The Columbia Plateau

Thoughts from the Columbia Plateau

As one travels eastward over the central and southern Cascades in Washington State one enters what is known as the Columbia Plateau or the Columbia Basin. The otherworldly environment of the Columbia Plateau is a stark contrast with the lush forests west of the Cascades. The rain shadow of the Cascades creates a predominantly semi-arid climate that results in sprawling shrub-steppe.

The terrain of the land is also drastically different from the rugged mountains and foothills of the Cascades and Rocky mountains that surround it. As the name would suggest, the Columbia Plateau is a large depression in the landscape relative to the Cascade range to the west and the Rockies to the east. This is not to say that the landscape is flat and featureless though. It is full of rolling hills, canyons, river valleys, even what you might call peaks that rise suddenly and dramatically from the surrounding landscape.

Over the years growing up in Washington I have spent a lot of time traveling through the Columbia Plateau on the way across the state to Montana on family trips and it is a landscape which I have not really found moving/inspiring until relatively recently. To be fair a lot of these trips involved traveling along I-90 through the more heavily “humanized” sections of the plateau which have been largely transformed for large scale industrial agriculture. Aside from a short run through the Columbia River Gorge this route does not really allow you to appreciate the scope of the plateau’s beauty in its more unperturbed form.

It wasn’t until a recent trip to Yakima and into some of the less “developed” areas of the plateau earlier in the summer of this year that I began to have a change of heart about the beauty of the plateau. I wrote the following on June 28th:

Viewed relative to typical concepts of the beauty of “the West” it is certainly an alien landscape. It feels desolate, bleak, a harsh place. The mercilessness of the sun beating from empty skies upon vast brown hills. But while traveling through these places yesterday I considered the way in which my averse reaction to this place is more to do with my own prejudices than anything. I considered the peoples that would have once called these regions home. And considered how they would have found in them a world full of life, of spirits, of mysterious power, a world with its own rich and complicated beauty uncovered by their long relationship with it. To be sure the landscape has changed from what it would have been 300 years ago, but that they were able to see the magic, the power, and beauty of the earth in this place is undeniable. And with this ancient reminder I too found myself moved before long by this hard place.

On this most recent trip I have found that the same sentiments that I experienced back in late June continue to inform my growing appreciation for the landscape of the Columbia Plateau. It is a powerful place, full of a vast and intense energy. In December the sheer expanse of the undulating hills, valleys and canyons are as imposing and thereby awe inspiring as in the summer. And the atmospheric quality of the chilling winter brings a frosted and snow laden landscape cloaked in the low clouds, adding another layer of otherworldly mystique and power to the whole place.

If I haven’t said it yet, it is a remarkably beautiful place, and I am happy that I have been able to come to experience it in this way as of late. It is a place that I would very much like to spend more time in in the future, perhaps dedicating a body of work solely to this incredible place.