Where I took my first breath of the pacific northwest’s crisp air is more a point of contention than one would realize. It has a lot to do with the idea of just where the Rocky Mountains end and the pacific northwest begins. Is it the divide between Idaho and Montana, which would place the popular university city of Boise in Cascadia? Or is it the cultural divide at the Cascade Mountains that splits the western hipsterville from ‘Murica 30 miles out? Some people would say that my first exposure to the elements in the great northwest came in a tired daze, when I awoke in the early AM hours in Spokane and stumbled off my train to stretch while it was making a water stop and splitting in half to take travelers to respective destinations in Oregon and Washington. Or perhaps it was a stop in Pasco, Washington, as the Amtrak crept along the bottom of the Columbia Gorge when I stepped off into the thickest mist and most humid air I’ve ever felt, which soaked my skin and clothes in a pleasant layer of dew. The one part of my journey that comes without argument is that it ended on an early Monday morning in Portland, where I left the Amtrak and took my greeting steps into a part of the country which, until that moment, had never existed as anything but a rumor.
My final stop before my excursion into Oregon was, of course, Chicago. My home for five years of my life was also the only real home I had ever come to know; during my years there, I finally learned to stop hiding. Buffalo was merely a city I lived in for a long time. Although my nativity there gave me access that tourists and n00bs wouldn’t find without an effort, my radical ways of thinking forced Buffalo into defensive mode. As a result, the city was never able to get its arms around me, so my relationship with The Nickel City – always strained a little bit – got outright rocky after the welcome my community in Chicago gave me. Chicago was my shining beacon on a hill. It was there that my true potential started to surface. Chicago became the bar by which I judged every place I’ve been since, and nowhere compared. So it was on this journey that I promised to stop making comparisons of any other city to it.
That being said, Portland made it a hell of a contest. My placements of Portland and Chicago on my list of favorite cities are first and second, and which goes where depends on my mood. I only developed two problems with Portland: One was that crossing the Willamette River was a pain in the ass. The other was the lack of PTA programs where I could finish the line of education I’m pursuing. The first one I was willing to put up with. The second one was more of an issue, which disappointed me because had there been the educational opportunity I needed, I would have cast my anchor right there.
The train station in Portland was set close to the cute, quaint little village part that every city on the west coast seems to have. The first thing I did was hop into a cab and have it take me to my hostel on Hawthorne. Giving the driver my money after the ride, I was delighted to be handed a rare two-dollar bill as part of my change. I was so sure it was a joke that I went to two different stores afterward to ask if it was real, and was assured everywhere that yes, it was legit currency.
Portland was a city of many surprises. It was proof that somewhere, a city planner cracked my skull open and pulled out the “ideal city” folder, then got to work. My hostel was run on rainwater, there were two iconic donut shops and one very large used bookstore, I didn’t pay any sales taxes, there were locally-owned businesses everywhere, there were microbreweries everywhere, cyclists glided fearlessly in small mobs, the street layout made perfect sense, the transit system worked, and it was easy to find good coffee cafes where I could sit down and watch the world go by. In the last couple of years, I’ve fallen in love with the TV show Portlandia. I was aware of Portland’s reputation as an outpost for the quirky and weird. I knew the cliches: Keep Portland weird. Portland, where young people go to retire. Portland, where the dream of the 90’s is alive. But that was TV, so I tried to keep my expectations reigned in. When I got to Portland, though, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein were making less of an affectionate parody and more of a travel documentary. Anyone who’s been to Portland can’t look at me and tell me they would be surprised if a 3D printer just popped up along the Willamette River. And that there wouldn’t be people in Portland trying to build their houses one plastic brick at a time using it!
The freaks and vagrants are magnetized to Portland, and it was easy to see why. As long as you were a decent person, anything you believed or did would be met with a quick shrug and a “that’s cool, man.” I can’t help but believe Portland exists in its own bubble, but I despise that description because it implies the dominance of a narrow set of beliefs that never got penetrated by the larger world. (And we all know what city I have in mind when I say that.) Portland wants the riffraff and will reject any corporation that tries to drop in with the sales pitch of making the city more “normal” or “family-oriented.” They’ll ignore Walmart, but they’ll be happy to accept Wall Marte as long as the profits all circulated in their own city. They hate Domino’s, but if someone thought to set up a Donny Moe’s, that’s okay as long as the pizza is edible. Even my hostel bunkmates were on the far side, even by the standards of hostel people. Politicking punks were typical hosteler fare there. One night, a very friendly surfer-like kid asked me if I wanted to learn how to ride a unicycle. I took him up on the offer, of course. Turns out that riding a unicycle isn’t quite as hard as it looks once you get a sense of balance for it. And it’s not as dangerous, either; if you fall over, your feet will almost automatically be the first parts of your body to hit the ground, and from there it’s easy to right yourself. The kid who was giving me my lesson said there was nothing to worry about. He had taught many people to ride unicycles, and only one of them had gotten hurt. The one who got hurt also happened to be drunk off his ass.
I spent my time in Portland trying to hit up good coffee and microbrew places suggested by a friend who lived in the area, but I also discovered a few spots of my own. I liked Blue Star Donuts, which makes French-style brioche donuts. They took 18 hours to make and were done every day by hand, and turned into unique flavors like Blueberry Bourbon Basil. I also came to understand the fierce rivalry between Blue Star Donuts and the more established and prevalent Voodoo Donuts. As I read and drank my way through the city, I kept getting thrown off by the lack of a sales tax. Oregon is one of five states that doesn’t have a sales tax, and it’s probably the best-known one. Like every other American, I learned early on to hate the sales tax with a passion because it’s a hidden cost. It’s being intentionally dishonest about the price a place will have on a product in order to try to squeeze out a little extra money. It was tempting to end all my monetary transactions with the question, “Are you SURE?!” and that did slip out of my mouth a few times.
I don’t go out of my way to visit kitschy attractions when I travel. I travel to see what’s interesting and unique about places and interact with the people who live there. But Portland had Mill Ends Park, a public park space consisting of a single evergreen tree and 452 square inches of space. No, “inches” is not a typo. The park is a single circle, two feet in diameter, sitting on SW Naito Parkway. It’s the smallest public park in the world, and a part of the best park system in America. But that was the only must-see thing on my Portland List. Everything else, I just went out and happened to stumble into. The Library, the Courthouse, Portland State University, Providence Park, and everywhere I found beer and coffee was a place I happened to walk into. Not that I’m complaining, because the lack of corporatization made every corner in the city look unique. Between that and the easy layout of the city, Portland is a place where it’s difficult to get lost. On the off chance you do manage to get lost, the people there are the types who are friendly enough to give you directions.
It was halfway through the week when I got the chance to see a friend I hadn’t seen in years. I let her know where my dates for being in Portland were set in stone, and she took pains to throw a wedge into an obviously busy schedule in order to see me and catch up. She was also a big help in letting me know what was worth trying, coming through a series of Facebook messages she sent me while I was on my way into the city. Apparently, Portland had stayed fluid even during the years since she moved there. We went to one of the local breweries, and even in there changes were always happening. She explained that the last time she went to that particular brewery, they didn’t serve food, and the place had been smaller at the time.
In Portland, I found something I didn’t think existed: A city that was tailor-made to my own specific tastes. Unfortunately, a possible move there may still be a few years off. I have a specific educational goal to finish pursuing which Portland didn’t offer. Maybe one day, though… In the meantime, I think I’ve found my new favorite vacation spot. You can keep your corporatized McDisney family tourist shit. I’ll go to Portland.