Friday, July 06, 2007

Oregon Trails - Part 2

[continued from here]

Day 4

Day 4 finds MR and BM both obsessing about reaching Tillamook, a town famous for its icecream (as well as other dairy products, but it's the icecream these two are drooling over). Fortunately, the navigation for this trip is in saner, more discerning hands, so that instead of driving hell for leather for Tillamook as the yen for icecream would have us do, we take the longer route via the Three Capes scenic highway, passing the town of Oceanside, where gaunt elbows of rock jut out from the sea and a dog chases gulls with the diligence of a process server, and finally stopping at the Cape Mears lighthouse. Here, the air is raucous with the cries of gulls and cormorants and a muffin shaped rock just off shore bristles with birds like a cupcake covered with candles. We have a 180 degree view of the Pacific, its blue expanse stretching into the unimaginable distance. Directly below us, a seal hunts in the water, its gray-white belly curving over the waves like an accent, before vanishing into the depths in search of fish.

From here we go to Tillamook, where MR and her icecream are finally united [1]. We stop at the Tillamook Cheese Visitor's Center which features a fast food restaurant, a fudge counter, a store selling Tillamook cheese products and a factory tour; but all we're really interested in is the ice cream. I plug my way through a large waffle cone's worth of German Chocolate and Coffee icecream, while BM eats a relatively staid Chocolate and Strawberry sundae and MR pigs out on something bathed in chocolate fudge. It's good icecream, but far from being exceptional, and our pleasure in it is somewhat dampened by the fact that everyone around us seems to weigh in excess of 250 pounds, so that we're reminded, with every bite we take, just what these calories we're snarfing down could do to us. It's like sitting down to share a turkey with the obese ghost of Christmas Future. MR is so dismayed by this that she actually stops eating for a while, and I have to lend her the base of my waffle cone before she starts to stuff her face again. We then go back into the store and pick up a small packet of daintily packed cheese cuboids, just to convince ourselves that we are connoisseurs, not gluttons.

From Tilamook we continue to head North, our destination now the trailhead for the Neahkanhie mountain that BM and MR intend to climb. This proves more difficult to find than we had anticipated. Our first turn-off takes us down a miles long road into rural Oregon. Our second turn-off clearly says Neahkanhie mountain trail, except that it turns out to be a dirt road barely one lane wide and climbing steeply up, which we eventually deduce is the actual trail itself and not a path meant to be driven on at all. It takes us a while to turn around and come down off that one, after which another mile's drive takes us to a parking lot by the side of the highway from which two trails branch off - the first (or so the map put up there claims) going up to the top of the mountain, while the other runs along the coast to a charming little suspension bridge and then on to Cape Falcon.

MR and BM take the high road; I, being less keen to go scrambling up mountains, take the low one. Five minutes later I'm wondering if this was a bad idea. The trail leads down a steep, rocky incline from the parking lot, then plunges into a thicket of seven foot high bushes, the plants so close together that the trail is barely visible anymore and you have to push your way through the branches, with leaves and twigs scratching at your face. If I hadn't seen a family of six go this way five minutes ahead of me, I would probably have turned back, convinced that I had lost my way and was following not the trail itself but the track of some deer. In the next ten minutes, I twice spot little brown snakes crossing the path just in front of me, their wriggling tails passing inches away from my descending shoes. My feet keep getting tangled in creepers, and my legs, exposed in shorts, are whipped and stinging with the undergrowth.

Some 250 metres down the trail the path finally emerges from this thick vegetation into a more open, wooded copse. At last, I think, and settle in to enjoy a pleasant walk along the coast. But 50 meters later the trail ends! There's a wire fence stretching across the path and a small bench looking out on a scenic overlook. Something that looks vaguely like a trail leads up into the mountain. It's going the wrong way from where it's supposed to, and since we're at the very edge of the land it's not likely to switchback, but I try to follow it anyway. One fork of it peters out in about 30 metres, becoming a one foot wide ledge that skirts along the cliff, a drop of about a hundred feet onto black sea-foamed rocks below it. The second fork, which is really little more than a deer path, leads up into the woods, but after I've clambered over my third fallen tree and jumped up the odd rock or two, it becomes pretty clear to me that this too leads nowhere and is certainly not a proper trail. I go back to the main trail. Could I have missed a turn-off at some point? I return to the parking lot for another look at the map, keeping an eye out not only for snakes but also for other trails leaving the main one. At one point there's a slight depression in the grass that might, with a little imagination, be a trail, but if so it's one that doesn't seem to have been walked on any time this year, and I'm not the kind of person who believes in being a pioneer.

I go back to the parking lot to check there are no other trails leaving from the lot, then finding none, brave the snake-infested trail once again, and decide to spend the hour or so before the others get back on the bench at the end of it. It's a nice spot. Below me a small inlet called Devil's Cauldron churns with green water, the cliff wall lined with ledges where seabirds nest, and broken, at its base, by a series of small caves, that give the whole thing a vaguely Enid Blyton air (the next cove along the coast is called Smuggler's Cove). There's a glorious view of the Pacific, with Cape Falcon stretching its languorous arm out to sea directly in front. Seagulls soar on eddies of wind all around me, their wings balanced and motionless, coming down to perch on a rock a mere ten meters away. The bench itself is in the shade of tall trees - an exceedingly comfortable place to sit. Best of all, there's no one else around - this is clearly not a popular trail.

I try reading for a bit, then lay the book aside and content myself with just staring out at the sea. What was it Keats said? "O ye who have your eyeballs vexed and tired / feed them upon the wideness of the sea". Thinking of Keats makes me want to quote some out loud. I look around guiltily, go a little way back on the trail to make sure no one is coming. Then, satisfied that I'm quite alone, I proceed to recite Ode to a Nightingale (or as much of it as I can remember). It's enchanting to hear the sound of those glorious syllables sifting through the branches, half-echoing through this deserted little woodland on a nameless headland at the very edge of the Western world.

After a while, I make a discovery. I'm staring at the rock face opposite and I realize that there's a whorl of rock that looks kind of like an ear. I decide to take a photograph of it. When I start to focus the camera I realize that it's more than just an ear - there's a whole face carved naturally in the rock face, complete with an overhanging slab of a nose, a grim mouth, a quasi-beard and even a small crescent like depression that could be horns. It looks like a satyr or a devil of some sort! I wonder if I'm imagining this. Maybe it's just my hyperactive imagination channeling Pan's Labyrinth. I take a couple of pictures to show MR and BM when I meet them, to test if they can see it too. I feel very kicked about this, because it's not something that ever showed up in a guidebook or a map. It's my own personal sight.

I'm still sitting there when a couple of large black dogs come running out of the forest, mouths open and snarling. They look like something out of The Hound of the Baskervilles, or Omen. One of them goes scampering off to investigate the nearest trees, but the other one comes right up to the bench and stares directly at me. I'm just beginning to wonder what my odds of surviving the drop into Devil's Cauldron are when their owner (an elderly woman) arrives and rescues me. I watch as she and her dogs make their way up the quasi-trail along the mountain that I'd followed earlier, and feel a sense of vindication when they too turn around and come back, having found the way unpassable. I let them return down the trail, then follow five minutes later, figuring the dogs must have scared any sunbathing snakes away. Back at the parking lot, I spend ten minutes waiting for BM and MR to show up, issuing friendly warnings to strangers considering taking the coast trail that goes nowhere, then decide to follow the trail going up the mountain until I meet the other two coming down.

From here we head to the town of Cannon Beach, where we plan to have lunch. By this time we're all in the mood to take life easy and relax, having got through four days of fairly hectic traveling. Cannon Beach turns out to be a picturesque little town, the epitome of Oregon's seemingly universal endeavour to be quaint and charming. It's an effort that almost every town we've passed through on the trip seems to share, but here, in Cannon Beach, it actually feels like the real thing. MR, predictably, has a yen for seafood, so we stop at the first restaurant we see that offers some. This restaurant (whose name now escapes me) turns out to have the most inattentive (to the point of being rude) service I've ever seen, so after ten minutes of waiting for someone to take our order we walk out.

Our next choice, The Driftwood Inn, proves more congenial. Here we're met by an extremely chirpy waitress and find ourselves relaxing on a sunkissed patio sipping cold glasses of beer and tucking our way into some delicious food - broiled salmon and seafood chowder for me, crab salad for BM and halibut with dill cream for MR. It's a glorious, relaxed lunch and we experience a sense of tremendous peacefulness, a casual initiation into leisure. Half the customers out here are locals who know each other (and the dog sleeping at the door) on a first name basis, and for an hour or so we feel as though we lived here too, or at least were here for a long, sleepy weekend, rather than just passing through for a quick meal.

This sense of well-being stays with us as we make our way down the town's main boulevard, stopping at a little cafe / bakery where MR gets the root beer float she's been craving while I get my daily caffeine fix in the form of an espresso sundae - one scoop of espresso ice-cream with a shot of hot espresso poured over it (yum!). We then drive to the Ecola state park - our final stopping point on the coast before we head back to Portland.

The trail that leads South to the beach from the Ecola Park parking lot is closed due to slides, which suits us fine because we're feeling too lazy to take it anyway. There's also a trail north upto Indian Beach, but once we discover that we can just drive up there instead we lose what little enthusiasm we had for this as well. So instead we walk the 0.2 miles to the observation point, taking in yet another sweeping view of the Pacific, staring contentedly at the circling gulls, peering through the binoculars at a lighthouse just off the coast and staring down with interest at Sea Lion rocks, which look like an artist's rendition of the evolution of stone.

MR fidgets around with her camera, taking picture after picture of the surrounding scenes. BM and I people-watch, taking in the man who's come on a vacation with his camera and brought his family along just in case; the photography buff who has attached a tripod to his camera and is now taking pictures holding both tripod and camera in the air; the two families bonding about the cuteness of each other's dogs while the animals in question attempt to tear each other's throats out; and most entertaining of all, the desi couple who are actually HOLDING HANDS IN PUBLIC (a gesture that they doubtless see as deeply romantic, but which, because of the man's regrettable tendency to walk faster than the woman and drag her along after him, as well as his reluctance to come within more than four feet of her - after all, some proprieties must be maintained - makes it look like they're wearing handcuffs), and who, doubtless feeling that the Pacific ocean by itself is too tame for their family photographs, insist on taking 'action' shots, including one where the woman pretends to swing from a tree, a second where she sits astride a grungy skull-and-crossbones painted bike wearing her floral knee-length skirt (not a pretty sight), and one where he, ignoring the danger signs posted all around, crosses over to the closed off section of the trail, and, paying no attention to the 50 foot drop yawning behind him, proceeds to panic because he has entrusted his beloved camera to a woman (horrors!), and spends the next five minutes shouting across frantic instructions at her.

We spend a good half hour lazing about at Ecola point, then head out, stopping for a few moments to take in the view from Indian Beach, where, against a backdrop of stone arches and great seething waves, surfers swerve and swivel on the surf, and small groups of people play with frisbees on the glowing sand beach.

An hour and a half's drive from here takes us back to Portland, where we make our way to the southern suburb of the city where R. lives. We'll be spending the night at his place, and he's promised to show us the nightlife of the city. R lives in a quintessential suburb, a dystopia of carbon copy mass-manufactured houses that he himself describes as a kind of mini-Stepford. The neighbourhood has all the character of a Big Mac. For all that, the man has a huge house - three bedrooms, three bathrooms and a living room larger than my entire student accommodation. It's a nice house, though perhaps more appropriate for, say, the Windsors. The three of us grab showers, reveling in the luxury of being able to do this in parallel, and then head out to Portland, intending to paint that city, if not quite red, then at least a modest maroon.

The next couple of hours have a distinctly surreal quality in my memory. We start at this place called the Brazen Bean, which seems like a nice, cosy place from the outside, housed as it is in a oldish looking mansion. Once inside, it turns out to be yet another trying-to-be-hip-but-only-succeeding-in-being-wannabe bar, with some species of noise blaring from the speakers that sounds like scrap metal being force fed into a concrete grinder and a drinks menu that includes 32 kinds of cocktails and exactly one ("house") wine. We get through the ritual of showing our ids [2] - mine, being beyond the comprehension of the cretin serving us, having to be referred to the Higher Authority of the bartender - and then ask if we can sit outdoors. Unfortunately, this being past 10 pm, outside seating has shut. So we endure the hellish tone-iness of the place, mostly because R. informs us that it is one of the most popular night spots in the city, and we can hardly insult him by walking out when he's putting us up at his place. After a while, the music quietens down, and I get enough Glenfiddich in my system to take the edge off my annoyance, so things aren't so bad.

Not that the conversation is exactly stellar. R., it turns out, is one of those people who are very concerned with 'philosophy' which means they've read Stephen Covey and think Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is practically holy writ. His fundamental tenets in life, it seems, include the observations that a) all people are horny (this seems very important to him - he mentions it at least thrice) b) everyone's ultimate goal is to be happy c) Americans are happier than Desis because Americans are goal oriented and Desis are not and d) Portland is a really great city to be happy in, especially with the way property values are likely to rise. Not quite Wittgenstein, but there it is.

BM sits there trying desperately not to giggle. Yours truly throws in the occasional bon mot about the examined life, and watches it sink to the bottom of the conversation like a dropped stone scattering fish. MR, who's never let mere banality come in the way of her appreciation of a night out with a good looking man, tries gamely to keep the conversation going.

At some point in the evening, we move to another bar (having made our way through large groups of extremely drunk frat boys accosting strangers on the street), this one called Club 21, which is a lot nicer for being more relaxed and informal. Here things get a lot happier, and a little wilder. MR, under the influence of her third Bombay Tonic, flirts happily with R., causing him to panic a little. BM gets sprayed with water repeatedly: first when MR, in revenge for my having confiscated her camera (she was trying to do embarrassing things with it), tries to throw a glass of water at me and ends up dousing BM instead; next when R., in the course of making some forceful point manages to bring his hand down on his straw, sending cubes of ice arcing through the air onto BM; and finally when MR, this time making a particularly expansive gesture, manages to spill a second glass of water all over the table. BM takes refuge in the ladies room. I take away MR's drink and gulp it down before she can have any more. It begins to dawn on R., who has so far been too caught up in expounding his theories on life, that instead of a quorum of admiring disciples, he is, in fact, surrounded by a group of drunken near-lunatics. Amazingly, this makes him feel better, and he lightens up a lot. Our tattoo-bearing, nose-pierced waitress stops by our table to ask if we need anything else, then goes straight over to the 6 foot 2 guy in the cowboy hat checking ids at the door and whispers something in his ear, after which he proceeded to eye us suspiciously for the rest of the evening. I sit there, sipping my Jack Daniel's, thinking this is what it must feel like to be a character in a F. Scott Fitzgerald story.

Eventually we head back to R.s place, MR informing us along the way that she isn't really drunk, because the surest sign of someone being sober is that they refuse to walk a straight line even though they can. We ask her if she'd be willing to walk a straight line, and she refuses, so we know that she's really drunk. In retrospect, it probably isn't a bright idea to let R drive us back, but he seems to know what he's doing, and does, in fact, drive home pretty sensibly. We go to bed having made a few desultory plans to go to the Columbia River Gorge the next morning - plans that we are forced to leave incomplete because MR is in no shape to participate in any discussion.

Day 5

The last day of the trip. BM, R and I are up by 9, and sit around drinking tea and chatting about doctors and health service woes in what soon comes to resemble a meeting of Hypochondriacs Anonymous. MR finally makes her bleary-headed way down by around 10, soon after which the four of us leave to head out to the Columbia River Gorge, stopping on the way to pick up a breakfast of bagels and espresso.

The Gorge itself is beautiful enough, except that today being the Fourth of July (and a beautiful day in the bargain) it's turned into a horrendous tourist trap. We stop at this thing called the Multnomah Falls, and it takes us a good ten minutes to find parking, after which it's like walking around in Grand Central Station. We go a short way up the trail, stopping at a pretty little stone bridge that arches across the base of the falls. It would be a lovely spot, if it weren't for the fact that every inch of the bridge, on both sides, is lined back to back with people, and a third row of folks are trying to push their way between them. We stand on one edge and discuss the pros and cons of this bridge as a point to commit suicide from (no prizes for guessing whose contribution to the conversation that is) then head back to our car and onward to the next waterfall.

This turns out to be the Horsetail fall - a swishing little ribbon of water pouring down from a low hillside, not particularly high, really, but sparkling and gorgeous in the afternoon sun. A small rockpool spreads out at the base of the fall, and a path from the road leads right down to it, so pretty soon we've pulled off our shoes and are paddling about in the water. The pool is icy-cold, of course, but it's a welcome relief to feel the chill of it between your toes on such a hot day. I tread carefully about, feeling the treacherous sliminess of the rocks under me. We linger here for a half hour or so, while MR tries out every setting in her camera trying to capture the luminosity of the falling water, as well as the delicate green of the undergrowth around it. We're not sure we want to go any further on this road (how many falls can you see, really?) and finally decide to head back to town. On the way we stop at a couple of view points to take in the majesty of the gorge, one down by the river itself, the other up at an overlook called Vista Point.

Then it's back to the city for a generous seafood meal at Salty's on the Columbia - a couple of glasses of Riesling, some delicious chowder, and a wonderful triple appetizer of Fried Calamari, Coconut-flaked prawns and smoked salmon cakes - all this while sitting right on the edge of the river, watching the sailboats and the powerboats and the jet-skis go past, observing the bushy nests that some bird had built on the pilings of the abandoned pier. Even the presence of two very drunk men at the next table, who insist on coming over to tell us dumb blond jokes, only adds to our sense of holiday. It's a splendid way to round off a deeply satisfying trip and we leave the restaurant parking lot (throwing a last farewell glance at the hazy spectacle of Mt. Hood towering in the distance) with a sense of something very like accomplishment.

BM's flight leaves at 6.00 pm, so we hop off at the airport and I see her off on her flight before settling in to wait the four hours to mine, filling in the time by revisiting Mozart's Symphonies 21 through 26, as well as Beethoven's Emperor Concerto (MR is off doing the whole spoilt New Yorker deal by trying to find a massage place in Portland). Our four and a half hour flight from here will get us to Newark at 5.30 am local time, from where I will make my way back to Philly, collapsing in exhaustion by the time I get back to my place and waking up only late in the afternoon on the fifth to start blogging about this trip.

[1] MR is one of the most widely traveled people I know, but somehow all her travel stories seem to end up being about food. Ask her about her trip to Macchu Picchu and you'll be regaled with descriptions of the 12-item dessert buffet she had in some little town in Peru. Talk to her about her trip to Bryce and Zion, and you'll hear all about the incredible steak place she discovered in some little known Utah hamlet. Mention her recent trip to Morocco and she'll tell you how great the goat cheese there is. It's like traveling with a live version of Asterix and the Banquet.

[2] Oregon isn't just law-abiding about traffic rules. They also seem to have the strictest policy on checking ids I've ever experienced in the US. The first time we got asked for our ids, in Bend, we were are all rather flattered, since none of us looks like he / she could be even close to 21, let alone under it. It soon became obvious though, that this was standard practice here, though the combination of ids from California, Illinois and Pennsylvania continued to invite comment from the waitstaff.


Anonymous said...

"a casual initiation into leisure"

You ought to consider becoming a travel writer. The way you describe a place makes one want to go there too.

Enjoyed reading this.


Lovely photographs too.

Shantanu said...

Great posts (incl. Part 1)!

'Asterix and the Banquet', ha ha! I must admit I do pretty much the same.

Re: strict policy on checking ids in Oregon, we have experienced this in many places within Utah too.

Anonymous said...

Falstaff, you ever thought of writing a novel? :)

Loved your posts!

Anonymous said...

Aaargh! Can't you simply post the pictures and write "this was byeootiful" "ah-sum" and so on? The lush prose drownded me it did.

But maybe there's something in there - I, city slicker, hater of the Life Natural, avid explorer of skyscrapers and city malls and all things Whitecastle actually proposed a nature park expedition to the Spousal Unit. Whereupon SU pounced on me with tears of joy (relief?) and.. suffice it to say, I'm not going to be one of those getting internet bandwidth solicitations any time soon!


Falstaff said...

N: Thanks. I would, only I secretly hate traveling, so it seems like a bad career move. I spend weeks before every trip I go on cursing myself and wondering what possessed me to let myself in for it.

shantanu: Thanks

anon: Sure, who hasn't? Don't have the patience / attention span / discipline though.

n!: You're welcome. Though...errr.. .SU pouncing on you was certainly not the intended consequence of this post.