“Look out on your right!”
In any group of walkers on a narrow trail, it’s the job of the first in line to call out hazards. Hazards in the western Columbia River Gorge are things like loose rocks, slippery mud patches, and spiky brambles. And poison oak, which is what I’m calling out now. This specific representative of the species is tiny, a half-foot-high handful of finely drawn three-leaf clusters. Easy to miss, but a careless brush from boot to skin could produce an itchy, weepy rash in a couple of days.
Toxicodendron diversilobum is a master of camouflage, the floral chameleon of the American West. It comes in many hues and several confusing leaf-shapes. It can rise to encircle all 150 feet of a Douglas fir trunk, or it can crouch invisibly in the grass creeping onto your trail, waiting to strike an exposed ankle.
Placing my body carefully, I kneel on the uneven surface for a closer look. It’s that time of year when a long summer teeters on the edge of winter – most of my acquaintance calls this “fall” – and the area’s deciduous trees have just started to turn interesting colors. Poison oak, though, is far advanced towards the warmer end of the spectrum, and this tiny specimen flourishes brilliant scarlet flags. My husband, patient as always, is happy to pause our ascent, though he eyes the offensive plant distrustfully.
You all know my husband by now from previous adventures, so this time I’m going to introduce you properly. Reader, meet Jeremiah. Jeremiah enjoys the out-of-doors the way I would enjoy taking an advanced cooking class: This is beautiful and interesting and thank goodness there is someone here to make sure I don’t die.
I tend to lead on our hikes because I enjoy the modest challenge, and he enjoys a less stressful interaction with the natural world. He’s actually quite good at spotting poison oak: I taught him leaves of three, let it be within months of our first date. But just in case, he’s gone the old rhyme one better:
“Touch nothing outside, your skin defend/ That’s how nature stays your friend.”
I’m rising to my feet when my pack snags on a hazelnut branch. The rock I use to catch my balance slips and so do I, jabbing my knee into a sharp corner of stone. I say something unprintable, and Jeremiah affects a friendly 1990’s PSA voice, accompanied by a winning smile: “Remember kids, Nature Hurts!”
We’ve just hauled ourselves up a set of steep forested switchbacks. They’re short, and I’m expecting more, but instead, the intense grade flattens out and I’m standing at the edge of an exposed talus slope: basically just a slidey pile of rocks. I pick out the path and step forward, stone shifting underfoot. Behind me I hear Jeremiah hesitate. “Are you sure?”
I am sure, but at his tone – habitual calm over specific anxiety – I triple check. The slope of tumbled rock debris in front of us slants somewhere barely below the angle of repose; as long as we’re careful to stay on a traverse (and, always, as long as we’re lucky), it’s not going anywhere. There’s the faintest of trails across it: a slightly flattened part of the pile, where human tread has left a vague discoloration on the stone.
Slopes like this are dangerous, and he’s right to approach gingerly. I remember being young enough to learn this from watching my father on a backpacking trip, and still young enough, later, to ignore his teaching and strike out indiscriminately on the shortest path. I’m strong; I can climb that! The very small rock slide that resulted only bruised my shins and hands a little, but it left a deeply impressed memory.
I hope, before that lesson, I didn’t do what other hikers have done here, which is cut vertical side-trails between the traverses, shortening the route so it’s straight up the talus. Though I suspect I did other things just as unsafe and impolite. Living through stupid decisions – and spending a lot of time walking with people who actually know something – has left me in a lofty place of imagined wisdom. So far.
It’s a bluebird “fall” day at the top of Mitchell Point. Although it’s a Saturday, we’re alone at the crest of our world.
I walk as far out as I dare on this spine of rock protruding above the Columbia. With both poles planted, I’m bold enough to stand above the edge, looking a very long way straight down. A hawk soars below me, early sun red on her barred tail. On the western slopes, the sun is halfway down the dougs: tops gilded, trunks still deep in shadow. I wonder how long I can do this without fear, and immediately my perch feels unsteady. I back up slowly, and ease into a small cup of stone. The view is just as good seated. I stop showing off and start looking for landmarks.
West, I pick out Mt. Defiance. It’s not impressive from anywhere, but it’s the highest point in the Gorge, and when you hike the eponymous trail, you gain every one of those nearly 5,000 feet from sea level. The summit view is as fine as you imagine, with a sense of accomplishment to match.
This spot right here on Mitchell Point is the closest I will ever come again to the top of Defiance. I say this, but that nondescript peak tempts me. Pushing up that hill feels amazing. It’s the descent that strikes fear and trembling into my knees. I’ve hiked it twice, training to ascend Mt. Hood. Let’s just say Hood was easier.
Mitchell Point isn’t easy, but it’s a manageably short climb: a mile or so each way. And the view from 1200 feet is not so shabby. I can’t see the full glory of Mt. Hood from here, but the snowy tip of Adams (finally! some snow!) peaks over the northern Gorge rim. You don’t even need him, though: look at the river!
I’m physically unable to take it all in at once, which is maybe why I keep taking pictures. They break a place down into components; I can use them to make sense of it later. I look around, grope for words, give up and snap another picture. I could do this all day. I turn to share the view with Jeremiah and find him equally engaged with his mobile, processing the grandeur in his own preferred way. Turns out there’s internet up here.
We came to the world-famous Columbia River Gorge for the first time on our honeymoon. We visited the usual places – Multnomah Falls is the top attraction, a must-stop – but we also did a lot of pulling randomly off the road, bowled over by the stunning beauty of the land. One of our unplanned stops was Mitchell Point.
At the time, I didn’t know you could hike it. I didn’t know anything, in fact, about the wealth of trails that access this region. But there’s a small overlook set above highway 84, with a historical sign and a picnic bench and fine views over the river. You can stand there contentedly, knowing nothing else, and crane your neck up at the bulk of the mountain behind you and think I wonder what’s up there?
(You can get back in the car without checking it out, because you’re wearing a lacy skirt and a white shirt and completely impractical shoes, and the Gorge wind is having a field day with your untied hair. You haven’t moved here yet, you see, but you’ll adjust to Oregon ways soon enough.)
I’m back today for the first time in all the intervening years, trying to take a picture in the same spot because the contrast intrigues me. I remember being that person, but when I look at her, I can’t access the feeling. She was twenty-one, for god’s sake. She’d never played a board game she liked. She hiked about twice a year. How can she be me?
Growing up is a mystery I can’t unravel, in spite of my long history of doing it. I can look backward and forward at the process with interest and gratitude. Eleven years ago, and again today, two different women who are somehow the same experienced wonder, love, and companionship in this exact place. The second time around, all of those have more depth and texture.
Life is change, and better or worse aren’t predictable. But it does get deeper, if you’re paying attention. Hike your trails twice. Look around, and stay open. Approach with caution, but look your risks in the eye. That’s marriage, that’s hiking, that’s life. That’s what I know so far.
Mitchell Point is off exit 58 on Interstate 84 (eastbound.) There are a limited number of parking spots, and a reasonably clean pit toilet. No fees or permits are currently required. The hiking distance is no more than 2.5 miles roundtrip, with 1200 feet of elevation gained at a steep grade. Dangerous footing on talus slopes requires caution, and makes this hike potentially unsuitable for pets or small ones.