By Don Nelson
Anyone who has lived in or visited the Methow Valley has their own historical markers that help define their relationship with the place. Some go back decades, some only a few years, each is important as a touchstone for how things have changed and continue to change here.
I can think of a few. Our first encounters with the Methow were about the time the Freestone Inn opened. We stayed there when it was just beginning to take customers, and many times afterward. The building that is about to become Cascades Outdoor Store was the Grubstake & Co. restaurant; we bought lattes at an outdoor counter. There was a wooden flume running between the Grubstake and the building that was once Guy Waring’s saloon and is now Town Hall, and you could pan for gold. Other folks remember the Grubstake building as the old Winthrop post office.
The Mazama store has gone through two remodels in the days since we first discovered the Methow. Trail’s End Bookstore was in the space now occupied by the new Wine Shed in Winthrop. Carlos 1800 was the Winthrop Palace. Sam’s Place was still a functioning restaurant. I could go on. The commercial history of Twisp and Winthrop has seen a series of businesses moving through different storefronts, plus a few new structures (mostly motels and inns).
One “threshold” Methow experience that has always stood out for us is our first hike to the Goat Peak fire lookout and our introduction to “Lightning Bill” Austin, the U.S. Forest Service employee who manned the tower for 19 summers.
Bill has become well known — in the valley, in the region, in the nation and beyond — for his friendly greetings, invitations to tour the tower, folksy poetry and genuine love for the job.
When we first met him, Bill had a dog named Turk — now long gone — and he took Polaroid photos of visitors to paste into a collection of albums he kept in the tower. If you knew when you had been there before, you could look yourself up in the albums (we did). Later on, Bill began taking digital photos and posting them on his Facebook page — still an accessible documentation of your visit.
We made it back up to the Goat Peak tower last summer, and had another nice chat with Bill — who was learning to play a backpack-sized acoustic guitar and composing songs. He had two dogs staying with him. He took our picture. Many other friends and relatives also have had “Bill encounters” at our urging.
The past few years, Bill’s status at Goat Peak has become increasingly uncertain as the Forest Service has faced budget cuts that required cutbacks at its lookouts, and has developed more sophisticated ways to spot fires other than through binoculars from a tower. Last summer, Bill was the last lookout in the Methow.
He still is, but this summer Bill is moving to the Leecher Mountain lookout. Hikers may find volunteer greeters at the Goat Peak lookout, but not Lightning Bill.
I guess you could call it the end of an era (or maybe the beginning of another — someone is going to meet Bill for the first time this summer). Mostly it is just the inevitable changing of the times — and another “remember when” for our collection of Methow memories.