SUMMER HAS TAKEN ON new meaning on the North Coast. The intense heat in Portland is causing urbanites to head for the beaches in droves. It is also giving coastal residents a new perspective on their climate.
Some years ago, I heard a music critic compare the voice of the Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad to "the lushness of high summer." By that he meant the full flowering of an English garden in August. Sitting in our yard last Sunday afternoon, listening to the leaves rustle, looking at lilies that are out of a Georgia O'Keefe painting and smelling their fragrance from 10 feet away, I understood what the critic meant.
High summer has a different meaning on the other side of the Cascades. I set out on a long trip Tuesday to Pendleton and thence to John Day. The automobile's exterior thermometer hit 100 around The Dalles, then it dropped into the low nineties until Interstate 84 left the Columbia River, when it resusmed its upward trajectory.
This is Eastern Oregon's season. On Tuesday, I observed it on Memaloose Island, which lies between Hood River and The Dalles, where the lush forest of Western Oregon gives way to a more barren landscape in shades of straw and yellow ochre.
On familiar roads, we all have our landmarks. On the Columbia River Highway, Memaloose is one of my landmarks. The "island of the dead," which is a loose translation, has fascinated me since boyhood. It was an Indian funereal setting. The island is also marked by the gravestone of a white printer. Telling the story of that man, Thomas Vaughan was fond of saying that this 19th century printer had declared that when it came to eternity, he would take his chances with those who had lived on the Columbia much longer than he.
My next landmark is Maryhill, Samuel Hill's mansion which is now a museum. My late maternal grandmother said that in the first half of the 20th century, the rumor was that Hill had incarcerated his wife in the grand structure. I've wondered why a filmmaker hasn't exploited the house's lonely grandeur.
Then comes the Stonehenge replica, which lies a few miles east of Maryhill. It is Mr. Hill's monument to the World War I dead of Klickitat County. On a ledge below Stonhenge is Hill's gravestone, the final bold gesture of an American eccentric with grand notions.
This is the season of the grain elevator. About 10 miles west of Pendleton, there is one that bears the simple marking "Rew." I suspect many drivers look curiously on that label. It is a family name. The wheat fields around Pendleton in August are a mixture of bare ground, scorched earth and new plants.
H.L. DAVIS, THE ONLY OREGON author to win a Pulitzer Prize, set one of his minor books around The Dalles in the 1920s. One of Davis' themes in Winds of Morning is our propensity to become sentimentally attached to landscape. Driving through the gorge or further into Eastern Oregon, I rediscovered that emotion.
On Wednesday, I drove from Pendleton to John Day and then to Portland. The entire route was an aesthetic experience. The composition of my perspectives beckoned for an artist. The climb from Pendleton to John Day on an August morning is strikingly beautiful at every turn. The road becomes historically poignant as it reaches Battle Mountain, where one of the last Indian wars concluded.
Driving west from John Day, one encounters some of Oregon's most eccentric landscape in the John Day Fossil Beds. Some of these geological phenomena, such as Cathedral Rock, seem to be living, breathing things.
Between Condon and Wasco, the highway passes through a large array of windmills that stand in the wheat fields. It is like driving through a huge art installation, especially when you look down a line of ten of the giant gleaming white structures turning in unison.
THE KAM WAH CHUNG MUSEUM in John Day is one of Oregon's most fascinating historical places. It was the home-office-store of a Chinese doctor in the early 20th century. The home was sealed upon his departure and not reopened for some two decades, in 1968. It is a time capsule that hearkens to the gold rush that occurred in Eastern Oregon. If you find yourself within 100 miles of this site, you must see it.
The new Thomas Condon Historical Center is a relatively new National Park Service installation at the fossil beds. Just down the road is one of Oregon's more exotic bed and breakfast inns. Lands Inn is perched high above that gorge. Go to its Web site to gain a sense of its magnificent setting.
Another accommodation that beckons is the Condon Hotel, a smaller version of Astoria's Hotel Elliott. Across the street is a Powell's Books, whichs offers an array of refreshments. Mike Powell has a home in those parts, and this is his contribution to the local economy.
As I drove from Condon to Wasco, I thought about the late crusty Giles French, editor of The Sherman County Journal. If brought back to life, French would recognize the landscape, but he would be astounded at the changes.