I had no idea when we left my boyfriend’s house in the seasonally recreational town of Government Camp on the side of Mt. Hood that we would end our evening at the highest point on the mountain reachable by trail, which explains why I ended up there with him, wearing a pair of old sneakers I had retired from anything but casual physical activity and without my camera.
Normally, I grill Eric before we embark on hikes we’ve never done before, wanting to know the exact distance, elevation gain and loss, and estimated total trek time, but my new exercise regimen—and resulting increase in muscle and strength—temporarily clouded my neurotic urge to know the details of everything I am going to do before I actually do it.
“I want to go to the Cloud Cap Inn,” he tells me on the phone a few days prior.
“That sounds nice,” I say. “Let’s go.”
It is a part of the mountain that neither of us have ever been to before, which is increasingly rare since Eric has called this place home for almost three years. He moved to Government Camp after landing a job managing a ski cabin for a Portland area college, a mere few weeks after we initially began dating. Since then we have each worn deep grooves in the journey from Portland to Government Camp and vice versa.
The hour-and-fifteen-minute drive, which snakes you through the outskirts of sprawling Gresham, then through the quaint, rural town of Sandy, and finally through a series of tiny towns so small I did not even realize they were considered towns until very recently, has become automatic and routine for both of us. The drive becomes more complicated for me and my 16-year-old Honda for 9 months out of the year, when the road through the mountain pass develops a thick layer of dirt-encrusted snow and ice, but for now, it is simple. I can drive all the way up to his house and park in his driveway without chains or 4-wheel drive. It is summertime, and we are ready to explore the parts of the mountain normally encased in snow.
Driving to the Cloud Cap Inn takes longer than I imagined, a true harbinger for what was to come. We take highway 26 to 35 toward Hood River, on the other side of the mountain. Eventually we turn off highway 35 and start creeping up a winding road. Every few miles enormous ruts in the road cause Eric to slow down to a crawl in his Subaru before slowly inching the vehicle down the rut and then back up and out of it. We are gaining elevation. Eric tells me that the ruts are there to allow the spring snow melt to drain. After an hour of slow and strenuous driving, we reach the Inn.
The Inn looks improbable, nestled into a nook just above the tree line, made of sun-bleached logs and wooden shingles. It stands on volcanic ash, surrounded by small trees and shrubs in a barren alpine landscape, which makes it seem vulnerable to fire and storms. I am surprised it is still standing. The Cloud Cap Inn was built in 1889, and after changing hands for several years during the 1930’s and 40’s, it finally landed in the safety of a mountaineering club called the Crag Rats, who continue to maintain and operate the Inn today, using it as a base for snow surveys and climbs.
Although the Inn is closed to the public, we happened to be there on a Sunday when the Inn was open. We missed the tail end of a guided tour, but showed ourselves around anyway, ambling through rooms stacked high with bunk beds, duffel bags of climbing gear shoved into the corners. Two gigantic pots rested on the counter of the kitchen, a wood stove tucked in the corner. And of course, the heart of the Inn—an enormous fireplace opening up into a large room with a long picnic table-like dining table. Climbing gear and several group pictures of the Crag Rats in their signature plaid shirts hung from the exposed beams.
Eric and I stop in to the restroom then step out of the lodge into the sun. It is a perfect day—blue skies and temperate, with just a few fluffy white clouds floating by. Eric wants to hike to Cooper Spur, locating the trailhead just outside the Cloud Cap Inn, and after an hour and a half of driving and another thirty minutes spent checking out the lodge, we are finally ready to start hiking. We start up the trail, not realizing that we can already see our destination, jutting abruptly out of the side of Mt. Hood, 8,500 feet in the air.