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.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Green Tube Snake Crime the Plot is Thick!!

I tell you what, crossing the state of Washington to get back home here was like trying to swim the Amazon river holding a t-bone steak between my teeth.

...6 a.m. just outside of vancouver...the worlds prettiest traffic jam

The roads in Oregon suck, but the traffic in Washington just trumps that all to shit. What the fuck, people, you were all supposed to be home watching St. Obama take office, not out on the freeway driving like a stinky bad toilet! NO!!!! It was two in the freaking afternoon on a Tuesday, people! NOBODY NEEDS TO GO ANYPLACE AT TWO IN THE AFTERNOON!

Nevertheless, the trip went well. Once again I listened to the sound of silence coming from the direction of the passengers seat, nobody checking the goddamn speedometer, nobody checking the gas gauge, nobody hearing noises that mean we're all going to die coming from the engine compartment.
Of course I'm assuming silence here since the radio was playing loud enough to delaminate the safety glass.


My boy and I went wandering around Portland on Sunday, and decided to hit one of the local music stores. So we go driving up and dang; there I was smack in the middle of what used to be 'The Pink Triangle' up on Burnside; up by the notorious Kachina Lounge, the Family Zoo, and the Red Balcony.

Not no mo it ain't.

The Zoo is kaput, The Kachina is history, The Balcony is gone entirely, building and all. Here I was all braced to be chasing drag queens off my son, and nada.

And to top it off, Burnside as a whole is no longer lined two deep in winos, either. We did get spanged by a guy with a walker. I gave him a buck. He was wearing red nail polish.

First we (me and my son, not me and the guy in the walker) went to a music store and spent too much money, and then he (my son, not the guy in the walker) took me to this incredibly excellent place here:
...that's The Arborist with his elbow up on the bar...photographic proof that the apple did not fall very far from the tree. It fell as far as the next barstool over.

Here is the view past him, looking toward the front door. Pay attention, foreign persons in general and Mr. The Dog in particular; I took these for you. This is the inside of a cool bar in America.

Ok. Here is looking directly up at the ceiling. I'm not sure what purpose it served, but that round thing up there was covered in green and clear mirror pieces and it rotated. It kind of reminded me of that mind-control device in original Star Trek, where Kirk goes to the insane asylum planet and they put him in the device and it messes with his brain and makes him kiss that one broad? And then the one guy gets trapped in there and it sucks all his thoughts out and he dies of loneliness and then Captain Kirk says something pithy and they play the closing theme? Yeah.

I swear to you I am not falling off the barstool here; I was holding the camera at an awkward angle. Just turn your head sideways.

Look at how cool this place is. The Arborist has the most excellent taste, I swear. I loved it. They had excellent brew too. Plus there was a hot guy playing pool just out of shot to the right.

This was a bicycle parked out front of the place.
We are looking west up Burnside toward the old 'Kuntz Plumbing' building. -hey, I shit thee not. Kuntz Plumbing. I almost rented out an apartment upstairs from it years ago. The name was kind of offputting, of course...

This is the Oregon I remember when I left:
You have to make the bigger by noise of an insect becoming largeness in order to really get it, unlike this sentence. Boarded up tacky old buildings, general crumminess, squalor...
I shot this someplace way out in the brush somewhere. It's the exception to the rule now.

Here is an excellent example of what I mean when I talk about Portland being better than it used to be. This is Third Street in downtown Portland, right across from the Old Spaghetti Factory building (now an architects' office.)
Third used to be a pretty gritty area. You were getting too close to Burnside at this point, and down near the low-rent, filthy waterfront area used to be heinously dirty, the storefronts were largely unoccupied, there was lots of vandalism, and there would have been people asleep on the street and lots of graffitti and posters rotting off the walls as well. Now look.

I'm standing in the same spot looking in the opposite direction, toward the college.

No winos. No garbage in the street. Trees.
I tell you, its like that one episode in original Star Trek when they all go back through a time portal thing and Kirk falls in love with that Edith Keeler broad and has to let a car hit her so that history isn't changed? And then they go back to the Enterprise and Mr. Spock whips off his shirt, and he has a tattoo, and they have wacky space love.

Some things did stay the same. See that circle thing in the curb? The one right next to my foot there?

That's from waaaaaaaay back in the day. It's an iron ring to tie your horse to. Finding this made me really happy. I always got a kick out of them when I was a little kid and look; something good from back then is still here. Cool!

When I lived in Oregon, you used to hear people from out of state bitching about the poor condition of the roads and think "Aw geeze, grow some hair on your ass." Now, having lived for 23 years in a state that actually maintains its highways, I can go back and appreciate from an informed perspective just how bad it was, and is. Not only poorly maintained surfaces - think 'downtown Baghdad'- but unnecessarily narrow, poorly marked, and what the fuck is it with the off-camber turns? Middle of a mountain pass on a 50 mph stretch of road and suddenly you're coming around a turn and you feel the entire chassis begin to plane. And there's a log truck on your ass. And a Mexican broad in an Aerostar is passing you on the left so close her kids are trying your doorhandles and she's weaving in and out of the lane, talking on her cell phone.

The thing that complicates all this even more is that, down in Oregon, suddenly there IS SCENERY WORTH SEEING, even on the interstate. Good scenery. World class scenery, in fact. Your only choice is to pull over and stop, or miss it. You can't casually gaze out and enjoy the passing landscape; there might be a giant goddamn chuckhole coming up with a submarine floating around in it that you have to manouver around.

Once off the main highway the scenery goes from merely pretty to 'astoundingly beautiful.' Particularly along the coast, immediately west of the coastal range, along what they used to call the Miracle Miles. Now its just plain U.S. 101.
Go there. NOW.

-wait. I mean, don't move there or anything; they don't want you. Just go visit and spend a lot of money. Then LEAVE.

So anyway, there I was, traveling west through the coast range, losing altitude at an astonishing rate, going through the most excellent, moss-draped primeval forest, past incredible rock formations.... doing 55 around hairpin turns canted in defiance of ballistic motion, with a log truck gaining on me. I'm driving along with my eyes bugging out, trying to stay on the mountain, when suddenly out of nowhere all these godawful GIANT BIRDS go blasting right across my windshield! Jesus H. Christ!

At first I thought 'vultures,' but no. TURKEYS. Oh yes, definitely turkeys. I got a real good look at them. I could even read the little 'made in Macao' tags.

Nothing gets your blood moving brisky along like getting fucked with by turkeys on an frost-covered, 70% downhill grade.

I was on my way to visit a friend of mine who lives in Coquille. Now, had I been thinking, I wouldn't have just gone right in off the road without getting my shit together first.
I was not thinking.
No, I showed up at her place of work shortly after the turkey incident with my hair all sticking out wild, face pale, hands trembling, wearing my black trilby, a stained 'Spam' t-shirt and a rasty old leather jacket with crap all dangling off it.

Asked the receptionist to announce me as 'FirstNations.'


This is a professional workplace, bear in mind. This nice woman comes walking out into the lobby and a deranged hippie wearing a Zippy the Pinhead badge comes clanking and jangling up and throws her arms around her in a big ol' cloud of patchouli and adrenaline-laced fear sweat...oh yes, it was choice.

...this is the view from the parking lot where she works. Deal with this. This is a view from a fricken' PARKING LOT. In Oregon. Does your parking lot at work have a nice view like this? No it does not.

She wanted to buy me lunch, but I said no, that's ok. Then I ate most of her french fries and forgot to catch the tip.

Anyway, we sat and relaxed and just chatted nonstop. She is just as smart cool and laid back (not to mention groovy in a far out, happening way) as she comes off in her writing. We got along like a house afire. The woman is incredibly interesting, and I swear she has read EVERYTHING. I wish I'd have stayed longer, I really do. She was so nice to me. Before I'd left, she even loaded me up with dirty romance novels, and I mean, dang; lunch AND porn. That's hospitality.

In parting, she told me "Head on up the coast a ways and then take the Drain exit back to I-5. It's just a much nicer drive." A friendly bit of advice which I took. And I'm glad I did, too. Had I stuck to my original plan, I would have missed one of the most extraordinary experiences I have ever had. Retro, that was a star in your crown. That valley along the Umpqua river was one of the most gorgeous places I have ever been.

NEXT: a lot of descriptive crap about that drive, with average pictures!!!