For a major American city, the skyline of Portland, Oregon is not too spectacular. Which is perhaps the reason why the ultimate postcard view of Portland seems to be one from the Rose Garden, looking down through downtown past Mount Tabor and towards the far away, snow capped Mount Hood. I have also heard rumors that some postcard and poster designers have taken it upon themselves to superimpose a picture of Mount Hood towering over the skyline, just west of the city instead of sixty miles or so to the East.
Mount Hood is an emblem of Portland, and if you in Portland on a clear day, it will follow you around. It is easy for those who live in Portland to get used to it, but even when the dramatic sight of the mountain leaves conscious thought, it still shapes and reflects how we go about our lives. Perhaps not as much as it would a hundred years ago, when its existence made travel much harder, but still in a way it sets a limit.
Portland, like most cities, is radial. The Tri-Met zone system is a good place to start. First you have the bus mall, fareless square and then Zone 1, where is where all the cool stuff happens. Zone 2 is where most of the residential houses and non-cool businesses are. And then Zone 3 is the various suburbs that all the New Urbanities like to make fun of. This is the Portland Metropolitan area. If you keep on going east outside of Portland, on Highway 26, you will reach some very pretty, idyllic farmland, interspersed with some woods and other uncultivated land. Even within city limits, you will find many deer, but soon enough after leaving it, you might also be in the habitat of deer and black bear. But this area is barely past being urban, for most of the people living here, the wildnerness is an amenity. They are still less than a half hour from Gresham or Sandy, where they can find all the normal giant chain stores. A few miles past Sandy, things start changing. You will pass a number of smaller and smaller towns. The first one will have a small grocery store. Past that, they will have only small markets and gas stations.
The diagram of magnetic lines of force between two poles is well known. In my imagination, the city is like one pole of the magnet, and everything is attracted towards its bustling center. Once you go some distance from it, you start getting pulled on by the opposite pole, which is Mt. Hood, the very top cold glacier covered peak, which, despite the fact that it is one of the most summitted volcanos in the world, is still outside of normal reach. But as you get further up, you start feeling the pull of the mountain. The terrain gets rougher, habitation gets rarer. The towns get smaller. Depending on what time of year you are there, you might notice snow, something that rarely happens in Portland. The rocks will get rockier and the releif will get sharper. Before too long, you will pass the last residential house. The deciduous trees will fade away, until you are going through solid walls of pines. And then you reach the last city, Government Camp, along the south side of the mountain. If you keep driving, you will go outside of the pull of the magnet, and eventually end up in Central Oregon. But, if you were to turn North and continue on foot, you would pass through montane forests, and eventually alpine forests, which would very gentle thin out until you reached the krummholz, and the line of Mt. Hood's glaciers, which are retreating, and rocks where only lichen grows. That is as far as I have gone. And with every step, you leave something else behind, until you reach the peak. In sixty horizontal and two miles vertical, you have managed to go from the temperate Willamette Valley to Arctic glaciers and rocks.
If this gigantic, primal mountain somehow disappeared overnight, it might not make too much difference to us urban dwellers in Portland. It would, of course, disrupt our weather patterns, and we would lose our major source of water, and the ski industry would have to find something better to do. But it might have less of an effect than you would imagine from removing several dozen cubic miles (or however much it is, see below) of rock. And yet, for all the fact that the mountain doesn't impact us as much as it would, immediately. Yet Portland is where it is because the mountain is there, giving us a pole to define ourselves against. Taking the bus into the heart of downtown Portland is the contrary act to climbing that mountain. If that sounds too mystical in practical terms, Portland has to be where it is, since very quickly on its East Side, it would otherwise have to be built on forest, and rocks, and snowpack. In other parts of the country, I am disoriented because there is no limit or boundary to where cities are. The Portland area doesn't just have an Urban Growth Boundary because we are crazy hippies. Its because sooner or later, we will reach land that we can't build on.
Another thing to note about the mountain is how different it looks from different viewpoints. I have about how the mountain throws its presence off more than thirty miles from the peak: but on a more objective level, the mountain is still large, and indefinite. This in part has to do with the different ages and layers of geology in this part of Oregon, with the High Cascades springing up on the remains of West Cascades, and Mount Hood, like all stratovolcanos, destroying and rebuilding its peak many a time. Looking at different maps, the mountain is perhaps two miles across, but the uplifted area around it, the remains of millions of years of mountain ranges and some of its more recent tephra and lava flows, have built up the montane zone to an area that is probably as large as its psychological zone---over dozens of miles across. Seen from Portland, though, all of the stuff that lifts up the actual picture perfect, triangular part of the mountain seems to fade into the distance, leaving the actual peak to look much different than it is. When you are up on the highway, at the pass, 4000 feet up, the mountain suddenly looks much smaller. Perhaps that is from looking at it too long in the distance: you have maybe come to expect that it is cardinal, a permanent feature of the East, and the idea that it can actually be passed makes it look much smaller. And when I climbed up higher, to the glacier line, in a fog, and then the fog lifted, and I saw the top of the mountain, I was again surprised at how big it looked, or maybe by how I couldn't tell what size it is. The human eye, perhaps, is not meant to integrate horizontal and vertical distances that close up. The point is, the mountain changes.
From a distance, the mountain looks majestic, solid. Which is not what volcanoes, especially stratovolcanoes are. Mt. Hood exists whereever the mountains above weakened enough to let lava, and tephra through, which were then ground down and mixed by glaciers, eruptions and avalanches. Up close, the solid mountain resembles a patchwork of different landforms, all thrown on each other, and all, in geological time, falling down very fast. I have textbooks on this, but in my own mind, it is hard to connect the mountain on the horizon, looking serene and majestic, with all these different layers of rock slowly folding and pressing in on each other, occasionally letting go in climactic eruptions, letting magnitudes of energy and mass go skittering around.
It is hard to picture exactly what the mountain is.
I write this because while there is indeed much scientific information about Mount Hood, and the geology of volcanos, I think that the entire dynamics of how a person, or a group of people deals with something so immense and so complicated as a major landform, is not often explained. As you can see, part of the reason why it is not always explained is because it is often hard to describe and understand.