Seattle is a truly amazing place to live. The city boasts great food, interesting public spaces and a multitude of activities to choose from. But most people can probably agree that it can sometimes be hard to break out of your normal routine and take advantage of what’s right at your fingertips. My wife E and I have found that taking trips away from home may instigate minor fits of jealousy but also help reinvigorate exploration and appreciation of our own extraordinary town.
This past year we made a commitment to get away from Seattle more often and further explore our surrounding cities and areas. In the fall we’d visited Vancouver, BC for the first time in over six years. We were astounded that we could have forgotten that this dense and cosmopolitan city was located just a short, three hour drive north. Before the trip was over and we headed back toward the US border, it was decided we would visit Portland over an upcoming three-day weekend in January, which we would both have off from work.
E and I set out toward the highway on a rare January afternoon that was both mild and sunny, and headed south toward Portland. More than halfway to our destination I began to catch glimpses of Mt. St. Helens from the interstate. St. Helens is imposing in its own right, but has a distinct difference from its Cascadian peers – Baker, Rainier, Adams, Hood, Shasta. The volcano has been missing its crown since the massive eruption that occurred on May 18th, 1980. Volcanic ash shot from the mountain and blacked out the sky for miles, drastically changed the landscape of the surrounding area and reminded Americans that our western states are indeed a part of the most tectonically active region in the world, the Pacific Ring of Fire.
We traverse Interstate Bridge, set on the Columbia River and suddenly we’re in Oregon, across the divide from our home state of Washington. Dusk sets in. Red, pink and orange hues fill the sky as jagged Mt Hood looms majestically to my left, looking not so unlike a hologram. So close and so real, yet so far and so seemingly fake. An extraordinary backdrop to a bustling, captivating little city located in the soggy, green Northwest.
Nicknames and clichés, official and not, repeat themselves over and over in my head. But like most clichés – good and bad, they are tinged with truths, both historic and contemporary. City of Roses for the flower that has been planted all throughout the city. Stumptown for all that was left of the trees that defined the city’s landscape until the mid-1800’s era of swift growth but also now the name of a local espresso roaster. Bridgetown for the plethora of bridges that connect the city’s eastern and western halves in defiance of the Willamette River – Fremont, Broadway, Steel, Burnside, Morrison, Hawthorne. PDX, referred to as such because it’s the three-letter code for the Portland International Airport. Hipster. Ironic. Artisanal. Local. Adjectives associated with this town that all convey the relaxed atmosphere, independent nature and outpouring of artistic expression that pulsates throughout the city, seduces as you enter and then begs you to stay and explore.
We check in to the Portland Marriott City Center, located in the heart of downtown and a score at only $65 a night through Priceline’s Name Your Own Price option. E and I strategize quickly in our room, trying to balance what we both want to have happen before the end of the night with what we’re actually capable of after the car ride here. We’re both knitters and since we’re decidedly not feeling overly ambitious after the long day it’s decided that we’ll go to a couple yarn shops in the Pearl District and then find some food to either eat out or bring back to the room.
When we first came to Portland thirteen years ago, the Pearl was a mostly run-down, industrial section of town with just a few businesses in the blocks adjacent to the sizeable and aptly named Powell’s City of Books. Powell’s is a bibliophile’s nirvana – a three-story independent bookstore that has been buying and selling new and used books to locals and visitors in some sort of capacity since the early 70’s.
Today’s Pearl District and Downtown are much different than the memories that exist in my mind. There is still a substantial amount of homeless and vagabond, much like I remember. But there’s also been massive residential, retail and public spaces development. I wouldn’t necessarily describe these changes as gentrification, since I don’t believe a sizable amount of any demographic – minorities or the disadvantaged included, lived in this area of town previously. But I do admit, it seems the overwhelming majority of those now living in and visiting the district are white and upper middle-class.
Portland is one of those cities where many of its citizens repeat the claim that the city’s heart is in the eccentric neighborhoods that dot the surrounding areas outside of downtown. I begin to question that assertion as we leave our hotel and walk through downtown and enter the Pearl.
Twenty and thirty-something year-olds with all sorts of body piercings, tattoos and ironic hairstyles pass by. The locals walk, bike and glide on their long boards through the streets and on the sidewalks. Families in luxury cars and SUVs dominate the parking at metered spots by the curb, kids in tow. A large sign on the side of a building tells me to “GO BY STREETCAR”. A pedal-powered vehicle that resembles a trolley car goes by, operated by a company called Brewcycle that mixes ideas by joining the city’s microbrewery explosion with its bike-friendly reputation. The open-air cycle bar goes to six different breweries on a tour where they taste brews, take in the neighborhood scene and take part in a Portlandish form of debauchery that is literally powered by the riders.
The clichés are present and confront us abrasively. The ground floor of most of the multiuse buildings and converted warehouses are lined with the sort of retailers and eateries one might associate with and expect to find in a hipster paradise. These shops and restaurants all seem to emphasize independent, local, handcrafted goods. A massive bicycle store. An array of microbreweries. Top end active wear and outdoor wear retailers. Art galleries. A letterpress print shop. A jazz club. Endless choices of coffee shops.
We stop in the first yarn shop on the list – Pearl Fiber Arts, and check out the offerings. An entire wall of the store is locally dyed yarn, showcasing Portland’s DIY, buy and create locally attitude. The two gals working at the store are chitchatting about a clueless online acquaintance trying to cash in on the Seattle Seahawks recent successes by selling some Seahawks themed knits made from crappy acrylics. “Where y’all from?” the woman behind the counter asks. “Seattle.” E and I both reply. “Ah, that’s practically like saying you’re from Portland” she states. “Definitely kindred spirits of sorts” I confirm with a smile as we pay for some finger-weight yarn that E will turn into a shawl or cowl. We place our spoils in a bag and then set out to the next shop.
After purchasing a more few skeins of yarn at the Dublin Bay Knitting Co. we head back toward our hotel. We stop in at a Little Big Burger near Powell’s, recommended by a friend of ours. I place an order but can’t quite figure out if there’s a system to grabbing a seat inside the bustling eatery. I leave E to try and get us a spot while I grab some dessert from Cupcake Jones, just a few blocks away. When I get back to the restaurant, E is still standing and unsure of any system that may be in place. A family who does seem to know how it works pushes their way into a table whose inhabitants are in the process of finishing their meal and haven’t yet started to mobilize. E and I grumble softly as our number is called. We grab our food and head back to our hotel where we eat, watch some TV and go to sleep.