Saturday, March 08, 2014

hiking with demons

I have commented often on the beauty of Mexico's scenery.  For good reason.  It is a beautiful country.

And I know good scenery when I see it.  Growing up in Oregon has taught me to appreciate the beauty that surrounded me every day.

On a recent trip to Chiapas, I heard a fellow traveler say as we were boating through some stunning canyon walls: "Well, they are not as impressive as the ones we have in Ontario."  I have no idea whether or not the statement was factual.  But it was silly. 

Beauty does not exist through comparison.  It simply exists.  And it exists to be appreciated on its own terms.

I decided to work out that philosophy in the sunshine of central Oregon yesterday.  The temperature was perfect short-sleeve weather.  Mid 50s with barely a cloud in the sky.

For at least thirty years, I have driven by the a sign that attempts to seduce the driver into turning west to Smith Rock State Park.  Not that it would take much seduction.  The rock formations that make up the park are just off the major highway north of Redmond.

But I have always been on my way somewhere.  Too busy to stop and smell the basalt.

Not yesterday.  I decided it was time to get a bit of exercise -- and to put my new camera to good use.  So, a hike it was to be.

The parking lot was filled on a Friday morning -- with hikers trudging up the Misery Ridge trail, horse-back riders fording Crooked River, bicyclists pedaling through the rocks, and rock climbers doing their best ant impressions on the faces of Phoenix Buttress and Morning Glory Wall.

I was one of the trudgers.  But not a very active one.  I would just develop a good stride when another vista would frame itself for me -- and out would come the camera.  It was almost like losing my way in a Tolkien novel.

I could have very easily spent the full day there -- and I may return before I head south next week.  But I had one more place to visit.  Another stop I have intended to make for years.  In this case, over 50 years.

The Crooked River, that looks so bucolic flowing past Smith Rock, takes on an entirely different characteristic a few miles up the road.  Instead of flowing along the surface, over the years, the river has gouged out a river bed through a layer of basalt and tuff -- forming a 400 foot scar over the face of the plateau near Torrebonne.

For about 80 years, the only way to cross the gorge by car was the Crooked River High Bridge designed by one of Oregon's architectural heroes.  Conde McCullough was responsible for designing a series of bridges on the Oregon coast that were not only beautiful in their own right, but blended seamlessly into the surrounding landscape.

The Crooked River High Bridge was another of his design.  A steel arch bridge that arcs unobtrusively over the gorge.  It is beautiful enough to simply stand and watch it.

The bridge went into service in 1926, and was closed in 2000 when a newer bridge was opened.  You can see it echoed behind the green filigree of the original bridge.

I was prepared to dislike the new bridge.  Most of the bridges that have replaced McCullough's work have been hideous.  But not this one.

If anything, it attempts to replicate the combined arc and horizontal plane of the original.  It is almost Japanese in its combined simplicity and beauty.

But this place is not only a place of beauty.  It is also a place of horror.

Gertrude Jackson had two young children.  A boy and a girl.  Then she began an affair with Jeannance Freeman.  At some point, they decided the children were getting in the way of their relationship.

On May 11, 1961, the four of them drove to the Crooked River High Bridge.  Jeannance pummeled the boy almost to death with a tire iron.  The women then threw both of the children from the bridge to their death in the Crooked River Gorge.

I was a newsboy for The Oregonian at the time.  I can still remember the black and white photograph of the bridge on the front page of the newspaper.  Along with the story so gruesome that not even the Grimm brothers could have conceived it.

As I stood on the bridge yesterday, I wondered just where the events played out.  Where evil had come face to face with Oregon beauty.

That memory gave new poignancy to the signs that dot the site: "Supervise children at all times."

On my walk back to the car, I met a young man with his three children walking toward the bridge.  I greeted him.  He grunted and made no eye contact.

Watching him take his children to the bridge was a bit unnerving.  But I am certain they were there for the same reason I was.  To witness Oregon's natural beauty.  Up close and personal.

And to prove that beauty can prevail over horror.

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