Pandemic Travel: Time Warp in the Columbia River Gorge
We all have our own risk tolerance level nowadays when it comes to leaving the house, whether it’s to exercise, get groceries, visit the dentist, see loved ones, or get to work. It’s no different when it comes to getting the heck out of town. Before “The Freeze,” some of us were weekending in Vegas. Others haven’t left their zip code since March. And a lot fall somewhere in between—including Jessi Bunch, who decided over the summer it was finally time for that weekend getaway that, before COVID hit, had seemed like too much of a splurge.
After a few isolated months of watching my cats sleep all day, I was ready to pull the travel trigger, but carefully. I wanted to go somewhere I could trust would be clean and well-kept, without crowds, not too far away, and where I felt like my travel dollars could have an impact on the local community. And I was ready for something a little extravagant.
Where did I end up? A historic Oregon institution frozen in another time and place.
The Columbia Gorge Hotel and Spa, once a Roaring ’20s respite for presidents and movie stars, had been a pre-COVID travel idea of mine, but one I’d dismissed as too much of a splurge. Now the Hood River lodging felt like the spot-on diversion I needed. I called to confirm cleaning practices and social distancing policies before I booked online. I packed normal things like snacks and more underwear than needed, but I also packed sanitizing wipes, hand sanitizer, paper towels, cups, and extra masks. I drove an hour in the rain, exhilarated but anxious. Was this the right choice? Also, how would my cats fare while I was gone?
I soon walked through French doors into the hotel lobby and stood on ornate carpeting below an elaborate chandelier as the masked front desk attendant cleaned off the counter. While I waited for my room to be ready, sitting on vintage furniture in the mostly empty lounge and sipping a glass of wine, the liberation of my trip set in. As I took in the glossy millwork, monumental fireplace, unmanned grand piano, I wasn’t thinking about climbing case counts but imagining the ragtime tunes, carefree laughter of a crowd, and scents of tobacco and whiskey that once filled the air.
I rode up to my room in an ancient elevator operated by an eager hotel employee. Even though we were both wearing masks, I still held my breath the whole two flights and opted for the stairs after that. My room was cozy, with a brassy four-poster, fireplace, candlestick phone replica, and a spacious bathroom with weaved black and white tile. I knew from my earlier phone inquiry it was all clean, but I sanitized everything that could be touched anyway.
Knowing I’d be in my hotel room more than I would on a trip during normal times, I sprung for a room with a river view. While the hotel’s spa was operating, with modified safety procedures, a visit to it would have been beyond my comfort level. I wasn’t ready for a trip into Hood River’s quaint downtown, either, nervous about contact with more people. Instead, I explored the hotel grounds, which are expansive enough to avoid other guests on a stroll. I ambled along an old stone wall lining the cliff on which the hotel sits. A quaint white bridge offered an overlook of a waterfall rushing to the riverbed. During normal times the view of the Columbia River, framed by pine trees and taking on the color of the angel blue sky, would be wondrous enough. Right now, it was a much-needed relief from the monotony of my own four walls.
At the hotel’s restaurant, Simon’s Cliff House, my table was appropriately socially distanced, my dapper servers were masked, and my seafood pasta was packed with scallops, shrimp, mussels, clams, and salmon. I’d been nervous about taking the trip, but once I retired to my room I cuddled up by the fireplace and fell calmly asleep.
In the morning I grabbed complimentary coffee and checked out. Even though I was happy to escape like the rich and famous of another era for one night, I was ready to go home; being out in the world for a weekend away was rewarding, but exhausting. Encountering strangers, checking my mask and my distance, constantly sanitizing my hands—I’ve braved a few other trips since and have become used to these new norms, but on this first venture it was all a bit surreal.
And I missed my sleeping kitties.
Jessi Bunch’s adventures around the globe have taught her how to travel and, many times, how not to travel. A native of the Northwest who has hung her raincoat in Portland for eight years, she lives with her partner, Nick, and the true loves of her life, cats Hobart and Rene, and is currently planning a trip to Greece when travel is safer.
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