Traipsing across Washington, a heat wave on our heels

By JAYSON JACOBY Baker City Herald August 07, 2009 12:13 pm

I was pursued recently, and quite doggedly, by a heat wave. This experience intrigued me, as my interest in meteorological matters is boundless, but it was also a plain old nuisance.

The latter was due mainly to all the changing of shirts.

This weather phenomenon proved to be as persistent and as dedicated as a child who stays always at heel behind an older sibling, in the manner of a perfectly trained bird dog.

Or a patch of beggar’s lice.

(I feel compelled to acknowledge the situation’s capacity to annoy as well as to amuse.)

My wife Lisa and I, and our 2-year-old daughter, Olivia, went on vacation last week. Ensconced in a plushly suspended, extended wheelbase Ford Expedition, we navigated through a sizable portion of Washington along with — and courtesy of — Lisa’s parents.

(They are, besides being generous, possessed of the immense courage required to amass, and not even under duress, several thousand highway miles during the past three summers in the company of Olivia, whose ability to frustrate anybody within earshot has flourished anew with each journey.)

The torrid temperatures, which have been much in the news, paced us all the way, including a pair of crossings of the Cascade Mountains.

We were near the Puget Sound on the day Seattle reached 103, a figure which the Emerald City had not come within three degrees of since some dedicated person started jotting down records there in 1891.

We went east across the mountains that day, by way of the North Cascades Highway. The next day, while the ocean breeze was refreshing, albeit slightly, sweltering Seattle, the heat trudged over the summit just behind us.

When we got to Grand Coulee Dam it was 98.

And that was the coolest day of the next week.

We returned to Baker City on Friday the 31st, and the following day was the hottest of the year here.

So far, anyway.

All of which goes toward explaining why, when the Shrine football game kicked off Saturday, I was sitting in my air-conditioned living room and watching the game on TV rather than from the bleachers at Bulldog Memorial Stadium.

(Bleachers which, I suspect, could have raised blisters if you weren’t careful and sat on an unshaded section.)

I’m glad I stayed home (and not just because I’m unsure whether my insurance covers skin grafts).

Had I attended the game in person I would have missed the commercial touting Base Camp Baker, the area’s new marketing slogan.

The brief spot includes a series of scenes, none of which lasts more than a couple seconds: a hiker in the Elkhorns, the Geiser Grand Hotel, a rancher on horseback, working cattle with his dog, and several other vignettes.

I paid particular attention to the commercial because it’s supposed to entice tourists, and I had just finished a week-long stint as a tourist, doing touristy things such as hiking, staying in motels, and driving right past plainly marked highway exits.

Also we saw many apples.

The theme of the Base Camp Baker commercial seems to me appropriate — it emphasizes the variety of things a visitor can see and do around here.

This approach struck me, though, as quite different from the campaigns that a pair of Washington towns employ.

The towns are Winthrop, which we toured during our trip, and Leavenworth, which we didn’t.

In contrast to the smorgasbord concept the Base Camp Baker commercial epitomizes, both Winthrop and Leavenworth emphasize a specific attribute.

Winthrop sells itself as a real Old West town, with board sidewalks and false front buildings. The police chief calls himself marshal. I saw no brass spittoons, but I suspect they were there.

Leavenworth’s alter ego, as it were, is a mountain village in the Bavarian Alps.

It’s too soon, with Base Camp Baker barely begun, to even guess at which promotional strategy reaps more fruit (although any town in Central Washington has got us beat on apples at least, as I mentioned).

Winthrop, though its population is just 400, seemed to me a pretty bustling place, even on a weekday evening.

But then again I watched Winthrop through the eyes of a tourist, which is an altogether different perspective than I have when I walk Baker City’s streets.

I don’t habitually count out-of-state license plates on our Main Street, anyway.

I don’t believe, in any case, that either Winthrop or Leavenworth can claim any inherent advantage over Baker City as a tourist destination.

All three towns lie in the lee of high mountains. Each can boast of hiking trails and lakes and ski runs which are less than an hour’s drive distant.

The comparison that interests me even more, though, is between Winthrop and Sumpter.

Sumpter already celebrates its mining heritage, most notably the hulking, 1,250-ton gold-sifting dredge on its southern edge.

But if the town decided to emulate the more aggressive, citywide approach of Winthrop and Leavenworth, Sumpter could create an atmosphere that’s somewhat more authentic than Winthrop’s, and vastly more so than the ersatz concoction that is Leavenworth.

Gold miners, suffice it to say, actually lived in Sumpter.

I doubt anyone wore lederhosen in Leavenworth before the early 1960s, when local merchants came up with the Bavarian scheme.

I’m ambivalent about the prospect of Sumpter, or Baker City, mimicking the shameless promotional gimmickry of Winthrop and Leavenworth.

There’d be more hikers in the mountains, for one thing; and while sampling trails in two of Washington’s national parks — Mount Rainier and Olympic — I was reminded last week how hectic even a “wilderness” area can become when a map of it gets into too many pamphlets.

On the other hand, Baker County’s economy isn’t exactly at full employment.

I suppose there are sillier ways to make a buck than paying homage to the past, whether real or contrived.

Although it always tickles me to think about using a romanticized version of the era before refrigeration to open the wallets of people who shudder at the notion of going out into the heat without an iced mocha to take the edge off.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.