Our Own Private Portlandia

      5 min read

…And then there is the sort of vacation that has an ulterior motive. Like those settlers crossing the Oregon Trail, I too was having visions of paradise over that next hill… in today’s Portland, Oregon.    Portland, where 25-year-olds go to retire.

Could that work for me? Could I find the bespoke artisanal life a thousand miles away from the Sepulveda Pass? Once there, I would give out a hearty moose call and see how Portland responded.

After a full year of yapping about it, I was ready to pull back the great northwest eco-kimono.

But all of this was preceded by months of torturing my girlfriend, Kris.

“Real Estate is cheaper in Portland - look at the house we could buy there.” as I dragged her over to the listings on the computer. She was sort of interested.  

We had both arrived in L.A. around the same time years and years ago and were thinking of a change. I presented Portland to her as a hip, green, cooler L.A., perhaps a place where we could go to retire. 

Pacific Coast Highway

For instance: One warm Sunday afternoon, we were going to drive up the Pacific Coast Highway and go beach shopping - which beach was the easiest, least crowded… something. But when I Google mapped the highway, it was a steady ribbon of red – always a bad color on a map. 

Then, just to annoy myself, I checked out Portland’s roads at that same moment – clear and green. Of course, everything is green up there. “You see!” I shoved my phone at her.

I had fond memories of Portland from when my daughter went to school there. I loved the stately old (for Portland) Benson Hotel and their goldfish loaners. When you stayed there with kids, they bring a bowl and a fish up to your room. Portland’s that kind of place.

So, we made our plans to take a vacation there, and what the heck, check out the Oregon coast as well. It would be our biggest vacation in the time we’d been together – almost two years. That too would be a discovery, to see how we behaved with each other through the stresses of a vacation.

Don’t kid yourself, vacations are wonderful but they are an exaggeration of life – more fun and sometimes more failure. Could we find joy in Portland… while staying joyful with each other?

Sketch #1 – Final Approach

I always like to listen to a fun, upbeat song on my flight’s final approach. So about three miles out, at some 2,000 feet I plugged in Creedence Clearwater’s “Who’ll Stop the Rain?”- a high energy song about Woodstock, but to my mind, the best anti-Vietnam War song ever. It has always had the disjointed effect of making me inexplicably happy. I can’t figure that one out.

Anyway, Portland was quickly approaching and I’m looking out the window, listening to the music, smiling at Kris – she has no idea what’s going on in my headphones or in my head. But she’s getting used to it.

Now you may think I just planted some cute literary foreshadowing device - “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” – because it’s Portland and now the vacation is going to be a complete weather washout. But you’d be wrong. We had perfect weather the entire time, sunny and cool. Just as I imagined it should be. Still, I admire your reading between the lines. Nice work.

Portland International Airport:

In the terminal, we switched into Rental Car Mode. This can either be a breeze or a serving of hell, depending… We now learned our rental car was off site, with infrequent busses. Wait a minute – this isn’t the Portland I imagined where everything is close by, well planned and really smart. But… while I was sulking, Kris showed extreme prowess and deftly found another rental car onsite and just feet away! She was magical.

I then showed extreme prowess maneuvering us out of the airport’s maze of roads and signs, gliding over freeways and up a big, long bridge into the awaiting arms of Portland. Until we hit the brakes, joining a sea of lit up, red taillights. What the…?

Yes. Weekday morning commuter traffic. Ok, this was a little disappointing. I didn’t see this coming. So I immediately factored in what the traffic would be like in L.A. at this moment. Much worse!

Nothing could be as bad as my hometown bumper to bumper apocalypse. Actually, I’ve noticed as I’ve traveled, other people’s traffic jams are always more attractive than my own. Maybe it’s the vacation factor – I didn’t have to get to work. Maybe it was because I wasn’t surrounded by the world’s largest fleet of Teslas. It was more like a parking lot of Subarus. And many needed to be washed.

This inexplicably, also made me happy.

Sketch # 2: The Elusive Dollar Bill

Hawthorne Bridge

Crawling along with the Subarus, we slowly crossed the mighty Willamette River. I could see the big “Welcome to Portland” sign. And there were hitchhikers. It was all so Portlandish. Out in the distance we spotted snowy Mt. Hood. We quickly set our sights on Portland things to visit. 

·        Powell’s Books

·        The Japanese Garden

·        Outdoor adventure outfitter shops

Then came neighborhood shopping. We found a lovely tree-lined street stocked with every hip thing you’d ever want to show off to your friends. Lime or periwinkle waterproof boots? They had a rainbow collection of rainwear. 

We stumbled upon an emporium that featured artisan salt, low-impact chocolate and bitters. Bitters? Hadn’t they gone the way of the buggy whip and the celluloid collar? I guess they were back – Portland would know.  

This shop really did have the best selection of bitters I’d ever seen. (sound of clearing throat here). The owner spent a good deal of time explaining the complexities of his salts from around the world and how to combine them with his dense selection of chocolates.

We enjoyed learning about this obscure information and then Kris mentioned an accessory shop next door, before disappearing. I was still curious about the chocolate and learned more than I ever needed to know. Seeing how I had taken up a lot of the guy’s time, I picked up a tiny dark square to make a purchase.

My intentions were pure as I pulled out some cash, but the man looked off-balance at the sight of my greenbacks. He fiddled with the cash register but seemed stymied by its simple operation. He couldn’t quite get the hang of the cash drawer… to open it and make change.

So he made a few calls but none of his cohorts could help. He played with the cash register some more but the infernal thing just wasn’t hi-tech enough.

I was thinking, what a perfect Portland moment. And I wasn’t the only one: A few months later Kris and I were watching an early episode of "Portlandia" and right before us was the same scene – Fred Armisen in a book store - struggling and failing with a cash register. What is it with cash registers in Portland?

As I had just about finished eating this piece of grass-fed, non-GMO, locally harvested, gluten-free, conflict-free, UNESCO certified smudge of chocolate, I felt doubly obliged to pay up. I was wasting this man’s time. He was trying to survive in his tiny Portland shop, sacrificing his best years to raise our awareness of chocolate and salt. He was probably just getting by.

I whipped out my double points credit card and he raised me with an iPad and a Square. He swiped and we consummated the deal. I hoped the rest of his transactions that day went more smoothly.  

Just before I left, I had another look at the bitters. What were these things? Were they important - should they now be part of my world? That’s when I heard the owner talking to some new customers who showed a keen interest in a block of salt from the Congo. The owner was telling them he had even more varieties of salt at his other stores in New York and Santa Fe.

What? This guy was a big success… but didn’t know how to handle paper money. The only things he held in his hands were chocolate and salt. And the coming age of bitters.

Sketch #3 Where Did the Gorge Go?

While researching Portland, Kris and I had heard about the Columbia River Gorge. This magnificent canyon is just a short drive from downtown Portland. How could that be? I’d seen photos of it – an immense, awesome vista, like a painting from another century. On the scale of Lewis and Clark. In fact, those very explorers traversed it, recording, “we passed several beautifull cascades which fell from a great hight over the stupendious rocks" All of this just minutes from the chocolate and salt shop. Nice going Portland! 

We jumped on a fast superhighway and this time the traffic was appropriately absent. In less than an hour, the Columbia River Gorge sprang into view. It was a Cinerama spectacle, taking up the entire sky and just overwhelming everything.

I looked for a sign indicating Vista House. This is an historic observation center, built for travelers to rest and enjoy the view. The structure so perfectly reflects the feeling of the gorge it was declared a national landmark. But there was no sign for it.

Womens Forum sign

We passed a turnoff but the sign there announced the “Portland Women’s Forum.” And then a beat later we spotted Vista House off in the distance. But we had passed the turnoff.

I hit the brakes and pulled to the shoulder. Taking another glance back, yes, we had definitely passed the turnoff.   

But why no sign? There had only been notice for the “Portland Women’s Forum” – which I’m sure is a wonderful forum. But why no sign for the spectacular Columbia River Gorge and Vista House?    

Portland womens forum 2.png

I got out of the car to make sure. And there right behind me was a line of cars, all of them also pulled over to the shoulder. They had followed my lead, also missing the turnoff, also confused by the “Portland Women’s Forum”.  

Kris and I ran across the highway like silly tourists just to make sure the turnoff would take us down to the storied observation point. Yep. It was a straight run to one of America’s most scenic lookouts.

And here was yet another sign for the “Portland Women’s Forum”. It was a strong, direct, smart-looking sign. But where was the Women's Forum, itself? There was no structure anywhere, nothing. Maybe they set up a tent when they had their meetings. 

So to review: the Women's Forum had a sign but no building. The Columbia River Gorge had a Gorge but no sign. We laughed at the wonder of it all. It was a pure vacation moment. 

Minutes later, we were heading down the crest of the gorge toward Vista House. And let me say this about Portland women – when they go to their forum, they sure have a great view.

Sketch #4: Beyond The Universe

Elephants Deli on SW Corbett Ave

We wanted a prototypical Portland breakfast experience. We found it at Elephants Deli. Nestled in a warm knotty pine corner we chatted with another couple. Sunlight streamed in and lit the bounty of our great steaming breakfasts, the eggs actually sunning themselves on the big heavy plates.

This place was almost hip but not quite. Pre-hip. It was perfect.

There were so many side options I probably “sampled” a little too much. But as we rolled away in the rental I entertained fantasies of moving into the neighborhood. We could go there every Saturday morning for breakfast and meet other smart carefree, couples just like us. I figured once I lived in Portland, I would become carefree. And maybe smart.

But we were off to the Coast. We knew the California coast but craved the cool deep green of the Oregon’s western edge.

We first took Interstate 5, heading for Eugene. It was surprisingly flat and not as green as I would have liked. Ok, I will not live in this part of Oregon. As we drove, the breakfast ballast from Elephants Deli was settling nicely and I turned on a recording of this new age lady I like to listen to when I have a few quiet moments.

I enjoy the way she puts things in perspective, and goes for the big, big, big picture She is soothing, hopeful and calm. She speaks of our place in the universe, time without end and so on and so forth…

Such dreamy meditations may not always be the best combination with a flat, boring highway after a big breakfast. I was feeling increasingly serene with notions of infinity stretching out before me on this endless road.

As she spoke I was becoming one with the interstate. Everything was good; the universe has a purpose. We just have to accept it and relax. Breathe in….

We were floating. No… We were sliding sideways!! 

WHA?! Something clicked and I snapped to, startling myself and Kris. I guess she had also been drifting on the post-breakfast astral plane with me.

We both jolted alert, recoiling from eternity as we hit the road’s shoulder. I quickly swerved us back to the highway, once again grabbing onto the earth at 60 m.p.h.

Now feeling startling awake and of this world, I nervously exited toward an approaching Jack in the Box. There in the parking lot, I downed several caffeine rich Cokes and took stock. And thanked the universe for giving me that one tenth of a second warning.

I was afraid Kris was going to give me shit for going all transcendental on us, but she was sweet and forgiving. This then is the heart of taking a journey with someone. When those strange, rawboned moments occur during an adventure, we quickly learn how well we play together. Who stays and works with the group and who would rather frag their partner and Uber back to the airport alone.

I’d like to say that I would be as gentle and tolerant as she had been with me had the accelerator been under the other foot. Yes, I’d like to say that but…

Travel is a Private Thing

There were a few more bumps along the road during our Portland Oregon getaway that perhaps I’ll delve into another time. The important thing is, days later, as we were grazing at another Elephants Deli at the Airport, we were still happy to be traveling together.  So… big success!

There’s something very private about traveling, even when traveling alongside another person. No one will view the Columbia River Gorge quite the way you do. Nor taste the chocolate and the bitters in quite the same way. I enjoy traveling closely with others but, ultimately, aren’t we all enjoying or hating stuff by ourselves?

And yet, if two people manage to find themselves enjoying and hating enough of the same things… well that’s a beautiful journey, isn’t it?            

So, after all the miles and meals, cups of coffee and iPhotos, did this vacation bring about our eventual relocation? Is Portland to be our great northern Leisure Village?

It’s still under discussion. But I personally think we need to take another vacation there to check out the traffic. Kris just rolls her eyes. 

Kris and Jon

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