We thought we were going to love Portland. And we did. But we also didn’t. There were days we were enamored with our surroundings and others, well, we just weren’t feeling it. And mixed in with all that, we had an unexpected expense that caused our yearly budget to officially throw up the white flag and light itself on fire.
Let’s start with the good…
The Japanese Garden
If you tell anyone who’s been to Portland that you’re heading to Portland, they will tell you that you have to visit the Portland Japanese Garden. ‘They’ are not wrong. The garden, which dates back to 1967, covers twelve acres of forest in the middle of the city. It is an oasis of peace and calm in the middle of an ever expanding and endlessly energetic modern city.
The property has been named the most authentic Japanese garden outside of Japan, and there are facilities designated for all kinds of education programs, artistic endeavors, and special cultural events.
As luck would have it, we happened to show up just as a free tour was leaving the entrance. We jumped in and were so thankful for this bit of good timing. Walking around with a highly knowledgeable interpreter turned this visit from an opportunity to see some beautiful scenery into a truly immersive experience where we learned the whys behind each object in the garden.
And that’s the thing about authentic Japanese gardens: everything you see – every thing – is there for a reason. There are no mistakes, there are no fillers, nothing is randomly placed in a spot because it happens to fit. Everything is intentional and thoughtful and meaningful, and walking around with someone who can show you what to look for and explain what you’re seeing, will make the entire experience so much richer.
Example: Notice the surface of the pathway on either side of this structure.
It’s smooth as you walk up to it and smooth on the other side of it, but under the structure itself, the designer placed uneven stones. Why? Because he wanted visitors to slow down while walking through this area and really look around. The interruption in the surface of the pathway forces visitors to pay attention to where they’re walking (so they don’t trip on the stones) and notice their surroundings. Neat, eh?
Tours are given twice a day during the summer and once a day the rest of the year. If you can make it happen, I promise, you won’t be sorry.
Bonus spot: Just outside the Japanese Gardens is the city’s free-to-visit International Rose Test Garden. Home to over 10,000 rose bushes of 600 plus varieties, roses are sent here from all over the world to see which varietals work best. We were there at the tail end of the season, but were greeted with row after row of colorful, unique, fragrant roses.
Food and Sweets
We found some stellar stuff while we were in town. “Voodoo Donuts,” you ask? No. Not there. Not because we didn’t want to try it, but because there are only so many ways you can crush your dietary good intentions and we chose to focus first on ice cream, specifically Salt & Straw, the holy-mother-of-god-this-is-delicious ice cream shop that you can find in several locations around the city.
The cool thing about Salt & Straw, beyond the fact that it’s the best ice cream you’ll ever taste, is when you get up to the counter, you can try as many samples as you want. You can honest-to-god just sit there and make a day of sampling ice cream. It’s the most gluttonously wonderful thing we’ve ever come across.
On our first visit (shut up, don’t judge), we each tried two or three samples before settling on our two scoop cups.
On our second visit, we didn’t have time to stand in line waiting for everyone to try their samples, so we just grabbed a pint of pre-packaged ice cream from the freezer and ate it on our walk.
Seriously. We ate a whole pint of salted caramel ice cream while walking around Portland.
Speaking of which, don’t think for a second that we skipped donuts entirely. Don’t be ridiculous. We totally went and got donuts; they were just from an alternative place recommended to us by our source for all things Portland, our friend, Celena. She suggested Blue Star Donuts and she never leads us wrong, so off we went to this uber popular spot for a sampling of some of their selections.
We had several other good meals, but our overall favorite find was Pok Pok Noi, a teeny tiny little Thai place with a very limited menu of spicy and flavorful items:
Neighborhoods and City Goodness
Portland is a much bigger city than we realized comprised of many distinct neighborhoods. We walked through some that were full of houses you’d swear were occupied by retired serial killers, and others that could have been in any wealthy suburb. There are hippie neighborhoods and hipster neighborhoods, and downtown high rise neighborhoods and all the things in between. It’s a fun city to just wander around and see what you find.
There are tons of beautiful urban parks in town, there are numerous photogenic bridges that carry traffic (so much traffic) over the Willamette River, there is the famous Powell’s Bookstore – a city block sized ode to the written word, and there are all kinds of interesting markets, murals, food carts, and shops. All good stuff.
So what was bad?
This was the first time both of us felt that the local traffic rivaled the traffic in D.C.
Rush hours that start before 3:00 p.m. and go until after 8:00 p.m.? Check. Traffic jams on Saturday afternoons? Check. 3 mile trips that should take 10 minutes that take 40 minutes? Check. Lights where there shouldn’t be lights? Check. No lights where there should definitely be lights? Check. There are just too many people in too compact an area driving on roads that were never designed to handle that type of capacity.
To explain just how noticeable and stressful it was, consider this: For the last two months, I have been driving our RV from place to place. Since we left Yellowstone in late July, I have driven all 55 feet of our lives from one place to the next in an attempt to build my confidence.
Yeah we can!!!!
….except in Portland.
Portland traffic was enough to crush my burgeoning RV-driving confidence.
I drove Barney from Bend into Portland (which included going through construction zones, over significant mountain passes, driving in the rain, and then getting through a section of the city on our way into the campground), but when it was time to head to our next location, I asked Kevin to drive us out. I was just too nervous about dealing with the rig in that kind of congestion and I didn’t want to create an unnecessary setback. Portland traffic was that bad.
Portland is known as a hipster mecca, which is all well and good with us, until said hipsters start giving us attitude.
We went into one coffee place and felt like the employees were looking us up and down two seconds after we walked in the door. I guess we weren’t wearing enough plaid and sadness. And look, hipster barista guy, Kevin is not ever gonna wear skinny jeans. Never! Do you hear me? It’s not gonna happen. I consider it a success if I can get him to wear pants at all. So when he walks into your fine establishment and orders his $42 cup of ethically distributed, fair trade certified, independently produced, sustainably farmed, unicorn poop coffee, he’s gonna be wearing baggie jeans and a Captain America T-Shirt and you’re just gonna have to deal with it, alright Misery Man?
The funny thing is, they hated us and they didn’t even know we buy our coffee at Costco and think Dunkin Donuts is a goddamned national treasure.
Man, they would have been so mad….
Anyway, the point is, there are a bunch of people who reside in Portland who need to get the hell over themselves.
The Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area
“Wait, what? You’re saying you didn’t like the Columbia River Gorge? What the hell is wrong with you?” Just hold on…. I’m not saying we didn’t like it. We did. The problem is, the vast majority of it is closed off. Last year, wildfires destroyed a huge swath of the forest, leaving it inaccessible until it is once again deemed safe – which could be years from now.
Here is the current map (large version here). Route 30 runs along the southern edge of the river and usually provides visitors access to numerous scenic overlooks and trails. However, as you can see, about 75% of the route is currently closed down. Visitors are limited to just a handful of sites.
We stopped by Vista House, home to the visitor center, and got the very short list of places we were allowed to visit and then headed out. The volunteer we spoke with told us the Forest Service had been intending to open one particular trail the following week, but because of a nearby rock slide, they had to put those plans on hold indefinitely. They simply have no idea when they will be able to open things up again. It’s pretty sad.
One of the few places that is currently open for viewing is famous Multnomah Falls – which ended up being a completely different experience than we expected. We had a picture of this waterfall in a frame on our kitchen wall for years:
Little did we know that, about 300 yards from the waterfall was a highway. We’d always assumed we would have to hike deep into the forest to get to this captivating spot. But nope. Just park your car, walk under a tunnel like you’re walking into a soccer stadium, pass the vendors selling cotton candy and hot chocolate, and voila! One of the most picturesque waterfalls in the U.S.
We visited a couple other waterfalls that were open to visitors. The standout was Latourell Falls. At 249 feet, it was just awesome.
While the volume of water going over the falls wasn’t particularly enormous, because of it’s extreme height, and because the water was falling unobstructed to the ground, the intensity of the falls was incredible. People standing nearby were subject to powerful winds and deafening sound.
Ya’ll remember the Xterra, right? You know… the car I love more than anything but which has been costing us more and more as it ages and which seems to have something wrong every freaken day of the week? You know. That one?
Anyway, way back when we were in Lake Havasu, we brought it in because, on occasion, we would see smoke coming from the hood of the car – which is generally frowned upon. We took it to a mechanic who told us that the gasket seals on one side of the engine were deteriorating which was allowing small droplets of oil to spurt out every so often, land on the hot engine block, and smoke. He said: “the good news is, you can just ignore the seals for the time being because other than looking and smelling bad, they’re not really a problem. The bad news is, your radiator is about to shit the bed and you need to replace it right now.” (He didn’t actually say that, but you get the point.) So, we replaced the radiator and headed out.
Unfortunately, however, the smoky oil problem has, over time, worsened and people really give you some strange looks when you’re driving down the road with black smoke pouring out of your engine…. We even had a random stranger walk up to us in a parking lot and ask if we needed water to put the fire out. “Nope, we’re good, thanks!!”
Sigh…. We are classy with a K!!
Anyway, while driving around in our personal climate-change-mobile, we noticed another problem: a little rattling sound that would occasionally become audible when we engaged the clutch. Long story short, there’s a bearing buried deep inside the clutch that, after enough years, goes bad. And if you don’t replace it, eventually you’ll get stranded, so, unlike our smoke issue, we couldn’t ignore this for long. And if you’re already tearing the whole clutch apart to replace the bearing, and the car has 120,000 miles on it, guess what you should get? A brand new clutch!! Sweet!!!!!
Given all the other stuff that has been happening, we decided to spring for the “80 point inspection” and find out, once and for all, what else was wrong with the Xterra so we could stop our endless “Mechanics Across America” pilgrimmage. Result: in addition to our clutch, the front brake calipers were not releasing fully, so we got new calipers, new brake pads, and whatever else goes along with new brakes, they replaced the gasket seals on both sides of the engine, and a we got a new front tire because it was worn (as a result of the caliper problem).
So, $2,500 later, our car is no longer smoking, rattling, pulling, or likely to strand us. Yay!
And I know what you’re thinking: “Oh my god, just buy a new car!!” The fact is, even with all of these repairs, it still costs less for us to keep the Xterra than go buy something else. Plus, even with all the current age related issues, it has never stranded us and we know exactly what has and hasn’t been done over the years. Given our recent tendency to drive to all kinds of crazy, remote places, we want something we know and can rely on. So, budget be damned, the Xterra it is!
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have 3 cases of ramen to put away because that’s what we’ll be eating for the rest of the year.