Portland, city of books
I've probably said this before: you're bound to have preconceived ideas about places long tagged as desirable destinations. Sometimes it's hard for those places to live up to expectations; while others, which would not necessarily make the list but obligate because they're en route, can spring a big surprise.
Both categories were within 200 miles of each other during our Pacific Northwest roadtrip. Seattle I had always imagined was cool, ahead of the curve and epitomic of America's Left Coast. And it is. But it's also huge, thronged with tourists and high-stress congested. Portland was on the itinerary largely because an American friend in Brisbane had told us about a great book shop. And I wanted red-laced hiking boots like what Reese Witherspoon wore in Wild. (Portland is Danner HQ). In a tight schedule, however, the city had been allocated only two nights; one full day.
After Seattle, we wanted to get the timing of our arrival in Portland right. Our landlady in Manzanita said we must be there by 3. So we left the coast by midday, and pootled, until we got caught in an inexplicable jam on US-26 across uplands to the east. So far on our journey we had queued at many roadworks. We sat by these trees for half an hour without moving. OK, the view could have been a lot worse, but traffic regularly came in the opposite direction, in bunches. There had been a wreck (crash) by the roadwork, we later learned, but even so we couldn't fathom why we were stationary so long and the other guys weren't.
There was a slight crawl as we entered Portland proper, but nothing to speak of. The immediate feel of the place was good. I felt relaxed. It was as if every street, building or establishment was saying, 'Look, we know we can't compete with Seattle for hipsters, but we'll be kinder, OK?' Friendlier. Softer. Our hotel was nowhere near as whacky as the one in Seattle, but the room was much bigger, and the whole experience was… more comfortable and caring.
Not that Portland isn't edgy. It just doesn't have to try as hard to maintain a still-growing reputation. That night we ate at Olympia Provisions in the Southeast Quarter, in an industrial landscape. Shared charcuterie plates were the thing. Delicious but expensive was our verdict.
First thing on the agenda next morning was Powell's, a book store chain in Portland. Its headquarters, Powell's City of Books in the Pearl District (1005 W Burnside Street) on the edge of downtown, was only a few blocks' walk from our hotel on SW Broadway. It claims to be the largest independent new and used bookstore in the world. We had breakfast in the cafe and came across our first Portland eccentric. He was ensconced in what looked like his regular patch, with two screens, assorted paraphernalia and coffee cups. He wore headphones and was clearly in his own world. I didn't pay that much attention until he tore a thin strip of paper off an A4 sheet, and proceeded to throw it in the air and catch it as it fell, over and over. Many, many times. There was a hint of agitation; OCD; a few kangaroos loose in the top paddock, as we say downunder.
There are reputed to be more than a million books in Powell's – new, secondhand and remaindered. The shop occupies a whole block, on several floors. It's easy to get lost, mind, when you try to find a friend who's been to a different department. We didn't intend to buy, of course, in case of weighty problems when flying home. But you've heard that one before. When my friend and I met up at an appointed time, we each had a basketful. I'd asked at one of the desks whether the shop shipped abroad. 'Of course,' the man said, as if it was the stupidest question ever. In the end, to send a dozen books from Portland Or was cheaper than fewer books from Sonoma Ca the previous year. (And when the package arrived weeks later the books were extremely well packed.)
We were in Powell's for almost half a day and had to force ourselves to leave. It's book heaven, with shelves disappearing into infinity. The staff are knowledgeable and helpful. You can choose a cheaper option, in popular fiction for example, if you're not fussed about the latest edition or well-thumbed pages, or you're strapped for cash and justifying buying more books than your budget allows. It's probably the best bookshop I've ever been in.
And then it was time for lunch from one of Portland's famous food carts, at the junction of SW 9th Street and Alder Avenue. We took our cue from locals queueing, and chose the Whole Bowl.
There are several hundred food carts across the city: they cluster in 'pods'. You can get any food you could possibly imagine. They are a Portland institution: do not leave town without experiencing it. Our food was healthy and tasty: we took it to O'Bryant Square for a time-out.
My hiking boots were easily sorted at Danner downtown. And then it was over to the east side (of the Willamette River) to the Portland Running Company for more footwear. I had this crazy notion that there would be riverside areas of green where we could admire the city's famous waterway, a major tributary of the Columbia River (which forms the border between Oregon and Washington). All there was downtown were noisy high-speed routeways and industrial parks. Forest Park, with more than 5000 acres and 80 miles of trails way to the northwest of Pearl District, is the largest urban park in the US. If only we'd had another day…
…We could have also visited a microbrewery; the many art galleries in Pearl; or the Saturday Market. Actually, we were more than happy wandering around downtown. If you have a good feeling about a place, then chances are you'll spot interesting details. Top of my list were always going to be iconic American fire escapes, still clinging to buildings after all those movies.
That night we ate at Toro Bravo in the NE Quarter (120 NE Russell Street). The Spanish food was good, with slightly different takes on gazpacho and tortilla, always our yardsticks. I followed with chuletas (chops); my friend chose empanadas with tomato and sweet onion salad. Almost better that the food, however, was a light Albarinho to die for. My diary for the day simply said: 'Great place. Top marks'.
All day we'd been debating what time we should leave town next day, for the 48 miles south on the notorious I-5 to Salem. That's Salem OR, not MA. Famous not for witches but an imminent total eclipse of the sun. The weather forecast was good, and as many as two million people were predicted to be heading towards the path of totality, a 60-mile-wide band crossing Oregon from Lincoln City on the coast, through Salem, Madras and Baker City in the east. Two million people was a scary prospect. How many of them would choose Salem, the state capital? For days we'd been monitoring road congestion as well as weather. Our instincts were to get there as soon as possible, but the I-5 didn't look unusually heavy, and another half-day in Portland would be useful.
Next morning we tried to remain calm, looking out for tell-tale red routes on Google maps. All good. We packed up before breakfast at another Portland institution, Fullers Coffee Shop. After a short wait, we sat at a long bar table eating hash browns with eggs on top, fried, over medium. Plus drip coffee, which was insipid but free-flowing. Next to me was a lady who didn't like Trump. Once we'd established our agreement on the subject there was no holding her back. The Left Coast hates him, she told me, emphatically. But, as we were to discover over the mountains in a few days' time, not all Oregonians live in coastal metropolises. The lady explained Hillary Clinton's problem – 'People just don't like her' – and suggested a suitable replacement Democratic candidate, California Senator Kamala Harris. Watch this space.
We stepped out into the middle of a corgi event. I had never seen the like, although I have heard of similar since. (#sausagewalkLondon anyone?) Not all walkers had dogs; and not all dogs were corgis.
We bought a few provisions in case the two million eventuated in Salem and blocked access to eatery or store. Eventually and inevitably we had to hit the road: to get to grips with the unknown. The I-5 was empty; any clouds were smaller than small; and Portland had been great.