seen in the faces of the young skiers competing for the high school teams and on the trails. But even then, in this very democratic and outdoor-oriented place, the faces I saw skiing were like me—white.

However, cross-country skiing in Anchorage is not like cross-country skiing in the rest of the United States. Today the almost entire lack of diversity of this sport nationally remains cross-country skiing’s great Achilles’ heel. That reality is not addressed with the type of debate that is needed.

In my view, everyone who does this sport, either Nordic or single-track style, knows this racial breakdown whenever they ski. If they do not, they are willfully fooling themselves from the facts before their eyes every time they clip into their skis and head out on trails in recreation areas that remain almost exclusively the domain of white Americans.  

Race and country-skiing are mostly taboo topics in the multimedia world dedicated to the sport and those who do it. However I found one recent article on the racial divide in this sport I still love on the FasterSkier website. Refreshingly, it confronted the basic facts about the folks who do the sport and the factors contributing to its glaring and overwhelming whiteness.

In the United States, cross-country skiing remains an outdoor activity mostly pursued by whites, including the many winter recreational visitors to the Methow Valley (like the author).

Skier and writer Ben Theyerl wrote in an article published in August 2020: “The demographics of where the places that harbor Nordic ski communities are on a map allows this statistic to go unchecked. The trail networks linked to small rural towns and resorts that are historically, and presently, white, shelter us from having to confront and come to terms with our sport’s lack of racial diversity. So do the images of our heritage as a Nordic community, and of what it looks like to be an elite Nordic athlete. … We can choose as a community to stay on this sheltered path, or we can take the road less travelled for the Nordic community to finally discuss the overwhelming whiteness of our sport and the places that we do it in.”

Cross-Country skiing in Washington and the Methow Valley

Downtown Winthrop has kept its old West look and feel, even as the surrounding area has become a magnet for wealthy residents of Washington state who have purchased their winter and summer recreation homes here.

As a former resident of Washington state in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and then again through 2004, and finally 2010 to 2014, I have cross country skied there during the winters of my now former state. My adventures over these years took me at different times to the scenic Methow Valley, in Okanogan County, just south of the Canadian border and west of the Cascade Mountains.  

Once an area that had homesteads and ranches on former Native American lands, it is now dotted with second and third homes of the upper middle class, the wealthy, and also the extremely wealthy—many from the Seattle area.

Since my first visit in late 1987 to this past weekend, I have seen it transform into a year-round recreation area that promotes winter sports and cross-country skiing. The residents who live and have lived there famously developed a wonderful trail community during these decades. That is seen in the group called the Methow Valley Trail Association (MTVA), which is a non-profit organization that maintains the incredible network of classic and single-track trails, snowshoe trails, and now fat-tire bike trails.

According to the MTVA’s website, the volunteer-led group maintains “over 200 kilometers (that’s 120 miles) of cross-country ski trails in the winter months,” and that network “is recognized as one of the finest trail systems in North America for Nordic skiing, mountain biking, trail running and hiking.”

I would argue that the Methow Valley is, without question, one of the finest cross-country ski areas in North America thanks to its geography, plentiful and mostly predictable snowfall, and the good work of these volunteers and donors who support this form of recreation. The area, like so much of the United States, also has racial divisions that can be seen in where most of the county’s non-white residents call home.

According to the 2020 U.S. Census Bureau, Okanogan County had a population of 42,104 as of 2020. The sparsely populated and beautiful mountainous county includes the towns in the Methow Valley like Winthrop and Twisp and neighboring cities like Omak. The Census Bureau reported that the county is 64 percent white (non-Hispanic or non-Latino), followed next by Hispanic or Latino at 21 percent, and American Indian or Native Americans at 13 percent. The diversity from the two next largest groups can be found in communities closer to the Colville Reservation like Omak and towns like Pateros and Brewster, where agricultural work is plentiful and Latinos have long-settled because of farmwork-related employment opportunities like other communities in central Washington.

However, that diversity is not visible in the Methow Valley. During my recent three-day visit, I saw some visitors who I would identify as having Asian ancestry, but no one on any trail who was African American. Most of the skiers I saw on the gloriously groomed trails were white like me. It is a fact that one cannot ignore when enjoying the beauty of this great sport. This fact has not changed in the last 12 years since I began skiing there after returning to the Lower 48 from Alaska (as Alaskans refer to the lower states).

The Future in Washington’s wealthy, winter Shangri-La

As the ski community grew in the Methow Valley in the last two decades, so did the country’s income inequality gap. That gap has accelerated the concentration of wealth in the hands of an ever smaller number of richer Americans since the Great Recession, and more recently the pandemic.

That wealth concentration can be seen in patterns of land use in the Methow that are visible to any visitor who travels there. Those who can afford to purchase retirement homes and summer and winter second and third homes—mostly white and wealthy affluent out of towners—have chosen to settle in this area, with its spectacular vistas and abundant forms of recreation that cater almost entirely to white Americans.

Winthrop resident Solveig Torvik described this in her column from Aug. 4, 2021. “The Methow many of us so smugly assume is a model of a caring community with widespread civic engagement … reads instead much like a cautionary tale of a failed society,” she wrote. Torvik pointed to a study of the valley by a Washington State University sociology professor, Jennifer Sherman, who described the obvious divisions: “The Methow Valley is a deeply divided community where wealthy urbanites ‘blind’ to their privilege ‘hoard’ their social capital while impoverished, excluded, resentful rural old-timers struggle to survive.”

The valleys surrounding Winthrop are now dotted with high-priced, new homes that cater to wealthy residents, who are not afraid to flaunt their wealth, and the affluent who are choosing to live in what the local media The Methow Valley News calls a new Zoom town during the so-called “COVID land rush.”

According to an Oct. 7, 2020 story in the local newspaper called The Methow Valley News, a virtual “COVID land rush” is underway, fueled also by the pandemic: “One thing it means is a dramatic increase in median home prices in the Methow Valley. The median home price in September this year was $440,000, compared to $329,000 in September last year and $312,000 in 2018, based on statistics [broker Anne] Eckmann compiled from the Northwest Multiple Listing Service. In mid-September, there were 34 homes available for sale in the Methow Valley — 10 of them priced under $350,000 and eight priced over $1 million, Eckmann said.”

This is not that different than other winter resort areas in the country in Montana, Colorado, Utah, and Vermont. What’s different now is how visibly those new, rich residents have settled in the last 15 years in the Methow Valley, particularly around the town of Winthrop. I have seen that change since I first Nordic skied here in 2010 when I moved back to Seattle, and then visited a friend who lives near Winthrop. It had been eight years since I was last there in February 2014.

Battles over future comprehensive planning in the county and water rights remain active, with many newcomers seeking access to the limited water resources and groups seeking to manage and plan for future growth. Growing threats from climate change and wildfire also have further exacerbated debates over growth tied to the desires of the wealthy to live in the fire-prone wildland urban interface, in places like the Methow Valley. The battles will likely continue there, similar to conflicts in communities in the West that have confronted the old maxim that “water flowing uphill to money.”

I do not know when I will travel to the Methow Valley again. It is a 400-mile journey by car from my home in Portland.

I took this trip to take a needed break from my work on Oregon’s pandemic response. I needed a recharge, and Nordic skiing is one way I can do that. It worked, too.

I enjoyed my stay with a longtime friend who moved there years earlier, who shared with me the struggles she is seeing as a resident over development there. In the end, I am left with almost magical memories of groomed trails, snow-covered mountain peaks, and the ongoing awareness that this sport that I once did daily on a community trail in urban Anchorage is still not widely shared by many.  

Christmas 2010 in the Methow Valley

(Click on each photograph to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Ten years ago, to this day, I finished a trip in the Methow Valley, in north central Washington State. It is a premier North American cross-country ski destination, with dozens of miles of beautiful groomed trails for all levels of skiers.

The best part of the trip was reconnecting with a friend who I hadn’t seen in years who had moved there.

She took me out on some excellent trails, and or skiing pace matched well. We both love good workouts and heart-buster trails, as well as the woohoo downhill screamers that make the hard climbs worth it.

The trip was at the beginning of a two-year journey back to graduate school, which I did not relish. Mostly it reminded me of the importance of friendships in living a good life and feeling fortunate when you have good company to keep.

As for finding the Christmas spirit in this winter wonderland, are you kidding me? Just take a look. It was amazing!

Merry Christmas, everyone, and may you all have a safe, healthy, and meaningful 2021. Remember what is important and what matters, mostly the people in your life.

Welcome, summer!

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This series comes from one of my many summer adventures in Alaska with some very tough and fun women. It also seems like a fitting way to welcome summer.

We did an adventure in the Chugach Mountains, in Chugach State Park outside of Anchorage. Though we knew where we were on the map, we couldn’t our way once the clouds and rain hit us as we climbed over a pass. It was fun, with some moments to pause because of the steep terrain and cliff drops.

Back in the day, 10 or more years ago and before my mom developed Alzheimer’s disease and later passed away, I used to live more adventurously.

These days I no longer head to the high altitudes. One day I simply stopped going.

I still miss being with people who didn’t complain about: being lost, being wet, being cold, and having expeditions go awry.

Half the point of having an adventure (in the wild, in a job, with someone you love, or working to change things) is to get lost and maintain your calm when things don’t go as planned. However, if you are in the wild, be sure you do that with the right people, like my two friends.

Please, go out, do something that makes you very uncomfortable, and don’t worry if things don’t go as planned.

 

 

Group portraits in black and white

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It has been years since I have been in a black and white darkroom, using chemistry to develop film and prints. I miss the intensity and joy of that process and the work that is needed to take lasting black and white photo portraits.

This week I was digging through my boxes of old prints and found a couple that I gave to a friend, who is featured in one of these two group shots. One is of his extended family who I have known for decades now. The second is of my friend in Vietnam, with his public health colleagues in Hanoi.

The warmth I find in a black and white group portrait, taken on film, can’t be replaced by digital. Digital may provide a level of sharpness and clarity, and simplicity. It still lacks the feeling I always experienced seeing my prints slowly emerge in the developer bath under the safe light of a darkroom, reeking of chemicals.. More than 15 years after I took these shots, I still feel that emotion.

At long last, I reboot my photography website

After many weekends of work, I have nearly completed the re-launch of my old and once-again-new photography website called rudyfoto.com. I have published this website for more than a decade. I rebooted it after a long siesta of several years.

Photographs that I previously published on my rudyowens.com website can now be found at rudyfoto.com. The re-launch also allowed me to post new images and themes, including an enitrely news series on surfing in Oregon and compilations of my essays compled over many years on the American city. That series includes St. Louis, Portland, Seattle, and Detroit, all of which I have called home at some point during my life. My other series include travel photo essays and documentary projects, incuding my series on Nazi Germany’s damning legacy of human rights abuses, which I completed between 1999 and 2001.

My main webpage, rudyowens.com, will remain my main web hub, and I will continue to publish periodic photo essays on this blog.

Please let me know what you think about my old and dear friend online friend: rudyfoto.com.

Leucadia Memories

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In September 2014, and quite by accident, I found myself in the mostly high-end Encinitas, California neighborhood of Leucadia during an eventful visit to San Diego. The trip was pivotal in my lifelong quest to know my biological kin and then write a book about the decades-long journey.

Leucadia played a small part in that adventure.

The community lies in north San Diego County, along the Pacific Ocean and in the hill just above the waterfront. An Amtrak rail line runs through the community, connecting San Diego with Los Angeles.

I found the people to be friendly and the surf shops, coffee shops, and eateries very laid back. People looked prettier than average, but in San Diego, I discovered that was common too.

One website called it: “Eclectic. Funky. Hip. Happening.” The same article went on to describe houses selling for north of $1 million. To me, that’s far from funky. But the community is unquestionably cool.

I came here looking for a hotel that was close to the ocean, yet far from the city. This was the perfect spot. I immediately fell in love with its mellow vibe. It was a perfect place to launch my beach runs and hang out in the local cafes.

I came back again in 2016, this time to try surfing, take a quick holiday from Portland, and work on my then draft memoir. The place felt mostly the same, except a restaurant had closed and a new brewpub had opened.

In another life, one where I had great financial success, I could see myself here, for at least a couple of years. In my case, I had to settle for two short stays that are now fading away.

Here are a few shots from those fun visits.

Beautiful morning light in Lafayette Square

 

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During my last visit to St. Louis, I indulged myself. I decided to stay in a historic mansion that is now a a bed and breakfast called the Lehmann House, just off of Lafayette Park, in the historic Lafayette Square neighborhood of St. Louis. This beautiful section of urban space is unrivaled in any U.S. city. It was one of the earliest planned communities in the once mighty industrial city, and it catered to the very wealthy when it was developed in the 1800s. It was built around the oldest municipal park west of the Mississippi River, Lafayette Park.

I have shared photo essays on my blog before about the area’s exquisitely built brick homes and architectural styles. I did not have much time to enjoy the area as I had hoped, but I squeezed in two morning walks that were about as perfect as I can remember, ever. The light had that brilliant Midwest-morning Kodacolor glow, and the air smelled fresh from a recent rain. I wandered around the “hood” and snapped these shots, allowing my senses to guide me. If you visit St. Louis, you have to put this place on your list. You will then wonder what we have done so wrong in urban design since we built communities with craftsmanship and care not that long ago.

Happy Canada Day!

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I spent eight and a half years of my professional life working for the Government of Canada, for its Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (now called Global Affairs Canada). I did that as a U.S. citizen, working for the Consulate General of Canada in Seattle and then for the Consulate of Canada, Anchorage. I enjoyed every minute of that experience, serving the Canadian people and helping build better relations between the peoples separated by the world’s longest and most peaceful border.

Tomorrow, on July 1, Canadians the world over and through that “blessed land” celebrate the confederation in 1867, known today as Canada Day. It’s a joyful time, and Canadians I know celebrate it traveling, with friends and family, and often in Canada’s beautiful outdoors.

To all of the Canadians I know and never met, thanks for providing me the wonderful opportunity to have visited your country, work for your country, and celebrate its values and traditions that remain a pillar of openness, democracy, and freedom the world over.

I took this photo during one of my many trips to Ottawa, when I worked for Canada. I positioned myself on Wellington Street, looking northwest on Parliament Hill to the Eternal Flame and the Parliament Building, the seat of Canada’s national government. If you ever get a chance to visit Ontario, add Ottawa it to your list. It is a beautiful city, and this building is among the finest I have ever toured.

Seward, tourist hub of southcentral Alaska

Seward, Alaska, the small port city on the Kenai Peninsula, remains one of the most visited Alaska tourist communities. Nestled along the scenic Resurrection Bay and sitting next to scenic mountains and nearby fjords, it offers fabulous views and access to Alaska’s abundant wildlife, as well as fishing. The foreign-run cruise-ship industry also docks in Seward and unloads literally hundreds of thousands of visitors every tourist season—an estimated 1.3 million people will visit Alaska by these floating behemoths of the sea in 2019.

I frequently drove to Seward when I worked and lived in Anchorage from 2004 to 2010. The drive offered spectacular views, and each trip was rewarded by equally great vistas and experiences in Seward. I loved late spring and early summer the most. Here are a few of the scenes from trips I made in 2009 and 2010. I miss it and remember the landscape fondly.

Icons of eastern Oregon

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During the past two months, I have traveled widely in Oregon. I always enjoy an Oregon road trip. The high and wide-open plateaus of north central and eastern Oregon, just before the Blue Mountains, rekindled my love of the open road and empty places.

I made two separate trips: one to Condon, in Gilliam County, and another to Pendleton, in Umatilla County. Gilliam County is bisected by the John Day River, a popular fishing and rafting destination. The landscape is dominated by a high plateau and constant wind, making it an ideal location for massive wind farms that sprout majestically above wheat fields. The county seat, Condon (pop. 682), is a charming community that felt alive and loved by its residents.

Pendleton (pop. 16,682) sits on the Interstate 84 corridor, further to the east, straddling a valley near the start of the Blue Mountains. The community is a true Western town. It is famous for its rodeo, woolen goods, and also whiskey. Nearby Umatilla is also famous for the now decommissioned 20,000-acre Umatilla Chemical Depot, run by the U.S. Army that was home to a massive stockpile of chemical weapons.

Agriculture, along with wind energy, are two major economic drivers in this sparsely populated area of Oregon. Native Americans have lived here for millennia. Pendleton lies within the ancestral lands of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, whose designs adorn Pendleton’s famous woolen blankets and more. The tribe also runs the Wildhorse Resort & Casino, a major economic resource for the area.

Visually, I was mostly struck by the iconic imagery presented by the grain elevators in both areas, along with the towering wind turbines. The site of large, manmade structures in mostly open spaces has always appealed to my visual sensibilities, wherever I may be.