What we communicate in seconds on our smartphones used to take days. For instance, skiing heavy packs of mail over Western mountain ranges in the dead of winter could take the better part of a week. The most famous mail carrier of the pioneer era was Snowshoe Thompson. Starting in 1855, he skied the mail ninety miles over the Sierra Nevada from Placerville to Carson Valley. The route took three days there and two days back. Snowshoe did this twice a month for twenty years with a hundred pound pack! Of course, he was originally from Norway. Unlike mere mortals, Norwegians are born to do stuff like that.
But Snowshoe was not the only one. In 1880, there were fifty skiing mail carriers in the state of Colorado alone. With mining camps scattered across the tops of the Rockies, these guys regularly braved blizzards, snow blindness, and avalanches to get the mail through.
The most famous skiing mail carrier of the Cascade Range was John Craig. Sadly, he’s remembered less for the amazing feats he did accomplish, than for the one he didn’t. In December of 1877, Craig set off to ski the Christmas mail from McKenzie Bridge to Camp Polk (near present day Sisters) over McKenzie Pass. He never made it. In the spring, his frozen body was found in the cabin he had built near the halfway point. Apparently, Craig reached the cabin as planned and built a fire, but due to illness or misfortune, couldn’t keep it going. He crawled into the warm ashes, drew a quilt over himself and died.
Craig’s tragic end inspired an annual ski event that has persisted, off and on, for eight decades. The John Craig Memorial Ski began in 1934 over the same route pioneered by Craig. Since the historic McKenzie Pass road is closed to vehicles in the winter and left unplowed, it’s possible for cross-country skiers to imagine what Craig experienced. In fact, in some years, the memorial has even included a nineteen mile race during which the racers carried bags of mail.
Fortunately for me, this year’s memorial ski was less ambitious. Participants skied a thirteen mile tour to the pass and back from the east gate. Still, the almost two thousand foot climb to the summit was tough. I wasn’t carrying a heavy pack of mail, but I did have one letter from a friend I’d received the day before. It seemed fitting to carry a letter in my pack. It served as a reminder that staying in touch as easily as we do in the digital age is something I shouldn’t take for granted.