Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Caves and Mountains

(As always, you can click on the pictures for a better view.)

The next morning greeted us with gloomy skies, so we decided to visit Oregon Caves rather than Crater Lake, reasoning that weather doesn't matter so much underground. So we drove to Cave Junction, then along a winding forest road to the Caves, where we forked over $24 for the three of us and entered the black gash in the mountain:

These caves are called the "Marble Halls of Oregon," formed by rainwater from an ancient forest. I kind of expected something like the marble Mosaic Canyon in Death Valley, which looked like this:

Instead I got this:

and this:

Seriously, it looked like snot was dripping off the walls. Now we all know I like rocks — there's no way you can read this blog without dealing with the rock talk — but the Oregon Caves left me cold, and it wasn't just the 40-degree temperature. I spent the whole time silently going "Ewwww …" while watching Benny clamber along steep, uncertain paths ringed by bottomless chasms. After a while I felt I was walking through Moria with Frodo, except Moria was much nicer, even if you throw in the lake monster and the Balrog.

Here's a creepy ceiling shot:

I couldn't wait to get out of there, but Benny and Ron seemed to like it all right. We topped off the day at a Black Bear Diner, where Benny ordered a big stack of chocolate-chip pancakes.

The next day dawned bright and sunny and we praised Ron for suggesting we wait another day. It was Crater Lake day! Since the first time I saw Crater Lake 12 years ago, I have considered it one of Nature's most perfect places. The crater is gracefully round, the water is stunningly blue, the perky little island in the middle is a shiny green. Ron and Benny had never seen it so they had no idea what I was going on about. I wouldn't let them look at pictures or enter the visitor's center. No, we must first go straight to the lake — no detours.

Benny was a little jaded by this time after 11 days of natural wonders, and wasn't enthusiastic about climbing another mountain. Ron just patiently wound the Honda Fit through curve after curve, lined with Oregon's ubiquitous pine trees. The Fit chugged up the mountain like a champ -- after all, the little car had already traveled the Sierras, Cascades and Klamaths mountain ranges. It had tackled San Francisco hills and forded streams. It would take more than a 8,000-foot mountain to scare our little compact car.

But Benny's attitude changed completely when we we crossed the snow line. At first it was a little streak of white lining the road, then bigger clumps between the trees, until finally we entered a winter wonderland. I insisted we drive directly to the visitor center on the Rim, where the ground and trees were blanketed in snow. Crater Lake gets more than 30 feet of snow every winter, and the snowplows were still working to clear the Rim Drive.

It was nearly noon. I ran ahead of them and scrambled up a snowbank. "Come on!" I yelled, as if the mountain was going out for lunch or something. Ron and Benny followed, pelting each other with snowballs.

And there it was:

and here:

We posed for photos, squinting into the glaring sun:

Benny made a snowman:

Crater Lake was created when Mt. Mazama blew its top 7,700 years ago. Its summit collapsed after all the magma was released, forming a huge caldera. It took about 250 years of rain and snow to form the pristine lake. Cinder cones like Wizard Island formed on the bottom of the crater. The water is so intensely blue because the lake is so deep (589 feet deep, the deepest lake in the U.S.) and the water is so clear.

Crater Lake was the last official sightseeing spot of the trip, although we did admire Mt. Shasta in the distance as we drove south to San Francisco. We left the tumbled landscape of the Oregon-California border and entered the Sacramento Valley, with Lassen Peak on our left and the Coast Ranges on the right. We chose to drive around the northern rim of San Pablo Bay, turning south through Marin County and crossed the Golden Gate Bridge. (Dealing with Bay Bridge traffic is no way to end a vacation.) We loved the trip, but after 12 days on the road, we were so glad to be home again.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The River Rats

I spent the next morning at Cascade Locks, Oregon, sitting on our hotel room's balcony and anxiously watching the weather. Our cruise on the Columbia River was scheduled for 2 p.m. and the sky looked a little overcast. We were so excited that we turned up at the departure point at 1:15, and sat around the little Lewis and Clark Sidekicks park for a while, while Benny played on the statues of Sacagawea the the explorer's dog.

We boarded the boat, and the staff pointed out our reserved table and a buffet with drinks and appetizers, but we just dumped our bags and scampered to the top deck, where we watched the riverboat leave the dock. People were shrugging into jackets and sweaters, since the Columbia River Gorge acts as a natural wind tunnel, being pretty much the only big pass through the Cascades.

The Columbia River is literally older than the hills. It was here when the Cascade volcanic mountains formed. When Ice Age glaciers melted and the ice dams broke about 15,000 years ago, the meltwater rushed through the river valley, scouring out this amazing, long gorge. The steep cliffs and tall waterfalls are standing proof of the power of that water. Today, the Columbia River is the second-biggest river in the U.S. by volume. The rock the water cut through is your basic volcanic basalt, the same stuff the ocean floor is made of. This stuff erupted in floods all over the eastern half of Oregon from 20-15 million years ago. 

One side of the river is Oregon, the other Washington State. The big landslides happen on the Washington side because the rocks are stacked in layers, with thin soil layers in between. These rocks tend to slide like a stack of heavily buttered pancakes when the plate is tilted, according to my Roadside Geology book. On the Oregon side, the lava just squirted out all gloppy like toothpaste.

Gates closing behind us at the Bonneville Locks.

The gates open so we can continue west along the Columbia.
The Columbia River was a dangerous part of the Oregon Trail, and pioneers would make rafts and float down the powerful rapids toward Fort Vancouver. Now there are locks in place to tame the Columbia, and the passengers crowded the decks of our riverboat, watching as we cruised into a concrete box. Water was drained out of the box and the concrete cliffs loomed high on either side as we sank to the western river's lower level. 

Dinner on the riverboat. That's an Old-Fashioned in front of me.

The crew kept the food coming, and Benny stood at the bow, munching warm chocolate cookies and feeling life could offer nothing more. But it could -- I took him to visit the Captain, who allowed Benny to steer the ship! He set Benny in his chair and directed him to steer between buoys. Benny sat silently, his face screwed in concentration as we cruised past waterfalls.

Onenta Gorge
The wind was getting colder. I dug out a hand-knitted hat I'd bought last December in San Francisco the day we went ice skating with Andy on the Embarcadero. Benny refused to leave the railing and Ron and I took turns standing with him. 

Beacon Rock
   We passed Onenta Gorge, a natural slot in the cliffs. More than 50 kinds of plants live in this always cool and moist shelter. Nearby were the spectacular 620-foot Multnomah Falls and on the Washington side was Beacon Rock, an 848-foot-tall monolith made of andesite, the ancient core of a volcano.

Multnomah Falls

Finally, as we headed back to Cascade Locks we saw a big esprey nest built in a Coast Guard buoy. Every year the Guard has to clear out the nest, and every spring an esprey pair comes back, rebuilds the nest and raises another batch of chicks there. After visiting an esprey in the Raptor Center, Benny was happy to see one in the wild.

We arrived back at our hotel, tried but happy. The next day we planned to leave the Gorge and zip down I-5 again, headed toward Crater Lake.

An esprey and its nest on the Columbia River.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

On The Road Again

One thing about a drive through California, Oregon and Washington State (and I can’t be the first one to notice this) is that you spend a lot of time on the road. Each of us coped with the miles in a different way: Ron had his music, I had my books and maps, and Benny had his stuffed animals.

Benny brought three stuffed animals on this trip — Leopard, Sheepy and Leppy (a baby leopard) — which he kept in a little blue drawstring bag. At the Raptor Center they were joined by Baldy, the big stuffed eagle. The long hours on the road allowed Benny to conduct complicated scenarios with the animals. I sometimes wish we could rent a sibling for Benny for the longer stretches, since half the fun of road trips is bickering incessantly with your siblings:

“Mom, she keeps looking at me!”

“Mom, she’s chewing too loud!”

"Mom, now she's pretending to chew too loud!"

Benny was truly deprived, because the typical “I’m hungry”/ “We just ate”/ “I’m still hungry”/ “Stay out of the cookies”/ “When do we get to the hotel” exchanges with Mom just aren’t the same.

So Benny has the stuffed animals bicker instead about where they sit and who gets to look out the window and who has to be on the bottom of the drawstring bag. (He’s sitting on me!”) After watching the French Open on TV one morning, he fished out a tennis ball and started a series of complicated tournaments, with the animals hitting the ball back and forth. He pelted Ron with a string of tennis questions: “What’s a set? How many sets are there? What if the ball doesn’t bounce? What if it bounces twice? What if they lose the ball? How many tournaments are there? How do they choose the players?”

We all appreciated the break from the road in Portland, but on Saturday morning we were all bundled in the Fit again and headed across the Columbia River to Washington State. We could afford only a brief stopover at Mt. St. Helens that day, since I’d reserved us spots for Sunday on a riverboat cruise through the Columbia River Gorge.

The weather was dull and gloomy as we wound our way up the mountain. At the visitor center on I-5, the VolcanoCam showed only clouds at the crater, but we drove on anyway. The Cascade volcano’s 1980 eruption turned millions of acres of pristine forest into a virtual wasteland. As we drove we could still see massive mudslides, layers of ash and new forests of noble firs planted after the eruption.

When we reached the ridge, the volcano still had its big gray hoodie on, but the to Johnston Ridge Observatory was fascinating. A ranger gave a great talk detailing the eruption, holding up big color prints and jumping around the room. I half-expected him to bring out hand puppets next. The Observatory sits on a bluff 5 ½ miles from the crater and is named after volcanologist David Johnston, who was camping a few miles north of the volcano on May 18, 1980. That morning Johnston radioed his base shouting “Vancouver, Vancouver, this is it!” The volcano’s eruption devastated its northern side and Johnston was killed.

Roof of Johnston Observatory
We came back down the mountain in a more somber mood and stayed that night in Cascade Locks, a town on the Columbia River. We were too tired and cheap to go out for dinner, so we ate peanut butter sandwiches in our hotel room. Benny turned his dinner into a map of Oregon and Washington. The sandwich is Oregon, the two Xs are Portland and Cascade Locks, the top crust is the Columbia River, the carrot is the Bridge of the Gods, the potato chip is the basalt lava flows that covered half of Oregon 17 million years ago; and the pretzels are Washington State.

Oregon for dinner.
The Bridge of the Gods (see carrot, above) has, of course, a wonderful name and a marvelous story. It was once a natural land bridge remembered in local legends by Native Americans. According to legends, the bridge was built by two brother gods who settled on opposite sides of the Columbia River so they could get together over the holidays. There was a family feud (over a woman, of course) and The Columbia River eventually broke through the land bridge and washed away most of the debris. All the gods behaved so badly they were eventually turned into mountains: Mount Hood, Mount Adams and Mt. St. Helens.

A modern bridge is now built on the spot, also called the Bridge of the Gods, but fails to live up to its name. Frankly, it's one of the ugliest, ricketiest bridges I've ever seen. Ron ran across it (it's actually part of the Pacific Crest Trail) and the bridge rattles and you can see the river through the steel supports under your feet. Here's a series of gorgeous pictures of the Bridge of the Gods, which just shows that a good photographer and the Columbia River can make any man-made eyesore look good.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Hip in Portland

We had a late start on the drive to Portland. I'd spent a lot of time sitting on the balcony at the Oregon Garden resort, swathed in blankets. I’d been feeling under the weather for a few days now, but a morning's rest helped and I was ready for Portland.

I was a little nervous about Portland: I’m always nervous about going to new cities, which is odd, because I’ve been to so many of them. Especially cities I’ve heard a lot about. I’d heard that Portland was hip and liberal in a freshly scrubbed, outdoorsy kind of way. I’d heard it was friendly to families, which was nice. San Francisco, on the other hand, has more dogs than children, and more families leave every year, driven out by high housing costs and a screwy kindergarten assignment system. We love living in the city, but it requires accommodations.

On the way to Portland, we took a quick detour to Oregon City. It's pretty small – about 30,000 people — but was the largest town in the Oregon Territory before it was overshadowed by Portland. It was also The End of the Oregon Trail, although the Trail’s national historic center and its fabled Wagon Ruts are in Baker City.

Oregon City's End of the Trail interpretive center looked like a rest area with a circle of giant covered wagons. Inside was a gift shop and a weird exhibit on maternity clothes on the Oregon Trail, with sketches of women busting out of their corsets. My favorite part was actually the steps leading up to the center, with the name of a famous Trail marker on each step: Independence, Platte River, Chimney Rock, Fort Laramie, etc. But the steps were grimy and neglected, and the whole place looked like a victim of funding cuts.

We sped out of Oregon City and merged onto I-205. My guidebook, which rarely steered us wrong, had marked the Aloft Hotel by the airport with a smiley face (good for kids). Plus it was cheap and right on the MAX light rail line. So I called ahead and reserved two nights.

Yeah, the Aloft was great for children, if said children were 23 years old and hyper-wired. Leaving Ron and Benny in the car, I walked in and immediately felt out of place in my Raptor Center t-shirt and Oregon Garden ball cap. The lobby looked like a Las Vegas nightclub with chairs, all flashy neon and backlit liquor bottles and cubist lounge furniture. Ron and I hauled our scruffy suitcases through the narrow halls to our room, which was comfortable enough. The only weird thing about it was the yellow window in the shower stall, which allowed a guest in the sleeping area to watch another guest take a shower. I’d love to know what focus groups prompted W Hotels to add that little feature.

The next morning we boarded a light rail train for downtown Portland. All the wonderful things that have been written about the city’s mass transit system are absolutely true. For $5 apiece we bought day passes that covered every train, bus and trolley car in the city, unlimited use. The trains and buses were neat and quiet with windows that were obviously washed on a regular basis (unlike the trains and buses in a certain city with the initials SF).

We popped out of the train into the sunshine of Pioneer Courthouse Square with its big waterfall fountain. We strolled around its pristine Pioneer Courthouse, built in 1869. I wonder if anyone realizes what a jewel this building is. We admired the antique furniture and the paintings and walked up to the cupola, which had its original windows made by pouring thick, molten glass into molds. Posted at each window were historic views of the city so even strangers like us could see how the city had changed.

We left the courthouse and strolled through the leafy streets packed with coffee shops and donut shops and pretty flowering parks. Everything looked fresh and scrubbed to our jaded San Francisco eyes, the city reminded us of a big Ann Arbor. Actually Oregon in general had a very Midwest feel to us – like Michigan with mountains. People were friendly and talkative, especially the gas station employees, who are required by law to pump our gas. Ron loved this and announced that it should be a law everywhere.

Then we visited the Oregon History Museum was south of Pioneer Courthouse Square and full of exhibits about geology, the Oregon Trail, Native American culture, and more. Then we took the light rail to the Japanese Garden, which cost nearly $10 a head but was worth every penny. Benny was given a treasure map to follow and darted around the gravel walks and wooden bridges, looking for lion dogs, pagodas, bronze cranes and buddhas with tiger cubs. Ron and I trailed behind, stopping at little streams and arbors.

We topped off the day with a visit to VooDoo Doughnuts near Portland’s Chinatown. We’d been wondering where all the Portland hipsters were — downtown was all office workers and tourists — and found them standing in a coiled line for Voodoo Dolls, a doll-shaped doughnut with chocolate frosting and a pretzel stake. Ron picked out a Captain My Captain, topped with Captain Crunch and Benny had a giant doughnut with Oreo cookie chunks and I ate a doughnut-shaped explosion of colored sprinkles.

We bought extra doughnuts for the next morning, for we were hitting the road the next day, and the Aloft Hotel was too hip for continental breakfasts, preferring a “Grab and Go” bar stocked with expensive treats. We planned to cross the Columbia River and drive up Mt. St. Helens, through the eruption-devastated landscape. I couldn't wait.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Redwoods and Butterflies

The next morning we took surprisingly hot showers at the KOA camp and ate a huge pancake breakfast before hitting the road. Today we hoped to tour the redwood forests that stretch to the Oregon border.

At this point I’d turned off the email feature on my cell phone to avoid the regular messages from my memoir writing group. I’d joined this group the month before  and these people are actually quite talented. We have a former cult member, a woman whose family survived the Holocaust and a former Tibetan nun who just published a self-help book for sex addicts. They are, however, a little obsessive. The leader, who I’ll call Padme, wants consensus on everything, and actually suggested I join a conference call to discuss scheduling while on vacation. Obviously, that couldn’t happen, especially since I’d taken a very hard line about Ron dealing with work during our trip. I was already unhappy because he’d be forced to take three phone calls about an upcoming biotech forum in the first week of the trip. So I had to set some boundaries with the group, but that didn’t stop them from sending out a stream of emails every day, making my phone knock like a tiny woodpecker with each one. I like my writing group, but sometimes it’s a little too Berkeley for me.

Anyway, we drove to the end of Highway 1 and turned onto the Avenue of the Giants, past all the weird sings and giant wooden Big Foots. A sign promising a drive-through redwood tree lured us off the highway for a picnic lunch. The big pond nearby teamed with bullfrogs. It was a big frog family reunion, from the large, croaking males to the smaller females hissing nearby in approval, to baby frogs hidden in reeds and tiny tadpoles wiggling along the edges.

The next day we hiked through redwoods, resting at times to listen to the trees creak in the wind. You could close your eyes and pretend you were on a seafaring galleon, listening to the rigging creak, it was that loud. Ron took his first conference call parked outside a tiny general store in Gasquet near the Smith River, while I sat on a wooden bench and read “Magic of Oz” to Benny.

At this point we’d left the Coast Ranges, created when the Pacific Ocean floor slid under North America, scraping off  sediment and ocean floor and crumpling it into mountains. We’d entered the Klamath block, a complicated series of rock belts and closely resemble the Sierra Nevadas. In fact, geologists think the Klamath block is the northern part of the Sierra Nevadas, moved north about 60 miles. My book promised some basalt pillows near the Smith River but I couldn’t find any at the one path that offered river access. So I took some pictures of butterflies instead.

Benny at the Smith River near the Oregon border.

At Crescent City, we left 101 to head northeast toward Crater Lake. We were mightily tempted by the Oregon Caves just on the other side of the border, but it was getting late, so we stopped for the night in Medford, Oregon.

I checked the road conditions for Crater Lake, and they didn’t look great. The main route to the crater was open, but the drive around the crater’s rim was still closed. Snowplows were still removing the 31 feet of snow that piled up over the winter.

So we held a family council, and decided to head north on I-5, straight to Portland. From there we’d go to Mt. St. Helens, then tour the Columbia River Gorge. Then we’d circle back down to Crater Lake on the off chance the rim drive would be open. Such are the hazards of going to the Cascades in June.

I thought the drive up I-5 would be dull in a sort of I-94-oh-God-we’re-not-even-to-Kalamazoo-yet sort of way. But it was way fun. My repeated attempts to recognize Klamath geology were a dismal failure, but soon we were in the Willamette Valley anyway. At Eugene, we stopped by the Cascades Raptor Center, a nonprofit nature center and wildlife hospital specializing in birds of prey. We visited a couple dozen huge birds, unable to return to the wild due to injuries or birth defects.

It was a little pricey -- $18 for the three of us – but it was for such a good cause I didn’t mind. We never would have found the place, though, if it hadn’t been for our Greta Garmin, who directed us off I-5 and through a residential area and past some sheep and into a forest. We couldn’t help but think of those drivers who blindly follow their GPS into reservoirs and wondered if we’d end up in Montana before we had the wit to turn around.

Well, the place was worth every penny, especially for Benny, who loves big birds with talons. Many of them suffered eye or wing injuries, two physical attributes that raptors especially rely on. We saw a bald eagle from Alaska, some really loud kestrels, an absolutely huge gyrfalcon, a beautiful Hedwig snowy owl and a spooky Great Horned Owl who swiveled his head to watch Benny. Seriously, it was unnerving how it tracked the boy as Benny hopped from cage to cage.  We arrived right at feeding time, too, with volunteers moving between cages like carhops, carrying trays of dead mice. Benny spent some of his money on a big stuffed eagle he named Baldy.

The Loch Ness Monster at the Oregon Garden.
We spent the night just north of Salem near the Oregon Gardens, a spectacular 80-acre botanical garden.  It was warm and sunny the next morning, and Ron and I followed Benny as he scooted up paths and over bridges and around fountains. Benny actually knows the most about gardens in the family, since he’s spent a couple years in Grattan’s garden program. There were giant roses – you could choke on the scent – as well as a pet garden, a 400-year-old oak tree and shrubs shaped like bears. We had lunch at the garden before heading to Portland.

A black petunia at the Oregon Garden.

Beaches and Blueschist

Ron relaxing on the beach.
Ah, a summer day at the beach.  The perfect start to a vacation.

Sunday, May 27, was gorgeous, even at 8 a.m. in San Francisco, but we didn’t notice because we were too busy trying to load the Honda Fit without waking the entire building. Benny and I shuttled bags of all sorts — duffle bags, grocery bags, sleeping bags, tote bags — down the staircase.

The reason we had so many bags with that we hoped to camp on this two-week trip. How could a family drive north through California, Oregon and Washington State and not camp? Well, we could, actually, but we still had hopes even though we were short one sleeping bag and our tent was still in its unopened box. Yeah, I know.

Finally, we piled into the Fit at 8:09 a.m. and headed for the Golden Gate Bridge. We don’t usually start our vacations this early – we always plan to and never do. But we had a strict deadline: Today was the Golden Gate Bridge’s 75th Anniversary, and we needed to get out of town before roads started closing at 9 a.m. for the festivities.

 The Fit was stuffed to the rafters: Benny brought three stuffed animals and set them up so they could get a good view of the coast. We planned to drive up Highway 1, along the Pacific cliffs, until 1 ended north of Fort Bragg. We stopped at a gas station before climbing into the Marin headlands, but Ron was so outraged that the Arco would only accept cash or debit cards that he refused to use it.

So we looped through the Coast Range, Benny and I munching crackers to keep from getting carsick, and before long we realized that Ron’s principles could leave us stranded somewhere along Tomales Bay. To keep my mind off the gas gauge I pointed out the long, skinny bay that followed the San Andreas fault and told Benny how the ocean floor on our left was moving north and the land on the right was moving south.

My suggestion to take a detour to Inverness didn’t help the situation. Our Garmin GPS navigator (we called her Greta Garmin, or Greta) claimed there was a gas station there, but that turned out to be a Highland legend. The car was silent as we picked our way back to 1. And just as things were getting really nervewracking, we found a little  gas station at Point Reyes Station. Of course, it was an Arco, and yes, it accepted only cash or debit, and yes, it was 20 cents more a gallon than the first station, and yes, we have all learned a valuable lesson — shall we move on?

Benny at Sonoma Coast State Beach.
We stopped at Sonoma Coast State Beach, just south of Jenner, for lunch, where we joined a long line of cars (it was Memorial Day weekend, after all) to enter. Benny and I played catch on the beach, while Ron watched, swathed in his heavy Giants coat. 

Benny and the blueschist
We stopped again at Shell Beach, where my Roadside Geology book promised blueschist. Blueschist is a rare metamorphic rock that's created when sedimentary rocks get stuffed into an ocean trench. Here's Benny with some blueschist — at least I think it's blueschist — it's blue, anyway, and that's good enough for me.

That’s always how it is with me and geology – I’m extremely interested in rocks, but I have no natural feel for them, so it’s hard for me to identify anything that isn’t painfully obvious. So I try to confine myself to the simple stuff: if it’s thin, red folds, it’s probably ribbon chert; if it’s black and globby, it’s probably pillow basalt; and if it’s a big blue rock, it might just be blueschist. Benny patiently sat on top of some blue rocks for me, but his favorite part hopping through a huge mud puddle that blocked the path down to the beach.

Where's Benny?
Around 3 p.m., I noticed in my guidebook a KOA campsite just north of Point Arena. It sounded like kid heaven, so we nabbed a tiny cabin — one room, with a bunkbed and big bed and and a porch swing and picnic table outside. The whole place was like a 1950s time warp. We grilled hot dogs in the camp kitchen and then Benny and I rode rental bikes around the campsite. Then we went to the ice cream social and sat by the campfire with our cones while some campers fired up the karaoke, starting with Bon Jovi:

“Tommy used to work on the docks
Union's been on strike,
he's down on his luck
It's tough, so tough …”

Benny loved it, singing along with the chorus …

“Whooah, we’re halfway there
Maybe I’m a bear!”

At that point, we had to leave, Ron and I were laughing so hard. It was bedtime anyway, for we hoped to see the redwoods the next day.