Tag Archives: Molson

A trip to the Okanogan country, day 2

Harry the pig, who resides in the hamlet of Molson, Washington.
Harry the pig, who resides in the hamlet of Molson, Washington.

The knee could have been worse, I suppose. I won’t be doing any hiking today, at any rate.

But I head north to one of my favorite places in the Okanogan Highlands, the little half ghost town, half hamlet of Molson, which has the name of a Canadian beer because when the town was first founded, its settlers thought they were north of the 49th parallel (as it turns out, they were a couple of miles south of it, but oh, well).

It’s kind of a drive up there, another hour or so along the Okanogan River, past the little village of Riverside and through the slightly larger town of Tonasket, up to Oroville, along the southern shore of long, narrow Lake Osoyoos, which is cut in half by the U.S./Canadian border. There’s a huge grocery store just south of the customs building, with a parking lot always full of cars with British Columbia license plates. I guess groceries are cheaper in the U.S.?

At Oroville I turn east on a little two-lane called Chesaw Road (you know you’ve made the correct turn when you see the sign saying this way to the Sitzmark Ski Area, a little rope tow out in the middle of nowhere about forty miles out of Oroville), and head up through a narrow canyon, gaining quite a bit of altitude in the process before I come out on top of an undulating plateau. These are the true Okanogan Highlands, and are mostly ranchland where they’re not part of the national forest. About twelve miles east of Oroville is the lefthand turn on Molson Rd.

This is beautiful countryside, in so many ways. If you love rolling hills, larches and pines, golden brown grass, and wide open spaces, or you have a thing for wondering who lived in the occasional old, abandoned building out in the middle of the meadow, or even if — in spite of being absolutely in love with the thick Douglas fir forests on the west side of the mountains — you’re simply enthralled with the enormity of the bright blue sky, then the Okanogan Highlands are a balm.

One of the abandoned buildings you find scattered about the Okanogan.  This one is on the road to Molson.
One of the abandoned buildings scattered about the Okanogan. This one is on the road to Molson.

And the little town of Molson is well worth the drive. In the first place, it’s the home of the Molson School Museum I mentioned a couple of posts ago.

In the second, the citizens of Molson have preserved about an acre’s worth of historic buildings, which are open all the time so you can go in and explore.

The ghost town of Old Molson.
Part of the ghost town of Old Molson.
Inside one of the ghost town buildings of Old Molson.
Inside one of the ghost town buildings of Old Molson.

And in the third place, they have Harry the pig.

I love Harry.  I wanted his backstory so badly I invented one for him.  And then wrote a novel around it.
I love Harry. I wanted his backstory so badly I invented one for him. And then wrote a novel around it.

Now, I don’t know if the plaster pig in the abandoned store window in ‘downtown’ Molson actually has a name — I never asked. But in my novel Sojourn he’s Harry, and he’s very important to my fictional Conconully. As a matter of fact, the town might not even exist without him. So I love him. He’s just such a whimsy for a place like that.

After a couple of hours exploring and a pleasant picnic lunch, and a gravel lane that eventually leads me back to Tonasket, I reluctantly head south again. I need to be home by tonight, and it’s a good five-hour drive if I take the bit of a detour into the Methow Valley that I have planned.

My goat trail for the trip.  Actually, it was a very nice, well-maintained gravel road.
My goat trail for the trip. Actually, it was a very nice, well-maintained gravel road.

At the town of Okanogan I turn west, and less than half an hour later I realize that I ought to have checked the road conditions first. Unfortunately, as I mentioned in my last post, this past summer Washington state experienced its largest wildfire ever, which covered over 250,000 acres in the north central part of the state. The Carlton Complex fire caused damage that the area will still be recovering from years from now, and part of that damage was to U.S. Highway 20 between Okanogan and the Methow (pronounced Met-how, pronouncing the T and the H separately) Valley. The traffic was down to an alternating one lane for over a mile, and I lost a good half an hour by the time I reached the valley.

That was just my first check. The second was that State highway 153, which runs south down the valley towards Wenatchee, was also closed due to fire damage. Fortunately, a backroad runs parallel to it and a detour was set up. But I lost another hour by the time I got to Wenatchee.

Still, it was worth it, although I don’t think I’d have made the detour had I known. U.S. 20 climbs up over a magnificent pass and descends into the scenic Methow Valley, and the backroad down the valley was spectacular, crossing and recrossing the Methow River in the shadow of glorious mountains. And I found a non-crowded fruit stand just north of Wenatchee and loaded up on apples and pears.

I didn’t get home till well after dark that Sunday evening. I was tired and my knee was sore. But it was all so worth it. I highly recommend a weekend in the Okanogan country.

The Okanogan Country — Sojourn’s setting

A wide-open Okanogan Country road.  On the way to Conconully, IIRC.
A wide-open Okanogan Country road. On the way to Conconully, where Sojourn is set, if I remember correctly.

The first time I visited the Okanogan Country, in north central Washington state, was in the fall of 2010. I was basically just looking for somewhere new to go on a weekend, because after living here near Seattle for almost two decades, and being an avid day and weekend tripper, I’d pretty much hit everywhere within reach on the west side of the mountains. More than once. So I headed east, on a whim.

Little did I know that I would fall in love with the place. I’ve been back twice since, and my novel Sojourn, and my upcoming novel, Reunion, are set there.

The Okanogan Country or just the Okanogan, as locals call it, is a big wild place. If you were to look for it on a map, you’d find it just east of the Cascade crest, stretching east to about two-thirds of the way to Idaho, and south almost to U.S. Highway 2, which runs east to west across the state about a third of the way down from Canada.

A map of Okanogan County.

Part of it is mountainous, and part of it is what’s called the Okanogan Highlands, a rolling countryside laced with small canyons and topped with forest-covered hills, the rest smoothed over with thick, lush meadows, green in the spring, brown in the fall. The Okanogan River is lined with orchards — Washington’s famous apples, along with pears, cherries, peaches, and other fruit.

Orchards along the Columbia River from the viewpoint at old Fort Okanogan.
Orchards along the Columbia River near its confluence with the Okanogan River, from the viewpoint at old Fort Okanogan.

Okanogan County is one of the largest counties in the state (over 5200 square miles), and the least densely populated. But it wasn’t always so lonesome. Back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this was gold country, full of prospectors trying to find the mother lode, or on their way to Canada’s Cariboo gold rush. Homesteaders came to try their luck, too. The Okanogan is dotted with holes in the ground and with tumbledown buildings, some of them clustered together as if for mutual support, in odd crannies and sheltered places.

Abandoned homestead along the way to Molson.
Abandoned homestead along the way to Molson.
An alive and well ranch along the same road.
An alive and well ranch along the same road.

Some of these ghost towns are truly abandoned, some only partly vacant (one little town called Molson is about half and half), and some of those old mining hamlets are still going concerns.

The ghost town part of Molson, just a mile or two south of the Canadian border, hence the name.
The ghost town part of Molson, just a mile or two south of the Canadian border, hence the name.
The post office of the modern day hamlet of Conconully.  I don't know why I didn't take a photo of the museum next door, too, but I didn't.
The post office of the modern day hamlet of Conconully. I don’t know why I didn’t take a photo of the museum next door, too, but I didn’t.

They’re all interesting, too. Historical museums in the county seat of Okanogan, in Molson, and in the little town of Conconully where Daniel Reilly lands, not by his own choice, in Sojourn, are all worth visiting. The county historical society has done a fantastic job with historical markers by the side of the road, too. And the site of old Fort Okanogan, at the confluence of the Okanogan and Columbia Rivers, has its own museum telling the Native American side of the story.

The old Molson schoolhouse, now a museum, of the fun "town's attic" variety.
The old Molson schoolhouse, now a museum, of the fun “town’s attic” variety.
A display of old cameras in the Molson School Museum.
A display of old cameras in the Molson School Museum.

But this was supposed to be a couple of blog posts about my last trip to the Okanogan, this past September. So, now that you have an introduction to this fascinating, little-known chunk of Washington state, I’ll post about that trip starting tomorrow. I hope you’ll join me then!