Oregon: Part One – Portlandia
Two days in Portland or any city is not enough time to make a full report, but enough to get a taste, albeit a very strange one.
There’s a painted mural on the side of a building across from Voodoo Doughnuts on SW 3rd Avenue that reads, ‘Keep Portland Weird’. Maybe you’ve seen it flash at the beginning credits of the highly underrated show ‘Portlandia’, or maybe you live in Austin where the same logo has rung clear before Portland sort of, borrowed it.
Not to pigeon-hole a town based on a comedy show, or rallying slogan, but within the first ten minutes of exploration down Burnside Ave. bordering Old Town, we get hissed at by a backpacker who looks like a Chinese Chuck Palahniuk, then – a block further – screamed at by a saucer-eyed kilted club manager violently upset at his boss for not ‘letting him take pictures of women in the club the night before’. He projects his frustration upon marti and I, telling us, and the world ever-so-earnestly to ‘just f*ck off’. Ok…
Down the street a city-worker throws a box of Captain Crunch Berry cereal at a flock of pigeons, while a dread-lock junkie takes a bath in a water fountain, inadvertently photo-bombing a model shoot taking place on the very active light rail tracks. Adding a macabre to the bizarreness is the temporary riverside carnival filled with widow-making carny rides, and a Mardi Gras funhouse.
In trying to save time, we cut back through the middle of the carnival to Natio Ave., but are verbally accosted by a real reactionary ticket-taker for not adhering to carnival rules, yet, she allows a wilted mohawked gentleman to smoke a joint right next to her. Nihilistic conformity? Warning: oxymoron alert.
Next to the carnival are idle floats, left from the Rose Parade Celebration the day before, depicting various scenes of the Pacific Coast through exorbitant amounts of floral arrangements now rotting in the sun. I lived in NYC near a methadone clinic for a year, I can say with total conviction; Portland is most definitely keeping it weird.
Dragon Boat Races
A bullhorn, a beep, syncopated chanting, and the crowd goes crazy as large teams oar four competing dragon boats towards colored flags sticking out the river. The scene is neo-viking with large tents housing the race teams that are stretching, prepping, and riling each other up for impending heats. The event lasts all day, but after three or four heats, the excitement lulls a bit, so we head back down the Waterfront Park over to SW 1st passed sleazy strip clubs with Chinese pagoda awnings, and a book store blasting Edward R. Murrow broadcasts through a shotty loud-speaker.
Lan Su Gardens (NW 3rd & Everett)
Down Third Avenue – more strip clubs, gay clubs, and both. There’s a commotion down the street as two, ‘weathered’ women are squabbling heatedly over something. One throws something at the other, and we dip into the safety of the Lan Su Gardens where I meet with Claire, who grants me access above the rock mountain for some nice photo ops. The Garden is an excellent escape from the crazy-town surrounding it, providing a tranquil home-base filled with quiet little nooks for reflection, or just soaking in the serene pagodas, lakes, and well-kept gardens.
We experience a traditional tea ceremony; essentially a means to promote social interaction among participants without cell phones/iphones/pads what have you, and share some Chinese dumplings stuffed with what I believe to be bok choy, or algae from the lake above (kidding). The Lan Su Gardens is a must in visiting Portland. It’s absolutely beautiful, and has that similar feel to Central Park in NYC, where city dwellings loom ominous, but relegated aloof by the impervious sanctity of the realm.
Back outside the walls of the garden, a fire truck and ambulance attend to one of the women who were fighting earlier. One pleads with a cop, while the two tattered legs of her ‘friend’ lay lifeless on the street.
It’s a gallery fest! Galleries everywhere to the north; some are radical, thought-provoking – others are touristy and crap. I buy a planter shaped like a head from a gallery somewhere in-between, then walk down to Powell’s books, which is literally a bookstore the size of a full city block. Walking inside is an English major’s wet-dream. Still thinking about the Asian guy who looked like Chuck Palahniuk (local Portlander and author of ‘Fight Club’, ‘Choke’, and ‘Invisible Monsters’), I stroll to the ‘P’ section, which is mightily stocked from floor to ceiling with various novels of Mr. Palahniuk’s. I buy ‘Fugitives and,Refugees: A Walk Through Portland, Oregon’ just to get a sense of what I’m missing, if anything.
Flipping through ‘Refugees’, a map of Portland-proper, full of little Palahniuk-centric histories, including acid-trips at a Planetarium, and his membership in the Cacophony Club – the inspiration for Project Mayhem in ‘Fight Club’. I realize the author is not much help in my search for the real Portland. For one, the book is from 2003, and is slightly dated in specific locales. Second, a lot of his favorite places are pretty pervy, and scuzzy. So, I turn to the eternal fall-back when straining for direction within a new city, I start drinking for answers.
Across the Willamette River amid industrial sprawl is Distillery Row, a somewhat connected walking tour of various booze factories. The first stop on the ‘booze list’ is closed up. Dusty whiskey vats sitting empty, viewable from the murky windows. We ask at the Green Dragon Pub next door what happened, but no one seems to have an answer. Next to the abandoned distillery is a fenced field full of grazing goats where a couple of kids toss carrots inside, and for some reason, I become reminiscent of rural Mexico.
We find the second stop on the list, New Deal Distillery, run by true Portlander, Tom. Like the wineries in Willamette Valley, you can walk up to the New Deal, pay $10 for a tasting, and sample various booze. Unlike the wineries, this is booze, and it f*cks you up fast. Tom takes us on a tantalizing journey through his various 80 proof concoctions, including some interesting gins, coffee liqueurs, and my favorite, Hot Monkey, a cayenne pepper Vodka perfect for Bloody Marys.
We power through, thanking Tom, who points us across the street to the freshly opened Vinn Distillery tasting for some delicious rice liquor. We stumble over to Burnside Bourbon for shots of rum and bourbon strong enough to slap the namesake side’burns’ right off your face.
Laurel Thirst Public House
Going on recommendation from my buddy Josh of Ghetto Vintage, we attempt to sober up on the cab ride over to Laurel Thirst Public House, in lovely residential Laurelhurst (see what they did there?) for ‘Church’. Church at the Laurel Thirst is the Sunday congregation of fans of the Freak Mountain Ramblers there to jam out with fellow hippies, townies, and what looks like the tantric cast-offs of HBO’s ‘Real Sex’. The Rambler are amazing, fun, and I find myself two-stepping within seconds – perhaps because of the distillery buzz compounded with Rainier beers, or a contact high from the fans’ clothing. Seriously, a must. Thanks, Josh.
Next morning, after coffee and Advil, we drive out of Portland for a half-day trip over the scenic and historic Columbia Gorge Highway to Multnomah Falls. The highway winds through open farmland outside of Troutdale, then tightens up at elevation up through a temperate rainforest with electric green moss hanging from trunks of trees, back down to river elevation.
Multnomah is free to visit, but is a ‘white tennis shoes, knee socks with sandals’ kind of deal. Fortunately, we arrive early enough before the hordes of tour buses.
The falls are split in two, the first being a five hundred foot drop, followed by a shorter, but no less impressive (and quite percussive) seventy foot drop. A concrete bridge connects the path over the falls divide, where those weary of heights (me) trot quickly to the other side. The pressure from falling water creates its own saturated eco-system with purple flowers blooming everywhere, but don’t try to pick them. Signs warn that a small rock from the upper falls ridge can crush your skull at the bottom of the falls. No Irish Springs shower for me. A couple of minutes near the misty impact zone and we head to higher ground for a quick hike to dry off/break away from multiplying tourists, and breath in the smell of fresh, dry mountain pine.
Mount Hood/Timberline Hotel
It’s somewhat eerie seeing the concave rubble of Mt. St. Helen’s – last erupted in the year of my birth, 1980 – squatting in the distance, contrasted to the apparent, supposedly dormant, gorgeous-but-destructive-looking cone of Mount Hood.
But the dangers still exist if not in pyroclastic blasts. The day we visit a hiker plummets to his death attempting summit ascension. It’s a beautiful day, skiers are out, and no one seems privy to the deceased climber.We walk around the outside of the Timberline hotel – the setting for a few exterior shots from ‘The Shining’ – midway up the 11,ooo foot plus mountain. I spend a few minutes looking for the hedge maze from ‘The Shining’ to no avail, happy enough to chase Marti around screaming ‘Dannnnyyyyy’ sans ax.
Final Thoughts on Portland
Walking back to the hotel after a delicious dinner at Masu Sushi, I can’t shake the idea that we’re missing something in Portland; that we’re not looking hard enough. As Chuck Palahniuk writes in his book, ‘Refugees’ people of Portland have to play different roles to survive, sometimes up to three/four at a time. He’s right, it’s as though you need to belong to the Portland Club to understand the city. How to enter this club, I’m not sure – didn’t have time to figure it out, but perhaps the ‘roles’ theory doesn’t just apply to the people, but the city itself. Until next time, Keep it Weird, Portland.
To be continued… – Mike