I’ve driven westbound through the Columbia River Gorge twice, the first time because I’d never done it before and the second time because I had. It’s a breathtaking drive through Oregon’s Cascade Mountains, with scenery that never bores or disappoints.

The first time I made the drive I stayed on I-84, which runs mostly alongside the Columbia River. The river has a spirit all its own, ancient and powerful. It’s a magnificent work of nature, and although its surroundings are equally beautiful, the immediacy of the river to your right can’t help but draw the most attention.

The second time I passed through, I exited I-84 soon after entering the Gorge. The road climbed upward, finally reaching what must have once been a well-used overlook before the interstate diverted much of the traffic from US Highway 30 in the mid-20th century. The spot was empty that day, a stone-walled circle overlooking a panorama of river, trees, and sloping hills. From this distance, the Columbia gained more context. The expanded view showed how it cut and flowed through the landscape, where it was going and where it had been.

Eastward view of the Columbia River

The older I get, the more distance I gain from specific events in my life. I always expected that time might dim their impact, but instead it deepens it. Looking back over a growing expanse of years, I see aspects I couldn’t notice while living through the original moment. The situations themselves, whether crushing or exuberant, took up my entire view at the time. They were immediate; they required action. The choices I made in response to them determined the next steps along my road, but their influence is not confined to a frozen moment in time. With the grace of distance, I can see how past events and choices fit into the patterns of my life. I can sense what might have happened had I made a different decision, and I can better understand why I chose the way I did.

Certain memories draw me back again and again. Re-visiting the good stuff often pumps positive energy into the present and helps center me. What I haven’t figured out yet is how to deal with the regrets — times I could have done more, been better, responded in a way I might know to do now but did not understand at the time. Although it’s not helpful to carry that negative energy now, these are the memories that refuse to let me go. They surface again and again of their own free will, and I’m not adept at calming their turbulent energy into something more useful.

After my first drive through the Columbia River Gorge, I suspected I’d be back. It wasn’t finished with me; there was something more for me to learn there. I don’t feel that way, now. Whatever I was meant to grasp along that particular stretch of road has been accomplished.

I wonder how far above the river I will need to be before I understand what my most persistent memories want me to know.