From Port Townsend, it’s a relatively quick drive (roughly 4 hours) to Portland. Like many famous cities, Portland is actually a “twin cities.” in this case Vancouver, Washington is the Jersey City to Portland’s NYC – but much more suburban. I was curious about a small National Historic Site in the area, Fort Vancouver, so that was my first stop.
Reconstruction of Fort Vancouver
I arrived with a few hours to go before the Fort closed for the night. Fort Vancouver has a pretty diverse history – initially it was a British trading post for fur traders. Then it served as an army barracks, spruce mill, airfield, training ground, and now a historic sight. I believe nearby grounds are still in use with the military. Notable soldiers stationed at the fort include Ulysses S Grant and George Marshall. It was considered a good assignment because it was near a reasonable-sized town, not in a threatening area, and has a good climate.
The original fort, fell into disuse and became infested with rats; it burned down (possibly arson to stop the rats), and a reconstruction sits on the site today. It encloses a relatively large area, but there wasn’t too much there, and the video in the visitor center was mediocre.
Reconstruction of Fort Vancouver
Far and away the highlight was a blacksmithing demonstration. There was a guy there who was very smart, and who had been smithing as a hobby for a while. It was very cool to watch the metal take shape – he made some nails for people and was making a compass (for drafting). He also had some interesting anecdotes: in the era when guilds reigned, people become super-specialized. You normally think of people in this time period as generalists, but in developed towns that wasn’t the case. It was the only way to be competitive, a bit like mass production with humans rather than machines. For instance, a nail maker (which, in German led to the last names Nagle/Nagler) would have been able to produce 2,000 nails every day. There was one father/son duo who specialized simply in assembling scissors (not making each blade, just putting them together!). I think this guy was a Russian immigrant and I suspect his day job was as an aerospace engineer or something. Metalworking is another one of those things I’d really like to do at some point (welding, casting, smithing), but it’s something that’s obviously difficult to indulge in when you live in an apartment!
That night I slept in a Walmart and watched Elysium at a nearby movie theater. This movie was directed by Neill Blomkamp, who made District 9, and starred Matt Damon. It was alright, but disappointing – a big missed opportunity.
Failed this test
The dream of the 90s is alive in Portland (the 1990s). People had piercings and tribal tattoos, and everybody was talking about saving the planet. Most people seemed content to be unambitious. Getting into the city, I had heard a few recommendations: check out Powell’s, Voodoo Donuts, a knot shop, Downtown & Pearl Districts. Luckily Voodoo Donuts is downtown and Powell’s straddles the line between the Downtown and Pearl Districts. When I think of Portland, I don’t think of any huge tourist sights: no Statue of Liberty or Pike’s Market, so these recommendations were useful.
My first stop was Powell’s (subtitle: “City of Books”). It’s supposedly the world’s largest physical bookstore, and it really is immense: it takes up about a city block (in NYC, a street-by-street block, not an avenue block), and it’s 3 stories high – floor-to-raised ceiling lined with books. It’s mostly used books, but the prices aren’t that great – not like a normal used book store. It was amazing to browse, but in the end I finally realized how totally Amazon has dominated the book market. Three of the books I was looking for weren’t there (a history of the Napoleonic Wars and two books about the Ardennes and the Battle of the Bulge), and most of the ‘classics’ I was looking for (Travels with Charley) were the same price, used, as Amazon’s new price. I still couldn’t resist and bought a few books, but I don’t know that it’s something great beyond being a tourist attraction. If I lived in Portland I’d still buy from Amazon.
The line at Voodoo Donuts
My next stop was a short walk away, Voodoo Donuts, which supposedly has crazy flavors of donuts like bacon & maple syrup or Captain Crunch. One look at the line, though, and I knew I wouldn’t be trying them. I walked along the waterfront instead, which is lined with bridges. Actually a number of them were drawbridges, something you don’t see in many cities. Then it was on to a farmer’s market (a pint of raspberries was $3 – a good deal).
Food truck embankment
I did some more wandering and knew I had to have lunch at a food truck – there’s many streets lined with these trucks in semi-permanent installations – they have seats and even fake lawns set up, in addition to lots of good food at cheap prices.
These things were all over the place. I don’t know what their intended purposes was, but they functioned as showers for homeless people.
In the end I felt really nervous driving in the city. I felt the same way in Seattle. I also think I angered the guys at the combined bike repair/coffeeshop (it’s a thing, no joke) by re-filling my parking ticket twice (good for 90 minutes at a time). Once I moved the van, I felt the overwhelming urge to leave the city. I simply don’t like city driving: parking is expensive and stressful to find, and there’s too much going on while driving, when you consider other cars, tons of pedestrians, bikes, etc. I’ll need to figure out another solution for San Francisco and Denver – some park outside the city and use transit to get in.
In the end, I really liked what I saw of Portland. It was a city I went into without many expectations and wasn’t all that familiar with the geography. But the parts I saw definitely felt livable, and there was a lot going on. Food trucks and bikes were far more prominent than in NYC and public transit seemed pretty good. The only downside, to me, was that I didn’t get to check out all the neighborhoods, so these impressions may be biased. There were also far more homeless than I’ve seen in any other city. I left in mid-afternoon and headed for the coast.