Off-the-wallBy Bob Spiwak

April 22, 2016 — a day on which Methow merchants sighed in relief when the North Cascades Highway opened after its annual winter closure.

I had forgotten about it that morning and was digging a trench for resurrection of our clothesline pole after its winter burial. As I dug into the rocky earth, a trailer-towing truck went by toward Mazama and it was a reminder that the pass was opening in half an hour. Wouldn’t it be more fun to count the cars than shovel? The answer was yes. The pass opening was at 11 a.m.

After years of counting cars on the closing days of Memorial Day and Labor Day, the pass opening had never been considered for an official vehicular tabulation. I finished the digging task and rounded up my counting apparatus: a soft chair, mug of coffee, pen and paper, and two thumb-activated number counters that were the computers of Queen Victoria’s era. The count would begin at 11:15 a.m.

As the Timex ticked away the minutes, a few cars went by headed west. There was nothing to be seen yet of the Winthrop-bound crowd, and no vehicles eastbound until 11:21 when Lliam Donohue went by in his recognizable VW. (He returned westward at 12:14 p.m.).

More rigs were going west, and still no sign of the expected eastbound cavalcade — just a few desultory cars and trucks. Where was the expected line of motorists? At 11:55 a.m. the count was 41 westbound and 22 eastbound. Then it began — a substantial parade that altered the balance so that by high noon there were 42 going west and 51 east-bounders. That left 15 minutes until my scheduled 12:25 p.m. quitting time.

Cars (mostly pickup trucks, it seemed) kept coming in groups toward Winthrop, and at my closing time the totals were 49 westbound and 115 headed for town. That included a pair of motorcycles about a quarter-hour apart.

Later in the day the inbound numbers increased significantly. As this was Friday, there were still people no doubt at work, unlike during the two holiday exodus counts when vacation time has reached its end.

The valley, as the morning wore on, was covered in smoke (from prescribed burns) that did not reach this area until shortly before noon, but had been visible all morning. I wondered how many incoming motorists had made a connection with this smudge and the awful fires of the last two summers. I wondered also if any had turned back.

It has been customary for me to take the traffic count figures and extrapolate a theoretical calculation of effects. It is always biased to understatement. For this possibly inaugural count we’ll just go with the actual vehicle count toward Winthrop and add a theoretical number of passengers, like three per vehicle, giving a total for the hour of 345 souls. If each spent only $100 in one day, it (hopefully) works out to $34,500, probably spent in the upper valley in a day. This does not include fuel, lodging, clothing, souvenirs, or multi-day stays.

Memorial Day is not far away, and hopefully we’ll be counting as the crowds depart that weekend.