This was the second part of our whirlwind of travel: after arriving back home late Sunday night, I squeezed in a Zumba class Monday morning before heading to the airport again Monday afternoon for a flight to Portland, Oregon. Previously, I had never traveled further west than Utah, so when we found out that Jeff needed to go to Portland for a few days for work, I jumped at the chance to go along. Ahh, the perks of being freelance. So here are my thoughts and experiences from two days in Portland.
First off, the city was in the middle of a heat wave when we arrived, with temperatures creeping into the 90s. For East Coasters, this may not seem like ideal weather in which to be exploring a city—but there was virtually no humidity. So instead of feeling like a sticky, oppressive D.C. 90 degrees, it felt closer to the warm hug of 80 degrees. And judging by the number of times I heard people apologize for the heat, it seems like the Oregonians don’t know how good they have it when it comes to humidity.
Before I dive into the physical activities I did when I was there, I want to share a couple observations. There have been a couple times before on this blog, notably in my posts about Baltimore and Harper’s Ferry, where I’ve discussed the amount of history you see and feel when you visit these places. Having grown up in New England, the oldest and therefore most historically-rich (at least when discussing the European settlers) part of the country, I know that my experience is different from that of many others. But even so, I have a keen understanding of how young the United States is compared to places in Europe and Asia. Well, if cities on the East Coast are young, Portland is barely a newborn. The population of the largest city in Oregon didn’t surpass 100,000 until the early twentieth century, and you can feel this newness in the city. Streets don’t feel stuffed with buildings, and those buildings tend to be modern and unassuming. Nor do the streets feel crowded with people; in fact, having lived in some of the busiest metropolises on the East Coast, Portland felt empty at times. I could walk an entire block and pass maybe one other person. I even road the train during rush hour and easily found a seat. This could have been because it was a weekday in the summer, but it felt like the city was far from its capacity. In the heart of the city, for instance, both the light rail and streetcars run on the roads, the same roads where cars drive. Can you imagine cars in New York City having to share the roads with trains? No one would ever get anywhere.
All these factors contributed to a feel that was quite unlike that of other cities I had visited. While I’ve described a few Maryland cities as charming, I often associate charm with a feeling of coziness that transports you from the hustle and bustle of your life into a simpler, likely older time. Charming isn’t a word I would use to describe Portland; rather, I think I’d say that the city felt fresh. Apart from a few more homeless people than I was used to seeing elsewhere, the streets were pretty clean, and the new builds and people I saw seemed to convey a sense of freshness and newness, of just being at the start. And I can understand why this is so appealing to people.
Now, onto my adventures in the city! One of the things I decided at the start of my journey was that I wasn’t going to rush anywhere; if I had to wait in a line or at train stop, I would do so in order to stick to my plan. After all, I had the whole day to use as only I wanted to. My first stop of the day, Voodoo Donuts, did in fact have a line, but that was okay. They had some pretty wild and intense donuts, but because this was my breakfast, I settled on a glazed donut with raspberry filling. I’m not usually much of a donut person, but this one was pretty delightful.
With my belly full, I walked a couple blocks up to Portland’s Chinatown and bought a ticket to see the Lan Su Chinese Garden. I arrived around 10:45 to discover that there was a free tour at 11, and because I wasn’t in a rush, I decided to wait for the tour, and I’m quite glad I did. Portland’s sister city in China built most of the buildings in the garden there, then brought them over and put the garden together. The primary thing I gleaned from the tour was that every single thing in the garden, from the style of roof tiles to the plants and their placement to the stones underfoot, represented something that contributed to the overall feel of the garden as a place that its owners could use for relaxation and leisure. There were strategically placed stones meant to elicit specific memories and characters written above doorways meant to convey certain emotions upon entering that courtyard or building. Not to mention, everything was gorgeous. One of the things I found most interesting, and that I tried to capture in some photos, is that the garden is designed to feel much larger than the relatively small space it occupies. It achieves this with intelligent placement of bridges, ponds and plants in such a way that you can never see all the way across from one end of the garden to the other. It was quite lovely, and I certainly felt relaxed and at ease after my visit.
After the tour of the Chinese Garden, I made my way over to the place I had probably been most excited about seeing prior to my arrival in Portland: Powell’s City of Books, the world’s largest independent bookstore. I’ve expressed my love of independent bookstores before, and I was eager to get lost among the shelves at Powell’s—though I didn’t realize until I arrived that I was actually going to get legitimately lost. The size of a department store, each room/section of Powell’s is designated by a color, and large signs hang above each doorway declaring the contents of said section. Stairways are asymmetrical and of different lengths, and there were a few times that I tried to backtrack only to find myself in a completely different section. But the books. SO many books. The best part about independent bookstores, in my opinion, is the opportunity to discover a diamond in the rough thanks to a recommendation from one of the booksellers. And while it was certainly overwhelming to stroll down the aisles at Powell’s, every end cap contained a curated selection of books in a specific category. I really enjoyed pausing in front of these and reading about the books that were chosen. Because Powell’s also sells used books, there was also a nice mix of new and classic titles in some of these selections. There was an end cap in the literature section containing award-winning books, and their publication dates varied widely. Perhaps the best part of Powell’s though, was the huge number of people in the store. At one point I paused to look at a book next to a mother holding a shopping basket as her three children ran to and fro with their arms full of books, begging for permission to get them all.
After Powell’s, I was starting to get hungry again, so I wandered in the general direction I knew I wanted to travel in until I found somewhere I could grab a light lunch. I walked past Jamison Square Park, a park the size of a city block full of families with young children playing in the unique fountain (it wasn’t so much a fountain as a series of water spouts that created a wading pool). From there, I hopped on a streetcar over to 23rd Ave, in the northwest part of the city. As I rode, things started to get more residential, with more houses and fewer tall buildings. 23rd Ave, at least the few blocks I stayed on, was a slightly more upscale shopping area, with stores and few restaurants lining the street. It was here that I waited in my second treat-driven line of the day, at the artisanal ice cream shop Salt & Straw. I’m grateful for the scooper who helped me, who insisted I try samples of more than half the flavors before placing my order: Birthday Cake with Blackberries and Roasted Strawberry Coconut in a homemade waffle cone. There are no words.
At this point it was around 3:45, and I was pretty beat. Luckily, just a block or so down from the ice cream shop was a tea house, Tea Chai Té. I ordered a spiced chai kombucha, which was served in a pint glass, found a comfy chair by a sunny window, and relaxed with my drink and a magazine for an hour or so before returning to Beaverton for the evening.
On day two in Portland, I took a different approach. This was my outdoorsy day. I took the light rail to Washington Park, a large park between Beaverton and Portland that’s home to the Oregon Zoo, the International Rose Garden and a few other things. I didn’t go to the zoo because, unlike the one here, it wasn’t free, but I had a fantastic hike from the train stop over to the Rose Garden. Side note: If you’re planning a solo hike and are looking for some good music, I strongly recommend the Dear Evan Hansen soundtrack. I had it blasting in my ears, and it’s pretty great when you hear “all we see is sky, for forever” and you’re looking up at this.
And then you hear “I’m sending pictures of the most amazing trees”, and you snap this bad boy.
It was pretty awesome. But the standout part of the park for me was the Rose Garden. I’ll admit I don’t know when peak rose season is there, and the so-called heat wave may have impacted them a bit, but most of the roses were still in pretty full bloom. They had every shape, size and color you could think of, and I roamed up and down the rows for a while. The garden was huge, and really inspired a sense of wonder, peace and reverence in the face of nature.
It wasn’t on my initial itinerary, but I realized while I was at the Rose Garden how close I was to the Oregon Holocaust Memorial, so I decided to take a quick detour over there. I really enjoyed how the memorial acknowledged the lives that were lost, but highlighted the survivors. On the front there were anonymous quotes from survivors, and on the back of the monument were names of survivors who had come to live in Oregon, along with the names of family members they’d lost. It was pretty chilling to see a list that contained grandparents, parents, a brother and sister and one person who survived.
After the memorial, I hiked a different trail through the Hoyt Arboretum to get back to the train station. This portion of the hike was incredibly lush and replete with incredible scents coming from the different species of trees. Back in Beaverton, I grabbed poke from a food truck for lunch and a marionberry cider from a local brewery, which was quite delightful.
Then that evening Jeff and I went into Portland, intent on doing the most Portland thing we could do: go to a local brewery. Per a recommendation from one of the people Jeff was working with, we wound up at 10 Barrel Brewing Company, where we started off with a sampler of ten beers for $10 at the bar, before moving to a table and ordering full size beers, fried Brussels sprouts and a delicious pizza. Everything was really good, and I left with a pretty sweet hat.
This was a fairly quick and dirty trip, but I’m pretty proud of the way I planned and executed my two solo days. I got to see some of the city, some of the nature, drink some of the beer, and experience life without humidity for a few days. Having been on the east my entire life, it was cool to see a bit of what life is like on West Coast. Portland, thanks for the good time!