Monday, March 14, 2005


Yesterday we turned off at the exit just before Wahclella, and drove a couple miles farther east, paralleling the freeway, along a frontage road. Here too the parking lot was full -- ten cars -- although this is possibly the least-frequented of the great waterfalls of the Gorge. We have been here on a sunny Sunday in August and been the only party here, seeing no one else all the way there and back.

A stony trail up through the forest, and then down again. We have to pay attention to our feet, because the stones -- from softball-size to head-size -- litter the path, and some of them are loose and some are not, so we don't know which will turn under our feet.

Slopes covered with young fern. A bird I've never heard before, singing an extraordinarily elaborate song, less fluid but even more compelling than a meadowlark's. We never spot it: it's somewhere high up in the firs.

Below, between the trees, we glimpse long beige sandbars standing out of the Columbia. "It looks like August," murmurs Martha. Not quite, but this has been the driest Spring we can remember.

As distracting as the stones is the traffic noise from the freeway, which accompanies us for nearly three-quarters of a mile. But suddenly the path turns away from the river, and the freeway. The sound of traffic fades away, and not long after that, we hear a different distant roaring. We become aware that the ground on our left is no longer a steep slope. It's simply not there. Two hundred feet straight down, the Elowah winks in the sun.

Switchbacks steeply down. The first time we came here, we called this place "Rivendell," because the change here is so abrupt, from an awkward path in ordinary second-growth woods alongside the freeway, to a dive down into an obviously sacred place, quiet except for the plunging water. At the end of the second switchback, we see Elowah falls: three hundred feet of free-falling white water. It touches nothing on its way down.

On our own way down the switchbacks, we have to pick our way carefully around a downed tree, and past muddy patches where some of the trail has washed away. But it's not far. At the splash-pool, a log, the trunk of a tree that fell across the boulders some years ago, makes a good seat. "I'm going to make myself dizzy," says Martha, and she lies back on the log and looks up.

It's a huge vault, a concave overhang of gray basalt, green with lichen. It swoops up, starting vertical and then climbing over, more than vertical, so that it's cupped over us like an enormous hand; and between its fingertips, where the little stick-forms of trees are black against the sky, the water jets out and tumbles into the empty air. The eye follows the water involuntarily, falling with it. Sometimes the particular billow of spray that has caught your eye makes it all the way down, but sometimes it evaporates on the way, and then your eye is snagged by another billow, till you have fallen all the way to the boulders where the water breaks, and sends a constant misty rain into the splash-pool. It does make you dizzy, even when you're upright.

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