I want to tell you about a place that I visited one December afternoon in 2012. You were only ten-years-old then, but I was about to turn twenty-six and pretty much in the middle of a quarter-life crisis. I was trying to figure out where in this vast country I would finally settle down and plant some roots. It was cold and rainy in the forest, but I barely noticed. I was fixated on the ancient moss-covered trees that went up as far as the eye could see toward the sky. They seemed to hug me with their colossal presence. I swear it was those few hours that sealed the decision in my mind to move clear across the country from New York.
I want to tell you about my first year of living in Portland. When I swore I’d only ride a bike, and therefore LIVED for the days when a friend would offer me to ride to the Gorge for a hike. I wish you could witness the one day that a friend lent me their pickup truck so I could go off on my own wild adventure. I felt free driving with the windows down and a grin plastered to my face as I winded down the historic scenic highway. The ability to go to the Gorge was nothing short of liberating.
I want to tell you about the ancient forests that contained hundreds of plants- plants that are actually medicine. I want to tell you about how exciting it was for me to wander the woods for hours and come across Wild Rose, Western Red Cedar, Oregon Grape, Cleavers, Nettles, Chickweed, Elderflower, Doug Fir Tips, Horsetail, Goldenrod, St. John’s Wort, and so many others. I wish I could properly describe how the seasons of each year turned into a cycle of visitation privileges for me, and show you the hilarity of the day that I got a permit from a park ranger to harvest Devil’s Club- a plant covered in thorns. I had my spots for different plants, and they were always there. Like consistent support and friendship.
I want to tell you about a hike at Horsetail Falls that allowed me to talk to the one I was crushing on for 2 hours one morning. I was mostly giddy and partially nervous, but generally happy to be walking through such a beautiful place with my heart beating fast. We discussed some ideas for one of the first herbal products I was making, and I remember marveling at how maybe, just maybe, the forests that drew me out here secretly knew that there would be a lot more for me here than just a place to possibly call home.
I want to tell you about the most difficult time of my life. A friend of mine took her own life right here in Portland, just a few weeks before her 28th birthday. It was December again, in 2014. I want to tell you about the countless times I drove, heartbroken down that beautiful highway, weeping with grief, seeking refuge in those ancient forests. I want to tell you about how in the middle of the Eagle Creek Trail, and down at Punchbowl Falls, I’d cry and let rain fall on my face. I want to tell you how I would feel broken and in the deepest despair, and how I would observe in the most grief-stricken, messy moments, that life went on around me in that sacred, sacred place.
And I want to tell you about the day on which that first horrible year after her death, finally passed. About how myself and three of my dearest friends drove out to Wahclella Falls in the rain. It was December of 2015 and raining hard, but we knew that a good way to honor our friend, would be to hike the wet beautiful mile in silence, and write words to her while we faced that powerful waterfall. It was a way of bringing some peace to our spirits as we sent some to her's. We burned our words there, though it was challenging to even ignite our drenched letters. Fire sure is healing when it is used in a respectful way.
I’ve actually gone to Wahclella Falls and all the surrounding area many times. It’s where we took my sweetheart’s mother so she could witness the glory of the Pacific Northwest landscape through a relatively easy walk. It’s where I took my mother on her first (and only) trip out here to visit me, a year after I bought my house. By the way, I bought my house in an area that was further out in Portland because of how much I love the Gorge, and figured it was nice to be closer to it.
Anyway, 15-year-old-who-I-hope-just-wasn’t-thinking, I wish I could show you the look on my mother’s face as we turned the bend and saw the falls. I wish I could show you the look on my mother’s face when we stood below Multnomah Falls and the sun glares were too pretty for us to mind that they also ruined our photos. I wish I could show you the look on my mother’s face when we went to the windy, windy Vista House and looked out at the other-worldly magnificent view of the whole area to the east. Those moments mean everything to me, and I’m grateful that they have already happened.
I want to tell you about the joy I’d feel while I drove visiting friends to see the Gorge and all its falls covered in snow- a Narnia-Wonderland combined into something even more magnificent. I want to show you the hundreds of photographs, and replay all gasps and “wow!”’s that I witnessed while sharing the Gorge with them.
I also want you to know that throughout the past 4.5 years of living here, I’ve certainly felt my share of annoyance at the growing number of tourists- particularly at exit 31 off the I-84. I’ve certainly said my share of “ugh”’s at the sight of so many cars parked at the Eagle Creek Trailhead. But right now I’d take all those moments of annoyance back and greet them with gratitude that so many shared the desire of experiencing the beauty of our natural world the way it was.
What will be left for us now?
I wish you had told me about your plan to play with fireworks, because the last time I drove out to the Gorge was this past Friday. I got off of work early, and I was on a mission to visit 'my spot' that's full of Goldenrod at this time of year. As I drove down the historic scenic highway, I noticed how many cars there were, and figured that since it was Labor Day Weekend, I’d just go on a quick jaunt. I came home refreshed from my short visit with just one stem of Goldenrod and one tiny bunch of Elderberries. I’d return to the Gorge for a longer drive on Tuesday when most of the crowds would be home, and back at school.
But instead I spent Tuesday (yesterday) crying, eyes burning from both tears and ash-filled smoky air, obsessively checking the fire updates. 30,000 acres as of right now. I feel like a close friend has died. And I don’t know how to process the magnitude of this loss.
I’m writing this out mostly to process my grief, and not really to further whatever guilt you are already feeling. But also, because as I write, I realize if you had experienced even one of these meaningful memories in those forests and on that landscape, you would have never done what you did. And now you may never get another chance to experience such meaningful moments in the beautiful Columbia River Gorge as it was.
For that, and so much else, I am sorry.
**Addendum on 9/8/2017**
After a few days of processing and accepting the reality of these fires, I want to make it clear that this isn't at all an attack on an individual. It's a reflection on how we as a society have failed to nurture proper respect for the Earth, and how these sort of disasters are direct results from a larger over-consumption, and a larger forgetting. May we come together in a great remembering, and may we do our part to heal our relationship to this precious planet.
The following images are all photographs I've taken in the Columbia River Gorge between June 2013 and August 2017. Please enjoy them, but if you want to use them, please ask first.