I avoided I-84 after that summer. By the time I did return, I had almost forgotten the reason. The summer of 2018, another season of wildfires and dark skies, never kept it that far from my mind, especially after I learned that a winter buried under snow doesn’t always kill a fire. Some of them burn too deep and flare up again the next season.
Even still, driving back through the Gorge with my sister at the wheel, the first blackened trees take me by surprise. It’s somehow not as bad as I pictured, but something about it makes my stomach hurt.
“Is it really that noticeable?” my sister asks.
“I’m not sure.”
It’s strange for us to go back home. My sister is usually the one who gets nostalgic. We eat breakfast at the old diner we used to haunt as high school kids in obnoxious packs of bored teenagers trying to scrape together meals out of side dishes. My sister is stressed out, checking emails and making note of who she needs to call when we get back from camping. Little things like this make me proud of her. I don’t recognize any of the people working, but hometown rules say some of them are still here.
Hood River is fixed in my mind as a place where nothing ever changes, but it's not true. We go to our old regular, the coffee shop across the street, and an unfamiliar face behind the counter shocks me. I panic and order the first thing I read on the board: iced mint lavender tea. It's good, a little odd maybe.
Walking down Oak Street, I get that same uneasy feeling I had looking at the hills where the fire had raged on the drive here.
The Eagle Creek Fire was the fifth largest wildfire in the Pacific Northwest two years ago. Norse Peak, the High Cascades Complex, Diamond Creek, and Chetco Bar were all larger. To hear the way people talked, you might have thought there had never been a fire before Eagle Creek. It started when a teenage boy threw fireworks into the canyon in tinder-dry conditions.
I remember a girl I knew, a Portland girl, someone I met through work, telling me she was heartbroken. She said, “The Gorge is our playground. How could he?” And I thought that was a bit funny.
The Gorge is dizzying mountains and punishing ridges. It’s wind strong enough to push you over. It’s valleys swept through by rivers that teach you to push through fear and dive into shocking cold, even if just to show off to your friends. It’s rocks formed by millions of years of stories that my father used to tell me while we switch-backed up hills so I wouldn’t give up before we reached the top. It’s wilderness that makes you want to pray.
A playground is something else. It's defined by human presence. It derives value from its capacity for entertainment. A playground is somewhere to be young and carefree, dumb teenage heaven. If the Gorge were really just our playground, then how could he not?
That same summer, I camped with some friends at a lake in the Mt. Hood wilderness. We lugged our gear down the hill to a lakeside campsite, set up, and settled in for the night. Much later – perhaps early morning – we heard a group come down the hill somewhere nearby, crack some beers, and start a fire.
This is not terribly unusual in the middle of a burn ban. The primal need to get warm and gather around the flames overpowers the risk for many people, especially after a certain time of night in the mountains. The next morning, as we were rummaging around the cooler discussing what to have for breakfast, a woman marched into our camp and demanded to know if we had camped here last night.
Confused, we started to answer, when she interrupted. “I can’t believe you!” she shouted. “Are you stupid? What’s wrong with you? I called the park rangers on you, and they’ll be here any minute to deal with you. I called them at least ten times last night. You should be ashamed of yourselves.”
We calmly explained to her that it had not been us who lit a campfire last night.
“Oh,” she said, “so now you’re going to lie to my face? I know it was you, I could see it across the lake! Do you think I’m stupid?”
Her husband stood several feet behind her, silently shaking his head at us.
“What kind of idiot lights a fire in the middle of a burn ban? We were so afraid you were going to burn the whole forest down we couldn’t sleep. I’m from Wisconsin!”
Her volume was increasing by the sentence, and tears started welling in her eyes. “We came here for some goddamn peace and quiet! Don’t you know the Gorge is on fire? What do you have to say for yourselves?”
This finally gave us the opportunity to show her our fire pit, which was cold and unused. She stormed off, unapologetic, maybe to find the actual offenders. We speculated on the level of rage that culminates in the fearless confrontation of strangers in the woods.
Had we done as she accused, we would have faced a hefty fine from the pleasant and efficient park ranger who visited us later that morning. We also would have risked the mountain, the forest, and the wilderness to which each one of us owed our lives, but our visitor from Wisconsin had no way of knowing we felt like that.
The park ranger discovered the offending fire in the campsite further up the hill, now abandoned and littered with PBR cans. He came back down the hill shaking his head. “Thanks folks,” he said. He fixed his unnervingly blue eyes on us. “That fire was still white hot. Kids, if I had to guess.”
We shook our heads in return and thanked him as well. “This is why we should never camp near other people,” I joked by way of closure.
As the day progressed, we kept returning to that morning’s events. We thought she was lucky it had been us that she accused and not a less friendly group of campers enjoying a previously quiet morning by the lake. We talked about the confidence with which she marched into unknown territory, the ownership she seemed to feel, and what might have caused her to inform us that she was from Wisconsin in a conversation that arguably might have gone better without that detail.
Oregon is not exactly known for its welcoming attitude towards visitors. I still recall the first time I learned about Tom McCall, a former governor of Oregon who had a great and eloquent love for our state. I was on I-84 with my family, uncomfortable in the scratchy grey back seat of our dark red 1989 Toyota Camry, my mind drifting as I watched the wind kick up waves on the Columbia River. I noticed that my parents were chuckling about something and requested they repeat themselves.
They told me that, when you came into Oregon, the signs used to read, “Enjoy your visit,” because we didn’t want people to stay. Though the wording on the signs predated Governor McCall, he memorably echoed the sentiment in a 1971 speech when he implored, “Come again and again. But for heaven's sake, don't move here to live.” Unfortunately, that's only the lighter side of Oregon's unwelcoming history.
Although I'm sure she's long since gone home, our visitor from that morning has stayed with me in some way.
The Eagle Creek fire, the many other fires that year, and the fires that will follow in coming years are worries that belong to all of us. I don’t blame her for wanting to have some part in it. I think what she meant to do was explain that she had come a very long way to enjoy that particular Oregon beauty that is both rare and intimidating. I think she meant to say that she was very sad that our state was on fire. I think when she looked at us, she saw selfish and stubbornly ignorant people who didn’t give a damn about a wilderness so perfect it makes your throat ache. She had no way of knowing how this place raised us.
She didn’t know what she was doing, but she was trying to do something, and for that I admire her. In any case, we are all careless in our own ways.
It's strange, the connection we feel to lines drawn over the landscapes that form us. South of the Columbia, west of the Snake, east of the Pacific Ocean, and north of a random straight line, I am comfortably boxed inside my Oregon home. I call myself an Oregon girl, but what I really mean is that I used to walk through apple and pear orchards every morning to get to school. My high school crush taught me to shoot film on the banks of the Hood River. I was an unwritten book wedged between Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood, a story unfolding on steep basalt cliffs and snow-covered trails. Everything I know is written in these rivers, hills, trees, and mountains. The rest is nothing.
I don’t know what Wisconsin is like, but I hope it has a similar hold on her.
It is strange, too, to lay claim to the land contained within these line drawings – these states, nations, districts, provinces, countries. Maybe it’s not ownership we feel. Maybe that’s the wrong word. I sometimes call Mt. Hood “my mountain,” not to indicate that it belongs to me, but that I belong to it. To stand beneath that sheer grace, that brooding power, and dream of ownership is impossible. At the foot of the mountain there is only mountain.
Inside the folding and bending and thrusting and crashing of these wild places, we lose ourselves. And when we lose ourselves, we become capable of change.
Waist-deep in shockingly cold water as sunlight cascades over the riverbank, there is no playground. There is no possession. There is only reverence.
The people who know have finally given up on civility and soothing tones. They have become the screaming woman from Wisconsin. They have hit the panic button. If we don’t act fast, we will lose all of this. There are those who say we will anyway. No one knows what to do, but we have to try to do something.
After a fire rages over the land, recovery begins. Even when all is lost, nature follows its innate drive to move and breathe and create and renew.
We are some kind of awful fire. We rage, burn, sweep through hills and valleys, jump rivers, change with the wind. We are unpredictable, ruthless, and uncontainable. We burn too deep to kill, but someday soon we will run out of things to burn.
Maybe all is lost. Maybe we don’t go out in time. Maybe this is it.
Or maybe we find the rivers running in our blood, the trees growing in our bones, the mountains rumbling and shaking and pounding in our hearts. We lose ourselves. We change.
We have finished our iced teas and our little walk up and down the main street of town. My sister jumps in the passenger seat so I can drive us up to Lost Lake for a few days. It’s a drive we’ve made many times. It’s changed a lot up there even in the last twenty years. It is overrun, often to the point of discomfort.
In my memory, my family and I are the only ones there. We are standing on the shore of the lake. I am young and impetuous, and I want to go swimming even though it’s October. There’s some talk about whether or not to let me, but it is eventually agreed that I will be allowed to try. I don’t last long, and it makes me dizzy.
Down in the water I must have heard something, some long lonely cry or some fierce joyous shout. Some reason. Some force.
I go to Lost Lake like a prayer, no matter how much it changes. I put my hands in the water and remember. Pulsing inside the water is a heartbeat and a hunger.
Nature knows the way.
Cain, E. (2013). Former Governor Tom McCall's Message to Visitors. OPB. Retrieved from https://www.opb.org/artsandlife/article/former-governor-tom-mccall-message-visitors/
Pesanti, D. (2018). Patience, caution urged after Eagle Creek Fire. The Columbian. Retrieved from https://www.columbian.com/news/2018/jul/13/patience-caution-urged-after-eagle-creek-fire/
Spoerre, A. (2018). The 22 biggest Pacific Northwest fires of 2017 and what caused them. The Oregonian. Retrieved from https://expo.oregonlive.com/news/erry-2018/06/14fd31a8f71513/a_look_at_the_10_largest_fires.html
"Tom McCall: A Better Oregon." (n.d.) The Oregon Historical Society. Retrieved from https://www.ohs.org/education/tom-mccall-better-oregon/quotes.cfm