Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Hip in Portland

We had a late start on the drive to Portland. I'd spent a lot of time sitting on the balcony at the Oregon Garden resort, swathed in blankets. I’d been feeling under the weather for a few days now, but a morning's rest helped and I was ready for Portland.

I was a little nervous about Portland: I’m always nervous about going to new cities, which is odd, because I’ve been to so many of them. Especially cities I’ve heard a lot about. I’d heard that Portland was hip and liberal in a freshly scrubbed, outdoorsy kind of way. I’d heard it was friendly to families, which was nice. San Francisco, on the other hand, has more dogs than children, and more families leave every year, driven out by high housing costs and a screwy kindergarten assignment system. We love living in the city, but it requires accommodations.

On the way to Portland, we took a quick detour to Oregon City. It's pretty small – about 30,000 people — but was the largest town in the Oregon Territory before it was overshadowed by Portland. It was also The End of the Oregon Trail, although the Trail’s national historic center and its fabled Wagon Ruts are in Baker City.

Oregon City's End of the Trail interpretive center looked like a rest area with a circle of giant covered wagons. Inside was a gift shop and a weird exhibit on maternity clothes on the Oregon Trail, with sketches of women busting out of their corsets. My favorite part was actually the steps leading up to the center, with the name of a famous Trail marker on each step: Independence, Platte River, Chimney Rock, Fort Laramie, etc. But the steps were grimy and neglected, and the whole place looked like a victim of funding cuts.

We sped out of Oregon City and merged onto I-205. My guidebook, which rarely steered us wrong, had marked the Aloft Hotel by the airport with a smiley face (good for kids). Plus it was cheap and right on the MAX light rail line. So I called ahead and reserved two nights.

Yeah, the Aloft was great for children, if said children were 23 years old and hyper-wired. Leaving Ron and Benny in the car, I walked in and immediately felt out of place in my Raptor Center t-shirt and Oregon Garden ball cap. The lobby looked like a Las Vegas nightclub with chairs, all flashy neon and backlit liquor bottles and cubist lounge furniture. Ron and I hauled our scruffy suitcases through the narrow halls to our room, which was comfortable enough. The only weird thing about it was the yellow window in the shower stall, which allowed a guest in the sleeping area to watch another guest take a shower. I’d love to know what focus groups prompted W Hotels to add that little feature.

The next morning we boarded a light rail train for downtown Portland. All the wonderful things that have been written about the city’s mass transit system are absolutely true. For $5 apiece we bought day passes that covered every train, bus and trolley car in the city, unlimited use. The trains and buses were neat and quiet with windows that were obviously washed on a regular basis (unlike the trains and buses in a certain city with the initials SF).

We popped out of the train into the sunshine of Pioneer Courthouse Square with its big waterfall fountain. We strolled around its pristine Pioneer Courthouse, built in 1869. I wonder if anyone realizes what a jewel this building is. We admired the antique furniture and the paintings and walked up to the cupola, which had its original windows made by pouring thick, molten glass into molds. Posted at each window were historic views of the city so even strangers like us could see how the city had changed.

We left the courthouse and strolled through the leafy streets packed with coffee shops and donut shops and pretty flowering parks. Everything looked fresh and scrubbed to our jaded San Francisco eyes, the city reminded us of a big Ann Arbor. Actually Oregon in general had a very Midwest feel to us – like Michigan with mountains. People were friendly and talkative, especially the gas station employees, who are required by law to pump our gas. Ron loved this and announced that it should be a law everywhere.

Then we visited the Oregon History Museum was south of Pioneer Courthouse Square and full of exhibits about geology, the Oregon Trail, Native American culture, and more. Then we took the light rail to the Japanese Garden, which cost nearly $10 a head but was worth every penny. Benny was given a treasure map to follow and darted around the gravel walks and wooden bridges, looking for lion dogs, pagodas, bronze cranes and buddhas with tiger cubs. Ron and I trailed behind, stopping at little streams and arbors.

We topped off the day with a visit to VooDoo Doughnuts near Portland’s Chinatown. We’d been wondering where all the Portland hipsters were — downtown was all office workers and tourists — and found them standing in a coiled line for Voodoo Dolls, a doll-shaped doughnut with chocolate frosting and a pretzel stake. Ron picked out a Captain My Captain, topped with Captain Crunch and Benny had a giant doughnut with Oreo cookie chunks and I ate a doughnut-shaped explosion of colored sprinkles.

We bought extra doughnuts for the next morning, for we were hitting the road the next day, and the Aloft Hotel was too hip for continental breakfasts, preferring a “Grab and Go” bar stocked with expensive treats. We planned to cross the Columbia River and drive up Mt. St. Helens, through the eruption-devastated landscape. I couldn't wait.

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