You Need a Place of Renewal. Mine is Out West, Far Up a River

By E.M. Hunt

If we are lucky, we have places in our lives that can renew us. I have such a place. I go there every year. 

My family immigrated to Washington state in 1978, all of us packed into a wood-paneled Ford station wagon driving across the country from New Jersey. 

I like to joke that my parents saw the movie “The Adventures of the Wilderness Family” one too many times. Our lives are guided by decisions and events much more complicated than that, of course. Yet it would be futile to gather all the scraps of circumstance that led us from the suburbs of New Jersey, sight unseen, to the rugged architecture of the Columbia River Gorge. 

To a nine-year-old boy, our family expedition in the spring of that year from “flat land and brown air” to the wind-swept West seemed like an endless summer vacation. 

Salamanders in the spring house, hidden fields and arrowheads, horseback rides along the windswept bluffs to abandoned farmsteads, evening walks with my father to the top of the hill to count the pink mountains almost close enough to touch. 

When you are a child, you experience joy often, and appreciate it rarely. 

Each year, much older now, I bring my family back to the little town in the Columbia River Gorge where I grew from a child to a man. 

Even though I lived nine years on the East Coast before we moved there, I always say I “grew up” in this place. I lived there for only a dozen years.  I have long since grown much deeper roots in the rain-shadow green of the Grays River Valley, three hours’ drive to the west toward where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean. 

Yet the rings on my tree are etched deeper and wider in those Gorge years somehow. The decade between nine and 19 alters us in so many ways, including how we come to understand the world as something greater than our own experience.  For all the rambling joy and adventure I had in the hills around Lyle, Washington, I experienced just as much fear, awkwardness, embarrassment and alienation. Yet that has faded over time, wounds have healed, and joy remains.

 It comes back to me on the August wind. 

We started a tradition — I don’t know how it came to be — of having our picture taken in a certain spot along the Klickitat River. We’ve been coming to this place since my oldest daughter Lindsay was in diapers. This year she is a senior in college and my youngest daughter, Grace, graduates high school.

The waters of the Klickitat are fed from the mountain glaciers. Each year, I dip my hat in the cold water and place it on my head, rebaptizing myself in a moment of geologic suspension. 

I can flip though the old photographs and see our changes. The river is sometimes lower, sometimes higher, forcing us to climb a bit more up onto the rocks. Yet, the hills are ageless against our microscopic timelines. Years are seconds to them, too numerous to bother with counting. 

Once upon a time I rode my horse through these hills and knew the trails without name. Once upon a time, my sister taught me to drive along these backroads. Here was the old junkyard where my little league baseball coach lived. Here the school bus would stop to the let the trains go by. 

Gone now, gone. Gone to a memory that must hold on to rails to steady itself until it gets its bearings. 

On a basalt plateau above the Columbia River hides a curling trail that dives into the scrub oak and yellow grass and skirts the great cliffs that peer down on the white-capped waters. Catherine Creek is a little preserve that was first set aside the year I graduated high school. Before that, we called this place rattlesnake flats or gray digger flats in honor of the flattened snakes and squirrels that were squashed trying to cross that lonely road. 

My father moved back to New Jersey after just five years in the Gorge — in some ways, against his will. Life had other plans for him. 

Yet each time he comes out to visit, he brings his wife and kids and grandkids to Catherine Creek, to hike among the wildflowers on the windy cliffs. 

Until this year, I had never stopped there, despite my father’s urging. I passed by the trailhead thinking there was nothing for me to see. When at last I stopped to see what all the fuss was about, I understood.  I understood why my exiled father had made this trail a place of pilgrimage whenever he was on the West Coast. 

This place preserves the distilled essence of the Gorge I remember, before the wineries and windsurfers. Yellow grass clings to lichen-pocked basalt, while wildflowers grow in the cracks of the rocks or the shade of huddled scrub oak. Wind on endless warm wind braces you. 

When you live in the Gorge, the wind becomes a part of the landscape such that you don’t notice it — ever present in every August afternoon. 

We take our childhoods for granted, a mix of unmet expectations, underappreciated joys, and careless dreams. The summers of our lives can seem so busy that even a lazy day in a hammock requires a week’s worth of planning. 

August – particularly that window of time after the county fair and before the start of school — we try to squeeze a lot of adventures into the little time we have left. “Carpe summer,” I say. Seize it while you can.

September will be no less busy but it has a different tone and rhythm. The rains will come as early as October, and there is much around the house that needs doing. I can sense the change each year on the drive back from the Gorge. Sun sets earlier, the mornings bring a chill. Early fallen leaves swirl along the side of the road. 

You can feel the end of summer looming, but still, but still. 

It is important to touch base now and again, to take a quiet moment in a wild place of our younger selves. The September of our lives comes with a suddenness that staggers. So much still to be done before winter sets in. 

E.M. Hunt is a motorcycle-riding emergency room nurse and former journalist in rural Washington State. He has often been caught saying “Ah reckon” unironically.