The cliffs along the Columbia Gorge were springing leaks, letting loose the combined spring rains and melting snowpack of a very wet winter. Torrents of water gushed from the rock walls in places I’ve never seen waterfalls before. Multnomah Falls was wide and wild, and we planned to stop for a closer look on our return drive.
For the moment, the weather gods finally gave us a break from the April rains. I’d been itching to get out to the eastern Gorge, famed for its annual wildflower bloom, something I’d missed in my four Oregon springs. The Catherine Creek area and its Arch Loop Trail called out with its right-length, right-difficulty hike for me. Though it was still on the early side for flowers, the sun was out at last and I couldn’t wait any longer.
We crossed into Washington over the Columbia River on the narrow Hood River Bridge ($2 each way, a bargain for the grand views!), and wound through hillsides of tilted basalt cliffs. Passing a mailbox set inside a flower-festooned VW Bug, a neighbor’s helpful landmark, we parked. As I struggled to push the car door open I realized that when I checked the weather forecast I forgot to check for wind. I had to brace myself as I gathered my gear, thankful for all the extra layers of clothes I had in the car. Gorge weather is still a stranger to me but at I have some Oregon weather experience now, and my car has become a suitcase for warm layers.
In my excitement, I also forgot to re-check our exact route, and like a dog finally off leash, full of winter’s pent up energy, I headed for the first path I saw that went up an irresistible hillside meadow with buds and a few flowers.
It was a beautiful but steep mistake, and the rocky terrain and brutal wind challenged my abilities. Fortunately I’d remembered to grab my walking sticks (which I’ve been forgetting since I bought them) – so simple, but so helpful, taking some of the weight off my aging joints.
This area was scoured by the cataclysmic Missoula floods millions of years ago, and ancient chunks of ice and huge waves strewed the area with basalt boulders and smaller fragments. I had to concentrate to not slip or twist my ankle, feeling a little wistful thinking of younger, carefree times when I galloped down mountainsides without thinking twice. I don’t miss those times so much as I miss that body, though it was underappreciated back then.
The path narrowed into an obstacle course over loose skree, muddy rivulets and fallen trees, the wind relentless. Scattered showers hit us like ocean waves blown sideways. I held my cap on, but even my glasses were blowing off during the big gusts. As I hunkered down, bracing myself to stay upright, the frequent stops meant plenty of opportunities to admire the view. A friend’s recent photos of magnificent New Zealand landscapes came to mind. I felt like I’d done pretty well, seeing similarly striking views only 90 minutes from home. New Zealand will have to wait.
The wildflowers were sparse, but buds of purple and yellow, with some red, orange, and white dotted the hills. Wind strafed the river’s surface, whipping up waves and whitecaps, shades of blues and greys reflecting clouds blowing past. So gorgeous, but taking pictures of plants all blowing around – even trying to hold the camera still – was challenging. Maybe I WAS in New Zealand, on a movie set with the wizard Saruman unleashing some sorcery to thwart us, convincing us to turn back.
Finally, a mile up, we sat for a few minutes to snack and regroup. I checked my notes, realizing then that I’d taken us up an unintended path. Though I longed to continue climbing toward the open hillsides above, it was just too challenging today. Another way would probably be just as beautiful, so we cautiously negotiated our way back down along the scabland slopes.
We found our way to a more sheltered path leading to the Arch Loop Trail, and soon came upon Catherine Creek. I don’t think I’ll ever get over seeing Oregon’s wealth of water after so many years in dry California; it’s akin to greeting the ocean and shoreline for me, a moment of enchantment. I was dubious about the precarious looking bridge across the creek, merely a plank nailed onto a log, but it held steady and I blessed the many volunteers that manage these trails, allowing us to explore without incident.
Basalt cliffs rose up straight up before us, and I imagined the floods advancing and receding repeatedly at the end of the Ice Age, the entire area being underwater, wiping out whatever was here before. I keep coming back to these places, no matter the conditions, to get that prickly sense of the past being present, everything leading up to this moment in time, my own cares shrunken and inconsequential.
It was a late Tuesday morning, a time we affectionately refer to as the zombie apocalypse. The few other hikers disappeared quickly ahead or behind, and we had the mountain mostly to ourselves. Experienced hikers have a certain look – boots and clothes are worn, comfortable, dusty, and sensible, just the right amount of layering, faces weathered, relaxed and thoughtful, knowing where they’re going, what they’re doing. Less seasoned folk wear newer shoes and clothes, and have the latest hiking gear. They’re clean, and look like they just landed, inquisitive and a little disoriented. Hikers around here are generally friendly and willing to be helpful, and some experienced hikers stopped to tell tell us about the path ahead – we must have looked like the latter to them. Then a young couple stopped to ask us questions – we probably appeared to be the experienced ones – and we passed on what little we knew. I aspire toward experience and wisdom, especially as we turned back early, our knees finally complaining about carrying us. If not older and wiser, I was certainly more tired and dirtier.
The rain fell in sheets on the way home, and stopping to marvel at waterfalls was not as compelling as it seemed earlier. As we neared Portland and home I couldn’t stop thinking about Enchiladas Espinacas at Conin’s. We stopped at the little strip mall restaurant near home, gritty, windblown, and completely spent, and I felt every one of those stones I stepped on. We were waited upon and treated as old friends, and every bite was as good as the fantasy.