I'm a writer and visual artist in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada.

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Rain Shadow

I had never seen mountains before, and finding a full one proved elusive. My first glimpse was from a plane window, peering below to find a brilliant white peak barely poking through the cluster of clouds below us. Later, a hilltop hike rewarded us with one-third of Mount Jefferson, shouldering a bundle of cumulus. Clouds get caught on mountaintops.

Deer Lake → Toronto → Las Vegas → Portland, Oregon. After a few days visiting Portland and Corvallis, we drove along the Columbia River Gorge to Hood River, the landscape tumbling from coniferous foothills to a rough desert in the rain shadow of the Cascades. Finally, one evening in Hood River, Mount Adams lumbered out of hiding.

We had talked about daytripping across the border to Washington, so I could cross another state off my list. Someone suggested the Maryhill Museum, just across the river, and I realized that I’d come across an article about it while doing some research a few years ago. Titled Castle Nowhere, the article described how two artists, Annie Han and Dan Mihalyo (Lead Pencil Studio), had built a full-sized duplicate of the museum on the opposite side of the Gorge. The installation was temporary, a precarious assemblage of scaffolds and construction netting that Han and Mihalyo called Maryhill Double. So our visit to Washington was a ghost hunt, prompted mostly by my desire to see the site of the Double and the museum that had inspired it.

On a side road and looking for directions, we stumbled across a small tourist information booth. A kindly couple inside handed us numerous maps and brochures, insisting that we visit this or that. I mentioned Maryhill Double and they both recalled the summer it appeared, chuckling a little. They seemed to remember it with a mild amusement, a novel but frivolous event, perhaps like the appearance of a Ferris wheel, or a hot air balloon.

We continued along the Washington side of the gorge, an array of wind turbines punctuating the ridge above us. On an outcrop above the road we spotted a vast circle of stones, which turned out to be an astronomically accurate concrete replica of Stonehenge. Like Maryhill, the henge is one showpiece in a panorama of strange structures erected by Samuel Hill. An eccentric railroad baron and connoisseur of infrastructural experiments, Hill would certainly have approved of the wind turbines.

Wandering among the strange concrete slabs with a few other tourists, I remembered the drizzly evening years ago when I visited the original Stonehenge as part of a university field trip. As academic visitors, we were allowed inside the perimeter circle after the site had closed to tourists for the day. Clasped in raincoats, we drifted around the sarsen stones as silently as astronauts, distant from everything; it was as if time moved more slowly inside the stones. Maryhill’s Stonehenge has a parking lot beside it, and its monumental concrete slabs perch oddly on the edge of the river gorge. Every block is perfectly balanced; the site reimagines the original henge, not the weathered ruins I remembered. The surrounding terrain is all wrong, the desert sun far too harsh. The henge felt flat and outlandish, like a film set.

We did not expect to have time to tour the museum, but were charmed into a quick visit. The Castle Nowhere article had led me to expect a stubbornly stuffy estate, a classical anachronism complete with peacocks patrolling the grounds. The peacocks, however, were nowhere to be seen, perhaps replaced by the whimsical contemporary sculptures adorning the garden. Near the entrance, construction workers were busy laying the foundations for a new expansion, and I wondered if the Double had in part prompted changes at Maryhill, perhaps provoking a little self-reflection. Inside the museum, solemn stone walls preserved an eccentric collection of exhibits: Sam Hill’s megalomaniacal globes, historical photos of the Native American textile trade, costumes from Romanian royalty. In one stairwell we found a storage alcove clustered with plaster busts, a cast of characters peering through the door at us.

Outside on the balustrade, we gazed across the gorge at the empty space where Maryhill Double must have stood, a field of cracked rock dusted with yellow grass. The gardens around the museum are lavishly irrigated, creating a theatrical oasis of green. I briefly contemplated constructing a tiny replica of the museum out of grass, Maryhill Miniature. Despite the grandiose ambitions of its founder, Maryhill is full of the miniature: an exhibition of diminutive French fashion mannequins, dozens of exquisitely inventive chess sets poised for battle, a roomful of small Rodin maquettes and sketches.

Over the following weeks we visited coastal forests where I learned the names of giants: Doug-fir, Ponderosa Pine, Western Red Cedar. Looking out my window in Newfoundland now, all the trees look smaller.

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