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Posts Tagged ‘Columbia Gorge’


Here’s an excerpt from
Benchmarks: A Single Mother’s Illustrated Journal.

Happy Solstice!

I wrote this piece a number of years ago, when my dad was dying. It was an odd sort of comfort back then, but comfort, nonetheless. I find myself taking comfort in it again this year, when so many of us again stand surrounded by death…and life. Happy Solstice!

We stand, my son Patrick and I, on a knoll high above the Columbia River. The bluffs roll golden above us to the hard blue sky. Below us lies the river, ruffled blue by a baking wind. This is a respite, a hiatus in a day-long car trip to my parents’ house. I wonder if my father will be able to eat the corn chowder I have packed frozen in the ice chest in the trunk. I wonder if he’ll be able to walk. I wonder if he’ll be able to sit up. I wonder if he’ll still be alive. He is dying with the year, fading as the trees fade from their July green to their late August grays and tans.

Facing his death is  in some ways easier than facing his life, a fact that shames and saddens me, but it is true, nonetheless. I do what I can, which is not much. I drive the eight hours from my home in Medford to my parents’ home in Pendleton. I make corn chowder, one of the few things my father can still eat with some pleasure. I clean the house. I talk to my mother. I help my father to the bathroom. I try not to wince when he touches me. I hug him back instead. And at night I lie in my childhood bed in that painful house and I read into the early morning hours because even though I’m a grown woman with a child of my own I’m still afraid to turn off the light.

We have turned off the freeway, crossed the Columbia on the delicate, spindly bridge that spans the river at Biggs, and followed the winding road up the hill, turned right, then turned right again onto a small side road, and then turned right one more time onto gravel. Few people come here, and those few were usually brought by someone else in the beginning. I was brought here myself years ago, and now I am bringing my son, although to be honest the trip is more for me than for him.

It never changes here. Grass ripples tawny and amber around the massive stone circle. It looks like savanna grass, the kind from which lions might spring. But this is Washington, and there are no lions here. There will be no heart-stopping roar, no tawny mane, no gaping, powerful jaws, no sabre-tipped massive paws. There will be no drama, no last-minute rescues, no animal savagery. Which is not to say that death does not live here. We stand above rimrocks rising like ziggurats from the river to the sky. A miss-step, a stumble, could send us plunging into the abyss. Diamondback rattlesnakes love these places. They take refuge from the sun’s heat in the myriad tiny caves and grottoes, slithering out in late afternoon and evening to hunt and sun themselves in these very grasslands. And then there are the standing stones, silent sentinels to the memory of local boys for whom death came far away, not on a sun-baked grassy hilltop, but in a muddy trench, a heaving ocean, a roaring sky. These stones and row upon row of white crosses in red-splashed fields are all that mark their lives these days. They died young. I doubt many left wives or children.

I look around me and feel the emptiness of the place, and think that death can come in many ways, most of them small, quiet, and mundane. I think of my father, lying in a hospital bed in the living room, waiting for death to claim him, and suddenly the grassy mountaintop with its savanna grass and rattlesnakes seems like a pure, clean, and safe place. I look down at my son standing beside me, tanned knees bare below his shorts, feet shod in sturdy leather boots, honey-gold curls tossing in the wind. I wonder what he’s thinking. Surely he’s not standing here thinking of death, as I am. Patrick tucks a hot, sweaty, slightly sticky hand into mine and we scuff wordlessly through the waving grass to the center of the place.

There are others here. A middle-aged couple in golf shirts and white shorts moves quietly from stone to stone, reading the names on the brass plaques. A man poses his wife and three children beneath one of the massive, empty stone doorways—“Smile nice, kids…not like that, smile nice,” he commands. “There, that’s better…just one more for Grandma…” His children bare their teeth as he snaps and snaps. A lean couple in skin-tight rivet-studded bellbottoms and slinky black shirts stands entangled, hands shoved deep into each others’ back pockets, heads slanted, mouths devouring each other, at the edge of the drop-off to the river below. I see a flash of tongue before I avert my eyes. “Look, Patrick…see the stones?” I say, hoping he didn’t see the tongues, too.

We wander from stone to stone, reading names unknown to us, as dead now as the boys who bore them. None of us here today are old enough to have known these men, to feel their loss as anything but a vague regret. These men are as lost—and as unknown—as the builders of the original stone circle an ocean and an age away.

Patrick and I finish the circle of stones and wander out into the grass, seeking the heel stone, touching the tall obelisk to the east, then ambling back to the altar stone at the center. He is silent and still sleepy. I keep an eye peeled for snakes while I try to explain a mystery that has puzzled archeologists and historians for centuries. The afternoon ages. The circle slowly empties until at last our car sits solitary in the dusty parking lot, and we stand alone by the massive stone altar in the center of the circle.

I lift Patrick to sit on its flat top, then lean beside him. A cooling wind cuts the baking heat the stones reflect. A hawk screams high overhead. Patrick drapes an arm around my shoulders and we gaze around at the massive worked stones, the dark brass plaques bearing the names of men as surely dead as my father will soon be, the waving grass, the heel stone, the river far below, and the blue, blue bowl of sky overhead. I realize that in my years away—in the flight from the pain of my childhood—I have missed this clean, open space where my soul can stretch. I have remembered the pain, the blows, the shame, the browns, the grays, the dust, the wind, the heat, but I have forgotten the campfires orange against black fir forests and diamond-studded night skies, toasted marshmallows and frogs going courting at sunset, the ice cream sandwiches on hot afternoons, and how it feels to stand on a high bluff with nothing between the golden grass and blue sky but myself and the wind blowing through me.

I stand anchored by the little arm around my neck, and lift my head and pull the day into my lungs, and a part of me that has been bound lifts its head. I tighten my arm around my son and tell him about Stonehenge far away, about how the stones mark time, how the sun rises around the circle as the year turns, about how each midwinter day, as the sun rose above the special stone, the people rejoiced not because spring had arrived, but because they knew it was coming. Through the remainder of the winter, through blizzards, ice storms, endless gray days, starvation, disease, and death, they clung to the circle’s message. Spring is on its way. Life will triumph. The cold, bleak days will end. Stonehenge was more than a calendar. It was hope, set in stone.

I fall silent. Patrick sags against me. I look around me and see the stones with their brazen reminders of death standing tall and silent against the tawny hills and the blue sky, and I realize that as surely as the stones with their brass plaques surround me today, death surrounds me—but I am not confined by it as long as I can see the world beyond the stones—the tawny grass, the blue sky, and the sun. The circle goes round. Summer, autumn, winter, spring. Better times are coming. I think of my father looking out over the hills and valleys, dying on a hilltop far away, and I know that I have not reached midwinter yet. It will be worse before it gets better. But it will get better. I may never know what the standing stones said to their creators, but I know what they have said to me today—and I am grateful to the depths of my soul for their voices. The hawk screams again, and together Patrick and I watch it soar high above the stones, over the rimrocks, beyond the river, and into the blue beyond.

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I know, I know, planning a road trip in January is just nuts. At least, it would be most years. This year, though, the weather is balmy. The honeysuckly on my porch hasn’t even frozen yet. The bugs are still happy. The sun is shining. And I find myself thinking wistfully of a particular stretch of road. It’s the bit of road just to the west of Pendleton, at the intersection where you can either go up the hill to the swimming pool (fun), or down the road a stretch to the house were my mom’s best friend lived at the time (a marvelous place with sheds, dogs, a creek, a huge yard, a swingset, and a big boy who could sometimes be inveigled into playing with us), or straight out of town and down the road to the river, and ultimately to the Emerald City–Portland.

The whole world began at that little intersection where three roads met, and at the heart of the intersection, defined by the three roads, lay a miniature valley. Willow trees shaded it, and under the trees grasses grew tall and green in the spring, and then turned to deep gold just about the time swimming lessons were over. I used to beg my mother to stop the car, just for a minute, and let me go sit in the grass under the trees. She refused–too much traffic, she said.

And she was probably right, but that didn’t stop me from dreaming of that valley. Sometimes I thought I might build a tiny house under the willows and live there, moated safely in by blacktop patrolled by speeding cars. Sometimes I thought I might fill it with water and swim under the trees. Sometimes I just looked at the tiny pocket of unspoiled country, trapped in the intersection, and dreamed of the wagons that had passed that spot, of my my grandfather, driving truck past it, of how it held magic in its heart precisely because it was at once so very public and so very private.

That little valley has always meant the eternity of summer for me, largely because the only times we really saw it were on summer trips–on the way to mom’s friend’s house to can corn, on the way to the swimming pool, on the way to Portland, on the way… on the way…

And that’s the magic of the well-planned road trip–it’s the “on the way-ness” of it. It’s the magic of the fleeting moment, of the dreams that flash past at sixty miles an hour. It’s the freedom of the wind blowing through the car while the radio plays too loudly and we sing off key. It’s putting our bare feet out the window and wiggling our toes. It’s stuffy rest area bathrooms with scratched metal for mirrors, no paper towels, and no soap. It’s the gritty feel of dusty, sunbaked skin, and wonderful coolness of hotel pools as the sun goes down. It’s watching cartoons in the hotel while we wait for the pizza to arrive. It’s going to the movies in a an old theater where there are water stains on the ceiling, a popcorn cart in the lobby, and a movie that’s been around for years, simply because that’s all there is to do in town.

On road trips we step out of time and into a single moment that stretches as long as the car is rolling, as long as the wind is blowing our hair, as long as we can’t see home, and the money holds out, and there is still another road to take. That intersection, where the world started for me is like that–when I drive by it I still dream of the house I might build there, or the pond I might make, or the picnic I might eat under its willows. When I drive that stretch of road I am, for a few seconds, a child again, looking at that little valley that has, against all odds, survived, a trapped moment, a bubble of eternity, a place where time has stopped and held, for a second, forever, summer.

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Standards are important. They let us know when we have achieved what we dreamed of doing, or if we’ve lost our way. The trip back from Portland with my cousin Jeffie reminded me of some of my earliest benchmarks, the standards against which I have measured all other things.

One of those firsts was the first time my Grandpa took me through the old road in the Columbia Gorge. As we drove the winding road through the moss-hung forests he told me about driving the road in trucks, about Celilo Falls, about Multnomah. And all the while the rain pattered on the car windows, dripped off the trees, and soaked the lichens growing on the pitted gray arches that guarded the steepest sections of road. The heater hummed, and I curled up on the back seat, warm and drowsy, as Grandpa’s voice went on and on, weaving a magic strong enough to last me the rest of my life.

I looked out at the rain-polished world and thought about how we were driving exactly where Grandpa used to drive. All that divided us were years. Now, I am startled to realize that when Grandpa told us his stories we were only about thirty years apart. More years now divide me from that day in the car than divided me from Grandpa in his truck. But never mind.

We passed a small stone house. Its windows glowed golden and glistened on falling droplets as we passed. I watched the house as long as I could, kneeling on the back seat, staring out the back window until a curve blocked its silent promise of a dry place by the fire.

That day, that road, and that house became benchmarks for me–the road a gateway to a mysterious realm, the house the ideal home for which I would strive, the day a symbol of a time when anything and everything was possible, as long as it was contained in my grandfather’s soft, rusty voice.

I have driven the old road many times in the years since then. The road has had its ups and downs. Sections have fallen into disrepair. Some have been restored. The small stone house stood empty and derelict for decades. But two days ago, when I drove the road again with Jeffie–who increasingly looks like Grandpa, even as I am coming to resemble Grandma–the rain still fell, the leaves and moss still shone as if they had been polished, even the asphalt looked like glass. And the house? The small house that became the standard by which I have since measured home? The house that stood forgotten, broken, and sad? Well, take a look. Someone has looked at it, saw what I saw, and gave it back to itself. The benchmarks hold firm.

(Thanks to Jeffie, who took these pictures while I drove.)

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I’m not here. No. Really. By the time you read this, that sentence will be absolutely true. I’m driving down to Portland to pick up my cousin at the airport. This is something like five hours away. “Why doesn’t he fly to a closer airport?” you ask.

“Well,” I answer, “because Patrick and I love Portland, and we love the Columbia Gorge, and we don’t see nearly enough of either, and my cousin has more than a touch of my Gramma Zim in his veins, which means he’s bringing his camera and we’ll be stopping at every bend in the river so he can document the amazing vistas. By the time he gets home he’ll probably have enough pictures shot and short enough intervals to be able to make a respectable flip book of his vacation.

And that’s fine. As long as I can keep him from emulating my Gramma Zim in other ways, such as going out into the driveway and scouring it for particularly attractive chunks of gravel, which I will be required to send to his Wisconsin home via UPS. Even if he does, though, I should at worst only have to contend with one bucket of gravel. Gramma Zim lived with us for five years. Ten buckets were involved that time. People in the UPS line are not understanding about having to wait while you open ten buckets of gravel and start shifting rocks from one bucket to the others to try to stay below the UPS weight requirements. But we did it, because we loved our Gramma. And if my cousin Jeffie wants to pick up gravel I’ll mail it home to him because we love him, too, and because things are so wierd at our local post office that this will be far from the strangest transaction to occur within its sacred halls.

I’m excited about this visit; it’s been too long since I’ve seen Jeffie–we’ve only been in the same state a handful of times since that long-ago Christmas when we had an olive fight. Grandpa caught Jeffie, who ratted me out. But Grandpa said, “Bodie wouldn’t do something like that. She’s a good girl.”

And I just smiled sweetly. A grandfather who loves you and considers you a good girl is a gift beyond measure.

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