On our way to the Oregon coast, in our last moments in Washington state, we came upon a rest area called Dismal Nitch. For the name alone, we had to stop. It was a beautiful place, on the north bank of the Columbia River, just before it opens out to the mighty Pacific Ocean. How had it earned such a dreary name?
From this spot, we could look at the beautiful Astoria-Megler Bridge, which, at just over 4 miles in length, is the longest continuous truss bridge in North America. But that bridge didn’t come along until 1966. And while the Columbia looked relatively calm during our visit, it was wide and quite obviously powerful. I’d hate to have to cross it in a canoe. While watching a harbor seal coast quickly past, I thought about how relentless nature can be. We may vacation in nature, but nature itself never takes a day off.
By the time the Lewis and Clark Expedition had reached this point in 1805, I’m sure they had learned that lesson on multiple occasions. By now they were nearly to the Pacific Ocean, and had experienced any number of trials and tribulations. But it was here that a bad winter storm pushed them up onto this rocky shore with its steep banks, and they were forced to huddle in the wind, rain and hail without fresh food for 6 days.
One of the placards indicated that in one of his journals, Clark had complained about being forced to eat only salmon while stuck in this place. My first reaction was, “must be nice!” but I’m sure that after a while, one would, indeed, long for some fresh vegetables and a different flavor. I suspect that it was nearly impossible to keep a fire going in that exposed, blustery place, too, so sushi it was for the entire crew.
When the storm finally broke, Clark declared himself happy to leave “that dismal little nitch”, and that is how the place got its name. It is now a part of the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, which has 5 scattered locations both in Washington and Oregon.
So, if you’re ever in the area and see a sign for Dismal Nitch, it’s worth a stop. If nothing else, you can prop yourself on the hood of your car, take in the glorious view, and quietly thank the universe for planes, trains, automobiles, bridges, gore-tex, convenience stores, flush toilets, and the explorers who were willing to blaze a trail so you wouldn’t have to.
(And yes, I know “nitch” is actually spelled niche. But I guess they went with the journal spelling, so I’ll go with the sign, just this once.)