Roughly 7,700 years ago, high in the southern reaches of the Cascade Range, the 12,000-foot Mt. Mazama began to erupt with astonishing force. Over the course of several days, the volcano released a towering column of pumice and ash that reached 30 miles into the atmosphere, spewing debris across 656,000 square miles of what is now the western United States and southwestern Canada.
On the morning of January 11, I woke to find Portland buried beneath more than a foot of snow. As skiers rejoiced, schools shuttered, and Portlanders collectively expressed their surprise, I pulled on my boots to mark this unusual occasion with a walk through Washington Park. The snow was knee-deep, the firs shrouded in winter white, and the creaking of heavy branches the only sound to be heard.
In 1967, Governor Tom McCall signed the Oregon Beach Bill into law, guaranteeing Oregonians public access to every beach along the state’s 362-mile coastline. Fast forward a few decades to find a state that manages 69 state parks, recreation sites, natural areas, and scenic viewpoints on its coast—an average of one state park for every five miles of ocean shoreline.
If you were lucky enough to come of age in the 1980s and 1990s, The Oregon Trail was likely your first introduction to computers, to the nearly impossible task of hunting squirrels, and to the very real dangers of fording a river. It also may have been your first exposure to the Willamette Valley, that little piece of verdant paradise your wagon traveled 2,000 miles to reach. So what is it that led hundreds of thousands of settlers—and countless elementary school students—to brave dysentery, typhoid, and meager rations to reach a valley at the foot of the Cascades?