Oregon and Washington Road Trip: Columbia River Gorge to Walla Walla

Never ever ever ever EVER camp by railroad tracks. EVER.

I know this. Any camper – any non-camper – knows this, but when you’re driving along the Columbia River and need a campsite, there’s no choice BUT to camp by railroad tracks.

When I booked Viento State Park I knew train tracks would border the campground because the Union Pacific Railroad runs nearly the length of Oregon’s stretch of the Columbia River. I also knew that I-84 paralleled the other side of the park. I knew it would be loud. But oh, hammer-my-head-in-a-tin-can, it felt like my skull was resting on the tracks. I could feel the vibration every few minutes as an engine thundered through pulling 3,489 cars behind it in a snake that rattled for hours (yes, I get the impossibility of that statement and I DON’T CARE), and darn if the engineer didn’t have a bullhorn pointed directly at my ear. When it wasn’t a train hammering away it was the whine of semis and cars speeding on the highway. It was LOUD.

And yet, despite that torturous night of noise noise noise, the first thing I wrote in my journal was: “It’s another beautiful morning on this journey across the northwest. We’ve been blessed with great, sunny days, with only a couple of exceptions.”

What can I say? It was Day 19, and I was at the point where I could either let things get to me, or I could roll with the bad and embrace the good.

The upside to our proximity to the Interstate was that we had a full data connection, so I got a bit of work done from our picnic table. That meant we got a late start, but we didn’t have a lot on our agenda besides making sure we got to Walla Walla that night.

We left the campground around 11:30 and continued to follow the Columbia River east. The hills changed colors from the green of the Cascade Mountains to the tans and browns of the semi-arid plains. The Oregon side was still dotted with trees, while the Washington side looked like a watercolor painted with a palette of beige.

We crossed the river. It was another brief hop into Washington. This time, we popped in to see an unusual monument. Maryhill Stonehenge is on a bluff overlooking vineyards, fruit trees, and the Columbia River. It’s there because Sam Hill, the same Sam Hill who was responsible for the Columbia River Highway, visited the original Stonehenge in England during World War I and decided to create a memorial on the 7,000 acres he owned in Washington. At the time, people thought the Druids had used Stonehenge for sacrificial offerings, possibly to appease the god of war. Hill was a pacifist, and with the Great War raging he was moved by the symbolism.

When he returned home to Maryhill, the name he’d given his land, he built his own version of the stone structure “to remind my fellow men of the great folly of still sacrificing human life to the god of war.” He also wanted to honor the men of Klickitat County who lost their lives in battle, and by the time his monument was complete there were fourteen plaques commemorating the local soldiers’ deaths. Hill passed away in 1931, two years after the memorial was dedicated, and his ashes are buried in a crypt on the side of the hill.

In 1995, the Klickitat County War Memorial Project Committee refurbished the memorial and built a nearby monument to soldiers who have died in battles subsequent to the War to End All Wars. There’s also a small POW/MIA sculpture.

It was a solemn visit. Despite the quirkiness of finding a Stonehenge replica on this quiet hill, what it symbolized deserved respect.

Maryhill Stonehenge
Columbia River from Maryhill Stonehenge

At the top of the bluff we saw a sign for a winery down below, so we followed a barely-paved road, turned a corner at a steepled church, and drove past orange groves to the Waving Tree Tasting Room. Even though it was Sunday and Father’s Day, owners Terrence and Evelyn were pouring wines in the small cabin. This was their retirement plan, they told us. Well, it was his retirement plan. Evelyn had something more leisurely in mind, but for now they were there, producing top-quality estate-grown Italian and Rhone varietals. It’s a family affair; Terrence makes the wines and his son Takashi manages the vineyards along with his daughter, Kimiko, who also designs the labels. Evelyn helps out as needed. We took a bottle of Sangiovese to go and wished them luck with their respective plans for their future.

We drove back into Oregon and followed the Columbia River, again, until it turned north, entered Washington, and US-730 became US-12. It was only four in the afternoon when we walked into Seven Hills Winery in Walla Walla, but the lack of sleep from the night before, combined with the previous two and a half weeks, caught up with me. Here we were, in a place with 140 wineries in the region, and I only had energy to try one glass in one tasting room. We walked a few blocks around downtown and gave up. I’d booked a Super 8 for the night, so we picked up a box of mac ‘n cheese and figured out how to fix the noodles in the microwave. That and our leftover ribs and we were done. It was just as well. We had a long day ahead of us, but we had no idea how long it would turn out to be.

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