Iconic Oregon — An Old Fashioned Road Trip

Summer in Oregon looks as if it was drawn by a child with a joyful imagination and a big box of crayons.   The sky is a deep and cloudless blue, the mountains are sharp-peaked and snow-capped, the trees rise like green rockets, the spray from the waterfalls dazzles into little rainbows.  Add in other elements that crayons cannot capture — the champagne air, the roar of whitewater rivers, the chill of starry nights — and you have a kind of summer that emphatically does not occur in the hot, humid, code orange suburbs of the Mid-Atlantic.

In search of this ideal summer, Robyn and I flew to Oregon with her two sons — Dylan, 10, and Ethan, 7.   Our plan was to rent a car in Portland and drive a thousand miles in a clockwise circle, visiting some of Oregon’s iconic sights — Mt. Hood, Crater Lake, Columbia River Gorge, the Pacific Coast.    Even though we weren’t straying far from the beaten track, and even though we weren’t camping (by night we wanted the comfort of clean sheets and hot showers), we approached this trip with a sense of discovery and adventure.  For the boys, this would be the first exposure to nature — the real thing, not the theme park version, not the shrink-wrapped version available in the suburbs.  We hoped that Oregon would administer a jolt powerful enough to make them set aside their Game Boys, forget about Pokemon, and cross the threshold of awe and wonder.    

Our gateway to Oregon was Portland, the hip, vibrant, user-friendly city on the Willamette River.   The boys loved riding the step-on, step-off street cars that glide quietly through the city, and we shook off jet lag long enough to visit Washington Park, a wooded wonderland that is the site of Oregon Zoo and two superb gardens, the Rose Garden and the Japanese Gardens.  Robyn and I wanted to get the boys to the zoo so that we could return to the gardens, the city’s high, holy ground, which we’d seen on a previous trip and vowed to revisit whenever we could.

Even in August, the roses were blooming in profuse, riotous color. I can’t say that the boys cared much for the roses; they were cranky and restless and ready to go back to the hotel to order up something from room service.  But they were visibly impressed when they stood at the railing of the garden terrace and looked out over the city toward our next destination — Mt. Hood, somewhat hazy in the distance, dreamy and inviting.

“Awesome,” Ethan said.  It was a word we’d hear again.

         Stage One:  Portland to Bend.  150 miles.   The next morning, we picked up our scouts, Jen and Matias, the boys’ aunt and uncle.  They are both artists, a pair of highly evolved world travelers who recently settled in Portland; they fed us breakfast at their cheerful bungalow, where her two grand pianos share the space with furniture of his design.  They chose Portland because they like the city and, also, because but they also liked being able, at the drop of a hat or the visit of a relative, to light out for the wild places all around them.

They led the way out of town, heading east on I-84, and we’d hardly settled into the drive when we exited onto Scenic Route 30 and reached Crown Point, an overlook with a palatial “million dollar outhouse” and a panoramic view of the Columbia River Gorge.  The river divides Oregon and Washington, and green cliffs rise thousands of feet high on either side.  Spectacular, but truth to tell, we were all a little dazed; it was still too early in the morning for grandeur.

 Half an hour later, having passed one waterfall after another on the looping, twisting road, we were fully awake and highly amped when we reached two-tiered Multnomah Falls, where the water plunges 542 feet in a thin, elegant plume.  The boys practically dashed up to the ornamental bridge that spans the canyon about a quarter of the way up, and they just kept going, climbing the switchback trail all the way to the top.  It wasn’t even lunch time yet, and they’d already made the highest vertical ascent off their lives.

Back in the car, they fired up their Game Boys and didn’t look at any more scenery until we turned south on Route 35 and suddenly, at a curve in the road, found ourselves face-to-face with Mt. Hood.  The mountain was still ten miles away but looked as it could knock out the windshield.  This peak is to Oregon what Mt. Fuji is to Japan — not simply a mountain, perfect and conical and immense, but a symbol of a mountain and an emblem of the place, the source of lore and myth.

We drove all the way up to heavy-beamed Timberline Lodge, famous for its role in The Shining.  Up close, the mountain looked dangerous and scary.   A few intrepid skiers and snowboarders were on the mountainside, carving up the last patches of snow.   In our guidebook, I read that the lodge stands upon avalanche debris from a massive eruption that occurred 2,000 years ago.  “You mean this is a volcano?” Dylan asked.   

He couldn’t wait to finish his sandwich and get out of there.

On the last leg of that days’ drive, the evergreens grew thinner and shorter until they finally gave way altogether and we entered the high desert.  The landscape of lush green had given way to parched terrain and earth colors of red, orange, brown.  The boys were pretty much toasted, but at one point, Ethan looked up to observe that there wasn’t a single house in sight and crow delightedly, “We’re in the middle of NOWHERE.” 

Stage Two:  Bend to Crater Lake, 95 miles.

Bend, of course, is very definitely somewhere, a booming resort town with first-class skiing, fishing, golf.  It would have been easy to spend our whole trip right there, but Robyn had been obsessing for months about Crater Lake, and she was in a hurry to get to this blue lake in the sky that had taken possession of her imagination.

First, though, in keeping with the know-your-volcanoes theme of this journey, we made a lunch stop at the Newberry Caldera, about 20 miles south of Bend.  This area is a National Monument; caldera means crater, and we rambled along on the floor of an extinct volcano, among the rubble of the last eruption.  We hiked along the outflow from Paulina Lake,  watching Dylan scramble over boulders and fallen trees, doing his own free-spirited version of parkour, leading us to the plunge pool at the bottom of 150-foot Paulina Falls.

We had the place to ourselves.  Oregon isn’t exactly undiscovered, but here we were on a glorious day in mid-August, the height of the tourist season, in a National Mounument Area, and we were clambering around, hooting and hollering, enjoying our own private waterfall.

We didn’t reach Crater Lake in the late afternoon.   I kept trying to tamp down Robyn’s excitement, warning her not to set her sights too high — a lake is a lake is a lake, right?    But even I could feel the anticipation growing as got nearer, the road rising high and higher.  We were driving up the flank of another volcano, Mt. Mazama, which erupted 7,000 years ago and spewed lava all over the central Oregon; the eruption had blown off the peak of the mountain and left only the jagged edges that we could see above us, huge sawteeth against the blue sky.  We climbed, climbed, climbed — this ascent is part of the overture, and we were practically popping out of the car when we finally reached the Rim Road, where, finally, we were able to park and  — Holy Shit!

Pardon me, but no one can be held responsible for what they say upon seeing Crater Lake.  That first glimpse is staggering.  The water is so blue.  It is as level and pure and deep as the blue of the sky.  It’s unfathomable — ha! — that such a lake could exist at this height,  a lake this blue, this big, this deep (1950 feet).  Crater Lake fills the hollowed-out mountain as if the sky had fallen into it. 

During our dinner at the Crater Lake Lodge, we kept stealing out onto the porch to glance the lake, reassuring ourselves that we weren’t dreaming, and then we took one of the “easy” hikes, climbing to the Watchtower, a small structure about 500 feet above the Rim Road.  This particular hike looks like something that Dr. Seuss might have drawn — the structure is perched like a cap at the very tiptop of a craggy peak, and the trail zigzags up in ever-tighter switchbacks.   Ethan, who was by now calling himself “the adventure kid,” raced up the trail with Matias, and we all reached the summit just in time to watch the orange sunset flare out over the Cascade Mountains.  Once again, on what might be the most popular trail in the park, we were alone — our own private sunset!

         That night in the sketchbook where we kept a collective journal, Ethan sat down to draw what we’d seen that day, covering two pages in blue — the lake — fringed with orange.  The caption:  AWESOME.

Stage Three:  Crater Lake to McKenzie River Bridge.  150 miles

Let us now praise the rivers of Oregon: the mighty Columbia, the wild Rogue, the thunderous Umpqua, the gin clear Deschutes, and the charming   Willamette — truly, I don’t think that any state has such a collection of gorgeous rivers as Oregon.  I knew when planning this trip that a good chunk of time had to be spent riverside, and I considered all of the above rivers before choosing the McKenzie.

It is an icy, mineral green, a snowmelt river that bursts out of the mountains in a series of spectacular waterfalls, torrents of white water vaulting over ledges of black lava.   Sahalie Falls is the first of these cataracts; you can hear the roar of the water half a mile away; and when you get closer, walking though the cathedral of old-growth forest, the temperature falls as though you’ve entered a giant outdoor refrigerator.  The water is that cold.

 The McKenzie then settles down in a long, lyrical stretch of whitewater, with Class II and III rapids.  Not too fast, not too slow, but just right for a first raft trip with kids.  We rode the river as soon as we arrived;  Dylan and Ethan were scared at first, and wanted to be wedged into the middle of the 6-person raft.  At the first set of rapids, they squealed when the cold water hit them; at the second set, they moved to the front of the raft; by the third set, they wanted the rapids to be bigger and bumpier and to go on forever.  

And when we hit the long glide at the end of the trip, Matias stood up on the front of the boat and we did everything we could — bounced and spun and tilted — to dump him into the frigid water, but he had the balance of a rodeo cowboy.  Turned out that someone larger and clumsier would topple into the river, and I will testify that it felt just as the guide had said — like knives.

The house we had rented over the internet for our McKenzie stay turned out to be red board-and-batten, with a mossy roof, a porch swing, an orange sumac and blue hydrangea at the gate, secret rooms, lots of spider webs, a washing machine with a hernia — for us, a perfect place to sprawl.  The river was nearby, and Matias and Ethan and I were out fishing at first light every morning.  I won’t reveal the pitiful number of trout we caught, but let’s say there were enough for a (small) fry.  Jen assumed cooking duties and also made a brilliant video of boys, including Matias,  being goofy and playing corkball –soccer with a cork.  At night we put on sweaters, dragged the chairs out into the field, away from the lights of the house, and gazed up at the dazzling night sky.  The Milky Way — the first time the boys had seen it — glistened like tinsel on a tree.   The shooting stars, the really good ones, streaked from one horizon to the other.

But somehow or other the great challenge of this stop, the imperative, was to get immersed in the waters of the McKenzie.  When we finally found the right spot, where the boulders nudged out into a deep pool, I took a deep breath and leapt in.   I’d already felt the shock once, and while the others tried to screw up their nerve, I paddled around, pretending the water wasn’t numbing, setting an example.  Dylan finally made the leap, letting out a piercing screech when he hit the water; Ethan did likewise; and then Robyn couldn’t back out.  Took her about ten minutes, standing on a boulder and moaning, but she finally dove.  She screeched, too, but then she said, “I’m tingling all over.”

And then:  “This is exhilarating.  I feel twenty pounds lighter.”

And then:  “That was like a baptism.”

Stage Four:  McKenzie River Bridge to Yachats.  120 miles.

That’s pronounced Ya-HOTS, and the town is one of the prettiest on the Oregon Coast, just a few miles north of Heceta Head, site of a landmark lighthouse, and Cape Perpetua, one of the most dramatic points on Oregon’s dramatic coast.   Here Highway 101 is notched in a 700 foot cliff, and the views of the Pacific have the full array of Oregon’s splendors — the seastacks, the beaches, the giant trees, the tide pools, the rocky chasms, the lava ledges, the seams of breakers rolling ashore. 

And yet — I guess we were tuckered out — this last leg of the trip seemed slightly disappointing.  Jen and Matias had peeled off to return to Portland, and we could feel time running out on us.  We’d expected the almighty Pacific to be the scenic climax of the trip, but it wasn’t until we got to Strawberry Fields, one of the pull-offs along the 101, that the ocean came to life for us — and the life was in the form of a dozen or so fat sea lions, lolling on a lava ledge just offshore.  When we got near, standing on our own ledge where the tide pools blossomed with star fish, the sea lions honked and farted and seemed just as curious about us as were about them, swimming close to peer at us with those soulful eyes.

All photos courtesy of Wood Sabold


Nobody wanted the trip to end, but we were done.   The boys unraveled on the last day, when we visited the state of the art aquarium in Newport; it seemed strange and confining to all us, after being so far from crowds and so thoroughly outside for most of the journey, to be looking at stuff inside.  For a while, at least, the boys had turned into adventure kids.  They’d seen new horizons, and they’d be heading home — we’d all be heading home —  with a wondering sense, as the poet once said, of the light of setting suns, the round ocean and the living air.

As a bonus, the boys gotten to know their aunt and uncle, who had spent their last hours making entries in the sketchbook.  Jen did a drawing of the raft, showing the whole crew with the unshakeable Matias standing at the bow, and Matias made a sketch of a trout, one that will never get away. 

Their lovely, skillful drawings seemed to be the right capstone for our collective journal.   But it was Ethan who had the last word, a few weeks later, when his second grade teacher asked the class to write the name of their favorite place.   With spelling that seemed absolutely appropriate, he wrote,


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