Fine Food and Fir Forests: Michael and Dan in Oregon
Daniel Emberley May 2016
Ten days in Oregon. Breathtaking scenery, a cool city, great food, and the nicest people in America.
Wednesday, May 18
We’d never flown Alaska Air, and were surprised an American-flagged carrier still delivers good service on time. It was interesting watching passengers go from D.C. nastiness to Oregon-friendly as we went west. By the time we landed we were exiting courteously by row – go figure. Great views of the Rockies, then cloud cover that broke over the green and yellow of eastern Oregon’s Painted Hills. Got into Portland’s airport, PDX, at 8PM and caught the courtesy van to the Holiday Inn Express Airport. It might have been early their time, but the three-hour difference had us in bed by midnight Eastern.
Thursday, May 19
Portland was a revelation. An American city that values transit, builds densely, where quality of life is as valued as home prices and views. Blocks are small enough to reward walking, and downtown compact enough to make it enjoyable. The MAX Red Line train ran us from PDX into downtown. Like our Red Line, it is experiencing rebuilding downtown, so did an interesting jog onto another line’s tracks, but got us within easy walking distance of our hotel. We dropped our bags and started exploring.
Twenty years ago, Pioneer Courthouse Square was an innovative downtown experiment. Today it is too much brick paving around a boring plaza, but they have a nice visitors’ center and bathroom tucked behind waterfalls. We checked out a food cart pod and wandered into the South Park Blocks. The city’s grid makes exploring stress free. House numbering follows quadrants, like D.C., defined by the Willamette River north-south and Burnside Avenue east-west. Numbered avenues run north-south, and while named east-west streets don’t follow any regular pattern, they were easy to learn. The Park Blocks are a slight alteration in the grid, with a green space boulevard on several downtown stretches along Park Avenue. Our goal was the Oregon Historical Society Museum. Portland has taken over several functions you’d expect to find in the state capital; we never found reason to stop in Salem. The Historical Society presents the expected geology, Native American, and European-Asian settlement of the state. They had an exhibit up on Chinese in Oregon overall and one on Portland’s Chinatown specifically, both good. The biggest industries in Oregon have traditionally been extraction: lumber, fishing, and agriculture, with manufacturing of food products and (a surprise) landscape plants. Nike, Intel, and the insurance industry keep them solvent today, but the economic connection to the land is strong.
We got lunch at a vegan cafeteria behind the museum, and it was good. We never had a bad meal in Oregon. Frequently they were inexpensive, like this one; rarely did they approach D.C. pricing, even in the best places we ate. Everywhere the ingredients were fresh and local. It seems even a McDonald’s can get a license to serve beer and wine, and these usually came from local brewers and vintners. We got a quinoa bowl, buffalo “chicken” strips, green beans, and the best veggie burger ever. Mark Hatfield Courthouse was a short walk north; we took in Tom Otterness’s beaver-lawyers gamboling across the rooftop sculpture garden. Across the street is Michael Graves’ Portland Municipal Building, which we’re not sure justifies Post-Modernism. Ray Kaskey’s golden “Portlandia” sculpture over the entrance still holds up well.
Back to the South Park Blocks, and the Portland Museum of Art. This is two similar-footprint buildings across a street from each other. One of them is by local architecture star Pietro Belluschi, but I couldn’t tell you which one. They have a respectable small-city collection of second-tier European masters, slightly better American, good Modern, and excellent Asian. They are known for their Native American and Pacific Northwest art; good, but not our favorite schools. Some good glass from the usual suspects as well as new-to-us Northwest blowers and fusers. I was pleased to see two Carlo Crivelli’s, he is one of my favorite Renaissance Venetian painters.
Portland recently opened Tillikum Crossing, a pedestrian- and transit-only bridge over the Willamette, which allowed them to regularize their trolleys. Now there is a circle which goes around the neighborhoods just outside of downtown on both sides of the river, and a north-south line. Very easy to understand, and an efficient way for a tourist to cover vast tracts of the city for $5/day. The trolley picked us up behind the Art Museum and took us north to Jameson Park. This was on our list for their Kenny Scharf totem poles (eh), but won us over with a cool fountain spouting out of a rock wall into a boundary-free basin, letting us wade directly from the plaza into the pool. Fun. We shopped our way south through the Pearl District, once an edgy neighborhood but now like New York’s SoHo, with more cool local retailers and fewer national chains. Bullseye Glass, the people who supply the glass we use in our work, runs a gallery in the Pearl; their show gave us ideas for combining decal and silkscreen techniques that we hope to use in the studio. Made in Portland is a cooperative gallery of cool locally made stuff, ceramics and leather and jams and prints and teas. Penzey’s Spices sells locally and internationally sourced spice and flavor blends.
We checked into our hotel, McMennamins Crystal. This is conveniently located just north of Burnside, between downtown and the Pearl District. McMennamins is a chain of brew pubs, music halls, and sometimes hotels in historic properties around Portland. The Crystal is named after the Crystal Ballroom, a rock club they own down the block. Each room is themed around a band and one of their signature songs. We sadly got Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up”, could have been worse, could have been Merle Haggard’s “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.” The room was clean, efficient, and inexpensive. It had a sink, but we shared bathrooms with many other rooms on our floor, similar to the Ace Hotel in Seattle. The building started in 1910 as a garage/auto parts store with residences above it. After WWII a Japanese family freed from an internment camp took it over, and ran it as a boarding house. As the neighborhood declined the garage became a nightclub, and eventually the Club Baths Portland, center of the area’s gay liberation movement. Between McMennamins’ ownership and the Whole Foods across the street, this neighborhood has gentrified.
We had time before dinner, so hopped on the other trolley, the circle line. South through downtown and Portland State University, over Tillikum Crossing to the Science Museum, up Grand Avenue and back across the Willamette to Union Station and 5th Street NW. Then the trolley driver stopped cold, announcing that she was taking the trolley out of service. At least we know that poor transit service is not just a D.C. thing. On the plus side, this gave us a chance to walk through Tanner Springs Park, then over to the next stop where we picked up a trolley on the north-south line back to McMennamins. In an alley next to the Mark-Spencer Hotel are several cool shops, including Boxer Ramen. Sake, cider, okonomiyaki tater tots, sesame greens, and two types of pork ramen soup. Delicious, and filling. We worked dinner off across the street at Powell’s City of Books, the world’s largest bookstore. Technically, it’s three floors, but Waltham people will remember the analogy of Moe Black’s, it’s a bunch of buildings loosely connected on different levels. They mix used and new books, so it’s possible to get both new releases and older books on the same topic on the same shelf.
Friday, May 20
Zeus Café, the restaurant at McMennamins, is famous for their porkstrami hash, pork corned as if it were beef. That paired nicely with a salmon benedict and Assam tea. Walked east through Pearl and Chinatown to Lan Su Chinese Garden. This fills a block, and may be better than Staten Island’s Chinese Garden. Several pavilions surround ponds, waterfalls, and mosaic paving made of river stones on edge. Moon gates and shaped windows open designed perspectives into various parts of the garden.
Got lunch at the Pearl District branch of Little Big Burger, a Portland chain. The burger was small, but incredibly flavorful. Would not wait in line for it, but we didn’t have to. We caught the MAX train from downtown through Goose Hollow to Washington Park, one of the largest urban parks in the U.S. More of a forest, actually. The station is deep enough that you have to come up by elevator, right in front of the World Forestry Center. A live advertisement for the lumber industry, this would be great if it was free. Unfortunately, it costs $9/head to let your kids get indoctrinated into the wisdom of timber extraction. A long walk through Hoyt Arboretum and the Park’s auto roads brought us to the Japanese Garden. Up a very steep hill, they have created different styles of Japanese parks. Would have been more impressive if we had not seen Tokyo and Kyoto, but a good introduction to the forms in America. The International Rose Test Garden is across the street, acres of roses on a slope dropping down to a view of downtown. We left the park by the Sacajawea statue and headed north.
Tourist literature pointed us to “Antiques on NW 23rd Avenue”, a steep but short walk downhill from Washington Park. Cool apartment buildings deal in different ways with the slope. 23rd Avenue may have once been interesting shopping, but sadly is now the standard collection of Chico’s, Pottery Barn, and Williams Sonoma for the West Hills crowd (think Chevy Chase, but on steeper real estate). It redeemed itself on the north end, at Salt & Straw. One of the world’s best ice cream stores, it turns Oregon dairy into amazing flavor combinations. We got the strawberry-balsamic-vinegar-pepper, almond-brittle-salt-ganache, lavender honey, and woodbitters-lovage-jelly. Worth the line. Just kitty-corner is Blue Star Donut, Michael got the Grand Marnier Crème Brulee, which comes with the liquer in its own injector for you to do the honors. The north-south trolley ends here, and provided a convenient seat back to the hotel.
Michael scouted neighborhood menus, and I relaxed in McMennamins’ saltwater soaking pool. Decadent dreams of Club Bath history floated through my head. Michael’s pick for dinner was Lardo, a great sandwich place, with a brilliant fried porchetta and arugula sandwich, paired with smoked potato salad and a kale Caesar. We walked east to the Skidmore Fountain, sort of the Dupont Fountain of Portland, through Ankeny Arcade where the Saturday Market is held, passed Voodoo Donut, and walked south along the river through Tom McCall Park. This latter was a bit of a disappointment: great views of the bridges, and a good open grass expanse for crowds, but sort of boring without them. Back to the hotel via Target, conveniently a few blocks south of McMennamins, to get sundries for our road trip.
Saturday, May 21
We got breakfast at another of the restaurants Michael had spotted the night before. Cheryl’s is an up-market diner: an amazing sausage-and-egg sandwich, cheesy hash browns, and eggs Sardou (eggs benedict with artichoke). Michael picked up our rental car down the block, I checked us out of the hotel, and we were off on the road-trip portion of our trip. We’d planned a route south on the Coast, through the redwood forests in California, and back up the Rogue/Umpqua/Willamette River Valleys back to Portland. There is a lot of Oregon east of the Cascades, but we are not their market: hunting, fishing, and snowboarding in Bend, then miles of ranch and desert to the Idaho border. We’d decided to restrict ourselves to the wine-making, artisan-bread-baking part of the state.
First stop was Cannon Beach, an easy drive west of Portland. The Coast Range prevents continuous access between the Willamette and the Pacific. Most beach towns are correlated with a mountain pass and an inland city. In the north of Oregon, along the Columbia River, is one of the easiest crossings; when Portlanders talk about “seeing the Coast”, they are usually referring to Cannon Beach, Manzanita, or Lincoln City. Oregon brags that all of its beaches are state-owned, so there is no development. That is not true; the state owns the beach between the high and low tide lines. Which means there are plenty of hotels, beach houses, and restaurants just in from the beach. So, not built up with boardwalks like we do in Atlantic City or Ocean City, but plenty of places to eat, shop, and stay, especially in the towns. We pulled in for an early lunch at Mo’s, a seafood chain, for fried oysters, bay shrimp salad, and slumgullion (clam chowder topped with more bay shrimp). The town of Cannon Beach is like a less crowded Rehoboth, but the beach is outstanding. Many of Oregon’s beaches have standing rocks; here it is Haystack Rock, a massive dome that hosts seabirds and seals and provides a focus for photos. The weather was chilly, but the skies clear. We did not have the beach to ourselves, but close to, with just enough people running dogs, flying kites, and hanging out to make it feel right.
We drove down the coast to the Tillamook Cheese Factory. That bland Tillamook cheddar you get in Safeway or CVS? This is where it comes from. The flats and marshes here are great for raising cattle. A cooperative of dairy farmers realized they could not easily sell their milk inland, but they could turn it into cheese and ice cream, and train that to Eastern markets. Today we get the cheese, but not the ice cream. There are overlooks where you can see the cheese being made and packaged, but most people (there were tons) were here for giant ice cream cones and sundaes. A big outlet store attached, but we couldn’t see giving out Tillamook cheese as a souvenir.
South of Tillamook we got off the Coast Highway, which runs inland, to follow the Three Capes Scenic Loop. This is a series of roads that hug the coast, usually on high cliffs. The land is covered in rain forest, but cool, not tropical. So, lots of deciduous and fir trees, but covered with lichens, Spanish Moss, and fog. You’re frequently in a fir tree tunnel, but then there’s a break where you can see the ocean. Interesting and otherworldly. Since you’re up high, the vistas over the Pacific are fantastic.
We unintentionally bypassed Lincoln City, a collection of towns that seem to be the down-market Ocean City of this stretch of coast, but stopped into their Outlet Mall for a bathroom break. In Pacific City we got detoured through and around a bike race. There is so little room between the beaches and the Coast Range that roads are forced to multitask; more than once we found ourselves driving next to or through events or even parades. In Depoe Bay we walked and enjoyed the rocks and natural arches. Newport has one of the few Holiday Inn Expresses on the Coast, so we’d made it our stop for the night. We got salmon burgers and chowder at the South Beach Fish Market. The Oregon Coast Aquarium was closed, but we walked through their gardens and around the outdoor exhibits. We thought we might get kicked out, but everything seemed very low key and laid back. No one interrupted our walk through the grounds.
Sunday, May 22
We continued enjoying the Coast south. We crossed Yaquina Bay on one of Conde McCullough’s amazing bridges. In the 1930’s McCullough replaced eleven ferries on Oregon’s coast with brilliantly engineered, Art Deco masterpiece bridges. Like if the Chrysler Building was a bridge. Each one is different, and each a delight to travel. We got our morning walk at Ona Beach, then south of Yachats pulled into Cape Perpetua State Park to the Devil’s Churn. This is an amazing inlet that the waves crash into with great strength, throwing fountains of water up onto the rocks. The hike down is through more deciduous rain forest. We learned about the plants that were new to us at Siuslaw National Forest Visitors Center; I was particularly curious to identify a giant Queen Anne’s Lace we kept passing that turned out to be Cow’s Parsnip. It’s a whole different world out here. We looked north to Heceta Head Lighthouse from the Oregon Dunes, the Sahara if ringed by a fir forest.
Lunch in Reedsport, where the unassuming Ruthie’s Espresso Bar serves excellent California Beef and Italian Salami subs with sides of baked beans. We decided to forego paying for the elevator down to the sea lion cave, as they should have been at sea this time of year, and continued over Coos Bay on another McCullough bridge. Coos Bay was an important packing and lumber town, but now one of the few dead industrial places we saw in Oregon. We toyed with driving into the club at Bandon, supposedly the closest thing you can get to a real Scottish golf course, but realized we wouldn’t be able to appreciate it without playing, and we’d left our clubs at home <smile>. Port Orford made us stop to admire their sea rocks. Gold Beach has a local bookstore with an excellent selection on Oregon topics and decent coffee. The Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor preserved more amazing beaches, and here we were so far south and away from people that we really did have them to ourselves.
South of Brookings something about the land changes, and we entered the Redwood Forest. These are the largest growth of redwood trees in the country. At the California border there was what looked like a toll booth but is a California State Agricultural Checkpoint. They made a point of searching the car when Michael confessed to be transporting an orange he had taken from the Newport Holiday Inn (but let him keep the orange). Crescent City, where Redwoods National Park has its headquarters, was a disappointment. The “city” has experienced tsunamis several times that have wiped it out. The concrete structures and park on the waterfront make sense in light of that history, but it is no beauty spot. The Park itself is an interesting combination of earlier California State parks and National Park bits cobbled together. The Coast Highway down to Klamath is cool, with the trees towering over the road.
Frequently on this stretch we saw piles of oyster shells at abandoned canneries, trees being moved to and stored at lumber mills, and mountains of sawdust waiting to be made into something else. And have you ever heard Michael and Dan enthuse so much about nature? This day we saw a red squirrel, a rabbit, elk, and tons of gulls and seabirds. Enough already. The Holiday Inn Express Klamath helped put all that in perspective; it is a casino run by the Yurok Tribe. Their restaurant serves salmon caught in their own rivers, and decent buffalo wings. The casino is a low-key room of penny slots, where we put in $45 and took out $47.50. The combination of low pressure, lack of smoke, and winning made this the happiest casino experience of our career: thank you, Yuroks!
Monday, May 23
We were disappointed that, unlike in Sequoia, there isn’t an easy way to pull off and walk amongst the redwood trees. We backtracked up the Coast Highway and inland into Oregon. We took a switchback forest road up to Oregon Caves National Monument. These are the only marble caves in the U.S., with beautiful mountain woods above them. We skipped the caves proper, but enjoyed walking through the 1930’s CCC-camp inn, restaurant, and info center. We’d expected boring Park Service food, but the two women in the café make everything from scratch, and the flavor in our burger, Reuben, and onion rings proved it. The buildings were a series of experiments: could government labor build quality facilities? Would people come visit? How can you prefabricate as much as possible, and avoid having to bring skilled craftsmen to the site? They did innovative and amazing things with homeosote and pre-cut wood, in a look that was part lumber camp, and part Eleanor Roosevelt’s ValKill on the Hudson River. Oregon Caves is where the Viewmaster was invented and first marketed, so we had fun commemorating one of my favorite toys.
Sadly the highway and GPS skipped the Caveman Bridge in Grants Pass, and we took I-5 into Medford to our friends Kari and Al Minnick. Kari is the artist who taught us to make glass in Silver Spring; they moved to Medford last year. We got the house tour, dropped our bags, and headed out to Central Point, a town just north, home of the Triangle of Sin. In a single parking lot you have:
- Rogue Creamery, maker of some of the best cheese and ice cream in the state
- Lillie Belle Farms Handmade Chocolates, and
- Ledger David Winery
We sampled and shopped some of each. Rounding out our agribusiness tour of the Roque Valley, we stopped into the Harry and David store. Royal Riviera pears, Fruit of the Month Club, corporate gift baskets, Moose Munch? This is where they all come from. It’s like seeing the catalog come to life.
Al drove us all into Jacksonville. This is an 1851 mining town that was reborn as a tourist attraction a few decades back. Cool restored homes and shops. A lot of them closed due to the Monday afternoon, but interesting to see. A lush mountain setting, like a more-accessible Crested Butte, one of our favorite towns in Colorado.
Dinner at Elements, a tapas restaurant that served an excellent claret from local vineyard Roxy Ann. After five nights in hotels, it was great to be back in a bed in a real home again.
Tuesday, May 24
We caught up with Al and Kari over breakfast, then they took us down I-5 to Ashland. Home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland has a college, culture, and pretentions. It is to Medford as Bethesda is to Potomac. We decided Medford should rename itself “North Ashland” (We sent our thank you note to the Minnicks using that town name, let’s see if the Post Office delivers it. We could start a trend!) Unfortunately, tickets to the Shakespeare Festival are very expensive. Michael was not up for tragic plays, we decided we could see theater in New York, and we could only experience Oregon cuisine on this trip, so reserved our dollars for our dinners. Downtown Ashland is charming. We had a delicious lunch at Brickroom (cider, Polish sausage, “filthy” fries, a Cuban sandwich) on a terrace overlooking Ashland Creek. We hiked lunch off in Lithia Park. This expanse of forest reaches right into the town center, and was landscaped by John McLaren, famous for San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Downtown had great shopping, then we drove to the Dagoba Organic Chocolate factory in the south part of town. Now a part of Hershey (with Scharffenberger, who knew?), a big shop with a window onto the factory floor. Smells great! We drove out via their Railroad District of shops and restaurants.
Back to Medford, and tastings at Two Hawks and Roxy Ann Wineries. Roxy Ann is known for their claret, but we were equally taken with their fish-shaped pitchers that gurgle when you pour, in a rainbow of colors. We took home one in a metallic grey. Final treat with the Minnicks was celebrating Al’s birthday at Larks Restaurant, in a retro-restored hotel in Medford. Dungeness crab dip, spinach crepe, meat loaf, short rib pastrami with parsnip chips, and chocolate pudding cake a la mode.
Wednesday, May 25
Al had to be at the airport at an ungodly hour to fly to D.C., but we got to hang out and say goodbye to Kari this morning. Thanks, guys, for giving us the reason to visit! We hopped on Interstate 5, up through the river valleys, and were in Eugene by 11. Home to the University of Oregon, there were Duck mascots and the colors green and yellow everywhere. 5th Street Public Market is their stab at D.C.’s Union Market. More local retail, several sit down restaurants, and a basement supermarket that acts like a food court. We got a wonderful salad, banh mi, and pear cider for lunch. They were celebrating local farms, so Michael hung out with some live chickens. We tried chocolate from Euphoria Chocolate Company, but they were not as good as we got at other chocolate vendors in the state.
The University of Oregon’s campus is okay. Not hard to get around or understand, but no outstanding architecture, either, a sea of acceptable brick buildings. Their new John E. Jaqua Center for Student Athletes is an interesting glass cube set off-kilter with the grid; not sure what I resent more, the deliberate flaunting of the campus texture or spending all that money on sports. The University Museum of Natural History has a good collection of Native American, fossil, and geologic displays. The Schnitzer Museum of Art’s collection is appropriate for a major university, with an overview of Western art and excellent Asian exhibits. They have a five-foot Chinese jade pavilion that we had never seen before. Their Japanese work is especially rich in 20th-Century work, lots of great Deco and post-WWII prints, fabrics, and ceramics. Also a large and well-presented temporary exhibit on EC Comics, a predecessor to MAD Magazine. The Schnitzer is known for its work by Pacific Northwest artists.
My co-worker Aaron had suggested the Cascades Raptor Center. We weren’t really sure what this was, but we had time, so headed out to see. It’s both a hospital for birds-who-eat-other-birds, and a retirement home/zoo for those that cannot be restored to the wild. We were not ready for how great this place is. The hospital area is off limits, but the Center uses the birds in residence to teach people the dangers that raptors face, mainly from us. Cages are large, and allow visitors to get close to the animals. They do a fantastic job at presenting each bird’s story. You care that this one lost its ability to fly by colliding with a construction site, and another cannot be set free because it was born in captivity, thinks humans are its friends, and landed on unknowing people who freaked out and tried to have it put down.
Aaron and I work together at Jones and Boer Architects. He moved to Eugene last year when his wife Allison entered the linguistics program at the University. We caught up at King Estate Winery, in the hills southwest of the city. The winery is acres of vineyards, lavender, and poppies flowing into gardens near a pseudo-Tuscan building that houses a tasting room and award-winning restaurant. One of the best meals we had, a truly high bar on this trip: pinot gris and chardonnay, salad with salmon, crab cakes, mushroom ravioli, crème brulee, lemon pound cake, and peach-riesling sorbet. We drove back over the mountains and took I-5 north through the Willamette to Albany.
The Willamette Valley is an area worth seeing on its own. We barely did it justice, and missed most of its beauty due to night driving. Potential places to visit follow this report; if you’re there, don’t skip this area. We did manage glimpses of orchards, vineyards, and the farms where landscape plants grow. Those rolls of grass you see being installed, along with young trees and shrubs to create “instant garden”? The Valley’s elevations and climates allow them to be grown here for the entire country. Cool to see the grass being harvested in strips.
Thursday, May 26
Albany is supposed to have interesting neighborhoods of Victorian architecture, but we figured we’ve seen Cleveland Park, and headed straight up I-5 to the Portland suburb of Milwaukie. This is home to Bob’s Red Mill, purveyor of funky grains, flours, and flax seed across America. The store is jammed with old people, many of them buying said flax seed in ten-pound bags. Who knew this many people needed help with their digestion? Inside the store is a cafeteria serving granola, quinoa, and spelt gruels. As regular mail-order consumers of Bob’s we did not notice any price breaks, but did stock up on locally grown hazelnuts.
Just east of Portland is Troutdale, once home to the Multnomah County Poor Farm. McMennamins has turned this into a winery/brewery/restaurant/guest house; we had an early lunch of charcuterie, chicken sandwich, chopped salad, and Poor House Pinot Gris. Before social security and welfare payments, most cities had a variation of a “poor farm”, a place the police would send the old and street people to be housed and fed from fields they worked. It sounds barbaric, but perhaps a better alternative than letting the mentally disabled starve and freeze on our city streets? Not sure how to quantify the irony of our enjoying a great lunch in the place that would once have housed Portland’s unfortunate, but at least the farm is still kept as such, and its produce still consumed on site.
After the Coast, the most important site to see in Oregon is the drive along the Columbia River. Several times glacier ice impounded a giant body of water, Lake Missoula, in western Montana. When the ice broke, the Lake would come pounding down the Columbia River. Kept into that path by the Coast Range, the Columbia Gorge got deeper and wider with each flood. Eventually the Gorge was 4,000 feet below the land on either side. The contributing streams stayed at the old height, forming high waterfalls along the cliff edge. The Gorge and rapids were a major barrier for Lewis and Clark and the Oregon Trail pioneers. It is incredibly beautiful. The first landscaped auto route ever designed followed the cliffs on the Oregon side, beginning in the early 1900’s. Historic Columbia Highway is now paralleled by I-84, both sharing the same narrow gorge.
We took the Historic Highway from Troutdale to Vista House at Crown Point. Nominally a memorial to the pioneers, Vista House is a Deco gem on a promontory that allows views up and down the river. It also serves as an orientation to the scenic drive east, upriver. There are eight Oregon State Parks/waterfalls en route to the Bonneville Dam. We stopped at Latourell Falls, an easy walk from the car pullout. That fooled us, when we got to Bridal Veil Falls we found a twenty-minute downhill hike to the view, which of course had to be hiked up again. Beautiful, and worth it, but on our return to the car we began to warn people who looked less fit to skip this one. Multnomah Falls is the most famous. It's an easy walk from the parking area, with well-maintained trails to other falls, and a bridge across a chasm where the falls break. We hiked up to the bridge, and got our energy back with berry crumble and iced tea in the Lodge. We got to see a BNSF freight train going past, and saw Horsetail Falls from the car. I’d planned for us to drive at least to Bonneville and the Dam and fish ladder there. When we got to where the Historic Highway and I-84 were forced together by the narrowness of the Gorge, though, we chickened out and took the freeway back into town.
A few days back, when we took our circular trolley run around Portland, we were intrigued by Grand Avenue. We drove to the headquarters of Rejuvenation Hardware there. This is one of the best suppliers of lighting and hardware in the country, especially for historic interiors. We’d used them before, but walking into their massive showroom was like seeing the catalog explode in a warehouse. We bought a lamp and water pitcher, knowing we would not have to pay sales tax (thank you, Oregon!)
We continued north to Alberta Street, an artsy neighborhood in NE Portland. And not a moment too soon. That night we had reservations at Caravan, the only tiny house hotel in the country. You may have seen the program Tiny Houses on HGTV. Caravan is eight of these parked around a fire pit. It’s leased out by the night so people can experience tiny-house-living before they invest in building one. We’d rented The Tandem; and check-in was strictly from 4-5:30. That seemed odd until we got there: they have no reservation desk, but the agent was sitting at the pit waiting for us. She gave us a quick orientation, made sure we knew how to use the key codes and that we had their emergency number, and left us to explore. This was fun. The Tandem is 150 square feet, with a shower-bathroom, kitchenette, living-dining space, and sleeping loft. We were not confident we would be able to safely use the ladder from the loft at night, but no fear, the sofa converted into a queen bed. A little tricky to maneuver the bags and furniture, and we would design the space differently if we lived there, but it definitely works, and was a cool thing to try.
Alberta Street was funkier than we expected – like Williamsburg in Brooklyn before it got too pricey. Tons of good murals. Because it was the Last Thursday of the month, artists and performers set up spaces along the street, and most of the stores and restaurants were open late. Brilliant bubble blowers. We got dinner at Akasara Ramen (amazing spinach with soy, cranberries, and pepitas), and shopped our way down. We missed the Salt and Straw branch, but found lots of stores specializing in crafts or materials for craftspeople. Porcelain, a place that prints custom stickers, an artist who designs playing cards for cities around the world with custom drawings for each card. Great fiber and sewing stores, most offering classes. A branch of local chain Collage, the best paper goods/scrapbooking store I’ve ever been in: the selection was so good I was paralyzed, and ended up not buying a thing. Overhearing the Millenials around us was like dialogue from a bad Hollywood movie or New Yorker story; one fears Alberta Street’s funky days are numbered. Fun now, though.
We retreated to Caravans, where I made a fire and s’mores with the residents of a neighboring tiny house. We’d feared noise, being between several bars, but ended up sleeping like logs, to awaken to song birds in the morning.
Friday, May 27
We drove across the Columbia to Vancouver, Washington, to see Fort Vancouver. This was the Hudson Bay Company’s major trading post on the river, and the reason Britain claimed the Oregon Territory right down to the California border. John Quincy Adams led the negotiations, and used German-to-American emigre John Jacob Astor’s establishment of Astoria downstream as a reason for it to belong to the U.S. In the end, of course, they compromised by running the existing border line due west, so the Brits got Vancouver Island and British Columbia, and we got Washington and Oregon. It was sneaky of Adams, because the Bay Company had bought Astoria shortly after it was founded, and in reality Hudson’s Bay ran the territory from Fort Vancouver for decades, until just before the Civil War.
The Fort eventually became a U.S. Army post, and tons of generals in our history were stationed here, mostly to pursue wars subduing the natives. In World War I Woodrow Wilson turned it into a lumber yard to break the IWW’s strike against the timber industry. In World War II Henry Kaiser used it as the core of VanPort, his Liberty-ship-building yard. That’s important to us personally, as Kaiser’s in-house benefits company morphed into our health insurer, Kaiser Permanente.
The Fort was an active military installation until 2011. It is now run by the National Park Service. Most of the former base housing is private residences, but the parade grounds and a recreation of the original log fort is interpreted by NPS. We saw a pre-Memorial Day parade of elementary school kids while we were there; we skirted their groups and laughed when the re-enactors in the forge joined me in complaining about the school kids.
We drove back downtown and shopped at Boys Fort, an iconic Portland mens’ clothing store. Then over to Tasty ‘N Alder, a restaurant whose service staff are managed by my niece Laura. Laura and her husband Eddie met us there. We’d missed their wedding on Cannon Beach last year; it was great to meet Eddie and reconnect with Laura. The place serves “American tapas”, we shared schnitzel, cabbage, bi bim bap, Korean chicken, beef, and a salmon platter with amazing pickles. Impressive watching Laura remember our orders. Honestly, every pickled thing we had in Oregon was worthwhile, but the salmon platter exceeded expectations.
Laura had suggested we check out the view from the Pittock Mansion, so we headed there after lunch. Henry Pittock was owner of the Oregonian, the major newspaper in the state. He bought a hilltop with views of downtown and the mountains, and built a Beaux Arts palace on top. A little palace, certainly one manageable by an extended family, but one of the largest residences on the West Coast. Now owned by the city, and well restored and interpreted. Eclectic interiors, I especially liked the music room with the silver-leaf ceiling. The grounds are well maintained, and continue to offer the breathtaking view of greater Portland and the river. To our delight, a hummingbird hovered at eye level from the viewing terrace, flew up, darted down, and returned to sight over and over.
While we were there we got a call from Eddie. He manages one of the top restaurants in the city, Ox, back on Grand Avenue. He was able to “put us on the list”, which means instead of an uncertain wait for a possibly impossible table we walked in, gave our name, and were escorted to a window view. Ox deserves its reputation, it was one of the best meals we’ve ever eaten: foie gras with strawberries, oxtail with frozen peas, chilled seafood three ways (Mexican shrimp, octopus with paprika croutons, gravlax with cucumber). I got the local pinot noir, and Michael an iced mint mate (see our Buenos Aires trip report for that one). In what seems to be a Portland tradition the waitress was both proficient and friendly; we discovered we’d both attended University of Chicago, two decades apart. Eddie and the server competed to give us dessert, we ordered one, but got both a strawberry buckle and a hazelnut torte with pistachio ice cream and coffee meringue. Thanks, guys!
We were back at the Holiday Inn Express PDX that night. Michael returned the car while I packed. Next morning we were on Alaska Air to National and in a cab to Dupont by 5PM.
We are certainly coming back to Oregon. The climate and topography mix up mountains, deserts, oceans, and forests in a way we’ve seen nowhere else. The fog rising from the Cascades or Coast Range is as beautiful as in the Great Smokeys, and the food (need it be said) infinitely superior, and inexpensive. The people are intelligent and nice, eager to help and proud of the place they call home. The ethos is so laid back that at times it made my Puritan-work-ethic skin crawl, but everything seems to get done, everyone waited on, and people get where they need to without stress or concern. There is definitely a Portland culture of flamboyant beards, unwashed skin, and drugged out stupor, but no one is forcing you to join them – indeed, when they see you barreling down the sidewalk, they are most likely to smile and get out of your way. Probably waiting to see how long it takes me to chill out, buy a down vest, and trade in my umbrella for a hoodie. I’ll take bets on that, but it might be a fun bet to lose.
Places We Missed and Should Go See:
Portland: Architectural Heritage Center, Portland Saturday Market, Portland Farmers Market, Rebuilding Center, Kidd Toy Museum, Reed College’s Cooley Memorial Art Gallery, Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden, Crater Lake winery tour on OR47 or OR99W
Salem: Oregon State Capitol, Hallie Ford Art Museum, Reed Opera House, Bush Pasture Park & House, Historic Deepwood Estate, Gilbert House Childrens Museum, Schreiner’s Iris Garden
Silverton: Oregon Garden, Silver Falls State Park
St. Benedict: Mount Angel Abbey, Alvar Aalto, 1970
Albany: Albany Historic Districts
Forest Grove: SakeOne, sake brewery tours
Oregon City: Municipal Elevator, upper promenade for view of Willamette Falls, Bonneville Dam Visitors Center, Exit 40 fm I-84 Mount Hood drive, Timberline Lodge
Elsie: Camp 18 Restaurant