When we deplaned and stepped out of the gate, I felt like I had been hurled 30 years back in time. The green patterned carpet and smell of aged wood-meets-old library books meets stuffy-musty old house that needs windows opened was the first thing to make an impression, and reminded me of Laguardia in the 70s. It felt weird. I’m down with weird.
Welcome to Portland.
It was a long day, having travelled from SFO directly from a full day of work that included a 5pm deadline and 7pm flight sandwiched between San Francisco traffic, and I was pretty tired and anxious to get to the hotel. We found our way to the Lyft pickup area, which was absolutely crammed. It was a Friday night, so I wasn’t that surprised, really. Our driver spoke little as we made the 40–45 minute trek to our downtown hotel. The only real traffic we saw was just outside the airport, which never came to a dead stop, but was stop and go for about 10 minutes.
Portland Hotel — fit for a (little) King
We reserved a Junior King Suite through Expedia at the Benson Hotel, an old 1913 hotel named after a pioneer lumberman. We approached the city and quickly crossed the Steel Bridge, and through a seedy part of town complete with strip joints and ladies of the night. I expected our driver to continue on at least 10 more minutes through city streets before stopping. Alas, just a block beyond the neon-light flashing, windowless ‘Mary’s club’, (hey hey!) we pulled up to a break in a scaffold, behind which hid the front entrance of our historic hotel. It felt like we were staying somewhere on 42nd street, back when 42nd street was 42nd street. I was a little grossed out.
Through revolving doors we crossed through the portal from “ugh” to “ahhh!” Austrian crystal chandeliers and marble floors were complemented by hardwood details everywhere. We were greeted right away, and got a recommendation for where to get good coffee (priorities), and a map (because Goran loves instruction books). The elevator requires your room key to ‘make it go’. That idiotically took us a few seconds to figure out once the doors closed and the button wouldn’t stay lit, and we sat in place. We stayed on the 6th floor, room 620. It was at the end of the hall, and as soon as we opened the door I smelled new carpet smell — yay! The room was comfy, the view was good (although I would not have complained to have been on a higher floor with a view of the sunset — because I’m obsessed with sunsets). Outside the window was the low hum of a weirdly wild city street bustling on a Friday night. The windows were old but substantial, and good enough to keep the sound to a hushed lullaby, and we both slept like babies.
The hotel also came with a lobby restaurant, which was surprisingly reasonable. Since breakfast is the most important meal of the day (!) we are usually faced with finding somewhere that can meet our ‘lofty’ requirements. We had breakfast there every day of our stay for less than $40 (for both of us). To clarify, by “breakfast”, I don’t mean a stale bagel and bad coffee. I mean awesome coffee, steak, eggs and potatoes with toast and fresh strawberry compote. Hell yes.
There were a couple of nicer hotels we were choosing from, and as stupid as this might sound, we chose the Benson because it offered free wifi. All the hotels were charging (the Benson did too, if you wanted a faster/secure line, but we went wild and facebooked on the free insecure line). We just kind of felt that if someone is paying high dollar a night, they shouldn’t be nickel and dimed over internet. (Take heed, business students.)
That said, if your style is ‘hoity toity suite without bugs or moldy shower’, then the Benson is well worth the cost. The nights of $39/night Days, Red Roof, Comfort and Knights Inns that I spent in days gone by reluctantly and out of necessity are over, and I am fortunate in that I can feed my hotel snobbishness with hoity toity grade rooms now.
Before I go into more of the beautiful/cool/neat stuff we experienced in Portland, I need to spend a minute to write about some ugliness. We started day one of our tour of Portland exploring downtown. This may have not been the best place to introduce ourselves to Portland. We considered at one time the possibility of moving there. Tech seemed to be growing, real estate was reasonable, it seemed to have the pulse of a big city and yet a small town. It was walkable. It had lots of qualities we wanted in a home base, from what we know. Granted, some of what we knew was from watching Grimm. What we didn’t know, what Grimm didn’t show, and what slammed us directly in the face as soon as we stepped out of our hotel was the overwhelming number of homeless people. They were strewn across the sidewalks like bloodied bodies on a battlefield.
It was tragic.
I can’t remember seeing so many homeless people since NYC in the late 80s. As much as we enjoyed our first day sightseeing, neither of us could help but to feel a real heaviness, and the bitter taste of the harsh reality of these people’s day to day lives. I couldn’t help but feel guilty on the way back to our swanky hotel, passing person after person lying on soiled blankets i rows under the shade next to buildings, tucked in filthy doorways, in bushes on the dirt ground, on park benches surrounded by muck. I felt very much un-Buddhist for having spent so much money on my own personal comfort in the center of so much need.
At one point in the afternoon, as we sat in a bar/restaurant eating a late lunch, we saw a man sifting through the garbage can on the street outside our window. While we contemplated going out to offer a meal, I realized he was pulling out beer cans, and combining them into an alcoholic slurry in his main cup. The help he needed wasn’t a hamburger.
The more time we spent in Portland, the more apparent it became that the people living on the streets suffered homelessness because of addiction, mental illness, or both. Both of these ailments have affected my life in major ways, and facing either always puts me in the zone I am most uncomfortable in. I am no longer brave, or confident, or sure when I face someone with addiction or mental illness. I become like a child, unsure of how to act or react. If I linger too long in that place I find myself falling into a darkness, and so I made sure not to linger for very long.
It did leave me feeling like I needed to do something, though. This is an opportunity to show compassion. The “how” is a story yet to be written. Stay tuned while I figure that one out. Here are a few gofundmes that seem like a good place to start. Blankets, Panties, Care packages from kids.
Portland, Land of Bridges and A Billion Food Carts
We started out on day one with the intention of exploring our way over to the Lan Su Chinese garden, and then we planned to make our way along the river and back to the hotel. Naturally it didn’t quite happen that way, partially because we were not following a plan but rather meandering as stuff captured our interest, and mostly because I am cosmically drawn to the water.
We weaved our way through the city streets and eventually found ourselves walking along the Willamette river, up to one of the many bridges that crossed from one side to the other, to what looked like a festival of food carts, contained in a gated area under a bridge. It looked to hold hundreds of vendors, with foods from all parts of the world. We had a lot of adventuring planned, so I wasn’t feeling very daring about actually eating any food cart food, but I did snap a photo of the ‘entrance’, full of people who were indulging. Even with my wide angle lens, I was nowhere near able to capture the depth and breadth of this foody soiree. If you’re into that kind of thing, you’ll definitely want to check these out. There’s even a map.
Portland’s Lan Su Chinese garden
This was a total urban escape. Admission was $10 per person, and absolutely worth it. I would have enjoyed less company (we did go on a Saturday, so I think many Portlanders also joined us). There were lots of great photo opportunities here for the patient.
Be sure to get your Chinese Fortune stick! Unfortunately, I think my fortune ended up in the washing machine when we returned home.
This classical Chinese garden took up only a square city block, but we spent several hours here, slowly enjoying each area. There was a guided tour, which we missed having arrived in the afternoon, but we are the type that prefer exploring in our own anyway.
Now in old age, I know the value of silence,
The world’s affairs no longer stir my heart.
Turning to myself, I have no greater plan,
All I can do is return to the forest of old.
Wind from the pine trees blows my sash undone,
The moon shines through the hills; I pluck the qin.
You ask me why the world must rise and fall,
Fishermen sing on the steep banks of the river.
- Wang Wei
Info: Visiting Portland Japanese Garden & Portland International Rose Test Garden
Located literally across the street from each other, it makes sense to do both in one day. The earlier you get there, the better. The Rose garden opens at 7:30am, so I’d start there (especially because of the early morning light, for you photographers). The Japanese garden opened at 10am, which was when we arrived.
Getting there — Before we reached Portland, we considered getting tickets to the ‘hop on hop off’ bus that made stops all around this area, but instead opted for catching a Lyft. It only cost about $10 with tip each way for both of us, while the hop on hop off was about $30 per person. Taking Lyft also meant we got to meet locals we would otherwise not have met. The ride from our downtown hotel was no more than 15 minutes.
Coming back was a bit more difficult, since we were pretty pooped from all the walking (My Fitbit said we walked about 8 miles that day). After the Rose garden we climbed the steps back to the front of the Japanese garden, hoping to get a Lyft from the main road between them. Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible to move the marker and have them pick us up at the ticket booth. (You’re locked into specific pickup locations, just like at the airport). We could see on the map where the closest point was, but weren’t sure how to get there. We went back down the stairs toward the Rose Garden, and asked at the info booth, but the guide wasn’t sure where we could catch it, either.
It turns out, if you use the path on the Rose Garden side of the road (down the stairs, alongside the info booth) and walk towards the Holocaust memorial, you will walk along a somewhat winding road (SW Rose Garden Way). There were a few people walking that direction also, which was good, because otherwise it felt somewhat residential and I wouldn’t have felt as confident we were on the right path. After a few minutes, you’ll reach an intersection with a sidewalk that forms a triangle (SW Park Pl), where there is a bus stop. This is also where to pick up your Lyft. Since we were there anyway, and since I have always had an intense interest (and related degree) in the Holocaust, we walked through the memorial before ordering the ride. Apparently, there is also a free shuttle to the Max station, but if you’re looking for door to door, do Lyft (Absolutely don’t drive! The parking lot is small, and a madhouse.)
Portland Japanese Garden
My husband has wanted to go here for years, and was truly worth the wait. Not only is it peaceful and romantic, but it’s also a photographer’s paradise! Get there early, or buy tickets before you hop across the street to the Rose Garden, because the line gets pretty long in the afternoon. We did go on a Sunday, so my guess is it’s one of the more busy days/times.
For photographers — When we arrived the sky was gray and I was very excited for that. Before my first shot we had a mix of blue sky and clouds, which was also nice, but short-lived. For most of the rest of the day we had harsh full-sun. The light in the Japanese garden is mostly shaded, so even in harsh light most shots will be okay. Since it’s late July, we missed almost all of the color. There were only faint traces of azalea flowers. My guess is early-mid June would be better for spring color. I’m sure it would also be gorgeous in the fall, though I don’t know when peak season is.
As one who loved poetry
- Masaoaka Shiki
Portland International Rose Test Garden
The Rose garden entrance is literally across the street from the Japanese garden. We made our journey there after the Japanese garden, and spent some time being hot (and possibly a bit cranky).
For photographers—I would advise going here first in the early morning, because full sun is great for roses, but not for photographing them! We didn’t get here until mid-afternoon and blaring sun, but it so happens we brought along a complimentary umbrella from our hotel (I guess it rains in Portland or something), and my dedicated assistant was kind enough to shade my subjects for me. (Am I fortunate, or what?!) Without it, it’s unlikely I would have gotten many/any good shots.
I probably mentioned weird a time or two in this article. The vibe in Portland is definitely weird. Every Lyft ride included weird coffeehouse music, and songs I’ve never heard (most I’d never care to hear again). At first the vibe was just weird, but by the end I was digging the weirdness.
I think because one of the things that always bothered me when living in NYC was homelessness, because of the impact of addiction on a family member or two, and similarly the impact of mental illness on a family member or two, the homeless situation struck a nerve when I faced it in Portland, and I couldn’t shake it. Like a blister on my foot the ache of the suffering travelled with me throughout the trip, sometimes hurting a little less, other times unbearable.
Do you love beer? Go have beer here. We don’t love beer, so we didn’t have beer.
Having spent just a little over four days in Portland, I think we got to see a lot of the city, and a tip of the iceberg of the hiking/wildernesses. If we go back to stay in the city, I’d opt to stay in the Uptown area, which was more historical, suburban-ish, quaint and probably walking distance to Washington park (not to mention the ice cream). If we went back for hiking/outdoorsy stuff, I’d probably stay around Trillium lake, which I think is more central to that kind of stuff.
Random Portland Tidbits
There’s a rep around having good coffee (or at least coffee snobbery), but I guess my taste buds are tuned more for Peet’s, which I preferred to the local varieties. I’m glad we stopped to experience the ambiance, though. I may have overtly expressed some teenage jubilance (aka gasp-squee) at seeing a turntable and Dr Dre vinyl.
Something about the smell of a bookstore mixed with coffee entrances me, I have no idea what a Kindle is, and I know with a possessed certainty that I need more of these dust collectors in my life. Thanks to the fleck of gray matter that refused to abandon my obsession with technology, I only walked out with one.
This Pod Sculpture was pretty cool, and I didn’t care that I looked total dorky tourist here (hey, Portland is weird anyway). We also took turns moving the pendulum in the middle, because yes it moves, so yes of course we had to.
Portland has a lot of bikes, and a few bike lanes. I’m not sure I’d call it bike friendly, though. There were a lot of busy city streets without bike lanes, though I remember seeing some random streets with bike lanes. Granted I wasn’t paying that much attention. I’m thinking the 10,000 people who joined the World Naked Bike Ride know where the best routes are.
Oh, bubblers. Neat story behind these. They were originally built by Simon Benson who was a philanthropist (and namesake of our hotel), who supposedly built them to encourage workers to drink water instead of alcohol at lunchtime, because at the time it was cheaper to drink whiskey than water. More info about them here.