"Where's the adventure?"
It's a question I have been asking myself a lot in my Forties. Maybe it's the tug of that frontier spirit that comes from living in the Pacific Northwest. More likely it's just the normal mid-life crisis kind of thing that everyone goes through. It's been twenty years since I lived abroad in the Russian Far East. I spent a good part of my early career in architecture working on projects in places like Kazakhstan and Nigeria. Next to the Caspian Sea, I've seen spontaneous brush fires combust from a mix of intense summer heat where wind 'chill' works in reverse and mica deposits reflect sunlight at dry grass. I've ridden on Soviet trains, planes, and helicopters. I've witnessed a communist party rally in the main square in Vladivostok and driven through an angry mob overturning and burning a car in Lagos. I've walked half a mile out on open, frozen Pacific Ocean. And, like Toto, I've seen the rains down in Africa.
One hope for pioneering this photography project was to find a little adventure. Cloud Cap Inn quietly gestured to come and take a closer look. After all, this little lodge was impossibly built a hundred twenty-seven years ago at elevation 6,000 feet on the shoulder of Mount Hood. I love to hike and backpack and, in the past, I've covered some ground and spent some nights along the Timberline Trail. But paved roads get REI-outfitted, weekend warriors out of the city and up to the mountain in an hour or two. So, in 1889, before automobiles, how did this 30-guest hotel (with running water and toilets, no less!) get constructed all the way up here? And how has it endured all this time?
To the best of my research I could find no representation of Cloud Cap Inn in the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) as compared with over a hundred-fifty photographs of Timberline Lodge which is fifty years younger. I had recently contributed my first negative to the Library of Congress for the Bybee-Howell House (1856) on Sauvie Island. It seemed that right here in my proverbial backyard was a gap in the record of our architectural heritage which I could help fill.
In October, I was invited to attend a maintenance meeting with the Crag Rats and spend the night in the inn. Since Cloud Cap hasn't been open to the public in decades, this was my opportunity to make some photographs of the interiors. Some of the rooms have guest signatures on the walls dating back to the 1800s. Getting to spend the night was an unexpected bonus. What's more, as the date approached, the biggest storm of the year was scheduled to fall on the Northwest. It was adding up to be the bit of adventure I had been looking for.
This being my first time "on assignment," I asked my friend Chad Spurrell to assist me. Chad and I have backpacked the north side of the Timberline Trail before and I knew that he would appreciate the chance to experience the inn firsthand. Bernie Wells and Bill Pattison of the Hood River Crag Rats were there to greet us when we arrived late morning. We had corresponded for months via email but this was our first meeting in person.
Since the '50s, the Hood River Crag Rats have been the lessees of Cloud Cap Inn, which is owned by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). As an organization, the Crag Rats are also the oldest mountain rescue organization in the country, celebrating their 90th anniversary this year. They are a volunteer organization covering the north side of Mount Hood, its National Forest, and much of the Columbia River Gorge in Hood River County with roughly sixty active members and a couple score of retired and legacy members, all of whom sport distinctive black and white checkered shirts. And, as we were about to find out, they are just a hell of a nice group of people.
Bill and Bernie welcomed us in, toured us through the building, shared some of the history, and gave us the run of the inn to set up shop. Bill had a strong blaze going in the fireplace but it was clear that it would take hours, maybe days, to really bring the place up to temperature. We had been told to bring our camping gear as there might not be enough room since they were expecting most of the club to attend. The weather being what it was, I had to ask up front if we would be allowed to stay inside. Chad and I didn't really want to try to set up the tent in the wind and, as it turned out, it would have been a wet and freezing night even if we had managed not to be blown from the ridge. Bill and Bernie let us pick out one of the guest rooms. I think they figured that by keeping the two of us indoors it might just save the club another rescue mission.
Once we got the gear in from my pickup, we set up the large format camera and started taking pictures. We were early and they suggested that getting pictures now would be easier than once club members began to arrive. Slowly, other Crag Rats rolled in and with them so did vehicle after vehicle of groceries and supplies necessary to stock the inn for the maintenance work ahead. And the storm of the year was building up outside. Rain became snow flurries and gusting wind drove drifts against the building and sneaked inside through gaps in the window.
We dined boarding house style with the rest of the club. Bowls and spoons were made available and big pots of chili simmered away on the wood burning stoves. We were issued our mess and instructed not to be shy or we would miss out. So, we lined up at the stove, presented our bowls, and received a big helping. Then turned back to the dining room table, grabbing a hunk of cornbread on the way, where no one took offense as we squeezed ourselves into a convenient gap.
After a club meeting where we were introduced to the group at large, Chad I and settled down in the living room in an incongruous stuffed leather couch next to the big fireplace. As the evening wore on and the weather thickened, sitting in front of that hearth it wasn't difficult to imagine that we had slipped back in time over a century. There were no lights except from the fire and a dim glow of a propane light from the distant dining room. Sounds of conversation drifted everywhere mixing with the howling wind buffeting against single paned windows. An impromptu band started playing in the darkness on some ragtag instruments that struggled to keep in tune. I was reminded of the main setting in Tarantino's latest film, "The Hateful Eight," but, of course, without the sinister overtones. Each time the door opened it was accompanied by a cold gust and a shower of flakes which also reminded me of the old W.C. Fields movie "The Fatal Glass of Beer" where the run on joke was the line: "And it ain't a fit night out for man nor beast!"
The guest rooms were chilly but we were sure glad to be in a solid building with actual mattresses to lie on. Chad and I were actually quite lucky guests because it was a full house and not all of the Crag Rats present got a room or even a mattress. My late night trip to the one and only bathroom in the place was interesting. I had to find and don a headlamp and make my way down the unlit hallway, through the heavy, creaking door from the guest wing to the living room now filled with snoring Crag Rats and a dwindling fire, and toward alcove before the kitchen. The door to the bathroom was open and I began to walk in when a startled man sitting in the dark on the toilet said, "I'm done! Just a minute!" Later, on the way back, I weaved my way through people, trying not to step or shine a light on anyone along the way.
Breakfast was another exercise in military preparedness. We all lined up through the kitchen, utensils in hand, to sidle up one at a time to the commercial stove where ladle- and spatula-loads of potatoes, bacon, and egg scramble were unceremoniously deposited onto our plates. Big percolators bubbled away on the wood burning stove in the dining room. Some coffee and grub and then people were off to work. No lingering around the table like last night. Some were running out to the trail to cut deadwood and clear it. Some stuck around the inn, bringing in cords of firewood, fixing leaks, or repairing foundations. The snowfall was turning to rain but it didn't seem to dampen anybody's spirit.
One thing I have learned is that historic preservation takes a variety of forms. We usually experience a historic property as a tourist. And typically, a historic property is a museum piece, a frozen memorial to a time past. Or it is a modified property that would have been abandoned or demolished if it had not been repurposed, like McMenamins Edgefield for example. Cloud Cap Inn, in its 127 years, has been abandoned, was nearly burned down both on purpose by the USFS and by forest fire, and was repurposed from its original intent as public hotel to a private clubhouse. However, it exists and is used much in the same way that it always has. It is a rare treat to experience a stormy winter night lodged high on the side of a Cascade mountain in much the same manner that William Ladd and C.E.S. Wood must have in 1889 after making this dream a reality.
Cloud Cap Inn has been lucky to survive and to have found in the Hood River Crag Rats a fiercely loving and devoted group to care for it in the second half of its life thus far. It is a living piece of American pioneer history and it certainly provided me with some much needed adventure.