Portland, Oregon: the City of Roses. PDX, if you want. I had some ideas of what Portland was like before I made it there. I knew it was “weird,” and that it was full of micro-breweries and strip clubs. I’d never watched Portlandia, nor paid any attention to its professional sports teams in the Trailblazers or Timbers. It was the city I was least looking forward to visiting of the three on my list and therefore would be the place I went to first. I set out on the morning of July 24th, and twenty minutes later I was there in this new city.
I entered Portland from the south, driving around the mess of freeways and city roads until I found a safe-looking place to park my car for the day, the south waterfront. It is a place full of brand new high-rise condominiums, hotels, an aerial tram, and numerous nearby construction projects, including a new light rail conduit and bridge and a building that reminded me a lot of EMPAC at RPI. I made my way to the base of the Portland Aerial Tram and walked up to the bridge across I-5. I had no idea where I was going. Lost among old houses and trees, I somehow found my way back down toward the waterfront just two blocks north of where I started. Portland lies at the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers, the downtown area of the city sitting on the banks of the latter. Along the majority of the downtown waterfront is a park, situated between a concrete and metal seawall and a busy urban thoroughfare, Naito Parkway. What struck me immediately on my walk up the waterfront was the amount of cyclists out and about. It was barely eight o’clock on a Wednesday morning yet one could not look anywhere without seeing someone on a bike, riding to work, riding along the river, riding wherever.
Nearly halfway through my riverside walk I happened upon a piano in a square, just sitting there. It was adorned with flowers and the words “PLAY ME!” on the front. So I did. I’m not one to perform for others, so it took a few minutes to warm up. However, I embraced my anonymity and the enjoyment of playing a piano in the beautiful open air of a sunny Portland morning. A few people stopped to watch and listen, while most went about their business. I ended up playing for over forty minutes. I didn’t even want to stop, but I knew I had to move on if I wanted to see anything else on my list of sights, recurring theme of the trip. The summer days were going to be long, but I had no idea just how much walking I’d actually be doing. (Hint: a lot)
I continued to stroll along the Willamette waterfront, passing by the steamboat-based Oregon Maritime Center, tents set up for the Oregon Brewers Festival, and numerous river crossings before coming upon the black industrial-age behemoth called Steel Bridge. Structures of its ilk always stick out to me, triggering somewhat of a nostalgic response I would imagine because I grew up in the Rust Belt surrounded by such architecture. Their metalwork and color are eerie and threatening, and the loads they carry are driven by bellowing metal beasts on cold iron tracks. They conjure visions of gray, smoky skies, of brick buildings surrounded by the fires of industry, of a mesh of electrical wires and signal cables following along above crowded urban streets; my idea of a late 19th century cityscape, but also not unlike the sights of an old steel mill I found in West Virginia. I crossed Steel Bridge on its pedestrian walkway, taking note of its old-fashioned lift mechanisms, narrow work access paths, and the river through the railroad ties below. The water isn’t too far below the walkway, hence the need for a lift, but I couldn’t help but feel some butterflies looking down. Ending up in the water when you didn’t plan to will ruin your whole day.
Across the river is a heavily trafficked railroad track that somewhat parallels the Eastbank Esplanade. I wasn’t lucky enough to cross it at the same time as a train passed by, though they could be heard blasting their horns throughout the city all day. At the pedestrian bridge across the UPRR track, I noted its angled stairway’s steps were cut parallel to the bridge, rather than perpendicular to the ascender’s path, much like the old “drunk stairs” at RPI. I chuckled to myself as I walked up them, trying not to trip and die. Once back at street level I crossed over to the Rose Quarter just to see the Rose Garden Arena, home of the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL (and the NBA’s Trailblazers of course). I didn’t go inside, but merely admired its modern facade as MAX streetcars whirred by. I continued my walk by going down toward the Oregon Convention Center and gazing up at its twin glass spires. I wasn’t particularly thrilled to be in the surrounding area, so I headed back down to the Esplanade and shot a panorama of downtown from across the river.
From the west end Steel Bridge I headed north toward Union Station. I scaled the steps up the vibrant international-orange Broadway Bridge, which offered a pretty lovely view of the northern waterfront, Union Station below, and downtown in the near distance. From there I ended up in the Pearl District, which, if I ever wind up living in Portland someday, would be where I’d want to reside. Apartment buildings line Lovejoy Street while restaurants, coffee shops, bars, and stores occupy real-estate at street level. There I encountered a parade marking the start of the Oregon Brewers Festival and watched from the storefronts as hordes of people sauntered south down the avenue. Over the next hour I partook in a quest to reach the famous Pittock Mansion in the West Hills of Portland. It was an arduous twisting climb through upscale residential streets, shortcut by sets of stairs over 200 steps long (I counted). The view to the east gradually got better and better as I rose, before ultimately arriving at the back of the Mansion. Though my experience with Portland was limited, I posit that there is no better view of the city than the eastern lawn of Pittock Mansion. From there one can see all of downtown, the developments at the south waterfront, Mt. Tabor across the river, Mt. Hood looming majestically in the distance, the port in the north as well as planes landing at the airport near the Columbia River. Fortunately for me, the day could nearly not have been clearer. In addition to Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams was spotted in the northeast, just to the right of a snow mound of a hill. I was shocked to learn that that snowy mound was in fact Mt. St Helens, and the nub just to its left was the peak of Mt. Rainier. The Cascades’ greatest hits all in one place, I suppose. It got even better later, but that’s coming up in time.
I sat on a bench at Pittock Mansion for a good hour, resting my weary legs as I soaked in the view. Since I had nowhere to be, there was no incentive to leave. That’s one of my favorite feelings, especially in a place as scenic as that. When I decided my watch-tan was sufficiently formed, I headed on down the hill through the woods. It wasn’t exactly a shortcut, but at least it was different than more of the same residential roads. A brief sojourn later, I ended up at the Portland Japanese Gardens, a beautiful, yet crowded oasis at the top of the West Hills. As far as Asian gardens go, it wasn’t my favorite, but it was still really pretty. There were Koi ponds, bamboo patches, a small tea hut, several waterfalls, and shaded mossy paths. I did a full circuit of its grounds, taking in another beautiful view of the city from the eastern edge of the garden, before I made my way across the street to the Portland International Rose Test Garden. Nothing but roses as far as you can see, in a myriad of colors. Red, pink, orange, white, purple, and numerous combinations thereof. If you’re a fan of roses, this must be heaven for you. Since I was really only around for photographic opportunities, its novelty wore off quickly. By this point in the day I was starting to feel the miles in my feet and I was ready to settle down for dinner.
From the Rose Garden I walked all the way back through the center of downtown to the waterfront, where I grabbed a quick dinner and headed back to my car, passing by that EMPAC-like building again. The ten hours on the meter were nearly up as I returned. Having already had dinner, I felt free to explore the city on wheels. My only destination of the evening was Mt. Tabor just across the Willamette River in the east side of town. Supposedly the view of downtown was pretty good, but after a short hike to the summit, I found only a few vantage points not obscured by trees. I wasn’t feeling good, my stomach unsettled after dinner, so I took it easy walking back down the hill. I passed by several reservoirs on my hike, one empty and two filled completely. They each had castle-like towers and fortifications; trespassing in the city’s drinking water isn’t taken lightly.
Once back in the car, I hopped on I-84 heading east. I was planning to stay at a rest area along the Columbia River, though I didn’t know how far away the nearest one was. I arrived at Multnomah Falls in the late evening, but was disheartened upon reading signs forbidding overnight parking. Ambivalent, I kept going,… and going. Over forty miles later, beyond the town of Hood River, I found my lodging on a bluff above the southern shore of the Columbia. Stunned by the evening view, I grabbed my tripod and walked to the edge of the rest area in an attempt to capture the sunset. I noted the railroad track down below, but again no train was forthcoming. Shortly thereafter I retreated to my car, threw on a few YouTube videos and went to sleep, this time with the windows more than cracked and the sunroof completely open.
Having slept better, I awoke more rested on the morning of July 25th, yet my legs were more sore than ever and shuddered violently again as I got out of the car. I repeated the previous day’s morning routine, becoming slightly better at bathing in the bathroom stall and somehow more comfortable. I headed down once again to the fence at the cliff’s edge to see the sunrise over the river, where a long slow freight train suddenly revealed itself from out of the trees. The day’s first catch. Driving through the Columbia River valley on I-84 reminded me a lot of cruising down I-90 between Syracuse and Albany. The Columbia River and its surrounding gorge are far more impressive than the Erie Canal and the southern Adirondacks/northern Catskills. Still, the position of the highway on the south side of the river and the east-west travel direction fomented my nostalgia. As I drove west on the way to Multnomah Falls, I caught up with the train that passed by the rest area earlier. I decided I would intercept it at a grade crossing and flatten one of the quarters I had in my console. Pulling off at a campsite along the river, I found a suitable intersection, laid a coin on the track, and waited there with my camera. As the train came around the bend, it accelerated into the crossing and obliterated the quarter. I stood next to the crossing lights as the convoy passed by, snapping picture after picture until it was gone down the track. I couldn’t find the quarter. Oh well.
I once again passed the train on I-84, but I decided to stop on my way to the waterfall at Bonneville Dam and possibly take a trip across it. Upon my arrival at the security gate, I was notified the grounds didn’t open for another two hours. Oh well, part deux. It was then that another freight train passed by, but headed the other way, meaning the one that had stolen my quarter was delayed in the direction from which I came. I decided once again to intercept the train down the highway, where I laid another quarter on the tracks and this time set up my camera to capture a slow-motion film of the impact. I stood there for a half-hour waiting for the train before it suddenly appeared from out of the trees down the rails. As it quickly lumbered toward me, I pressed record on my tripod and backed off.
Nailed it. I was able to recover my newly flattened currency and add it to the collection in my car. Feeling accomplished, finally, I left on down the road to Multnomah Falls. The first time I saw Multnomah Falls was years ago in a wallpaper on InterfaceLift.com, and later in feeds on Facebook and YouTube. I was smitten by its simple beauty. I saw the falls in person for the first time the evening before, but from the parking lot in the center of the freeway I could not see the iconic stone bridge. Up close, it’s absolutely gorgeous. Being there early in the morning I could take long-exposure photographs of the shadowed waterfalls without overexposure. I took a walk up to the bridge, across to the upper pool and soaked in the mist. Multnomah Falls cascades down a shear cliff face for hundreds of feet, settling in a pool, flowing in a creek below the bridge, and falling once again into a pool at the base. My words can’t do the sight justice, so enjoy the picture. I’ve got about 40 more like it 😉
As the itch to move on grew, I gathered my tripod and drove back toward Portland. Being a weekday morning I ran into rush hour traffic headed into the city, but compared to California it was nothing at all. I left my car at a cheap pay lot in the Rose Quarter and walked back across Steel Bridge to downtown. It was early and I was hungry so I had one thing on my mind: Voodoo Doughnuts. There was already a line out the door down the sidewalk, but I didn’t care. I snagged myself a Tang and a cookies & cream doughnut and went to town. The Tang doughnut might be the best doughnut I’ve had, but it was filling. I struggled to finish the other one, and I was stuffed all day long.
Pressing on, I made my way to Powell’s City of Books, where I navigated its many color-themed rooms and rows and rows of tall bookshelves. I bought a Deutsches Wörterbuch, something I’d looked into getting for awhile, and scoured the fantasy section for any sign of George R.R. Martin’s Dunk & Egg novellas without luck. Outside on the street corner I spied another outdoor piano. The young woman getting ready to play it was, to my surprise, the creator of the outdoor piano project, called Piano Push Play. We had a brief chat and I sent her a photo I took of the piano I’d played the day before for the Facebook page. I carried on doing a loop of the Pearl and Alphabet Districts, passing below the Fremont Bridge, stopping at a Starbucks to take a rest and a Safeway to grab some beverages. My hip had begun to hurt from walking so much, so I retreated again to downtown, crossed over the Morrison Bridge to the east side, and took a very light stroll up the Eastbank Esplanade. Near the northern end, the walkway turns into a floating bridge held in place by pillars around which the path rises and sinks. From there I watched a sailboat pass under the Steel Bridge, its lower deck fully raised to let it through. Workers had been moving the lower deck up and down just feet the day before, but this was the first time I’d seen it completed up. It was neat watching the ancient machinery on the towers do their thing. As I walked back up to solid ground, a Union Pacific train passed underneath the pedestrian bridge up to the Rose Quarter, making up for my previous lack of sightings there.
Before long I was back in my car to undertake my final planned quest in Portland: to find a pair of streets named in the music of Portland native Elliott Smith. I plugged both addresses into my GPS and drove around town. Condor Ave is in the southwest corner of the city, not far from where I had started the day before, while Alameda is in the northeast among a residential neighborhood. One thing that stuck out to me as I drove into the eastern half of the city was the relative unkempt state of its roads. Shrubs and tall grass dominated the sidewalks and medians in stark contrast to the well manicured curb-sides I’m used to here in northern California. I would notice much the same thing elsewhere in my trip.
With Portland in the rear-view mirror, I drove across the Columbia River into Washington. Having noticed the relative proximity of Mt. St Helens from Pittock Mansion, I dialed the visitor’s center into my GPS and drove off into the boondocks. I passed by my supposed destination barely half an hour later, the mountain still off in the distance. I was afraid I had made a wrong turn, given that I was not in the vicinity of where I thought I was going. As it turns out, the close-up viewpoints of Mt. St Helens were still a ninety minute drive away. It was getting later in the day and I was starting to get hungry, but I ventured on into the mountains anyway. Accompanied only by Driftless Pony Club blasting out of my speakers (see below), I navigated windy, ever-rising roads into the Cascades. I lost cell reception early on so the low resolution map on my GPS was my only indication of where the hell I was. I tried to keep St Helens in my view, but other mountains and trees oft obscured its slopes. As the mountain precessed behind me, I was once again worried I was headed the wrong way. My worries were soon allayed when I arrived at the fork in the road pointing me toward the Windy Ridge viewpoint.
Turning down that road led to more of the same windy forested road. However, when I arrived at the sign indicating the Mount St Helens National Volcanic Monument, the terrain suddenly changed. The forest cleared away and the mountains in the distance became visible. On both sides of the road as far as I could see were splintered and burned trees, felled pointing away from St Helens. It amazed me that there was still so much evidence in the trees of a cataclysmic eruption over thirty years later. There was plenty of regrowth, but as is evident, there’s not much compared to the forests I braved to get there.
As I approached the end of the road, my excitement grew. The sun was lowering in the sky and there was absolutely no one else around when I reached Windy Ridge. I ran up the long, zig-zagging staircase built on the side of the hill to the viewpoint for as long as I could; I made it about halfway before I got ran out of breath and walked the rest. The vista was simply outstanding. The open north face of Mt. St Helens flowed down along a black pyroclastic slope into Spirit Lake, whose surface was still covered in the flotsam of the trees that once covered its surrounding slopes. To the west was a vast field of desolation made ever more ominous by the shadow of the falling sun. In the north the peak of Mt. Rainier was visible, while to the east Mt. Adams stood proudly. The ground beneath was a coarse grey powder, almost like a lunar surface.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like on May 18th, 1980, the mountain blowing all of that mass into the sky; the hillside literally flowing into Spirit Lake, displacing its entire volume onto the mountainsides beyond. Thirty-three years later, the mountain just stands there completely silent. From my vantage point I discerned absolutely no sign of activity; only a warm wind gusting from the west made any sound. All I could do was stand there and gape. Once again, I didn’t want to leave. Few places I’ve been to have been so peaceful, so literally awesome, and so beautiful all at once.
Just back up the road around the bend was another stop. Not situated on top of a hill as Windy Ridge was, but just on the edge of the road, was the Smith Creek viewpoint. With again nobody around but me, the mountains, and the setting sun, I took it all in. From Smith Creek, I was beneath the looming crater of Mt. St Helens, in the monolithic presence of Mt. Adams just to the east, and could plainly spy the funnel of Mt. Hood to the south. I was in the center of Cascadia, nestled between the four volcanoes St Helens, Adams, Hood and Rainier.
Above is my favorite panorama from the whole trip, split in half for easier digestion. On the top left is Mt. Adams looking east, in the bottom left is Mt. Hood nearly due south, and the mound on the right is, of course, Mt. St Helens to the southwest. Despite my growing hunger at this late hour of the day, I lingered among the mountains for some time, taking in the fresh air and the sights as much as I could before I left. I don’t know if I’ll ever return to that spot, but I would like to, perhaps to witness volcanic history in the making.
Finally ready to move on, I fought my way back up the mountains, down the winding forested roads, around streams and fallen trees, across fields and farms, and onto the highway back toward I-5. The sky grew dark as I passed hydroelectric reservoirs and small towns, finally joining the freeway about an hour after leaving the park. I picked up high-calorie fast food to feed my insatiable metabolism, found a rest area near Chehalis and once again settled in for the night.
It’s an interesting feeling, seeing people arrive in their cars at a rest stop and finding them to be there still when the morning comes. Most travelers seem to come and go, stopping only for the facilities before jetting off down the road, but a select few stay. It’s rather comforting in a way, like a single-serving anonymous traveling companion. There were a few of them on my journey, but the stop in Chehalis was the first time I really noticed them.
Now this next day, July 26th, traveling north on I-5 from central Washington to Vancouver, British Columbia is a day I’d rather not remember in detail. It was full of delays, incredible amounts of stress and uncertainty, and a very minimum amount of luck, luck which led me to spend far too much money. It began by passing through Olympia, Tacoma, and finally Seattle on the freeway. As soon as I passed by Sea-Tac I was overcome with nostalgia. I couldn’t believe I was finally back in Seattle, and even moreso that I had driven all the way up here. As the city skyline grew in the distance, I flashed back to December 2011, to my first time seeing these exact sights from the back of a warm taxi cab on a cold winter morning. It was different this time, though I’ll have a lot more to say about that later. This time I was just passing through, and as quickly as it appeared on the horizon, Seattle was gone in the mirror. As I continued increasing my latitude, the highway snaked down into the Skagit River valley, once again up through mountain passes and evergreen forests, into the city of Bellingham and beyond to the 49th. I stopped for lunch at a Subway/gas station near the border, watching videos on my phone as I ate. Already after noon, I was delaying myself for no reason other than I was somewhat nervous to finally go to Canada. It was not only for the first time in almost six years, but the first completely alone. At the border town of Blaine I took my car out toward the marina park, peering over the mud and water at Canada. It was so familiar, yet so subtly different. After enough self-imposed delays and finally ready to make the leap, I got back in the car, sat in the queue at the border, and fumbled my way through the checkpoint. It was only a minor hiccup, and I exhaled in relief as I pulled through, parking for a moment at the visitor’s center in British Columbia. I was finally in Canada, but the adventure was just beginning.