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I have lived in the four corners of the U.S. Born in the Northeast, I went to college in the Southeast, later moved to the Pacific Northwest and for 25 years, lived in the desert Southwest. I found value and pleasure in each region. 

But having moved back to North Carolina after so many years in Arizona, I am having lurching pangs from missing the West. I cannot deny that when I lived in Seattle, I had similar pangs about the South — I missed the tremendous variety of plant life when faced with forest consisting of nothing but Douglas fir and western redcedar. Hundreds of miles of Douglas fir and western redcedar. Where were the dogwoods, the sweetgums, the witch hazel, the sassafras, the red maple, canoe birch, beech, elm, oak? 

Aspens, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colo.

And so, I moved back to the East and back to North Carolina, where I had by then spent the largest portion of my life. I met my wife there and some years later, we moved to Phoenix, Ariz., where she got a job teaching and I found my life’s work writing for the newspaper. For the paper, I did a lot of traveling, and visited every state west of the Mississippi to write art and/or travel stories. It is always a pleasure to travel on someone else’s dollar. 

Pacific Coast Highway, Marin County, Calif.

After retirement, we moved back to the mountains of North Carolina, which I love. But I have to admit a nagging desire to spend time again in the desert, on the Colorado Plateau, driving up the coast of California, or revisiting the less glamorous portions of Los Angeles. The American West has wormed itself into my psyche and I feel almost as if some part of it has been amputated and I’m now feeling “phantom pain” or at least pangs in the missing limb. 

It is not the idea of the West that I harbor. The idea has been around since before Columbus thought to sail west to find the East. It was there for Leif Erickson; it was there for the Phoenicians; and before that for the Indo-Europeans. It was the idea that grabbed the early American colonists who saw the trans-Appalachian lands and envied their possession.

The West of the mind is a West of infinite possibility, of clean slate and fresh start, of fantastic riches to be had, of prelapsarian goodness. People emigrated to the West for a better life and a quarter-section. 

Fort Bragg, Calif.

The reality, of course, is something different: not enough rain for crops, prairie fires and tornadoes, mountain ranges nearly impossible to cross. And an indigenous people we first needed to wipe out and then mythologize into something noble and vanishing — as if the erasure had happened on its own. 

The Greeks had the Iliad and the Odyssey; we had our two epics: First, the Civil War, which is our battle epic, and then the wandering to find a new home in our Westward expansion, our odyssey. We made movie stars of our cowboys. The West of the movies is scenic and immaculate. It is a cinemascope landscape. 

But that isn’t the West I miss. The West I knew isn’t pristine; it is dusty, dry, spackled with convenience stores and gas stations, and getting hotter every year. It is even boring: If you’ve ever driven across Wyoming, you know what I mean. It has been described as “miles and miles of miles and miles.” 

Near Pendleton, Ore.

Gertrude Stein’s description of America is really a description of the West: “In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. This is what makes America what it is.”

The West I miss in my deep heart’s core is the dusty, windblown vastness, but it is also the crowded, traffic-choked cities. I miss Los Angeles as much as I miss the Rocky Mountains. 

And let’s be clear. There are four very different Wests. There is the Great Plains region; 

the mountain West; 

there is the desert West; 

and the Pacific West. 

Each has its character and its psychic magnetism. I am drawn to each. 

Route 66 near Oatman, Ariz.

The flat middle of the country is usually forgotten when we talk of the West. In the movies, Dodge City always seems to have the Sierra Nevadas in the background. The Kansas reality is very different: grassy, flat, and smelling of cattle dung. 

San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, Ariz.

As you drive across the Staked Plains of West Texas, you feel you might as well be out on the high seas with no land in sight. Indeed, that is how Herman Melville describes it in his story/poem, John Marr, about an old salt now living in the center of the continent. “Hooped round by a level rim, the prairie was to John Marr a reminder of ocean.” And the wind in the tall grass makes waves that undulate like the sea. 

Friends used to laugh when they asked where I planned to spend my vacation and I said, “Nebraska.” No one, they said, goes to Nebraska. How about the beach? How about Manhattan. But I had in my head a sense of Manhattan, Kansas, instead. I loved seeing grasslands, badlands, farmlands and cowhands. 

Republican River, Kansas

The mountain West is spread into broad bands. The largest is the Rocky Mountains that were such a barrier to the early pioneers.  We drove up and through the Rockies in many of its latitudes, from the Southern Rockies in New Mexico to Glacier National Park in Montana — and further up into Banff and Jasper parks in Alberta. 

My wife wanted to see bears. When we camped, she threatened to tie a peanutbutter sandwich to a string and drag it through the campsite, saying, “Here, Mr. Bear. Here, Mr. Bear.” I persuaded her that was a bad idea, but we found several bears on the side of the road as we drove. 

Then, there are the Sierra Nevadas of California, some of the most photogenic peaks in the country, and the background to so many cowboy movies of the ’30s and ’40s. The mountains are home to the sequoia forests and Yosemite National Park. The lowest point in the U.S. is Death Valley and the highest peak in the Lower 48 is Mount Whitney of the Sierras and they are only about 80 miles apart. You can practically see one from the other. 

The Sierras eventually turn into the Cascade Mountains in Oregon and Washington, and a series of giant volcanoes, such as Mt. Baker, Mt. Hood, and Mt. Rainier. And Mt. St. Helens. I have climbed up portions of Rainier and walked along the Nisqually Glacier on its southwestern face. On a clear day in Seattle, the snowy, ghostlike presence of Mt. Rainier seems like a permanent cloud on the horizon south of the city. It is immense. 

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, Calif.

The desert West is the one I know best. I lived in it for a quarter of a century, in Phoenix. But it is not Phoenix that I miss, except for the friends I left there. No, Phoenix is merely Cleveland in the desert. But outside of the city the desert is beautiful. In a good year — about one in every 15 — the winter rains make the desert floor a paint palette of wildflowers. The January explodes. 

To the north of the city, the Colorado Plateau is what I miss the most, those long vistas of grassland and badlands, the Navajo and Hopi reservations, the mesas and canyons, the Colorado River and a half-dozen national parks. The plateau continues north into Utah and into the southern parts of Colorado.

Petroglyphs scar the rocks and cheap souvenir shops, like those called “Chief Yellowhorse” dot the interstate. 

I can no longer count the number of times I have visited the Grand Canyon, both north and south rims, and the forlorn and uninhabited parts of the western stretches of the canyon on what is called the Arizona Strip. Anytime someone visited us in Phoenix, we took them up to see the Canyon. Pictures just don’t suffice; you have to see in to understand the awe. A picture is static, but the canyon changes color minute by minute as the sun slides across the sky and clouds pass over the rock. One of my great experiences was to arrive before dawn and watch the growing light slowly illuminate the stone and see the slim, glowing white ribbon of river a mile below us. 

South of Phoenix, there is the Sonoran Desert, with its Saguaro cactus and unending greasewood plains. And rivers with no water in them. The common joke in Arizona was about a long-time desert rat who took a trip to New York City and when he returned, his friend asked him about it. He saw all the sights, including the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge. “And did you see the Hudson River?” “Yeah, but there weren’t nothing to see; it was covered in water.” 

Lavender Pit, Bisbee, Ariz.

The picturesque parts of the desert are certainly attractive, but what I miss are the unlovely bits. The decrepit mobile home parks of Quartzsite, in the middle of nowhere, with its pyramid monument to Hi Jolly, the camel herder hired by the U.S. Army in a futile experiment. The burned out and abandoned shacks in 29 Palms, Calif.; the stink of dead fish along the shores of the Salton Sea; the shimmering fata morgana over the Wilcox Playa; the city-size holes in the ground where copper is hauled from the pits; and the mountain ranges of slag heaps hanging over the cities of Miami and Claypool. 

Miami, Ariz.

In so much of the desert, it is not the unsullied nature that used to be there, but the used-up quality, the peeled paint and weathered wood and broken-out windows, the abandoned and rusting cars, the roads cracked with weeds growing through. These would never be called pretty, but they have an intense kind of beauty about them. There is something very human about the ruins that no bland red sunset can match. 

As I said, it is the physicality of the West that speaks to me, not the idea. It is the West as it is, not as it is imagined to have been. 

Mural, Los Angeles, Calif.

This is true also of the Pacific West. I have written many times about Los Angeles and the parts of the city I love most: the concrete river, 

the oil wells on the Baldwin Hills,

the thousands of little strip malls and their ethnic restaurants and food markets. The bungalow houses, the back streets, the Deco architecture. 

I have driven from Tijuana to Vancouver along the coast, soaking up cities and redwoods, mountains and rushing rivers; the Samoa Cookhouse of Eureka; the bridges of Conde McCullough; the stonehenge of Maryhill; the Channeled Scablands; the floating bridge over Lake Washington; the Olympic Mountains. 

Jupiter Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park

I have visited every state except Hawaii and every Canadian province except Prince Edward Island and Labrador, and I have absorbed the geography into my tiny head, swallowed whole. 

Mexican cemetery, Chandler, Ariz.

We all become the landscape we have lived in. It is what makes a Southerner so darned Southern, the Yankee so taciturn, the desert rat so possessive of his burning sun-broiled gravel. In the past — and still in the American South — people tend to live within a few miles of where they were born, and their regional differences become part of their DNA. In more mobile times, when so many move around the country or even to foreign climes, that conflation of land and psyche may attenuate. But it is still there, defining, in lesser or greater extent, who we are and what we feel and think. It is why red states tend to be rural and blue states urban. 

Yosemite Falls

And because I lived in the dry air so long, with the greasewood flats and the arroyos and the roadrunners and javelinas, the West — not the idea, but the real thing — has become a part of my insides. It is why even in the gorgeous Blue Ridge, I miss the desert, mountains, plains and cities of the West. We are in some part, the same thing. 

Click on any image to enlarge

van gogh

I am sitting in my car in the parking garage of the local mall, waiting to chauffeur my granddaughter home after a shift at the food court. It’s one of the perks of being a grandfather; we get to talk on the ride. But I have been  misinformed and I’m an hour early. No problem, I sit back in the shade of the parking garage and pop in a CD of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, the heartbreaking beauty of which always leaves me weeping.

Outside, in the sun, the breeze blows the branches and leaves of a tree in eccentric and seemingly random arcs. A whole tree doesn’t blow this way or that, but becomes a symphony of animated parts, very like a dancer. Behind the tree, in the distant sky, brilliant white thunderheads rise against the blue; they are the source of the fresh breeze that moves my tree.

It is a moment of epiphany — a pulling back of the veil. It is one of those instant recognitions of intense beauty, the kind that makes your insides swell and overflow through your eyes. It is the thing about such moments that dozens of shoppers coming out of the mall and finding their cars can see the same thing and not be overwhelmed because seeing the beauty requires being ripe for its discovery. It is available there for anyone to see, but most of the audience — like me most of the time — are preoccupied and so the moment escapes and they are robbed of one of those times that transfigures the mere act of living and gives one a reason to be grateful.milky way 1

At such times, it is occasionally possible to be misled into believing that the world is truly a beautiful place and that we just don’t take the time to notice. The beauty is overwhelming in its persuasion. I’m not talking here about pretty scenery or colorful flowers, but about a metaphysical insight into the animating spirit of the cosmos. It is the sense one gets if you find yourself in an unpopulated region of the planet and can see at night the bright gash across the sky that we call the Milky Way. You sense something bigger, transcendent, sublime. It is both profoundly beautiful and also more than a bit scary.

One has a memory trove of such moments — and they almost all come in brief flashes; I’m not sure how we could stand it for any length of time. I felt it one dawn at the beach in South Carolina, staring east at the twilight getting brighter. At the moment the sun popped the horizon, when its movement against the stationary line dividing ocean and sky becomes apparent, like a second hand instead of a minute hand on a clock, I got dizzy, almost lost my balance on the sand, because instead of seeing the sun rise above the horizon, I felt as if I were at the top of a planetary ferris wheel, jerked forward toward the sun; I was moving, not the sun. The light played on the waves, dividing the lit from the shadowed water in a shifting network of obsidian black and glowing copper. The effect lasted only a few seconds before the quotidian world reasserted itself into a familiar sunrise, but the memory of that instant is burned into my mind with a fury and insistence that informs now every sunrise, even when I no longer lose my balance.

Arch Cape

Many years ago, I went to the Pacific Ocean with a woman I was crazy about. We rented a cottage on the Oregon coast and after a night of playing geography on her body and memorizing it (so that I knew every swell and bulge, every mole and wrinkle on it), when the morning came, we stayed in bed until our consciences ached. We smelled of each other and reveled in it, our muscles were sore. When Robin finally got up, she said, “I’m going to make breakfast this morning.” I stayed in bed with my head propped up on a pillow and I watched her silently going about her business. The world had stopped turning; the fury of machinery, trucking, commerce and struggle had ceased. Robin opened the curtains and the light poured in, but she was herself lit solely from within.saskia

She was more than just Robin at that time — she was transfigured in the light and seemed almost to glow. It was just a beam of sunlight that struck through the window, but the light seemed to come instead from some internal tungsten filament. She became all women. She was Ruth and Naomi, Eve and Rembrandt’s Saskia. She was not performing some minor task, but had hooked into the flow of the world and was living, glowing myth. Pure Archetype.

In a white blouse and black pleated trousers, she began fixing breakfast in a slow, methodical fashion and everything she did was the mimicking of thousands of years of daily living. She slowly cut off a piece of butter and placed it in the sizzling pan; she sliced the onion and cheese and with her arms holding the bowl on her hip close to her belly, she beat the eggs and prepared to dump them in the pan. The light was uncanny and I nearly cried for the beauty of that morning, the quiet intensity of her motions. All I know is that for 15 minutes Robin ceased being Robin and became everyone who ever prepared breakfast.

That moment couldn’t last, and neither could that relationship. Things beyond my ken were involved. They usually are.

P02969 001In the late 1960s I went camping at Cape Hatteras with my college buddy, Alexander. It was March, before the tourist season and the beach was empty and the wind was cold and brisk. One night we went out toward the cape point. The only light we had was our Coleman lantern and near the point the surf sounded from both sides. The air was thick with moisture and the lamp cast our shadows up into the sky where our heads touched the constellations. Our forms cast out on the cosmos and looked rather like the Colossus of Goya’s late “Black Paintings.” And I recalled the phrase from the Magnificat — “quia fecit mihi magna,” — and I felt magnified.

There are many instances of such epiphanies, although each will be personal to us, unshared in particulars, but common in outline. I have the climb up Mount Angeles in the Olympic Mountains of Washington to the lake with a pure John Martin waterfall on the opposite shore. There is the moment that slammed me in Port Jervis, at the joint of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, when I saw a vacant lot by the railroad roundhouse that was blasted with fall wildflowers — ironweed, asters, yarrow, goldenrod, queen-anne’s lace, joe pye weed, mullein, cow itch — it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen and even now I prefer weeds to domesticated gardens.

Buchenwald

Buchenwald

But I said such epiphanies can mislead us. For the religious or the sentimental, such moments speak of a beautiful cosmos. But these epiphanies can carry the opposite. When I was still a boy — probably five or six years old and it was just a few years after World War II — films from the liberated concentration camps were shown on television. I don’t know whether they were George Stevens’ films from Dachau or Army films from Buchenwald or Bergen-Belsen. But these films burned into even my childhood imagination, those spectres, those skeletons, those harrowed, sunken cheeks, those piles of skeletons wrapped in sacks of their own withered leathery skin. Soldiers picked up the stiffened bony puppets and tossed them into the backs of trucks. This too is ephiphany, the drawing back of the veil.

Aleppo, 2016

Aleppo, 2016

I see something of the same in the eyes of Syrian refugees, I see revenants of postwar Berlin in the bombed out walls of Aleppo. There is beauty in the world, but there is also horror. Ugliness to balance that transcendence, evil to mock the elation.

One thinks of all the genocides, mass murders, atrocities and pogroms of history, the cities razed to the ground with all their populace put to the sword, of all the gulags, all the dead Cathars, Tutsis and Hutus, all those drowned in the cataclysms of swollen rivers, ravaging earthquakes, the decimation of populations through plague, the millions lost to bizarre insect-born diseases. As soon as you find yourself Panglossing over the glory of a sunrise, you catch yourself short remembering Cain and Abel and the real meaning of the brotherhood of man.

One could make a list of those moments of disillusionment and disaffection. Such a list is a weight around the neck of any afflating joy. One recognizes the moment when you realize someone you have loved no longer loves back, when one is betrayed at work or by a friend, when you see the ravages of illness in those you care most deeply for. The world is not an easy place to love. Suffering is universal; even the rich lose their loved ones.

The truth is that we seldom live in the joy or the pain, but rather spend our days in utter banality. Banality is our salvation: If we lived in the joy we would go mad; if we lived in the pain, we would also go mad. So, we don’t see the dancing tree and we ignore the drowning refugees so that we can get on with our lives. It can hardly be otherwise. The world would come to a halt if we all lived in the beauty, if we all bore the suffering.

grunewald

pieta 1Yet, we cannot ignore our epiphanies, either. They sneak up on us, and for a brisk instant we glimpse eternity and its glorious, horrible uncaring. We recognize our place in this swirling inhuman chaos, both ecstatic and virulent. We ask our artists to memorialize both. They can take the two and bind them together, such as the exquisite beauty of Grunewald’s painting of the torture and gruesome death of a man on the rack of a crucifixion, or the sorrow of a mother grieving over the death of her son.

Certainly not all art addresses this special issue, but a surprising amount of our art, whether painting, sculpture, music or poetry, attempts to remind us of the forgotten intensity of existence, whether on the side of ecstasy or on the side of suffering. Even so simple as a watercolor of a vase of flowers hints at this.

If it is banality that saves us from madness, it is art that saves us from banality.

goode mapWhen I was growing up — in the Antediluvian Age when everyone smoked Lucky Strikes and cars all had clutches and carburetors — the maps in my grade school rooms had 48 states on them.

Those classroom roll-down maps were beautiful to my young eyes — all that green, yellow and ruddy brown in wood engraving density. They are maps that have never been equalled, and I knew, looking at the map, pulled down in front of the black chalkboard, that I wanted to go to every one of those states and see if Colorado were really the color of chestnuts, if Florida were really Kelly green. It seemed so lush.

Over the years, I’ve gone to — and written about — all 48 contiguous United States, seven Canadian provinces, a couple of edgings into Mexico and a few places in Europe and Africa.

In each of the places I’ve been, there is a top sight to see, like the Grand Canyon in Arizona or Yellowstone in Wyoming. And I’ve loved them all.

But there are also smaller, less well-known places that have quietly become some of my favorites. I’m sure everyone has the same: places where something special happened, or that sum up the qualities of a state or region, or that just seem so relaxed and beautiful that they draw you back over and over.

For me, such places are often remote from normal tourism attractions. I am a sucker for unspoiled grasslands in the Great Plains, for alligator-filled swampland in the South, for backcountry roads in the Appalachians. Others may look for happy crowds to join, for music and dancing or roller coasters. My favorites, however, tend to be empty of people, silent and to provide long views over a significant arc of the planet.

So, here are a few of those places, listed state by state.

edmund pettus bridge

Alabama

If you want to learn about the Deep South and how much it has changed, you should visit Selma. It is where the great Civil Rights march of 1965 began, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge and heading on to the state capitol at Montgomery. If you think the battle is over, you should visit Selma and see, despite how far we have come, how distant is the horizon.

Badger Springs Road 1Arizona

Of course, the Grand Canyon is on our license plates, but almost any other square foot of the state is nearly as wonderful, from Hoover Dam to Douglas, from Four Corners to Yuma. But I have a special place in my heart for an obscure exit ramp from I-17 north of Phoenix. Badger Springs Road is a bit of largely undisturbed desert, with trails and cactus, and I can always pull off the highway and find a bit of peace and quiet.

Arkansas


The state is rich in rural areas, craggy in the north, flat and muddy in the east through the Mississippi flood plain, steamy with hot springs toward the south. But the little town of Toad Suck in the center of the state seems even a little quieter, a little more remote than most, and is graced with a state park as well, along the Arkansas River. No hotels, but friendly people.

manzanar

Northern California

California is too rich; I have to split it in two. Even then, I could name a dozen places in each half: In the north — Tule Lake National Wildlife Reserve, Mono Lake on the eastern side of the Sierras, Lassen National Park, the Humboldt Redwoods, the tule marshes along the Sacramento River. But I keep coming back to Owens Valley, just below Mt. Whitney. From the soda-flat Owens Lake north to the ruins of the Manzanar Relocation Center — where Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II — the valley is both picturesque — the Alabama Hills where so many Western films were shot among the wonderland of rocks — and historic — in addition to the concentration camp, there is the sorry and violent tale of how a thirsty Los Angeles stole the valley’s water earlier in the century.

Southern California

East of San Diego is one of California’s most pristine deserts. It is called Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and it is the primordial home of all those Washington palm trees that line the streets of Phoenix. Borrego Springs is a surprisingly kempt little town in the middle of it, but the rest of the park usually seems as empty as a college campus during spring break.

Pawnee Buttes 5 copy

Colorado

For most people, the state probably brings to mind skiing or expansion baseball, or an over-hyped beer, and certainly Colorado is best remembered for post-card mountains — all those “fourteeners” — but I love the Pawnee National Grasslands, one of the best places to get a sense of what the West was really about, what the Great American Desert was — not desert, but the Great Plains, vast, sweeping and grassy.

Connecticut

There is no more peaceful a river valley in the nation than the Housatonic north of New Milford. The Appalachian Trail winds along a portion of its banks. There are covered bridges, meadows and not too far away, near Cornwall, there is a large stand of virgin white pine, called the Cathedral Pines. U.S. 7 parallels the river most of the way.

Delaware

Delaware is a tiny state, and most people notice it, if at all, for the chemical plants and refineries that stick their bellowing smokestacks into the air, and the highways that pass through it on their way elsewhere, up over the twin Delaware Memorial Bridge. But there are the “Hooks” — Prime Hook and Bombay Hook national wildlife refuges, swampy and woodsy on the broad mouth of Delaware Bay.

Florida

If you cannot get enough of the Everglades, or if the national park is too crowded, head north off U.S. 41 on any of a dozen gravel roads into Big Cypress National Preserve. Or take the loop road to the south, through incredible cypress wetlands, with sagging Spanish moss and blackwater swamps.

Okefenokee

Georgia

The Okefenokee is my favorite swamp. That’s saying a lot. I’ve seen more wildlife in it than in any other. Drive up Georgia 177 from Edith into the Stephen C. Foster State Park and rent a canoe. Paddle within inches of swimming alligators. Look into the trees for the snake birds — anhingas — with their darting necks and their wings spread out in the sun to dry.

Idaho

With its camas prairies, steep mountains and gaping canyons, the Nez Perce Indian Reservation is one of the most beautiful parts of this beautiful state. You can see the valley where Chief Joseph began his tragic 1,500-mile unsuccessful flight to freedom for his people in 1877.

Mississippi barge

Illinois

Chicago has big shoulders in the north, but down at the very bottom are the forlorn toes of Cairo, one of the most memorable of Mississippi River towns. It is aging, with peeling paint and boarded up storefronts, but you can feel in the humid air the history behind it. And you can see the conjoining of the muddy Mississippi water with the clearer, faster moving Ohio River. Boats and barges move past in the misty mornings like iron dreams.

Indiana

If you want to find the prototype of Disney’s “Main Street U.S.A.,” you couldn’t do better than to see Paoli, in the southern part of the state. No more perfect quiet little Middle-American village can be found. There are no tourists and nothing to do, but imagine what it must be like to live there, under the spreading chestnut trees just off the town square.

Iowa

Iowa is sometimes surreal: At the bottom of the bluffs of the Mississippi are cities filled with Victorian architecture. There are trees and vines. On top of the bluffs, there are endless rolling farms, with silos instead of trees, like some Grant Wood painting. The best of the cities is Dubuque, one of the greatest surprises of my travels. It is one of America’s most beautiful cities.

Kansas

If you want to get away from civilization, you can hardly do better than the middle of Kansas. Just north of Lebanon is the “Geographical Center of the Conterminous U.S.,” which is a highly qualified title to be proud of. But    you stand there, looking out over the grass and wonder, if they dropped the Big One here, would anyone hear it?

harlan county ky

Kentucky

   The state is mud in the west, limestone in the center and coal in the east. Among the stumpy, round-bumped mountains of coal-mining Harlan County and neighboring Letcher County, are some of the poorest homes and interesting people of the country.

atchafalaya thicket

Louisiana

It surprises even me, but one of my favorite places is along the Interstate. For 20 miles, I-10 rises on piers over the Atchafalaya Swamp. Take an exit into the dark woods and drive along the river into old, mossy river towns, built where the terra is not so firma. Even the pavement seems squishy beneath your feet.

Schoodicwaves2x

Maine

Everybody heads to Bar Harbor, where the T-shirt shops and frozen yogurt stores are chock-a-block. Pass on that and head to Schoodic Point further north. Also part of Acadia National Park, it is one of the ruggedest, rockiest parts of the rocky Maine coast.

Maryland

Antietam National Battlefield, near Sharpsburg, is the most emotional Civil War site I have visited. Every aspect of the fight, and all the blood and bullet-holes, seem spread out graphically, and the spirits of the dead and suffering seem almost palpable at the sunken road called Bloody Lane.

Greylock Mt from Melville home Mass

Massachusetts

Arrowhead is the one-time home of Herman Melville in Pittsfield. The house is actually a character in many of his stories, and you can look out the second-floor window of his study, where he wrote Moby Dick, and see the saddle-back peak of Mt. Greylock to the north, “Charlemagne among his peers.”

Michigan

The Upper Peninsula is a big place, but everywhere you turn, there are forests, lakes and rivers, including Papa Hemingway’s Big Two-Hearted River. It’s hard to pick a single place, but there is always the drive on U.S. 2 along the southern shore of the peninsula along Lake Michigan.

Minnesota

A river doesn’t really start from a single source, but the agreed fiction is that the Mississippi begins at Lake Itasca, southwest of Bemidji. The lake is not that large, by Minnesota standards, and seems quite placid. The “father of waters” begins at a reedy little outlet that you can step across and brag you crossed the Mississippi on foot.

Mississippi

The blues began in the Mississippi Delta, and they are still played in the shabby juke joints of Clarksdale, one of those old, cracked-concrete, grass-in-the-railroad-ties, dying-downtown Deep South county seats. Everybody you see, sitting on their porch fronts, seems more human, more profound. Maybe it’s the blues.

Missouri

The Ozark Mountains can be beautiful, with lichen-covered limestone and rivers that disappear underground. Like at Big Spring State Park on the Current River, where the river comes gushing back out of the rock like a fountain.

bear paw surrender site

Montana

Chief Joseph began his three-and-a-half month trek in 1877 in Idaho, he ended it on the flat, grassy, empty plains of northern Montana, at a place called the Chief Joseph Battlefield near the Bears Paw Mountains, only 40 miles from the safety his Nez Perce Indians sought in Canada. He was captured by the U.S. Army, and promised “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

bailey yard nebraska

Nebraska

People look at me funny when I tell them that Nebraska is probably my favorite state to visit. The sand hills, the puny “national forest,” the Platte River and Scotts Bluff — they all seem unbearably windblown and lonesome. I love them all, but in North Platte, you cannot feel alone at the biggest railroad freight yard in the country. You can watch trains all day.

Nevada

If Nebraska is my favorite state, Nevada is probably my least favorite. It is empty, true, but its emptiness seems hard and thoughtless, like a biker at a roadside bar and casino. But I cannot deny the beauty of such places as Big Smoke Valley, between the Toiyabe and Toquima mountains, and the wide sagebrush plains where you don’t see a car for hours, but maybe a dozen dusty pickups.

New Hampshire

The Kancamagus Highway is one of the most beautiful drives in the country, winding through the White Mountains along the Swift River. It goes from Lincoln to Passaconaway and passes some stunning stony waterfalls.

pulaski skyway copy

New Jersey

This is the state where I grew up. I came to despise the suburban banality of most of the state, but I loved two things: the northwest corner, with its minuscule mountains and bucolic forests; and most of all, the industrial corridor of the Jersey Turnpike, with its refineries, chemical plants and the always-beautiful Pulaski Skyway.

New Mexico

At the top of the Sacramento Mountains, in the Lincoln National Forest is a place called Cloudcroft. There is great camping, wild animals and — usually — clean air that is so clear, it could cut diamonds.

Bear Mtn Bridge

New York

New York offers more than any other single state except California. There are dozens of favorite sites, from Montauk Point to Niagara Falls. But I will always have a special affection for Harriman State Park, along the Hudson River, and Bear Mountain, that looks down at the gorge, just south of West Point and its military academy. Seven Lakes Drive, through the park, is what nature in the East is all about.

Ashe County road, creek &dogwoo

North Carolina

No question here: Ashe County, tucked up in the northwest part of the state, above the Blue Ridge, is away from the normal tourist loop, but more beautiful than any other place north of the Smoky Mountains. Any gravelly back road will take you to something surprising and there is the New River to canoe down.

Sunflowers Zap North Dakota

North Dakota

It hardly counts for anything, and there is no real reason to visit, but I cannot get enough of Zap, a tiny crossroads, where the roads don’t go anywhere. Between Beulah and Golden Valley, Zap sits among the rising and dropping swell of the grasslands, with the occasional pond for cattle to drink from.

Virginia Kendall SP, Ohio 3 copy

Ohio

Just south of Cleveland, there is a small bit of woods and rock called Virginia Kendall Park. It is right next to the larger Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area, and benefits from more people going there than here. There is a rocky bluff in the middle of the park and echoing voices in the forest among the leaf litter.

Oklahoma

One of the worst massacres of the so-called Indian Wars took place just outside of Cheyenne, along the Washita River. The site is now nothing but grass, a line of trees along the water, and some outcroppings of rock. But the surrounding Black Kettle National Grasslands can give you a real sense of what the land looked like 121 years ago.

Columbia River Gorge Oregon-Washington

Oregon

The Columbia River Gorge is one of the scenic wonders of America, and one of the most scenic drives is along the old, outmoded Columbia River Gorge Scenic Highway, which rises up the mountainside above the interstate highway, and takes you through more waterfalls than any comparable stretch of road outside Hawaii.

falling water

Pennsylvania

The second most famous house in America — after the White House — is probably Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, a vacation home he designed for Pittsburgh’s wealthy Kaufman family beginning in 1934. It is also one of the most beautiful buildings in the country, sitting literally atop a waterfall and jutting out over the small forest glen.

Rhode Island

If you’re on the A-list, you’ll naturally gravitate to Newport and its extravagant mansions. I’m not on that list; I prefer the more humble Conanicut Island, where real people live. It sits in the middle of Narragansett Bay and gives you a good sense of what life on the bay is like.

South Carolina

Myrtle Beach gets all the traffic and spring-breakers, but Huntington Beach, 10 miles further south along Murrell’s Inlet, is the better place to be. With Huntington Gardens just across the street, with all those animal sculptures of Anna Hyatt Huntington, and a fresh-water alligator pond next to the salt marsh, Huntington Beach is a great — a great — place for seeing birds.

pine ridge rez

South Dakota

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation may be poor, but it is beautiful. And as with many places noted for its poverty, it is very real. The people take the time to talk to you and there is history at every turn in the road — not all of it very comfortable for an Anglo to remember.

Tennessee

Most of the crowds at Great Smoky Mountains National Park gather along U.S. 441 across the crest of the range, or in Cades Cove in the southwest of the park. But one of the great drives, and less crowded, is up the Little River Road through the back side of the park. It follows the cascading Little River most of the way, and finds its way back to the visitors center at Sugarlands.

lbj ranch grandparentshouse

Texas

Even Texans will tell you the center of their state is the best part: The Texas Hill Country is an oasis in the middle of a state that sometimes seems like nothing more than the world’s largest vacant lot. And the best part of the Hill Country is found at the LBJ Ranch near Johnson City. It is no wonder that our 36th president loved his ranch so much. It is a jewel in a perfect setting.

Utah

Is there a square inch of the state that doesn’t deserve to be a national park? I haven’t found it. But one of the most overlooked gems is the ride along Utah 128 from Moab to Cisco. Through most of its route, the road seems to be the one you would imagine at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Well, perhaps that exaggerates it a wee bit. But it is special.

coolidge plymouth

Vermont

Near Plymouth is the birthplace and homestead of Calvin Coolidge, who has recently lost his title as the president we made the most jokes about. In fact, Silent Cal was a smart cookie and not at all the buffoon stand-up comics make him out to be. He was raised in a tiny Yankee village that is preserved as a state park.

Monticello Entrance Hall copy

Virginia

Virginia is another state that seems to have more than its fair share of special places. Perhaps it’s history, perhaps geography, but almost anywhere you turn, there is something that will draw you back over and over. Still, there is something special about Thomas Jefferson’s mountaintop home, Monticello, a monument to just how profoundly beautiful a little nuttiness can be. The Age of Reason meets Henry Thoreau.

Washington

Eastern Washington is largely a blank spot in America’s consciousness. Seattle, the Olympics, the Cascades, Mt. Rainier — they are all in the west. But there is hardly an odder or more peculiar and spooky landscape on Earth than what is called the Channeled Scablands east of the Cascades. The Grand Coulee Dam blocks the Columbia River there, where a prehistoric flood scraped the earth clean for hundreds of miles.

West Virginia

The Hawks Nest, on U.S. 60 between Gauley Bridge and Ansted, looks out over the deep declivity of the New River Gorge and is one of the great scenic views of the eastern U.S.

Frosty dawn Wisconsin

Wisconsin

Southern Wisconsin has many treasures, including the Mustard Museum in Mt. Horeb, and the world’s largest six-pack of beer at La Crosse, but nothing can beat the genuine zaniness of the Dickeyville Grotto, a religious site in Dickeyville created out of broken bottles, seashells, stones and broken crockery. It is one of the great “outsider art” sites, and don’t miss the tribute to Columbus.

Wyoming

What’s the highest, most alpine road in America that actually goes somewhere? Undoubtedly, it is the Bear Tooth Highway, U.S. 212 from Red Lodge, Mont., to Yellowstone National Park. It climbs up over Bear Tooth Pass at 10,940 feet and provides more long Rocky Mountain views than any other road. Look out for the marmots.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

oregon ice copy

I had forgotten how beautiful ice is.

But as I drove over the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon, I saw the flat, silver surface of motionless lakes that caught the light from the sky.

And as I drove late last year past frozen creeks, I saw the shelf of white crusted a few inches above the water, caught on the reeds.

Above me at the top of the mountains, the snow scumbled across the near peaks looking like powdered sugar on a stony doughnut.

There’s a lot to be said for ice.

The only problem is that the ice is also on the road. And as I drive east into the low morning sun, it is glowing white on the blacktop, and I cannot tell what is ice from what is melted water until I am on top of it and can distinguish the wet hiss under the tires from the thudding bumps of crusted ice. It makes the trip from Bend to Silver Lake a trial of nerves.

I can remember when snow and ice hit in New Jersey, where I grew up. The snow was the color of ash and piled up on roadsides, filled with cinders and soot. Cars clanked by on tire chains, and others spun their wheels on the hill outside the house.

Ice was never a welcome event in New Jersey.

But after I lived for 10 years in the Western desert, I discovered that I missed the ice, not so much on roads, but in lakes and streams. I missed the rime on the grass early in the morning and the squeak of white powder under my boot soles.

So, as I pass near Fort Rock, coming out of Fremont National Forest, I slow to avoid the slick spots on the road, but I also slow to enjoy the concentric rings of increasing whiteness on the pond I pass that mark the nightly shrink of water. It is all solid now.

The ripples on its surface are motionless. A few slivers of straw from the bordering reeds blow across its top without getting wet. The ice is like a scab formed over the water to protect the pond and its fish and weeds from the killing cold of the air above.

In larger lakes, like Summer Lake and Goose Lake, there is a darker circle in the center, of still unfrozen water, and it shivers in the cold, breaking up the reflection of the mountains in wavelets that run across the water blown by wind. A front is coming in from the northwest. The high clouds filter a hazy, frigid sun. The forefront of the clouds is broken into stripes; it looks like fish bones.

Where the sun catches the snow patches on the slopes, it gleams with a brightness that seems of a different order of reality from the rest of the scene: almost like the psychedelic landscapes screaming by in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

And in the castellated crest of the Warner Mountains, as I enter California again, there is a bright coating of orange lichen that plays against the blue shadows in the snow so that the rocks sing out like a chorus: Kyrie Eleison.

Perhaps it is the cold, which makes the air seem as solid as crystal. Perhaps it is the sun, which even at noon comes in from such a low angle that it drowns all the landscape in the orange light of dusk. Perhaps it is the deep lapis of the sky at this altitude, which reflects off the ice of Goose Lake.

Or perhaps it is the contrast of the teeth-chattering cold against the steam that rises from the thick grasses in the meadows south of Lakeview, where thermal water boils from the ground and makes a network of streams in the valley floor.

But I had forgotten how beautiful ice is.

a portland collage

What makes a city urban?

Those who live in the Western half of the country have to wonder sometimes. For Phoenix or Los Angeles — and most trans-Mississippi cities — are fundamentally different from the core cities of the East. The Western-model cities are sprawling suburbs, spread like a great tablecloth over the landscape.

It isn’t that they don’t have character. LA has enough character for a dozen smaller cities. And even Phoenix has its personality, although it is that of a raw, unformed, undisciplined adolescent.

But for anyone who grew up near New York, Philadelphia or Boston, there is something urgently missing out here that prevents the West from becoming authentically urban.

Purists may argue that any concentration of population must be considered urban. And they are technically correct. But walk the Loop in Chicago or by the row houses of Baltimore and you instantly sense the difference.

It is true that there are small bits of citiness in the West — a neighborhood in Denver, sections of Seattle or San Francisco. But these are fragments.

There is one place that has undiluted citiness in concentration.

On the banks of the Willamette River in Oregon is a true city. Portland has a downtown that could be a relocated Pittsburgh, bridges and all, and walking through its sinewed city center is a glory of chattering urban detail, all screaming out that this is a real city.

For it is the details that define the urban.

a portland strip 5

Portland is filled with the tiled floors, fireplugs, storm drains, eroded curbsides, overarching trees, root-buckled sidewalks and brownstone stoops that make a city feel urban.

It is all the more significant because the Portland downtown is so tiny. You can walk almost anywhere you need to go.

Yet in those 100 miniature city blocks — less than a square mile — you can discover all the urban detail, ornament and design that you need to serve as a madeleine to your Proustian nostalgia for a citiness.

Along the sidewalk, a checkerboard of frosted glass squares underfoot illuminates an old basement.

a portland strip

A brass fire-hose connection splits like a Brancusi torso.

A dull iron streetcar track in the cobblestones is wheel-shined.

An Art Deco 317 glows above the glass doors of the Loyalty Building.

The city is built of hard, durable metals and stone, yet all its edges are softened and weathered.

There is the steep ramp of the old brick parking garage. a portland strip 2

The spear points topping the black iron fences.

The revolving clock-thermometer at the corner of the bank building.

The equestrian statue in the middle of the park, with its benches and chess players.

”Joy The Tailor” is written in mosaic on the sidewalk in front of an empty storefront. Who knows how many businesses have operated in that building since Joy left?

There is the neon ”pizza” sign in the window, a neon ”Western Union” and a neon ”color copies.” a portland strip 4 copy

In front of a blockwide pit being dug out by the steam shovel, men on their lunch hours gather in a crowd behind a fence to stand and stare. One of them is eating a Fig Newton.

The one thing all those details speak of is age. The rounded edges of the curbs, the worn writing on the manhole covers — these things come with maturity.

The younger cities of the West — or the cities such as LA that seek eternal adolescence — cannot achieve the respectable age of the Eastern cities. It is a miracle that Portland survives.

For in LA, as in Phoenix, any building older than our high-school years tends to be flattened and replaced with one of those brittle, obdurate, unweathered and machine-edged monoliths, too juvenile to know better, too inexperienced to have the wisdom time brings to sandstone and concrete.

In a real city, you see the scoops of accumulated footfalls on the marble museum steps, you see ailanthus trees growing in the unattended spaces between buildings and moss on the gutters.

A real city is a stage set for our lives. We eat at the lunch counters, recline in the grassy parks, live when we are young or very old in the plastered apartments above the storefronts, drink grappa at night in the jazz bars.

The urban city is a setting not only physically but also historically. Its worn details, visible at every turn, remind us that we live in history, too. The city was there before us and will be after us.

In a city of strident newness, such as Phoenix, we can forget the big picture and think we are all that matters. In a city full of its own past, you are always reminded of your grandparents and grandchildren.

And it is all in the details.

columbia river gorge panorama

Imagine another Yosemite Valley, only 10 times larger and with a great river running through it, with twice the flow of the Nile.

The Columbia River Gorge, between Oregon and Washington, is just such a place. And if it had not been settled and its river used for commerce from its earliest discovery, it would have been a cinch to be made a national park.

Even so, it is still a National Scenic Area and runs 80 miles from near rain forest in the west to near desert in the east. It is a scenic prodigy.

Mt. Hood

Mt. Hood

 

You can see its immensity best perhaps from the air. Flying up the Willamette Valley into Portland, Ore., the Cascade Mountains stretch out to the east like a great rumpled bedspread, green with trees. Above the range are the white, snowcapped cones of the huge volcanoes — the Three Sisters, Mount Jefferson and Mount Hood, piled Ossa-on-Pelion above the greener peaks below.

As the plane turns west to land, you can see the Cascades continue north to Canada, and the white pyramids piled on top include Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens and, way out on the horizon, the biggest of all, Mount Rainier.

But gouged out of the mountains, running east and west in the space between Hood and Adams, the gorge looks like a giant slice taken from the middle of a continental meatloaf.

From the air, you can get some sense of the proportions of the gorge. It becomes easier to understand the geological processes that formed it, from the greenish Ohanapecosh Formation of mostly metamorphic rocks, some 40 million years old, to the many basalt flows and volcanoes that poured through the mountain valleys.

Most astonishing might be the great floods that tore through the gorge during the Ice Age, some 15,000 years ago.

Melting water had backed up across Idaho and Montana behind a dam of ice half a mile high. When the dam broke, 500 cubic miles of water — a fifth the volume of Lake Michigan — churned across eastern Washington and through the narrow gorge. Water left its mark 1,000 feet above the present-day city of The Dalles.

The Dalles

The Dalles

It is hard to comprehend the strength of the water. Nearly 10 cubic miles of water poured through the valley every hour for more than 40 hours — 10 times the flow of all the rivers in the world combined. It washed eastern Washington bare, leaving behind the area we now call the Channeled Scablands, still largely naked rock.

The Scablands

The Scablands

The ice dams reformed and rebroke as many as 100 times. Geologists believe the floods occurred on average about every 55 years for 2,000 years, widening and reshaping the Columbia River Gorge into its current U-shape.

Indians lived along the river as long ago as 10,000 years. Europeans first sailed up it shortly after the American Revolution and an American named the river after his ship, Columbia Rediviva, in 1792.

But it was the Lewis and Clark Expedition that literally put the river on the map.

The expedition followed the river to the coast in 1805 and camped there over winter, looking for a clear Northwest Passage from the East Coast to the West Coast.

By 1840, the Oregon Trail brought hordes of immigrants to the area, looking to farm and build new cities.

They came down the river, by road where possible, but across the watery rapids in the tighter sections where no roadbed was possible.

Nowadays, Interstate 84 follows the river’s south shore, or Oregon side, but it wasn’t until 1913 that anyone tried to find a way to build a continuous road through the gorge. scenic highway

That road, the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Highway, has been superseded and largely obliterated by the interstate, but sections of it are still driveable — 22 miles from Troutdale to Dodson and nine miles from Mosier to Rowena.

You can get the big picture from the air, but to really know the beauty of the gorge, you need to be on more intimate terms, and the remnants of the old highway — now called the Historic Columbia River Highway — are the best way to do that.

Beginning in Troutdale, you drive across the Sandy River toward Springdale. The road stays on the back side of the ridge, so you cannot see the river until you get to Portland Women’s Forum State Park, where a small parking lot affords a grand view up the gorge. You are on a bluff some 700 feet above the water, and the mountains pale into powdery blue as they recede. In the rake of morning light, it looks like a Chinese ink painting.

A mile or so down the road, the next outlook comes at Crown Point and the historic Vista House built in 1916. The octagonal building serves as a visitor center for the gorge and has exhibits and a very good gift shop.

View from Crown Point

View from Crown Point

It also has views for 30 miles in each direction.

The highway climbs down the river side of the ridge and begins to follow the water and the interstate. Nevertheless, this section from Latourell Falls to Horsetail Falls is the highlight of the trip.

The river is lined with a thousand-foot cliff, some 10 miles long, over which cascade more waterfalls per mile than any place in the world outside Hawaii.

They jump off the top of the cliff and pour, almost in slow, misty motion, to the pool below. With names like Mist Falls, Bridal Veil Falls and Punch Bowl Falls, they give you a sense of almost tropical richness.

Multnomah Falls

Multnomah Falls

Indeed, just above the most famous of them, Multnomah Falls — with its parking lot and lodge — sits Larch Mountain, where the annual rainfall is 200 inches.

Another 50 miles down the gorge, at The Dalles, the rainfall drops to 12 inches a year.

The best view of the dry, eastern end of the gorge is from Rowena Crest, where an overlook sits like an aerie over the dry basalt hills near The Dalles. Grass is yellow in the summer, and you sometimes can look out over the shoulders of hawks.

The eastern end of the gorge also can be quite hot. In July, the temperatures easily can top 110.

If you continue east on Interstate 84, past the Deschutes River, you can cross the Columbia on the Sam Hill Memorial Bridge at Biggs.

Once across and in Washington, there are two other Sam Hill monuments you should see.

Hill was the Washington mover and shaker who managed to get the early highway built. He also constructed a mansion for himself out in the blasted rocky grasslands. He called it Maryhill, and it is now an art museum with a respectable collection of work, specializing in Russian icons, art chess sets and the sculpture of Rodin.

But the oddest Hill monument is the concrete Stonehenge he built in 1918 as a memorial for the war dead of Washington’s Klickitat County. The imitation Stonehenge was meant to look like the original did when new, so it has a strangely antiseptic look, without the patina that age gives history. Maryhill stonehenge WWI monument

Coming back through the gorge on the north shore along Washington 14 — known as the Lewis and Clark Highway — you retrace your route with a whole different look. The desert gives way to the trees, and the smaller road twists around headlands and coves.

At Stevenson, Wash., the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center has exhibits not only on the geography of the area but also its history and culture.

And near North Bonneville, the great Bonneville Dam blocks the river flow in five disjointed segments between four islands. It was one of the great public works projects of the Great Depression and opened in 1938.

Bonneville Dam

Bonneville Dam

There are modern visitor centers accessible from each shore.

The Bradford Island Visitor Center, reached from the Oregon side, is the larger, but the Washington Shore Visitor Center has the better view of the powerhouses with their huge generators.

Further along, Beacon Rock stands like a giant upended football, 848 feet high, with a hairpin stairway up its side for adventurous climbers. It was named by Lewis and Clark and marks the beginning of Columbia River tidewater.

Beacon Rock

Beacon Rock

The final monumental attraction of the trip is the skirting of Mount Pleasant and the section called Cape Horn, where the road barely holds onto the rock wall. Several turnouts offer a final glorious view of the gorge.

All along the way, there are state parks and nature preserves. Wildflowers are startling, hiking is popular and so is bicycling.

And above everything, you get the occasional unblocked view of white-headed Mount Hood, a beautiful, symmetrical volcano that is the symbol of the area.

fort clatsop brochure

Most people visit Fort Clatsop in the summer and so miss understanding history. The only proper way to see it is in midwinter, when the air is as raw as frozen hamburger and the rain drizzles down into the fibers of your clothing.

Fort Clatsop National Memorial is just a few miles from Astoria, Ore., and is where the Lewis and Clark expedition spent four cold months in 1805-06, waiting for the spring thaw so they could return to civilization. Meriwether Lewis and George Clark had led an expedition of 45 men up the Missouri River beginning in 1804, exploring the Louisiana Territory that President Thomas Jefferson had just bought from France. Lewis and Clark were charged with finding a way through the territory to the Pacific Ocean on the other side of the continent.

They spent two summers and a winter getting to the Pacific and another winter camped at Fort Clatsop, which they built as temporary quarters and a way to keep some of the constant rain off their heads. Of the 106 days they spent at the fort, the sun shone for six. fort clatsop fog

Life was constant misery. According to their journal entry for the day after Christmas, 1805, ”rained and blew hard last night, some hard Thunder. The rain continued as usial all day and wind blew hard from the S.E. Joseph Fields finish a Table & 2 seats for us. we dry our wet articles and have the blankets fleed, The flees are so troublesom that I have slept but little for 2 night past and we have regularly to kill them out of our blankets every day for several past. maney of the men have ther Powder wet by the horns being repeatedly wet, hut smokes verry bad.

Lewis and Clark were not hired for their spelling.

The original fort is long since returned to the soil it came out of. But a copy of the original, built from the description and plans in the expedition journals, has arisen in the original location.

The fleas have not been re-created for the modern visitor.

It is a very small fort by the standards of anyone who has seen palisaded forts in John Wayne Westerns. It is exactly 50-feet square and divided into eight rooms, three on one side and five on the other, with an open plaza between them. This was technically called the ”parade ground,” but no parade longer than a pace and a half would be possible in its Lilliputian length. Fort Clatsop interior

The largest room went to Lewis and Clark. The three smaller rooms on one side were given over to the remaining crew, up to 15 per room. And the smallest quarters, next to the commanders’, was given to the French trapper Touissant Charboneau and his Indian wife, Sacagawea, and their infant baby. The remaining small rooms were a meeting room and a supply closet. sacagawea dollar

In December, when you should visit the fort, fires crackle in the hearths of the rooms and volunteers give demonstrations of some of the things the explorers had to do.

A class of visiting high-school students was divided into a group that used rod and chain to learn primitive surveying and mapping techniques; another group that attempted to write with quill pens; a third group that made candles out of tallow; a fourth group that learned how to blow a glowing flint-and-steel spark into a flame; and a fifth group that heard about animal furs.

The smell of wood smoke penetrated everything. Hours later, I still could smell it in my coat. The smoke hung low above the log-cabin fort, which is a sign that canny weather watchers can use to predict rain. As if the prediction were necessary for an Oregon winter.

In 1805-06, the men came down with influenza and other sicknesses brought on by exposure. They managed to kill and eat 131 elk and 20 deer.

Lewis and Clark had to leave the fort earlier than planned when the early spring thaw drove the elk up into the surrounding mountains and left the men without a dependable menu. fort clatsop postcard

”We have not fared sumptuously this winter and spring,” they wrote in the journal as they prepared to break camp.

And when they reversed their route, they returned to St. Louis in half the time it took them to go out.

USACE Tillamook Bay Oregon

Tillamook has a more interesting history than most towns of its size and obscurity.

While most towns north or south of it on the Oregon coast have catered to the vacationer, with beachfront motels and seafood restaurants, Tillamook remains a working town.

And although it is situated along U.S. 101, which is the famous Coast Highway, Tillamook is back from the ocean, in a wide flat valley filled with cows and lumber.

There are also a series of prominent mud flats.

But the predominant impression is of green: vast pastures filled with cows. Tillamook is primarily a dairy town, with several cheese factories.

There is a short-line railroad with a diesel locomotive painted in the black-and-white patchwork of a Holstein cow. Tillamook Cheese Factory

Self-guided tours of the Tillamook Cheese factory are available, with samples of curd and Cheddar. The factory produces 40 million pounds of cheese each year. You can watch it being made in 40-pound cubes and then cut by automated cheese slicers into smaller familiar sizes. An small army of snood-headed women watches over the assembly line to keep track of errant chunks of cheese and misshapen cubes.

I briefly considered buying a whole 40-pound block but changed my mind when I discovered it would cost about $120.

The high school football team is known as “The Fighting Cheesemakers.”

Tillamook was also the site of the worst natural disaster in Oregon history, in 1933 with the first of a series of devastating forest fires known as the ”Tillamook Burn.”

The fire had a 15-mile front and in only two days destroyed 255,000 acres. And the fire raged for four weeks.

Fires recurred every six years until 1951, causing them to be named the ”six-year jinx.” Ultimately, 325 square miles were burned. It cost $13 million to reforest the blasted areas, which now look green and woodsy.

Natural devastation also did in the vast land speculation known as Bayocean. Beginning in 1906, a series of investors cooked up a scheme to turn a sand spit at the mouth of Tillamook Bay into a vacation paradise, with cottages, hotels and a gigantic natatorium with heated water.

Bayocean natatorium and dance hall

Bayocean natatorium and dance hall

Lots were sold, buildings were built and sales were slow, in part because there was no way to get to the development. There were neither roads nor trains, and the yacht that was supposed to carry passengers across the bay was too large to pass over the mud bars.

But more devastating was the fact that the builders hadn’t taken into account the nature of spits: They grow and shrink with the waves, and it wasn’t long before Bayocean’s cottages fell into the aggressive surf. There was a brief period of prosperity in the community during the ’20s, but by 1932 the natatorium collapsed into the sea. In 1952, a storm split the spit into three smaller islands. The last vestiges of construction on the spit were wiped out in 1960. Today, it is just a story they tell in town.

Bayocean hotel view

Bayocean hotel view

I doubt many in Tillamook still sing the popular song from 1925, Tillie From Tillamook: ”Tillamook Tillie got wild one day, packed up her things and went away. She got weary of the birds and the bees and living on Tillamook cheese.”

According to the song, she moved to Manhattan and the chorus sings out: ”Wooden shoes, a hole in her sock, knees that knock-knock, knock-knock. She’s lopsided and she got that way getting up at break of day. Tillie, Tillie, Tillie, sweeter than the new mown hay. She’s the crash of Broadway today!”

Another piece of Tillamookana, however, is still there to see, just south of town: the world’s largest wooden building. It is a blimp hangar built during World War II for the Navy. There used to be two of them, but one burned down in 1992 when its contents, $300,000 worth of straw, caught fire. The conflagration was so intense that the fire drew 80 mph winds into the hangar.

Hangar B

Hangar B

The remaining hangar for now contains the Tillamook Air Museum, with a handful of World War II-era planes, a couple of blimps and some helicopters, along with interpretive exhibits that tell the story of the hangars and the blimps that were used during the war to patrol the Pacific looking for Japanese submarines.

The building is 1,080 feet long, 300 feet wide and 195 feet high and covers 7 acres. You can’t miss it as you drive along 101. There are geological features listed on maps that are smaller than this great humpbacked mega quonset hut.

Yaquina Bay Bridge

Yaquina Bay Bridge

Forget the bridges of Madison County, the bridges worth writing about are on the Oregon coast.

As the coastline meanders in and out along the Pacific, the roadmakers were faced with two problems: how to climb the rocky headlands and how to bridge the broad, flat river estuaries. They took care of the headlands with dynamite and pick, but the rivers were something else.

First, they were unusually broad, combining, as they do, elements of river, estuary and tidal mud flat. The soft ground didn’t make it easy to anchor a bridge. Second, the usual material for building bridges in the early part of this century was iron, which tended to rust out very quickly in the salt-spray air of the coast.

Wilson River Bridge

Wilson River Bridge

Consequently, most rivers were crossed only by ferry, even after the Pacific Coast Highway was dedicated in 1923. It wasn’t until federal matching funds were made available for highway construction, and later the Works Progress Administration kicked in, that the final T’s were crossed and the last bridges were installed.

Now, bridges ordinarily don’t get me excited. I like a good bridge as much as the next guy, but I can’t claim to be a fanatic. conde mccullough

But the bridges that cross the Oregon coast are different. They are some of the most beautiful bridges ever built. And the credit goes to one exceptional man: Conde McCullough, a South Dakota-born engineer who presided over the Oregon Highway Department as bridge engineer during those critical years.

His designs are admired both for their engineering skill — he was an innovative engineer and used many new techniques, including prestressed concrete, for the first time, or very nearly so — and for their aesthetic grace.

I cannot speak with any authority on their technical aspects, but I can say that, taken as a whole, they are the most beautiful set of highway bridges I’ve ever seen.

McCullough had a few recognizable habits. He used a good deal of Art Deco ornament on the bridges. Many have decorated pylons at the entrance to the bridge. Others have abstract floral scrollwork carved into their girders.

And these certainly make the bridges distinctive.

But it isn’t the ornament that makes them so satisfying to look at; rather it is the incredible sense of proportion and rhythmic movement McCullough managed to enshrine in his steel and concrete sculptures.

Anyone who has taken notice of the mint-green steel arches between molded concrete abutments that cross the river mouths on the Oregon coast will be able to recognize McCullough’s handiwork whenever else he sees it.

Coos Bay Bridge

Coos Bay Bridge

The bridge over Coos Bay, for instance, which now is named the McCullough Memorial Bridge, is a series of long arches like the path of a bouncing ball. Over them the roadway passes, rising slightly and connected to the arches underneath with a series of vertical beams, just the same graceful thickness as the arches themselves.

Coos Bay Bridge girders

Coos Bay Bridge girders

And across the main span, an equally graceful series of steel girders crosses the roadway in a series of gothic arches, crossing themselves in a way reminiscent of the great crossed arches of Exeter Cathedral in England.

As you drive across, you can’t help but have the feeling that you are driving down some great dignified nave.

His bridge over the Rogue River is a counterpoint of tall, Roman-aqueduct-style arches against the longer bouncing-ball arches of the spans themselves. Built in 1931, it was the first structure in America to be constructed with the Freyssinet method of pre-stressing concrete and has been designated as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Cape Creek Bridge

Cape Creek Bridge

Three different types of arch work together in the Cape Creek Bridge at Devil’s Elbow State Park, and in the Yaquina Bay Bridge at Newport, the 3,223-foot structure is a graceful ascending line of highway supported by long, flowing arches, with a center-span arch that leaps high above the roadway. The center span is further set off by the concrete ”finials” that top off the support span.

Yaquina Bay Bridge

Yaquina Bay Bridge

A lot of money has been spent on public art, but very little is of such lasting significance as these civil projects created by an engineer who was also an artist. When McCullough died in 1946, he left a more lasting and distinct personal signature on the state than any political or social leader.

St. Johns Bridge

St. Johns Bridge

sea lion caves interior

The Pacific coast has its share of tourist traps. You can drive through the middle of redwood trees, see Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox at the Mystery Trees, or you can shop in a beached ship.

Most of these venerable stops are getting on in years and it shows in the generally seedy look of weathered paint and warped lumber.

And one of the oldest attractions on the Oregon coast had always sounded just as depressing. I had passed the Sea Lion Caves, about 10 miles north of Florence, several times, but had never deigned to go in. It was my loss. sea lion caves building

For although the caves first waylaid tourists in 1932, it is surprisingly well kept. The small shop at the top of the cliffs that serves as ticket booth and souvenir stand looks as if it were built last year.

Your ticket gets you an elevator ride 208 feet down into the cliff rock, and when you get off, you are in a subterranean cave with a gallery view of the only mainland sea-lion rookery in the world.

The star of this show is the Steller’s sea lion, the larger of the two West Coast sea lions, and you will see up to 200 of them lounging on the rock in the cave below or diving into the pounding surf that tears into the cave every few seconds.

Most people go in the summer. This is a mistake. First of all, you have to fight hoards of tourists and you are whisked down the elevator and back up in as short a time as possible to make room for the next gang.

Second, it is in the winter and spring when the sea lions come to the cave to live and breed.

I was there in December, which like most months on the Oregon coast, is the rainy season. It was 43 degrees with a steady 20 knot wind, gusting to 35 — there is a weather station on site to keep track of these things — and a constant downpour of icy rain, the kind that soaks down to the bone. sea lion caves

In the cave, you are protected from the wind, but it is just as cold and raw, and there is the added pleasure of the barks and yowls of 200 yammering sea lions, which is as loud as certain places at an airport, and the smell, which has been likened to sweat-soaked sneakers, but I say is closer to warm kimchi.

The cave itself is immense: The floor covers two acres under a cave-dome 125 feet above the surf. The waves crash into the west-facing opening and slosh and foam across the piles of rock on the cave floor, where the sea lions sit and howl at each other.

In December, too, it is very dark in the cave. The low sun and the cloudy skies make for perpetual twilight in the cave; it glows with the burnished light of a cathedral interior.

The murk hides the animals at first. It’s hard to see them, although by ear and nose, their presence is well proved.

When you adjust to the gloom, you are shocked to see hundreds of them. Some of the rocks you first saw turn out instead to be a mother and her cub. A young male stands on the peak of the highest rock and lets his throat cut loose straight up into the air.

The gallery where you stand is 50 feet above the throng, and you are separated from the main part of the cave by a chain-link fence.

I watched the goings on — which looked more than anything else I can think of like the floor of a political convention — and only later realized that one sea-lion cow was directly under me on the other side of the fence. I had thought she was a rock, but she rolled over, threw one flipper up into the air like a shark fin and used her hind flipper to scratch her ribs.

She got up and watched me watching her. She stared for some time and weaved her head back and forth, the way you see circus seals bob when performing. I weaved back at her. When she finally decided that the long nose of the big sea lion watching her was really only my ball cap, she lost interest and flopped down again to try to sleep. She must have been an insomniac, because she tossed and turned for some time trying to find the comfortable position.

The cold finally got to me. I lost feeling in my knuckles. I was the only one in the cave, except for the attendant, a genial elderly man with a cultivated New England manner of speaking.

”Not very busy today,” I ventured. ”Must be a madhouse in the summer, though.”

”It moves right along,” he said. ”Our busiest day last summer, we had 1,723 people. The elevator couldn’t get’em up and down fast enough.”

The main natural entrance to the cave was discovered by a fisherman in 1880. He later bought the property, although there wasn’t much he could do with it, as there were no roads in that part of Oregon.

It wasn’t until the Coast Highway, now U.S. 101, was built that anyone thought of developing the property. And when they did, they provided a downhill climb of a quarter mile followed by descent down 250 stairs into a secondary natural opening to the cave. It wasn’t until 1961 that an elevator was installed, making the drop to the gallery possible for anyone but the best athletes. Heceta Head Lighthouse

Now, that secondary opening is a balcony looking out to the north of the bluff where the cave is situated. And framed by the rocky window is a view of the Heceta Head lighthouse. No more archetypally Oregon coast scene could be possible: A rocky headland topped with dark green trees is crowned with the squat white shaft of the lighthouse, which beams out its flash every 10 seconds.

When I rode the elevator back up and got out into the wind at the top of the cliff, I looked out over the ocean and saw a dark gray squall moving on the surface of the water headed directly at me. I thought it a good idea to go the the souvenir shop and wait for it to pass.