Author Theresa L. Goodrich presents Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2: Bison are Giant and Other Observations from an American Road Trip in serial form. Enjoy!
Fog shrouded the lake. It was quiet. I felt like a thrashing giant as I walked up the hill to the bathrooms. The walk back down wasn’t quite as loud, and I began to see details through the dissipating mist. Gradually, I glimpsed Mount Bailey across the water. In the short time it took to make our breakfast of bacon, eggs, and strawberries, all that remained of the fog was a thin strip of white dividing the mountain’s peak and base.
Today, more than two weeks after we had begun our journey, we would reach the coast. In sixteen days we’d driven nearly 3,700 miles and spent more than ninety hours in the car. We’d already had an unending string of incredible experiences and we weren’t even to the halfway point.
Part of me was ready. But at the same time, I didn’t want to be halfway through our trip, because that would mean that every mile was closer to the end than the beginning. When I thought about the end, I also had to consider that we had no home.
That thought was best left for another day.
This day was meant for waterfalls.
We packed up and moved out, waving at the two couples in the neighboring campsite who were loading up their van. We stopped at the information center in the hopes of saying thank you to Justin and Jordan, but it was their day off, so we left and followed OR-138. The “Thundering Waters” brochure that the rangers had given us listed 25 waterfalls in the vicinity, and we would be able to easily visit four of them on our way to the coast.
The Cascade Mountains overflow with waterfalls because the range is a string of volcanoes that belched lava over the course of several thousands of years. Some of the lava formed into resistant, or hard, bedrock, and some of the layers were softer. Lava’s porous, so that meant there were also lots of creeks, springs, and rivers.
If you’ve seen a canyon you know that water’s a persistent lady. In this neck of the country, she’d flow over a hard layer of bedrock one drop at a time and pick away at the layer underneath until the softie gave up. Then she’d plunge down to the next resistant band, land in a pool, and continue downstream. Eventually the rushing water would eat the top layer of bedrock, too, and the plunge would move further upstream.
The whole process takes an awful lot of time, though. To give you an idea, Niagara Falls is one of the fastest moving waterfalls in the world, and it still took 12,500 years to recede seven miles. We moved a bit faster than that.
We pulled into the lot for Clearwater Falls and, noticing their van, realized we were now following the people we’d passed in the campground. The hike to the falls was short and we quickly met up with the four of them. They asked us to take a photo of them and we asked them to take a photo of us. Their dog trotted back and forth, investigating the four of them and the two of us.
The setting for all of this activity was a fairytale of fallen trees, crisscrossed above water that cascaded over a staircase of velvety, moss-covered rocks. It was the very definition of verdant. I kept looking for elves and gnomes, and I even thought I might find a troll or two. I almost cried.
A soft-spoken woman, one of the four people we were now following, pointed out a mound of sawdust about a foot below a horizontal log. “See what’s making it,” she prompted, and I immediately felt she might be a teacher.
I peered at a small hollow in the wood and saw an ant, and then another and another. One by one, the insects emerged from the depth of the log with tiny pieces of pulp in their pincers, and then teetered at the edge to drop their cargo. Below, fellow ants picked up the pulp, piece by piece, and carted it away. This was an ant’s version of “how do you eat an elephant?”
Clearwater Falls was a segmented waterfall. Our next stop, Whitehorse Falls, was a punchbowl. We learned this from the Thundering Waters brochure, which described the various types of waterfalls one could find in Umpqua National Forest. Given some time I might be able to pick the various types out by sight, but that day all I noticed was that Whitehorse was a short fall from a narrow stream that plunged into a wide, circular pool.
We encountered the two couples again. The black dog, whose name we now knew was Jazz, came over to say hello a few times in between her exploration of more moss-covered rocks. It was yet another fairytale setting, a lush, sensuous environment.
Jim and I continued our tradition of kissing and saying “yes,” but now each sappy moment was accompanied with laughter at how ridiculous we were.
Seriously – how many waterfalls had we seen on this trip? When we kissed at Smith Falls in Nebraska our little routine was infused with romance. It wasn’t like we ran into waterfalls every week in Illinois, and Smith Falls had been our first on this trip. But now? It was like Oregon was testing us. “Still saying yes? Yeah, well what about now? Are you suuuure? ‘Cause here’s another one!”
“Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes!” was getting to be quite literal.
We drove further west and found Watson Falls. At 293 feet it’s the third tallest waterfall in Oregon. The trail had an elevation gain of 370 feet. I remembered a time that figure would have intimidated me.
It’s a good thing that fear was in the past, because the trail was one dazzling view after another, and despite that continual uphill climb, it didn’t feel strenuous. Part of the ease of the hike was sheer wonder at the beauty that surrounded us, but I attribute a good portion of it to Jazz. We’d climb a few steps and she’d be there waiting for us, her tail wagging her whole body. Then she’d run up ahead until we rounded another turn. We couldn’t even see her people. She guided us all the way until we caught up with the two couples, and even then she stuck around until they called her to go.
About halfway up we met a man and a woman resting on a bench and we joined them for a bit. Bill and Jane from Indiana had been to this area twenty years ago and vowed they’d return. They’d recently retired and were pulling an RV with no real plan, just visiting the places they remembered and exploring others they’d always wanted to see. It was a dream they’d had, and they made it real.
Skirting some teenagers who were on their way down, we made it to the top of the trail. It was a bit muddy, probably from the snow that had fallen a few days before and had now melted, so we stayed back far enough from the edge that we wouldn’t slip. More of the ubiquitous moss covered every visible surface at the base of the falls. Magical.
Reluctantly, we trekked back down, careful to avoid sliding on the pine needle-strewn path.
Our fourth and final waterfall of the day was an hour west. We followed the North Umpqua River to Deadline Falls, a short and thunderous block waterfall. From the lot, we walked a quarter mile trail through ferns and old-growth forest. Emerging at the shore of this Wild and Scenic River, our third on this trip, we wound our way through lichen-covered stones and wildflowers to watch fish jump. I didn’t expect to see any, but we waited, and every couple of minutes a fish, either steelhead or salmon, would leap out of the water in an attempt to continue upstream. They’d come all the way from the Pacific Ocean and we rooted for them to make it over the hump.
We drove west, through Roseburg, up OR-138 until it became OR38. Stopped at the Dean Creek Elk Viewing Area. We didn’t view any elk, but we didn’t stay long. I was impatient. We drove west, and then we were on US-101, PCH, the Pacific Coast Highway. We drove north, crossed the Umpqua River, and Jim pulled into the Oregon Dunes Day Use parking lot. He didn’t ask; he didn’t have to. I sat on the edge of my seat and as soon as he stopped (I think we were stopped), I jumped out like a steelhead and gazed at the Pacific Ocean.
I felt infinitesimal.
Tears blurred my vision as I looked at a coastline of forest and dunes and the mighty sea beyond. The sheer enormity of everything we’d seen in the past sixteen days overwhelmed me. It had been one majestic and awe-inspiring experience after another, and there was still so much more. How could I write about this? How could I share this grandeur, or even think my telling could be remotely adequate? I’ll just write it, I thought. I’ll just write what I saw and what I felt and hope that it’s enough.