Chicago til Mt Hood Blow UP

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August 31st 2011
Published: September 1st 2011
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Respite from the Chicago streets
Chicago has a great skyscape. It's just fun to walk through downtown and see the different vistas: along the river, along the boulevards, across the plazas. And the thing that absolutely makes it is the different eras of architecture jumbled together. Most of the old buildings have been torn down, but enough remain to seed the skyline with a fertile counterpoint. The new skylines of Asia, where every high-rise has been built in the last twenty years, show the sterility of an all-new city.

One of the greatest Chicago buildings of any era is the Reliant Building. Unfortunately, at street level it was always disfigured by a discount wig shop with a gaudy sign, which drew attention away from the elegant architecture of the upper stories. But now the Hotel Burnham has taken over the ground floor and clad it in polished brown granite, which, while it doesn't match the white terra cotta above, at least tunes into the Prairie School spirit, and makes the building look more like a landmark and less like a shipwreck. Before I left town, I saw a kid walk by in a T-shirt saying, CHICAGO TIL THE WORLD BLOW UP.

I flew Austin

Between eruptions
to San Diego so many times that the view from my plane window inspired me about as much as the morning traffic jam inspires the commuter. I felt I'd seen every mesa and canyon before. But I never flew from Chicago to Portland until last week, so I got to discover a new part of the country from the air. Unfortunately, the state lines are not marked, so I didn't always know what I was looking at, but as we flew north I recognized Milwaukee, and then we headed west across lovely Wisconsin, a patchwork of small geometry, little rectangles and trapezoids, like something by Paul Klee. As we went over Minnesota and the Dakotas, the shapes became larger, squarer, and more regular. Finally the farms petered out into rangeland, unbounded except for the occasional green disks of irrigated land.

After much impatient waiting, the mountains came into view, including a bizarre array of parallel ridges--like razorback hogs lined up for a race--that I believe was Hell's Canyon. And finally I got to see some unmistakable Pacific Northwest landmarks, first the confluence of the mighty Snake and Columbia rivers, and then the great volcanic peaks of Washington, Mt. Adams,

Sedimentary layers pointing skyward, Sherrard Rock
Mt. Rainier, and Mt. St. Helens.

One of the free brochures I picked up at the hotel in Cascade Locks advised me to get out early to enjoy the top attractions. It's a good piece of advice anywhere in the world. With a little assist from jet lag, I got up early on Thursday and drove up to Sherrard Rock to see the five major peaks--Adams, Rainier, and St. Helens in Washington, as well as Hood and Jefferson in Oregon. As an unbiased observer, or maybe slightly biased in favor of Rainier, I must say that I found Hood to be the fairest, although maybe that was just because it was the closest. Still, its perfect symmetrical cone is something to be admired, at least until it next blows up.

When I reached the top of the rock, there was a photographer with a tripod, and the only sounds were the clicking of his camera, the whoosh of the wings of swifts circling the rock, and the buzzing of innumerable flies. They were everywhere on the trail leading up to the rock, but they never landed on me even once, nor on the photographer. I don't know what

Foxglove by the roadside
they live on, but it wasn't us. And there was no profusion of flies in any of the other trails I walked in this region.

For lunch I went to Hood River, a little town that reminds me of Ashland at the other end of Oregon--the same steep streets, the charming gardens, the groaning buffet of tourist treats. The only difference is that a river runs through it instead of Interstate 5. But if you get there early, it's a great spot for lunch. This is one part of the country where farm-to-table isn't a cliche, it's an epiphany. Never mind the cherries and the pears, even the lettuce is earsplittingly fresh; it screams with flavor. Fish you'd be proud to catch in Lake Michigan get thrown back here. Flowers that would win a prize back east grow between the railroad tracks.

And speaking of railroad tracks, they are one of the charms of the Columbia Gorge. They run on both sides of the river, and the freight trains roll by like subways in Times Square. First one chugs by right under your nose, and as soon as that one's gone past, you see one snaking its way

Make mine a triple
through the trees on the far side of the water. Tankers, flatcars, container stacks, timber, autos, and coal, it's like being inside the world's greatest model train layout.

After lunch I drove down the scenic route to visit the waterfalls. The first one was Horsetail Falls. This impressive sight was right by the roadside, and as the brochure had warned, it was buzzing with people. Don't get me wrong, I love people, where would we be without them and all that, BUT. When a natural wonder is too thronged with people, they become the show, and the natural attraction turns into a backdrop.

So I drove on in search of another falls that could only be reached by a hike. I parked the car and started up the trail, even though I only had on street shoes, it was only supposed to be a mile. Still, the trail was steep, and as I went up and up, I didn't seem to be hearing any waterfalls. I asked hikers coming the other way if there was a falls back there and they assured me there was, although one girl just shrugged and said it was kind of small. "So

Easy pickings
I'm wasting my time then?" I asked her. She shrugged again. I decided I would keep going until 3 o'clock, and turn around if I hadn't seen anything. But I kept meeting with other hikers, one of them said the falls were close, another said they were far, both agreed they were well worth seeing. It was lucky I had brought a quart of water along, because I went through it all.

3:00 turned into 3:15 and then 3:30, but I was having too much fun. Finally I came around a bend and there was the falls, Triple Falls: three cascades plummeting side by side. There was a little promontory of rock from which you could get a good view of it, there was also a path that led you right onto the top of the falls itself. But it looked like you could easily slip over, and I wasn't feeling that lucky. It seemed that in the many years people had been visiting this place, somebody must have tumbled over, and as I watched, one couple was walking the slippery rock so close to the edge that I couldn't look.

So I turned back and headed down

Well played
the trail. My step was a lot lighter now than it had been on the way up, when every step was dogged by doubt. I breezed down the trail much faster than I came up, of course you would expect that, only it was MUCH faster, and it seemed like in no time I was back by the side of the road, only not where I had started out. My car was nowhere to be seen. Somehow on the way down I had taken a turning I hadn't taken on the way up. It didn't seem possible, because the trail seemed pretty straightforward, but there was no denying I was in the wrong spot.

So at this point I had a choice. I could go back up the trail and try to find the right turning, but I didn't like this option--if I had got lost once, I could get lost again, and I might be up there all night. I wanted to stick to the road, which didn't have any branchings. I knew my car was along there somewhere to the west of where I was. But beyond the parking lot where I had landed, the road had

Dark companion
no shoulders and it wound tightly around blind cliffs, it just seemed too dangerous to walk.

So I decided to hitchhike. It wasn't very encouraging. There weren't that many cars going by, and the ones that did showed no inclination to bring me aboard. I saw a group of hikers come off the trail whom I had seen on my way up, and I asked if they would give me a ride. No room, they lied. Back to the thumb. Now I've really done it, I thought, I'm going to be here all night. But after a dozen or so cars cruised past me, one sweet young couple stopped and asked me what was up. When I explained, they told me to hop in, offered me a pluot, and drove me down the road to my parking spot, which was no more than a mile away.

So I got my tail out of a crack, and I learned a lesson--whenever you're on a trail, make a note of each fork you pass and which branch you take.

One other note about northwest living: while I sat in the Pacific Crest Pub the next day enjoying the Pizza of the Gods, I saw a tanker truck go by that said U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS -- JUVENILE FISH TRANSPORTATION.


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