Texas, keep your ranches. Florida, we don’t need your beach bungalows on stilts. In the Pacific Northwest, our signature home is the cabin.
Tucked into trees or towering atop a ridge, Lincoln Log–style or bent with austere modern angles, there’s no one type of Pacific Northwest cabin. Long Beach has cottages on the sand, and the Cascades have A-frames straight out of the Alps.
Cabins are calm, remote, and simple—everything Seattle real estate isn’t. It took me 11 months to buy a mere 500 square feet of condo in Capitol Hill, but a mountain cabin is the real fantasy. So, anxious to get the dream under way, I ventured to the picturesque Methow Valley, just east of the North Cascades, to do some fantasy cabin shopping in the sunny Shangri-La valley.
“Pretend this is House Hunters,” I ask longtime Blue Sky Realty owner Anne Eckmann, who has sold real estate here for 30 years. Her office is in the Old West town of Winthrop—its wooden sidewalks and saloon-style storefronts only date back to the 1970s, though it was a real gold rush town way back when.
“Our distance from Seattle separates the men from the boys,” says Eckmann; men, apparently, being willing to drive four hours in the summer, more when winter closes the most direct route over the Cascades. But the point of cabin life is escape—plus the Methow’s striking architecture would hardly be affordable if it was any easier to reach.
We spin through the Methow’s tiny roads to see what’s on the market. Cabin 1, an $800,000 listing, has the steep roof of a ski chalet and three rows of windows facing snow-covered peaks (and, closer, a stone hot tub and pond). It’s the kind of house that appears in movies where Meryl Streep or Diane Keaton swans about in a cozy sweater while swirling a goblet of wine.
“Real river rock,” says Eckmann approvingly of the central fireplace, “none of the fake stuff.” Though it’s basically the price of a Seattle starter home, a four-bedroom show-off like this isn’t the “cabin” I had in mind.
We’re off to Cabin 2, a boxy home close enough to the National Forest boundary that you could walk from the front door to Canada without hitting another building. It’s a modern Craftsman that fits nearly 2,000 square feet of space in a small package, with chic, cool, red-lined windows and custom built-in cabinets. But there’s also a leak, though the owner has left a handwritten note on the floor promising it’s being repaired. Eckmann points out metal siding on the building’s bottom third—not an industrial aesthetic choice, but protection from encroaching water.
From what I can tell, most of cabin ownership is a water battle: tricky septic issues, ground rot, roof leaks, frozen pipes. I start to covet the type of cabin Eckmann lived in when she first arrived in the Methow: 18 by 20 feet, dry, with an outhouse.
In fact, the whole Methow would look a lot different if it wasn’t for water. Back in 1974, the Aspen Corporation planned the Early Winters Ski Resort here, a posh downhill destination with lifts, condos, golf courses, and, most of all, a pinkies-up apres scene. Environmentalists pressed a water rights issue, the government shut down every iteration of the project, and the Methow was left scattered with ski bums who embraced cross-country skiing and summer hiking. That might be why it became a liberal island in Eastern Washington’s sea of red.
Cabin life is nothing if not trade-offs. Do you want scenic views or a Safeway? Rustic charm or a toilet that flushes? Like-minded neighbors or a community that feels authentic—and hasn’t priced out local farmers? With its striking architecture and Subaru-driving hikers, the Methow can feel like a slice of Ballard in the middle of the mountains; for city dwellers, it’s a pretty sweet combo.
Before I leave the Methow, Eckmann takes me to Cabin 3, the just-right porridge for my Goldilocks taste: 1,275 square feet, two mudrooms(!)—plus hickory flooring and plywood walls throughout, so it smells roughly like I imagine a Filson catalog would. Its shed roof, a single sloped plane rather than an old-timey peak, is very on trend; the jaunty roof style seems to dominate most new cabin construction.
But at $398,000 the darling Cabin 3 still isn’t cheap. I could downgrade to something older—cabins from the ’70s can still come in under $200k—but I’d also have to either marry a handyman or become one. Even a shack in the woods is a major endeavor. As we cruise out of the Methow, I mentally kick my cabin dream a little further down the road.
Updated June 7, 2017. Mike Hilton of Hilton Construction Inc. should have been credited as the designer of the modern cabin represented in the illustration.