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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!