As we dismount in the parking lot of Mount Hood's Timberline Lodge and gaze at the still snow-draped peak that towers above us, Christian proclaims, "I'm blown away. It's like God created the world in six days, and then on the seventh, He took the best parts and built Oregon." Something of an overstatement perhaps, but nonetheless, the northwest corner of Oregon does indeed include some heavenly natural features: ocean beaches, the imposing Cascade Range, the mighty Columbia River, and the gloriously fertile Willamette Valley. All of this - and gourmet coffee too!
A Village in the Forest
As Christian and I cross the first of two rivers on our way into Portland, it's impossible not to be impressed. The huge bridges spanning the Columbia lead toward a compact downtown nestled in lush green hills to the west of the city, while Mount Hood's gleaming peak hovers in the distance to the east. To get downtown on I-5, we still have to cross the Willamette by yet another huge steel bridge. I feel completely dwarfed by these massive structures, and even the semi-trucks look like Tonka toys against the mighty girders of the Marquam Bridge.
The City of Roses is also known as the City of Bridges for very good reason. In all, Portland has 10 road bridges crossing the Willamette River as well as two that span the Columbia. Following the signs for downtown, and after doubling back a few times in the one-way system, we eventually light on Broadway and find the Hotel Vintage Plaza. We're met on the sidewalk by Jeri Riggs, the hotel manager, who gives us the rundown on her Harley Fat Boy parked by the entrance. The suspension has been lowered, and the bike is fully tricked out in custom accessories. Jeri has only been riding just over a year, yet she has clocked over 17,000 miles.
Portland's downtown is impressive. Generous sidewalks line broad streets, most of the buildings are either new or tastefully restored, and coffee houses abound. Bicycles are big in Portland, and downtown traffic includes many mountain bikers as well as motorcyclists. Both are obviously used for working commutes as well as for pleasure. Not only are there bikes on the street, but the city also has its own track, The Portland International Raceway, which hosts many motorcycle racing events, including the vintage "Sounds of the Past" and the "Battle of the Twins" series.
The first settlers in the Willamette Valley, on the site that is now Portland, were probably former trappers working for the Hudson's Bay Company out of Fort Vancouver, on the north shore of the Columbia. The city got its real start in 1843, when Boston lawyer Asa Lovejoy loaned Tennessee drifter William Overton a quarter in order to file a joint claim for a 640-acre land parcel. Overton sold his half of the claim to Portland, Maine, native Francis Pettygrove. Since Lovejoy and Pettygrove wanted to name the growing township after their hometowns, they agreed to settle it with coin tosses. Pettygrove won the best of three, and Portland it was.
Portland's early history is full of shady people. Innkeeper "Bunco" Kelly reportedly spiked the drinks of suitable young men, who were then shanghaied, delivered to waiting ships when they passed out, and indentured as crew. Another colorful character was "Sweet Mary," a madam who operated a house of ill repute on a riverboat to evade city laws and taxes.
Drunkenness was so common (workers typically drank beer because there was no fresh water) that a philanthropist, lumber baron Simon Benson, installed fresh water fountains all over the city. Most are still in use today.
Though northwest Oregon was rich in resources, trade built Portland. Its position on a navigable river system close to the ocean, sea-level connections to the east along the Columbia, and the development of agriculture, forestry and mining in the region all led to thriving commerce. Trade boomed during the California and Alaska gold rushes, especially with the demand for lumber to build the city of San Francisco, and Portland's pre-eminence within the region was secured in 1883 with the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad and the first bridge across the Willamette. The city's population increased by 500 percent between 1880 and 1900.
Voted one of America's "most livable" cities, Portland's beautiful setting and its numerous city parks create a "village in the forest" feel. It's known for its progressive politics, outdoor lifestyle and relaxed pace, although that shouldn't be confused for complacency. Portland's business environment is extremely competitive, and the city is home to many leading-edge industries. With leafy boulevards, alternative bookstores and numerous brewpubs, though, Portland is for many simply a lifestyle choice.
A City Tour
Christian and I decide that Sunday is the best day for us to tour the city: fewer trucks, less commuter traffic, and more attractions on the street, perhaps. We plot two loops: one to the west into the hills and another to the south to the community of Lake Oswego. Starting out on West Burnside Road, which feeds into Skyline Boulevard, immediately we're climbing into the city hills.
Portland's Burnside Road may be the prototypical "skid row." In the city's early days, loggers would line the steep mud roads to the river with "skids," thick wood planks or sleepers greased with animal fat, to feed logs down into the water. Most of the loggers lived in nearby flophouses, and with the inevitable saloons and bordellos cropping up to attract the less fortunate as well, these areas became the least salubrious in town. Hence, the term Skid Row (the corruption of Skid Road) became analogous with poverty and destitution. West Burnside, now Portland's busiest street, was its skid road.