HOOD RIVER, Ore. - We were alone above the river, on a tiny slippery path in the Columbia River Gorge. Above us was a steep cliff face that narrowed the sky to a sliver. Across the ravine was an endless cascade of trees that engulfed the mountain range in the distance.
But nobody in our group could focus for long on the breathtaking scenery. That's because to the right of the path was nothing but air, a straight drop of several hundred feet. We kept our eyes to the front and clung to the thin cable railing fastened to the rock wall.
Some family reunion.
Ten of us had gathered from Philadelphia, Orlando, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle to retrace the trip we had made in honor of my uncle, Jonathan Rome, 13 years earlier. The gorge was Jon's favorite place on earth. That's why, shortly after his death, we - my mother, father and brother; my mother's cousin, his wife and daughter, and three of Jon's friends - had planted a tree in his memory along a beautiful path that journeyed deep into the surrounding mountains.
As a group now we had plenty of determination, eagerness and energy to find that site again. What we lacked was memory. Somewhere in this expansive wilderness was Jon's tree. The problem was, each of us had a different recollection of where it was.
The Columbia River Gorge was created thousands of years ago by glacial floods that carved deep into the region's volcanic rock. Acknowledging its unique features, the federal government designated the gorge the country's first National Scenic Area.
It encompasses 80 square miles and provides the only sea-level passage through the Cascade Mountains. This geological anomaly offers accessible hiking to areas that otherwise might be inaccessible.
With canyon walls that stretch 4,000 feet upward, scenic hiking trails, sylvan campgrounds, and numerous hidden waterfalls - there are 77 cascades just on the Oregon side of the gorge - the Columbia River Gorge is a solid vacation destination, one that Easterners hear little about.
Our group met at Hood River, Ore., a small town on the banks of the Columbia River, which forms the border between Oregon and Washington. This picturesque town had been our starting point on our initial trip to the gorge.
Gathered there now once again, we were consumed with excitement at the thought of undertaking another adventure on behalf of a man who had meant so much to us. We eagerly began sharing ideas on how to find Jon's tree - a sapling in a vast forest.
Without a consensus on where to start, our group set out first thing for Multnomah Falls, the single biggest attraction in the gorge. Ironically, if there was one thing we agreed on, it was that Multnomah could not be our real destination. But because we'd been there before, we hoped a return visit would give us our bearings.
Multnomah, plummeting more than 620 feet, is the second-highest year-round waterfall in the United States. Visitors seeking a good workout can take the 1.2-mile paved trail that leads to the top of the falls, and visitors seeking not such a good workout can cross the Benson Bridge, which ascends only a quarter-mile and is more accessible. Either way, they'll be among the two million people Multnomah attracts each year.
A large group had already assembled by the time we arrived. While such a crowd can be unappealing - it was the main reason we had decided not to plant Jon's tree at Multnomah - we now reasoned that where there were large crowds, there was bound to be an information center, and something there might jog our collective memory. We were right.
My mother and I peppered the man staffing the information desk. "There was a series of waterfalls throughout the trail," I said. "There was a very steep ascent at the beginning," my mother recalled. "The trail doubled back several times," I added.
It was futile. Our bygone trail had characteristics that almost every trail in the region seemed to share. But the man seemed eager to help. Using a scrapbook he had on hand, he pointed to photographs from different hiking routes in the area that could be potential matches. The first two were obvious misses. The third trail struck an immediate chord.
This particular photograph was of Wahclella Falls - a name that sounded familiar. The man said it was one of his favorite hikes, about 10 minutes away. This had to be it. We were ecstatic. As I turned to tell the rest of our group, my mother asked, "Hey, which one is
She was pointing at a small photograph on the opposite page from Wahclella. It was Eagle Creek Trail, the man said - "Look, you can tell by the railing on the path."
We set out for Wahclella.
We parked and passed around bottles of water. Jon's friend Gary carried two new trees, Leyland cypresses, and a shovel for planting them. The trail began to rise quickly. As we maneuvered up the steep incline, the path narrowed and the excited whispers of our group increased.
"I remember this."
"Does this seem right?"
We began picturing ourselves on this same trail 13 years earlier. The similarities seemed remarkable. As our anticipation rose, we began looking for a flat area by the side of the path, where we remembered planting Jon's tree. There was none.
After only a mile or so, the trail began to decline. This wasn't right. Had we missed a connecting path, something that continued upward? By the time we reached Wahclella Falls, we knew two things: We'd been here before, and this wasn't where we had planted Jon's tree.
While small compared to Multnomah, Wahclella is beautiful in its own right. Flowing out of a narrow opening in the gorge 120 feet above, the falls hit a lagoon below with surprising force, sending out a light mist that sprays anyone who approaches.
Although the path doesn't lead down to the lagoon, my brother, Travis, found his own way to memorialize the place. In his bathing suit, he climbed over the wet and slippery rocks to the water's edge, then dove in, and you could see his body immediately stiffen.
The mountain water was cold, colder than he had expected. Like a cat that has slipped into a bathtub, no sooner had Travis gone under than he was back on the rocks, shivering. My father claimed he could hear Travis' teeth chattering from the end of the path. The group congratulated Travis on his bravery - and talked quietly about what it was to be young.
As we were heading back, I saw a number of large rocks, 30 or more feet in diameter, lying in the streambed altering the water's flow - boulders that had plunged from the cliffs above and reminded me of nature's raw power even in a serene place. This is where Gary decided to unpack his trees - partly because of the place's beauty and partly because his back must have been killing him. Even if we never found Jon's spot, we could start the tradition all over again, and this time we would document its location.
It was late in the afternoon when we returned from Wahclella, and we ended the day with dinner at Skamania Lodge, just across the river in Washington, and overlooking the vastness of a forest in which we had hoped to make a lasting mark. I went to bed certain that our best chance at finding Jon's tree had passed.
The next morning, our last day in the gorge, we got a late start. The excitement of the day before had been replaced by apprehension. Nobody in our group was eager to find that our next hike might be another dead end.
Eagle Creek Trail is an exciting hike. It was constructed in 1910 to accompany the opening of the Columbia River Highway. The Italian engineers hired for the job dynamited large parts of the basalt mountain face to make way for the path. The trail is several feet wide at the outset, but as it begins to rise, it narrows, and you can't ignore the steep drop to the creek below.
The trail extends more than 14 miles to its farthest point, and hikers can spend the night at one of several campgrounds and access a half-dozen major waterfalls. As we climbed, I was so focused on the amazing scenery that I forgot why we were here until my attention was riveted by a cable railing jutting from the rock surface just up ahead.
"I remember this," I thought.
This was it; all doubts were gone. As we carefully walked along the narrow, slippery path, our hands firmly gripping the cable, I flashed back to 13 years earlier. We turned our attention to finding the flat area that sheltered Jon's tree.
Some miles later, we came upon a sign for the Lower Punchbowl Falls, with a path down to the canyon floor and the base of the waterfall. A few of us explored the area below. After looking down for so long, it was wonderful to be in a secluded area looking up. We cooled our feet in the creek, then climbed back to join the others, and ate a snack before packing up to go.
Opposite our clearing, my mother now noticed a flat area that had escaped our attention. The brush and trees were overgrown now, but once we got by some branches, it felt right. We called the group over. My excitement was tempered by the sight of a large cluster of dead and dying trees that lay hidden in the overgrowth. Could this have been the fate of Jon's tree?
As I looked at what seemed to be an impenetrable forest, I was forced to recognize that Jon's tree might not have made it. Standing here at what was almost certainly the culmination of our first trip, were we really any closer to him?
Our group spent several minutes combing the area in vain, but my mother came over to me with a smile on her face. "Jon," she said happily, "would find this hilarious."
I knew exactly what she meant. We might never find Jon's tree, not with any certainty. But that was no longer important. Being together, all of us, and summoning memories of Jon were what really mattered. Time had done nothing to minimize our love for him, nothing could. And the gorge, his gorge, had welcomed us once again. We thought about all this, and began our descent back down the path.
Visiting the Gorge
To visit the Columbia River Gorge, fly into Portland, Ore., served from Philadelphia International Airport by Northwest, Delta, United, Southwest, Continental, Frontier, American and US Airways. All airlines offer one-stop service. The lowest round-trip January airfare in a recent Web search was about $215.
Rent a car at the airport and take Route 84 east, about an hour's drive. For the gorge and Multnomah Falls, take Exit 31; for Hood River, take Exit 62.
The Vagabond Lodge
, 4070 Westcliff Drive, Hood River, Ore. (541-386-2992;
» READ MORE: www.vagabondlodge.com
), offers basic accommodations for a reasonable price beginning at about $57 a night; river views are about $11 more, including taxes.
Next door is the more luxurious
Columbia Gorge Hotel
(4000 Westcliff Drive, Hood River, 1-800-345-1921;
» READ MORE: www.columbiagorgehotel
com), where you can stay or eat. Rooms start at about $185 for garden view and about $215 for river view, including taxes.
In Washington, try
, 1131 SW Skamania Lodge Way, Stevenson, Wash. (509-427-7700;
» READ MORE: www.skamania.com
), with trails, golf course and delicious dining. Rooms begin at about $180 for forest view, and for $230 Columbia River view.
(416 Oak St., Hood River) has a great breakfast menu to start a day of hiking.