Sunday, July 14, 2013

Mount Hood

They say its visible from downtown Portland, but you couldnt prove it by us. Even a drive to the high hills overlooking the airport failed to gain us a glimpse.  But Mt. Hood, named for a British aristocrat who never saw it either, is very much a feature of Oregon's landscape, as my wife and I discovered on vacation early this month.

Early in April we started planning our escape from the inferno that Texans charitably call summer. Finding Canadian Pacific Railway tours booked solid and other possibilities out of reach, we settled on the Pacific Northwest.  Neither of us had been to Oregon before; the coast and mountains offered the prospect of cool weather, and the price was right. So in the middle of June, just as Austin temperatures reached the century mark, off we flew to Portland.
Mt. Hood has long been accessible to the major population centers of central Oregon.  Railroads built to exploit the region's timber reached the base of the mountain late in the 19th century, and a paved road connected Portland with Mt. Hood in the 1920s.  In 1937   Franklin Roosevelt followed that route to inaugurate the Timberline Lodge, a WPA project that provided employment in a region hard hit by the Depression and has offered food and shelter to millions of visitors since.

We reached Mt. Hood after touring the Columbia River gorges, driving Oregon State Highway 35, that climbs nearly 6,000 feet in 57 miles.  The rapid ascent quickly disoriented my senses.  After a while, I could not always appreciate the road's gradient.  Were we climbing or descending?   And as one curve followed another, I began to wonder when, or if, the mountain would come into view.  But as we rounded a bend about 25 miles into the climb, an enormous, white mass spread across the windshield. On this sunny day Mt. Hood was luminous-- snow against the blue sky, convection currents rising from the snow, a brim-shaped cloud at the summit.  For the next 30 miles, variations
on that vision came in and out of sight. Peggy kept us from going over the cliff more than once, as the beauty of the mountain distracted my attention.

We had secured a reservation at the Timberline Lodge, a great stroke of luck we thought until we learned that rooms are often available during the week.  Our luck with the weather was prodigious, though, as the skies cleared for our arrival after a week of showers.  The lodge preserves much of the architecture and furnishings of its original construction, including the monumental timber superstructure and hand crafted ironwork that adorns interior spaces.  Some latter-day enhancements-- central heat, private bathrooms and a bar among them-- address modern expectations.

As we reached the lodge, Peggy noticed several RVs bearing parabolic antennas and decals of Fox News and NBC.  We would learn later that a hiker had gone missing two days before.  Rescue operations were in full swing, with helicopters launching from the parking lot and ski patrol teams coming and going, day and night. We read later in the trip that the hiker, a 59-year old dentist who
had climbed in the area for decades, died falling into a crevasse as he trained for a trip to Nepal.

Mt. Hood is one of the few locations in the United States to provide year-around skiing, though by late June only one of the lifts was operating. During our stay employees "groomed" the slopes early each morning, using tracked vehicles with front mounted, revolving blades.  After a short hiatus, the parking lot filled with the sound of skiers walking with a distinctive clop, clop, made the heel-toe gait of their rigid boots.  The rest of the costume is very gansta'.  Baggy pants or shorts, enormous, shapeless tee shirts, and balaclavas all are de rigueur.  We made an acquaintance with a small crew of filmers who had come to cover a snowboard competition that was to take place on the weekend.

We went on to see the mountain from the hiking trails, a reflecting pond and our room. As we drove down the mountain on our way to the Pacific coast it started to rain. We knew we had been very lucky.