methow grist 2011-2014 archive
photo of curtis edwards


Methow locals like point out to traffic-weary urbanites that there are no stoplights in our little paradise. What we don’t brag about is a valley intersection that pretty much neutralizes that perk. It’s the four-way in downtown Winthrop, a crossroad that, at times, can make you consider getting from Twisp to Mazama by way of Seattle.

During the off-season the intersection is sleepy enough that the only reason to actually stop is the Marshal’s office that sits next to it. But when town fills with our esteemed tourists new forces, and new rules, come into play.

In the regular world vehicles pause and release at the stop signs in a simple counterclockwise rotation. Mixed in are pedestrians who check for traffic then move from curb to curb inside one of the four crosswalks.

In vacationland there are actually 14 crosswalks, the four you can see plus 10 visible only to the visitors. The painted crosswalks are flanked by two invisible ones, effectively widening them to somewhere between 30 feet and the entire length of downtown. The other two secret crossings run diagonally through the intersection, providing the much-needed direct route to the bathroom or ice cream. There are also miniature rest areas in the street where visitors are allowed to stop to take a picture, answer a text message, or wonder why traffic is backed up so far.

And it’s not just pedestrians - vacation drivers apparently have their own rules as well, such as:

  • Stop signs are optional
  • Turn signals are not required, nor is turning in the signaled direction
  • Pausing mid-intersection to confirm your route is normal
  • No matter when you arrive it is always your turn to go next
photoPlease allow extra time. Photo by the fabulous Rose Weagant

I draw these conclusions from careful research, conducted during one trip through the nexus on a busy weekend. I approached down Pool Hall Hill, after checking my brakes at the top (town STILL refuses to put in a run-out lane). At the intersection, to the right, was a Prius with a wad of bicycles on the back like a hair bun. Across was a motorhome the size of a Navy destroyer, its driver tipped forward and looking down for signs of life. On the left were four Harleys, their owners revving angry engines as if hearts might stop if they didn’t. Padding all the backed up vehicles, in clumps and threads, were about 300 pedestrians, not one of them making eye contact with a driver.

I surveyed my competition looking for signs of intent. The motorhome was pinned in place by someone using one of the invisible rest areas. The Prius driver was checking her phone, surrounded, like a river rock, by foot traffic spread into the imaginary crosswalks. That left the Harleys. Not wanting to show my prejudice against insanely loud motorcycles driven by hopeful old men I waved them to go ahead even though I was next. As they rumbled forward, so did the motorhome. Both paused in their crosswalks and foot traffic began to flow around them as well.

Since the Prius had lost its turn due to a texting violation (my rules) it became my turn. The pedestrians on my left had paused to read the Winthrop history sign. To my surprise the clump on the right acknowledged my presence so I inched forward with a wave of thanks for letting a vehicle use the road. They responded by immediately starting to cross in front of me, looking away toward the ice cream and forcing me to also hold up.

Now there were three vehicles stuck part way into the intersection, some starting their turns. The Prius driver saw her chance and rolled silently only to be stopped by someone opting for one of the invisible diagonal crosswalks.

By now, none of us driving had a clue who’s turn it was to go, even if we could go. Then, with a rattly roar, the motorcycles split and wove their way through the clog like the outlaws they weren’t, followed by the motorhome and Prius pressing on. The pedestrians paused, shocked that the traffic was actually moving so I, too, made my move. A foot further I slammed on my brakes as the car on my left took the “no need to stop” option and rolled through giving me the “where did YOU learn to drive” look.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s nice to see people on holiday, and I’m glad they are supporting our town. But it’s tough when you just need to get through the four-way to continue your local life. The visitors aren’t mean or rude, they are just on vacation, free of the stress of life’s little hassles like laws or rules or the reality that a car can still actually run over you. Asking politely wasn’t going to work, in part because ice cream absorbs most of the sound in the human voice frequencies, so they wouldn’t hear me.

What would work, however, is rattlesnakes. We’re rich with them and, for some reason, they strike as much fear in hearts as grizzly bears. One walk through Pipestone Canyon would give you a summer’s supply, then you just carry a few in the car during the busy days. At the four-way you hold one up in the open window to part the closest pedestrians, then casually toss it into the middle of the intersection. By then those that have seen the snake will be sounding the alarm, so you wouldn’t even have to strain your voice by screaming, RATTLESNAKE!!!!. Like the eye of a storm, the intersection would be calm as traffic stopped and people backed away and then you drive through . . . like it’s actually your town. The best part is that it’s perfectly legal (unlike my fake emergency vehicle solution).


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