Saturday, February 5, 2011

Stories from the Road -- Wahkeena Falls, OR

It seems so long ago when Mom and I decided to head to the Pacific Northwest on our second annual road trip in 2008. People have asked me what my favorite vacation was. To me, it's the same as choosing your favorite child. Our first trip was to Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal. Hard to beat southeast Canada. Our second included Yellowstone, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. Our third was to Nevada and California. Our fourth was to Boston and Cape Cod. Very different places, and very different experiences. In a sense, it is a question of apples and oranges.

Not only that, but the day stops on each trip were vastly different. On the Pacific Northwest trip, we spent two days in Yellowstone, followed by a day along the Snake River in Idaho, followed by a day in the Columbia River Gorge. The amount of change Mom and I had seen in the landscape, in the culture, in the food, in the climate -- well, each day was a brand new experience. Just 24 hours before, Mom and I were in a barren landscape of brown shrubs and hungry lizards. Today, the air was oppressive, the vegetation was lush, and the water was plentiful.

Mom calls this day of our trip "Waterfall Day". Essentially, the plan was to drive along the Columbia River Gorge, and stop at six waterfalls. Each one was dramatically different. The first was called Horsetail Falls, and one look at it was all it took to explain its name. The second was the magnificent Multnomah Falls, a 600+ foot plunge that even has a hike to the precipice. After spending several hours at this masterpiece, we next drove a little further and hiked a little more to Wahkeena Falls. Now, Wahkeena is a glorious waterfall in its own right, but it could not live up to Multnomah standards. This was completely expected by me, but Mother was tiring quickly of the walking. (Too bad, as she had three more hikes to do after this one.) Her reception of the waterfall was, shall we say, far less forgiving than mine.

"That's it?" she asked with unabashed irritation. That's it? How often do you get to see waterfalls, dear Mother? And if you hadn't seen Multnomah, how would your reaction change?

"Not by much." she said. Eh, maybe so. I guess you aren't as big of a fan of waterfalls as I am. As it turns out, though, Mom later said that this was one of her favorite days on the trip. She soon declared Oregon to be the "prettiest state" she has been to. It's hard to disagree with her assessment. If one judges by the Columbia River Gorge alone, Oregon soars above most of its competition.

I actually loved Wahkeena Falls, in part because it was hot -- and this was one of the only waterfalls of the day that we could actually feel the spray from. And the hikes were, after all, getting warmer and warmer. Additionally, the surroundings were just stunning. So many trees, leaves, plants. So much vegetation. So much water in the air and on the ground. Growing up in treeless and relatively dry Nebraska, this was different. This was something new to me, something I have always looked at and admired. Amazingly, this was my first "rain forest" experience, and it exceeded all expectations.

The other reason I liked Wahkeena Falls was because it exemplified the banter Mom and I usually provide on these trips. After her unimpressed reaction to the waterfall, she would ask a few pointed questions while I was taking photographs and during our walk back to the car. "So is the next one just a trickle?" "Will I even know when I'm seeing the waterfall?" "How soon is my next torturous hike?" My answers were equally pointed. "How many smashed pennies have you obtained today?" "I think you'll know when you see the next waterfall when you see water...falling." "The next hike is about four hours long. That's not bad, right?"

She and I would smile, sometimes with a mixture of sarcasm and genuineness. Always with a sense that we were appreciative of the others' wishes. The other hikes were short, knowing that Mom would probably not want to hike to the top of more waterfalls that day. I made sure that the next day was a smashed penny extravaganza. I made sure to stop at a gift shop after the waterfall hopping. Here's a 60+ woman, vital as ever, hiking with me six different times on the same day. Sure, she'd provide some banter and an occasional sigh, but she refused to quit. I hope I'm alive, much less so active, at that age.

And she also banters. Personally, I love it. Someone who provides as much snark and sarcasm as I do on a day so worthy of anything but -- well, that's my cup of tea. The banter represents something more. Yeah, we're lucky to see such a beautiful place, but rather than going for the quick cliche (easy to do in blogs, by the way) -- she goes for the funny bone. That's appreciation. Even for Wahkeena Falls.