Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Five Surprises About Portland, Oregon

A typical day in Portland, according to Portlandia
(still from the show)
I was in Portland, Oregon for a week.  It was really pleasant.  I didn't meet a single negative person, at least non-junkie persons.  I caught a single fish, a smallmouth bass,  on the Columbia River. And I got to talk and listen a lot to the various environmental goings-on as they relate to the crappy water that comes off of parking lots and heads to streams.   Here's what was most surprising - things you won't read on tourism websites or watch on Portlandia.

1.  People are outstanding.  Even the panhandlers are polite. If you say something snarky or "east coast funny," the standard response is, "Man, I'm sorry you're dealing with all that negativity.  I try not to dwell in that space.  I truly hope your day gets better, friend."   People aren't overly touchy-feely, as it seems that the entire town is composed of introverts.  But they are really nice people.  The meanest person I met in six days was a really high junkie who just yelled "Heeeeeyyyyyyyy!" at me when I walked past her hangout, in the shadow of a strip club.  For a reality check, I live in Baltimore, where panhandlers will attack you with bricks if you look at them the wrong way or appear to be racist.  But back to the story - in Portland, Oregon, everyone will let you borrow a cigarette.  Everyone will give you directions.  Everyone will tell you that they hope your day gets better, since they can tell you're from the east coast, which they equate with eternal unhappiness.

2.  You already know it has great transit.  Did you know the traffic sucks, though?  Portland has approximately 93 major highway bridges into downtown.  No matter what time of day it is, these bridges (the ones that hold cars) are full of stand-still traffic.   Why?  Where are all these Subarus going?  Why are so many people driving to work at 1pm? Whoops...Eastern time....WAIT...why are all these people driving to work at 10am PACIFIC TIME? Anyway, just take the train.  You can buy a 7-day pass for all transit for $26!  Can you imagine this, east coasters?  $26 is what you  pay in one way tolls between New Jersey and New York City!  Despite the extreme cheapness (i.e. well subsidized) and utility (in several routes, trains come every FOUR minutes!) of Portland transit, ridership is still pretty light, and auto traffic is still pretty bad.

3.  Portland is a train town.  A quick ride into town shows you endless junctions, shop yards, timber yards, cattle yards, and yards for anything else you can put on a train track.   It makes a lot of sense, since Portland is a critical secondary port to Seattle.  It just hadn't occurred to me that freight rail is so important.

4.  Portland is not as close to the great outdoors as one might think.  Many Portland visitor guides sport pictures of Mount Hood (possibly the most scary ass mountain I have ever seen).  Problem is, it's a 90 minute drive just to the lower trails.   Other PR pieces show guys catching fish in the "local" areas of the Columbia River (2-3 hours from Portland) and Deschutes River (3-4 hours from Portland).  That's not local, in east coast terms.  Also unhelpful is that most of the fishing guides are booked up at least a year in advance.  

Now, my high school buddy Rob and I did tour around the Port of Portland, an area where decent outdoor access exists within perhaps a 40 minute drive of downtown.  The scenery of that trip was a bit spoiled by the fact that the area was, I'm told, heavily utilized by the Green River Killer.   In seven days, I didn't meet a Portlandian who was an angler, hunter, or paddler.   And despite the hundreds of tourists and visitors I interacted with, I only met one person who intended to go outdoors during their week in town - he had booked a two hour rafting trip three hours from town.    I tend to think that Portland could use some outdoor access planning and PR.

5.  Portlandians care about where food comes from...but without the east coast attitude you'd get at a locavore bistro in Atlanta, DC, or NYC.  From the absolutely ridiculous burgers and fresh fruit smoothies at Burgerville, to the well-sourced and explained Chinese fare from Seres, it's clear that people care about food.   My friend Rob told me that Oregon state subsidies aggressively target farms in Oregon, Washington, and northern California to make sure the freshest food stays local.    Again, though, Portlandians don't want to hit anyone over the head with it.  They're proud of where their food comes from - and they should be.   It was all amazing...and all without lectures about the industrio-military food production industry complex.

6.  Okay, one more.  The coffee.  Now, beer is amazing in Portland.  Or I should say "beer can be amazing in Portland."  Many Portlandians drink really, really bad beer, which is a shame because some amazing breweries are in town.  Amazing local beers are indeed available on tap at every bar (even hotel bars), but nobody really seems to care all that much.  So, let's call it a wash on the beer culture.

But the coffee.  Oh, the coffee.  Like the beer, or like any town, there's McDonalds.  And there's Denny's.  So I'm sure if you want a cup of coffee that tastes like it was brewed through a sock, you can still get that.  But unlike beer, Portland's coffee status quo was high and consistent everywhere.  Baristas in the hotel lobbies.  High end espresso inside the convention center.   I had awesome coffee every day - coffee that in most cases was roasted locally.   One of the two only establishments in Portland where I saw a line was indeed the famous Stumptown Coffee Roasters.   Oh, the coffee.

There's a lot to see in Portland.  Start with some of these ideas, and you'll be way ahead!  Just don't harsh anybody's mellow.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Useful Burden

Setters Gneiss.  Photo: University of Delaware
The third evening after a red eye return flight to the east coast finds me moving boulders, Setters Gneiss and Loch Raven Schist boulders to be precise, out of a failed section of rock wall.  Thoughts swirl in the deep inhaling moments between when I drop a boulder, what old grizzled contractors call "one man stone," and then I walk uphill to kick another loose from the site of its collapse into my walkway.  Burdens are appropriated and shoulder-borne, and then burdens are shed.  The once-in-500-years storm that rolled through last night left an impressive toll of damage in its wake - its thirteen inches of rain being more than enough to saturate my terraced back yard and force a blow out of my stone wall.  The work is fine.   Burdens are fine.

Setters gneiss is a fine rock.  It is a wonderful shade of brown, and when hit squarely, it cleaves along right angles.  Setters gneiss has been overlooked for centuries because of what usually lies below it - bright, unblemished white marble, which is simply a more pure quartzite than the gneiss.  This makes setters gneiss a good material for a very different reason - it is in the way of something more valuable, and thus people, namely quarry owners, are quite willing to part with it under generous terms.  To those who do not bother themselves with selecting materials for the home, garden, or business, this reality might put it much in the same class as the Loch Raven Schist, also a common stone.  But they are not the same.

Mica schist similar to Loch Raven Schist.
Photo:  Vermont Geological Survey
Loch Raven schist is a bullshit rock.  It's fucking heavy, dense as hell, and it crumbles when struck.  It falls apart when exposed to ice.  It flakes apart when exposed to sun.   Because it's so weak, it's a hazard for local drinking water wells and aquifers, the subterranean cracks in the rock letting sediment seep into clean, cold water.  On first sight, it doesn't look that much different from Setters Gneiss, especially when iron-dulled in shallow soil, but it's worthless when compared to the gneiss.  You should be paid to haul it away and dispose of it.  Problem is, you might not know what it is until you've moved down the road with your "free" boulders.  Then you'll have the rock, and you'll shoulder it.  You'll take that burden because, well, you ended up with it.  But in my case, there's no pretending that the burden is useful, as the boulders fissure sheets of mica in my hand, crumbling into an entirely different shape by the time I walk from the failed rock wall to my "working pile" of stone, plus leaving a trail of rock waste that I later have to shovel. Good riddance.

Two nights ago, one of the first honest friends I had in my life, the first person I could ever talk to about being scared or being alone, walked onto a train track, sat down on the ties, and bowed his head.  Minutes later, a  250 ton BNSF diesel pulled north around that bend, and that was it.   The whole situation is shrouded in confusion, as might be expected.  His friends, who are largely my friends, are mourning.  They are terrified.  I am terrified.   The existence of a burden -any burden-  so huge that a man will refuse to carry it, and instead submit himself to the physics of an oncoming freight train, seems impossible.   And it seems like such a burden would be useless, with the impossibility of bearing it a simple result of its dynamic, black roots...always shedding more waste, always changing shape, always impacting life on the outside as a way of justifying its own existence.  "I must exist - look at the damage I have done. Look at others foolishly try to encircle me, to eviscerate me."   Like a 20 ton pile of fractured Loch Raven Schist boulders in a driveway, where they mysteriously appeared one day, the inability to trace the exact origin of this burden does nothing to cancel out its existence.  It's there and must be faced.   In that moment, sometimes a radical and awful decision is made.  That was the case two nights ago, and while my friend's burden is no more, neither is he.  As loyal and as true as a person as there could be.

I shoulder the gneiss boulders because I have to; for the burdens I shoulder are mine; they define me.   I have learned which burdens, which stones, have purpose and which only exercise my paranoia.   Over the years I've gained the perspective I needed to dump the latter, like those worthless Loch Raven Schist boulders, into sinkholes, groundhog burrows, and other places where they won't any longer remain my burden.   The pile of useful boulders grows, and my burdens themselves sometimes become the solutions for other problems, much like the pieces of my failed stone wall.     But I am troubled that the darkness is still out there, beyond where I bury the schist boulders in disgust.   I am troubled that it found another friend, and that I had no idea such a burden was upon him.

Rest in peace, brother.

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