The river and the column

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Overlooking Astoria, WA is a copy of Trajan’s Column, adorned not with the sculptural story of the conquest of Dacia, but the sgrafitto (layers of brown and white paint scratched through to produce figures of realism and shading) history of the conquest of the American West: Captain Gray’s discovery of the Columbia; ​​Lewis and Clark’s 1804-07 expedition; John Jacob Astor’s 1811 fur trade colony; the Oregon Trail of 1846; the railroads of the 1880s. The First Nations get a 3/4 turn at the base of the column. The rest is given over to a celebration of American conquest and control of the Pacific Northwest, and mastery of the mouth of the Columbia, visible beyond the bridge. 

In typical American fashion, the gift shop and the car park for buses have both been put on the fore-lawn of the Column, meaning that both tour buses and this ugly mobile home structure will be in all your panoramic photographs, trying to capture the grandeur of empire on display.  There’s also this replica Chinook canoe of cast concrete that blocks the view of Fort Clatsop, Lewis and Clark’s winter camp. Sight lines matter, people. Would a site plan and some symbolic planning kill you people?

But it’s part of the reason the magical thinking of this place is so confused. This Astoria might have wound up the capital of the American West with a street plan more like a Paris or a Washington DC. Yet it’s always been a company town committee to making money — a gift shop and a bus park and a cannery instead of wide boulevards and cannon pointed out at the river from a fortified Esplanade. Instead, there are trolley cars, used bookstores, and crust punks from Kansas and from California, and little boutiques selling what my dad calls landfill — mementoes of a trip that don’t really hold any memories, destined for the transfer station (i.e. The Dunp) the next time someone in your house picks up a book about cleanliness and minimalism. 

Orange cones, the symbol of empire

Astoria is a town at the edge of the American empire. It knows its own history as a fur trading station and cannery town; and it prizes that history. But it also has a self-sufficient streak that’s visible in a preponderance of pink and purple punk haircuts, punk fashion statements among both natives and visitors, coffee houses more than halfway toward the Amsterdam model (but not quite there yet either — no open pot sales, more of the dispensary model), medical dispensaries of the herb, and section 8 housing in the Astoria Hotel. The optics are… interesting.  There’s a fair bit of the Midwest here, too — Kansans and Nebraskans and Okies living out of their cars while they look for work. 
The tourists ahead of me in line for ice cream chatted in fluent English with the scooper about his gulf war era tattoo in Arabic script; then they bring ice cream to their hijab’ed wives and children by the trees a short distance away, lounging in the sunshine after a meal of fish and chips, cheerfully chatting in Arabic the whole way. There was no sense of animosity here, just people going about their lives in a complicated time, under a rare burst of sunshine. 

Astoria feels like middle America, a Michigan accent crossed with New York, trying to become cosmopolitan while retaining a Pacific character. The Chinatown is largely gone, but the bookstore has the largest collection of Buddhist and Taoist books and trinkets I’ve ever seen outside of a retreat center or a Tibetan’s shop. How many translations of the I Ching does one really need? As many as one’s tarot decks, I suppose. Or dictionaries. 

So yes..  Astoria feels like it’s in America. But. It doesn’t feel like New England, and it doesn’t feel like the South. And it doesn’t feel like California or Chicago either. It feels a bit like an occupied place, in some ways, a place where the cruise ships come when they’re transferring from the summer cruises off Alaska to the winter cruises off Acapulco.  Which it is. 

 The US Coast Guard maintains its Lifeboat School here, because the Mouth of the Columbia is the Graveyard of the Pacific. The river mouth is so dangerous that there are two different pilots’ guilds to handle the two challenges: crossing of the bar, and the navigation to Portland. Our captain says that pilots make the best money in the industry, but their skills are non-transferable: the examination is a pass-fail drawing of the river mouth on a blank sheet of paper that has to be accurate to within about five feet at the chosen scale; currently only twenty people have that honor in this river mouth. 

South of here are the Cascade and Olympic ranges of mountains. Its temperate rain forest over there: massive amounts of nearly constant rainfall.  We visited the remains of Fort Clatsop today where Lewis and Clark spent the winter of 1805-6: 106 days of constant rain, twelve days excepted.  A pair of fifty by fifteen foot log cabins facing one another across a twenty by fifty “parade ground” of  mossy wood chips; a fifty yard walk to drinking water; a two hundred yard walk to the canoe embankment. Four years after the encampment here, no one could find it in the rain forest. It had been swallowed whole. 

The Astor Column was raised in 1925 as part of the building of the railroad empire of Union Pacific.  By 1985 it had deteriorated to the point that it needed a two year repair and restoration. By 2015, it needed another complete repair and restoration. The damp gets under the stucco and plaster and paint, and the wind chips it off.  All along the river, dams chip and blister under the weight of water and the threats of environmentalists and the needs of the salmon and the obligations of the treaties that Jefferson and others made with the First Nations of the river. Nothing that empire values will last here forever —  only the mountains, the cedars, the salmon, the cedars, and the river. 

Empires rise and empires decline. Earth abides. 


The great river and the mountain


Yesterday, we left Kalama, WA by bus and went to the visitors’ center on the edge of the “red zone” around Mount St. Helen’s. The mountain erupted on May 18, 1980, ejecting thousands of tons of rock, ash, and pumice into the air. 

There wasn’t much to see. The upper reaches of the volcano were hemmed in by cloud cover; the roads that could have brought us closer are still knee-deep in snow. It’s the typical visitor center: interactive exhibits with buttons to light up displays, where each button has been hammered by so many schoolchildren that the bulbs or the buttons no longer work; sun-faded photographs laminated by plastic touched by so many fingernails that you’re not sure what you’re looking at; explanatory text blurbs that tell you everything and explain nothing. 

Why were this couple fishing on the river? Why did the logging company send a crew of four into the red zone on a Sunday for a regular work day? The mountain was bulging outward and upward at five feet a day for six weeks — a 210′ gain in elevation! Why would anyone go near it? What was so important about logging that they did this?

The lodge-master Harry Truman’s decision to stay in the house where he’d lived for fifty years makes more sense. “I am Spirit Lake,” he’s reported to have said, “and the lake is me.” He didn’t leave the land, and he and his house were likely buried beneath hundreds of feet of rock, mud, ash and water.

The land remade itself. This photo is deceptive, really: I was south and east of the mountain, and the region of devastation was north and west. It looks fully recovered here, but it isn’t. 

What is fully recovered, anyway? The volcano did what it’s supposed to: blow its top, shatter the trees, bury the lakes and remake the land. The plans and trees colonize the soil, remake it with the help of mycelium and bacteria and helpful insects. These happen in their proper time, not in human time. It’s only been thirty-seven years: both an eye blink and an eternity. 

The ash fell from the sky for weeks, all around the world. Among the things the ash did, was close the Columbia River to navigation. Today there are dozens of (currently empty) tanker ships waiting for cargo to transport to the world, thanks to the Coast Guard and the US Army Corps of Engineers.