COLUMBIA RIVER, A TIME THROUGH SPACE
In reference to, but not in competition with, Robert Clark’s “River of the West”, I add some points of place of my own. There are quite a few because the PNW is where I grew up and occasionally returned when I had to.
Starting from east to west, I remember an excruciating and slow drive up out of Hell’s Canyon one summer day. At the bottom of the canyon was the Snake River, a main contributor to the Columbia. We were pulling a little tent trailer behind an old car that was underpowered. Now and then the radiator boiled over so we had to add water and wait. We three kids knew never to move or make a sound. Our father’s temper was dangerous and we were small enough to spank.
About the same time period we went north to the Columbia Ice Fields which my father believed was the ultimate origin of the Columbia River At the other end, we often visited Long Beach, which is an island formed by sand washing down the Columbia, meeting the currents of the Pacific and turning north to pile up enough to support a thriving tourist town and a splendid flat beach for horses and vehicles. The several dams on the Columbia now intercept the silt and sand, so the island is shrinking.
This was also about the time we attended a performance of the opera called “Bridge of the Gods” about the purported myth of how there was once a geological bridge across the Columbia that was collapsed in the course of a forbidden romance among the gods. I failed to find it on YouTube, but I think I have in the past.
In those days there was a sunken amphitheater, maybe a race track. We though it was “Holiday Park” but it turns out to be “Holladay Park” “This park is named after Benjamin Holladay (1819–1887), known to many as “a sharpster, a con man, and a rake.” He stirred things up wherever he went and was a bit of a dandy, dressing like a riverboat gambler. He was said to be “wholly destitute of fixed principles of honesty, morality, or common decency.” I don’t remember anyone ever mentioning that. But it was kind of like the Jantzen Beach of its time and as an adult I lived in the rundown remnants of the housing of the time. Nicely designed apartments, poorly maintained.
My father determined the family exposure to what was important — a mix of geology, engineering and the arts — without really getting very deep into any of them or explaining what he knew to the rest of us. During the week he worked in Eastern Oregon for wool-growers and farmer cooperatives. When he came back along the Columbia Gorge he often stopped to get a salmon for Sunday dinner.
On Sundays we often went back up the gorge to hike the web of trails. In those days there was a nice place to eat at Multnomah Falls, but we didn’t spend money, so more often we had a packed lunch eaten at Wahkeena Falls. If we were taking a whole day trip, our goal was often Maryhill Museum and the nearby Stonehenge replica. This was more informative since everything had explanatory labels.
It was and is an extraordinary anomaly, a mansion in unpopulated dry country, packed with marvelous art and artifacts. A discredited curator sold much of their priceless collection of baskets, which didn’t impress him, in order to buy wall-sized paintings by a friend of his, which didn’t impress me or the people who knew what the baskets were.
I was most impressed by the Queen Marie of Romania’s throne and coronation gown. Until then I had not understood how precious gems could be made into a gown, cloth of gold studded with diamonds. But the real force in the transformation of Sam Hill’s unsuccessful plans for a Quaker village (how in the Sam Hill did he become a Quaker??) was Loie Fuller, an Isadora-Duncan-style modern dancer who lived in Paris and was inspired to use the financial resources of Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, the wife of San Francisco sugar magnate Adolf Spreckels. to complete the idea.
When I was there with Bob Scriver about 1965, we visited the Rodin collection on their plinths and in the solitude of the upstairs space we tipped up the bronzes, so we could check the French casting, our model for excellence. In those days people were more trusting. As ever, money and art had surprisingly powerful impacts.
Not far away was a replica of Stonehenge, meant to memorialize World War II. Since then, another new “art form” has sprung up: the “Gorge” that attracts young people even from here, even with no money, but willing to hitchhike or pack a vehicle with friends. http://www.georgeamphitheatre.com
These alternative culture people also enjoy the beach along the Columbia nearer to Portland that is marked by Rooster Rock, tactfully described as “clothing optional”. https://stateparks.oregon.gov/index.cfm?do=park.profile&parkId=126
This whole stretch of the Columbia is prime wind surfing territory/ https://stateparks.oregon.gov/index.cfm?do=park.profile&parkId=126
This essay is more than a travel brochure. There is a point to the list. The Columbia River is also bordered by the Hanford Reach, which served as a location for a nuclear facility during WWII. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanford_Reach The best consequence is that since it is too radioactive for human habitation it has become an accidental animal refuge where the original ecology seems to thrive. The worst scenario is that the nuclear waste turns out to be uncontainable and is traveling in underground plumes to the river where it will be carried into the water supply of Portland.
“Scientific” war activity greatly impressed my father who classed it with the several dams, hydroelectric feats like Grand Coulee Dam. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Coulee_Dam#Background When we drove across, long ago, I had the idea it was Chinese — “grand coolie”, sort of like the Great Wall of China. It’s an earth dam, fortified. Immense.
All these feats of engineering were considered progress at the time, consuming huge amounts of money and quite a few lives. My father thought of them as permanent and praiseworthy. Few people had any consciousness of them as fragile, full of possible devastation, and eventually temporary. Many people want to demolish the dams now. Not just the scale and purposes, but also the values of the people have changed.
What no one expected was such a cultural and demographic change as the gap between Parisian sculpture and Kiss rock bands. No one thought there would be a culture with so much discretionary income, physical prowess, and personal time that young people could wind-surf all day. Imagine the rich culture of the salmon people that Sherman Alexie scorns being replaced by young men simply sailing, though the world wars have never stopped. Has anyone written a book about it? Clark’s “River of the West” is a good pattern.