It’s about three in the afternoon, and we hiked all morning, and now we’ve just had a big lunch. We get back in the car, and, after much debate about distances from here and distances of hikes and relative amazingnesses and our tiredness levels, we decide that the perfect spot to hit next on our tour of the Columbia River Gorge is Latourell Falls. We start to drive there, Roger at the wheel, Connie in the passenger seat, navigating from an actual paper book they bought when they moved out here a year ago, and me in the back seat, contributing nothing to the cause.
First we go the wrong way on the expressway. Then, in an attempt to go the right way, we exit at a state park where there’s no way to turn around without having to pay, so Roger has to execute this probably illegal almost-U-turn maneuver. So now we’re going the right way and actually manage to find the right exit onto the old highway. We drive up and around, swooping through hills and around curves under a thick canopy. Finally, we arrive—but the trail is closed, the parking lot under construction, nowhere to even stop. So we just keep going—and going—and going, having no idea where we’re headed. The road is very narrow, switching back and forth around tight turns as we drive up and up, catching glimpses of the river and the cliffs opposite occasionally through breaks in the pines. There’s barely room for cars to pass each other in opposite directions up here, let alone room for us to turn back and head down where we came from.
And then, suddenly, the trees fall away and the sky, light blue in the hazy midday sun, opens up above us, and we are at the very top of the hill, and we see an old, octagonal building in front of us. This is Vista House, built in 1918, which early this morning Connie had pointed out to me from the expressway far below as a little dot up on a cliff, a place she’d read about and wanted to go but had never been.
The building itself was interesting—wood and chandeliers and tiles in a particular shade of jade-y green that I always associate with Art Nouveau. But the view was phenomenal. Even with the haze, I could see for miles up and down the river, islands and boats down below like a diorama. Even my hosts, who had been speedwalking through our other hikes since they’d done them all before, stopped and stared and were seriously impressed. Partly it was the elevation and the natural beauty of the Columbia River Gorge, I can’t deny that, but a lot of the impact was the unexpectedness of it—something that wouldn’t have happened if we’d meticulously planned and thoroughly researched and Google-mapped. I realized what a rare thing a true surprise is in the age of the smartphone.
Don’t get me wrong. I love planning as much as the next type-A control-freak modern lady. From the first time I look up a destination on TripAdvisor, I start getting excited for the trip I’m about to take. But I consciously force myself to stay away from planning out an hour-by-hour itinerary, because part of what I want out of being away from home is possibility: the possibility of stumbling across something amazing that no one has ever heard of, or at least something that I haven’t heard of. This has definitely led to me having some boring times, wandering around a city where I know no one and nothing and unable to find something cool happening on a Saturday night, or paying several dollars (this matters when you’re a twenty-one-year-old broke backpacker) to go to a museum I happened to walk past that has nothing but mannequins in threadbare Romany costumes and no signage in any language I even remotely understand. But every once in a while, it’s led me to getting off at the wrong stop because the tram actually runs counterclockwise and not clockwise and walking straight into the world’s tiniest and friendliest bar, being served kriek from the tap and meeting a one-act-play’s worth of oddballs. Or finding myself in the middle of a crowd strolling down a barricaded street toward the river for a “fire party” in a city I wouldn’t have even been in except that the worst floods in a generation prevented me from going to Prague.
Things will go wrong–on the road, as in life–no matter how well you plan. But travel is (can be, should be) about adventure and relaxation, so on the road, as not always in life, we can embrace the mistakes and uncertainty, and just roll with it, and keep going when we make a wrong turn, or jump on a different train, or stop for a drink in that nameless bar instead of making a beeline for the one recommended by everybody on Yelp. It won’t always be a revelation, but it will rarely be a disaster, and it’s worth it to take the chance in case something surprises you and changes your life—or at least gives you a story that no one else can tell.