The waitress at Joolz brings us our Date Cake. It’s warm, it’s moist, and it’s topped with a dollop of not-too-sweet whipped cream. Most people come to Bend for the outdoorsy lifestyle, microbreweries, and spectacular scenery. Me, I like the date cake. The waitress lingers to chat, and tells us how she loves the Eastside, and that her boyfriend is trying it out, but as a dedicated Westsider he might not stick around.
Eastsider? Westsider? These terms are new to me, but it makes sense. The Cascades Mountains, which stretch from Northern California to British Columbia, are a part of the Pacific Rim range of volcanoes. They rise up as high as 14,000 feet in pointy peaks, bowl shaped calderas, or jagged cliffs, and in Oregon they create a great divide running along the entire length of the state. This has created an eastside and westside with radically different climates, as well as differing economies, lifestyles, and politics – all the things that make a life.
We drive the 200 miles from Portland to Bend a few times a year. My brother and his wife retired to a nearby rural area to immerse themselves in the dramatic beauty and year round sports that make the eastside so captivating. They’ve amassed the necessary toys – snowshoes and skis, kayaks and standup paddle boards, bicycles, even a motorcycle. Also a rider mower, snow blower, chainsaw, and a pile of snow tires that get rotated on and off of their vehicles every November and April. After several exciting run-ins with nature, I asked my brother if he had any regrets about moving out there. He said yes, that he hadn’t moved there sooner. Eastsiders for sure.
Our annual trip over Thanksgiving week means unpredictable driving challenges, and we spend the days beforehand triangulating weather forecasts, roadside cameras views, and traffic data – then make a guess about the route and timing, hoping for the best.
We like to drive with the grandkids, and because of a history of dramatic eruptions, they always ask about potential explosions as we drive through the now sleepy peaks. I try to be reassuring, and I hope I’m right when I tell them that geologists will give us plenty of warning if an eruption comes in our lifetime. They will, right?
My favorite of the possible routes through the mountains is the Santiam Pass. Heading east from Salem, we first climb a gentle rise of rolling hills, past bucolic farmlands and pastures. In fall the air is moist, clouds gather and disperse, often accompanied by a mist of rain or sometimes a torrential downpour. Most years we drive amidst a wash of fall colors.
Entering the Santiam State Forest, the slopes are packed with towering evergreen conifers that rise above the dense undergrowth, mostly Douglas fir, and a mix of others. We pass a few tiny towns tucked away from the rural highway, but the forest reveals only a sprinkling of homes, taverns and waysides, and a decrepit mill and caved in outbuildings.
As we drive higher, waterfalls plunge down from vertiginous basalt cliffs on one side of the road and drain into the North Santiam River flowing on the other side, a mesmerizing companion along the way. A few private paths and logging roads open mysterious gaps in the trees, and just as quickly close off to view. I love to hike along the river, following some hidden turnoff leading to campgrounds or trails within the forest. Sometimes we stroll along the river dam that creates Detroit Lake, where the Willamette National Forest begins.
At the 4800 foot summit we cross into high desert country. I have an off-kilter moment going from one side to the other, almost like crossing onto another planet. The contrast of 40 inches of average rainfall in the west versus 12 inches in the east is startlingly clear. The lush dark greens with spots of ochre and rust transform quickly into a sparse landscape of stunted forests of white oak and Ponderosa pines, scrubby yellowing brush, and ancient piles of lava flows. Some hillsides are studded with scars of fires, swaths of trunks white with age, and tumbled trees scattered like toothpicks.
Fall becomes winter in a moment. Some years there’s a hopscotch patchwork of snowdrifts in the shadiest places beneath rock walls and trees branches. Other years, like this one, everything is covered in snow, glittering even in dim sunlight. At each corner we catch glimpses of snowy slopes and peaks that come into view and then disappear. On clearer days we see mountain peaks on either side of the pass, pointy Mt. Washington, and jagged Three Fingered Jack. This year our eyes are glued to the road, seeing nothing but white.
We stop to put on chains, while Subaru Outbacks and heavy duty Ford pickup trucks speed by on their snow tires. But the grandkids are gleeful. A stop means a chance to throw snowballs, though the snow is so dry and light they fly through the air in an innocuous glistening spray.
We travel beneath the northernmost peaks of Three Sisters, and on through the high desert town of Sisters. Here traffic slows to a crawl. For a few blocks merchants lure us in for fudge and ice cream or t-shirts and art; eateries and wine bars beckon, and garden whirligigs spin enticingly from sidewalks just outside the car window.
Then it’s back to empty landscape, now vast flat fields of wheat, brown and shorn in the fall, barns and livestock, and more lava rock piles. We twist and lean to get a view out the car windows of the panorama of mountain peaks in the distance, and the enormous sun sinking behind them, setting snowy peaks on fire.
Thanksgiving arrives with several inches of snow, and the world transforms before me.
Near the Deschutes River, as temperatures drop, I track the bluish ice accumulating along the edges. Over the days it creeps slowly in toward the middle of the water, each section different determined by the current and bend of the banks. Then ice breaks off in large floes or small chunks, and makes its way downstream.
Outdoors, the silence is like a vacuum, reverberating with emptiness. I make some noise to be sure my ears aren’t misbehaving, as they seem to do more often these days. Among the trees the snow piles up on the highest branches, then slides off onto lower ones, finally cascading to the ground with a whump. Even the blackbird flying by, alighting on a nearby Ponderosa pine, is silent. The frozen landscape spreads out before me, silent and calm as if time itself is frozen, the earth too cold to turn, just waiting, hovering.
Night falls, and it is pitch black, a peaceful companion to the frozen quiet.
Eventually we go back over the pass to the westside where winter is just a thought and fall lingers still. The 46 degrees feels intensely colder than single digits did on the eastside. Dampness creeps into the car, crawls into my layers of clothing, clings to my skin, settles into the bones, refusing to dissipate. I’m confused because of what the thermometer tells me, but the body shivers, it moans, it wraps the layers more tightly and hurries inside to the fireplace.
After a few days I reacclimate, glad to be back in the verdant, wildly overgrown westside. There’s just that lingering yen… for just one more piece of date cake.