I’m standing in a fine Japanese garden, and I’m looking at a volcano—an exotic combination. I didn’t have to go too far. This is neither Tokyo nor Mount Fuji. I’m in Portland, OR. Toward the east, the snow capped peak of Mount Hood is clearly visible behind the skyline of the very green city. The mountain is close, but I’m heading a different direction—straight north.
One and a half miles is quite a distance for a river crossing, but yes, this is the width of the largest river in North America that reaches the Pacific. Along with its impressive geography, the Columbia River also has some political importance. It was once considered as a possible border between the U.S. and Canada, but history went a different way. The river now divides Oregon from Washington for about 300 miles. Crossing into the state via I-205 is no problem these days, but not long ago the Columbia was a significant barrier. Ships also had a hard time navigating its waters, but it has since been tamed by 14 large dams along the main section and about 400 in the entire system.
Into the Cascades
I leave the interstate as soon as it takes me into Washington. There are much nicer alternatives. And there is a spectacular goal sticking out of the Cascade Mountain Range—Mount St. Helens. The roads leading there are as untamed as this mountain still is. As I take off from civilization, Highway 503 brings me through green pastures along Lake Merwin and Yale Lake to Cougar, a pretty little village. These days it is hard to imagine that on May 18, 1980, the place was buried under several inches of ash. Mount St. Helens (11 miles north) had erupted. All inhabitants in Cougar were evacuated before everything went dark so no lives were lost here, but there are some exhibits beside the general store that give witness to the catastrophe. Today the dangers (like running out of petrol) are much smaller and rather avoidable. Heading north toward Mount St. Helens, I have about 100 miles (and a visit to Spirit Lake at the foot of the crater) before there is another chance to get gas or any kind of provisions.
Laid-back Cougar is the perfect venue to have an extended rest, and not only because of the nice lady in the general store. For the first time, I experience the typical Washington amenity, an espresso hut. You can find them all over the state on the roadsides, and they’re equipped for “drive through.” Usually it is a very small wooden building manned by one person. The cappuccino is excellent, and I need every available bit of energy for what lies ahead.