Recently I woke up and, before looking at my partner, looked at my smartphone. Recently I tripped over a crack in the pavement because I was typing an email. Recently I watched a friend get hounded so badly on Twitter that he had an emotional breakdown.
Recently I realised that it is no longer enough to get away from the city I live in to clear my head. Sometimes you need to get away from the time you live in, this whole era – everything that has come to define our current moment of over-connected digital immersion.
I’m drawn to Oregon by a poetic echo. In the mid-1800s, hundreds of thousands of pioneers climbed onto covered wagons and hit the Oregon Trail, a 3200-kilometre wilderness path to what they believed was a fresh start. My trail is the highway and my direction – west to east – is opposite to the one the settlers took. But our desire for space and escape is the same.
Vista House, not far from Portland, is a jewel of a building. Like an octagonal stone crown perched atop the head of a sleeping giant, it looks out over the Columbia River Gorge and the Historic Columbia River Highway, the nation’s first scenic main road. I’ll begin here.
The unknown unfurls as a series of small miracles in Oregon. Heading east, the highway twists past Multnomah Falls, thundering down steep basalt cliffs. It crosses carved bridges tucked into fir forests and drifts through sleepy villages that stick to the river’s shoreline like oysters. At Rowena Crest, I pull off to admire a view created at the close of the last Ice Age, when cataclysmic floods scoured the landscape bare. With startling abruptness, everything has turned sepia. The forest behind me is here replaced by “scablands”, as dry and cracked and drained of colour as a photograph taken in another century.
My phone signal dies for hours at a stretch. A café I visit is blasting the Four Tops’ Baby I Need Your Loving. While much of America is talking about the prospect of self-driving cars, here attendants still pump your gas and chat to you about more important things, like the weather.
The original Oregon Trail terminated at The Dalles, a town hugging a bend in the river. From there, pioneers would crowd onto rafts to float along the course I’ve just followed by road. I speed past The Dalles to Dufur, a village where the clocks seem to have broken down in 1908, when the Balch Hotel was opened to service travellers on the Great Southern Railroad. I continue through fields of yellow wheat, past tranquil farms and churches with signs such as “God Answers Knee-Mail”. It’s a striking contrast to the violent history laid out in the nearby Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, which focuses on the traditional owners of this place and what happened to them because of the Oregon Trail. Like much of America, beauty here is a complicated concept.
At Joseph, flatlands give way to the Wallowa Mountains, so perfect they seem like the painted backdrop of a film set. At the top of Mount Howard, I sit with chattering gophers and gaze over the Eagle Cap Wilderness, mulling the words of American conservationist Aldo Leopold: “To those devoid of imagination a blank place on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part.” To a person with strong hermitic tendencies, like me, the value of wilderness cannot be overstated.
The blankness of the map pulls me farther into the mountains, up hair-raising switchbacks to a lookout across Hells Canyon. Carved by the Snake River over eons, it borders three states (Oregon, Idaho and Washington) and is deeper than the Grand Canyon. A small plaque notes that it looks much the same as it did when the Nez Perce and Shoshone Indians still walked around in traditional dress – years before there were any states or a Congress to unite them.
The highway unwinds back down the mountain, until I’m pottering through ranch country on the other side of the Wallowas. Cows block the path. I stop. A cowboy on horseback apologises with an old-school civility that makes me feel, in my lumbering SUV, like a wrecking ball of bad manners.
At the top of Flagstaff Hill is the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center and at the bottom is the actual Oregon Trail, or what remains of it: a white line running through the sagebrush like an old scar. There is a covered wagon right by the place where thousands of them once rumbled. Standing next to it I am overcome by a sense of loneliness as big as the sky. “It’s amazing any of them poor devils survived,” a park ranger tells me. Such is the power of the American dream.
From Baker City, the road turns west again. Near Dayville, the landscape breaks into crevasses and eroded hills, some striped like a painter’s palette. Fossils from the Cainozoic Era are routinely excavated here. I watch a paleontologist at the Thomas Condon Paleontology and Visitor Center working on the skull of a nimravid – a big cat. Then I go out to stroll the Blue Basin Overlook Trail, where other skulls are still hidden in the earth.
As I’m walking the trail, enjoying the solitude, gulping in the mysteries of nature, I hear a hiss. A bush violently quakes a few metres away. It’s a rattlesnake. I flinch and quicken my pace. But I’m not particularly alarmed; I feel calm after just a few steps. That’s when I know it’s time to return to the world. If a rattlesnake can’t disturb my new-found equilibrium, I’m ready to take on anything.