I blame Simon & Garfunkel. If it wasn’t for the lyrics of America, I wouldn’t be considering spending nearly 24 hours on a bus to get from LA to Portland.
The friend I am visiting tries to put me off. She emails: “I would strongly advise against the bus…you would see an underbelly of American culture that would inspire a short story at best and probably psychologically scar you at worse.”
I do a bit of research into the reality of travelling by Greyhound bus and discover that ex-convicts and drug addicts are more likely companions than any ‘man in a gabardine suit’ and that lost luggage, thefts and seriously long delays are part of the package. Enough said.
A few weeks later I board a reasonably priced, clean and comfortable Air Alaska flight to Portland. No short story; but no scars either.
The thousand mile journey takes just over two hours but feels as though we have crossed over to another continent. As we break through clouds and begin our descent through sheets of drizzle, I am amazed at how relatively quickly fir trees and rivers have replaced palms and beaches.
Welcome to Portland: city of roses, America’s ‘new food Eden’ according to TIME magazine, or ‘Little Beirut’, if you are a member of George Bush senior’s staff. Whatever you want to call it, this is the most progressive city in America. Tucked up into the northwest corner of the USA, Portland got its name after a coin toss (the other name in the running was ‘Boston’) and its first inhabitants made their living from fishing, timber, farming and, thanks to its proximity to the Pacific Ocean and Columbia River, the transportation of goods. These days it remains a transport hub, as well as the HQ for many large American corporations such as Intel and Nike, but it is the edible, anti-establishment, environmental and independent Portland that I am most interested in.
Leaving the airport I head to where my friend is waiting; I note her winter coat and my lack of warm clothing. Happily, our first stop is a Swedish-inspired day spa in Hawthorne, a bohemian and artistic suburb in the south east of Portland. First, we stop at her house for the bikes.
Emily is a keen cyclist, as are many other inhabitants of Portland – ten times more people cycle to work here than in any other American city – but as she passes me a bike which is so tall that I have to stand on my tiptoes to reach the seat, she doesn’t seem to notice that I have gone a little pale. Perhaps she has forgotten the last time we were on bikes together, where I lost control and knocked her and her four-month old son off their bike and onto the road. I decide not to remind her.
We arrive without mishap at Löyly (2713 SE 21st Avenue) where physical stiffness and mental fog, the hangovers of a long haul flight, begin to lift and release. I make a mental note to get to a spa after every trip, forgetting I am not a celebrity, and enjoy the lavender homemade body salts and Kombucha tea on offer.
Leaving the spa, mellow and languid, I eye the bike with mistrust. The plan is to head north for dinner. I know that there is every chance that my cycling is going to deteriorate with alcohol in the mix so we agree to cycle there and walk back. I am hoping to get a cab, but it isn’t to be; we are after all in the greenest city in America.
The Whiskey Soda Lounge (3131 SE Division Street) serves aahaan kap klaem – Thai drinking food – and a drinks menu where bourbon with names like Steinbeck characters, bergamot-tea infused vodka and locally-made drinking vinegars replace ordinary cocktails and spirits. The service is casual but waiters don’t miss a trick. The decor is confident Asian-kitsch with the dim kind of lighting that is only polite in a bar and full of smells that make my mouth water and heart rush. Emily tells me that one dish, Ike’s Vietnamese fish sauce chicken wings, has won national awards, and we decide it would be extremely foolish not to give them a go.
Despite being part of a ‘family’ of restaurants, the Whiskey Soda Lounge has an identity all of its own. The food and drink is faultless. This independence and integrity is something I find in businesses all around Portland, but especially in the south-eastern suburbs where most are locally-owned and loyally supported by the community.
The next day begins with the crossing of one of Portland’s many bridges – by car, though the bus service is reliable and easy to get to grips with – which brings us closer to the city centre, and a breakfast of perfect coffee and an otherworldly cinnamon bun at a Portland institution: the Pearl Bakery (102 NW 9th).
In 1997, the Pearl Bakery was the first business to set up in a part of the city that was mostly warehousing, and its success began a process of invigoration for the area – hence the fact that now the entire district is named after the bakery.
Coffee, beer and books are major pastimes here. In the Pearl district you’ll find yet another of the city’s landmarks: Powell’s Bookstore at 1005 W Burnside (more on the beer later). Powell’s is the largest independent bookstore in the USA with over a million new, second-hand and rare books on its shelves. The shop is organised along a colour-coded map system to help you find your way around and as we enter its doors, aware of the weight of my luggage and my weakness for books, I make Emily swear not to let me buy anything.
After successfully avoiding any literary purchases we head out of the city centre for two up and coming hangouts: the districts of Mississippi Avenue and Alberta. Mississippi Avenue describes itself as ‘the most diverse neighbourhood in Oregon’, built on the cultures of Native American Indians, Germans, Scandinavians and African Americans. Most people seem to come here for the shopping though, and not the history lesson.
If you like a retail kick try Flutter (3948 N Mississippi Avenue) just one of several outlets for vintage clothes and quirky homewares, Bridge City Comics (3725 N Mississippi Avenue) for offbeat reading material, or get your pet back home a gift from Salty’s Dog & Cat Shop (4039 N Mississippi Avenue) – one of several pet boutiques I came across in the city, which went some way into making me feel better about the shockingly good taste that Portland consistently exhibited.
Slightly further afield is the Alberta Arts District, which runs along NE Alberta Street. It’s a less affluent area, but even more ethnically diverse, and is the place to go for music or arts and crafts. There is a free festival every last Thursday of the month (from May to September) as well as even more independent shops.
Visit Close Knit (the neighbourhood ‘yarn shop’) at 2140 NE Alberta Street and Bolt, a fabric boutique, just a few doors down at 2136. Despite the pet boutiques I have to accept that Portland does have more than its fair share of great places to eat and drink and shop, and I begin to feel inadequate and envious that I don’t live somewhere as good as this.
The last straw is dinner at Miss Delta (3950 N Mississippi Avenue), which takes me to the Deep South for blackened catfish and more kitsch decor, and I want to weep into my red beans and rice.
On my own the next day, I discover that once I get the hang of the way the streets are arranged, Portland is a gift not just to cyclists but also for those on foot. The city is split into north and south by Burnside Street, and other streets run the length and breadth of the city with compass points (NW, NE, SW or SE) on signs as well as names. When it gets too much, you can hop on a bus or the streetcar, and the latter is free in the city centre.
I walk north from Downtown and head for the Riverfront district, with a short stop at Lan Su, the Chinese garden (NW 3rd and Everett). This is the perfect place for time out. There are over 400 species of plants amongst the Chinese architecture and the garden has been planted so that whatever the season, something is always in bloom. After taking a tour with a guide wearing a yin/yang baseball cap, I shelter from a sudden hail shower in the garden’s Tower of Cosmic Reflections, where Portland-based tea merchants, the Tao of Tea, promote the ‘art and culture’ of the tea leaf.
The Riverfront district, when I get there, is desolate and industrial, not quite what I was expecting. Along NE Glisan Street I walk past a homeless shelter and project where people are queuing quietly. A homeless man dragging a bag greets me with a polite ‘hello’. If this is the grittiest Portland gets, then it’s fair to say I never felt threatened, only saddened. And then, in the midst of it, the Greyhound bus station.
I walk away and continue towards the north-west, a part of the city that I sense Emily disapproves of and I’m intrigued to know why. One word solves the mystery: Starbucks. I see the familiar logo as I make my way down 23rd Avenue, and then the others, MAC, Kiehl’s and Lush, all chains which are noticeably absent in the south-east where independence rules. There’s also the wider roads allowing for more traffic, the busy clip-clack of high heels and very little community feel. If this is the worst Portland can do, it’s really not that bad. However, I have been spoilt by the artisan bakeries and the quirky shops with their exposed warehouse ceilings, and so I jump on a streetcar for Downtown and some food cart action.
Food carts are essentially single units, manned by two or three people serving up fresh street food from cuisines as varied as Japanese to Mexican, and Korean to Hawaiian. I head straight for the Thai Nong Khao Mon Kai for chicken and rice not because I am decisive – the carts stretch for a whole city block wide and deep on 10th and Alder – but because it was listed in Gourmet.com’s top eight food carts in Portland. On the evening of my final day in Portland, after a day walking and counting waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge national scenic area, Emily and I grab two bottles of locally-brewed ales and make our way to Mount Tabor Park.
They like beer here (and flat caps, beards and chequered shirts); Oregon ranks in the top five American states for number of breweries and craft beer consumption. You can even combine a drink with a movie at cinemas such as the Bagdad Theater and Pub at 3702 SE Hawthorne Blvd. Going to the pub to try some microbrews or watching a movie with a pint would have been easier than climbing to the top of an extinct volcano for a drink, but we are here because from the top of Mt Tabor you can see another volcano, the ‘potentially active’ Mount Hood.
We reach the summit with only enough light left to just make out the ghostly outline of the mountain. It’s simply the grandest thing I have ever seen. At over 11,000 feet Mount Hood is the tallest mountain in the state of Oregon and because it is so close to the city – only 50 miles out of Portland – it is a popular place to ski and hike. But we have come here just to gaze at it, and to have the kind of intimate, disjointed conversations that are only possible in the near-dark with someone who has known you since you were ten years old.
While we drink our beers and look over the lights of the city, I ask myself: why should anyone come to Portland? Portland isn’t flashy like Las Vegas, it isn’t sexy in the way of Los Angeles or even iconic like New York. It doesn’t have the cultural legacy, however tasteless, that so many people would fly halfway around the world to enjoy. But then I work out why it’s worth the trip.
Like Paul Simon, I too have been looking for America, and the hunt has taken me from the East coast to the West coast and several places in between. I have found America in turns edgy and disappointing, thrilling and empty, wild and scenic and vacuous and tacky. Here in Portland, I found the version of America that I like the best. Here, America has hope. And I would go for hope over Hollywood any day.