Thursday, May 26, 2011

Columbia River Highway Auto Tour - March 2011

 Who knows what secrets lurk just outside the door?  History is always unfolding like yesterday's lunch.
What can be said about the historic Columbia River Highway that hasn't already been written?
In a nutshell:
In the earlier part of the 20th century, before the advent of the automobile, roads were a terrible muddied mess or even nonexistent.  When the car charmed it's way into our culture, it became clear that better roads were needed.  Various highway boosters across the country championed the cause for better roads connecting cities and country.  One of the earliest and most notable is the Columbia River Highway, now with the prefix "historic" attached.

Completed in 1917 through the Columbia River Gorge, then a few years later linked the Pacific Ocean with Northeastern Oregon, for the first time on a well graded and spectacular route.
The new highway's designers made every effort to blend the route into the beautiful Columbia River Gorge, often taking a more circuitous route in favor of retaining a sense of nature and organic flow.  Curves and grades were generous for the day, although they now seem steep, twisty, and narrow to modern sensibilities.
The route passed frequent waterfalls and through dense green rainforest on it's way.
For the curious, the internet is littered with many historic accounts of this fabled road.  I also highly recommend the book "The Columbia River Highway - From the Sea to the Wheat Fields of Eastern Oregon" by local author Clarence E. Mershon.  Clarence goes into great detail about the road's construction, as well as providing many rare and unseen photographs.  He also details a few abandoned sections of the highway, now choked with vines like Aztec ruins.

Armed with this book (and a curious cutie home from school), we head east, in search of unexplored Oregon.
Modern Portland is soon left behind as we fly past Troutdale and head into the Gorge.  Once on the Highway, the speed drops as we enter another era.  Did you know that the speed limit for the state of Oregon in those days was 25 MPH?  Luckily on this dripping day traffic is light and I am able to pretend it's 1917 and maintain this forgotten legal limit.  The highway, created as a "pleasure road" as much as a route for commerce is obviously designed for this casual pace as the graceful curves unfold.

What in th' Sam Hill???
Do you think they knew what was coming?
Uh oh...

Scoured by glaciers and at least 14 ancient floods, the mighty Columbia marches on, seemingly immune to the passage of time.  And the road flows on as well, organically curving like a masonry snake hugging these grand cliffs.

The highway's construction also included durable hiking trails blasted from the sheer cliffs to many roadside waterfalls.  

Do these Chinook ghosts still search for salmon?  What became of their homeland?

Tourists at Multnomah Falls Lodge

A recently restored tunnel, now closed to auto traffic

The original route is now fragmented, supplanted by I84 roaring through the gorge.  The original route goes as far as Cascade Locks, although sections remain as hiking trails or even abandoned to their fate.  In some areas the highway serves as a frontage road; in other places it runs like a soldier hero home from the war with his medals tucked away in a shoebox, anonymous and humbled.

For a little while this misty day became 1917. 

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