My first memory of Portland: taking the light rail downtown from the airport and sitting by a woman eating a huge raw carrot. Second thought: this metropolis sitting on the banks of the Willamette River appears to be a collection of bridges that everyone knows by name. I start by doing the tourist thing: there’s Portlandia, the massive copper statue above the entrance to the Portland Building, and Powell’s Books, a looming four story structure where I can find anything from Simon and Garfunkel piano music to travel book accessories. I also find some unusual sites that endeavor to, with apologies to Austin, “Keep Portland Weird.”
I check into the Hawthorne Hostel, a big eco-conscious house. Located in the southeast quadrant of the city, it features toilets that fill with rainwater collected from the roof and signs in the bathrooms requesting that you limit your shower to five minutes. I’m all for saving the planet, but I found the single hand towel for communal use in the bathroom a bit unsanitary.
On the Portland Underground Tours, I learn about the city’s unsavory history and the fate of unsuspecting new arrivals who would wake up on a ship after a night of drunken revelry to an announcement of “next stop – Shanghai.” I hear how Governor Tom McCall staged a Woodstock-like concert to divert attention from a conservative political conference and go into old tunnels under the buildings downtown.
For dinner, I check out Pok Pok, a kitschy, tiki tin hut type of restaurant shack that serves up some of the best Thai street food I’ve had. I tried the Pok Pok special - roasted game hen, green papaya salad, sticky rice and dipping sauces. A nice surprise is that there is no sales tax on food in Portland even if I eat in a restaurant.
Dessert time: I cross the street and head to Salt and Straw, Portland’s main ice cream destination. As I would expect in the Pacific Northwest, their coffee ice cream is hard to beat. Around Halloween the seasonal specialty is a citrus flavored treat called Witches Brew, which tasted distinctly like the Izzy’s jello salad ice cream at the Minnesota State Fair. (Yes, I tried more than one flavor of ice cream…you only live once after all.)
Minneapolis is frequently compared to Portland, but in trying with difficulty to find a place to watch the World Series, I realize there is one area where we definitely have the advantage – Portland only has one major sports team (the NBA’s Trailblazers), as opposed to all four major sports in the Twin Cities. A haven of sports bars this city is not.
During a visit to the Pittock Mansion, I learn that Henry Pittock, longtime publisher of The Oregonian and paper mill magnate, completed his French Renaissance style masterpiece in 1914 but then died five years later, leaving only a short window to enjoy a commanding view of downtown Portland (and, on a clear day, Mount Hood).
I wrap up my visit by spending a weekend afternoon at the Portland Saturday Market, where I can choose from products ranging from purses made with 35mm film to fire starters. Nearby, there is a woman with a plastic flower in her silver hair dancing to the beat of Latin music as if trying to take in the flavor of this year round destination where anything goes.