Mt. Hood’s snowy cap peeks over the dark green hill of Mt. Tabor like a pointy white tooth. Or a pile of crumbling chalk, brilliant in the sunshine. I contemplate different analogies as I drive over the Marquam Bridge, heading home after showing property in North Portland. As I approach Gresham, the mountain appears here and there.
In my years driving around the metro area, I have mentally noted where you can see it: at the corner of 242nd and Powell, just as you pass the evangelical church, the paint store and the hair salon. On Burnside as you head down the hill towards Eastman Parkway, by the strip club and Kmart.
This spring Mt. Hood is sparkling. We’ve had a wet winter and the mountain is skirted down to its ankles in white, shining snow. Even in Gresham, it’s easy to forget that the mountain is still quite far away. It’s so ubiquitous, it’s easy to forget what the mountain is….
When I was in college getting my English degree, one of my professors pointed out that before the Romantic Poets came along, Europeans did not consider mountains beautiful. I think about this as I head home. We see Mt. Hood all the time – on postcards, calendars, in our everyday lives. We forget what the mountain actually is, the reality of it.
When I was a kid there was usually at least some snow that survived the summer heat. But as global warming marches along, the mountain is now mostly bare in the summer. When it is brown in August, when the haze floating down the gorge from I-84 obscures its borders in slimy wavering patterns, Mt. Hood is truly ugly.
Mt. Hood is a volcanic creation. It is rock pushed relentlessly from the earth’s mantle, sub-dermal stone pushed brutally up into the air, so high that no plants or animals can live at its summit. So high that water clings frozen to its sides. The mountain is a protrusion like a wart; it is a the surface of the moon on earth. It is death.
I found out on Monday that my old friend Kevin passed away from brain cancer. Kevin had brain cancer since when I first met him over ten years ago. I was twenty-three. We were sitting at a plastic table outside of a Mexican restaurant in Eugene. Kevin told me about trying to make a phone call and not being able to say the words in the right way, how he didn't know what was happening to him. He discovered he had a brain tumor.
Over the years we exchanged letters and poetry and zines. Sometimes I felt like Kevin was the only person who gave a damn about my writing.
When I found out he had died on Monday, I wept. I went to my filing cabinet and took out all his letters and spread them out on the floor. There it was – typed on white computer paper – his last letter. It had been almost a year ago when he’d sent it and now I couldn't even remember if I’d written him back. The letter was filled with grim health news, but for some reason, at the time, it hadn’t registered. Was I stupid, or cruel, or in total denial? Or some pathetic combination of all three? Kevin had always been there, Kevin had always had cancer, was always dealing with some health problem.
Now it was so obvious, Kevin had been trying to tell me the bad news. But it hadn’t registered. He’d been DYING and I’d just ignored it. Now he was gone and I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye, to tell him how much he’d meant to me.
The next day my mom and I visited some property in Stevenson for an out-of-town buyer. There was no sign. I pulled off the road after we called the agent, after driving back and forth on the country road several times trying to find the acreage. My mom and I parked and walked down the gravel logging-road, grown over with towering mounds of Himalayan Black Berry and cattails. As we got farther and farther from the road we began to hear a steady roar like a freeway on the other side of a row of cedars. And then we saw the source of the noise: a huge waterfall. The water dropped at least thirty feet to the creek below, droplets, steam and spray billowing up in a huge hovering cloud of water. . It was stunning. It also looked as if someone could easily fall to their death there. My mother refused to shimmy down the muddy bank to get a better view. I couldn’t resist and scrambled down with my cell phone to take pictures.
The site isn't marked. There is no state park nearby. No fence, nothing keeping anyone who knows where to look from hanging out down by the falls. We were both surprised that more had not been done to protect access to the creek and waterfall.
I wrote my client that if he did buy the property, the falls were going to be a liability, to anyone staying on the property and to the falls themselves.
I could say that humans and nature are bad for each other. I could make us separate from nature. But I won't do that.
We drove home, back over the Bridge of the Gods and my mom looked up the history of the freeways in Oregon on Wikipedia on her phone and read them out loud to me. We drove along 84, its stack of earth and concrete cutting through what were once wetlands. Do you remember what was here before? I asked my mom. She didn't know.
She continued reading. We learned that I-5 was built on the same route as the Siskiyou Trail, an ancient footpath and trade route used by Native Americans for thousands of years. Artifacts from Alaska, and even the American Southeast have been found in the Columbia River basin.
Back at our office, our principal broker stopped by. We got to talking about the property, about the roar of falling water at the falls we'd seen that morning. I showed her the pictures I had taken.
“I remember visiting Celilo Falls when I was very young,” she said. “I will never forget the roaring water. The men on the wooden fishing platforms … it was scary.”
Her father worked at The Dalles Dam and she said she remembers the falls on the Columbia, Celilo, before they were flooded.
Celilo means “the sound of falling water” in Chinook.
I said, “Man, I wish I could have seen that, I bet it was amazing. You know that Celilo was unique in the whole world? It was the longest inhabited place in North and South America. Twenty thousand years.”
“I didn’t know that,” she said. We both agreed that it was sad. We both agreed that the Native Americans, who were paid off by the government when the falls were flooded, got screwed.
“But then no one was going to stop the Dalles Dam, because Vanport,” I said. The Vanport flood had destroyed an entire city and killed a bunch of people in the years prior to the flooding of Celilo. The Columbia used to be much more dangerous, before it became one of the most dammed river systems in the country. It was tit for tat, the Dalles Dam.
I have a dull grief for it but could probably never cry over it. It’s just there. Coloring my experience as a person in the world.
Lately I have been crying a lot. I mean, I have always been a crier, but lately it’s been worse/better, more fruitful. I cry when I work out, I cry when I sing, I cry alone in my car thinking about birds and clouds. I’m not trying to be dramatic, but I am shedding something and opening myself up to something else, what that is, I’m not quite sure. I feel as if I am seeing the world in a new way.
And when I found out Kevin was dead, the tears came quickly and easily.
With my new eyes, Mt. Hood is less beautiful and everything else is more so. I wonder if Kevin saw this too, in his last months. Or if that’s the way he always saw and that’s why he was a poet. Maybe everyone cries alone in their car… I don’t know.
I have been taking new ways home. Driving east on Marine Drive instead of taking the freeway. The clouds hang differently here, over the water of the Columbia. A plane hovers down gracefully onto a runway at PDX. On Lombard, great waves of rainwater slide across the road and the trains glide by silently in grey and hyper-buoyant graffiti. Underneath the Fremont Bridge the columns of steel and concrete are mottled in moss, dirt, patchy white paint; I imagine them the great legs of some dinosaur. Ivy hangs from freeway overpasses. I merge onto 84 during rush hour. A group of six or seven homeless youth sit in a circle on a traffic island to my left. The traffic is moving slowly enough that I can see they’ve jumped a chain link fence to access the island, that they aren’t really stuck there, stranded among a sea of cars. I am relieved for them until I see one of them is inserting a needle into his pale, tattooed arm. And there is something wondrous about that too. That someone would live their pain so publicly. Of course, I still cringe and look away when I see it.
Yesterday I couldn’t bear to read all of Kevin’s old letters and cards. I put them back into my filing cabinet. Maybe someday I will be able to appreciate them in their own right. For now they represent my failure. I realize that this is a selfish reaction, but I can’t help it.