Editor’s note: another fun story from Christian Grand, our national park-obsessed writer! To read more of his work, click here.
Over the course of my lifetime, I intend to visit every national park. I hope you’ll forgive me, however, when I tell you that this article isn’t about a national park. My intentions to drive out to John Day and write a gripping article about it were pure on the afternoon when I set out from Portland. I set out eastbound in the late afternoon with the intention of making my way out to one of Oregon’s few national parks. John Day is about 230 miles to the east of Portland, out in the dry part of the state east of the Cascade Mountain Range.
The route, Interstate 84, follows the Columbia River Gorge—a National Scenic Area. Closer to the Willamette Valley, where Portland is, the gorge cuts its way through dense forests where it exposes jagged basalt, whereas east of the Cascade Mountain Range the mighty Columbia rolls through grassy hills. The gorge itself is quite striking, but what makes it truly awe inspiring for me is thinking about how the gorge was formed.
In short, the Columbia Plateau was formed over the course of millions of years by multiple sequential lava flows. Over time, exposed lava fields turned to forests, and about 13,000 years ago an ice dam burst in Montana. When the ice dam burst there was a catastrophic flood that drained ancient Lake Missoula. The lake, covering 3,000 square miles of land (now Montana), rushed out to the Pacific Ocean, thus carving out the Columbia River Gorge.
The Colombia Gorge
Along the drive I stopped at Rowena Crest; it provides an excellent vista to take in the geological wonder. Even on quiet days, you can find people here speaking languages from around the globe. It makes me proud to live so close to a place that people travel to from around the world, all to explore this place’s scenic views and cultural importance.
Native Americans have populated the region for thousands of years, but settlers (and now tourists) have been taking in this vista for the last 170 years. I got here by driving an old Pontiac an hour from Portland. The people who saw this vista 170 years ago took months to painstakingly walk here from Missouri.
I hiked a couple miles up the Rowena Crest Trailhead to see where the landscape still bears witness to the hardy pioneers that traversed the Oregon Trail. The hiking trail here runs along some wagon ruts that were cut by early pioneers on their way out to the Willamette Valley.
The view from Rowena Crest
To most, the Oregon Trail probably reminds them first of the Oregon Trail computer game. Playing this game was my first time on a computer, but it didn’t occur to me until I actually moved to Oregon that the Oregon Trail was a real thing (and not just a way for a pixelated version of yourself to die of dysentery). Secondarily, a lot of people think of Oregon as a state filled with fertile land and wooded mountains. That’s true, but in actuality, a huge portion of Oregon is actually desert. The July day when I was here, my car’s thermometer told me the temperature outside was 97 degrees.
I finished up my hike at Rowena Crest and got back in my air conditioned car. Those who traversed the Oregon Trail had no such luxury. In fact, they had to walk another eighty miles to Oregon City, receive their land grant, and then go start a homestead. Not me, though. I just drove on, drank my LaCroix, and ate a Clif bar in the car while I thought about the toil of yesteryear.
Can you imagine walking the Oregon Trail?
I continued on towards John Day, but at around 5pm I was still a solid two hours away. I’m the sort of traveler who is more than willing to set out with no clear destination, and know that I’ll figure out something interesting by the end of the day. But I’m not the sort of traveler who likes to drive at night, so I decided to find a place to stop for the night (in actuality it doesn’t get dark in an Oregonian summer until after 9pm, but this is a judgment free zone).
I made it as far as Cottonwood Canyon State Park, where I decided to make camp for the night. The park isn’t far from where the Oregon Trail lies. I hiked along a trail, and thought of what it must have been like to be a pioneer walking through here, this same time of year 170 years ago. Even at 6pm, it was almost 100 degrees, and there were no trees to provide shade. The creosote bushes choking the landscape provide no shade, but they do provide a great hiding spot for a rattlesnake.
Cottonwood Canyon State Park
I hiked alone for about an hour, and after sweating through my shirt, and finishing all the water in my bottle, I decided to turn around. Intrepid in some ways, but not in others (as aforementioned re: driving at night), I started to know in my heart that there was a cougar stalking me, and probably a bear, too. Since we’re in a judgment free zone I admit that I ran part of the way back to the campsite, so as not to get bitten by the rattlesnakes and murder hornets that were chasing me.
I got back to camp, heated up some soup, and ate it in a wind so fierce that the soup was getting blown out of my spoon. I settled into my hammock for the evening, thankful to have gotten here in a Pontiac Vibe sports wagon, and not the old timey kind of wagon that early settlers used.
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