Big vacation plans are out. Events and large gatherings are canceled. Seeing friends and family can be fraught with danger, and many still feel leery about interacting with strangers at restaurants, hotels and attractions that have just started reopening to the public.
And between full campgrounds, overflowing trailheads and some towns, like Bend, asking tourists to stay away, even our most cherished local getaways have been more difficult to access this summer.
How in the world are you supposed to vacation during a pandemic?
I struggled with this while trying to plan my own one-week vacation, a much-needed breather from a job that has been especially stressful this summer. Stuck between the desire to get away and the need to relax, anxious about travel but champing at the bit to leave the house, I opted for a day trips vacation instead.
READ MORE: 10 things to consider before going back outside during the pandemic
We in the Pacific Northwest are blessed with an embarrassment of natural riches. From the Portland area, the mountains are just as close as the ocean. We have old growth forests and spectacular rivers. The high desert is just across the Cascade Mountains, with grassy meadows strewn throughout the Willamette Valley.
Many of us have seen most if not all of these ecosystems at one point or another, but treated as occasional destinations they can get lost in the shuffle of road trip memories: that time we hiked Mount Hood, that weekend out in Bend, that backpacking trip in the Columbia River Gorge.
My plan was to spend a week of vacation touring these different ecosystems back-to-back, hoping that the quick contrast might shock my system into believing I was doing something much bigger, much grander than a series of short day trips.
I also hoped it would renew a sense of appreciation for where I live, for the corner of the world where all too often these days I’ve felt stuck.
I settled on four day trips to four landscapes – mountain, ocean, desert and forest – heading off in all four directions and staying within a three-hour radius of Portland. There was no overarching itinerary here; each day trip would be planned on a whim, guided by my instincts and desires.
In a world that has felt so stifling, this was one small way to break free.
MOUNTAIN: MOUNT ST. HELENS
I showed up on the Monday of my vacation week, a bright and warm day in early August, after driving two hours north from Portland to Washington’s Johnston Ridge Observatory, which overlooks the 1980 blast zone on Mount St. Helens.
Gray clouds hung over the peak of the volcano, as I hiked along a ridge high above the destruction. A trail soon branched off and led down the steep ridge, leading on toward the gaping crater in the side of the mountain.
Hiking into the maw of St. Helens felt like exploring an alien landscape. Much of the land there is bare, though not quite barren. The soil is a mixture of ash and dried mud, remnants of the eruption and subsequent mudflows that destroyed what was once a lush alpine forest. Dense brush crowds the small creeks, while few tiny conifers seem to pop up at random.
In some areas, the soil was covered with small rocks and a thick, dry moss, from which colorful wildflowers bloomed brilliantly: purple, red, yellow and white – bright bursts of color against a backdrop of gray.
Overall, the landscape was haunting, evidence of nature’s great and terrifying power. It can be easy to forget that our mountains do this, though the evidence is all around us. Just look at the missing peak over Crater Lake or the jagged profile of Three Fingered Jack.
What makes Mount St. Helens so special is that its violent eruption occurred in our relatively short human timeframe. We have before and after pictures. We were able to witness the destruction. The volcano is a humbling reminder of the power of the land.
OCEAN: SITKA SEDGE
Picking a beach to visit on the Oregon coast is like a dog picking between chew toys: There’s really no way to go wrong. But on a warm summer day, as crowds continue to swell during the pandemic, I had a few preferences in mind: few people, plenty of available parking and a long, sandy beach.
I opted for Sitka Sedge, Oregon’s newest state park, which opened in 2018 on the north side of Cape Kiwanda near Pacific City. Because accessing the beach requires a short hike past wetlands and through a dense coastal forest, it’s not popular as a beach access point, though that hike makes it more attractive for those who want a little more out of their beach trip.
On Wednesday, I showed up around 9 a.m. and had the trail practically to myself. The hike in was beautiful, the morning sky reflecting in the shallow wetlands, as herons and crows perched in the mud.
The calm ocean emerged as I crossed over the dunes to the beach, blue sky on blue water, a gentle breeze cooling the warm summer air. Relaxation came on gently like a shrug; a sigh of relief fell from my lips. The whole ocean seemed to buzz with good energy while I stood there and soaked it all in.
Strolling past the lapping waves, I watched as gulls sat on a sandbar pulling meat from shattered crab shells. Tiny sandpipers trotted in the surf, pecking here and there before fluttering off. Every wave brought in some fresh detritus from the sea: tiny shells, broken sand dollars, great clumps of kelp.
Other people were on the beach, too, spread out far and few between. As I walked, I watched two dads skip and splash in the surf, their bellies bouncing in the sun, spinning back to their kids with huge grins that seemed to erase years of stress from their faces. I couldn’t help but smile, too, as I ambled aimlessly across the warm morning sand.
DESERT: THE COVE PALISADES
Friday arrived and it was time to head east, over the Cascades into Oregon’s high desert. No clouds shielded me from the white, glaring sun as I arrived at the dry and dusty trail, small clouds of dirt trailing my heels. The heat of the day hadn’t set in, but I could feel it coming closer, the sun burning brighter, the ground warming beneath my feet.
The Cove Palisades is one of the busier state parks in central Oregon during the summer, a popular destination for motor boats that fill up each arm of Lake Billy Chinook, a reservoir created at the confluence of three major rivers: Crooked, Deschutes and Metolius.
Most people don’t think of The Cove Palisades as a day hiking destination. There’s only one major trail in the park, the Tam-a-Lau Trail, while the primary geological feature there, The Island, is off-limits. But those who take the time to trek up the Tam-a-Lau are treated to one of the very best views in Oregon.
Stepping around boulders and over small, jagged rocks, I made the quick one-mile climb up switchbacks to the top of The Peninsula, where views look north into the park over the wide Deschutes River arm of the lake. The water that day was a bright shade of turquoise (the result of a regular blue-green algae bloom), sparkling in the morning light.
After reaching the top of the bluff, the Tam-a-Lau Trail loops around The Peninsula, offering views of the Crooked River arm and the central Cascade Mountains to the west. Leaving the sound of boaters behind, I immersed myself in the silence of the desert.
The narrow trail wound between scrubby sagebrush plants and juniper trees bursting with berries. The silent landscape left my mind to wander, thoughts folding in on themselves before disappearing, leaving me in quiet reverence with the environment.
A screeching hawk broke the silence. I stopped and stared up just as it circled above, its red tail feathers glowing in the sun. Was it searching for a meal? Calling a mate? Warning away competitors? In that empty expanse, it felt like the hawk and I were all that existed, but as I continued on down the path I knew better – there was quiet, unseen life all around.
FOREST: OXBOW PARK
By Sunday morning I was road-weary but still looking forward to finishing out my four-part journey. There’s no shortage of trees around the Portland area, including several stands of old growth in the Coast Range and Mount Hood National Forest. But for my final day trip I decided to stay close to home with a trip to one of my favorite local haunts: Oxbow Regional Park.
Oxbow is popular on warm summer weekends, with families and fishers lining the banks of a sleepy stretch of the Sandy River near Troutdale. The water beckoned, but trees were my main attraction.
While most visitors are drawn to the riverside trail that leads down to the beaches, a quieter trail runs along the other side of the park through a lush forest full of towering cedars and firs. Dried out by the summer heat, the whole forest seemed to be frozen in time. Dry moss hung still from the trees. Footprints stuck in hardened mud.
Summer feels like an in-between season for a forest: spring growth is finished while the slow decay of fall has yet to come. Everything seems to be in a state of completion, the whole ecosystem sighing with contentment.
As I wandered through the forest, thoughts of returning to work and to the world came flooding in. I didn’t shuttle the thoughts away, inviting them instead into this new state of mind. I opened my lungs and sighed with the trees. I let their contentment become my own, mixing it with the energy of the other ecosystems I still carried with me: the quiet of the desert, the joy of the ocean, the power of the mountains.
We in the Pacific Northwest are very lucky indeed. We not only have a wealth of natural beauty, but a treasure trove of valuable tools we can turn to when the world overwhelms us. Nature isn’t just here for our eyes, but for our hearts and souls as well.
And we don’t have to go far to find it – this natural medicine flourishes all around us.
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