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Listen carefully. The molten rock flowed onto the surface and down to the sea, filling the riverbed and forcing its water to the north. The mountains pushed themselves high, causing the river to flow faster and cut deeper into the earth until it formed a long gorge. Great floods and glaciers followed, cutting into the sides of the gorge and leaving high, graceful waterfalls.
I checked into a beautiful three-story hotel in Hood River and proceeded the next morning along the Oregon side of the Columbia Gorge. The river is wide and lovely; the Washington side rises quickly to clifftop orchards. My first stop is obvious, because the roadside begins to resemble a kind of amusement park. I see a sign reading Multnomah Falls, and I remember this from the tourist map in my hotel room. It’s the second highest falls in North America, just behind Yosemite Falls, which makes for an ultimately logical progression.
I stop off at the snack bar, ignore all the tacky hardwood gifts and get a candy bar and a lemonade. I sit at a bench facing the falls, a swath of energy twice the width of Yosemite against gray-green boulders and cliffs. An old bridge cuts in front of the falls in an archway of steel and concrete. Once I feel sufficiently fueled, I start up the trail, which is paved over like a cart path. The place is pretty deserted, except for a trio of beerbellied dudes and a family dragged back by an evercomplaining three-year-old girl.
The trail disappears into the woods for a half-mile, and comes out on a small river. The route alongside is tricky, and it takes a while before you realize that this is Multnomah Creek, a body of doomed water. The trail follows the stream for a few hundred feet and comes out to a deck overlooking the drop. You pace onto the boards with a certain confidence but are quickly brought back when you dip your head over the railing and see just how far one can fall if one is not careful. The parking lot looks a mile down, and the rail line isn’t big enough for HO gauge. I step back to a safe distance and watch the water pour across the edge.
After a while, the movement of the water becomes mesmerizing. I start following certain swatches, trying to track them all the way down, but inevitably lose the line of descent about halfway. Doing this, however, begins to roil up my internal tracking system. Tick. I pull the water bottle from my belt and open it up, taking a swig, then pour the rest out over the water just before the edge. Go. Become immortal.
For the next step, I remove my tennis shoes and pull out the laces, using them to attach the water bottle to the end of a stick. I sit on the edge of the deck, seeking the conversion point, the spot where the water takes flight. But I can’t quite reach it. I brace myself mentally and slip through the railings onto the bank, locking an elbow around the deck post and extending the stick with my free hand. I strike the point perfectly, right where the bottom falls out, and fill my bottle halfway up. Then I swing it all the way back around, stick it between the railings, and balance the bottle so it settles right-side-up on the deck. Letting go of the stick should be helpful, but just then my laceless shoe slips on a moss-covered rock. My heart starts to do the cha-cha, and I have to wait what seems like five minutes before hoisting myself back through the railing. I screw the cap onto my liberated water, take one last look at the crest of Multnomah and jog back down the trail.
I continued west on 84 to Portland and crossed over the Columbia on the Jackson Bridge, a high arching band of steel that hits all the bad parts of town before widening out into the countryside. A few miles later, I met up with my old pal Interstate 5 and took it to Olympia, then along the east side of Puget Sound toward Tacoma. To my right, I spotted the gracious white hulk of Mount Rainier. To my left, straight out of postage stamps and Old West movies, I found the white head and forever wingspan of a bald eagle. My first.
Tacoma calls my name and I answer, bearing left onto 705, which toboggans into the downtown high-rises. I get off on the main drag, park streetside and trek uphill like I actually know what I’m doing. Halfway up I find a place called Lou’s Music, and I stride in. The signals are strong; I wait for some object to leap off the shelf. Straight in a shaft of sunlight appears a ring of wood lacquered in black, and a skin of goathide, affixed to the wood with brass nails. The hide sports tufts of fur here and there, left there on purpose, one would think, to prove authenticity. I lift it by the cross-braces and strike it with a finger, producing a low, ringing thud that bottoms out and warps back. I pick up the pamphlet underneath: Bohdran, Celtic Drum, Trinity College, Made in Thailand.
This goatskin beckons to my hands in the same way that the rowboat beckoned to my arms and shoulders. I have done this before.
“Need any help?” Salesman, agreeable-looking college kid in a sweater vest. “Hi, I’m Norm.”
“Yeah. How much for this little guy?”
He helps me find the price tage inside the pamphlet - $60.95 – and I say, “I’ll take it.” Norm seems disappointed that I don’t have at least one question, but he agrees to take my credit nonetheless.
“Always wanted one of these bow-drans,” I say.
“Oh, that’s boh-rawn,” says Norm. He holds up a two-sided drumstick. “And that’s your tippler.”
Norm squeezes the bohdran into a bag and advises me to keep it out of the sun or the skin will tighten up and stretch itself out.
“Thanks.” I hold my prize against my ear and thud the goatskin through the paper. I will need this.
I drove due north to Seattle, watching with wonder as the interstate ramped up between two valleys filled with Boeing factories, airports and houses. The readings were coming quicker and stronger, so I got off midtown and headed for the biggest building I could find. It turned out to be the Hilton, $120 a night.
After checking into a small but plush room, I donned my best clothes and took the elevator to the top-floor, where a black piano player named Digger was playing the classics for rich white folks. “Girl from Ipanema,” “Stand By Your Man,” whatever the yahoos requested, Digger was not a man with options. I ordered a Rainier beer, sat through “Kansas City” and “Great Balls of Fire” (okay, it was getting a little better) and watched the rivulets of fog run down the windows, all the way down to the street. I am soon on the elevator, following suit.
I pad down Sixth Avenue into the Seattle night, a pure flint darkness of clean steel buildings and spooky Northwest fog, broken by the spark of voices drifting out of restaurants. Soon the hill bottoms out, and Sixth draws out nice and level. I cut westward to Fourth and continue. Turning the corner of Pine, I find a shopping center facing a square, soaring angular panes of glass. I am standing on cobblestones in the middle of Westlake park, surrounded by glistening stores. Tick, tick…
The road has become stones, and stones must have water. I pull my water bottle from my belt, remove the cap and allow the airborne liquid of Multnomah to finish its flight into my mouth. But I am asking for trouble, as in brain freeze. A scorching pain flies into my skull. I hold my temple between my hands, run my tongue along the roof of my mouth, all the tricks the kids at school discussed over Slurpees but it will not work, the goddamn thing has taken up residence. I will die of a brain seizure right here in the middle of Seattle.
After a brief eternity, the pain subsides, but along the trail of my agony I’m picking up the signals. The hollow brrummmm of the bohdran heightens and weaves itself into curtains of brass, then individual notes fall from the line like autumn leaves. It actually isn’t in my head at all. I look back toward Fifth and there in front of Nordstrom’s is a gray-bearded black man with a saxophone, ringing an old jazz tune over the street. Water is thawed out, water becomes sound, sound becomes time, time becomes sound becomes music.
I walk to the storefront where he stands, watching the way his cheeks purse back and forth. I pull out my wallet and drop a ten into his upturned hat. He nods at me, and I stay on for another bar or two before drifting around the corner into darkness. But then I stop. It’s “‘Round Midnight.” Thelonius Monk. I look at my watch. He’s right on time. I reverse direction and come back into the light just as he is wrapping up, fluttering the tune to sleep like a mama bird. He looks up at me and smiles. I pull the Connecticut quarter from behind my driver’s license and drop it in. The cracks open wider.
Photo by MJV