There’s nothing like a trip to the Northwest to make me realize how much of a jaded east coaster I have become. Right off the plane in Portland, our shuttle driver shocked me and Cory (the boyfriend) with his over-the-top kindness. I’m reminded that this demeanor is normal every time I head back to my homeland. Don’t get me wrong, east coasters are lovely people – some of them are my best friends – but there’s a general “edge” to the place. It’s in the air just like a low-key, light-hearted feeling is in the air of many locales in the PNW, especially Portland.
For this, and many other reasons, I hold a completely idyllic vision of Portland, OR. Although I’ve never lived there, my heart strings seem to be attached there somehow. After years of being away from the Pacific Northwest (nearing 9 years now), there’s still an attachment that no matter how much I love the place I live (and I do love Baltimore), something feels missing (I hear this a lot from the NW diaspora out here on the east coast). It might not just be Portland, but the region and culture of the northwest in general. But something makes me feel somewhat connected to PDX where each corner restaurant and food truck boasts gourmet fair, weird is normal and – our favorite – where the craft beer flows like water.
With that, I went to PDX for the dual purpose of showing Cory the novel attractions and the standard life-as-it-is-lived-by-Portlanders to entice him to see it as a future home. We did this also while making plans to hang with my resident Portland friends and friends that met up with us from San Francisco (it was a busy weekend). Also, props to my friend Jen who – knowing my purpose – was an excellent tour guide throughout the city. And true to form, we ate, we drank, we saw and we came home with digestive issues from the eating and the drinking. The one missing piece for us was the nature which is plentiful and close-by. Although we missed that piece in our short trip, our friends Kate and Ryan (the SF folks) did get a chance to spend a day in Forest Park, the country’s largest urban forest reserve – check out Kate’s blog post about the trip (you should follow her too on their endeavor to live green and on the cheap in SF!).
Of course we went to several amazing restaurants and drank some very delicious beer, but what I’m going to focus on here are the couple things that are Portland traditions to me…coffee and books.
I love coffee. And dating Cory, I’ve been introduced to coffee being the choice souvenir from my travels. Seriously, everywhere he goes, he buys coffee for himself and as gifts. Prior to meeting him, I only really had this habit when I traveled to Portland, because that is where my favorite coffee in the world exists, Stumptown Coffee. I do not miss an opportunity to pick up a couple bags of beans so that for the next couple weeks I’ll have some special Saturday morning brew. I am not great at describing flavors and “tones” you might find when wafting and sipping, but take it from a Northwest born and bred coffee snob, this shit is good.
One of my favorite Stumptown experiences happened a couple years ago. I was browsing their selection trying to decide what to bring back to DC with me and the friendly Stumptown barista offered to help which I gladly accepted. He proceeded to point out the distinctive flavors of each bean and explained the direct trade program. Then, he pointed at the Nicaraguan beans and said, “this coffee was grown by that guy over there” as he points towards the back of the store where a Nicaraguan man was doing something technical around the roaster. “Um, I’ll take that one then.” I suppose you can’t get any more direct trade than that standing on U.S. soil.
Basically that’s just a very small example of the excellent ethics and a focus on relationship-building. The coffee is quality enough in itself to keep me as a customer, but to really maintain the loyalty of this self-professed socialist, they do themselves right to keep with their “left-of-center” values. Now that they apparently have an online shop (that’s new to me, because trust me, I’ve looked in the past), I may just get myself a subscription. Although, a part of me does need to stay somewhat true to my local roaster, Zeke’s, so maybe I’ll just keep Stumptown as my special occasion coffee for now.
Mark Twain once said, “In a good bookroom you feel in some mysterious way that you are absorbing the wisdom contained in all the books through your skin, without even opening them.” I suppose I was raised to believe the same thing because bookstores were places we hung out as a family and collecting my own library of books was a goal from a young age. Which brings me to the other Portland tradition started very early in my childhood: Powell’s City of Books, the best bookstore on the planet. We have always been a family of book lovers (and none of us have moved over to e-books completely), so you might imagine that a place called a “city” of books is heaven for our literary family. And when you walk into Powell’s, you will see why. You also might never know that bookstores are an increasingly endangered species when you experience the bookstore that takes up an entire city block on the edge of the now-swanky Pearl District.
With 10 color-coded sections and 4 stories, Powell’s naturally requires a map for the uninitiated. Of course, I know exactly where the travel and politics sections are. They’re right where they were when I was in college when I would head straight to the Africa section to learn about the continent I would soon move to. You will find the used books right next to the new. Powell’s hums with humanity in a way that you don’t find many places these days. You don’t see people plugging away in front of their screens drowning out the world with their headphones. People are absorbed in the books on the shelves. Bookstores are timeless and places like Powell’s that still pack in the people remind me about why I love a good bookstore. Where screens tend to cut us off from the world, books make us more connected. That is why I make this a tradition. There isn’t a bookstore I know of in Baltimore that makes me feel as I am absorbing the wisdom of the literary works around me. I have found a few in my U.S. travels that have that affect – Malaprop’s in Asheville, Elliott Bay in Seattle – but none the size of Powell’s. Usually size means dilution, but that has never happened with Powell’s. Rather, it seems that Powell’s has excelled at building upon its diversity through its growth where you can see 20-something hipsters alongside upper-class retirees browsing the aisles simultaneously, perhaps in the beer and homebrew section (which truly impressed Cory as it was the first thing we happened upon).
Although we couldn’t stay long, I at least made my requisite book purchase (I can’t leave Powell’s without one), soaked in the knowledge and admired the humanity of a room of book lovers. I’m not sure how often I’d visit Powell’s if I lived in Portland, but just know it could be a consistent option to me brings me joy.
Since I’m not going to talk about everything, I’ll give you some highlights from the rest of the trip in photos.
McMenamins Kennedy School: Portlanders warned us of McMeniman’s food, but the beer and the atmosphere are always worth it because each McMeniman’s is as unique as the next be it a converted elementary school or a former speakeasy, they are always amazingly decorated. This one’s right down the street from Jen’s.
Voodoo Doughnuts is only something you need to do once. Now we can chalk it up as something we’ve experienced. As Anthony Bourdain devotees we’ve been known to take some of his recommendations which also includes Voodoo’s maple-bacon doughnut, so we planned a whole doughnut extravaganza with Kate and Ryan (we were not up for the second gourmet doughnut place after this, though). Well, all I have to say is we’ve tried ’em…and that is all.
Just because I’m getting a stomach ache from the doughnuts, I’m going to leave you with a nice photos from the Portland Farmer’s Market.