Columbia River Gorge, 11/23–11/28

The gorge in winter remains too grim for me, but east enough the landscape opens up to a cross between California and the moon. California is in the swell of the hills against the sky; the moon is in the emptiness and the cold. We stay at a near-vacant state park (now that, only in Oregon) with tidy campsites laid out neatly behind a showpiece tumbledown barn. There’s a checkers table and free loaner bicycles, just sitting there, for anyone. The checkers I win; the bikes we ride along the river as far as the trail will go.

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On the way back we stop on the Washington side of the Bonneville Dam to see the generators, also immaculate. For some reason the interior walkways around the powerhouse are covered in plush, rainbow-striped carpet: a Fisher-Price xylophone underfoot, a Cold War bunker overhead.

Even better than the carpet—if you can possibly believe that—is a logbook of stories from people who worked on the dam’s construction back in the ’30s. I won’t spoil the whole thing, but here’s my favorite:

I accidentally drained Bass Lake. We were drilling a tunnel and it kept filling with water. So, I was brought in to resolve the problem and I got seven pumps to run 24 hours for a few days. Finally, we were able to drill the rest of the tunnel and never encountered more water. One day I travelled above the area to try and locate where the water came from. On an area above the drilling, I discovered a dry lake (Bass Lake) with a row boat sitting on dry ground! I never said anything for fear of getting in trouble.

It’s out of season and the elaborate fish ladders are empty; the viewing gallery at the bottom of the building reveals only the turbid churn of pale green water. I stand straining to see anything else for a long time before at last the middle window frames a lone Chinook.

I get only the briefest glimpse of a ghostlike apparition, a split-second impression of a silver-brown body thrashing against the current before the water rips it away. There is the otherworldly sensation of television static, the sense it was just a flickering projection of the thing I wanted to find. All the same, I’ve been trying to see something for so long I find the image burned into my vision long after it disappears. And of course all this can be as true of a person as of a fish.

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