We have had a splendid Sunday! Sometimes serendipity leads you directly where you need to go.
To track back a bit, I’ve had some family business needing to be taken care of, that has been resting patiently beside the bedroom bureau for some time. It was a little promise yet unfilled. So this weekend I looked out the window at the gorgeous summer day, and I said to Richard, “Let’s drive up to Skamania and scatter Aggie.”
There was a little more involved in this than a couple of hours’ run up the Columbia Gorge. I had promised my mother’s cousin Aggie I would take her ashes back to Skamania, Washington where she grew up, simple enough. But she had wanted, in addition, to have them brought to the place where her brother Hugo lay, and I really did not know where Hugo Pedersen was. But I somehow thought there were not too many cemeteries to be considered, so off we went with a MapQuest printout to Stevenson, Washington, where the County cemetery is. It seemed the likeliest place to start. We had a back-up plan. In the event we could not find the markers, we thought we’d hike up Beacon Rock and let the Gorge wind carry Aggie away. This photo comes from the Beacon Rock State Park website. The rock is the core of a long-gone volcano. Floods in the ice age eroded the softer outer layers, and left the stone standing alone. A long crooked trail winds a route to the top. We packed a fine picnic lunch of roast pork and tomato sandwiches, kosher pickles, olives, dried plums, slices of watermelon, and chilled bottles of ginger ale, took our walking shoes, and set off.
We decided to drive up the Washington side of the river, so to go through the town of Skamania on our way to the cemetery. I remember visits to my great aunts and uncles there, when I was small, and I wanted to see if I could still spot Aunt Ella’s house on Duncan Creek, and Uncle George’s place on the hill. The Gorge is beautiful; it is justly protected from modern development. In fact, beautiful photos of the Gorge are a little trite around here. I didn’t even take any as we drove upstream.
We arrived at Skamania a little precipitously, because we were nearly past “Nielson Road” when I called out “There! Turn out there!” and Richard did so, much to the alarm of the car behind who found himself following closer than he should have been. “Nielson Rd.” is a misspelling of the road named for my Nielsen lineage, Danes who settled there all in a clump in the 1920s and ’30s. It’s a short road. Seems shorter now than it did when I was nine. As we turned around at its dead end to head back out, we spotted a hard-bitten woman coming out of her house to have a cigarette under her lawn umbrella. In command mode by now, I ordered a stop, hopped out, and walked across her clipped and dried grass to say hello. Here is where the serendipity starts. She was there, to be asked.
“H’ya,” she said.
“H’lo,” I replied. “Do you know which of these places was Ella and Gus Pedersen’s?”
She sucked on her cigarette and answered, “Nope. But we on’y been here since seventy-two.”
See, these houses are not what you would call fine estates. They are little places where people live away from town, tucked against the hillside, sheet plywood houses backing up to Duncan Creek. To have been there only 35 years is to be a newcomer still. “Ella would be gone since sixty-three,” I said. “She was my great-Aunt. I have her daughter’s ashes here, and I promised to bring them back this way.” I could see I instantly had some standing. I pressed it a little: “My name is Nielsen, too, like the road. My Uncle George’s place was up the hill by the school.”
“Hmm-mhm.” She said.
We visited just a little bit more, and then I asked if there wouldn’t be another cemetery around close by, than the County one in Stevenson. Just to be sure we were headed right.
“Well, y-hup. There would be the one in North Bonneville. If they lived here, I think they’d be in North Bonneville.”
I hadn’t thought of North Bonneville. North Bonneville is a tiny place (bigger than Skamania, though, maybe) which has an unusual physical history. When the Bonneville dam was remodeled in 1974, the town of North Bonneville was in the way of the new North Power House. So the Corp of Engineers moved it. They just picked up the whole town and moved it.
“Did they move the cemetery?” I asked, wondering at the possibility. “No, they never moved that. It’s right there. Acrost from the dam access, go under the railroad and then it’s just there. You’ll find it.”
And we did, too. As we pulled up across the road from the cemetery gate, I said, “Well, there aren’t that many of them. We can check them all out pretty quickly and then go on, to Stevenson.” But we didn’t need to. There, under the tall trees, we found Hugo sharing a marker with his wife Millie and, just a little way off to the west, Aunt Ella and Gus. Well, hurrah! Success was so unexpected, I was almost disappointed to find the quest completed already. We brought out the box of Aggie’s ashes (I suppose she should be properly addressed at such an occasion: Fanny Agnes Pedersen McCarty was her name), and shared them out between her brother and her parents. She hadn’t liked Gus much, so I thought mostly of Aunt Ella as I did it. Here is me, preparing to make good on my promise.
We felt satisfied with the result of the afternoon. It was like a treasure hunt completed, and while we were there, I recognized names and names on the cemetery stones from stories my mother had told me, of fishermen, housewives, crew cooks at the dam project, hunters in the hills, school chums, storekeepers, wild cattle in the woods, beer parlors and bootleggers. I sighed to see them, and thought it was good to remember people I had never known.
So much of the afternoon remained, we decided to cross the highway and have a look at the Bonneville Dam spillways. To our surprise, the access road was open to ordinary traffic, and the man at the guardhouse waved us in, suggesting we have a look at the visitors’ center. I had imagined the dam would be closed to visitors these days, with Homeland Security protecting it. We emptied our pockets of knives, sewing scissors and knitting needles, expecting to be scanned. No such thing. We strolled in and were pointed to the escalators up and down, one to the fish ladders and fish counting room, and the other to the generators. Here’s a view of the dam, showing the spillways on the south (Oregon) side, the entrance to the fish ladders in the center, and the North Power House to the left. And, of course, the huge transmission lines on the shore.
These are Steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss) passing through the counting window inside the dam. I suppose it could be argued that the steelhead are not the point of it all, since the reason for the fish ladders is to keep the fish out of the generators where they become fishcakes,
and this is the point of it all:
Our educational fieldtrip completed, we found ourselves ready for our dinner. Richard suggested, in a moment of fancy, that we continue on upriver to the Columbia Gorge Hotel in Hood River, and see how it looked for supper.
How it looked? My word. Set on the Oregon rim of the Gorge overlooking the river it is a spectacular memory of a gracious, bygone age. Built by Simon Benson in the 1920s, in a pre-Depression age of elegance, it leaves a person sighing for indulgence. This postcard view shows it in its original time,
and here it is today, scarcely affected by the change of era:
To walk in the gardens is to feel rich. To look through the waving glass panes of the dining room to the view of the river is to imagine yourself dressed in white lawn, languid, cared-for, deeply pocketed. The bellman defers. The waiting staff attends. The conversation of other couples is low. The menu is incomparably decadent: a starter of baked mission figs with Gorgonzola and fresh raspberries, an appetizer of shrimp with prosciutto and polenta, beet salad with mild, fresh goat cheeses, an intermezzo course of lemon sorbet in champagne, entrees of elk bedded in greens and baked yams with fresh blackberries, or scallops with asparagus and risotto, and a dessert of lemon cheesecake with raspberries, and dark, delicious coffee to follow, served in French presses. How did it seem, for dinner? Oh.
We returned home down the Oregon highway, tired and sated from our day of discovery and indulgence. Too weary to post last night to my blog. Too weary to do much other than dream.