The temperature is pushing 90 degrees as more than a dozen of us wait in the beating sun for the school bus that is shuttling people and piles of gear from the Winthrop Rodeo Grounds to our first campsite.
By the time we’re all rounded up, there will be more than 100 paying guests — city slickers, experienced horse and mule riders, and teamsters. Add a support team of another 100 people and about the same number of animals, and you have the Ride to Rendezvous, an annual four-night horse and wagon expedition in north-central Washington’s Methow Valley.
I joined the ride last spring, a cross-country adventure of long days traveling up and over often steep terrain, through forests and across high, open hills — all at the pace an animal can haul a rider or pull a wagon.
The ride is a chance to experience life on an elemental level, and feel the freedom of moving without combustion power over hills festooned with gold sunflowers and violet-blue lupine
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Many participants bring their own horses, others their own wagons and teams. Some are horseless newbies (and use outfitters’ horses), others are veterans of the Ride to Rendezvous, a rite of spring in the beautiful hills surrounding the Methow Valley.
Because I’ve explored the mountain wilderness around the Methow on horseback, I signed on as a wagon passenger to find out what early-day travel by wagon was like. I was assigned to a smooth riding, wooden-wheeled buggy pulled by a team of two horses, with padded bench seats and a covered top that kept us shaded. Some wagons were open-topped and rolled on tires. Some were pulled by mules.
The ride is sponsored by the Washington Outfitters and Guides Association, and includes more than three days of riding and four nights in tent camps. Enormous meals are served buffet style, and there’s nightly entertainment around a crackling campfire.
The ride always ends with a parade through downtown Winthrop to kick off the community’s annual ’49er Days celebration. It’s an adventurous trip that often whets the appetite for exploring the higher backcountry with a professional guide.
But for the next few days our 30-strong wagon train and long string of riders travels overland, mostly across private land unreachable from public roads. We follow parts of the historic Chiliwist Trail — one of the earliest 19th-century routes into the Methow from the Okanogan Valley.
Unlike the Indians and early settlers who really had to rough it, we have a support team, including members of local cowboy families ranging in age from 5 to 80-something. There are experienced backcountry cooks and truck drivers who haul everything from our gear to hay between camps. Trained medics ride along to deal with ailing people, and a vet and farrier are in camp nightly to care for ailing animals.
On day two — our longest, hottest day with nine hours on the wagon trail — we pitch down a narrow, winding grade dubbed “Suicide Hill.” We haul into camp too tired to care when two teenage girls warn: “Watch out. We just saw two rattlesnakes over by the cattle guard.” (We saw no snakes the next day when we passed through scenic Pipestone Canyon, where rattlers are notoriously common.)
Taking care of riders
“Many of us have been on every ride,” says Marva Mountjoy, the official Washington Outfitters and Guides Association office manager. Unofficially she’s the Rendezvous ride coordinator who plays a part in all the behind-the-scenes tasks required to pull it off. “We can’t thank our volunteers enough,” she says repeatedly of that cadre of people who take time off their jobs, arrange for child care and whatever else it takes for them to be there to help out.
The Mountjoy clan, including Marva’s husband, Jim, daughters Lauriann Mountjoy and Stephanie Mitchell, and the grandkids, all participate. Lauriann, for example, is in charge of getting coffee pots heating on the stove by 4:30 a.m. She also oversees lunch fixings, which means making sure 3,000 homemade cookies are baked in advance and thousands of slices of bread are on hand for the sandwich-makers.
Capricious weather is a familiar component of the experience. Ice and snow, rain and mud, heat and dust, sunshine and clear skies are just part of the deal. In 2012, the Rendezvousers braved deep snow and ice crossing a pass. But in 2013 we sweltered in 90-degree weather. And you can count on about a 50-degree swing between the daily high and low.
Marva Mountjoy used to work pack trips for local outfitter Claude Miller, who grew up in Winthrop and spent decades hauling hunters and others into the surrounding hills. Miller helped found the Washington Outfitters and Guides more than 40 years ago and only last year gave up being in charge of planning the Rendezvous route. He hasn’t missed a Rendezvous ride yet.
Miller first had the idea of offering an early spring ride as a way to make some money before his regular packing season started.
In 1972, the year the North Cascades Highway opened, three women signed up for Miller’s trial adventure. “It rained so goddamned hard for two days, you couldn’t see,” he says.
The wagons were mired in mud. But the clients stuck it out and on the fourth day, he recalls, the sky cleared and the sunflowers popped out. “It was so pretty.” Years later, the annual Ride to Rendevous began; this year’s will be the 16th such event.
Needless to say, the Rendezvous ride is nothing like a dude-ranch stay with short trail rides and a bed at night. There is neither running water nor showers. Participants pitch their own tents and tend their own stock. One amenity is that every camp has portable toilets.
And at the end of each day there is a spot set up not far from the cook tents where the most precious commodity imaginable is available — a small bowl of steaming hot water with which to wash. And there always is plenty to eat. Newcomers are amazed at the variety and quality of cuisine, cooked with camp stoves and Dutch ovens.
Mountjoy says the 2014 ride, for which sign-up is open until April 1, will follow “the most requested route.” For the third time since the Rendezvous began, it will circle the hills above the Methow Valley instead of coming into the valley from elsewhere. She also says this year’s route could be broken into “shorter days with more activities in camp” instead of having an “endurance ride” in the mix.
But as always, the Ride to Rendezvous will offer the camaraderie of group camp life. And simple joys such as watching the kids play baseball with sticks and pine cones in the fading evening light and listening to the campfire crackle while the cowboys sing.
Karen West is a former Seattle Times editor who lives in the Methow Valley.