Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2: Day 18 – Oregon Coast to Columbia River Gorge

Author Theresa L. Goodrich presents an excerpt from Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2: Bison are Giant and Other Observations from an American Road Trip. Enjoy!




We were now communicating with grunts and one-syllable words.

In case you don’t speak Jim and Theresa, my foot had been cramping a little, so Jim thought it was giving me fits. Instead, the growler had fallen over.

The upside of our last-minute campground find was that, like the day before, we were less than fifteen minutes from our first destination of the morning. What we sacrificed in quality we made up for in proximity.

Our current route put us back on the general path of the Corps of Discovery with a visit to Fort Clatsop. It’s in the Lewis & Clark National Historic Park, a collection of twelve areas in both Oregon and Washington that highlights the explorers’ time in the region. We only had time for one of those areas, so we made it the place where they stayed the longest.

The explorers reached this part of the country, the end of the line, in November, 1805. At first they were on the north side of the Columbia River, but after hearing that the land south of the river was more plentiful, Meriwether and William put it to a vote: should they stay where they were, or should they hope for greener pastures? Remarkably, everyone got a say in this decision, including Sacagawea, their “Indian” scout, and William’s slave, York. The entire group decided to go south, and by December 24 the troupe was ensconced in their new fort along the Netul River.

Inside the Visitor Center are displays about the Corps’ journey as well as the historical context and information on the Clatsop, the tribe for whom the fort is named. There’s a family tree of William Clark’s descendants, and I was amazed to see that Clark named his first son, born in 1809, Meriwether Lewis Clark. After two years of forging their way through unknown territory, the fact that Clark still liked Lewis enough to name his kid after him astounded me.

The fort itself is a replica, the second one built on the site. The original had disintegrated in the wet climate and the first replica, built in 1955, burned fifty years after it was constructed. The park service had more information in 2006 than it did when the original replica was built, so the existing one is considered to be more accurate than the first. Stepping inside the rough-hewn cabins, I could picture the explorers hunched over their desks as they meticulously noted everything they’d seen. It even smelled like history.

We took a quick look at the outdoor interpretive center and then walked a short trail to the canoe landing. It seemed like we were barely there long enough to blink, but by the time we returned to Jeannie the Jeep an hour had passed. Fortunately, our next stop was close.

Fort Clatsop

On our drive west two days before, we had popped into the Visit Roseburg Visitor Center to pick up some brochures. While flipping through one of them, I noticed the Scandinavian Midsummer Festival was happening that weekend in the Clatsop County Fairgrounds. What timing! Twenty minutes after leaving Lewis and Clark’s fort we were crossing a troll bridge, exploring a Viking Encampment, and listening to an accordion and fiddle duet from Norway.

The festival has been an Astoria tradition since 1968, and in 2017 was designated an official Oregon Heritage Tradition, an honor that’s awarded to select annual events that have taken place for fifty years or more. The Scandinavians who attend consider the three-day fest Clatsop County’s biggest family reunion. We’d arrived just in time to watch generations of Nordics parade in traditional garb from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden. Each country’s folkwear was different, and some of the children were sporting clothes their grandparents and great-grandparents had worn.

In 1870, only 47 Scandinavians lived in Oregon. By 1910, there were nearly 10,000 in Astoria alone, and they comprised 35% of the town’s population. Those early immigrants somehow found their way to the mouth of the Columbia River, and they stayed because it reminded them of home.

We’d missed the troll race, but we were able to browse booths of handmade garments and gifts, of swords and axes, of Swedish limpa (bread) and Finnish frikadeller (meatballs). In the Empire of Chivalry and Steel, a man dressed in linen, his cloth made from flax and dyed red with plants and bugs, explained that being a Viking is not your life, it’s your job. There were horses from Iceland, a beer garden, and a red-sailed warship. We had to leave as the flag ceremony began, just missing the raising of the five countries’ standards.

Troll Bridge at Astoria Scandinavian Midsummer Festival

We crossed the mighty Columbia River into Washington – our ninth state! – and almost immediately, relatively speaking, crossed back again into Oregon. We skirted Portland (and, sadly, Powell’s City of Books) on our way to Vista House. The skies turned gray and it began to rain. The timing stunk, since our destination overlooked the Columbia River Gorge. For a mile and a half we followed the steep ten percent grade up to Crown Point. After finding a spot in the nearly full parking area, we walked through a slight drizzle to the hexagonal building. The river, narrow compared to the Mississippi, wide compared to the Rio Grande, curved 733 feet below us.

Inside we browsed a few displays about the history of the Columbia River Highway. There was marble everywhere, and I began to see how the initial funding of $3,812.35 wouldn’t quite cut it, even in 1916. When Vista House opened in 1918, the building itself had cost around $70,000, and with its abundance of marble, its green-tiled roof, and its opalescent windows, it looked like it.

An American flag hung from the center of the rotunda. Four terracotta busts of Native Americans stared at it, eye-level. We found a staircase and entered an observation deck filled with smiling, happy people. There were multiple races, multiple languages. A large family took pictures in groups, and everyone jostled to make room for anyone who hadn’t been able to take a peek. I hate crowds. It was crowded. But, everyone was nice. Everyone was pleasant. Everyone was respectful. This crowd, I liked.

The rain stopped. As we looked to the east, a hole in the clouds appeared over the Columbia River and the flat gray gave way to hues of green and blue.

Columbia River
Bridal Veil Falls

In the early 1900s, scenic drives weren’t really a “thing.” Of course, that probably had to do with the fact that cars weren’t really a thing yet, either. They were fairly new and not the ubiquitous form of transportation they would shortly become. That made the development of the Columbia River Highway farsighted, and it was the first planned scenic roadway in the United States.

Sam Hill was an ambassador of good roads, and Samuel Lancaster was an engineer. Together, the two built a road designed to showcase the scenery. Lancaster found the “beauty spots” first, and then connected them with a 60-foot wide thoroughfare with a grade no steeper than five percent.

We followed the curving pavement, noting the guardrails. Some looked like white picket fences; others were moss-covered stone. Not fifteen minutes after leaving Vista House, we stopped for a hike at Bridal Veil Falls. We followed the short, sometimes steep trail through yet another fairytale forest. If that sounds like I was jaded, I wasn’t even close. Because it was overcast, the moss and ferns and leaves fairly glowed. We stopped at a short bridge over a creek that picked its way through black, angular stones. At the viewing platform, a Slavic couple balanced their baby on the railing, and below, a trio of leggings-clad young women posed atop a massive boulder, and everyone was vying for the best shot.

It’s understandable. Bridal Veil Falls takes your breath away. There are two tiers, and the water cascades down, down, down, ending at a pool that becomes the creek we’d crossed.

We left Bridal Veil Falls and almost immediately had to exit the Historic Columbia River Highway and get on I-84. After the Eagle Creek Fire of 2017, the old road was closed due to erosion, which caused mudslides and other dangerous conditions. This also impacted Multnomah Falls. It’s the tallest waterfall in Oregon, and I’d been looking forward to crossing the picturesque bridge I’d seen in so many photos. Instead, Jim and I joined the throngs at the base and viewed it in its entirety. It made for a short visit, and we were soon on our way again.

The rain had returned when we pulled into our campsite at Viento State Park, but we had a rainfly for our tent and a tall and wide evergreen sheltered the picnic table. Because we’d gotten there early enough, I had time to grill some ribs I’d picked up in Florence along with corn on the cob and black beans and onions. As dinner cooked, a ranger dressed as a beaver stopped by and gave us a sticker. The sky darkened, and then it was dark, and while the fire died we sipped a cup of tea.

Multnomah Falls