Notes from Windward: #69


Walking in the Footsteps
of a Steel Rail


     We live in a world where change is professed to be the only constant. By certain measures, generations are becoming shorter. The same technologies, such as the internet and cell phone, that have made the distances between people and places shorter, have made the gaps in personal and local histories seem longer and more challenging to navigate. Now, people are often connected to hundreds of others across the nation and around the world through a vast web of relationships, even those who are not deliberate social networkers. Yet it is rare to be able to see and experience the world, or even just a small piece of it, as our grandparents did.

start of the rail trail at Warwick

     For a short period, the railway used to be the primary mode of transportation, connecting people, places, goods and services before the rise of the personal automobile. Abandoned rail lines now crisscross the landscape, leaving behind a large and distinct footprint. After the lumber mills in Klickitat and Goldendale closed in the early 1990s, the spur of the railroad connecting Goldendale to the main Northern Railroad line at Lyle was discontinued and removed.

      At that point, the railroad bed was "trail banked" as part of the "Rails to Trails" program. It's just now being reworked into an improved hiking trail--the Klickitat Trail--which stretches 31 miles in length, and passes by just at the bottom of our hill . On a cool and overcast day in early November, I hiked an infrequently traveled 13 mile section of the trail, starting in the small ghost town of Warwick on the western edge of the Klickitat Terrace--a hundred mile long plateau that runs due east from Windward--and hiked down through Swale Canyon to the Klickitat River.

Swale creek winding through the high prarie near Warwick

     The vastness and diversity of the landscapes in the Pacific Northwest continually surprise me. Maybe it is my born and raised in a small New England town psychology, where the mountains are so old that all that remains are small hills and every feature of the landscape betrays the legacy of human impact, that makes me so easily awed by canyons carved by floods only 15,000 years ago.

     Or so easily captivated by the high plateaus, painted in hues of brown and gold, that stun you with their stillness until the cold November wind cuts through your clothing to remind you of the bitter secret of lightly settled landscapes--nature is unforgiving. While there is an allure to a wilderness untouched by humans, I often find myself drawn more to places with a remote but certain human history, where my senses connect me to those that came before.

a hiking bridge over Swale creek

     As the trail descended off of the high plateau and the canyon walls rose up on either side of the path, the evidence that I was following along an abandoned railroad right-of-way became clearer--old rail spikes and cables dotted the trail, bridges accompanied by mileage markers made the multiple crossings of Swale creek effortless.

willows and sagebrush mark the creek bed

     I wondered if I was now admiring the same scenery that the passengers traveling to Goldendale on the daily train from Portland would have seen out of their windows in the 1920s. I wondered too about those that built the railroad around the turn of the 20th century, did they have to clear a forest of Ponderosa Pines and Douglas Fir, or was the canyon dominated even then by grasses, sagebrush and willow with the occasional patch of Oregon Oak and a lonesome Ponderosa? Oddly enough, this now isolated canyon was more known in the days of slower and more deliberate travel.

a lonesome pine overlooking the trail

     With a hawk circling above me in the sky, I was reminded how quickly you can become alone in places like Swale Canyon. I saw only one other person on the trail, a mountain biker enjoying his lunch while looking over the basalt flats that form the bed of Swale Creek. How strange it is that something so popular, a path literally so well traveled and that took so much effort to create, can in a generation fall into such disuse--an eerie reminder of the potential fate of today's transportation networks. But Swale Canyon is certainly worth rediscovering--for the wildflowers, for the meander through rugged terrain, for the local history that leaves its mark on the landscape.
Swale Canyon basalt flats

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 69