Opening Day

Andrew Winn turns on the charm during Opening Day on Washington Pass’s North Cascades Highway. [Photo] Jason Hummel

In late March, with buds already blossoming in the low country, I tuned my radio to the Seattle Mariners’ sold-out home opener after a day touring in the Cascades. The spring energy cackling over the airwaves felt infectious. It lulled me into thinking of life beyond snow after a winter dedicated to its pursuit.

But spring operates on a different calendar in the high country. Six weeks later, with life at sea level in full bloom, my go-to touring partner, Chris Brennan, and I prepared for an early morning departure en route to a quieter Opening Day than the kind that packs Safeco Field. We were heading for a Pacific Northwest skiing rite of passage: the spring opening of Washington’s State Route 20.

Twenty-seven avalanche chutes crisscross the road that’s also known as the North Cascades Highway. Consequently, the state transportation department closes a 40-mile stretch every winter. Once snow stops piling up, crews begin plowing. The process can take weeks and usually results in a mid-May opening.

Last year, the fated hour was 10 a.m. on Friday, May 11. We arrived to a line of cars patiently waiting at a gate overlooking the ethereal glacial turquoise of Diablo Lake outside of Marblemount, the nearest town. The lineup was a festive occasion, despite being 30 miles from even the nearest post office. Opening Day in the North Cascades signals reconnection between small towns east and west of the Cascade Crest along Highway 20. For six months, trips from one side to the other require a four-hour-long detour.

A high-school band played as road crews ceremonially swung open the gate for 100 or so vehicles that showed up for the occasion: motorcycles, road bikes, scenic-drive enthusiasts, trucks with skis poking out the back and travelers just anxious for a shorter trip to eastern Washington.

Most importantly, the cinnamon rolls made an appearance. For nearly 20 years, Ethel Madrene “Tootsie” Clark, who owned the Rockport restaurant, The Eatery, baked sticky treats and handed them out on Opening Day—a gesture toward turning a mundane act of infrastructure maintenance into a small-town civic celebration. The 95-year-old passed away in 2017, making last year the first Highway 20 opening without Tootsie in nearly five decades.

But civic traditions die hard. Staff at her former restaurant woke at 3 a.m. that morning to bake 100 cinnamon rolls, which, along with hot coffee, disappeared quickly from a roadside folding table.

With a fresh load of carbs in our stomachs, Chris and I pressed on past the opened gate and up to the spring snow banks still holding fast at 5,477-foot Washington Pass. With a rock formation known as the Liberty Bell as our beacon, we headed for spring corn on Madison Avenue, a wide, south-facing slope, then gained a second col for the long run out to a hairpin turn on Highway 20 where we hitched a ride back up to the trailhead.

The route is known as Sally Portman’s Birthday Tour, a nod to the town librarian in Winthrop—one of Highway 20’s east-of-the-crest towns—who apparently skis the route every year on her birthday—another slice of civic tradition in these mountains.

Five years prior, I was living in the Northeast, where the spring melt comes quickly in a thin snow year. With almost nothing left to ski in April, I made a sojourn to Washington at a time when I was still making tepid forays into the backcountry. A crew of older, more experienced skiers let me join them on the Birthday Tour. We caravanned into Winthrop for dinner, then retreated back up the highway to camp at the pass. They told me skiing tales of skiing in the Chugach, Wasatch and Cascades, all of which were beyond my comprehension. From them I learned of the Northwest’s “turns all year” tradition—another revelation, now turned personal practice.

At the time, I sported “Ski the East” stickers on my helmet and had no inkling that I might relocate to this part of the world. But five springs later, I’d settled into a new life, one attuned to markers of time and tradition like North Cascades Highway Opening Day that reminded me of the small-town life in New York and Vermont I had left behind.

As I recalled my first Birthday Tour to Chris after his inaugural Opening Day, I knew I’d paid forward the knowledge that I first gleaned from my initial tour here a half-decade prior—an act that made me realize, in the shadow of the Liberty Bell, this place is home.

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