Nestled within the foothills of the jagged Cascade Mountains, straddling the aptly-named Icicle River, is a tiny little village where the buildings are all muraled, the beer is heartily German, and the tantalizing scents of sauerkraut and bratwurst waft through the main strip every single weekend.
As I drive too quickly along the last few serpentine miles of Steven’s Pass, I crane my neck to glimpse the swirling teal blue chaos of the Icicle River that I follow into the town of Leavenworth, Washington. Even though I grew up in this town, with the imposing cliffs and ridges of the mountains at my fingertips and the tumultuous whitewater rapids literally in my backyard, I never tire of the view, and my heart soars every single time as I wend my way into the valley. These mountains mean home, my soul sings. Welcome home.
Leavenworth is known for its yearly mimicry of the famous German Oktoberfest, held during, of course, October. Another great draw is the annual Christmas Lighting Festival, hosted during the first couple weekends of December. Any tourism guide will tell you to see one or both of these festivals, or to come by in the spring for the Apple Blossom Parade and witness the town in bloom. These parties draw in 1.3 million visitors annually, and they are a great deal of fun as the town bursts with activities and polka music. A visitor would never suppose Leavenworth’s Bavarian origins began as recently as the 1960’s, as a way to revive a dying logger town.
These factoids don’t concern me as I peel around the last corner and abruptly come into view of the valley. The main stretch always looks unchanged to me, at first. Then, as I slow my car to a crawl, I notice minor differences: the Starbucks moved down the street; a new restaurant opened up; a liquor store took over the abandoned Burger King. It always strikes a dissonant chord in my mind that a town that’s constantly changing still seems to be exactly as I last left it.
As I drive through town to my parent’s house, I ponder the reason for my excitement upon returning to Leavenworth. When I was a little kid, I was so fascinated with the candy and toy shops that I didn’t notice for many years that they were all basically the same store. As a teenager, being confined in such a small, isolated community drove me mad, and I moved out of town mere weeks after I graduated. For a couple of years after moving out, I thought of the village only with disdain and disgust. It would stand to reason that I would dread returning to this little mountain town, but every time, I find myself giddy with joy.
It isn’t for the beer that I find myself jubilant, or the kitschy town as a whole. I don’t have many friends left in the valley, nor many family members. So what is it that brings me back to Leavenworth, season after season? What is it that makes me smile with nostalgia and say to anyone who asks, “Yeah, Leavenworth is worth visiting”?
Sometime during middle school, I picked up the habit of going out at night. This isn’t exactly a rare thing among adolescents, but my reasons were a bit unusual compared to the reasons of my peers: I wanted to see the stars.
On any given night, sometime between eleven pm and three am, I could be found ambling along the streets, my hands in my pockets and my head tilted straight back. The streetlights along the old highway illuminate the main stretch of town, but one or two streets over and the starry expanse opens up above. During the week, the town goes quiet at around eight pm, leaving the streets desolate by ten. No matter the season, I could be found meandering the main strip, now dark and quiet, the gaping absence of polka music a sweet relief. I would step off the main drag and wander around the residential streets, feeling utterly safe and entirely alone with my thoughts and the celestial bodies above me.
Small town life is often romanticized, much to the chagrin of anyone who knows what the provincial life really entails. For all the conveniences that a city has to offer, there lacks the sense of security that a midnight wander requires to be truly satisfying. If I were truly in trouble, one loud shout would bring half a dozen people running to my aid, but should I remain quiet, my presence would go unnoticed. I’m no longer a teenager, but every chance I get, I peruse the streets of Leavenworth after dark, drinking in the silence and the stars.
The other reason I find myself returning to Leavenworth is the town’s innate connection with the natural world. The town itself snuggles up against the foothills of the mountains, and the impressive view alone can bring traffic to a standstill. The river floods every spring with the snow runoff, and a few short months later, locals and visitors alike can be found plunging into the frigid waters to escape the heat. What I find most remarkable, though, is the tenuous harmony between the humans and wildlife.
Every year, a brown bear comes down from the mountains, and even though he can frequently be sighted along the river, there is a general understanding that, unless he poses an immediate and violent threat to the human residents of the valley, he is to be left alone to return to the mountains in the spring. The presence of an apex predator is to be expected in such a locale, and the people who live there accept that fact.
The deer, too, are fearless in Leavenworth. While not quite as exciting as a bear, they are much more likely to be sighted on any given day. One of my favorite memories in Leavenworth took place on an early morning run around Blackbird Island, the little nature reserve along the water, just a couple minutes’ walk from the main street. As the summer mist dissipated off the river and the sun filtered through the leaves, I turned a corner and quite literally bumped into a doe and her twin fawns. After the initial shock passed and each party realized the other wasn’t a threat, the doe and I stared intently at each other as her offspring sniffed my shoes. A long moment later, the trio silently disappeared into the brush.
Such occurrences are quite common in the little Bavarian town. The lack of concern the animals have is astonishing, and the possibility of sighting some wildlife is a massive appeal for many visitors, myself included.
It is for these reasons that I find myself elated, and am practically bouncing in my seat as I pull into the driveway at my parents’ house. While I encourage anyone who feels so inclined to party during Oktoberfest, grab an ice cream cone and wander the teeming streets during a summer weekend, or to bundle up with some jackets and loved ones during the Christmas Lighting Festival, the real reason to visit Leavenworth is to simply be in a place that is both safe and quiet, to wonder at the natural world around the tiny themed village.