Saturday, July 10, 2004

Cascade Locks

I lie on my back on the wooden platform, and watch the cloudy sky, dotted with flying insects. Looking down to the horizon I can see the flowing silver of the Columbia, and the huge hills of the Washington bank. But mostly it's the sky that I watch, the Western Oregon clouds that I have always loved. The hills try to fool you with a show of permanence. You could learn their names, climb them, map them, draw them. It's smoke. They're not permanent. You can see, if you know the story, where the great slide came down from Hamilton Mountain and blocked the Columbia for five years, back in the 13th Century. Dante in Italy was wandering from city to city in exile, transmuting his bitterness into sweet terza rima, and Waclellah Indians were walking across the course of America's second-greatest river in dry mocassins. The hills are shifting like the clouds. Just a little slower.

But you don't need to know any stories, to watch the clouds shift. Magnificent shapes, but you don't think "I'll come back next week with a good lunch packed and climb that cloud." Or "I should pick up a survey map of that bank of cumulus." You can watch a great slide in a matter of minutes, a mass of cold air tumbling down a shoulder of bright warm air.

They sway and struggle and drift, silver and gray and white. The Waclellahs watched them too. They imagined no doubt that the mountain and the river and the salmon platforms and the flattened heads of their people were permanent. But probably they watched the clouds pretty much as I do. Just shapes going by.

Martha rests her chin on my knee. She grew up on the river. When first we walked along the waterside park at Cascade Locks, she gazed in puzzlement at the works just upriver. "There are locks up there," she said. I didn't even know what they were, much less why their presence would be mysterious. but Martha looked, baffled, at the barges going up the middle of the river, and immediately saw the oddity. What need for locks along the side of the river, when the middle of the river was perfectly navigable, a fine deep uncomplicated channel? "Oh," she said a moment later. "They must have built them before Bonneville dam." Sure enough. We learned later that when Lewis and Clark came this way, they had to shoot a falls of twenty feet and some "most horriable" rapids. Then in the 1920's the restless, industrious Europeans who followed them built locks to open the traffic past the falls. A great work, at the time; a generation later, still restless and industrious, they built the even greater work of the enormous Bonneville dam, which flooded the falls and the rapids, and turned the locks into a quaint artifact to puzzle the river-wise of the next generation.

Twilight. The lights of the sternwheeler moored at the marina come on; lights begin to twinkle in the village across the river, on the Washington side. Stevenson, I think it's called?

We walk back slowly, favoring Martha's bad knee. In all the time we've been here, we've seen no one but a woman our own age, in a dark green embroidered jacket, who prowls the shore looking at leaves in a fashion I recognize immediately, from a thousand walks with my father -- she's a botanist, or I'll eat my hat. A shy one, though. She keeps her distance from us.

Am I happy? Yes. No. I may remember this day in my old age as the summit of my happiness. And it may be. But I'm restless, too. Longing for bright lights and familiar restaurants and studying Chinese; longing for the drive to work channel-hopping the radio hoping to run across Tom Petty or Sheryl Crow. Longing. Always longing. I hope the botanist was not as lonely as she looked.

No comments: