Friday, January 23, 2009

The Umpqua River Valley, Highway 38, Oregon

I filled the chip on my camera with pictures of this drive. Out of all of those pictures, only three give you even a vague hint of what this place looked like. THREE. And to tell, you'll have to click to make them bigger because the effect is that faint.
Now, trying to capture exactly what I was seeing that particular day might not have been a realistic goal anyway owing to the subtlety of the light. But I managed to get three hints. Completely inadequate hints.

I cannot urge you strongly enough...if you ever, ever get a chance, go drive through the Umpqua River valley. There's other locations in Oregon that are more spectacular and impressive; but there is something about this place that is so beautiful, gentle and perfect that it almost broke my heart.

So here I was:

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I took I-5 down past Roseburg to Winston, and headed west to Coquille on highway 42. You can deedle around with the map enlargement thingie if you're really interested in seeing for all the good it'll do you. They show highway 42 doing this:

and what it really does is this:

which, to be fair, is a scenic enough drive too; at least those glimpses you manage to catch as you're speeding downhill with a log truck ramming your rear bumper and turkeys attacking you.

Had I to do it over again I would have still gone by this route if only because it goes directly into Coquille and no place else; and when you're going somewhere for the first time in a state where people think that logical city planning, good roads and street signs are vain extravagances, DIRECT is GOOD.

Once, however, was enough.

I went back this way:

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...I took 101 up the coast to Reedsport. There, I took a right at Highway 38, heading east toward Drain, then caught 99 up to Curtin and I-5.

I am taking particular pains to direct you here because everyone needs to go see this place at least once before they die.*

The area is the Umpqua River Valley. I didn't name the river or the valley; I have no idea what Umpqua means, if anything. Just be nice. I bet you think that the Callapooia and the Skookumchuck rivers have funny names too. That's just fine. *snif* You think that.

If you own a motorcycle or a sports car, go NOW. It is one of the most beautiful stretches of roadway on the West Coast. The road is twisty but not perilously so; the surface is well maintained and the grades are all pretty gentle. You travel alongside the river for the most part. The whole time you are going through beautiful low-altitude forest interrupted by open stretches of rolling fields that look something like wine country. And no turkeys. That I saw.

The Umpqua valley is fairly wide and the hills around it are mostly uniform in height. It was about 3 in the afternoon, full on day and beautiful... not a cloud in the sky and 72 degrees. The valley, however was filled with just a trace of mist, just barely enough to soften the outline of everything and diffuse light that was already oblique owing to the low angle of the winter sun in the sky. The hilltops all around were standing in the sunshine like islands. The valley itself stayed in a mild, constant twilight.

For the greater part of the trip I drove alongside the calm, flat river. There was only an occasional stretch of small rapids crossing it. From a distance I thought I was seeing white horses walking through the water. In the darker turns spray had frozen into lace shelves along the banks.

The forested stretches are filled with lots of different kinds of trees, most prominently cedar, fir and hemlock, bare alders and oaks, with Scoulers' willow and hazel and osier and vine maple along the water. All the branches of the oaks and alders and a good portion of the barer evergreens were furred with a thick, pale jade lichen, crisp as kale, unexpectedly bright and amazingly profuse. For some reason the trees closest to the water didn't support quite as much of this growth. There the Scoulers' willows were the tallest and stood in drifts along the bank, grey trunks, bright ochre yellow wands of new growth carried above like huge clouds. The new wood of the vine maples was bright red, and the osiers scarlet-orange. Wild hazels had hanging catkin fringes of golden tan. Separately, all this color wouldn't have been terribly noticeable, but growing in swaths as they were along the riverbanks, picked out by the odd quality of the illumination, they looked like colored mists..scarlet, yellow, golden and red.

The hillside cuts were filled with evergreen trees, the lower branches draped in long scarfs of ghostly bryophytic moss. These loomed over a rocky understory covered in cushions and blankets of yet more moss, every imaginable variety and shade of green, interspersed by huge splayed sword ferns and delicate skeletal snowberry bush with fruit clusters like white moths. Ranks of liquorice fern hung from the sides of the boulders, growing up through velvet green moss five inches thick and perfect, studded with little pearls of ice. Deep as the shadows were all the greens positively glowed...and when I say glowed, I mean that literally. It was as though everything were faintly luminous.

The further I drove the more I also began to take note of an odd, lambent, slightly unreal quality that informed everything I was seeing. What you saw were familiar things, of course, but as though everything was partially removed from the present. Not quite real. Everything visible flattened by distance and faintly, barely blurred by mist, and colored just slightly to the left of natural by the soft, reflected, pervasive light. It filled the valley with the same kind of glimmer that light under water has; everywhere at once and sourceless, tinted by whatever color happened to be most prominent. That effect was further picked up and spread into optically illogical places by the pale lichen which filled the branches of nearly every tree.

You'd drive around one turn and enter a swale covered in yellow meadow grass, and everything was tinted gold; perfect, diffuse, orange gold filling the valley, spread by the haze like smoke. Everything took on a subtle difference in color from it, right down to the shadows. Anything already colored green was rendered even more brilliant and stood out like a star.

Around another corner where the black rock walls rose up around the road, everything was deep somber grey and colorless; black with damp or furred thick with needles of white frost. Then the next turn took you down into a valley filled with faint, faint violet as the sun skimmed the hilltops;

palest violet sky, pale violet mist condensed in little glittering drops on the barbed wire, on the broken antlers of an elk grazing next to the road, greens turned russet and sienna, shadows faintly blue.**

The most common effect of all was a perfect encompassing, pale green light, the color of a monarch butterfly chrysalis. Like what the insects first view of the world must look like from inside.

Occasionally you'd come on to a small town. Most of them consisted of a few wooden false-fronted buildings still open for business, not a plumb line in sight, all painted clean white. Usually a couple of grand Victorians graced Main street; an Odd Fellows Lodge or a bank or a company mercantile with a curly date in a demilune on top and a poured cement staircase leading up to the front doors. Narrow farmhouses on little rises, two arborvitae on either side of the door and two maples down by the road at the entrance to the driveway. Red barns. Blackberry tangles growing over old trucks. Sheep and lambs with clouds of steam rising off their backs. Two herds of elk, each one lead by a lone male who stood guard by the road, chewing grass like a cow.

Royce, you gave this to me. Thank you. And I really, really hope you still have a job.


*But remember: don't move there. Just go visit and spend a lot of money. Then leave.

*Yes, I missed the elk. Forget the elk. You know what an elk looks like. They weren't doing anything interesting anyway.


  1. Wow.

    Yeah, wow!

  2. SSA, unlinked!4:39 PM

    Oregon roads, why are you so amazingly heinous? Le Sigh.
    This area looks a lot like Crescent Lake over on the peninsula. Very pretty! I keep meaning to explore more of southern OR, and eastern Wa, and SE Oregon and more of NorCal...Seriously, Eureka, it calls to me with its salty, cedary, brew-tastic perfume...

  3. I laughed my arse off at the colorful rendition of the map quest addenda. gasp, snork,guffaw..... and then the descriptive poetry poured out of your mouth, kind of like when Marjorie K. Rawlings wrote in "The Yearling" when she was describing the food at a gathering, sumptuous,yeah sumptuous is a good word.

  4. Still no pics of buck nekkid arborists.

    All those trees and no nekkid arborists.

  5. It may give you an idea of Franconia ...

  6. First, there was the tale of your summer trip that made me add WA to my "must go" list. Now, I guess I have to add OR.

  7. Extremely interesting - do you think they will let me go and live there?

  8. I don't think I can make it this year.
    Looks cool and I'd love to encounter elk.

  9. It looks beautiful.
    At the moment, if I weren't frozen solid with -47C windchill I'd drive on down and see it for myself...

  10. If only They made propper maps like you do , I would travel miles out of my way to see inbred child eating dirt and turkeys, turkeys , turkeys.
    What we saw of the countyside on the journey back looks spectacular .

  11. Wow, that looks so much like I15 going out of Vegas!

    And how many different ways did you say green in that post?