"They're going to Wen-AW-tchee on Tuesday," my mother announced, in her Chicago accent. "Right? You guys are headed to a place called Wen-AW-tchee?
Well, she was half-right. My boyfriend Aaron and I were leaving on Tuesday.
But it's not pronounced Wen-AW-tchee. It's pronounced Wen-AT-chee. With a short "a." Wenatchee.
The past few days, Aaron and I had been visiting my family in Mercer Island, a lush and dreamy suburb of Seattle, in a little corner of the country that's been my favorite place to visit for more than 25 years.
It also happens to be the farthest east that I had ever traveled in the state, which isn't very far east at all.
As it turns out, there are other cities in Washington, many of them east of Seattle. Aaron grew up in one those small and distant lands, called — say it with me — Wen-AT-chee.
He had invited me home to the part-valley, part-city he grew up in, in the eastern foothills of the Cascades, Washington's countryside. An exotic, foreign place, 143 miles from Seattle.
Since my previous knowledge of Wenatchee began and ended with my pointing to it on a map, Aaron helped to open my eyes — and mouth — to the fact that agriculturally, this is the land of fruit and wine.
With its high-desert climate, Wenatchee resides within Columbia Valley, the state's largest wine region, where 99 percent of Washington's vineyards are planted. The city also is home to Stemilt Growers, the world's largest shipper of sweet cherries.
Wenatchee is even known as the apple capital of the world.
He had me at fruit and wine, but the list of land amenities kept abundantly growing.
Wenatchee's ski mountain, Mission Ridge, sees more than 300 sunny days a year (a bit of competition for Colorado there), and is less than a 30-minute drive from downtown. In the summer, the valley's uncrowded hiking trails beckon.
The nature of the city seemed to be all wrapped up in, well, nature, with the Wenatchee River to the north, the Columbia River to the east and the Wenatchee Mountains (a sub-range of the Cascades) to the west and south.
It was beginning to sound to me like the people of Wenatchee were in a serious, committed relationship with their land, and rough and bitter seasons only make their connection stronger.
I couldn't help but start to daydream about what my summertime trip to Wenatchee might look like, with my better half and the land as our third wheel.
Maybe one of the days we would do some hand-holding and hike up Saddle Rock to spectacular views. The next, we'd roam around the little city, tasting wine made from premium grapes grown in local vineyards.
And I hoped to fit in a bike ride along the Apple Capital Loop Trail, while doves sang in the background.
Not a bowl of cherries
When our vacation finally came, I discovered that most of those Wenatchee pipedreams came true. I just must have somehow ignored the part in that reverie where I lovingly haul 40-pound lugs of cherries through an orchard in the sweltering heat.
The first day in town, we drove along a handsome dirt road against a vast, desert backdrop of sandy-colored rolling hills, right up to Luebber Orchards. Aaron had a friend in the cherry business, and we had an exclusive, sneak-peek, private cherry-picking appointment.
Cherries grown in the northwest generally reach their peak in July (we were visiting in late June), but with the perfect storm of a warm springtime mixed with just the right amount of rainfall, this season's harvest was an early one. Even so, most orchard's U-Pick tours didn't begin until the next month, so I still considered this a scoop of the freshest Rainiers, Bings and Sweethearts.
We weaved in and out of orchard rows, between trees in tip-top shape. Their little drops of red fruit radiated. All of a sudden, I was starving. Who did I need to talk to around here to get my hands on a bag to fill with cherries?
There was no bag. I found out I'd be swamping. In 80-plus degree heat.
The swamper is the unsung hero of an orchard. While the pickers get to choose the best and brightest cherries from atop the tree, the swampers stay on the ground and do the dirty work — otherwise known as very heavy lifting.
Beginning at 4 a.m., swampers walk from tree to tree, picking up the 40-pound lugs the pickers have filled with cherries, and then calmly carry them up to a colossal bin.
Next — in an almost zenlike state — the swampers tenderly pour the 40-pound lugs of fruit into the bin. One hand on the lug and one in the bin, they gently massage the world's sweetest cherries, distributing them throughout the bin with grace and consideration.
There you have it. That's swamping, and that's what I'd be doing. In other words, I was going to carry one 40-pound box up to another, bigger box, and then dump.
Already sweating, and after having picked it up and put it down four times, I waddled the definitely heavier-than-40-pounds lug up to the bin, and gave that fruit my most supple pour.
Ok, so it turned out to be more of a turbulent stream. While I'm pretty sure the land was forgiving of that, I can't say the same for the orchardists, who had just witnessed the most barbaric cherry dump in the history of the orchard.
I was quickly reassigned to covering the cherry bins with a cool, moist cloth. That was something I was able to do really well.
The next day, I came face-to-face with some more Wenatch-eeans who happened to be in a domestic partnership with their land: wine-grape and cider-apple growers.
Three of the stops on our sipping tour stood out among the rest, for reasons made up of equal parts what we tasted and the people who poured it.
Our first stop was Snowdrift Cider, a small, family-owned cidery that represented the apple capital in the most fruitful way: by emphasizing that hard apple cider isn't an alternative to beer, wine or champagne. It's nothing but hard apple cider.
In eloquent prose, owner Peter Ringsrud and his son-in-law-turned-cider-maker, Tim Larsen regaled me with all things cider and apple — history included. While Washington produces the most apples in the United States, the trees cultivated for growing cider apples are historically seen in places like Normandy, with maritime climates, not the high desert.
Through fruit grafting, experimenting with more than 35 varieties in test orchards, and the power of Wenatchee's cold and snowy winters, Snowdrift produces a rare lineup of bittersweet, crisp and sometimes smoky ciders that take on a life of their own.
Martin Scott Winery was up next.
There, we sat on the patio of Mike Scott's house and winery overlooking the city, and talked while tasting a Tempranillo. Being the simple, unsophiscated wine expert that I am, I normally find that blend to be a little too oaky.
This one, however, didn't taste anything like the other Tempranillos I've had. It was so enjoyable, so rich with fruit — a genuine reflection of Wenatchee's weather and agriculture, rather than the barrel it had aged in.
Before we left, Scott told us that wine-tasting doesn't have to be about the stemware, the swirling or the legs.
"Drinking wine has unifying human aspects," he said. "You can diasgree about wine and still feel unified." I liked this idea. Just as I had thought that Tempranillo reflected the land, Scott's words reflected its people.
Malaga Springs Winery was the cherry on top of our tour. Maybe it was the wines, maybe it was where we felt most unified, maybe it was because Kathy Matthews — who owns the winery with her husband, Al — was just a pleasure to be around.
I do know, though, that Malaga Springs Winery helped reinforce the idea that I'm much better at handling fruit that's been fermented, rather than carrying 40-pound lugs of it.
It's said that the people make the place. I think in Wenatchee — you know, that place way out in eastern Washington? — it goes both ways.
Francie Swidler: 303-954-1001, email@example.com
Wenatchee insider's guide
Get there: Alaska Airlines is the only airline to fly directly into Wenatchee's Pangborn Memorial Airport (EAT). Nonstop flights from Denver International Airport (DEN) begin at $427 round-trip. Most major airlines fly nonstop from DEN to Seattle-Tacoma (SEA-TAC), which is about 150 miles from Wenatchee. Nonstop flights start at $263 round-trip.
By shuttle, from Seattle: The Wenatchee Valley Shuttle runs to and from SEA-TAC three times a day. Rates are $45 one-way or $85 round-trip.
By train, from Seattle: The Amtrak Empire Builder trains depart from Seattle's King St. Station to Wenatchee one to two times a day. Round-trip tickets begin at $54.
Stay: Apple Country Inn Bed & Breakfast, 524 Okanogan Ave., 509-664-0400, applecountryinn.com. Charming B&B offering five bedrooms in the main house, one in the carriage house and breakfast. Rooms from $85 per night.
Warm Springs Inn & Winery, 1611 Love Lane, 509-662-5683, warmspringsinn.com. Perfect for weddings and private engagements, with six large bedrooms, breakfast, a tasting room and garden. Rooms from $140 per night.
Coast Wenatchee Center Hotel, 201 N. Wenatchee Ave., 509-662-1234, coasthotels.com. In the heart of Wenatchee's historic downtown, walking distance to entertainment, shopping, and the convention center. Rooms from $109.
Shopping: Pak it Rite, 126 N. Wenatchee Ave., 800-666-2730, pakitrite.com. Your one-stop shop for fresh apples, cherries, wine and wine accessories, locally made housewares, gifts and gift baskets, jewelry and more. Ships most items, including fruit and wine nationwide.
Stan's Merry Mart, 733 S. Wenatchee Ave., 509-662-5858, stansmerrymart.com. Sporting goods, camping gear, clothing, even home-brewing and garden supplies.
Dine/Drink:Pybus Public Market, 3 N. Worthen, 509-888-3900, pybuspublicmarket.org. Operating out of the historic Pybus steel warehouse, this year-round Farmers Market offers local coffee , flowers, produce, meats and cheeses, along with workshops, cooking classes and live music on Fridays.
Dizzy D's, 501 N. Western Ave., 509-662-3236. Voted Wenatchee's best burger again in 2014, this friendly diner-style burger joint has a menu that includes shakes, onion rings, salads and sandwiches for under $10.
McGlinn's Public House, 111 Orondo Ave., 509-663-9073, mcglinns.com. Housed in Wenatchee's historic Garland Building, McGlinn's serves big salads, fresh salmon, ribs, burgers and chicken, starting at $9.50-$14.50.
Joe's Log Cabin, 633 N. Wenatchee Ave., 509-662-5329. Friendly and fun dive bar with pool tables, a jukebox, cheap drinks and a full menu.
Do: Stand-Up Paddleboard Yoga, 13 Orondo Ave., 509-670-2384, iLayoga.com. Held on the Columbia River, each class is about an hour and a half long and is suitable for yogis of all levels. Life vests are provided. $38 for non-members.
Rocky Reach Dam, 6151 Washington 97A, 509-663-7522. One of north central Washington's primary sources for electricity also has a museum, cafe, 90-seat theater, panoramic views and 30 acres of gardens. Guided tours are available.
Stutzman Ranch U-Pick, 2226 Easy St., 509-667-1664, thestutzmanranch.com. Pick the Northwest's freshest nectarines, pears, Gala and Fuji apples. Peach-picking runs through mid- September, nectarine, Bartlett pears and Gala apples through late August, and Fuji apples in mid-September. $5 minimum.
Ohme Gardens, 3327 Ohme Road, 509-662-5785, ohmegardens.com. Nine acres of evergreen garden in the middle of the high desert, with natural rock formations, mini-waterfalls and wildflowers, all sitting on a cliff overlooking the Columbia River. Admission is $7 for adults and $3.50 for kids 17 and under. On select summer Wednesdays the garden holds a yoga class for $10.