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On Mount Hood: A Biography of Oregon's Perilous Peakby Jon Bell
Oh you feel and you taste it
And you want to go higher, so what do you do
And so you peek into the mountain
Where your desire goes
—Erika Wennerstrom, “The Mountain”
Mount Hood’s is not a story that I intentionally set out to know. It’s one that instead has slowly been built for me since the very first time I laid eyes on the mountain. Hailing from far away, like so many modern-day Oregonians, I’d never seen the mountain except in pictures until I sped into Portland along the Terwilliger Curves of I-5 one memorable autumn day in 1997. All of my belongings were in one car, all of Amy’s, my future wife, in another. We were transplanting ourselves into the next chapter of a life that had already taken us from a spring break meeting in Florida to a summer in northern Michigan, through the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and to the snow-draped Sierra Nevada on the shores of Lake Tahoe, California.
By the time we decided to pack up and explore Oregon, I’d already learned to love the mountains of the West. But seeing a snowy Mount Hood on the horizon for the first time was truly entrancing—a sight that brands your perception, marks your memory, nearly sends you careening off the road. Were someone to drive through Portland along I-5 on a cloudy winter day, they’d never know the beautiful peak they were missing. Drive through on a lucky fall afternoon, however, when the snow up on Hood is new and blinding white, and they’ll never forget it.
Since that wild October day—I remember crossing the Burnside Bridge in downtown Portland during rush-hour traffic, Amy keeping me in her sights from behind thanks to the bright red, seventeen-foot canoe on the roof of my car—I have explored the mountain, gotten to know it, lived with it, and learned its story throughout all my days here. When you live so close to something so enchanting, it’s hard not to. I’ve headed to the mountain for solitude and escape, to refresh and purge for another go at life in the workaday world. I’ve watched with excitement as friends and family from across the country have laid their eyes on it for the very first time. I’ve made friends on its shoulders at 10,000 feet, been humbled by centuries-old trees that rise in its shadow, traded tales with complete strangers about the common ground we’ve shared on Mount Hood.
Whether hiking or climbing or skiing or camping on it, gazing longingly at it from an office window, sipping a pale ale with its countenance on the label, enduring the rain it wrings from the air, following a story about climbers lost on it or massive trees about to be cut on it, Hood has a story that inevitably becomes a part of your own. The mountain’s presence is undeniable and iconic, always there, whether you can see it or not. It is a paragon of alpine beauty, but also in its entirety much more than that. Mount Hood is sunshine and storms, forests and fauna; it is snow, ice, and water; it is history and tragedy, mystery and glory.
These pages tell the story of Hood through all of these singular though interconnected facets, each of which could be a tale unto itself. But melded together, the unique aspects of Mount Hood paint a picture of an immense and powerful and alluring mountain with a reach far beyond its forested base, high above its soaring summit.
OFF WE GO
Misty here at 6,000 feet on the south side of Mount Hood. Very misty. In fact, come to think of it, this isn’t mist anymore at all. It’s real rain and the drops are engorging by the minute. Isn’t this August, one of the months it’s supposed to be safe to venture outside in Oregon?
The parking lot here at Timberline Lodge is empty for good reason, but here we are, Amy and I, and our trail hound, Oliver, setting out to tread the Timberline Trail in its entirety. The 41-mile loop encircles the mountain, covers close to 10,000 feet of total elevation gain, tops out at 7,300 feet on the north side, crosses countless streams and rivers, offers views of at least five major Cascade peaks, and attracts thousands of hikers each and every year. And it’s been around since 1938.
So in more ways than one, this is the hike to do on Mount Hood.
Although most people knock off the Timberline Trail in three days, I’ve just been laid off from my reporting gig at a Portland newspaper, freed from work obligations for the time being, and Amy and I like to enjoy ourselves on the trail, so we’ve budgeted just enough Jack Daniels and Johnny Walker for four evening cocktail hours.
By then, August 2005, we’d lived in Portland for eight years and had backpacked all over Oregon and Washington. Mount Hood had become an obvious go-to favorite for us because we lived just an hour’s drive away. We’d already spent countless days and nights hiking and camping at places like Burnt Lake, McNeil Point, Elk Meadows, Elk Cove, Cooper Spur, Ramona Falls, Zigzag Mountain, and so on. Last-minute escapes to the Muddy Fork of the Sandy River or Lost Lake were always a weekend option (still are).
Our original plan for this trip had been to head up to Washington’s North Cascades, but logistics and unknowns had made it seem more stressful than such an outing should be. We considered other options too: back to the Wallowas in eastern Oregon, the Three Sisters near Bend, the redwoods. Everywhere, it seemed, but fifty miles east of home.
Amy refocused, however—saw the trees for the forest, if you will—and suggested we give the Timberline Trail a go. Perfect.
Except for this rain, which has soaked us damn near through before we even step off the pavement. Even Oliver, who’s usually delighted and indifferent to the elements, seems dejected already, droplets beading off his Labrador blackness and drenching his overloaded pack. (I think Amy’s stashed her hooch inside it.) But what are you going to do? When else will you have five days off—and then some—to devote to one of the most classic backpacking trails around? This is what we are here to do, the Timberline Trail. And goddamn, we are going to do it.
The mountain is hidden. The day is soggy, blowing. The massive, seventy-year-old lodge looks quaint and so inviting. I’m sure fires are burning warm and bright within its giant stone fireplaces and hot soup is heating the innards of guests looking out at us through big, bowing windows and thinking, What in the hell are those people doing out there?
Off we go.
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