August 27th through September 8th – Portlandia

My stay in Portland was a strange one, and I didn’t particularly enjoy it for a broad spread of reasons. The city is extremely similar to Austin, which normally would make me totally love it. However, we arrived here as the last stop in a very difficult journey. It’s similarity to Austin mostly made me homesick. It was akin to being in Austin, except all my friends had disappeared.

There is an outstanding coffee shop culture here, and much like in Austin, it appears a large percentage of the city is self employed and operating out of these establishments. Every single place we stopped for coffee, the quality of brew was absolutely excellent. There’s a wide variety of “feels” to the coffee shops as well. Upscale liberals, crazy punks, hipsters, there’s a coffee shop for whatever scene you identify with here.

Portland is a major foodie city, with local restaurants greatly outnumbering national chains, as far as we could tell. Many places feature local, organic ingredients, and food quality was always pretty good, except for one Thai place we ate. I think my favorite restaurant we ate at was Le Bistro Montage, a Cajun Mac and Cheese joint. We went with a spicy version of the classic mac with Andouille sausage. Absolutely delicious. I also managed to make it into some tourists photo making a huge goofy grin pretty much dead center in the background. The waitress taking the picture gave me a knowing smile as she took the shot. The restaurant is tucked in an industrial park under a bridge, giving it a very odd sort of feel. Definitely go here while you’re in Portland.

Every city of sufficient size has an ethnic food that is incredibly abundant in a wide range of prices and qualities. In Austin, it’s Tex-Mex. We have a million taquerias, and you can get a plate of enchiladas with rice, beans, chips and salsa for $6 at any number of places. In Portland, that cuisine is Thai. There is a cheap greasy Thai place every other block here, which I am pretty in favor of. While I do love Tex-Mex, if I had to give it up for something, it would be Thai food. Unfortunately, one Thai place we went to was clearly catering more towards white people than the local Thai population, and our food tasted more like butter than anything else. As much as I love butter, I go for southern cooking when that’s what I’m craving. I want spicy rice and vegetables when I get Thai, and I did not really receive that here. Oh well, can’t win every time.

One thing I was a little surprised about was how few hippies we found in Portland. Admittedly, Burning Man was happening while we were there, so many of the hippies may have been gone, but still. I think we were probably the biggest stoners in the whole fucking city while we were there, which was different than what I had been led to expect. The city was definitely pretty hippie tolerant, but I would not describe it as hippie friendly. Austin, Arcata, San Francisco: These are hippie friendly places. Portland is merely tolerant. Probably for this reason alone I would never move here. I need to be more than tolerated in a place I call home. Honestly, I think the most prevalent drug here is probably Heroin, at least from what we saw. They do have a weekly drum circle, which we attended one night. Austin’s drum circle happens during the afternoon in a big park, and involves a lot of hula hoopers, jugglers, poi spinners, dancing, weed smoking, and children playing around. In Portland, it happens at night, under a bridge, with lots of homeless people, lots of drinking, lots of harder drugs, and virtually no playing or dancing. Also, at least while we were there, there was nobody with any particular drumming talent present, and the resultant noise was discordant and unsettling. Overall an extremely disappointing event.

Now, I know I’m kinda coming down on Portland here a bit, so I’d like to offer a little redemption. The sustainability movement is definitely more entrenched here than in Austin. Fortunately, many of the things that have worked so well for Portland can easily be applied here. Honestly, it looks as if Austin was probably an important influence in starting that movement in Portland, so it’s only fair to take some of the results of that back home with us. Organizations like City Repair are creating really amazing public spaces, and strengthening communities through Portland. Nothing about their strategy is location specific, and we should certainly bring this tactics here. Portland has some really amazing museums, of which we visited several.

The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry(OMSI) is really cool. We went on the free day, and spent several hours there. On the first floor was an exhibit on video game history, featuring playable arcade machines from the past. Everything from Pong to Katamari. It was both incredibly cool to see, and of course fun to play a lot of classic old games in their original form. They also had a large hands-on physics lab, with lots of large things demonstrating the basic forces at work in the universe. It was four hours very well spent. We also saw a sweet documentary on elephants and orangutans on the omnimax there. The omnimax is apparently a curve surface they project normal 2d films onto to make you think it’s in 3d or something. It doesn’t work. Everything looks super warped and distorted. IMAX3D is an infinitely better solution to this.

Though the Japanese Gardens were more expensive than we were willing to pay to get in, we did make it to the Chinese Gardens on the free day, and those were gorgeous. Of course, it was rather crowded, because it was the free day, but it was very pretty, and it seems like it would be a lovely tranquil place to meditate if there weren’t so many people there. To make it even better, they were serving free wine and cookies for everyone there. Landscaped gardens like these really appeal to almost every aesthetic I value. They are both an expression of the beauty of nature, and of the creative skill of humans. The sculpted, manicured garden represents an agreement between humans and nature to coexist beautifully and harmoniously.

The Museum of Contemporary Craft was also very interesting, featuring the work of Nikki McClure, a fucking mind-blowing paper cut-out artist. Her work shows an exceptional mastery of void that I found deeply moving.

Probably the best thing about Portland is the geography. There is lots of forest to explore, and the city is hilly. I hate flat cities. They’re so boring, and the grid becomes too obvious. Like the rest of the Pacific Northwest, blackberries grow wild everywhere, so foraging for snacks is an enjoyable activity here. You’re always close to a park here, and their public green space is an extensive forest with dozens of miles of trails. We spent a couple rather enjoyable afternoons just hiking around.

We went to the Saturday Farmers Market on PSU Campus once while we were there, and I have to say I was very impressed. It is definitely the largest Farmers Market I’ve been to, and it was a very positive experience. We hung out for a few hours, and munched the fuck out on free samples. There was a pretty decent bluegrass band playing, so of course Gianna couldn’t resist picking up the hoop, much to everybody’s enjoyment. Coming from Texas, it’s odd to see Bluegrass be the new, hip thing here in the Northwest. I’m still waiting for electro-bluegrass.

Portland also has a weekly craft fair on Saturdays, and that was also quite impressive. Vendors numbered clearly in the hundreds, and there were some absolutely amazing works of personal craftsmanship on display. It was actually while smoking a joint with a nice gay couple outside the craft fair that we were tipped off to the drum circle. Interestingly, almost nobody we encountered was actually from Portland, and I suspect this had something to do with the side of the city that we got to see.

Powell’s City of Books is hands down the largest, most extensive book store I’ve ever seen. It is 4 stories, and takes up an entire city block. If you’re familiar with the Perry-Castaneda Library(PCL) on UT campus, it’s like that, but it’s a bookstore, and doesn’t have the section containing all the dissertations. They have whole sections on things I didn’t even know existed, and the rare book room was pretty cool as well. I particularly liked that the used books were just in with the new books, so you only have to find the book your looking for, and then choose new or used, instead of having to search both the new and used sections separately. It’s amazing, and it’s definitely points in favor of Portland. I wish we had an equivalently mighty bookstore here.

Despite the many great qualities of Portland, I really can’t say I enjoyed my time there. Like I said this is for a variety of reasons, homesickness being but one. In conflict with my desire to get home as quickly as possible was the anxiety of the approaching return flight, marking the deadline to get rid of this bike. At this point in the journey, the bike had become something of a symbol to me, representing the embodiment of my own impulsiveness holding me back. A few days before we left, I began to really panic about the motorcycle situation. I couldn’t afford to even park it at a storage unit if I wanted to. Even then, motorcycle season was over here with the rainy winter just around the corner. The value of the bike would only decrease from here, and I would have to fly back to sell it, assuming I found a buying at all. I took it into a couple bike shops to get a quote, and was met with the expected extremely low-ball offers. One place offered my $800, the other offered $300, and was reluctant to even offer that. I was starting to think I should have just taken the $500 offer I got in Arcata. I didn’t know what I would do if I just arrived back in Austin completely broke with no transportation. If I could at least sell this thing for anywhere close to it’s blue book value of $4200, I would at least be way less fucked when I got back home. The shadow of impending failure lent a dark tone to the majority of our stay in the city.

The reader may remember we had bought quite a bit of weed in Arcata with the intent of selling it here. Well, despite our rampant consumption of the good and sticky, there was plenty of it left towards the end of the trip, and we set out to get rid of it. There is a park very near PSU where a large amount of the public drug trade happens in the city. It’s roughly the equivalent of the entrance to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. We sat down on a bench and waited for people to come ask us for green. It didn’t take long, and soon we had gotten rid of most of our remaining stash, and returning to our couch with a few hundred extra bucks. It was still a pretty demoralizing experience, and I hope to never have to engage in that sort of business again. There are just way too many heroin junkies in Portland, especially in the drug sale park.

As I’ve previously mentioned, the city is very pro-bicycle, and correspondingly very against motorized transportation as far as I can tell. I got two parking tickets for things that would not even be noticed in Austin. I parked the bike between two cars, admittedly not in an actual parking spot, but just in a nook of space the bike fit in and wasn’t in the way. This was a $60 ticket. I also parked the bike on the sidewalk of the parking lot for the apartment complex we were staying in, since parking was tight here. This was a $120 ticket. I’m really just more amazed that a meter maid even made it all the way over there to give it to me. We were really tucked away from the street quite a bit. Very annoying. I refuse to pay either of these tickets, so I’ll probably just not go back to Portland again.

In the end, I found a buyer for the motorcycle the day before our flight left. After I arranged a time for him to come buy it, I went out to make sure it was all in working order, even though it had been fine the day before. I went to start it, and it fired right up. Good so far! I sat down on the seat to take it for a ride, and the engine died. Fuck! I repeated this process a couple times. It was definitely dying when pressure was applied to the seat. I popped the seat off to see if maybe I was pinching a wire or something. Indeed, there was a wire that had been stripped of some it’s insulation, and it appeared to be shorting when the seat was pressed down. Fortunately, all it would take is electrical tape to fix. Unfortunately, the closest hardware store was a 35 minute walk away. We practically jogged there, racing the clock until I had to have this thing running enough to sell. Fortunately, the electrical tape fixed it immediately, and I even had time to go for one last ride on this German nightmare machine. It was a nice ride, bun incredibly unreliable. German engineering is apparently over-engineering. The bike sold for $2900 a mere 17 hours before take-off, as the sun was going down on our final day here.

We rolled up some blunts, and made some hash pills for the flight the next day. Though we had originally only planned to stay with this host for 2 nights, nobody else had replied to our couchsurfing requests, and Rachel graciously let us stay in her one bedroom apartment for 11 nights. We did have fun cooking and running around at night with her. She hadn’t made any stoner friends in Portland yet, so we smoked with her quite a bit. In the end, I left her with a pipe, some hash, and all the weed we didn’t finish before we left for the airport in the morning. Our final night walk through the city was triumphant, and our blunts tasted of victory. Sure, I’d blown all my cash, and taken a massive loss on the bike in the end, but I had an epic adventure, and I wasn’t going home empty handed.

Our final morning, we got as high as we could manage and hauled our gear to the bus stop to begin our long public transportation adventure to the airport. A million things went through my mind sitting in the terminal. I took my hash pills, reflecting on the journey, both apprehensive and excited to return home. We had no home or jobs to return to, but it would be amazing to see our friends again. Portland had left me so intensely homesick, I couldn’t even be that concerned about the coming struggles to reintegrate into Austin life. Boarding the plane, there was just no way I could have known the full and myriad ways the journey had changed me. Even as I finish this writing, I am only beginning to understand the path I have set upon since then.


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