After you’ve spent a year tripping through all corners of the country, you can’t drive around the Northwest without taking new notice of your surroundings, almost seeing it with an outsider’s eyes. I have a fresh appreciation for a serrated ridge spattered with mist, a bleached stretch of desert, a snuff-colored basalt skyscraper.
It’s been almost a year since we downsized ourselves into our West Seattle digs. Past time to get back on the road, even if just for a couple of weeks.
We headed out on a short loop around the bottom half of the state, pulling the Airstream south to Portland and three days with our younger son, the artist. We waited until a little too late in the year though. As we left, the grey clouds immediately closed in, foreshadowing rain. Lots of rain.
We’ve been to Portland too often to be dazzled by the city. Bruce, and later the two of us together, made the round trip monthly for seven years after his young children moved there. Living out of a cute little old Motor Hotel (handy for its kitchenettes and swimming pool) meant a constant search for museums, parks and playgrounds, skating, movies. Minor league baseball games. OMSI, and Oakwood Park, with its wonderful old indoor wooden rink, a pipe organ suspended above the middle of the floor. Washington Park, where we made home movies and magic adventures. It’s a lively town, but by now even the Pearl District has lost its luster.
The freshest thing today about Portland is the food culture—so many surprising, creative restaurants. Two favorites are Tasty & Alder (on the fancy end), and Lardo. Our most recent find is The Goose, where we had my birthday dinner. (Best guacamole north of the Chisholm Trail; Stacked Brisket Enchiladas; Pork Belly Quesadillas!) Our favorite pastime now is spending time with our son and his friends, talking, poking fun at life, work, politics, movies, art, stupid things people say and do. When it’s rainy, good restaurants go pretty well with that.
After a few days we let our son get back to work. Enjoying our first dry, sunny break, we headed east into the Columbia Gorge. Traversing it is pretty benign today. It wasn’t always thus.
If you were pioneering west on the Oregon Trail, you might think you’d seen the worst after overcoming the Rockies. You still had to navigate the Cascades though, and the Columbia River with its treacherous rapids between vertical basalt cliffs and precipitous waterfalls. But the late 19th century saw entrepreneurs taming the wilds of the West with ambitious engineering and bull-headed American can-do. They built a series of locks to bypass the rapids, and steam railroads replaced the mule-drawn portage cars that hauled people and freight across the river. The steam engine that replaced those mules in 1863 was nicknamed the Pony. Today you can park your little Airstream in the Marina by the old Cascade Locks (the rapids having long since been scuttled by nearby Bonneville Dam). All night you listen to endless trains go by on one side, barges on the other.
I was looking forward to finding a little fall color on this trip and hiking on Mt. Adams, but didn’t look forward to doing it in the rain. We headed east again, to Trout Lake, Washington, right at the base of Mt. Adams. There’s a great little campground here, though I initially felt closed in by trees on all sides, and solid water above. But then the sun shone as promised for a few days, giving us time to dry out. The high point by far, both literally and figuratively now that I think about it, was hiking up Sleeping Beauty Peak.
I like shorter, steeper hikes—I just don’t have many miles left on my feet any more. So to get my circulation going I love to go up as well as out. Bruce prefers a more horizontal hike however—after 1300’ of elevation gain in less than two miles he suggested I find someone else to hike with!
Sleeping Beauty Peak is a hunk of volcanic rock that juts up next to Mt. Adams. From your first step on the trail you’re pushing yourself up. I noticed there’s just one level stretch along the whole path, and that’s only about 15’ long. It’s worth it however. Pulling yourself up the last rock scramble, the vista opens out in every direction. Standing on top you feel you could poke Mt. Adams with a stick. Swivel a quarter turn to the left and Mt. Rainier is jutting up over a ridge. Another turn gives you Mt. St. Helens, with its broken, exploded-off peak. Rotate once more and Mt. Hood is rising out of the valley, a perfectly grand, ice blue cinder cone.
It’s a well-maintained trail and it must be popular in the summer but on this clear mid-week day we all but had the hill to ourselves. It was sensationally quiet up there.
Continuing in an easterly way, we stopped in Richland long enough to tour Hanford’s B Reactor.
Wow, it’s a trip to another time. There’s a lot to consider here: The 1943 effort that raised it in the middle of this desert from nothing to a working reactor in just 11 months, when it was still just an experiment; the scale of the reactor itself (eventually one of nine that were here); the precision of its millions of components—all analog; and the inescapable fact of its purpose. This is the reactor that produced two plutonium bombs, one that was tested at the Trinity site in New Mexico, one dropped on Nagasaki.
The knowledgeable docents here do a good job, talking frankly and without judgment about the place. At the same time, you quickly realize there are many differing and legit viewpoints about it: the 140,000-man over-draft-age workforce that built and ran the place, so many of whom had sons fighting overseas and who took pride in their contribution to the war effort. The many millions who did whatever it took to defeat the Nazis and imperialists in Japan, or face the consequences. The many millions who are horrified that we dropped atomic bombs. Enrico Fermi and the other scientists who recognized the awesome power in atoms. Those who live in the region who believe their health has been compromised by poison gases. I came away overwhelmed by the scientific information and the moral dilemmas, then and now, posed by the place.
The site can’t be used to make plutonium any more of course. Our government decided in 1963 that we had plenty of the stuff (yeah, 60,000 plutonium bombs should be enough), plus it was getting too controversial. You and I have been paying to mop up the radioactive mess ever since. Now they make glass with the waste to trap it, then bury that in enclosures inside enclosures. They’ve torn down all of the nontoxic buildings, and cleaned up and cocooned the other reactors. B Reactor has been scrubbed enough to become a National Historic Landmark, run by the Park Service to educate all of us on our history of experimentation with the most lethal power we know of.
Finally, we slogged our way up to Colfax for the Howard family ranch annual meeting and cousins meetup. Fortunately, as we have all week, enough sun peaked out to appreciate the rolling Palouse, where on a fall late afternoon these whacked-wheat hills turn the color of Tueplo Honey.
And that’s it for the highlights on our fall outing. During this sodden couple of weeks, we’ve again been grateful for our cozy, watertight little home on wheels. It’s been delightfully easy to slip back into our trailer routine; a relaxed ramble through a couple of corners of the Northwest we’ve too-easily overlooked.