Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Blue Lines

Oregonian tend to think of the Columbia as their river. The big cities are on their side. The Interstate is on their side. Hood River is on their side. God is on their side. Vancouver is on the Washington side.

We conveniently forget that a river has two banks and that after Hermiston, both of the Columbia’s are in Washington. Eventually the whole river disappears into Canada, which, after all, is a foreign country and we have no idea what happens to it after that. The Columbia could be a secret pipeline from Hudson’s Bay, for all we know. The M├ętis think the Columbia is pay-back for the Red River, but that’s an obscure story down here.

That the big cites and the highway are on the Oregon side is an accident of geography. Vancouver at the edge of the “plains” on the bluff overlooking the Columbia was the site of the first whiteman’s trading post (that suspect Hudson’s Bay again) and there’s way more flat land up there upon which to build a city than there is on the Oregon side of the river; but Portland only backs up to the Columbia. Its river is the Willamette, and it’s the Willamette with its connection to the valley above the falls that trumps Vancouver’s flats. Likewise, it’s sheer luck that The Dalles, the annual Native-American rendezvous spot, and the Hood River Valley are on the Oregon side, and that when the Columbia makes its big sweep around the Oregon knuckle that the outer bank — the bank where the force of the river eats away at the land — is on the Washington side leaving scant purchase for roads, much less towns.

The result is that Oregon’s gain is Washington’s gain. It’s classic win-win: Oregon gets the traffic and Washington gets the quaintness. A fair number of Oregonians test the Washington side between Dallesport and Vancouver, through the heart of the Gorge on Highway 14, a broad, well-maintained two-lane highway that offers some spectacular views — especially around Cape Horn, where the road rises high above the water — unequaled across the river. Far fewer brave Highway 4, a tight, twisty run from Longview to Long Beach. Nonetheless, it’s one they would do well to take now and again, the scale is more human.

But here I have to issue a disclaimer. I have not been west of Cathlamet on Highway 4 — soon, but not yet — and the highway heads away from the river there; but between Cathlamet and Longview, the highway rides on most of the land that is there. The only people living anywhere here abouts live on Puget Island (which connects to Washington with a bridge and to Oregon with a ferry), a farming island in the middle of the Columbia, but the island supports no town. Curiously enough, though, this almost lack of people is enough to form a county, Wahkiakum County: 3755 of them, according to ePodunk.

The lack of people, of course is what makes the north bank quaint and accessible, Longview to Vancouver notwithstanding. Lack of people also makes for slim cemetery pickings; and not enough make use of the views, with the notable exceptions of Stevenson Cemetery, which is scrunched between the highway (14) and the river just east of town and is visible from the highway, and Mount Pleasant Cemetery out of Carrolls, WA (I currently have three Mount Pleasant cemeteries in my Washington State database), which perches on hill some 1200 feet above the river with soaring views of the Columbia in one direction and the Cascades in the other. Don’t mind the wind, thank you.

But it’s the downriver cemeteries of Cowlitz County to its border with Wahkiakum County that I’ve been recently exploring. (If you’re elsewhere in the world, I suggest a good map to understand the geography of this region.) Of the three I visited, only tiny Abernethy has river views, and those through the trees. Come summer that view will shrink. The other two, Bunker Hill (every state has one) and Oak Point have none.

You might note, if you’re staring at that map, that there are a lot of things around here named “Abernathy” and that many sources likewise call the cemetery “Abernathy”; but when you finally find its near-forgotten little self — hardly a city lot under a canopy of trees plunging towards the water — you’ll find a sign saying “Abernethy Cemetery” and that most everyone in the place is named “Abernethy,” as well. No one is named “Abernathy.”

The other cemeteries are fine enough, if not noteworthy, but they do have a couple graves that are uncommon and represent the other blue line — other than the Columbia: police, law enforcement officers. Running into graves of policemen (so far no women that I’ve run across) is not in itself unusual, but both of these have a twist. In Bunker Hill it is a fellow named Clint Crombie (1895-1981) who was not just a cop but a Mountie, a corporal in the Northern Patrol. How romantic is that? His trusty dog, Rex; his horse; his flat-brimmed hat; always getting his man. Why, I’ll bet he knew Sergeant Preston personally. Maybe he even served under him. Coulda been. Could too.

Crombie may have been romantic and glamorous, but not so Marvin Meads (1925-1992). Marvin was all business. Marvin took his business to the grave with him. Marvin was a sergeant in the Longview Police Department. We know so because he had his badge sealed in clear ceramic and mounted on his tombstone under his name, just like people seal photographs of the deceased with clear ceramic and mount them on tombstones. Marvin, not to be outdone, did this as well; but Marvin, unlike most people who choose a portrait, opted for a full body shot, in uniform, brandishing a shotgun. Just the image you want to carry into heaven with you. Or, perhaps he was concerned about just which direction he was going and thought a little protection might come in handy. In any event, it was a curious choice.

Just don’t let the vandals see it, Marvin.

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