USM8s Part V: Portland
From Yosemite, Helena and I took a bus to Fresno and then a train to Sacramento, California’s oft-forgotten capital city. Despite our love for the wild, we (mostly me) are creatures of comfort and were grateful for a soft bed and shower. Our brief impression of Sacramento was positive: Californian bungalows and bright gardens dominate the Midtown streets, and the layout of the city is a conveniently numbered and alphabetised grid. Our locale was P Street. It was pretty bloody hot, in the mid-30s, but thankfully not overly humid. We stayed one night and boarded a propeller plane (eek) the following day for Portland.
Portland, unsurprisingly, was established as a port city at the end of the Oregon Trail, and is the capital of the state of Oregon. At the turn of the 20th century, overrun by racketeering and organised crime, it had a reputation as one of the most dangerous port cities in the world. But World War II brought an industrial boom, and in the 1960s Portland began to be known as politically liberal and a citadel of counterculture. This has persisted well into the 21st century, and the city is known for its environmental consciousness, land-use planning and excellent public transport system, as well as the ridiculous and almost-factual TV series Portlandia.
We touched down and headed to our Airbnb in Overlook. This was hands-down the best place we stayed. Gary and his partner Shawn own a 90-something year old house and live with their two small dogs in the basement. There are four rooms for Airbnb guests. Gary’s dad, also named Gary, lives in a trailer in the backyard. Gary’s grandparents were visiting, too, amazingly spry and sharp despite approaching 100 years old. Over breakfast one morning, Gary’s granddad Hank gave us a brief window into his life: at 16, he had rebelliously joined the army as a submarine helmsman, and was sent from San Francisco to the Pacific Theatre in 1914. Their sister vessel had departed two hours prior and was reportedly destroyed by a lurking Japanese sub. But the war was still raging, and so young Hank pressed through international waters, pursued by the Japanese for a sweaty three days before thankfully losing them.
Portland’s forest Park is the US’s largest wilderness park within city borders, with an area of more than 5000 acres. This whole city is green and lush and lovely, with dozens of smaller parks and green spaces dotted throughout. Its populace is pretty active, with a strong focus on cycling, hiking and generally being outside in the beautiful surrounds. The Pacific Northwest is dense with natural beauty to explore: extinct and active volcanoes, rugged coast, rich forest with soaring redwoods and Douglas Firs, fjords and bays and islands, lakes and waterfalls, ice fields and glaciers. Who would ever want to leave?
Portland is the birthplace of the hipster. If you don’t know what a hipster is, mate, I don’t believe you. Go watch Portlandia to get an idea (and then switch it off before you hurl). There’s a focus here on local, organic, “whole” foods and farm-to-table systems, which means the cuisine scene in Portland is at odds with the rest of America. The food is delicious (shout-out to Eisenhower Bagelhouse for the seven best breakfasts of our trip). Music, too, is excellent - talented musicians of all genres can be found with relative ease. We spent the week gyrating, salivating, masticating. We had gnomes made in our likenesses by an old man and visited a 113-year-old movie theatre. Overlook contains a Himalayan rock salt store which hawks kitchenware made entirely of salt.
Wilson, a palzone from back home, had jetted from Copenhagen to Portland to meet us before Eclipse Festival. He had forgotten whether he’d applied for an ESTA to enter the US and, while arguing with Danish border security, missed his flight. Of course, the ESTA had existed all along, but Wilson was forced to book a new Transatlantic airfare. Ouch. Helena and I had arranged passage to Eclipse from Portland months earlier on a charter bus; Wilson left this to the last minute without considering the million other people doing the same. Oregon was packed to the brim with eclipse enthusiasts, all destined for a 113km-wide strip bisecting the continent: the path of totality. At the last minute Wilson scored a ride in the Free Sex Van, the truck-cum-home of a musician who found him a seat between the bass and drumkit.
The city’s motto is literally “Keep Portland Weird”. I appreciate the sentiment but, to be honest, it felt a little forced. It’s too self-aware and synthetic, too in-your-face with its “quirkiness”. Portland tries a bit too hard. I’m comparing it to my beloved Melbourne, which is also weird, but in a very organic way. It happens to have naturally become the Greatest City on Earth, full of charming curiosities. Portland’s self-consciousness is very American and definitely weird, but maybe not in the way its residents hope. Clearly I’m biased (and, let’s be real, correct).
16 August rolled around and the climax of our trip was at hand: Eclipse Festival. This was the reason we’d come to America in the first place. We promised Wilson we’d meet him at the doof and headed to PDX airport for our charter bus to Big Summit Prairie.