Sunday, 20 May 2012

Yosemite to the Canadian Border, Part 2

Driving north through Oregon, we briefly stopped to see Crater Lake, a major natural wonder and one of America’s first national parks. A long time ago, the top of a major Cascade Mountains peak collapsed inwardly, creating a huge, even-walled depression where the mountaintop used to be. Rainfall and snow melt gradually filled the depression, creating a vast pristine circular lake. Unfortunately, the lake was covered in fog while we were there, so we couldn’t see it, though the sky above the mountains was clear and blue, which created an effect that was itself quite beautiful. Though the collapsed top half of the mountain is submerged in the lake, the rim of the crater is itself pretty high. According to a park ranger, Crater Lake receives an average of 44 feet of snow every winter. As we drove up the mountain, the snow piled higher and higher above the roadsides. We were there on a warmish spring afternoon, and judging by the amount of meltage cascading down the road, it seemed the snow would be gone by the end of the day. Amazingly, it actually takes months for plowing crews to clear the scenic route around the rim, which is often closed well into July.

Really high snow drifts at Crater Lake.

You couldn't really see the lake itself, but sometimes you could see the reflection of the island in the lake, which was cool.
After Crater Lake, we continued north to Bend, a town much like Moab, Utah in central Oregon that was recommended by a few family friends as particularly worth seeing. It is supposedly one of the most active towns in America, where visitors and residents can choose from a plethora of outdoors activities nearby: skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding, mountain biking, hiking, rock climbing, kayaking, sledding, tubing, white water rafting, and even, as our Couchsurfing host would show us, surfing in the municipal canals.

After sending out a flurry of couch requests during our past three nights at motels, I had received a positive response from a 30-something couple in Bend named Brian and Sandy. A professional wedding photography team, they said they could host us for a few nights in a spare bedroom in the basement. Brahna and I couldn’t have been more grateful as we pulled up to their lovely house on a hill outside town.

Despite our outdoorsy tendencies, Brahna and I participated in absolutely zero of the outdoor sports available in the Bend area during our day and a half there, unless you count getting a haircut or an oil change as sport. Frankly, we just weren’t in the mood. It’s unreasonable to expect us to be in the mood everywhere, and as we (read: I) need to continually remind ourselves on this long trip, we are not simply traveling, but actually living on the road. And sometimes in life you just need to chill.

We had a really good time with Sandy and Brian. They were relatively young, compared to the Fresno couple, and perfectly relatable. They were also experienced with Couchsurfing, both as surfers and as hosts. We have found that those hosts who themselves have surfed are the most hospitable and understanding hosts. They understand what is important for travelers: laundry, food, fresh towels, and option of sleeping in. This fundamental empathy and what-comes-around-goes-around ethic is one of the two pillars that makes Couchsurfing actually work.

After two nights in Brian and Sandy’s basement we left Bend for Portland. They had recommended driving north and then west, so as to stop at Smith Rock State Park for a hike as we left town. I had other ideas though, pointing Morty west across the mountains and then north. There are a few dozen covered bridges placed more or less directly between Bend and Portland, and I was not about to let them go uncollected. Brahna, a trooper as always, consented to take this other route, and we set off to find some of Oregon’s covered bridges.

Brahna at an Oregon covered bridge.

I don’t really have the time or energy right now to explain my love affair with covered bridges, and I’m not sure anyone would want me to. If you are for whatever reason interested, you can read this article I wrote about them and somehow got published in an online Montreal journal. It probably suffices to say that I like how they harken back to an earlier time and how they by definition have to be placed in the most beautiful situations around—out in the countryside, spanning the narrowest point of a raging river, a cascading creek, or a silent soothing stream. Mostly, though, I like how they perfectly organize and thus give meaning to what would otherwise be an aimless drive through the countryside, how they bring you to random spots of quietude and rural solemnity that you might otherwise drive right past while looking for the next exciting thing.

I’m still not sure what the proper metaphor is for driving around looking at covered bridges. I’m not sure what we are doing, what is being done. Are we hunting covered bridges? Are we collecting them? Are we looking for them? Visiting them? Surveying them? Whatever it is, Brahna was kind enough to allow me to hit around seven or eight as we moseyed in the vague direction of Portland. In the town of Scio we came upon the Covered Bridge Coffee House, where, of course, I went in and bought a souvenir mug.

Oregon's covered bridges had a much more open and taller feel, probably reflecting their later construction dates. Bridges in Pennsylvania, New York, and New England were generally built in the second half of the 19th century, whereas bridges in Oregon were built in the first of the 20th century, and yes, I do know that I am a loser.

We were pretty excited for Portland and ready to assess its reputation as a hipster Mecca. To that end, I sent out another flurry of couch requests. Brahna authorized me to take the quality of the couch situation into account—we usually try to apply mostly to those hosts who advertise their comfy, private, full-sized bed—but not to pass up a chance to crash at the dingy apartment of someone who seems nonetheless worth meeting even if they only had an actual couch or even just floor space. We figured Portland would be as good a chance as any to surf on the dilapidated couch of some interesting, hip young Portlander. As I said last time, though, beggars can’t be choosers, and we ended up being accepted by a 67 year old widow named Lucy, who had a beautiful condo near downtown, a full size bed in a private room, and a truly amazing ability to lose herself in the telling of completely irrelevant stories for hours and hours and hours on end. She had a kind of strange relationship to her dog, spanking it on the butt with a paper towel roll and saying Molly was weird and perverted and reciting to Brahna and me some eerily sensuous poems and songs about her trying unsuccessfully to hug Molly in bed. 

It was kind of unclear who was doing whom the favor, Lucy putting Brahna and I up for three nights, or us giving her the audience she so desperately needs. To some extent, it began to seem that this is yet another of the pillars that support the Couchsurfing system: reciprocity. All of our hosts clearly want to host us for some other reason than mere philanthropy. They all need us just as we need them: the only variables seem to be the actual extent of their desperation for an audience and their ability to read social cues about our desire to serve as that audience. What we’ve found time and again, unsurprisingly, is that that last element seems to diminish with age.

When we were packing our bags in the car outside Lucy’s, getting ready to leave, Brahna realized she forgot something upstairs and ran to get it. I went to throw something in the dumpster and started to walk back to the car. Suddenly, Lucy grabbed me and forced me into a serious, long, strong hug—no back rubs, no words, no wiggling. After a pretty good amount of time, she let go. “I heard somewhere that hugging men helps balance my hormones, and I looked it up, and it’s true,” she explained. “I told the men in my bridge club and I hug them all the time.” Brahna came down and looked as if she were interrupting something. Lucy gave her a notably short and back-rub-heavy hug, and sent us on our way.
Whether our hosts are a pleasant young couple or a senior citizen who spanks her dog, Couchsurfing has emerged in this post-camping chapter of our trip as hands-down the best lodging option if we want to explore a city. A main consideration is the fact that it saves up funds that we can then be used for exploring the city or sampling any local delicacies. The Northwest definitely has the delicacies most suited to my taste, so I was pretty excited to hit the town.

We walked around downtown Portland our first day there, sampling some food carts and a farmer’s market, and just trying to absorb the vibes of a city renowned for so many things in which I, and Brahna for the most part, believe: great local beer, well-thought-out coffee selections, good cheap street food, amazing bookstores, award-winning city planning, tons of green space, nausea-inducing friendliness. We went to Powell’s, the world’s largest independent bookstore, but I only stuck to one shelf: Americana. I bought a bunch of books about people walking, driving, or train-ing across America, and one history of travel in America that was published early in the 20th century, well before cars and highways changed that history in a big way. Brahna picked up Infidel, by the Somali-Dutch activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali (a book she ended up getting really into and talking about nonstop for about a week), a biography of the late film critic Pauline Kael, and a few other things. We didn’t feel like schlepping over a dozen heavy books on the bus back to Lucy’s, so we picked them up later when we went out to sample some of the famous local beers. With over 40 breweries and a population which seems to debate beer the same way Montrealers debates separatism, Portland is rightly called the beer capital of the world.
At a bar in East Portland.

 Our second day waking up at Lucy’s we decided to drive out to the Columbia River Gorge and its many cascading waterfalls and 1930s-era dams, and then to circle around Mount Hood, Oregon’s highest peak. By the time we headed into the mountains, it was snowing, so we couldn’t see Mount Hood anyway, but the national forest surrounding it was itself worth the drive. And quite a drive it was: only Brahna and I would consider it a relaxing off-day to drive over 200 miles and end up right back where we started.
Multnomah Falls, one of the largest in the U.S. 
Out of breath after we randomly decided to run down the trail for half a mile.
The fish ladder at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River allows fish to bypass the dam and avoid being torn to shreds or otherwise injured.
 After finally detaching myself from Lucy’s hormonal grasp, I pointed Morty west one final time, towards Astoria, the oldest white settlement on the west coast. Founded by the fur trapper John Jacob Astor in 1811, Astoria is also the site of the Lewis and Clark Expedition’s winter 1805-6 encampment and the filming of much of The Goonies. We toured a reconstruction of the expedition’s Fort Clatsop, where a couple of historical re-enactors—ahem, “living historians”—making heating wax over a campfire to create old-fashionaed candlesticks told us about the Goonies thing. I’m a pretty big Lewis and Clark fan, as any good transcontinentalist must be, and it was interesting to see the fort.

In Lewis and Clark garb. Brahna made me take this.
From Astoria we drove all the way to Seattle, where we had a couch request accepted by a guy named Sam. Sam had recently been left by his girlfriend of three years—just weeks after moving across the country for her and co-leasing an apartment—and was, understandably, still pretty down in the dumps about it. We were also his first Couchsurfers, and he was pretty awkward about all the subtleties of the situation. For instance, he made us wake up early the next morning so we’d be out of the house before a friend picked him up to go to Ikea; most hosts just let you do what you want, even give you a key. Brahna and I recognize that it’s a free night of lodging, though, and there is really no limit to what annoyances or long tales of romantic woe that we’ll subject ourselves to in exchange for a free place to sleep. We spent our day in Seattle roaming around downtown and trying to hit upon every major attraction: Pike Place Market, the University District, a semi-interesting sculpture garden, a museum devoted to Seattle’s role in the Klondike Gold Rush, and the iconic Space Needle (from the economically safe distance of the ground, of course). The next night Sam made us some delicious margaritas and I was finally introduced to Arrested Development, long considered by others a massive hole in my cultural education. There may have been belly-laughs involved.

Carefully not spending any money at the Space Needle in Seattle. It's the 50th anniversary of the World's Fair for which the needle was built, and for some people I guess that's pretty exciting.
Sam was a bit disappointed when we told him that we would only be staying two nights instead of the pre-arranged three. We arrived on a Friday, and my birthday was on Sunday; while all in all Bill had been a great host so far, I didn’t really want to spend my birthday hearing about how psycho his ex-girlfriend is and sleeping on the fold-out couch in his living room. Despite what Brahna says, I’m not eight years old anymore, so birthdays aren’t a huge deal. But in the context of this trip, and especially with parental birthday-related financial assistance, we’ll take any excuse for luxury we can get. To this end, I started furiously researching for things to do and places to stay between Seattle and Vancouver, our next stop, that would satisfy my desire for something special, something apart—a vacation from the vacation.

Despite Brahna’s protestations, it was quite literally a pleasure for me to plan my own birthday mini-getaway. I have always enjoyed doing such research, whether it’s for a pleasant day in the city or a four month trip cross-country. Yes, it obviously has something to do with power, but it also is about being able to survey the options available before me, to imagine myself in one of those experiences, and then to actually choose one of them and see how it does or does not compare with the idealizations of my imagination.

To this end, I reserved a cabin for us in Rasar State Park, around two hours from Seattle in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. There was seemingly not much to do in the park itself except relax and enjoy the forested surroundings. Inevitably, though, it wasn’t quite the remote wilderness retreat I had imagined: the two other cabins in the park were both less than 100 steps from ours. I could hear their music and conversation from the hammock I immediately stringed up outside our front door. In the end, it ended up being a fine relaxing night: we cooked a delicious dinner outside and enjoyed our wine and books from Powell’s. We left the next morning and drove north to the Canadian border, out of America, refreshed.

In the morning outside the cabin, a happy birthday boy.

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