Published: April 25th 2006April 25th 2006
After the forest fire
in the Cascade Mountains of Washington
Motorhome News from North America 9 9th - 20th April 2006
Somewhere over the Mountains
Somewhat against our better judgement we headed east from the coast at Newport toward the Cascade Mountain Range, determined to venture deeper into Oregon lest we shall never return. The road follows the wide rambling Yaquina River to Corvallis, the home of Hewlett Packard, another town, much the same as any other, but this one had petrol at the best price for miles - and an extra 3 cents per gallon off for Safeway card holders! Fuelled up, we ventured on, through Albany, Lebanon (are we on the right continent?), to Sweet Home - everyone’s home surely, in the green Willamette Valley, past tiny farms on riverside meadows and lonely homesteads that were once but garden sheds, then on up the Santiam Pass over the Cascade Range; skyscraper walls of lush Douglas fir and red cedar crowding the windscreen on the winding road; climbing a further 2,500ft in seven miles.
Despite our worst fears, the road to the top was wet but clear, flurries of fine snow filled the air towards the top and lay piled six foot deep beside the road, peppered with
a dash of chocolate red gritting. Shrouds of low mist dashed the promise of panoramic views; Oregon’s Mount Washington was hidden beyond dark, threatening storm clouds. This is prime cross-country and downhill skiing terrain in winter and great hiking country in summer, but it’s still only spring, we’ve no skis, and the snow is too deep for hiking. There was a coyote scavenging beside the road and black volcanic lava showing through the snow; a spectacular portrait in black and white. A wild lightening-strike caused a fire here in 2003, destroying 90,000 acres of forest, leaving a landscape of thin blackened trunks etched against a background of virgin snow, stark as porcupine quills on a polar bear. An historic wagon trail runs alongside the road, once used to take supplies from the valley up to the gold fields of Eastern Oregon and Idaho. Two cars also came this way back in 1905, on the first trans-continental motor race from New York to Portland. It took the winner 40 days to complete the journey - which is probably 100 days less than it will take us!
We travel in the footsteps of pioneers, though not with wagon and mule, nor
with the grit of a scout ahead of the train, but we are adventurers too; often travelling with sparse knowledge of the terrain ahead with inadequate maps and limited research resources. Though rarely lost for long, we do occasionally encounter unwelcome hazards - such as snow and ice, extreme high passes, precipice-sided winding roads and narrow one-way streets, all with risk-assessment a minor consideration. It is the trailblazer in us that brings the excitement of the unexpected to this crazy adventure on a daily basis, often it’s as quick as a magician’s sleight of hand. I was never very good at magic as a lad, though I’m sure I had a ‘magic set’ for Christmas once - or was it a chemistry set? Anyway, let me give you an example of how it works: From the Cascades Ridge, green Douglas fir turned to lodge pole pine on the downhill trail, to Sisters, a little town settled in the valley below the peaks of Faith, Hope and Charity, with a feel of the old west down the middle and a dusting of antique and art shops either side to stop the passing traffic. There in Sisters our world changed, to take
us from verdant forest to the high desert at the turn of a page! Broad, barren mountains fringed the horizon and parched grasses and sage-brush spread like a gold and grey carpet amongst the juniper before us. It is these little surprises, so unexpected in a country of these proportions, that make our mornings tingle with anticipation, come rain (it exceeded all previous records in northern California, this year, we’re told), or shine.
Beyond, through Redmond and Madras along the flat high plain, small horse and cattle ranches nestle beside the road on irrigated grasslands and it was there we found our next piece of magic. Cove Palisades is a State Park with camping facilities, just to the west of Culver (and north of Redmond) on the Or 97 road. It was marked on our map with a tiny red tent, so we guessed there was camping thereabouts. But our map had not prepared us for the dramatic canyon that came suddenly into view over the ridge, up to six hundred feet of sheer cliff-face below us (the real deep breath stuff), down and down to the dammed Deschutes River recreational lake. At the top of our 'magic list' is
at the John Day Fossil Beds
a special birding performance arranged one morning as a farewell gift to our camp hosts, Bob and Jan. They are keen birders, newly arrived from California as Volunteer Hosts, but birding is often about chance and so far, America’s National bird, the bald eagle, had eluded them on this trip. We took them to a spot where we had seen one the previous day and on cue, as we arrived at the spot overlooking the canyon, two bald eagles flew by directly below us……now, is that magic, or what? Each day, the white silk scarf and the shiny silk black top hat are laid out before us on the breakfast table. We just have to go out and conjure up the rabbit.
The following day we traced the river north, out to appropriately named Antelope, in central Oregon, (we saw a family group of pronghorns amongst the trees by the road) to the wild wilderness plains of cowboy films, rolling grey hills speckled with dark dwarfed trees stretching to the horizon and red-tailed kites and kestrels circling the high rocky palisades rising vertically above us on our fossil-hunting walk. The sun shone for us between the occasional shower, with
from the orchards of Hood River
dramatic windswept clouds soaring forever upwards in the chill air above Mount Jefferson and Mount Hood, their snow-white heads dwarfed by the powerful cumulus. To the north, vast fields of winter wheat spread down to the Columbia River on broad hillsides like the swell of the sea on a westerly wind, fresh as the green of spring, golden with stubble left for burning and newly harrowed furrows glinting in the sunlight, sweeping ever downwards towards the swift grey river at The Dalles, our film-set for tomorrow.
A Union Jack flies on the front of Winnie when we’re parked on a campsite with the objective of encouraging conversation with other travellers. We owe it to the flag for the opportunity to meet Jojo (of English stock) and Ralphe at Deschutes River State Recreation Area. They were en route home from a birding trip in their motorhome ‘Birdmobile 2’ and we shared a walk next morning looking for birds - especially the elusive Lewis’s Woodpecker. Ralphe knew exactly where to spot one, and as sure as ‘eggs is bird’s eggs’ - we didn’t! (must remember to get him a black top hat and a magic wand for Christmas) We’ll get another
chance to go birding with them when we meet up again in a week or two as we pass through their home town of Olympia. Yes, Olympia. Not the one in Greece - the capital town of Washington State, USA.
Lewis and Clark came this way from St Louis, along the uncharted Missouri, Snake and Columbia Rivers on a military expedition two hundred years ago, leading a group from the military Corps of Discovery seeking a river route to the Pacific. They would have missed today’s fruit orchards and blueberry farms around the town of Hood River, but snow-capped Mount Hood, Oregon’s highest mountain at 11,240ft, would have been there to their left as they paddled their wooden canoes through the rushing waters of the Columbia. We chatted a while with staff of the Chamber of Commerce at the chic town of Troutdale, (antiques, art, smart furnishing stores and restaurants) to find out what makes it tick so finely, a pile of silver amongst a few coppers of minor towns. Answers were hard to find, but it seems it’s a town where a little tourism supports a little agriculture and fine suburbia homes are supported by the more affluent
Portland in the rain!
amongst Portland’s commuters. We took the easy route through the spectacular Columbia Gorge by motorhome, high rocky walls rising steeply on either side, past fir-clad hills and farmsteads, from the broad Columbia River to the mountains in imitation of a Norwegian Fjord, straddled by two highways and two railways, one of each in Oregon and Washington, on the other side of the river. The true splendour of the Gorge eluded us in the rain; mountains were lost in the mist and orchard blossom was yet to reach the final passage of its symphony. The Blossom Festival planned for the coming Easter weekend failed to take account of the overcast, rainy weather during the past month.
Our campsite on the island of Jantzen Beach was a forty minute bus-ride from the city of Portland; nice enough even in the rain, but somewhat uninspiring, its Old Town sliced in two by the Willamette River - and squeezed by the Columbia, 60miles from its outfall at the Pacific Ocean. Very wet flower-vendors picketed street corners, dressed as Rabbits and Mad Hatters in pac-a-macs, selling tulips in celebration of Easter. It was Good Friday and an opportunity for us to have an hour
or two of rummaging through the shelves of Powells book store, an hour or two at the Portland Art Museum - most of it in the Northwest Native American section, a rather extended lunch at the notorious ‘Mother’s Bistro’ and a stroll around Chinatown’s garden, a secret hideaway with magnolia in flower, a pink maple reflected in the pool and dazzling azaleas to brighten the most dreary of souls on such a day. There was no Saturday market. They don’t have one on Fridays.
There are some things ‘quaint’ about us English abroad. Our waitress at ‘Mother’s Bistro enquired whether our meal was OK. “Lovely,” I replied - as one does. “Oh! how fretfully lovely” she responded with a friendly smile of mockery!
Now, I’m practicing every day. No more ‘lovely’ or ‘wonderful’, but instead it has to be, ‘great’, or ‘neat’. Cool eh?
From Portland, we headed out to the coast at Tillamook, intent to check out the famous Tillamook cheese and butter and search for tufted puffins on the rocks offshore. Heavy rain overnight turned to snow by morning and we celebrated Easter Day with an early morning walk on the beach, chilled by a strong
wind, to see the sun riding frenzied white horses and families with children clutching plastic buckets searching for their Easter eggs. The road north through Bay City and Garibaldi to Cannon Beach and Seaside follows what is perhaps the most beautiful coastline we have seen, where mountain and forest meet long sandy beaches, where the surging tide and Pacific rollers paint those thin white lines between the mighty Pacific and the real world, as America knows it. We drew a blank on the tufted puffins but we did spot 10 bald eagles and 6 osprey in one day at Sauvey Island.
We’ll remember Oregon for its spectacular trees, its varied landscapes from high desert to mountains and swift rivers; long sandy beaches, rocky headlands and tiny white lighthouses, petrol pump attendants and zero sales tax. But most of all we’ll remember Oregon for its wonderful State Park campgrounds with all the facilities one could possibly want at exceptionally good prices. Our greatest regret was to miss the spectacle of Crater Lake, lost beyond the reach of a motorhome, high up in the snowy mountains and dark rain-clouds. Great spectacles of this nature have been hard to come by in
Oregon: there are still vivid memories of Arizona embedded in our minds; but there is a certain passive ambience across Oregon, a listless charm where time is of little importance or consequence.
Topped up with gas (petrol), we crossed the Columbia River at Astoria, entering the State of Washington with little by way of expectations. An unnecessary detour for information established that the Visitor Welcome Centre at Dismal Nitch was only open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Rather than wait four days for it to open we headed blindly along the coast, as far as the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Centre beyond Ilwaco, refurbished for their bi-centenary last year. This young nation has certainly packed a lot of history into very few years and no opportunity is ever missed to fill in the time-lines to compensate for the lack of ancient churches, stately houses, medieval towns and museum-packaged reminders of war ravaged Europe.
Washington has offered us fair weather so far, despite their proud boast of 70 inches of rain each year, making our journey northwards through mixed woodland and vast marshes along the coast most enjoyable. The flat terrain and the low hills beyond, all the way
Janice with Jojo and Ralph, looking for elusive Lewis' Woodpeckers in the Columbia Gorge
to Mount Rainier, visible on the horizon more than 100miles inland, are in contrast to the rocky foreshores and fir-clad mountains of Oregon.
Shallow foreshores revealed silhouettes of tiny figures digging for clams and oysters on the mudflats on the outgoing tide in the low spring sunshine as we entered Washington, sampling the delights of the sea, at South Bend, the self proclaimed Oyster capital of the world where we bought fresh red snapper for tea on the docks and at Westport, home-made clam chowder for lunch. Rusty roadside sculptures line the highways of Raymond which also boasts one of many wall murals along the coastal route. This uncared for town is lumber dependant and bearing the cross of lost jobs as mechanised production and efficient processing marches ever onwards, joining sides in the labour reduction and town destruction battle with the retail giants. That’s the price of progress.
Ralphe came out from Olympia to find us early one morning. We hadn’t answered his phone calls or his emails. First we had no signal on our phone at the campsite, and second, we don’t get to open emails more than once a week - so he hopped in his car at 5am and drove out to the coast to search out the campsites until he eventually found us shortly after 8am! Ralphe’s one of those guys who has to chance his arm at every opportunity and who will, if he lasts that long, have lived two lives in the time it takes most of us to live just the one. He also has a sense of humour as sharp as a fishhook. You get that way if you’re a surfer, trucker, ski-resort manager, train spotter, diver, boat pilot, Harbour Master, motorcycle racer, photographer, mountain climber; who reads a lot, has his own book of philosophy and is a birder supremo amongst other things. He came to find us to take us birding for the day and then, on fear of death or something from the lovely Jojo, hi-jacked us to Olympia, where they planned to spoil us for a few days in their delightful house overlooking the sparkling Puget Sound. It’s time for a day or two of ‘off road’ delights, so we’ll leave you to dream of sunsets over the water, a real bed and long birdy walks in the company of new won friends.
Janice and David. The grey-haired nomads.