Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Return Trip

Last Thursday's drive from Portland back to Redmond turned out to be the highlight of my visit, a trip full of many surprises. The landscape often changed dramatically with the curve of the road or the crest of a hill, so that I frequently and literally had no idea of what to expect in the next mile. Here, as promised, is the detailed account of that trip.

I had a 1 p.m. flight out of Redmond, but after Wednesday's trip I wasn't sure how long it would take me to cross the Cascades again. It had stopped snowing, at least down in the Willamette Valley, but I didn't know how much snow was still packed down on the road up in the mountains. Also, I had chosen to come back not on Oregon Route 22 like before, the route that I knew, but on a new route, taking U.S. 26 past the flanks of Mount Hood. So I left my hotel early (7 a.m.) and began driving up East Burnside through the town of Gresham, stopping to top off my tank with gasoline and my stomach with breakfast before entering the mountains. And, of course, my obligatory Starbucks stop.

East Burnside slowly rises up out of Gresham and Mount Hood is plainly visible on the eastern horizon, silhouetted by the rising sun. The road eventually becomes Route 26 and soon enters the town of Sandy; all the ski and mountain sports stores in Sandy are harbingers of Mount Hood's impending presence. Past Sandy, the road continues to rise and elevation signs count off every 500 feet of elevation gained. Snow cover and depth increase with altitude. I was now up in the mountains and breath-taking vistas of the Cascades range revealed themselves to me.

When you see a mountain from the distance, it looks like a single peak, but when you're up on the mountain it looks like a range of summits and valleys. So I didn't realize that for quite some time I had been climbing the flanks of Mount Hood until coming around a curve in the road and then, suddenly, there was the peak of Hood right in front of me, closer than I had ever seen it.

It was an exhilarating surprise and I felt compelled to pull the car over for a minute and breathe in the mountain air.

From this vista, the road continued on to Government Camp, an area of ski resorts and tourist lodges. Snow bunnies were hitch-hiking on the access road to Timberline Lodge with skis strapped to their backs. I drove on along 26 and began my descent down Hood's eastern side. Although the snowbanks had gotten higher with the elevation (the road crested around 4,000 feet), the road was passable and I was making good time.

The land flattened out on the east flank of the Cascades and the road straightened out. Eventually, I began crossing over the flat terrain of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. This is ranch land, cattle country, nothing growing in the rain shadow of the mountains other than scrub and mesquite. A little anticlimactic after the drive through the mountains, but I settled back and resigned myself to just pushing on to Redmond, after snapping a picture of the countryside out the window of my car.

Approaching the town of Warm Springs, the road began to rise a little at about the 99-mile marker. As soon as I crested the rise, I suddenly found myself in a completely different terrain - the deep valley of the Deschutes River. The earth suddenly fell down from the surface of the plateau on which I had been driving, and just like that, I entered a whole new topography of steep valleys, tablerock, and towering cliffs.

Since leaving the Cascades, I had been driving over the Columbia Plateau, locally known as the Agency Plains. The Columbia Plateau is built up of vast lava flows from the late Oligocene and early Miocene eruptions of Hood and the other Cascades volcanoes, which drowned the prior landscape roughly 20 to 30 million years ago in molten rock until the lows were all filled and the highs were all covered by lava, leaving a flat, flooded terrain. The lava hardened into basalt, but over time, the Deschutes cut a deep and broad canyon into the volcanic bedrock. Columns of basaltic bedrock capped the plateaus, overlying rhyolitic ash flows of the John Day Formation. You can see a textbook example of columnar jointing of basalt at the top of the cliff in this photograph.

After crossing the Deschutes in the town of Warm Springs, the road rose up again out of the canyon and back onto the plateau that the river had bisected. This was now farm country, apparently more arable than the ranch land behind (it's a reflection on the injustice of the reservation system that the hardscrabble land was given to the Native Americans, while the white man kept the farmland), and one could still see the mountains of the Cascades off to the west, appearing to hover over the farmland below.

A view of Mount Jefferson (10,495 feet) towering over the Agency Plains near the town of Madras:

After Madras, I turned off of Route 26 onto Oregon 97, the final stretch to Redmond. But the landscape still had at least one more surprise. Just before the town of Terrebonne, the road crossed the canyon of the Crooked River, a tributary to the Deschutes. Here, the Crooked has cut a valley narrower and steeper than that of the Deschutes, a 300-foot gash into the earth. A nice little roadside park maintained by the state overlooks the canyon. From the park, you can walk across the bridge of an older segment of the highway, the construction of which must have been no small engineering feat in itself, and look down into the vertiginous depths of the canyon below.

Here is the new highway bridge, which currently carries the traffic of Route 97 over the canyon:

To the west is an older railroad trestle which, from plateau level just above the canyon, partially blocks all but the summit of Mount Jefferson.

After gawking at the Crooked River gorge for a while, I completed the drive to Redmond, arriving at the airport at noon. I turned in the rental car, a behemoth Dodge Durango SUV, a gas guzzler to be sure, but also reliable traction for crossing the snowy mountains, and boarded the flight to Salt Lake, the first leg of my trip home.

In the Mountains and Rivers Sutra, Zen Master Dogen asserts that mountains both constantly abide in stillness and constantly walk. The science of geology is nothing other than the direct examination of this stillness over the vastness of geological time and the study of this walking as plate tectonics. But the relationship of all of this week's travelogue to Zen is not in this academic understanding, but in the direct experience of encountering the mountains, of discovering the canyons, of traversing the plains.

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