(In this entry are several reasons I love the Columbia River Gorge. It's a long entry.)
The quickest Portland-to-Hermiston route is I-84 along the Columbia River. I once lived in Hermiston; I’d have family and doings in Portland; I’d drive that drive a lot. It’s an eye-widening trip, in any season, whether it’s winter’s icicles protruding straight from the rock cuts where water had seeped out and been delayed in its descent by freezing, or scattered splashes of fall color where the trees aren’t actually evergreens. And, of course, in every season, there are the hills, mountains and rocks framing the river, with the endless greens of the moist west end and the endless tans and browns of the high-desert east end. Heading east from Portland, it might as well be a two mile-wide gate you’re entering.
I drove one hundred miles east on Sunday the 10th. No longer having a home on the Gorge’s east end, I drive through less frequently; one of my motivations this time was to revisit the Maryhill Museum of Art, a place not only beautiful but beautifully preposterous, a museum both world-class, especially in its Rodin collection, and staggeringly remote. (It’s been called “Castle Nowhere.”) Maryhill, on the Washington side of the river, would have been the second home of forward-thinking businessman Sam Hill, who designed and built the original Columbia River Highway, but when personal and financial setbacks made that plan cost-prohibitive, Hill was convinced by friend and Parisian avant-garde dancer Loie Fuller to make it a museum. It was dedicated in 1926 by another Hill friend: Queen Marie of Romania. The place is many layers of eccentric and special. It’s also a place I feel very comfortable.
A related motivation was a piece of architecture-art, strangely appropriate as Maryhill is a work of architecture-art in itself: two former U of O students, Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo, who now run Lead Paint Studio in Seattle, have placed a temporary art installation exactly across the river from Maryhill. It’s called Maryhill Double, a construction scaffold enclosing the exact amount of space the museum’s main building occupies, but on an Oregon site that remains undeveloped and looks much like what Sam Hill would have seen when preparing to build. Put (why not?) in poker terms, they saw him his eccentric place and raised him another eccentric place, what Han and Mihalyo call “this temporary space for nothing in the middle of nowhere.” That’s thinking outside the box, y’all.
I hit the road east about 9 a.m., on a gorgeous, hazing-up and warming-up summer day, and made like a tourist: I first stopped at Bonneville Dam’s fish hatchery, home to masses of trout and salmon and even a few sturgeon, looking serene and alien in their special pond (scroll down about halfway down the page to see). Bonneville’s resident sturgeons reach 9 feet in length; the largest in the river have been known to reach 20 feet. I had never been there before; I’m glad I stopped. Lunch followed in Hood River, then after 50 more miles of driving I was in Biggs, Oregon and thus, um, near Maryhill Double. And not seeing the signs that would direct me to it. The people I talked to at Biggs’s truck stop weren’t sure how to get there, either (yes, I asked for directions!). Trying one road along the cliffs, then another one south through a pass in the cliffs, and not finding a likely route, I decided to change my plans and cross the bridge to the actual museum first.
I detoured to Stonehenge. Yes, non-Northwesterners, you read that right: Sam Hill also built a concrete Stonehenge replica east of Maryhill, to memorialize the men of Klickitat County, Washington who died in World War I. Hill is buried on the slopes between the monument and the river. From there I finally got my first good view of Maryhill Double, a dully translucent something miles away; heck, in its slightly-hard-to-see state it was kind of like the “spider loft” I found in my kitchen.
Nice bonus to the museum visit: one of the staffers recognized me, from when I’d visit during my Hermiston Herald years (I previewed many Maryhill events for the newspaper, and covered an art show with pieces by students from our neighboring town of Umatilla). We chatted briefly; she liked hearing that I’d put two peacock feathers I’d bought there four years ago up on my wall, making an arch above the entrance to my kitchen. She gave me a map to the Double; I then wandered the exhibits and ended the visit by buying gifts, including a guide to the historic Columbia River Highway (which still exists, in large pieces, and is being partly restored), a book on Rodin, and a deck of cards decorated with art nudes.
Armed with the map, I confidently drove down one of the roads I’d driven down earlier in the day, but knowing what landmarks to look for this time so I’d reach the right place. It was a several-mile trip around and then up to the Double, and it kept reminding me of Morrow County, another area I covered in my newspaper job. You find wheat fields and Oregon Trail wagon ruts around places like this. I pulled off the road at the local Transfer Station, where many large appliances were junked, and parked next to a path. Signs noted that rattlesnakes live in the area; needless to say, I walked and scanned the route very carefully. I knew I was on the right path when I crested a small hill and saw a temporary shelter. The aforementioned architect-artists were happily talking to visitors. I joined the chat; Annie Han was amused that one of the truck stop workers had admitted first thinking the double was “a giant greenhouse.”
And there it was, sticking up from amid the rocks and wildflowers: three stories of scaffolding, with a two-story-high inner layer of construction netting that hanged from the top and cast a vague shadow within the sharper shadows cast by the framing pipes and the steps.
Oh, yes; there are steps. Two sets of them, on Maryhill Double’s east and west sides, up to the top of the frame. I climbed (carefully) to near the top of one, and then somewhere higher than halfway up the other, before reaching the edge of my comfort level. I felt exposed, with little visible support between me and the ground – which does, truly, make it an impressive view, even between the pipes and netting. I resisted a lunatic urge to start shaking back and forth, to see how much “give” the structure had that high. Bad idea, I knew, so I stayed still, thinking of calming music (the gentler parts of Howard Shore’s score to The Silence of the Lambs, for some reason) while deliberately moving my camera into position and taking pictures. I backed my way down the steps both times.
A middle-aged couple was visiting at the same time, even bringing a picnic dinner (to the artists’ delight) that they ate in the shade afforded by the wood planks encircling the entire top rim. We talked to each other while either I was on the steps or they were up them; we didn’t need to shout to be heard, though there was a lot of space between us and we looked so small to each other from our vantage points. Later they were nice enough to take my picture next to the structure. They stayed; I left, visiting with more people walking up the path then chatting briefly with the artists again. And with afternoon turning to evening, I headed west and headed home.