A blue-sky spring day in the Columbia River Gorge is a beautiful gift. Fifty minutes driving east from darkness into an unfolding sunrise is the best way I can think of to open it.
I left Portland at 5:30am out of a sense of springtime urgency. The Gorge – especially in the drier regions east of Hood River – is famous for its wildflowers. They begin as early as February and some last into summer, but March through May is the most reliable season. My immediate future has itself blossomed with sudden opportunity. I was looking at my calendar last night, scheduling some down time, when I realized I stood in real danger of missing my favorite time of year in the Eastern Gorge. I thought about the checklist I need to conquer this weekend, and then I opened my guidebook anyway. Some things are more important than another round of paperwork and dishes. Both of which matter a good deal, and both of which (more’s the pity) will stay just as they are if I ignore them.
There’s something exciting about leaving for a hike before dawn. Night and day always seem different worlds, and rising from my bed in one to arrive someplace new in the other feels like raising the curtain on a stage where some novel adventure is bound to unfold. It’s everyday time travel.
The opposition of these two worlds – defined by light, really, but quantified by vast differences in sound, texture, temperature, and activity – is less fascinating than their overlap, which is why, I think, so many of us go out of our way to pause, and watch, at the liminal hours. What mysterious alchemy makes night into day, and vice versa? We have at least a vague acquaintance with the scientific answers (hint: no alchemy is involved), but there is so much those leave out. We’re pretty sure it isn’t magic, but think back to the last time you watched a sunrise. What was it, then?
I catch a lot of sunrises from the road, behind the wheel. I get plenty of pink light in my peripherals, and a few stolen glances at the line of fire along the sky. Today, though, someone else is driving. The barely lightening sky flows like another river between the dark, sloping shapes of forest. Waterfalls are starry-pale tears down invisible faces I know in the day for bare rock. Far in front of us, dull embers flare above the distinctive shape of Beacon Rock, and in the sky-river above, a few cloudbars catch the rusty glow and bear it slowly westward. The river below is unpolished pewter, banked and present, flat and featureless.
The moment of dawn is defined by clouds. A deep and lightless gunmetal gray, heavy and flat like the river, they are nighttime clouds. As the sky shades upward, rising through deep water, they take on depth and texture against it: wispy edges and smooth twists of vapor, shaped to catch the fluorescent emergence of the day to come. Sure enough: orange deepens to the color of a spawning sockeye, spreading violet along the underbellies of the clouds. By the time the whole sky flames tulip-tree pink, the world around it is completely colored in.
This is where most of us come in on a sunrise. This final splendor calls us to pause at our office windows, or step out the back door with a cup of coffee. By then we’ve missed the moment of transformation, though these celebratory fireworks are a fine compensation.
The trailhead I’ve chosen begins in a narrow canyon, ascending in irregular switchbacks between walls of basalt. It’s still dark in here. An unseen singer pipes the dawn – a bird whose name I do not know, whose sound I’ve never marked. Out on the river – silver now, quietly shining with its own collected light – a flight of swans is dropping out of V-formation, parachuting gracefully to a soundless water landing. They’ve shaped their wings as sails to catch the currents, and they draw the sunrise too: winter hearthfires on the wing.
I never imagined I would be this person: balancing multiple jobs and projects, scheduling evenings with friends two months in advance, writing hiking days and unstructured alone time into my calendar, so I won’t forget to find them. I have always preferred my daily life unhurried and largely solitary, my events and commitments few and well-defined. I have never found pleasure in simple busyness.
What has changed? My work. Each commitment that absorbs 35, 20, 10, or 5 hours of my week means something, beyond the consolation prize of earning income. I have not only occupation but purpose. Not every project sings my soul awake – but some do, and the others manage a faint hum beneath the surface. Which is more than I knew I could ask for in a regular occupation.
If I have to block off time for social or solitary pursuits that do not advance my various agendas, I don’t resent the interruption. My work fills me up, and I am grateful, but it will not replace forever the deeper sources outside my own ability and fortune that have sustained me for so long in the absence of fulfilling work. There’s a balance in here, somewhere.
I’m thinking this as we emerge into my perfect landscape: open, green-grass plateau, broken into topographic stacks by escarpments of lichen-specked rock. Enormous views open to the west and south: folded hills still shadowed in early morning, the flood-cut river gorge, Mt Hood’s occluded white peak. A burst of startled action not far off shows me pointed ears and a fluffed-up tail, scrambling up a rock face and disappearing behind it in the time it takes me to apprehend: coyote. 1100 feet up, light wells over the ridge, outlining the slim legs and alert ears of a single deer.
My first wildflowers are fallen white stars, caught in the sprawling green tangle of a wild cucumber vine. Desert parsley is everywhere, too: Easter-yellow umbrellas topping fluffy foliage I’d draw with the perfect, original “green,” if I still had that box of Crayolas.
Ruminations on work and purpose skitter backstage when I spot my first shooting star. They’re a shocking purple, these backward-facing blossoms, with a glowing yellow center that must be the fiery leading edge of the comet they’re named for. I’m instantly kneeling in the grass to capture a portrait on their level. It doesn’t work – the background hills are crooked and the flower itself out of focus – so I topple sideways, backpack and all. Here is purpose.
There will be another steep climb later, featuring sunny balsamroot blooms, tiny pendant bells the colors of sunset, and views that never quit. (Until we reach the top and plunge into a forest of smallish oaks cupped in an endless high valley. The trees are leafless yet, twisted with lichen. The road becomes briefly a stream, and I mark two very large, very clear feline prints. I hope the cat stays hidden; this forest is unsettling enough.) But at this moment, prone in the grass with astonishing tiny flowers and sweeping views on every side, I know nothing on this trail will compare. I’m right, in fact. The highest places have their compensations – mainly the feeling of superiority you get to relish when you reach them. Next time, I’ll be content right here.
‘Right here’ is a perfect, wandery bench. It’s the cradle of possibility: flattish, with one edge a sheer drop and the other sloping teasingly upward, traced by a network of grassy trailets. I want to follow them all. Then again, I want to sit here, imagining them. The conservationist in me leans hard on the latter. The more people who walk here, the greater their impact. And impact cuts two ways. You can measure it in terms of soil compaction, non-native species spread, and uncollected dog shit, and you can measure it in terms of money and publicity and passion to protect a loved area. Trails are conduits to place, for better and for worse.
I turn back for the main path. We are no longer conquistadors, or we should not be. The well-blazed trail ahead of and behind me will offer reward enough. Such joy does it hold forth, in fact, that I forget, mostly, the responsibilities that wait at the trailhead. I am glad to forget, watching a raven perform lazy acrobatics out above the falling-away hills. But I will not mind remembering, either.
Once, this time was my escape. I have never disliked my life, but I have wished it better, disappointed by unethical employers or underwhelming pay. Seeking to improve, I have dreaded the polite and necessary fictions of another interview for another job I lacked temperament or passion to enjoy, another job I’d perform well without either. Working for the future and the weekend, checking myself at the door every morning, I left a hundred windows open in my calendar, ready to startle for cover. Trailwalking let me disappear, and I needed that, to remember myself. I stood separate from my public and professional lives, while I tried to discover the nature of the gap.
It is as much luck as anything else that I am no longer trapped. If it is harder, now, to find the time to travel for the pleasures of early morning in another landscape, it is also infinitely more satisfying: a layer of being and beauty that contributes to my life and work.
I tried to fill the gap, early on, with walking trails. I may have expected this to be the thing that saved me, that showed me a way out. But it was fortune did that, and good friends, good timing, the privilege of enough money in the bank to take a chance. There was nothing romantic about it, nothing predestined. There still is not. Instead of an event that leads to change, walking has become the touchstone by which I may, with time and care, measure the truth and goodness in my self, my surroundings, my friends, my family, and my work. And it weaves the connecting paths I could never have imagined between them.
The trail described here is called the Lyle Cherry Orchard Trail. (Spoiler alert: zero cherries.) It’s about 10 miles east of Hood River, on the Washington side of the river. Just east of the town of Lyle, in fact. The trailhead is not marked, but you’ll see a wide graveled pull-out on the north side of the road, just after a pair of really obvious tunnels.
The trail is narrow, occasionally slippery with talus, and gains about 1100 feet over 2.5 miles. It can be pretty steep, but is usually well-enough graded. Total mileage, out and back, is about 5, with plenty of other spur trails for adventurous souls who bring their maps. Watch out for ticks here – they love it when you lie in the grass to photograph wildflowers.
The land is owned by the Friends of the Columbia River Gorge Land Trust. There’s no fee or permit needed to park, but a small online donation to support the Land Trust’s work would not go amiss.