Project traces the growth of an industry
By Marcy Stamper
In an era when many people rely on point-to-point directions generated online or the atomized voice of a GPS system, old-fashioned paper maps still contain abundant information that just doesn’t come through in newer technology.
Few people are more aware of what old maps can reveal than Charlie Hickenbottom, whose lifelong fascination with maps propelled him into a three-year research project that uncovered an exhaustive history of Methow Valley cross-country ski maps and trails — and with it, a window into the valley itself.
Hickenbottom, an avid skier, hiker and rock climber who lives in Wenatchee, was visiting the Methow Valley three winters ago when he amused himself on a snowy evening by rummaging through his daypack. He unearthed four maps of the Methow Trails system, plus another two in his wife’s pack, and spent the rest of the evening studying the maps.
By Hickenbottom’s own description, the project “began innocently enough” with those six maps, but it grew to encompass almost four decades of ski maps, brochures and other memorabilia, and interviews with 150 people. Hickenbottom compiled the information into a history of the Methow from a unique perspective.
Hickenbottom has assembled his research into Cross Country Ski Maps of the Methow Valley: A Study of Trails and Mapping. The book, nearly 300 pages, is currently just in digital format. It is organized largely around the maps themselves, but it also includes an engrossing history of the Methow Valley and its people, the evolution of the tourist economy, and changes in technology.
Hickenbottom’s research shows how cross-country skiing in the Methow evolved from a literally grassroots endeavor (in the early days, winter enthusiasts rigged up a lawnmower on wooden runners to clear tall grass that poked up through the snow) to a state-of-the-art system where Methow Trails can render skiable conditions from even a small amount of snow.
The book also illustrates how the approach to marketing the Methow developed from quaint, hand-drawn brochures to sophisticated, multi-media advertising.
Hickenbottom organized the book in spreads, each featuring a map and his write-up on the key players and developments of the time.
Many people donated maps, brochures and articles, which Hickenbottom has catalogued in four bulging binders of archival material that he plans to donate to the North Central Regional Library. The book includes replicas of the material in the binders.
“People were donating stuff out of their closets, trusting me as a historian,” said Hickenbottom.
The oldest artifact in Hickenbottom’s collection is a 1978 color brochure entitled “Methow in the Winter: The Best Season for Rest or Recreation” that was created by Doug Devin. It includes a photo of Don Portman’s father skiing, horse-drawn-sleigh rides, and a Sno-Cat on Sandy Butte, which had been proposed for a downhill ski area.
The earliest map is from 1978, appealingly hand-drawn by Dave Schulz to show the network of trails he groomed around the Idle-A-While Motel in Twisp, which Schulz owned at the time. The reverse of the map promoted the Idle-A-While and the Methow Valley Inn with a $36 special vacation package for two — including breakfast and dinner at the Methow Valley Inn (steak was $7 extra).
Schulz groomed trails using a snowmobile pulling a hand-made wooden track-setter. Trails went around town (one even ran under the highway) and across private and public land, all the way to Elbow Coulee, some 6 miles west of town, where people could connect with trails to Sun Mountain.
Another nugget of early ski history in Twisp was a system of trails near the old Allen Elementary School that were used in physical education classes. There was a groomed loop on the football field, but kids also made their own tracks on the hills behind the school.
The first Methow Valley Ski Touring Association (now Methow Trails) map was printed in 1980, and Hickenbottom includes a nearly complete set of their annual maps through 2015 — there is just one he was unable to locate.
Some of the people Hickenbottom interviewed are still involved in the local ski scene, and others were pioneers in winter tourism and are no longer in the area. Hickenbottom traveled around the state to comb through library collections and conduct interviews.
Long-term residents and visitors may remember Diamond T Ranch in the upper Rendezvous from the early 1980s. Diamond T maintained 30 to 40 miles of ski trails, including easy loops, telemark runs and trails to Rendezvous Basin. Within a few years, the proprietors had an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service to set up huts along the trails, although the huts had to be disassembled every year.
‘Esoteric’ interest pays off
“I don’t pretend people share my interest in maps. It’s kind of esoteric. Today people let a voice tell them where to go,” said Hickenbottom, who admitted that his own map collection “is kind of archaic now.”
Hickenbottom started collecting maps as a kid. On family road trips he was thrilled to get a new map from a gas station. He also collected baseball cards and fishing tackle, but never took his hobby idly. He would send his mother to look for a particular cereal box to fill out his set of baseball cards.
The ski-trail history is not Hickenbottom’s first ambitious map project. A retired elementary-school teacher, Hickenbottom developed a curriculum to teach students about maps by having them draw maps of their desk, the classroom, the school and their street. “It was their favorite part of the day,” he said.
While Hickenbottom loves old maps and has yet to convert to GPS, he does use software to plan hiking or climbing trips. For his ski-history project, Hickenbottom used the software to show the routes and trails that no longer exist.
While the book focuses primarily on the Methow Trails system, it also includes sections on cross-country trails at the Loup, guidebooks, bridges and related topics.
Hickenbottom is still working out the details for how he will make the book available. The board of Methow Trails is meeting later this month and will discuss possibilities for making a digital version available.
The binders will be available in the Methow Valley Collection at the Twisp library after they are catalogued, probably early next year. The library has also committed to making copies of the book available at several local branches.
Hickenbottom does not see the book as a commercial venture, and plans to donate any money raised from sales to a Methow Valley nonprofit that supports skiing and access to open space.
“This was a hobby for me. I love the writing, the maps, the skiing,” said Hickenbottom. “I was the right person to do this.”