Motorcycle Time Traveling Along Oregon's Columbia River

Old photographs prompt a motorcycle journey that intersects the past. From the August 2001 issue of _ Motorcycle Cruiser _ magazine. ** By Mark Heiser. **

Albert C. Hayes was born in October 1888, in Austin, Minnesota. He was my first cousin twice removed, a member of the family so distant that few knew anything about him. Yet as a surviving relative, I had inherited his personal effects, including a number of very old photographs from the turn of the century, many taken in places far removed from Austin. It appeared Albert had a passion for the open road, and traveling across unspoiled country.

One photograph particularly fascinated me. It shows Albert's brother, Paul, straddling a motorcycle—his gaze determined and fixed. From behind the acetylene headlight, two American flags wave patriotically. The year was 1920 and the place, Crown Point, a popular stop along the Columbia River in Oregon.

Seventy-nine years after the photo above was taken, I decided to embark upon a similar journey with my lifelong friend David. In the many years we've known each other we have shared many road adventures, but never on motorcycles. The photos provided a destination...a place to go that meant something, and a chance to connect with the past.

Although it was late August, we had not anticipated the blazing, penetrating heat of California's Central Valley, which drained every ounce of our energy. In an effort to escape the inferno, we made a beeline north on Interstate 5 and headed for the mountains above Redding. Needless to say, it was a long first day for two first-time tourers.

Sometime before dawn on our first night camping, it began to rain big, quarter-sized drops that thumped on our tent. We hadn't expected a storm, and we were less than prepared. We packed up quickly and headed out in an effort to outflank the weather. The morning provided a nice change from the day before—cool, crisp air and long stretches of rolling highway. We burrowed our way through the Klamath Forest, and deciding to avoid the freeway, continued on Highway 97 toward Klamath Falls, Oregon. (Not exactly the direct route to Portland, but more interesting.) As we made a 180-degree loop around beautiful Mt. Shasta, California, the rain clouds seemed to follow us like stalkers.

By nightfall we hit Portland, and decided to stay in a hotel, so we could be dry and refreshed for the journey through the Columbia River Gorge. As we settled in for the night, I pondered the next day's itinerary and my thoughts turned again toward Albert and Paul.

Albert had a wife, Anna Mable, who he married in 1933 when she was 44. She was the thin thread that connected Albert to my family. Even less is known about Paul, other than he was an architect. However, through the many photographs, I feel as if I know them both. They had many adventures. A trip to Iowa, marked by a black-and-white image of a farmer standing in a recently harvested onion field and a small, twisted suspension bridge in Mona. There's a trip to New Orleans, Louisana, showing dock workers unloading grain from a steam ship, a small African-American boy in a horse-drawn milk cart and a child pulling her mother across a street in the French Quarter.

Documenting their trip to the Columbia River Gorge, is a series of small photos chronicling the stops they made while traveling in the Northwest. The Masonic Temple in Fargo, North Dakota; the U.S. military ships moored in Seattle, Washington; and the Shrine Band marching toward our two wanderers in Vancouver, British Columbia.

The next morning the weather was hot and humid as we made our way toward the Gorge. Most of the Columbia River Highway is now Interstate 84, but a little snooping around in the travel books confirmed an 18-mile stretch of the old road that remains a historic scenic route. The Columbia River Highway was brand-new when Albert and Paul went off on their journey. Prior to that time, the only practical way to get to Portland from the east was by riverboat. The Highway was completed in 1916. One of the roadside's natural features is an abundance of towering waterfalls, which drew tourists from all over the country. And since travel was substantially slower in 1916, a comfort station was constructed on the site of Crown Point, which remains mostly the same today. The way station is a unique combination of Gothic and Art Nouveau designs. It has the appearance of an ancient temple, with its large stones, solid lines and arched windows. When the way station was first completed, it was criticized for its extravagance, in light of its original purpose as a restroom. (Most rest areas we see along the freeway today have succumbed to the more practical need of providing a convenient place to pee.) The Vista House stands as a testament to the romance of travel in the days when travel itself was a purpose.

We had no trouble locating the vantage point of Albert's old photograph. And through the eye of the lens we realized there was not much that separated us. Only time.

This portion of the Columbia River Highway curves gracefully through arched stone walls and towering rock outcroppings, over spanning bridges and past sparkling waterfalls. The highest and most stunning fall is Multnomah, the second highest year-round waterfall in the country. There we made another stop in our time travel, at the Lodge at Multnomah Falls. This huge stone structure was built in 1925 as a gift deeded to the city of Portland. There remain two large dining rooms that serve great food. Again, it was easy to find the location of the photograph taken by Albert and why they traveled so far for this experience.

Although the ride on the historic highway was relatively short, it was well worth the trip. The palpable sense of the past, combined with the natural beauty of the Gorge, gave us a feeling of connection. It lingered with us all the way home to Southern California.

The collection of photos mysteriously stops around the late 1920s. The family jewelry business also disappeared then, which leads me to speculate that the Hayes family suffered during the Great Depression. But Albert never lost his wanderlust, and family stories tell of long days on the highway, small-town hotels and 60-cent dinners. From the road, he wrote many letters to Anna Mable—plain, touching notes that spoke of his simple adventures.

Sometimes it's not the paths we take, so much as those we cross. The dusty black-and-white photos inherited from a man I hardly knew inspired me to venture out on my first motorcycle adventure. And on the way I discovered, perhaps, that I've inherited a bit of his wanderlust too.