I'm always the first one who wants to go hiking. It happens every year in March, when the weather forecast in Portland, Oregon, calls for rain, drizzles, and showers -- distinctions made only in the Northwest. Folks assume I've lost my mind.
But, like most people, Oregonians often forget some of the basic natural advantages of their setting. (Speaking of which, spent any time on or around the Mississippi River lately?) Oregon straddles one of the more dramatic weather breaks around: The west side is a temperate rain forest, and the east side is a high desert. That opens up a host of recreational opportunities, especially when you throw in big mountains between and an ocean coastline to the west. But in spring, what it means is that while it's raining in Portland, the desert is blooming to the east. There's a kind of rain shroud that develops about 30 miles east of Portland, and if you go through that, you're in another world: the world of wildflowers.
So on a recent, typical spring day in Oregon, I called some friends and said let's go hiking. We had the usual conversation ("But the forecast," they cried. "The forecast!"), but soon enough, we were all latte'd up and driving east through the rain. It commenced to rain harder as we headed up the Columbia River. My friends looked at me nervously. Have faith, I said.
We drove through the Columbia River Gorge, another Northwest wonder, just beyond Portland's eastern suburbs. Imagine a huge river cutting through a mountainous gorge 4,000 feet deep, with the hills on both sides densely covered in trees, dozens of waterfalls all around, and parks and trails in abundance. Imagine, in short, the Mississippi flowing through the heart of the Smokies. Now imagine it in pouring rain and fog, and you're following a friend through it to go hiking.
But there is this springtime phenomenon of the rain shroud. It's right around the town of Cascade Locks, where the Bridge of the Gods (no, really) spans a narrow stretch of the Columbia. If anything, the weather is worse here than in Portland; when it's "drizzling" or "showering" in Portland, it's outright dumping and blowing in Cascade Locks. But just east of here, the funniest thing happens: The sky opens up, the trees give way to barren hillsides, and the hills get mellower. Gentle slopes rise 2,000 to 3,000 feet from the river, slopes which by May are baked to brownness by the desert sun. Ah, but in March and April, those same hillsides are carpeted with wildflowers.
As hikes go, the trails in this part of the gorge aren't much. They're more like walks or even strolls. But in March and April, there are places where, within two easy miles of walking, you can see dozens of species of wildflowers. One such place is Catherine Creek, where a pleasant stream winds its way through the oaks, drops over a couple of small falls, then empties into the Columbia. There's an old homestead on its banks, in a narrow canyon with a natural arch on one side, and above that are wide open hillsides with views of the river and Mount Hood, a snow-covered behemoth more than 11,000 feet high.
On our day of flower-seeking, we went to Catherine Creek, where a flower-enthusiast Web site I admire had recently identified 71 species of flowers in bloom. Some of the names are irresistible: chocolate lily, meadow death-camas, common bastard toad-flax, miner's lettuce, oaks toothwort, dutchman's breeches, biscuitroot, midget phlox, rigid fiddleneck, and the large-, small-, and few-flowered blue-eyed Mary.
To say that there are 71 species of flower in bloom is really a statement of faith. Between the four of us, we managed to pick out a dozen or so different ones, going with less scientific names like "little purple ones," "really little red ones," and "ones that look like big Q-Tips." Plus, we couldn't really tell the differences among the various desert parsleys, be they Columbia, pungent, slender-fruit, bare-stem, or nine-leaf. I can report with accuracy that desert parsley can be several feet across and a couple of feet high, with big purple or yellow blooms sticking out of it, and that it looks like it was left here by aliens. I can also report that Northwest balsamroot, which in places blooms by the acre, looks like a foot-tall sunflower.
I can also report that if you can drag them out of the rain and fog, people really appreciate a dose of sunshine and flowers. And if you occasionally take people out to show them where they live -- odd as that may sound -- they appreciate that too. As we drove back to Portland that day, back through the rain and even a little snow around Cascade Locks, somebody said it was comforting to know that, no matter what it's like back home, the world of wildflowers is just an hour away.