I am continually blessed to live in Oregon, a state of oceans, mountains, deserts, and forests. A state of hearty soil that supports Douglas Firs and Hemlocks, Western Redcedars and Ponderosa Pines, Larches and Spruces. A state where Coyotes, Douglas squirrels, and Stellers Jays can be a normal sighting in one’s daily life. I spend most of my time in the temperate rain forest of the Inland landscape, where the rolling hills of the West Hills and Mount Tabor provide a flat valley in which to walk, bicycle, and adventure fairly comfortably. The Willamette River winds lazily through the center. But heading East, the landscape gradually changes. The farmland of Gresham and Sandy stretches out in fields on either side of the highway. The increasingly dense forests of Sandy and Zig Zag start to envelop the road. And then as Highway 26 rises to meet Mt. Hood, Firs mingle with Pines, and the trees become so dense that there hardly seems to be distance between them. The mountain appears, a domineering figure on the landscape, inescapable. But then the highway descends, giving way to Ponderosa Pines and their balls of needles that indicate a transition into Central Oregon. The landscape widens, trees becoming more sparse; we’re now in the scrubland of seafoam-green sagebrush and Pine that is Kah-nee-tah, Madras, and then…Bend.
I have been East of the Cascades twice in the past two months. In August, I went to the John Day area for a week-long workshop on watershed education. And last weekend, I went to Sunriver, OR to spend some well-deserved down time with a close friend who is living there for a couple months before she goes to South America to travel. Both times I have driven East on Highway 26, I have been arrested by the landscape. The changes, just over a two hour period, are astounding. To descend from the densely forested mountainous landscape of the Mt. Hood National Forest into a land sparsely populated by sagebrush and Ponderosa Pine is a jarring but astounding visual experience. I drove by Mt. Hood at around 7:30 am. The sun was just rising over the mountain, sending a misty light, weak but dazzing, to illuminate the mountain. The snow-splotched peak seemed to be wrapped in gauze, mist thinly obscuring its figure, but the light streaming from its back side was golden, ethereal, almost secret, as it revealed the mountain. As I continued down the highway, the mountain peeked out here and there from amidst the trees, an omnipresence, solid and beautiful.
An hour later, I stopped for a pit stop at Peter Skene Ogden State Park, a viewpoint overlooking the Deschutes River, which has carved out a canyon many hundreds of feet deep. I arrived at the “Crooked River Gorge,” as it is called, when the freeze from the night before was just melting. Icicles hung from the trees and it was strange to see sprinklers sending water over still-frozen grass. The viewpoint overlooks the gorge and its vertical basalt cliff walls, a small ribbon of river flowing far below. The light wasn’t high enough in the sky to illuminate the river, so it looked dark against the deep shadows of the canyon. But there it went, the small ribbon of water, a waterway that over centuries had moved rock. The highway winds itself alongside these arresting landscapes: rivers carving out canyons, cliffs, fields of sagebrush, mountains at our shoulders, reminding us of our proximity to beauty in this state.
I can see why so many stories and legends have been inspired by Oregon. The Native American tribes of this region (Klickitat, Chinook, Paiute, Shoshone, Modoc, Tillamook, among many others) have passed down stories about their home landscapes, stories of the creatures and landforms that inspired them, made them wonder, the land that was part of their daily lives. Places are inherently spiritual. Spiritual in the sense of history. History in the sense that if we start to think about the people who have come before us in our places, people who have lived and loved and harvested and worked the land in the places we live, our places start to take on a sense of overwhelming time. The spirits of people who came before us leave foot prints on the land and fingerprints on the walls of our homes. They leave their art and their stories and their children. I can see why so many stories have been told about Wy’East (Mt. Hood), Loo-wit (Mt. Saint Helens), and Pah-toe (Mt. Adams), mountains of immense presence in our region, figures that we can see every day in our city hundreds of miles away. Mountains are sacred. Commanding. Sometimes throughout history explosive. Stalwart figures.
While in Sunriver, I climbed Tumalo Mountain on a cool and windy day. When we got to the top, four mountains had risen to meet us there. Broken Top, South Sister, Middle Sister, and Mt. Bachelor had suddenly appeared in front of us. We were at their level and we waved a greeting, in awe. We must tell stories about these places, to try to make sense of their presence. To try and make a stab at mysterious origins. To remember, to preserve memory. To give a nod of acknowledgement and reverence to their magnificence. So that our descendents don’t forget their past, their history, the prominence of such awe-inspiring landscapes.
So I leave you with a story, one that is very special to my own history. Before I was born, my mom became very interested in oral storytelling of the Pacific Northwest Native tribes. She attended a workshop with Chief Lelooska, a Native American elder who spent the latter part of his life preserving the stories of the Northwest Coastal people. After she had learned many of these stories and practiced the art of telling them, she recorded some of her favorites onto a cassette tape, with the help of her brother for sound effects. I heard these stories many times throughout my childhood, both from the tape and from my mom while on hikes or to pass the time in grocery store lines. I have transcribed one of my favorites here for you, the story of the Three Mountains: Wy’East, Loo-wit, and Pah-toe. Enjoy!
“The Three Mountains” as told by Mary Carr
Our next story is from the Cowlicks and KIickitats; These are Indians who lived in Oregon. They lived along the great river that we call the Columbia River and they looked up and saw three great mountains all around them. They saw Mt. Hood, they saw Mt. Adams, and they saw Mount Saint Helens. And they wondered where those mountains came from. Well one day, an old storyteller came and told them where the mountains were from. And this is the story.
A long, long, time ago, back in the time when mountains were people, there were two brothers. One was named Wy’East. The other was named Pah-toe. They were broad and tall and strong brothers but they didn’t like each other. They were always fighting. And one day their father, the old man, became very angry with his two sons and said, “Sons! Enough of this fighting! I will give each of you a land as beautiful as the next and please, no more fighting between you!” And with that, with his big finger, he drew a line, that he filled that in with water. The land to the South of this big river he gave to Wy’East, and the land to the North of this great river, he gave to Pah-toe.
Well, the people who lived with Wy’East were not totally happy with their land. Why, they had trees, they had rivers, they had plenty of game and lots of fish, but they thought for sure that the land of the North was better. Why, the people living with Pah-toe thought the same thing. They had plenty of trees and plenty of fish and lots of game but they also thought that the land of the South was better. The people became jealous with one another and one another’s wealth. Well, the old man did not know of this jealousy and he thought, “Well, it’s been rather peaceful down there. So I think I will build a great stone bridge connecting my two sons together.” And with that, he created a stone bridge across the great river and joined the people together. Well, the jealous people to the North and jealous people to the South, they didn’t use that bridge to create peace, they used it to bring war. They ran across the river, each fighting with the other.
The old man looked down and he saw the fighting was there again and he was angry with his sons. So he called out, “There will be darkness in this world and never, never will you see the light of day again!” And darkness came over the world. Ah, Pah-toe and Wy’East did not like this dark world. They needed light to hunt, they needed light to fish, they needed light to gather their berries. So they appealed to their father. They said, “Please, if we make peace again, will you bring light?” Well the old man was a nice guy. So he said, “Hmm, if the two of you can live in peace, yes I will bring you light. I will bring you light in the form of fire.” Mmm, Wy’East and Pah-toe had never heard of fire. They were very happy when they heard they would be getting fire.
The old man looked around to see if he could find a fire-tender, someone who could take care of the fire and always keep it tall and give it to all the humans. And at last, he found an old kindly woman, and her name was Loo-Wit. And he came to Loo-Wit and he said, “Will you be the fire tender? Keep the fire for the humans and make sure that there’s always peace in this world.” Well, Loo-Wit was very happy to help the old man and he said, “For this, I will give you one wish. What will it be?” Loo-Wit thought, “Hmmm, I know! I would like to be the most beautiful woman in the world.” And in a second, she was beautiful. And then the old man whisked her away to the big stone bridge in the middle of the river and he gave her fire.
Well both Wy’East and Pah-toe came to the bridge and they wanted the fire. But when the came to the bridge and they saw Loo-Wit, the most beautiful woman they had ever seen. Ahh! Wy’East fell in love with Loo-Wit! Pah-toe fell in love with Loo-Wit! They each thought she was beautiful. Well at night, Wy’East came to the bridge and he called out to her, “Oh Loo-Wit, will you but be my wife? You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen!” Loo-Wit was an old woman, even though her face was young and beautiful. She didn’t care for any young lover like Wy’East. She turned her back on him and paid no attention. Well, the next night, Pah-toe comes to the bridge and calls out, “Oh Loo-Wit! You’re the most beautiful woman in the world! Please be my wife.” “Oh my,” thought Loo-Wit. “I am but an old woman, I am not interested in this young man, Pah-toe.” And with that, she turned her back to Pah-toe.
Well, Pah-toe got very angry because he knew what had happened. He knew his brother Wy’East had won the heart of Loo-Wit. And the same happened to Wy’East. He got very angry because he knew why Loo-Wit didn’t want to marry him. His brother Pah-toe had gotten her heart. And with that, they each put on war paint and got ready for war. Well, Pah-toe and Wy’East got big boulders and threw them across. And the world began to rumble. Then Wy’East picked up a great tree and threw it across the river. The world began to rumble more. With that Pah-toe lifted up a boulder and threw it across the land and hit Wy’East in the shoulder. Well, Wy’East was mad with anger. With that he picked up a great Douglas Fir and he threw the tree across the river. He hit his brother Pah-toe in the head. He lost his head.
The old man looked down at the world and he knew there was war again with is sons. He was angry with is sons. And so he called out to them, “You! I gave you peace! I gave you fire! I gave you a world that was beautiful. And what do you do? You fight with each other! For that, you shall forever suffer!” And with one great foul swoop, he made Pah-toe, the great son to the North, into a mountain of stone, ice, and we call him Mt. Adams. And with one foul swoop, he made his son to the South, into a mountain. And that son, Wy’East, we call Mt. Hood. And then he looked down at that old woman, in the beautiful body. And he said, “Loo-Wit, you have betrayed me. You said you would bring peace and fire to the world and instead it has turned into war.” And with that, he created her into a mountain. And she is known as Mt. Saint Helens.
And even to this day, if you look up into the sky to the North, you can see a great warrior, Pah-toe, his head has been cut off. And if you look to the South, you can see the great warrior, Wy’East, his shoulder is missing. And if you look to the North again, you can see Loo-Wit, the most beautiful mountain on the world. But you know, they say, there is fire in that old lady yet.