Monday, August 25, 2008

A Week in Portland and Thereabouts

Saturday 8/9 I arrived in Portland (around 2 pm following a two-leg airplane trip and, before that, a middle-of-the-night airport shuttle van ride from my apartment to La Guardia) to be picked up by Nate and Kyle. The rest of the day was spent chitchatting, marveling at the still-not-very-furnished nature of Nate's apartment, and shopping for camping food. Dinner & beers that I don't remember very specifically were consumed at the Bridgeport Ale House.

Sunday 8/10 we left for Mount St. Helens, which lies a couple of hours north of Portland in southern Washington state. (recreational park map, here.) During the day we stopped at a couple of visitor centers to the west and northwest of the volcano and hiked a short-ish trail around what are called "hummocks," hill-sized pieces of inside-the-volcano rock that have been about ten miles outside the cone since 1980.

Johnston Ridge is the main viewpoint for the business side of the mountain. (During the eruption, gas had built up and blown out the north face of the mountain, leveling a whole bunch of forest with a huge lateral explosion.) We had some partly cloudy weather, but eventually the crater came into mostly full view. It's worth looking at before and after photos of the mountain (here, bottom of the page, or here) to get a sense of the extent of the explosion.

It's a pretty neat landscape around the mountain, with soft and sharply eroded ashy soil and varying amounts of wildflowers, scrub, and small trees grown back.

On the hummocks trail.
We camped at a site somewhat further away, one of those car-camping spots with handsome stands of trees and firewood for sale and a bunch of kids-these-days and their damn roller-shoes. So it wasn't the deep wilderness, but it was plenty adequate for cooking dinner (pasta and sausage, plus sweet potatoes baked in the campfire, which were excellent) and making s'mores and sleeping in a tent.

Monday 8/11 was highlighted by a walk through nearby Ape Cave. (Disclaimer: cave contains no apes. Naming rationale given here.) Ape Cave is a two-thousand-year-old lava tunnel to the south of St. Helens, offering a remarkably long passage with high ceilings, often upwards of twenty or thirty feet.

A feature of Ape Cave called "the meatball." No one knows why.
Jack and Nate in Ape Cave.
A later hike took us through a small patch of forest where lava had cooled around tree trunks, leaving ground dotted with perfectly round pits of trunk-sized diameter.

In the afternoon and evening we drove back to Portland by way of the Columbia River Gorge, stopping to look at several of the waterfalls along the old highway there. I forget the name of the waterfall pictured at right (click for larger image), but check out the patterns made by the green lichen on the rock face and the basalt itself.

If you want to really put a fine point on the difference between Connecticut and Oregon, by the way, you might compare what you can see in each state along I-84. Because the answer to one is "extraordinarily majestic river valley with sharp cliffs and waterfalls," and the answer to the other is "Hartford."

Tuesday 8/12 Nate began his workweek, so I switched into solitary city sightseeing mode in the afternoons. After breakfast on Hawthorne Ave. (lemon ricotta pancakes and the inevitable latte) I bused into downtown to buy a stack of used books at Powell's for fall reading. I will enthuse about the actual books as appropriate when I actually get around to reading them; Powell's, in the meantime, is itself a pretty great place to wander around for a while. I wandered down the waterfront and then over to the art museum, which has an impressively large postwar collection for a museum this size. An exhibit of glasswork by the German-Australian Klaus Moje was the highlight.

Inexplicable public art, plus Powell's.

Kyle described how ugly she finds the bridges in Portland, and how difficult it really is to make an ugly bridge in the first place, since design follows the structural imperatives so closely. As time went along I disagreed with her more and more; I think the city bridges are pretty neat-looking, in fact, and come by an honest industrial look. Below, the Hawthorne Bridge; above, the other one near the waterfront park (I don't remember its name).

Nate and I had dinner at nearby Pok Pok, for their two signature dishes, the Kai Yaang and Khao Man Som Tam. Without food reviewing chops I'll just lean on the word "delectable" and fondly recall as well the damn refreshing lychee-based mixed drink I had. Later that evening we watched the new Futurama direct-to-DVD movie, which is pretty funny if you're already a fan of Futurama. I'm just happy when I can do nerd things with Nate again.

Portland has municipally maintained electric car plug-inneries.
Wednesday 8/13 was phenomenally clear and lovely, which was a particularly good thing since I'd planned to hike up the trail to Council Crest, west of downtown. (Walking hilly city trails reminds me of Pittsburgh, which is pleasant in and of itself.) From Council Crest you have a bang-up view if the weather's right of the main mountains in the extended vicinity: Hood (which I'd gotten to gawk at from above during my plane's landing pattern on Saturday), Adams, St. Helens, and the further-off Rainier partly behind St. Helens. There's a fifth to the south, Jefferson, but I didn't know to look for it and I didn't notice it. (Maybe it was behind trees?) Anyway, the big four were pretty spectacular, rising up individually and way larger than their surrounding landscape, expressing a seeming force of being: it reminds you why people are so apt to assign spiritual import to natural features.

Mount Hood.
That evening Nate and I took in a Portland Beavers ballgame, which actually turned out to be a double-header of seven-inning games, against the Fresno Grizzlies. When we arrived (shortly before 7, though the first game had, unadvertised, been pushed to a 6:00 start) the Beavers were knocking around the opposing pitcher, who we eventually learned was Victor Santos, who you may recall as a member of the memorably depressing 2006 Pittsburgh Pirates. The crowd was the minor-league midweek standard size, which is to say pretty small. Small ball is always fun, though.

Thursday 8/14 was the day I borrowed Nate's car and drove out to the coast, jamming what should have been a two-day trip into a morning and afternoon. It's fun just to drive again, in a way, at least when the landscape is so striking. Nate had CDs of the complete Sibelius symphonies (Osmo Vänskä, cond.) in his car, so I had some pretty sweet tunes to groove along to.

View Larger Map

The Columbia River near Longview offers some great views: I love the majestic utilitarian bridges, and the signs of logging industry and agriculture add their own aesthetic appeal as well.
From a highway scenic viewpoint pullover.
Astoria, OR, is where Lewis and Clark ended their journey (turned around, rather), but I'll admit my draw to the place had more to do with my favoritism toward Astoria, Queens. Correspondingly I made sure when the opportunity struck to buy a latte on 37th Street. Astoria, OR, is a great place, though, with piers and seals and a hillside town and a particularly large and handsome utilitarian bridge reaching across the sound to Washington (I do love me a good Astoria bridge). The tourist presence is muted in Astoria.
Espresso shack on 37th St., Astoria, OR.
Seals and boats.

At the top of the town's hill there is a spectacular view and also the Astoria Column, a 1920s landmark decorated with a ribboning series of frescoes depicting its settlement by the (non-native) Americans. I really like this place. I was reminded after getting back to Connecticut that Astoria, OR, is where The Goonies was set and filmed, too.

Don't make me choose between Astorias! I'm glad I lingered here for a while.

One last furtive photo of the Astoria-Megler Bridge as seen from a stoplight.

Seaside is a more typical beachside tourist spot, with a nice long stretch of sandy beach. So I got to dip my feet in the Pacific for a little while, at least (figured, at left).

I also had a corn dog and played a game of pinball at one of the arcades there.

I want to know this guy's story: early middle age, dressed in white-collar attire (perhaps even including shoes; who knows?), wandering on his own knee-high in the Pacific at one in the afternoon on a Thursday. Last straw at the office?

One of many scenic views of coastal Oregon.
The coast continues to be scenic but I beat it pretty quickly down to Tillamook, where there is a popular dairy factory.

I bought a double-scoop ice cream cone (vanilla, marionberry pie) and watched the workers at the cheese conveyor belt for a while. The cheese itself arrives in the observable room on said conveyor belt already in large blocks, so you're not watching cheese being made so much as watching it being cut into smaller pieces and then packaged. My first thought was "hey, neat," although this passed fairly quickly into "thank Christ I don't have this job." Even without thinking about the fact that you're being watched by a bunch of tourists.

Fiberglass cows at the Tillamook County Creamery Association.
State Route 6 cuts through the Cascades. Belting through it with the windows down and blasting Harmonielehre on the stereo is probably bad for energy consumption but, whatever, I walk to work two hundred fifty days out of the year.

In the evening Nate, Kyle, and I met one of Ellen's friends to walk around an impressive public rose garden and eat Texas-style barbecue for dinner.

Man, I miss Portland.

Friday 8/15 was a low-key day: brunch at Cricket Cafe (tasty breakfast sandwiches, plus a mimosa made with raspberry lambic beer), doing laundry, purchasing a couple jars of jam and shipping them home, wandering down Hawthorne for an iced coffee and a mocha milkshake and reading some more Joan Didion essays. It was over a hundred degrees out by this point. I had a very short jog late in the afternoon, partly to try to sweat on my own terms for once and partly to burn off some of that mocha milkshake.

Nate and I met our mother's cousin Mary and her husband Jack for dinner (Kyle joined us too) at a place called Papa Haydn's -- it's fun to meet family members for the first time, and Mary and Jack are fun and interesting conversationalists. (Mary also noted a rule that if you visit Portland for ten days, you move there; having been there for eight, and feeling like I'm close to that mentality, that rule seems accurate.) My double-cut Carlton Farms pork chop was a culinary highlight, as was the marionberry cheesecake for dessert.

After dinner the three of us drove up the road to the Alladin Theater to catch an unclassifiable-ish show involving intertwined numbers from classical-scene rising star Nico Muhly and two more folkish vocalists (Sam Amidon, who has some pipes, and Thomas Bartlett, who stacked too many slow songs together towards the end of the second set). I hadn't been able to get into Muhly's music on CD much (there's a newish release I haven't listened to yet), but live it's a different animal with a kicking kind of quirkiness in it. A crunchy little piano-plus-laptop piece called "Skip Town" may have been the most fun to watch him play; an indomitable young violist named Nadia Sirota was also on hand for some crucial fiddling. The whole group (including a rather unobtrusive drummer) was usually involved in the vocal numbers, creating a nicely full and unusual band. All good, all good. The final chart, a through-composed folksong deconstruction of sorts called "The Only Tune," really tied it all together. The theater itself is an old-fashioned sit-down affair; the crowd was a bit on the small side, possibly since the newspaper listings shoehorned the show into the "classical" category.

Saturday 8/16 we slept in, had brunch downtown at the Bijou Cafe (where I ate a rather good oyster hash), knocked off a quickly-passing hour at a heavy-on-the-classics arcade called Ground Kontrol (Ms. Pac-Man! Q-Bert! Pinball machines! Head-to-head racing! Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!), and drove out to McMinnville to see the Spruce Goose and its attendant air and space museum. (Well, not the space part, since it's on a separate ticket. Gotta get my SR-71 kicks when it's cheaper to do so.) We all agreed that it's a bit of a stretch for a museum to spin the story of the Spruce Goose into a tale of inspiration and success against the odds. It is pretty cool to see it in person, though, as it possesses an inarguable ginormousness.

It belongs in a museum!
The final dinner was a spectacular one, at the Bistro Maison (also in McMinnville), featuring most memorably a fondue made with white truffle oil and three kinds of cheese. The fact that the three of us were still able to have an involving and intelligent dinner conversation after so much socializing through the week speaks well to us all, if I may say so.

Sunday 8/17 I departed, and by midnight or so was back in New Haven, CT. And here I am still.


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