Sometimes I envy those who live in parts of the country where the land is easier on its people. Maybe it’s a trade off. A gentler geography in return for chancier weather. Oregon usually avoids hurricanes, tornadoes, ear shattering thunderstorms, hours long down pours, and blizzards. At least in the times since Europeans settled here. In return we have state that looks like it was put together with odd bits of other states.
And in a way it was. Andesite and basalts from millions of years of volcanic activity. Scrapings from the Pacific plate that’s being buried by the continental plate moving northwest. The debris from unnumbered floods caused by collapsing ice dams at the end of the last ice age. Except for the Willamette Valley most of the state is quick to remind us that we live here on the land’s terms, not ours. Even in the valley you won’t find great, endless fields of anything. There isn’t the room. And unfortunately since most of the people in the state live where the living is relatively easy they tend to forget it, it they ever realized it.
Mom and I just spent the better part of about twelve hours driving through the Columbia Gorge and back. Not in the same day, thank you very much. If you started in Lincoln City on the coast, took the Sunset highway, went through Portland and picked up the freeway through the gorge, you could probably do it in five or six hours, but you’d miss the flavor of what I’m trying to describe.
Start on the south coast and go north on highway 101. The highway moves away from the ocean when it can. The Pacific undercuts the highway at times and the road can literally fall out from under you. As you go north the beaches get smaller and the stretches of volcanic headlands get longer. The relatively flat areas where towns can be built also get smaller until you get north of Tillamook but none of the coastal communities are very large. Astoria’s port never got very large for two reasons. There isn’t much flat land to build on and the Willamette meets the Columbia further inland at Portland. You build where you can and where the business is.
If I had the time I’d avoid the main highways on the way from the coast to Portland. Drive the state or county roads that run between the little towns and take the time to see the rich lands where the nurseries, small farms and vineyards are. The valleys are rich but fairly small. Keep these rich lands in mind as you drive east. You enter the Columbia Gorge at Troutdale and come out at Hood River. About fifty miles or so. You drive past big trees and basalt cliffs. As you go east the trees get smaller and the cliffs get bigger. By the time you get to the end of gorge there aren’t any real trees and the hills look like they’ve been shaved.
It doesn’t feel claustrophobic inside the gorge until you get to the top and you can see for miles and miles again. And what you see is sage brush, scrub grass and rocks. Lots and lots of nice, big rocks. Turns out the Missoula floods dumped a lot of their loads in the Umatilla area. It is a very stark country. And this weekend it was pretty darn hot and smoky. It looks like an early fire season this year and the smoke was drifting north into the gorge. And the soil washed off the surface of this part of Eastern Oregon and Washington ended up either in the Willamette Valley or out in the Pacific where the Columbia meets the ocean.
In the area around Umatilla where there is water, it’s green. This time of year, in this part of Oregon, no water no green. I think I could live there if I had to, but it would be a hell of an adjustment.
The drive back Sunday was easier. It’s literally down hill all the way. Set your cruise control and enjoy the ride. For the first time I really paid attention to the rocks by the road. You can see the remains of several lava flows. Some deeper than others. Some of the basalt flows have big columns, some small and almost twisty looking. By the time you get to the middle of the gorge the rocks you were looking at are still on top of the mountains but a couple of hundred feet higher. It’s been several ears since I made the drive and really the first time I took the time to really look at what I was seeing.
We did luck out and see something of three of the local volcanoes. Hood, St. Helens and Adams. All in all it was a good drive.