Borne-Back Blues

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, June 1999

Borne-Back Blues
Like the straight and narrow? Then forget about the Columbia River Highway.

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Even if I live to be an old man, I know I will never see the Columbia River as it was—a torrent of whitewater draining an area the size of France. I will never know the fear Lewis and Clark felt in 1805 when they put their dugouts in gravity's grip and headed for the Pacific. Shackled by dams for most of its 1,200-mile length, the Columbia is a beast of burden without the slightest hint of unpredictability.

But there are times when I want to feel the ghost of that great old river—the only waterway to breach the spine of the Cascades—and I drive south on a nondescript interstate from my home in Seattle until I arrive at the edge of another age: a road that matches the Columbia's original character.

The Historic Columbia River Highway isn't labeled on many maps (if it appears, it usually carries the unremarkable name U.S. 30). You have to want to find it, and be willing to follow serendipity rather than a straight line. When it opened in 1922—the first major paved road in the Pacific Northwest—the Columbia had yet to be dammed, so the builders carved the narrow, twisting road into the canyon's basalt walls. Today, the two-lane road is no place for cruise control, or even third gear. It winds and dips for 69 miles along the Oregon bank of the river—from the wet, overgrown rainforest near Troutdale, in suburban Portland, to the high desert of The Dalles, on the eastern side of the divide. For much of its length, the old road parallels its less-scenic neighbor, Interstate 84—rejoining it in several places where the tire-worn pavement has been turned over into hiking trails. This new road is certainly faster and easier to drive, but only a fool would say it is better.

We had my two-month-old daughter with us when we drove the old road not long ago. On that spring morning, the western end of the gorge was full of fog and low clouds, and I pulled off on the shoulder and stood on a cliff overlooking the giant chasm until my skin was damp with mist. Then we followed the road as it wound its way down a series of long, slow switchbacks to the base of Multnomah Falls—620 feet of Cascades runoff, one of the highest waterfalls in the country.

A few miles farther upstream, the road offered a different view: the beleaguered Columbia pooling against Bonneville Dam, where counters keep a tally of the few coho salmon that manage to make their way through the 60-foot-high fish ladders. I did not want this to be the way my daughter was introduced to the Northwest's greatest icon.

We kept driving to Mosier, at which point the old road leaves the dams and interstate behind and begins to snake its way up out of the canyon. When we pulled over at the top of the Rowena Plateau, we were a thousand feet above the river. The fog was gone. Douglas fir had given way to wildflowers, and the stiff gorge wind nearly knocked me down. To the north we could see Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams. To the south was Mount Hood, a cone of ice from this sunbaked plateau. I held my daughter, wishing she could understand what a river with ten times the flow of the Colorado could do when it met the mountains. She was oblivious, of course. But with any luck, this old road—our last link to the great Columbia—will be around for a good long while.—TIMOTHY EGAN

The Historic Columbia River Highway is actually broken into sections: 22 miles from Troutdale to Warrendale, then a 33-mile segue on I-84, and then in Mosier, another 14 miles on the Old River Road. About 12 miles into the trip, look for the Wahkeena Falls trail, a 5.4-mile hike to Devil's Rest, a dizzyingly high promontory.
DON'T MISS: Stonehenge, the replica (circa 1918). Drive to Maryhill, Washington, about 20 miles east of The Dalles, for a free viewing.
BEST EATS: Potlatch chinook salmon at Skamania Lodge, three miles from Cascade Locks.
TOP DIGS: The Inn of the White Salmon, across the river in White Salmon, Washington (doubles, $99–$129; 509-493-2335).
INFORMATION: Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, 541-386-2333.

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