Oregon is really far from Europe. It took me about 24 hours to get there, and there’s really nowhere in Europe that’s 24 hours from any other place in Europe, unless you walk. Thus, one might wonder why I’m covering Oregon in a feature with “Europe” in its title, but then neither are Osaka, Beirut, Cairo, or Rio in Europe, just to give a few examples of the many non-European places I’ve written about previously. I gave up long ago justifying the whole “places to go in Europe that aren’t in Europe” thing, but since the majority of you are in the United States, Oregon might be so far outside the domain of exoticism that it may raise eyebrows that Manila does not.
On the other hand, North America and Australia are the only inhabited continents that have not yet appeared in this feature, and though Australia (which is even farther from Europe than is Oregon) might be an understandable omission, there are those who have wondered why I have not yet written about the United States. I am, after all, American. Or, rather, from New York.
But why Oregon? Why not my home town, for instance? Particularly since I go to New York at least once or twice a year, and I’ve never been to Oregon before in my life. Well, part of it is that—from a European perspective, at least—Oregon is very exotic. Many Europeans think you sprinkle it on pizza, if they’ve heard of it at all. Another reason is more prosaic—as I write this, I’ve just spent a week alone in Medford, Oregon, sorting out details both sordid and mundane and struggling with three distinct types of loneliness, not all of which are my own. Writing about Crater Lake will help.
Yet another reason is that there’s actually a narrative arc to this dispatch. Most of my dispatches don’t have a narrative arc; they instead have a distinct tendency to wander a bit. Wandering might not be entirely inappropriate for a travel column, but when you have an arc crying out to be narrated, it’s not something to ignore.
The narrative arc centers around my white box, because after four days in Medford it became clear that I had to take a white box to Crater Lake. This, then, is the story of the white box.
The four days in Medford are worth a story of their own. In fact, they’re worth a book, but it would be a book full of pathos and the aforementioned variations on loneliness, and that, coupled with the length of it all, means I can’t really tell that story here. Suffice it to say that they produced the white box, and now I’ll skip directly to the evening before the trip to Crater Lake.
I took my box and drove in the stupendously large SUV the rental company gave me (I had asked for the smallest car they had. God knows what they would have given me if I’d asked for a large car, but I assume it would have had a rotating gun turret on top) to Ashland, Oregon, to attend a performance of The Tempest. I left the white box in the car during the performance itself. I assumed there wasn’t a lot of theft in Ashland, and, for that matter, the thief would have had one hell of a shock upon opening the box.
One of the best things about the United States is that you can be in the middle of (let’s face it) nowhere, and it turns out that the place has a world-renowned Shakespeare festival, where people of all walks of life show up in all manner of attire to watch Shakespeare … and they know the play. You figure you’ll be in some backwater where the only entertainment is swatting flies and eating deep-fried sugar-coated batter nuggets and it turns out that the truck drivers sitting next to you are commenting on the actor playing Caliban, saying things like “Damn, but he was good as Mercutio last year.” You feel doubly the dolt—first, because you had entirely forgotten about Caliban’s existence, and, second, because you had prejudged just about everyone around you on the basis of their being from the middle of (let’s face it) nowhere.
It was a great performance, an extraordinary evening, and a good way to prepare for the trip to Crater Lake.
Crater Lake is in a caldera (a crater created by a volcano). It’s a very big caldera and it came from one hell of a volcano. Mount Mazama exploded almost 8,000 years ago, leaving a 6-mile-wide hole on top, which has since filled with water, creating the deepest lake in the United States. The lake is known for being very big, very deep, very blue, and just generally impressive. It’s the kind of place you remember, and that you’ll end up seeing pictures of even if you aren’t trying to find pictures of it. It was the ideal place to bring my white box.
The trip didn’t start out being impressive. As I drove out of Medford on a sunny Saturday morning, I couldn’t help noticing a string of Abbey’s Legendary Pizza shops. There were at least three, one every mile or so. My grandfather was a pizza man, and he never told me any legends about Abbey. For that matter, it’s a relatively rare name in Italy (roughly on par with Jedidiah). Lastly, how much pizza do they eat on that particular strip of Route 62 to warrant three identical pizza places in as many miles? These questions nagged at me.
Very quickly, though, the route became scenic enough to distract me from thoughts about Abbey’s pizza or the white box in the back. In fact, as I drove the 60 or so miles to Crater Lake, the road got more and more beautiful, and my thoughts got more and more empty, and I became somewhat melancholy.
Beauty will sometimes do that to me, bring on this kind of melancholy.
The road runs for a while along the Rogue River, which splashes over black rocks among big pine trees. After that, the pine trees just take over—enormous trees, with rugged bark. These are trees that have lived. In Europe, most forests have a kind of managed look to them; they’re very inviting, very friendly. Here, you get the impression that you’re intruding into a world that would much rather you left, a world that is alive in a different way.
As the miles ticked by, the road got curvier, the trees got bigger, and my melancholy deepened with the passing beauty. The stereo didn’t help, since I had Pink Floyd on. I couldn’t help it, I had to listen to it. As I drove up to Crater Lake itself, I actually felt a tear come to my eye, but it was the result of a very intense passage in the music (“You wore out your welcome with random precision, rode on the steel breeze …”). Also, I have sensitive eyes.
You don’t see the lake until you get to the top of the rim. I decided not to look: I didn’t want to see it from the car; I wanted to see it on my feet. I turned off the music and drove along Rim Drive to the west until I came to an overlook, where a number of cars were parked. At least 30 people were hanging out on a paved lookout spot, enjoying the view. I decided once again to avoid the view, and tried to see no more of it than what I couldn’t help seeing with my peripheral vision. I needed to be alone with my box; that was the whole point.
I knew there was a hiking trail off to the left, and I took the box and started walking. There was no one else. The trail ran along the outside of the rim, well above Rim Drive, but well below the actual edge. I couldn’t see the lake from the trail, but Oregon’s Cascade Range spread its woods to the distant horizon. It was a magnificent sight.
After about a half hour, still having encountered no one, I decided to try to climb up to the rim itself. I picked a spot that didn’t look too steep—after all, I was carrying the box—and left the trail, heading up.
It wasn’t an easy climb. Although there was some sparse vegetation, the ground was all volcanic ash; it was like sand, or dust. It was gray and it got in my shoes, and made it difficult to climb. Furthermore, I was over 7,000 feet high and the air was thin. I had to stop once to catch my breath—I didn’t put the box down, but I drew great lungfuls of air and looked at the view again. The box had proven to be deceptively heavy, and the slope deceptively steep.
After a few moments, I set out again, and, with a final effort, managed to crest the rim, where the earth suddenly opened up before me.
I found myself teetering on the edge of a 1,000-foot-high cliff, a vast circle of blue far below, broken only by a small pyramid of rock that looked like it had been dropped in as an afterthought. There was a slight breeze blowing from the south. I just stood there and looked. My eyes weren’t big enough to see it all.
I’ve seen a lot, and I’ve described a lot, but this doesn’t bear description. Sometimes when I write these things, I wonder if it isn’t just words—if it’s not all a waste of time, because how can such things be described? I can write “blue,” but that’s not it; the lake isn’t one color. For that matter, the water paints itself onto sheer, gray walls a thousand feet high, and it all stretches in a circle larger than any circle I could have imagined. It looks like a god made this, and even if this is all he made, he was a great god indeed. The sky, and the water … and then words fail me.
Words don’t usually fail me.
I sat down on a rock at the cliff’s edge and tried to take a few notes, tried to think about how to put all this, but I found I was too distracted, and realized that my note-taking was just an excuse not to do what I had come here to do. So I stood up and looked again, drank in the image of the lake and the cliffs and the dust at my feet, considered the fact that I was alone, all alone, facing all of this.
Finally, I picked up the box and opened it … then I scattered my father’s ashes to the wind.