A drive along the Columbia Gorge is awesome. When the lands burps the result can be devastating. The right lane eastbound on Interstate 84 out of Portland was abruptly closed by boulders that carelessly rolled down a slope onto several innocent travelers. Two trucks were totaled. Just imagine, they could not hold up under the weight of rocks about the size of SUVs.

But not for the ditch the rocks would have rolled farther and stopped traffic in both lanes. Nevertheless it was an awesome rock slide. The State highway dispatcher informed me that one lane was passable and traffic proceeded normally. So I was merrily on my way home from six weeks of fun partly with family and partly some ten days in Jamaica.

However I was never before so aware of the capricious albeit constant movement of the earth as I drove between the bluffs of basalt through which engineers had built the highway about thirty years ago. Where the slide occurred the banks were covered with trees and I would have expected the roots to hold the soil and it normally does do an adequate job.

On long gradual slopes the basalt layers are substantial and not likely to give way even in earthquakes which have not occurred along the Columbia river. That does not mean they could not occur. Nature does its own thing and in this particular area the tectonic plates have acted - and still are acting - in a strange juxaposition. So far the pressure is alleviated by volcanic action at Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Baker and far to the east at Yellowstone National Park. But I thought of the possibilities as I aimed my PowerShot Cannon at the basalt outcroppings while trying to keep from accelerating above the 65 mph limit imposed in Oregon. It is a lot tougher driving a freeway without the cruise control that I had grown used to in my Ford Probe for thirteen years.
Sometimes the four lane road had been cut through solid basalt. Often the eastbound lane cuddled against the upslope and the westbound lanes were well below closer to the riverside. The road was bare and dry. Snowfall of three days ago had melted away. I had rather hoped my home town had been well snowed in. The arid land needs all the winter moisture it can get. There was snow on the hills as I crossed the Horse Heavens - so called because of the tall grasses that had been there before the sheep came through in the middle eighteen hundreds - but none down in the basin where the Walla Walls, Snake, and Yakima rivers join the mighty dammed Columbia.
The hills are about three thousand feet in elevation and dry farmed successfully since the eighteen eighties. This highway spur is Interstate 82 considered an east west highway connecting Pendleton with Ellensburg. I consider it scenic all the way and I have driven it many times. But then I love this desert area. That's why I stay. Usually watching the traffic I do not worry about rumbling earthquakes - only rumbling 4x4s driven by testosterone, male and female. But rocks in the road are a real hazard as well
A similar type of rock slide happened along Interstate 5 near Bellingham several years before. In that case the driver was killed. Rolling rocks can be fatal. So take road signs seriously. The truck you save may be your own.
Naomi Sherer


The Sherer Group
1997 - 2005