Thursday, November 15, 2007

City of Roses

Thanks to the mild climate and very soft rain, Portland is among the best places in the world to grow roses. Thus, the Internation Rose Test Garden is located here. One afternoon, I decided to let my camera stop to smell the roses:

...By Any Other Name

Then I discovered a very fun little setting on my camera which allowed me to take some interesting and dramatic photographs in that same garden:
(Hint: They are even more dramatic full screen. Download and go nuts.)

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Art of Travel

Having been a typical American, I think I can speak on behalf of the general population and say that we've lost the art of travel. Travel has become anything but. Like so many things American, the goal is to get it over with as quickly and unobtrusively as possible so that we can continue whatever myriad events populate our calendars. At best it's an interruption to the rest of what's important. At worst, we bring along the tools of our to-do list and travel time becomes "productive" time. I'm all for not wasting time--vehemently so! Instead, I'm suggesting that a new value be placed on the actual act of traveling.

Passenger train cars are studded with large picture windows along both sides. My recent 18-hour trip down the Oregon-California rails afforded me plenty of time to enjoy its displays. I didn't realize this until recently, but I think it's probably been about twelve years since I've sat and looked out the window of a moving vehicle. I've always been the driver--so of course I'm looking out the windows, but offensively and defensively. When you're a traveling passenger, you have the chance to look passively, and that makes all the difference. Even if the landscape is made of all familiar elements, something about their constant coming and going is hypnotic. I whiled away hours "seeing the world" out the window.

When day turned to night, the entertainment had to be found inside the train. Unlike an airplane where your interior movement is quite restricted, a train is a world of its own inviting exploration... Alright, it's more like a horizontal building all its own, but it's fun. Waiting for discovery on this trip were the dining car ("Reservations, please."), the cafe car, the observation car, and a long string of passenger cars.

The passenger cars were the setting for an interesting quest--the quest for a power outlet. You have strange needs while traveling. They're often basic needs you take for granted. At this moment, I needed a power outlet. At other times, the need is for a bathroom, or directions, or an all-night Starbucks. But now, I needed an outlet. I wouldn't have died if I didn't get one, but to do what I wanted, this is what I needed. When your traveling (as opposed to commuting or just going somewhere), you have the option to allow your thwarted needs to be an adventure and not a problem. I think this choice is largely what makes you a traveler instead of just a commuter. Then overcoming the problem is what makes "getting there half the fun."

This train, unlike those of previous travels, had electrical outlets in very short supply. Without an electrical outlet, my dear GPS device would not last through the night. It probably would have lost the scent about half-way through. Upon inquiring with the conductor (in his funny little hat--always a crowd pleaser), he said there was only one on the whole train. It was in the cafe car, and he had claimed it. I soon found it with his cell phone hoarding the precious electrons.

Upon further questing, I found that there was another behind the counter of the cafe bar, but alas, it was out of reach for a lowly passenger wanting to string a cord across the aisle. Refusing to believe this apparent state of affairs, I continued searching. It payed off when I discovered that there was exactly one outlet in every passenger car and mixed among the seats. Very accessible... for the person in that seat. Unfortunately, I was assigned another. On a train, the assigned seats are really more like a suggestion, so after making new friends with a socket squatter, I draped my cord along the wall and stated recharging. Problem solved. But after a little more roaming, I found an empty seat immediately adjacent to the plug in another car. Even better. I immediately staked my claim.

When the female conductor approached me a few moment later, I found out that this car was meant to be used by passengers getting on the train further down the line. But this obstacle was nothing a little sweet talking couldn't overcome. After making another new friend, also in a funny hat, I camped there over night, logging GPS coordinates all the way.

I woke up in Sacramento. Full battery. Breakfast was a disappointing 1000 calorie synthetic cinnamon roll I would regret very soon after. Not to be impaired, I relaxed in the observation car and took in the scenery for the rest of the trip and eavesdropped in on nearby conversations, all the while tracking our progress with the electronic breadcrumb trail in my pocket. It was a good thing, because when I noticed my position dot dangerously close to my destination dot, I scrambled to gather up my possessions strewn about. Packed and on my back, I hauled my bag and myself off the train to meet our destination--this adventure over for the time being, and on to another.

When not lost among "the rest of life,"1 travel itself becomes an event of note. In times past, the single most defining experience of an entire lifetime may have been crossing a country, continent or ocean. In our time, familiarity has bread a lack of familiarity--some may even say a professional detachment. But I remain convinced that the art of travel is an option left open to anyone willing to embrace the adventure as one.

1 And by that, I mean exactly the opposite: "the business of life"2
2 If you read that phrase as anything other than "busy-ness," then you're not getting the clever word-play or the point!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Post-Portland Pondering

During my whole time in Portland, I was trying to get a handle on the identity of the city. Normally, when I've gone to cities before, you have a sense for the attitude of the city at large. For example, Seattle very much still has a grunge attitude along with a coffee-drinking, bookstore-frequenting, software-writing kind of vibe. Vancouver has a cosmopolitan Canadian vibe: "eh"-saying, late-'90s-fashion-wearing, pedestrian-walking, downtown-living.

Portland is a problem. There's not a whole lot of vibe to Portland. Nevertheless, by the end of this post, I'm going to attempt it. But before then, an observation: to an outsider, Portland is billed on two things: 1.) Being a particularly "livable" city (although no one really knows what that means), and 2.) Having a world-class mass transit system. After spending more than two weeks living there, I have concluded that Portland is billed on those points because that's all there is to bill.

This is not necessarily a slight to the city, however. Probably one of the things that makes Portland so livable is the lack of tourists. But, there's really not a lot for a visitor to do. You can tour the Portland underground (made famous by such TV networks as the History Channel, Discover Channel, E!, etc.)... or you can go down in your basement with a flashlight and tell ghost stories. They will both provide the same effect--the latter being notable cheaper an less likely to incur the wrath of more conservative historians who question the "historical" stories told about the shanghai underground.

The only other thing for a tourist to really do is ride and marvel at the Portland mass transit system. If you've been to another major city before coming to Portland, this experience will feel a lot like riding a bus. A slight exception should be made for the MAX (Metropolitan Area Express). This feels a bit more like riding a European train because it's on rails. Put together, the bus system and the MAX (which includes an impressively long ride through a tunnel under Forest Park) make up Portland's famous mass transit system.

As nice as that sounds, imagine my frustration when, immediately upon arriving in Portland, I found that the public transit system couldn't take me to where I was staying. The house was well within Portland's urban growth boundary, but almost a 3 mile walk from the nearest public transit stop (only 1 mile if I left the house at 7am). Thankfully, my kind hosts had planned to pick me up.

Herein lies one of Portland's most redeeming qualities: I found the people there to be unusually kind. I suppose they are famous for this as well, but it's harder to point at. Every single person I met, whether staying with them, purchasing from them, walking past them in the park or sharing a meal together, was impressively personable and polite. I think this is somewhat common in the Pacific Northwest, but Portland all the more so.

If I had to describe the general vibe I get from Portlanders, it would probably be such: they're easy-going, MAX-riding, home-beer-brewing, direction-giving, city-walking, Sunday-hiking, fleece-wearing, sleeping-in, outdoorsy types.

Now, unless you think I didn't like the city, let me say for the record that Portland is a unique, beautiful, and... nice city. Don't expect a tourist spot. Don't expect deep history. If you're looking for a nice, affordable place on the West Coast to settle down, this might be it.

Overall, Portland is a nice place to live, but I wouldn't want to visit there.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Pictures of Portland

Mt. Hood from the Pittock Mansion.


The mansion itself.

The view from my bedroom window.

A Portland street, showcasing it's famous mass transit system, the MAX.

Skyline over the water.

Entry and exit.

Just one local city park.

There are no single-colored trees in Portland.

Portland by night.

Friday, November 2, 2007

If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest--in all its ardour and paradoxes--than our travels. They express, however inarticulately, an understanding of what life might be about, outside the constraints of work and of the struggle for survival.
- Alain de Botton