Summer serendipity

From the Oregon Garden to Astoria

 Story and Photos by Suzanne Martinson

Serendipity is precious, but it can quickly go south. On the family farm, we had two choices: laugh immediately, or file away a good story to embellish at the supper table.

Sometimes both.

The winding path to the 300-year-old Sitka Spruce known as the Cathedral Tree starts at the Astoria Column. 

The winding path to the 300-year-old Sitka Spruce known as the Cathedral Tree starts at the Astoria Column. 

I got both during a great visit from my college roommate, also named Suzanne. (In the dorm, our joke was to spell her name Siouxzanne and mine, Saultzanne.)

Our Woman’s Time Out went well, until it didn’t. My plan was to pick Suzanne up at the Portland airport, drive south to Silverton, Oregon, check into the Oregon Garden Resort,  dine at the marvelous Silver Grille Cafe, spend the next morning in the beauteous Northwest gardens and catch a noon tour at The Gordon House, the only Frank Lloyd Wright house in Oregon open to the public.

Plans went awry. We had our room, but Silver Grille was closed for a private party. My mouth was left watering for their fabulous farm-to-table food. 

Suzanne, a resourceful hiker and excellent map reader, guided us to Silverton via Mount Angel, home of the glockenspiel. We missed its scheduled pealing by 20 minutes. Not to worry. We ate German sandwiches. 

Our room was ready. We shopped in Silverton and later dined at the Creekside Grill. Heading back to the resort on the two-lane road, a silvery moon set the rural farmland aglow. The other source of light was the gas gauge in my red Honda Element. 

EMPTY. What part of the Scout pledge to Be Prepared didn’t I understand?

Though I didn’t even know which direction I was  driving, Suzanne spotted a road sign: Sublimity, 10 miles, Stayton, 15. Suzanne, a big city girl raised in Chicago, worried that we’d run out of gas in the country. For me, the  country girl, it wouldn’t be the first time I’d knocked on a farmhouse door long after dark.

“Look for a farm with a gas tank,” I said. “Farms have gasoline.”

The miles ticked away. Finally, in Sublimity, a gas station with its lights on. Unfortunately, its pumps were off.

Eons later, we pulled into Stayton. “Oregon is a civilized state — they’ll pump our gas,” I said in my never-a-doubt voice. Three-quarter gallon to spare.

Here’s the best part: lights still glowed at the Dairy Queen. “Ever had a Blizzard?” I asked. She hadn’t. I bought. 

The Oregon Garden was spectacular, and my friend Molly Murphy set us up with one of the best Gordon House tours ever. The other two visitors had toured two other Frank Lloyd Wright houses I knew well -- Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob near Pittsburgh. Serendipity again.

From sandals to salmon

Not willing to let Suzanne leave our Lexington house without a meal of fresh-caught Columbia River salmon, we set out for Astoria. The Astoria Column is always part of my to-do list. How many fantastic views can you see for a buck (for parking)?

On this sunny day, the park was crowded, so Suzanne decided not to take the 164 steps up, and down. (I am afraid of heights.)

“How about the Cathedral Tree Trail?” I asked. I’d spotted the sign many times, and this was our chance. I figured a short sprint. It wouldn’t take long. Ha!

It wasn’t a walk, it was a hike of unknown duration. No sign told us how far, or how long. Again, what part of Be Prepared didn’t I understand? We were in sandals, Suzanne’s sturdier than mine. We carried no water. We’d left our cell phones in the car. We had neither map, nor compass. Nobody knew where we were. Only a few signs tacked to the trees were there to spur us on. 

“We are doing what I make fun of other hikers for doing,” Suzanne said.

The trail zigged and it zagged. If gnarly roots didn’t trip us up, the muddy forest floor tried.  Worse, the trail divided — no sign pointed which way to go. My trusted leader kept us going, but even she was frustrated. We lost track of time. Were we close? Could we last another hour?

I dropped behind. “Let’s give it five more minutes, and then turn around,” I said.

Just past the five-minute deadline, the primitive trail dead-ended into a wooden boardwalk. Still no sign. She turned left. I waited. She stopped, retraced her steps to me, paused, and turned right, down the hill.

“Here it is! We made it!” she called.

I scrambled to join her. The Cathedral Tree is a Sitka Spruce, more than 300 years old. The sign at the trailhead is named for the late Richard Fencsak, a longtime trail advocate and owner of Astoria’s Bikes and Beyond. As it turns out, the trail to the tree and back is about two miles. Whew.

Other questions remain. What if we’d continued left? Would we have reached the Columbia River?  If we’d stumbled and fallen, would we drink from a mud puddle? When the park closed at dusk, what would have they done about that red Element still in the parking lot?

Unanswered questions, all. 

“It always seems shorter on the way back,” Suzanne promised.

It was. Suzanne, who lives in the hills of Malibu, and I found out where to buy Columbia River salmon so fresh it practically flipped its tail. Our source was a guy who had moved to Astoria from Hollywood. The California one. He said he liked what we might once have called the “funky vibe” of the city, the oldest American settlement west of the Rockies.

“Astoria wasn’t quite what I expected,” Suzanne said on the way home, the gas tank practically overflowing. “I thought it would be more touristy, what with the Shakesperean plays and ...”

“Oh, you mean Ashland.” I said. Another trip for serendipitous possibilities. The salmon was delicious. No surprise there.


Freelance writer Suzanne Martinson has lived on both sides of the Columbia River. Questions? Email her