Portland I Ching: Zen Tourism in Oregon’s Rose City

(Originally published on Frommers.com, June 2007)

I’ve spent a lot of time lately not knowing where I am. In November, my wife and I moved from my longtime home in New York to Portland, Oregon, which I’d only visited twice before. For the first three months I was completely disoriented, but then I began to get the hang of it, to recognize landmarks and establish my trade routes — those day-to-day trails we all blaze to get from home to work, to market, to our favorite restaurant, to the park, the pub, the bakery, or the bookstore down the block. Soon I was driving and walking around the city looking as if I knew where I was going — but in fact I knew (and know) only a very small part of this place. I know my Portland. Other peoples’ Portland is still terra incognita.

And that got me thinking: Most peoples’ daily lives are fairly circumscribed, their routes determined by a mix of habit and curiosity — and our curiosity is determined by our particular likes and dislikes. But what if we could take free will out of the picture and explore without an agenda? Just take a day (or two, or three) and travel based on a roll of the dice, the flip of a coin, or reading the leaves from the bottom of our teacup? Would we see things we’d never otherwise see? Meet people we might not otherwise meet?

I decided to put my question to the test. I would take one day, make a list of rules that would govern the way I got around, and follow them precisely. Since Portland is a terrific walking and public-transportation town, those would be my methods of travel, and these would be my rules:

  1. I’d begin at the nearest light-rail stop, where I’d buy an all-day pass.

  2. I’d take first train that came along, whichever direction it was going.

  3. I’d take the train ten stops and get off.

  4. From there, I’d walk in the direction the train had been going, and at the first corner I’d flip a coin. Heads, I’d turn right; tails, I’d turn left.

  5. I’d then walk in that direction for ten minutes, then look around. If I saw a public transit stop — whether for light rail, streetcar, or bus — I’d go there and take the next transport that came along. If no stop is within sight, I’d keep walking and flip a coin on every corner until I found one.

  6. I’d then repeat steps 2 through 5 until (a) I found myself at or very close to home again, or (b) the sun went down and I had to call for a ride.

I had one major sub-rule: I could stop for anything that caught my attention, whether it be a museum, a shop, a work of public art, a street performer, a friendly dog, a good view, an interesting pattern of light and shadow on a building, an interesting person, good graffiti, or what have you. When I was done being transfixed, I’d just flip my coin again to determine the next phase of my route.

A Portland Primer

Portland is a compact and human-scaled city, with just over a half-million residents in its city borders and another 1.5 million in its metropolitan area. It’s a warren of small neighborhoods, but for day-to-day purposes people divide the city into a quadripartite arrangement delineated by the Willamette River (which divides the city east and west) and Burnside Avenue (which divides it north and south). Northwest is the toniest part of town, home to the trendy Pearl District, the vibrant and historic Nob Hill neighborhood, and wealthy residential areas that snake up into the hills. Southwest holds the city’s vibrant downtown business district, the University of Portland, the city’s primary concert halls and museums, a sprawling riverfront that includes parks and residential developments, and, at its edge, lovely Washington Park. Trendy Northeast Portland combines pockets of high-, middle-, and low-income residential areas with islands of cool commerce and stretches of industrial grit. Southeast is Portland’s hippie-meets-hipster wormhole, with Hawthorne Boulevard functioning as the city’s equivalent of Greenwich Village or the Haight-Ashbury, with an ironic overlay of waffle restaurants, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and vintage flannel. At the end of the Hawthorne District, Mt. Tabor is a dormant volcano that’s now one of the city’s best parks. Up the Willamette River, North Portland is the city’s “fifth quadrant,” where people go when they want to escape inner Portland perceived gentrification — unless they were just there to begin with, in which case they’re mad at being gentrified.

Hitting the Road

I began in Northwest just after rush hour, paying $4.25 for a day pass that would cover all the buses, light rails, and streetcars of Portland’s TriMet system. Within minutes, a train pulled in headed east and I was off, passing through downtown and crossing the Willamette. After ten stops I debarked in a mixed business and retail area of Northeast, then walked my rule-mandated ten minutes. I found myself in a web of small residential streets, with no public transportation in sight, and so began flipping my coin, which directed me first left, then right, and right, and right again — putting me back on the same corner where I began. Figuring the odds wouldn’t keep me in a loop forever, I kept flipping, walking three more lefts, a right, and another left before coming out at the corner of Northeast Broadway and 12th Avenue, from which I could spot a bus stop in the distance.

This is where I had Philosophical Realization No. 1: Though one might be tempted to consider the possibility of having to walk the same streets multiple times a drawback to the coin-toss system, it in fact worked right into the “see new things” theme of my expedition, and forced me to look in a different way at everyday distractions: noticing the detailing and bright Pacific Northwest paintjobs on the area’s many ornate little homes, pausing to pet the black cat that crossed my path, seeing a “lost pet” sign and wondering if it was the same cat (it wasn’t), and marveling at the height of a bicycle that rode past — so tall I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a circus clown on top.

Back aboard public transportation, I found myself heading back west across the Willamette, then into Portland State University, under an arch that reads “Let Knowledge Serve the City.” I debarked and found myself on a landscaped walking path that led among University and residential buildings, coming out at Keller Fountain, designed by San Francisco architect Lawrence Halprin in a modern, stair-step pattern that mimics the waterfalls and landscapes of the Pacific Northwest — or so I learned later on. It was, in fact, the first time I’d laid eyes on this fountain, despite the fact that it takes up an entire small city block in one of center city’s most beautiful sections. Live and learn.

Continuing further along the walking path, I came eventually to a streetcar stop and hopped the first one that came along, headed south.

Up, Up, and Away

Portland’s Southwest Waterfront is a rapidly growing area, its older industry and businesses giving way to residential towers reminiscent of downtown Vancouver, all dotted along the Willamette and linked by park and path. Five-hundred feet above it all, on Marquam Hill, is the main campus of Oregon Health and Science University, a combo medical school and hospital complex. Until just a few months ago patients, students, staff, and view-seekers had to drive up a long, snaking road to get to the upper campus from OHSU’s riverside Center for Health & Healing. Today, though, they can ride Portland’s most high-profile new attraction, the Portland Aerial Tram.

I saw the tram in the distance as my streetcar described its drunken Z-shaped route through western Portland, but didn’t realize until we arrived that the streetcar’s southern terminus is right at the tram’s base. Kismet! As I’d not yet reached ten stops by that point, I decided to count the three-minute, 3,300-foot ride to the top as my final leg, and for $4 enjoyed the best views of Portland I’d yet seen, with downtown’s towers right at my feet, the nine downtown bridges just beyond, and Mount Hood and Mount St. Helens off in the distance. At the top, OHSU itself offers more stationary views from several terraces.

Down and Back Again

One of the drawbacks to setting a rule like “Walk for ten minutes and flip a coin at the next corner to determine your direction” is that you can end up walking a very long way if you find yourself on a road with no side streets. Such was the case with the long (and very non-pedestrian-friendly) road down to town from OHSU.

After scuttling through ditches and hugging guard rails for half an hour, I finally emerged from the forested hill and was back in civilization, whereupon I hopped on the first bus I saw, settled in, and discovered Philosophical Realization No. 2: Sometimes fate makes you revisit your past, even if that past only happened a few minutes earlier — which is to say that the bus I’d boarded was taking me straight back up the hill I’d just walked: past the same daredevil turns, past the lilac gardens in Duniway Park, and past the bull terrier puppy I’d stopped to play with during its afternoon walk.

This kind of situation is where the counting of stops becomes exciting. After reaching the heights of Marquam Hill, the bus began depositing patients and employees at the various facilities, slowly emptying out until there were only a few passengers aboard. This worked in my favor: On a bus, the fewer passengers, the fewer stops are called. By stop #7 I was back at the top of the tram line, but from there the bus descended back to town without making even a single stop. By the time stop #10 was called, I was back near the river.

By the time I’d hiked my obligatory ten minutes, I was deep in the heart of the South Waterfront’s RiverPlace complex, a work-in-progress residential/retail development perched just south of downtown on the banks of the Willamette. At the river, I flipped a coin and headed south along a riverfront trail that eventually curved back westward and placed me at a streetcar stop — which brought me right back to the southern terminus at the base of the aerial tram. As luck would have it, another streetcar was waiting across the platform, pointed in the opposite direction, which saved me having to head up Marquam Hill for a third time. Instead, I boarded the streetcar and began counting off my nine remaining stops, a route that took me back into the Portland State campus, then deposited me right at the entrance to the Portland Art Museum, a place I had never before visited. The oldest art museum in the Pacific Northwest, it holds outstanding collections of Native American art and Northwest regional art, plus a surprisingly good modern/contemporary collection that includes works by personal faves o’ mine Richard Serra and Dan Flavin.

Back on the road after a dose of culture, I flipped my coin and began walking in a northerly direction, and at the corner of Burnside flipped once more and headed west one block. There, at the corner of Burnside and 10th, is one of Portland’s great cultural and commercial treasures: Powell’s City of Books, the world’s largest independent bookstore, with new and used books shelved together in a warren of rooms spread over three floors and stretching across a whole city block. This was familiar territory to me. It was, in fact, one the primary selling points my wife used when trying to convince me to move to Portland, and since our arrival it’s been a virtual second home. A quick trip in yielded treasures: a two-volume, $24 book on the history of twentieth-century architecture, a nice dark-roast coffee at the store’s cafe, some good people-watching among Portland’s various well-read tribes, and a break from the hot May sun — the latter a stunning thing after Portland’s generally misty, overcast winter and fall, but (according to locals) a harbinger of the city’s beautiful, temperate summers.

Loaded down with books and within a few blocks of home, I chose to call it a day, but my short sojourn into the coin-flip/public-transit method of travel had been all I’d hoped. It had brought me places I’d never been and forced me to look at things I might not otherwise have looked at — and all within a few miles of home. As an unexpected bonus, it had also forced me to forget all about schedules, “must see” attractions, and all the other things that can suck the soul out of travel, turning it into a paint-by-numbers landscape. Instead, my day had become a game, a playful adventure that reminded me of exploring the woods behind my New Jersey home when I was seven years old. Though probably only a quarter mile square, those woods drew me in like a fairy tale, luring me from tree to tree and clearing to clearing, turning me to stone as I watched deer feeding in the bushes, and drawing me down to explore the tiny forest in a patch of moss. I had all the time in the world, and no one was telling me what was important and what wasn’t. I could go anywhere and do anything, and it was all good.

Which leads me to my final philosophical conclusion and grand travel advice of the day: When you don’t know where you are, any direction is the right direction.

Now go get lost.