"No region of the country has a more spectacular variety of terrain to explore. Glaciers wrap the shoulders of granite monuments that rise thousands of feet above the forest. Trails lead to pounding bridal-veil waterfalls, blue-glass lakes, kaleidoscopic meadows of wildflowers, and pinnacles with panoramic views of country so beautiful you'll feel like crying in awe and simple happiness that you're there." So gushes the Washington State Tourism Board about the extravagant expanses of nature surrounding Mazama, WA--a tiny, ruggedly luxurious town-in-name-only perched at the upper end of Washington's Methow Valley. Following the board's breathless advice, I steer my rented Neon up to the North Cascades Highway, which weaves through the series of 7,000-foot-plus peaks known as "the American Alps" and leads directly to Mazama, the small but vital commercial outpost serving the seasonal hordes drawn to the world-class recreational nature surrounding the town on all sides. To the north, the ancient Pasayten Wilderness; to the south, the 8,000-foot-plus peaks of the Sawtooth Mountain Range. And, unfortunately, all around us on the day of the drive, a clobbering rain, which obscures all views beyond relentless sheets of gray.

With no radio signal or scenery, my guy Jake is responsible for entertainment, and he gamely reads aloud from the book I snatched on my way out of the office: Star, actress Pamela Anderson's debut novel. Having never seen Baywatch or Barb Wire or the Tommy Lee sex video, Anderson is a celebrity with whom I'm conspicuously unacquainted. But I've always kind of admired her from afar, cherishing what I've come to perceive as a lack of guile, an honest shamelessness, and a surprisingly wise self-perception of an inherently shallow persona. This persona is at the center of Star, Ms. Anderson-Lee-Rock-Lee's fictionalized (if changing people's names constitutes fiction) account of her wonderfully goofy transformation from jugsy, fun-loving manicurist to jugsy, fun-loving superstar.

It's all here, from Pam's--sorry, Star's--accidental discovery-by-JumboTron to her premiere tabloid cover, and half the fun is decoding the dropped pseudonyms: After Star's debut on the cover of Mann magazine, Mars Marsten, Mann's ageless-bachelor editor, invites her to a party at his mansion, where natural-exhibitionist Star thrills onlookers in the grotto before meeting Scott Bai--er, Vince Piccolo, a superstar TV actor whom Star dubs "Superman" for his faster-than-a-speeding-bullet lovemaking. (Like most of Star's forward motion, this scene inspires a lengthy reflective flashback, this time to Star's sexual awakening: "Repulsed at first, Star quickly became fascinated with the mechanics and hydraulics, the strange feel of his erection in her hand, flesh like velour wrapped around a bird bone....")

We know we've reached Mazama when we hit the Mazama Country Inn, a stained-wood wonderland incorporating 18 rooms and a restaurant decked out with functional manly frills--Canada-geese mobiles twirling from the rafters, snowshoes hung on the walls--and few amenities beyond the game room (a few bookshelves bearing weathered sets of Risk and Balderdash!) and a public hot tub. In the restaurant, 20 or so tables are spread around a huge stone fireplace. The hostess is a harried older woman whom we harry further by asking for a table. "I don't know," she says, eyes darting to the dozen or so rugged-looking men in the lobby. "We've got these firemen here...."

The crisis is averted as the firemen--two dozen of the almost 600 firefighters brought in to battle a pair of fires near Lake Chelan--line up for their government-funded buffet, while Jake and I are led to a table by our young, non-harried waitress, a cute bohemian on summer leave from Evergreen. Throughout the meal--basic grill fare, done perfectly well for a reasonable price--the waitress fields my questions, from "Do people actually live in Mazama?" (the 2000 census puts the town's population at 96; our waitress estimates another few thousand reside throughout the Methow Valley) to "What's it like having all these firemen around?" ("Lots of propositions, lousy tips.")

After dinner, we retire to our room, a split-level mini-suite with a queen-sized bed and a private bathroom for $90 a night. Only on the Western Hemisphere's most glorious terrain could someone charge 90 bucks for a barely glorified hostel. What you're paying for is proximity to the vast delights of the great outdoors, which in Mazama range from the sporty (hiking, biking, snowshoeing) to the snooty (horse riding, bird watching).

The inn's brochure isn't kidding when it brags of "no TVs in our rooms!" but Star provides a veritable E! True Hollywood Novel, as each of Star's brawls with her no-good boyfriends is rendered with an eloquence that captures perfectly the adrenaline-fueled glee our heroine takes in her smash-'em-up love life. "'You missed me,' Star shouted, popping up over the counter as the cereal bowl smashed against the wall. 'Now you gotta kiss me!'"

As I wait for sleep, I wonder if the elderly benefactor whom Star banged after he loaned her a mansion and flew her dog to California was Dick Clark or Aaron Spelling.

By morning, the sky has cleared, and at breakfast, a number of Patagonia-clad families fuss over maps of available terrain. On the waitress' suggestion, we set our sights on Cutthroat Lake, featuring a semi-popular trail leading to one of the region's easier-reached peaks. With bellies full of bagels, we decide to prep for hiking by shopping, which, in Mazama, means the Mazama store, a mid-sized convenience boutique selling swanky standards (microbrews, biodegradable tampons), earthy novelties (candles and soap, tie-dyed T-shirts), fly-fishing gear, and the only gas for 75 miles. Most of the clientele sports the Lycra-and-polar-fleece uniform of the 21st-century outdoorsperson--half woodsman, half spaceman. The Greens-of-means vibe is sustained on the store's callboard, which advertises a screening of The Future of Food ("one of the most comprehensive documentaries concerning genetically modified organisms in our food") alongside the most surreal summer season in the history of the American theater, care of the nearby Twisp Community Theater, where the timeless summer classic A Very Tuna Christmas is paired with its natural repertory counterpart, Yasmin Reza's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Art.

For "real" shopping, we follow the natives' advice and drive 17 miles east to Winthrop, where we find a popular river walk lined with curio shops, ice-cream stands, and tourist boutiques peddling a rich assortment of crap--personalized license-plate magnets, cast-resin cat statues, discount dream catchers, high-end cowboy hats. It's nice, and there's mini golf, but it takes a stubborner man than I to spurn the glories of nature for paint-your-own ceramics and novelty T-shirts. (Eternal question: Can anyone pull off wearing a "That's not a bald spot, it's a solar panel for a sex machine" T-shirt without looking like an asshole? Eternal answer: Only newborn babies and dark-humored chemo sufferers. Anyone else, instant idiot.)

Fleeing Winthrop with waffle cones, we drive at last to the Cutthroat trailhead, arriving as the sun hits its afternoon peak. Following the narrow trail for a quarter mile, we cross a safety-rigged log bridge and descend the bank to the stream, where I submerge my feet in the icy cold water while the rest of me roasts in the sun. On the opposite bank is a large black log, near the middle of which is a two-inch hole. For the next 45 minutes, I lazily pitch rocks at the hole, taking in the mild cacophony of the stream and surrounding wildlife, trying to prod my brain into seizing this picturesque opportunity for profundity. War is bad. For the next several centuries, at least one group of people will believe that God requires them to kill all other groups of people. Chachi is a premature ejaculator. Who knew?

The clear skies continue on the drive home, affording extravagant views of Mazama's reasons for being, all of which we ignore for the final chapters of Star.

Mazama, WA
(Pop. 96)

Directions: I-5 north to Highway 20, east on Highway 20 to Mazama (look for the Mazama Country Inn on the right).

Driving time: 3 1/2 to 4 hours.

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