I walked into Powell’s City of Books for the first time, turned left, and there it was proudly displayed on a table of Portland wares and other travel books: This is Portland, 2nd ed. But, allow me to back up and tell you the whole story from the beginning . . .
First, Powell’s is in Portland. It’s the largest bookstore in North America and I never did make it through the whole maze. Like a faithful poet, I mostly got lost in poetry section before finding myself in front of some used vintage copies of Elie Wiesel’s The Accident in red and cream hues and decided this is what I needed to walk out with, along with a magnet near the checkout that encouraged readers to “Calm the Hell Down.” Seemed right.
I’ve had a few good friends tell me that I’d love Portland. They weren’t wrong. Armed with this handy, almost pocket-size travel guide, I flew to Portland this past March to attend AWP (largest writer’s conference in North America), see the sites, and spend some time with my PNW sweetheart who met me there for a few days. Together, he and I attempted to find out just how accurately the city is portrayed in This is Portland, and just how useful this little guide would be in helping us navigate.
So I know what you all want to know: how much does it rain? Glad you asked. As the guide states, “It doesn’t rain that much.” Seriously. It’s just a drizzle. And you can often see sun breaks in the clouds. Personally, I was a big fan of the moist (non-humid!) air. Oddly enough, as the book also states, “When you start talking about visiting or moving to Portland, people are going to warn you about the rain.” So true—I’ve been told all about the PNW grey and rain. And now that I’ve been there, I have to admit that the book is more accurate than all of those over-dramatized accounts I’d heard about the weather!
But enough on the weather. This book is right about so many other things. For instance, yes, Portland has a decent and evenly distributed (and rather understated) number of strip clubs. No, I did not go into one.
It definitely boasts its nickname “City of Roses” everywhere—on street signs, sidewalks, and souvenirs. I have no idea if there are more roses in Portland than elsewhere, but there is a city rose garden (that wasn’t yet in bloom when I arrived). Having come at the end of March, I did get to see everything else bloom though. The city was a bower of flowers of all varieties. Gorgeous.
Bikes, Beers, & Beards? Yep. This is Portland very simply states that Portland has lots of these and it does. You can rent bikes all over the city to ride around and drop off somewhere. There’s plenty of quality beer to be had anywhere—and it’s cheap. But, honestly, I didn’t notice the beards until I walked into an outdoorsy clothing store downtown and stood at the checkout to buy a quality raincoat. I suddenly noticed that the guy ringing up my merchandise had a beautiful beard. Yes, beautiful. It was dark, wavy, and perfectly groomed.
The beard was so beautiful and distracting, I never really noticed his face.
I can also verify the authors’ claims concerning fancy junk food and pizza. Let’s start with the junk food.
Portlanders are food artists, and this also applies to their “junk” food. Of course, it’s so fancy that you can’t really call it junk food anymore. It’s more like an experience. (I still regret not buying that first unicorn cookie I saw at a cake store in Hawthorne). What the book doesn’t really highlight is the donuts. Voodoo Donuts and Blue Star Donuts are the places to get the fanciest junk food ever. Their donuts come in all colors, sprinkles, toppings, sizes, and shapes. Best of all, they are light and fluffy.
One night, a few writers and I made our way to a Voodoo location and I remember standing in front of the rotating glass case full of artisan donut creations; the display was mesmerizing. After staring to long, I selected the grape ape donut, a local favorite. It was grapey, purple, flakey, and special, and I felt special eating it. “Needless to say,” says the This is Portland author, “I have gained weight in Portland and it has been delicious.” Yeah, I think maybe I did to.
But I wasn’t alone. I had a good friend, Reese, in tow and we made no qualms about trying the food cart food as well as the local pizza. Speaking of which, both were everywhere! “Portland is not famous for its pizza,” says the author, “but people in Portland treat pizza like it’s the fifth food group.” Not wrong. There were pizza joints everywhere! And the best part? Variety. Reese and I decided to try the pizza at Slice right across from Powell’s where I, lactose intolerant, had options. I sprung for the “New Maps Out of Hell” featuring creamy basil cashew spread, seasoned soy curls, spinach, roasted garlic, and red peppers. How many different ways can you exclaim ‘wow!’? At only $4 for a generous slice, even more wow! Other slices went by creative names like “True Romance,” “Steve Caballero,” and “D-Beat.” Not to be outshined by the slice Reese chose: “It’s Always Sunny in Portland.” Simply put, do not go to Portland without trying a few unique slices of pizza.Lots of smart cooks in the PNW are opting to open food carts instead of restaurants—no overhead, few employees, and a limited menu. Nice.
Portland’s food cart culture is for real. The book claims that “. . . there are over-eight-hundred registered food carts in Multnomah County.” No doubt. Also, “[c]art indecision can be a real problem.” No joke. I passed on so many cart options clearly suffering from there-might-be-something-better-later syndrome. I did, however, get tacos on Hawthorne at a sweet little cart called Tight Tacos. My recommendation? The cauliflower taco.
But there’s more! Coffee, Cars, Crafting . . . the Portland way.
“Portland has a shitload of coffee,” boast the authors, “It seems like every few months a new coffee place opens. And each is more intense than the last.” All I know is that I had options, and each option was quality and inexpensive. You won’t pay a fortune for good coffee in Portland. I brought home a bag of Fox and Hen coffee from Uncommon Coffee on Hawthorne, my favorite coffee spot. Their food options are also to die for. I was so enamored I bought the mug and t-shirt too.
Cars. You don’t need one. Take a bike or the bus. But, if you get a car, the This is Portland authors are right: you might forget you own it and leave it parked for weeks or months. Best part? It will still be right where you left it and intact. “Where else,” asks the author when speaking of his own Portland car experience, “could you leave a car on the street for two months and still own a car? How was it not stolen? How was it not impounded? How did all of those windows remain unsmashed? How did roving bands of teenagers not think to key it? How did I not get a single ticket?” I don’t know. I live elsewhere and my local community should take notes.
Moving on . . .
While in Portland, I stumbled upon a huge used crafting items store. I mean, I didn’t even know used crafting item stores existed! But there it was. I walked in and shuffled through piles of well-organized miscellaneous items selling for everything from mere pennies to hundreds of dollars. I couldn’t believe it! Portland takes both crafting and recycling/repurposing so seriously. Love it. I bought eight over-sized scrabble titles to spell out P-O-R-T-L-A-N-D. I plan to make a Christmas ornament to commemorate my trip.
A trip for which I will not forget the chickens. Yes, chickens. “If you have a backyard and you don’t keep chickens, many will suspect you of being a Republican.” I can’t verify this. But I will say that there are a lot of free-range chickens in a lot of backyards.
The best part about this book is that it’s accurate and anecdotal. I feel like Portland was well-represented in the stories the authors share, and equally well-represented about the items they chose to highlight. In attempting to experience Portland in a week, the guide provided me with more than just info and points of interest to explore. While I never got to the arcades or cheap movie theatres (both of which are everywhere), I did get to the Japanese Gardens and Multnomah Falls, and I made sure Reese and I saw a band perform in the Mississippi District. All were a great time. Concerning the gardens, the book claims that they are “widely regarded as the most authentic Japanese garden(s) outside of Japan.” Not only are the gardens breathtaking, but so is the architecture and the city view. Well worth the $10-$20 you’ll spend.
And I bought three CDs at the concert. Need I say more? Well, maybe I should explain how it is that I can still use CDs . . . but that would take away the rest of the space I need in this review to love on the book.
Love wins. The cover is splashy pastels with a fun bubbly-script text about 6x8 and travels well. I carried it in my purse. It’s also not wordy. Instead of providing a traveler with extensive information on the items mentioned, or even where to find certain attractions, it devotes space to art and stories. In other words, there are drawings. The whole thing is an art piece and aesthetically pleasing. And the stories make you feel like you are stepping into Portland culture, not just being a tourist. I was doing Portland stuff like a Portlander. (Okay, maybe I can’t verify that statement, but I felt less like a tourist than usual in a new place).
The most interesting story in the book—to me—was the story of the swifts. As the book claims “they are very small birds that like to nest in chimneys all over the West Coast.” Apparently, during the “last week of September” says the book, “thousands of them set up camp in the chimney of the Chapman Elementary School in NW Portland.” During that one week, Portlanders “pack picnic dinners and arrive” at the school in the evenings “with lawn chairs and blankets” to watch the swifts arrive and enter the chimney in “a giant, swirling swarm” after spending all day “hunting insects” for food. According to the authors, this is the way that Portlanders celebrate the last days of summer. It’s quite an event.
Naturally, being there in March, I was never going to see this event. But Reese did take me to the home of one of his closest friends where I also met his wife and daughters. Over dinner, Phalyn and Tenley told me all about these well-attended evening summer celebrations and all about the swifts.
Finally, I know you want to know if Portland is weird. Well, I have to agree with the authors here . . . it’s just not that weird anymore. It’s ‘woke,’ it’s ‘beered,’ but it’s not that weird.
Next time you travel to Portland, grab this book. For real. You can walk right into Powell’s and get it for under $10 (no sales tax!), then walk out and say you’ve already done something it suggests while walking over to Slice to grab a piece of pizza, sit in the sun (yes, there’s lots of it) at an outdoor table, and go through this guide in about a half hour while making decisions about what you will do next. This book keeps you aware of Portland culture and gives you enough options to allow for sightseeing or eating flexibility. You could literally get up from your table, put your plate in the designated dirty plate area, and walk any direction until you find something to discover from this book.
Do it. I dare you.
And have a good time.
Review by Kimberly Ann Priest