Thursday, July 05, 2007

Oregon Trails - Part 1

I'm back. And as usual, I have a long, long post to write about the trip - writing blog posts being, of course, the key reason why I travel - after all, how would I know how much fun I had if I didn't write it down? So let's get on with it, shall we:

Day 1

Saturday morning. 5 am. MR and I make our sleepy-eyed way to the Port Authority Bus Terminal to catch the Olympia shuttle to Newark Airport. There's no one wearing a gabardine suit and we're not awake enough to play games with the faces, but something about the combination of sitting on a bus and driving the New Jersey Turnpike has me humming America under my breath. We get to our gate "disgustingly early" by MR's standards (which means we're there an hour and FIVE WHOLE MINUTES before the departure time - MR considers any airport arrival that gets you to the boarding gate more than two minutes before it closes wasteful), so she occupies herself in buying twelve different ingredients and assembling some complicated yogurt breakfast, 40% of which she proceeds to spill on her skirt.

Up in the air, MR sleeps. On the monitor directly overhead, Billy Bob Thornton is stoically making his way through the Astronaut Farmer, the on-screen story so hackneyed that dialog proves superfluous. I stare out of the window. At first the landscape is busy and fragmented, a jigsaw of mismatched farms ribboned by highways and speckled with the crumbs of towns. As we proceed west, though, the land opens up. Great prairies stretch out, then divide into perfect squares. Circular farms patch the land like massive radar screens of bright or dull green, like the playing board of some elaborate cross-continent game. Here and there, windmills dot a high ridge, looking like crosses set in place to mark some giant burial. Petrified waves of foothills stripe the land; small, anonymous lakes nestled in their folds like eggs of nostalgic blue. It's a gloriously clear day and visibility extends for miles. Half an hour from Portland, a trio of peaks appears outside my window, passing by on the right like great white-sailed ships. There's the majestic crest of Mt. Adams; Mt. Rainier standing aloof, haughty with grandeur; and the ivory breadbasket that is Mt. St. Helens. Further along, the plains give way to low hills covered with a thick alpine-looking forest, the blue-green swathe of the Columbia river running along its northern edge. As we descend into Portland, I can see the traffic of boats and water-skis streaking the river white with comet like tails. It feels like descending into an idyllic world, into the personified promise of a leisurely summer.

At the airport, MR and I meet our fellow travelers - MR's friend R., who lives in Portland and will be joining us for the weekend, and Black Mamba (BM) who has flown in from California to join us for the trip. A quick lunch at a restaurant called Azteca (ah, the ubiquity of Mexican restaurants everywhere) where the portion sizes are large enough to feed an entire Inca village for a week, and we're on our way to Crater Lake.

It doesn't take us long to discover that Oregon, though stupendously beautiful in an almost artificial way, is also one of the slowest states in the country to drive in. It's not just that the speed limit even on a major interstate is just 55 miles an hour - it's that everyone seems to actually stick to the damn limit. There's something deeply un-American about having a wide open highway in front of you and not being able to accelerate to your heart's content.

Eventually we get to the North Entrance of Crater Lake National Park, from where a 10 mile stretch of road (passing through a short stretch of pumice desert) takes us to the Rim Drive that runs right around Crater Lake. It's from the point where the entrance road meets the rim drive that we get our first view of the lake itself.

It's difficult to describe what that first view feels like. It's like being hit by 44o volts of pure blue, an electrifying sense of being witness to something so perfect, so miraculous, it should be impossible anywhere outside the imagination. And yet there it is, circled by a ring of gray snowcapped cliffs, a presence cobalt and ultramarine, like the pure distillate of a Caravaggio painting, the tranquil mercy of its waters contrasting with the grim foreboding of the wall of dark stone that surrounds it, hems it in. It's like stumbling over the parapet of some enormous fortress, to discover it contains not the angry wilderness of twisted rock that you had imagined, but a store of beauty so intense, so bottomless, as to be a kind of forgiveness. It seems impossible to believe that what you see before you is actually a caldera, created some 7,700 years ago by the eruption of Mt. Mazama - it's not just that the mind boggles at the sheer size of the mountain that collapsed to leave so huge a crater, it's also that it feels impossible to connect this peaceful, shimmering lake with something as violent as a volcanic explosion. Shelley, in Epipsychidion speaks of "a well of sealed and secret happiness". It's a phrase that springs to mind staring down at the lake, with its sense of completeness, of something contained and exquisite.

Having recovered from our first sight of the lake, we drive on along the rim. In places, the road narrows to little more than a thin ridge of land, two lanes wide, so that driving along it is like running along the edge of a great stone bowl. There is still snow by the side of the road here, and gradual slopes of white fall away to our left, inviting the imagination to ski down them. Away to the south, we see the peaks of the Cascade range - Union Peak, Mt. Shasta - a continuation of the chain of volcanoes that includes Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Rainier in the North. Directly above us, the cabin atop Watchman peak glints in the sun, the trail to it blocked by several feet of thick snow.

We spend the rest of the day driving around the lake, taking a brief detour on our way to stop at the Pinnacles overlook, where thin fingers of ash rise like ghosts into the air, their surfaces gleaming golden in the setting sun. We take a short trail through the forest here, but the country around us seems dead - no bird calls, no unexplained rustlings in the underbrush, just a thin, dusty path through a forest of bitter trees and the hum of great swarms of hungry mosquitoes. The trail we are following leads nowhere special, ending abruptly at the point where the National Park gives way to the State Forest, and we return a little disappointed and badly bitten.

Back on the Rim Drive though, we continue to be amazed by the sight of the lake stretching below us. We're over the first surprise now, and there's a trace of monotony starting to creep in, but it's kept at bay by the way the lake, seen from different angles and in changing light, constantly reinvents itself, offers us an endless series of perspectives that serve only to convince us of the impossibility of seeing this incredible sight in its entirety. No one, it seems to me, can ever claim to have really seen Crater Lake - like all things of genuine beauty it contains an inexhaustible store of impressions, and the best we can hope for is to capture a handful of them and make them our own. And it is to do this that we brave our way through the stinging mosquitoes to stare down at the imagined masts of the Phantom Ship, or to eye the evocatively sculptured shapes of the white pine trees lining the rim. Eventually, we end up back at the North Junction, just in time to catch a glorious sunset, Clifford Brown playing on the car stereo as the day comes to an end.

From here, we drive to the town of Klamath Falls, our plan being to spend the night there and return next morning to hike some of the trails around the lake. It's a pretty drive, running through picturesque cattle country (a smattering of dilapidated barns and road signs that feature the stolid silhouette of a cow set against a background of yellow) though mostly wasted on us because we're driving it after dark. Still, the stars are out like spilled salt, Venus shines bright in the Western sky, while some other planet (Mars? Jupiter?) glows like a delicate little pearl set into our windshield. And when the moon comes up over the low foothills that surround Klamath Lake, its full, bronze face seems almost operatic with glory.

Reaching Klamath Falls, we check into this place called the Running Y ranch - a pretentious golf resort that R. has selected as part of his campaign to impress us with how sophisticated Oregon is [1]. The Running Y features (I'm told) a spa, a gift shop with local handicrafts and an 18-hole golf course - all the amenities entirely unnecessary to people trying to grab a quick six hours of shut-eye before heading into the outdoors again - but does not, alas, have a kitchen that is open by the time we get there, which means that we now have to drive miles back to town (the Running Y, being all super-exclusive, is naturally in the middle of nowhere) in order to get a Subway sandwich. Ah well.

Day 2

The second day. I wake up early, my usual insomnia made worse by R's snoring. Since the others are still asleep, and look like they will be for a while, I decide to wander about the 'ranch'. Wildlife is in abundance here. A doe and her fawn graze the margins of the parking lot next to our car, vanishing over a nearby hill when I approach. A flock of American White Pelicans feeds on the lake, soaring into the air on their long black-tipped wings. Small rodents (squirrels? chipmunks?) punctuate the yellowing summer grass like commas. And when I sit down to read on a rough-hewn wooden rocking chair on the hotel terrace, I find myself surrounded by a great herd of golfers - red-complexioned and loud voiced creatures to whom the distant glimmering lake is just another water hazard, and who sit around marveling at the vision of the man who saw, in this waste of a forest, the dazzling possibility of a golf course.

I sit on this terrace for a good three hours, reading Nabokov, soaking in the sun. Eventually, my sleepyhead companions emerge, and a quick breakfast of scrambled eggs and sausages later, we're on our way back to Crater Lake. This time we park at the head of the Cleetwood trail (the only trail in the park that provides access to the lake itself), and proceed to follow a narrow, switchbacking path down to the water. It's a pleasant walk going down, until you realize that you're going to have come back the same way that you're going, and this nice 30 to 45 degree slope you're skipping down presently is going to seem like a nightmare going up. I decide to stop half way (I have the lung capacity of an eight year old, and the stamina of an arthritic octogenarian, so going all the way down a trail that leaves fairly experienced looking hikers panting seems like a bad idea) choosing to perch myself on a strategically located bench on the way and stare in dumb wonder at the beauty of the lake in the late morning sun.

It is an exquisite sight. Off in the distance, Mt. Red Horn raises its rhino head, while the Watchman Peak towers jealously over the water, its shoulders armored in snowy silver. In the center of the lake, Wizard Island stands forlorn as an orphaned child, a tiny afterthought of a volcano hiding in the larger fact of the Mazama caldera. Above Chaski Bay the cliffs glisten, their snowy faces turned to the light like sunbathers reveling in an unexpected summer. A small boat makes its way across the shimmering surface of the lake its wake spreading behind it like the gills of some giant fish. As the afternoon advances, the waves in the lake seem lined with thin threads of gold, while their crests gleam like lapis kisses.

Of course, I'm not the only one who stops to admire the view. Before long, I find myself playing unofficial photographer to a steady stream of tourists, all wanting a group shot (I don't understand people - why would you want to block out more than half of this spectacular view, by putting yourself and your friends in the picture?). I begin to wonder if I wouldn't be better off doing this for a living instead of trying to make progress with my PhD. Eventually the other three return and we make our breathless way up to the top, the burning in my lungs so intense by the time I get to the parking lot that it's a full ten minutes before I can take a deep breath again without having it hurt. Plus the dust from the trail has ended up coating our tongues and throat, so that we spend the next five minutes coughing and tasting the grit between our teeth.

A quick lunch at the Annie Creek Restaurant just outside the south entrance of the park follows (it's an Italian buffet - pizza slices, make your own pasta and softserve icecream with fruit scumble), after which R heads back to Portland (he needs to be back at work on Monday) while MR, BM and I drive to the town of Bend, which a friend of ours has described to us as 'quaint and charming', and which, we are told, is famous for its micro-breweries.

On the way there, we take a quick detour off Route 97 into the Newberry National Volcanic Monument. On the way, a viewpoint offers us the majestic sight of the Cascades - showing us Mt. Bachelor and the Three Sisters, the peaks standing formally apart from each other like characters in a Chekhov short story. Next, we stop by the picturesque Paulina Falls, then spend a quarter of an hour by Paulina Lake, telling ourselves that those birds circling in the distance are, in fact, bald eagles. The map says that the road will take us to the Newberry caldera, so when we come to the point where the road narrows to a single lane and all we can see is a lake we stop to ask. It turns out that the entire area that we've been driving around in is one big crater. This should probably impress us, but it feels like a let down. We look around and it seems just like any other regular hill-lined plain.

It's only on the way back, when we stop at the unimaginatively named Big Obsidian Flow that we get the sense of being in true volcanic territory. This is a wasteland of black glass, of dark, twisted stones that have been tortured into confessing their fundamental smoothness, their affinity for light. Walking up the trail here is like walking through mile upon mile of sculptured rubble, or like ascending into an open mine of shattered clumps of glass. It is a landscape Eliot would have approved of - with its blending of the broken with the polished, of the rugged with the slickly opaque - a landscape of black mirrors showing us the stony darkness we carry in our souls. But I am also reminded, climbing up from a stagnant lake filled with green fronds that come straight out of Tarkovsky, of that scene in Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress, where the two bumbling soldiers try to climb their way up a crumbling stone scree.

From here, we head to Bend, anxious to experience the promised nightlife of the city. From the descriptions we've heard, Bend sounds like the kind of happening place where you can't throw a stone without hitting a micro-brewery and where you have only to park your car and get out on the street to be part of the excitement. It doesn't quite work out like that. Our first stop is the Old Mill District, which sounds promising, and which we've seen mentioned as one of more exciting places in the city. This turns out to be little more than a strip-mall, with a 16-screen multiplex and a motley collection of chain restaurants. We get out of there as fast as we can, and spend a good half hour driving around the city at random, without coming across anything that feels particularly enthralling. Eventually, we find one micro-brewery (called the Cascade Lakes brewery) and proceed to have a relaxed meal of fiery chicken wings followed by sandwiches and washed down with a pleasant collection of fine-tasting ales. It's a good way to unwind after the long day we've had, and we have fun, but it's not exactly a night on the town. Afterwards, too tired to go seeking the elusive Bend nightlife, we check into a nearby hotel and settle in for the night.

Day 3

The morning of day 3 sees us heading back to the National Volcanic Monument. This time our destination is the Lava River Cave - a mile long underground tunnel formed by the lava flow. We descend into the cave like dwarfs entering a mine, complete with lanterns we've hired from the park service in order to be able to see inside the pitch dark tunnel. It's a pretty spooky trip. The easy metal stairs leading down into the mouth of the cave soon give way to a tortuous path of broken, uneven rock. A few hundred feet and you've left sunlight far behind you, and entered a cave so vast that even with your lantern raised you can't see the roof or the upper parts of the walls. Great piles of fallen rock block the way, and as you half-climb, half-stumble your way on the narrow path that leads through them, it only adds to your anxiety to know that many of these rockfalls are relatively recent. You find yourself peering anxiously at the ceiling. Drops of water drip from the roof and hit you on the back of the neck. You wonder if there are bats in here, then realize there almost certainly are. It's a tricky path to negotiate, since little effort seems to have been made to make it easy to walk on, and the knowledge that you're holding in your hand a propane lamp that, in the words of the ranger at the entrance, could "burn you very badly" makes things worse. At one point BM trips and falls, managing to set her lantern down safely, but bruising her knee and scratching her face in the process.

A little way further the tunnel opens up into a vast hall, its roof arching away into the darkness, its floor covered with a thin carpet of sand, its walls sculpted in streaked rock and frozen magma. It's like entering a great dwarf hold. This is what Moira must have felt like, I think, and immediately imagine a Balrog waiting around the next corner.

The Lava River Cave runs for about a mile underground, eventually narrowing to a point where you have to crawl through the sand to go further. We, however, turn back about half way through, having only got to the point where the tube divides into two parts, one inside the other. It's a relief to see daylight again, and also a shock to return to the warmth of the summer day (the temperature inside the cave is 42 degrees F).

From here, we drive back to Bend, and then take the Cascade Lakes Highway west. Driving past Mt. Bachelor, we arrive at Todd Lake, a small sickle of water tucked away in the foothills of that mountain. A lovely 1.5 mile trail circles the lake, passing through coniferous woods, a meadow dotted with red and gold flowers that could come straight out of Monet, and swampy lake banks where you cross tiny trickles of streams on one-step single plank bridges, only to find yourself squelching through mud on the other side. It would be an idyllic trail to take anyway, but what makes it special is the incredible view of Mt Bachelor rising high above the demure water, its white reflection glistening on the surface. It's like a scene out of Bierstadt.

Having spent a leisurely morning by the lake, we head out for our next destination - the Oregon Coast. A five hour drive, with a stop at an excellent Thai restaurant in Eugene, takes us to Highway 101 (the last few miles of our route running parallel to the glorious Siuslaw river), from where we drive south to the town of North Bend and the Sunset Bay Park that lies just south of it. Here, I have my obligatory stout Cortez moment, staring at the Pacific with my bespectacled eyes, though MR and BM, both of whom are familiar with the California coast, seem entirely lacking in wild surmise. Part of this is because by this time the day has turned cloudy (the first time we've seen clouds so far) so that the ocean seems gray and depressing. We start making our way up a trail that leads from the Sunset Bay park along the headland to the nearby Shore Acres park. This looks exciting for a while - a woodchip covered trail carving it way through the forest - but a couple of switchbacks and a few hundred meters later all we seem to have done is come up behind a camping ground. Plus which the trail is poorly labeled and includes a number of small turn-offs to interesting view points, so that we keep wandering off the main trail. Eventually, we decide we'd rather head back and catch the sand dunes (that are the real reason we've come this far south) before nightfall.

Fifteen minutes later we're heading north again, stopping in the Umpqua State Park to take in a mile long loop trail that takes us into the dunes. Here, MR and BM go clambering up the nearest dune, happy as children, while I stand about and remember that I've always hated sand. The worst part about the trail we're on is that on the way up it's a pleasant little forest path, at one point crossing the road to the park camping ground (yet another example of how Oregon trails seem to have been purposely designed to be unnecessarily long and circuitous) but having lured you as far as the dunes, it becomes, treacherously, a track through the sand, so that you spend the last half mile slipping and sliding your way through the sand to get back to your car (you could, of course, just go back the way you came, but that feels too much like wimping out).

Done with the sand dunes, we decide to keep heading North, hoping to make it as close to the North Oregon coast town of Seaside as we can, so as to get an early start on what we have planned for tomorrow. We tell ourselves that we'll stop at Newport, after it gets dark, and get dinner, except that by this point we're all hungry, BM is longingly desperately for chocolate and yours truly is experiencing the caffeine deprivation equivalent of the DTs, so we end up stopping at a Safeway-cum-Starbucks in Florence to refuel. The Starbucks is shut by this point, but we do manage to get our hands on a fairly substantial chocolate cake and proceed to demolish it while driving North, BM and I scarfing down our shares with a few honest bites, while MR takes the more ladylike approach, meaning that she eats the lion's share of the cake, but does it in five bashful instalments over a half an hour period.

Lack of coffee notwithstanding, the drive North has its own shy magic. Every now and then the road coils its way around a cliff, offering us a vista of the sea spreading about before us, first scarlet with the sunset, then ghostly in the starlight. Lighthouses punctuate the way - from the squat modest lighthouse at Umpqua, to the one winking at us from across the bay at Heceta Head, to the unseen lighthouse whose beam leaves large swathes of light through the night sky just before Newport. As the sun goes down, we see the clouds on the horizon erupt into color and then fade, their purple and bloodied tints giving way to a silver-lined gray.

By the time we finally get to Newport it's half past ten, and the only restaurant we can find open is this diner called the Apple Peddler (apparently a chain in Oregon). Here we book ourselves a place to stay in nearby Lincoln City, while the waitress serving us proceeds to forget (in order) - first the options on the menu, then our coffee, then the cream and sugar for our coffee, then our cutlery, then the soup that MR was supposed to get with her meal, then the rolls of bread we were supposed to get for the table. It's the most depressing meal we've had all through the trip, and what makes it so poignant is that we're actually glad to be having it.

(to be continued - Day 4 and Day 5 here)

[1] For some obscure reason, R., whom I'd never met before, seemed to feel that our having come from New York / Philadelphia implied a criticism of his living in Oregon. He spent the first five minutes after we met telling me how he has the option of living in Seattle but actually prefers Portland, and how he recently visited the East Coast and found the traffic there unbearable. This went on throughout the trip as we were treated to long, self-indulgent discussions about the escalating property values in suburban Portland, the hardiness of the local populace (they walk about in the rain without umbrellas!), the wonderful weekend getaways that Portland offers, the myriad ways in which states like Oregon and Iowa (where R used to live before he moved to Portland) represent the 'true' America, rather than fake, neurotic cesspool that is New York City. It was like traveling with a real estate salesman. And it's a shame because he's a fairly nice, harmless guy (with lovely table manners and toned, muscular good looks) who it might actually be pleasant to talk to, if you didn't have the constant sense that all his easy, banal banter is leading up to a discussion of some new condominium scheme.


Tabula Rasa said...

you went traveling with people?

nice touch on the "pure distillate of a Caravaggio". that's what it is, isn't it?

Space Bar said...

Ah good! You were missed.

Didn't you gawp at Ursula le Guin? Please say you did.

Oh, and that's Venus and Saturn.

drifting leaf said...

oh gosh those photographs are stunning...
d places actually look like that... always blows me away...

Szerelem said...

TR - hehehe...

Falstaff- Really, how come you travel with pople? :D
It looks really beautiful - even if it is, as you say, artificial beauty in a way.

Everyone seems to be travelling as of now. And I am being subjected to painful job interviews. Bleh

R said...

hi falstaff, have been reading your blogs for quite sometime. very well written, looking forward for the Day 4 and Day 5 experience.

Anonymous said...

welcome back, Great stuff and all that and of course one lives for the footnotes. Snicker snicker on the one about R ! :)


Mudra said...

Hey Falstaff,

I'm the Editor of Sans Frontieres, the Umang magazine. I think you write really well and I'd be glad if you could write for SF too.

I believe you live in the US, so maybe I should give you a bit of background about Umang. Umang is an inter-college fest held in Bombay every August. Umang 2006 saw 31000 students, 83 colleges and 55 events. Sans Frontieres has a readership of more than 2000 (again, all students between the age of 17 and 22).

We prefer our authors to write about topics that are youth-based, as you usually do. Please do email me at, and maybe then we can discuss this in greater detail (I had to leave a comment because your email ID is not available here). Thanks! :)

Falstaff said...

TR: Ah, but I always travel with people. The only novelty here is that I was actually traveling with someone (R) who I barely knew. And thanks. Though now that I'm finally awake I realize I really meant Tintoretto. It's just that Caravaggio sounds so much more satisfying.

space bar: Thanks. And thanks for looking up the planets. And no, I didn't go visit Ms. le Guin. I'd pretend this was because I'm much too dignified to do silly fanboy type things, but it was mostly because I didn't know she lived in Portland.

leaf: Thanks

szerelem: Wait - you, of all people are complaining about other folks traveling? When your blog has been practically overrun by these gorgeous, extreme-envy-causing photos of Turkey?

r: Thanks

Anusha: Thanks.

Tabula Rasa said...

and now you'll say by clifford brown you meant scott la faro.

Szerelem said...

You know the travel bug? perpetually biting me me unfortunately. I really cant sit still for vey long :)
And thank you, re the pictures.

bess said...

Happened to be listening to "Lark Ascending" while reading your Oregon posts, beautiful experience. Thanks for sharing.

Falstaff said...

tr: No, no, Clifford Brown it was. Though now that I think about it...

szerelem: you're welcome

bess: Thanks. Though I really had very little to do with 'Lark Ascending' you know.