crossing the Columbia
Thursday, June 25 2009
setting: several miles southwest of Mount Rainier, Washington State
This morning Gretchen showed me around to the lovely little features of Wellspring Spa, where we'd spent the night in our cozy little treehouse. Back in the forest wrapping around an old moss-covered hardwood was a contemplative labyrinth. It came complete with a little meditation room and a simple gate that a contemplator could close so as to ensure being alone with his thoughts. Everything at Wellspring was so lush and green and silent. It was just us, some tactful buildings built of natural materials, and nature.
We drove back into Mount Rainier National Park and went for another hike, this one just in Longmire from the National Park Inn up the Rampart Ridge Trail. It presented us with a good view of the ancient valley ecosystem here, which (in the lowlands) includes a large open meadow resulting from a massive mudflow that happened 500 years ago and where, a sign told us, soil was too rich with minerals to support reforestation. Above this, the forest was comprised mostly of Western Hemlock and some sort of cedar.
Soon the trail turned into a series of switchbacks to get us up to the rampart crest, but a little before we got there we gave up. We were hungry and thirsty, and we hadn't bothered to bring any provisions because this wasn't supposed to have been a big hike. There were a few clearings through the trees where we could see peaks with snow on them, but we didn't see anything anywhere near as spectacular as what we'd seen yesterday.
On the way down, people kept asking us how much farther it was to the top, and of course we didn't really know. Eventually we came upon a woman from Tennessee who was going apeshit about the wildflowers, snapping pictures for her website. I talked just enough Botany with her to let her know she was not a complete freak (and do the same for her husband), learning about two species of pine drops lower down, one of which we'd already seen.
Back in the National Park Inn area, we got some snackfood in the general store. This included a plastic-wrapped "arm" of Fig Newtons. I hadn't eaten Fig Newtons since I was in my 20s, but back when I did, I always ate them an "arm" at a time. An arm is something like 15 individual cookies, and since Gretchen didn't want any, I ate the whole thing right there as I was driving out of the park. Gretchen was reading the packaging and did the math, determining that was over 700 calories right there. Jesus W. Christ, good thing such things don't matter to me, at least not yet. (Although my food-to-activity level on this trip has already resulted in noticeable weight gain).
Our destination was now Portland, Oregon, and, after leaving the vicinity of Mount Rainier, we found ourselves on a different set of roads than the ones we'd come on. We headed south on Route 7 to the astoundingly dreary village of Morton, whose only industries appeared to be lumber milling, dollar store retailing, and insurance fires. All the hills above the town were denuded by clearcuts and the buildings in the downtown appeared to be comprised mostly of pealing paint and second hand mercury vapors. (I wish the Google Street View probe had made it to Morton so you could share my morbid interest in the town's misery.)
Somewhere on US 12 the Sirius seventies channel announced that 1970s icon Farrah Fawcett had just died. I thought of her hair, then vaguely of her cancer, then of how I'd actually once thought that her hairstyle was cool back when even the boys in my high school were trying to imitate it. And then I thought of something else. I was growing pretty sick of the 1970s.
We'd be returning our rented PT Cruiser today and were hoping not to have to refill the gas tank until reaching Portland, but that wasn't to be. A PT Cruiser lets you know that it is running out of gas by making an audible chime and then turning on a light on the dashboard, a light that stays on until action is taken to fill the tank. This is rather different from our 1998 Honda Civic, which makes no chime and turns on a light only when the gas at the low-tank sensor sloshes away. This gives more information about the state of the emptying tank as the "low gas" light comes on and goes out as one drives up and down hills. With the PT Cruiser, though, the message was simply digital. We had to get gas now, since the next piece of information would be the conking out of the engine. By this point we were on I-5 going south, so we pulled off the freeway in the town of Kalama, which might well be even more depressing than the town of Morton, because in addition to the dreary lumbermill æsthetic, it also stank of strong tumor-inducing chemicals, perhaps the kind used as wood preservatives. Adding to the sense of grimness was the fact that the gas station where we refueled appeared to be run entirely by robots (or perhaps attendants remotely stationed in Bangalore). Where a gas station attendant should have been was a windowless masonry building, and we were expected to pay with a credit card.
Oregon came up fast once we'd refueled. We crossed the mighty Columbia, busted a right to the Portland airport to return the rental car, and then waited for Gilley (another of Gretchen's good friends dating back to college) to pick us up. She'd be our host in Portland.
Gilley tends to run a bit late, but she came quickly today. As it happened, she was also driving a rental vehicle, in this case a Kia Rondo (which was also a bit oversized for conventional automotive needs). Gilley had rented the Rondo because hers is a one-automobile family, and her boyfriend Alan had taken the pickup into the wilds of the Columbia gorge for the next few days. She was just trying to be a good host, though of course Gretchen would have happily rented the PT Cruiser for more days had she known.
Gilley lives close to the airport in the northern Concordia neighborhood of Porland. Like Mary, she recently bought a house, and it's also a charming one-bathroom unit having Craftsman or perhaps Asian architectural elements. It was all very neat and the furniture was unusually tasteful and coherent. There was a strong unifying theme of sage green going on.
But we didn't see any of this until after we'd been greeted by Gracie, the household dog. Gracie was a purebred German Shorthaired Pointer that Gilley's boyfriend had rescued from an animal shelter back before they were together. She was an incoherent cloud of excitement to see us, jumping up on us without any regard for her considerable momentum and any tender spots we might have on the body surfaces we were presenting to her. Later we went down to the basement to meet the two cats, both of whom were extremely fluffy. Eleanor was a calico and extremely friendly, and she and I hit it off right away. The original plan was for us to stay in the basement. It was finished, but had a feline funkiness to it, so we decided to move the air mattress up to one of the upstairs bedrooms, which was being used as an office.
As Gretchen was preparing to take a shower, I realized I was having an strong allergic reaction in the places on my body that had come into contact with Eleanor the cat. I'm not allergic to many cats, but occasionally I'll pet a cat and break out in a rash. Offending cats are usually fluffy and white, and though Eleanor was a calico, calicos have patches of skin expressing different sets of genes, and perhaps one of those was the long haired white cat fur gene that my particular body cannot abide. So, after repeatedly washing the parts of my face and hands that had touched Eleanor, I took a shower. The humidity seemed to push back a small respiratory problem that was also developing.
At some point Gilley asked us if we'd heard the news about Michæl Jackson. No, what news? She told us that the other day he'd received a physical and gotten a clean bill of health, but at some point today he had a heart attack and was now dead. "What?" This was bigger news than the explosion of Mount Rainier (which is, at the time of this writing, future news). Gilley said she'd heard it was probably a drug overdose, which made sense to me. Here was a guy who had gradually destroyed both his face and his reputation and who was obviously never going to be happy, so why go on?
The three of us went to dinner at Portobello, a vegan Italian restaurant down in east-central Portland. This was like diving in headfirst to all that Portland represents. Isa, Gretchen's vegan-cookbook-writing friend, lives in Portland and appreciates how exceptionally vegan-friendly the city is, but she's also exasperated by the fact that Portland's vegans don't want to pay any money for their food and would rather blow all their money on something a bit more permanent: tattoos. The manifestations of these realities at Portobello were clear. The restaurant had an incoherent makeshift decor, as if decoration and ambience had never been considered and couldn't be afforded in any case. And the menu items were all fairly inexpensive, including the winelist. The waitresses were all heavily tattooed, as were the customers. I believe our waitress also had a big doorknocker through her nasal septum as well, which seems a little anachronistic these days. Didn't we get that out of our systems back in 1994 (when our waitress was still singing along with Barney the purple dinosaur).
The food at Portobello was good, particularly the oversized ravioli stuff, although someone back in the kitchen apparently was of the opinion that there is no flavor deficiency that can't be fixed with a little tarragon. I'd later compare the tarragon flavor in all the dishes (ignoring my usual rules, I tasted several) to the drone in a bagpipe performance. The bottle of Hip Chicks Do Wine white we ordered was tasty and compatible with the tarragon hum.
After dinner, Gilley drove us back north to Alberta Street, not all that far from her neighborhood. Alberta was having one of those monthly occasions normally reserved for art gallery openings. This one was called "Last Thursdays" and seemed to be mostly about people on stilts, jugglers, street musicians, and drinkers trying to appear as if they weren't drinking in public. Portland is a mostly white city, and though Alberta had once been a black neighborhood, most of the people on the streets were white, though the diversity was still impressive. There were incredibly tall people and dwarfs, and people with all manner of improbably body types. It's easier to notice these things in Portland than in other places because people in Portland like to show their flesh. They have to or their investments in tattoos are for naught. The weather tonight made it a little chilly for flesh exposing, but generally the climate is more suitable for the showcasing of tattoos than is Seattle, Portland's rival to the north.
The crowds of Last Thursday were thick, easily clotted, and hard to get through. Part of the problem was that people in Portland are polite when it comes to public performance and will stand around for ten minutes watching a white guy doing incompetent breakdancing, applauding if the dancer does anything they themselves would have to practice to pull off. We actually came upon one little ten year old girl whom people had gathered around to watch, and all she was doing was hoolaing a hoop, something any ten year old girl under 200 pounds can do on command.
Then there was the problem of the boat made of sheets being piloted by five or six people on stilts. It kept catching up to us and getting in our way, doing various things that not only broke down the fourth wall, but made no sense in the context of the illusion of people on a boat.
Eventually we broke away from Alberta so we could walk easily back to the Kia Rondo.
Meanwhile Gretchen had established radio contact with Isa, her vegan-cookbook-writing friend, and eventually we drove down to Isa's new space, where she'll be living in the back (party) and teaching vegan cooking in the front (business), assuming, that is, there are people in Portland willing to spend money to learn how to cook vegan food. It was a nice space with high ceilings and lots of stainless steel surfaces, but it seemed a little small for such dual-use. It did come complete with a courtyard and a street attachment which the yuppies use for turning their Escalades around and loading up their fertility-drug-produced progeny from their dual-seated strollers.
I'd never met Isa before, but Gretchen had spent two days cooking with her some weeks ago and had said they have a similar sense of humor, although Isa is quieter and has an even drier wit. One of Gretchen and Isa's emergent comedy routines is built on the premise that some vegan food item is not actually vegan or could never possibly be vegan. They caution each other and express fears and discuss possible ramifications, but they never let on that they're kidding. It's highly confusing for anyone who doesn't know what's going on.
Back at Gilley's place, as we were dressing up the air mattress and getting ready for bed, I realized I was having another allergic reaction to Eleanor the cat. This time the problem was mostly respiratory. I felt like I was having an asthma attack, but (unlike in most case) I couldn't simply meditate my way out of it. Eventually I pleaded for help and Gilley found me three different medications, all of them at least a little expired. The one that really seemed to work was an old prescription of Zyrtec. Gradually my lungs resumed normal function and I was able to sleep normally.
Gretchen took this picture while I was pissing off the treehouse deck this morning. This is the clearest image of my ass I've ever seen, since it's a hard thing for me to photograph.
View from the treehouse.
Reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in the treehouse.
Contemplative forest labyrinth at Wellspring Spa.
A Mule Deer near the National Park Inn in Longmire, Mount Rainier National Park.
A big snag along the Rampart Ridge Trail in Longmire.
Gretchen on the Rampart Ridge Trail.
A purple pinedrop on the Rampart Ridge Trail. This plant might not look like much, but it was the highlight of one Tennessean's day.
Ant mound near the Rampart Ridge Trail traihead.
Volcanic cliffs just north of National Park Inn.
Convention Towers near downtown Portland.
Convention Center Towers (background) and drawbridge towers near Portland's Downtown.
People at Alberta Avenue's Last Thursday festivities.
A tribute to Michæl Jackson on Alberta Avenue. You already know he died today of a "heart attack."
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