I am moving across the country in two weeks, so June, my best friend of 30 years, drove 300 miles to visit me this week. She took two unpaid vacation days to do it. We had to pack in quite a lot of memorable activity and talk in just a short day and a half, so we headed up the Columbia River Gorge to get started. The first day’s plan was: 1) hike, 2) soak in the mineral water at Carson Hot Springs, 3) eat at Skamania Lodge, 4) sit in the adirondack chairs at Skamania and talk till the moon came up over the gorge.
We hiked up a forested mountain trail until my bad knee was screaming, then we hiked back down and headed to the hot springs. We go there a lot. We love the funky, 1920’s, slanty-floored “resort hotel”. And the bath house, with its rows of old claw foot tubs separated by clothes-pinned shower curtains, and that damp, sulfur smell permeating everything. For $20, you can lie in a tub (short, medium, or long) filled with hot mineral water piped in from the natural spring. We always get adjoining tubs, pull back the curtains, and soak. We don’t talk; the bath house is a reverent place. Then the attendants, always kind and soft-voiced, wrap us each in a soft cotton sheet, tuck us in on a padded cot (loose, medium, or tight) and leave us to zen out in silence for half an hour or so. It’s remarkably restorative.
The day was warm, though, and we couldn’t quite get into the mood for a hot mineral bath. So we thought we’d hike down to the river, maybe stick our toes in and cool off. It’s a steep, slide-on-your-bum descent to the Wind River, where big chunks of volcanic mountain bank the water. We had heard that half a mile upriver was another natural hot spring (minus the resort). So we began clambering over boulders, sliding on loose pebbles, gripping moss-covered mountainside for stability — well actually, that was just me and my bad knee — June simply walked upright from boulder to boulder, like some kind of wild mountain goat.
Then we came to a sheer cliff, separating the rocky shore where we stood from the rocky shore where we wanted to go. The rocky river burbled and swirled next to us. It wasn’t that wide — this sheer cliff. We could see a few toe holds, about eye level. So up June went, her arms strung through the handles of her tote bag like a backpack. It was really quite inspiring to watch her careful mountain traverse, toe placed here, fingers grabbing there. It was also probably sheer stupidity for us to attempt rock climbing with no training or gear, with huge rocks far enough below us to kill us if we fell. But sometimes sheer stupidity is just what a couple of late-middle-aged, long-time friends need to shake off the deadening reality of the unending, ultra-responsible days of our lives.
With June safely across, it was now my turn. I looked down at my probable watery death, then up to the barely perceptible possibility of successful passage. And up I went. Hugging the mossy mountain, the toes of my tennies holding up my weight on a slim sliver of rock, I calculated distances, prayed that my knee wouldn’t buckle, and kept moving. I felt like Tom Cruise in MI, or Spiderman glued to the side of a skyscraper. It was scary and exhilarating (and stupid). And you already know I made it across, because I’m telling you the story today.
We kept clambering upriver, searching for the elusive hot spring. I was getting hotter and hotter, and the cool river became more and more enticing. We finally spied what we thought might be the spring on the other side of the river. Which meant we had to cross over. We didn’t want to get our clothes all wet, since we still had #3 and #4 on our day’s plan to complete. So we took all our clothes off. Except for our shoes. Imagine, if you dare.
The Wind River is fed by snowmelt, so even in July, it’s dang cold. It’s not dauntingly wide, like the Columbia, but nor is it a fordable mountain stream. There were lots of big rocks in the clear water, lots of deep spots, and the current was moving fairly quickly. We stood for uncountable minutes in the water up to our thighs, daring each other to go first. A family of ducks floated by downriver, the current pushing them rapidly along. Finally, I counted to three and dove forward into the water, aiming for a big rock halfway across. The current was faster than I anticipated, the water colder, my shoes heavier. I missed the rock, but banged into another just beyond it. Then I looked back to be sure June was following, which she had pinky-sworn to do. She was still standing there, watching me. I called to her, “Come on in, the water’s fine! You promised!” She didn’t move. So I climbed up on my rock in the middle of the river and waited. (Imagine, if you dare.) Ten minutes later, she suddenly dove in and with lots of noise and drama, swam across the river. I jumped back in and swam to meet her on the pebbly shore. You’d think we had just swum the English Channel, we were so proud.
What we thought might be the hot spring was not. So we swam back across the river, with only slightly less hesitation and drama. Hungry now, and tired, we gave up on our hot spring search and headed back downriver. The prospect of more rock-clambering was even less appealing to me and my bad knee than simply staying in the icy water and swimming back. June had the tote bag, so stayed on shore until she reached the cliff again, at which point she prepared once more to rock climb her way across. Then she realized she could simply walk in the water close to the cliff. Duh.
We sat on the patio (clothed again) at the Skamania Lodge restaurant, a few small twigs still in our hair, a few mud patches on our arms, and devoured bison burgers and truffle fries. Then we sat in the adirondack chairs, gloried in the view, in our survival, in long friendship, and waited for the new moon to rise.
What’s your favorite memory with a longtime friend?