Armchair Traveler: Portland, Ore.

[Here’s the (delayed) second installment in my summertime series of vacation column reprints for you staycationers. This piece appeared July 20, 2007. To explain one reference below, a reader named Pennie Frank had objected in a then-current column to being called “elderly.” Well, this was funny at the time.]

Portland has no trouble staying weird

I spent last week in lovely Portland, Ore., and it’s a good thing I wasn’t there to beat the heat. While Pomona was a breezy 83 degrees, Portland was sizzling at an unseasonable 102.

Just imagine how hot 102 must feel to Oregon’s main demographic: bearded, ponytailed men. Sandals and shorts can only do so much.

Hot weather notwithstanding, Portland is a very cool place. Some notes from the Rose City:

Fare categories on the streetcars: child, adult and “honored citizen.” My parents, who drove down from Washington to make it a joint vacation with their No. 1 son, were amused at the designation. Personal to Pennie Frank: I suppose “honored citizen” is better than “elderly.”


The streetcars, a modern addition, are marvelous, ranging over much of downtown and taking you there in clean, air conditioned splendor. Unless you leave the downtown core, they’re free. Then there’s a light rail line that covers even more territory, also for free. Another leg of the system is under construction.

The idea of all this is to discourage people from driving by offering a workable alternative.

Meanwhile, the Inland Valley, which lost its streetcars circa the 1940s, is begging for a single light-rail line that may arrive, at the soonest, in seven years. I might move to Portland if I didn’t know it rains nine months out of the year.


Portland is one of the friendliest cities I’ve ever visited. Seemingly every time we looked at our map, someone stopped and asked if they could help us. Even a shaggy homeless man in a wheelchair smiled and offered directions, as if he were an official greeter. A restaurant server chatted at length about the city. A man on the streetcar suggested sights to see.

Of course, friendliness can become nosiness.

When my mom coughed once, a fellow light-rail passenger asked if she was OK and then, noting her unusual wrap-around sunglasses, asked blithely, “Is something wrong with your eyes?”

She raised her sunglasses, the better to glare with. (Unlike Ontario Mayor Paul Leon, she doesn’t have death-beam eyes.)


Portland, it’s said, has 28 microbreweries, more than any other city in America. Discouraging Portlanders from driving is probably a good policy.


Perhaps in keeping with the unofficial motto “Keep Portland Weird,” everyone in the city, it seems, has a tattoo, the stranger the better.

One woman’s bicep sported a detailed tattoo of a peacock’s feathered “eye.”

And a clerk at a gelato shop had the text of a poem of perhaps 10 lines wrapping around one of his forearms in ink. I like a man who carries his own reading material.


Speaking of reading material, Powell’s Books, said to be the world’s largest independent bookstore, was worth multiple visits, and got them. Four stories of used and new books — not to mention millions of stories within those books. It was nerdvana.


There’s no sales tax in Oregon, meaning that for anything you buy, the sticker price is exactly what you pay. I’m so used to mentally adding a dollar or two to every item as I stand in line that when I heard the actual total, it was like getting a discount.


Sights seen included the Chinese Cultural Garden, the Oregon Zoo, the arty Nob Hill district and Portlandia, which is second in size only to the Statue of Liberty among the nation’s hammered-copper statues.

No, I don’t know if Portlandia was hammered because she’d been hitting the microbreweries.


At the zoo, a display pointed out that goats aren’t indigenous to Portland and are destroying native foliage. “Should the goats stay?” an explanatory sign read. “Many believe that the goats have rights. Do plants have rights? Whose rights are more important?”

I dunno. Do plants or goats have better lawyers?


At the airport I saw a man wearing a T-shirt whose back bore this circular philosophy: “Work to Eat/Eat to Live/Live to Bike/Bike to Work.”


On my flight home, the pilot, after pointing out Lake Tahoe, announced over the intercom: “We’ll be on the ground in Burbank in about half an hour.” Up and down the rows, passengers sputtered: “Burbank? We’re going to Ontario!”

Soon a flight attendant issued a reassuring announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to Ontario, not Burbank.” A woman seated up front quipped: “Does the pilot know that?”


Upon unpacking, I found a government notice in my suitcase that my luggage had been opened and its contents searched. Do these indignities happen to plants or goats?

(David Allen writes Friday, Sunday and Wednesday, three planted goats.)

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