The Reading Break Road Trip Part 1: Portland

 When the City of Weird finally forced me to consider what it means to be an artist

IMG_2149Road trips are always, in some way or another, a rushed process, taking making-it-up-as-you-go (or maybe more ‘fake-it-till-you-make-it’) to whole new levels: you never really know what it’s gonna be like till you’re on the road, battling the odds against weather, border control, and ever-draining bank accounts. It’s part of what makes road trips so exciting: that, as much as you might be an architect of your itinery, you’ll still end up in a completely unexpected place. Because if you want control, make it an all-inclusive affair; Road Trips are a push for the random.

That being said, even by road trips standards our plans were… improvisational. It’s not often you plan an extra leg to your trip the day before you’re leaving, actually nailing down such ‘minor detailslike accommodations the day you’re driving there. It’s just a hop down the coast—we’re already in Portland: what could go wrong?

Well, the amazing thing about the week was (spoiler alert!) that nothing actually did. That’s amazing, considering the track record our group has. The first year, we decided to go camping outside of Seattle, only to find the campground no longer existed (and so we resorted to camping on the bed of a hotel room). The next year, we decided on camping again, this time Tofino, only to receive such a torrential downpour that we had the pleasure of watching our tent collapse from the rain (thus resorting to another hotel room). Having a get together at a friend’s cabin the year after that, we wound up stranded in the middle of BC after all the highways collapsed from snow. Despite the fact that this trip had the least planning and the greatest risks, it all miraculously worked out.

It’s the reading break I always wanted.

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Our first stop was a three-day stint with the seven of us in Portland. Although at first glance Portland looks like a rather typical industrial West Coast city, it doesn’t take long for its quirkiness to take over. As we stepped out of the car, heavy roses and a Church with a rainbow flag greeted us. Okay, good sign. Walking down the street, a man dressed in clown gear, juggling pins in hand, kicked a massive red ball down the street; getting closer to him, I could make out him muttering a sarcastic monologue that totally could have come from a Beckett play. Okay, better sign.

It didn’t take many excellent craft beers after that for Portland to get to me: its scene its style—a Commercial Drive turned into an entire city, with its small town community spirit mixed with a rigorous attention to the details of coffee, beer, and essentially useless (but so damn cute!) artisanal products which you can usually find in only the most ‘happening’ of cities that are currently happening. Living, it might seem to the newbie tourist, comes pretty easy here: even the Sushi has happy hours here… I mean, c’mon, what more do you need? Well okay, after the second hour there, there weren’t a lot of waking hours where I wasn’t inebriated in some sorta fashion, and maybe that’s not the best way to get a proper sense of a city. Then again: Bottomless Brunch Mimosas are a thing here—they’re real, they’re dangerous, but they’re also a unique affaire to this city, and I think we saw enough locals doing the same that Sunday to make the whole thing okay.

More to the point, Portland is the city which places its artists center stage. It’s the last glimpse of that American art rush, the drainage site for everyone who’s not interested in profit margins, the point where all the artist-weirdo-hippie freaks converge. They live there and, well, make art. Seriously, does Portland have any industry at all? With any other American city, its business district is both its (cold, mechanical) heart and its gravitational pull with the artists hiding in the dark and dusty corners, Portland makes art its mantra (any sort of business that might still be funding this whole scene acts more like the mechanics of a book: the less you can show it, the better a writer (city planner) you are). The buildings themselves are a testament to modern design. As a college kid, it’s striking to see people choosing to be artists; ie, not just doing it as a passion project on the side. How many of them want to one day make it big, how many don’t care, and are just doing it because they feel like it? Is that, maybe, the point of art in the first place?

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Having a city full of artists generally means it’s very easy (and so much fun) to meet the locals. Find a bookstore, mention a book, and—bam—you’re arguing about Virginia Woolf to the guy one bookshelf across from you. Paying for your tab? How ‘bout listening to your waitress’s life story, how she escaped from California? My favorite was definitely when we met an accountant who, with a universal love for Canadians, took the seven of us back to his place, where we saw his artwork (naturally: everyone here’s a fledgling something), his 3D Comic book, and listened to him recite Roman oratory. It’s easy to see—beyond Powell’s—why this city is such a haven for writers: come for the weather, stay for the infinitely fascinating locals who’ll give you their life story for a coffee or a smile.

But speaking of Powell’s: well hey there. There’s many times novels have given me a sensorial reaction, but rarely has that happened with the physical book itself. With Powell’s the smell of thousands upon thousands of new pages (that curious paper smell that’s both a curling lightness and a foresty heaviness) mixed with the waftings of dark espresso coffee, as you look upon the general vastness of row upon row—it’s overwhelming. Wandering along, you’re caught in the whirlpool of the read.

As much as it was exciting to watch reader after reader–buyer after buyer—of books, it was also a little sad, because I knew right away that Powell’s is out of place with the wider world; an anachronism in the days of the digital (only a couple blocks away, Portland’s postmodern mac store is nearly the same size). Stepping in there, I felt like I was in a wildlife haven in the middle of the ever-climbing metropole around it: a zoo of sorts, where tourists could come in and take snaps of the weirdoes who still cared about this stuff. For others, maybe that little space of freedom is enough, but there was something about the enormity of Powell’s left me empty. After all, there it stands: proud, bustling, and alone.

Then again, maybe it wasn’t that out of the picture, as Portland did strike me, all the way along, as a city which ticks to a different tempo than the rest of North America. As Portlandia points out, “Portland is where young people go to retire.” (Seriously, walking down the artisanal-heavy Mississipi street, seeing all the homemade jewelry stores, all I could think of was “she’s making jewelry now!”) If New York is the city which never sleeps, then Portland is its West Coast alter ego—the city submerged in sleep, in a Pacific haze of dreams and weed and dreams of weed, drifting among the roses.

And that’s probably why I could never actually live here. Wonderful place to visit, sure, but it’s got no bite: the city is weird, but it’s weird in such a benign way, ‘cause it’s never had to be weird against something bigger, something that wants that weirdness stamped out– never had to fight for the right for that strangeness, that ubiquity. After all, weird isn’t so weird when everyone is, well, also weird. So my respect for Portland’s style only goes so far, because after so many half-watched episodes of Portlandia, you come to expect that level of strangeness, so that even a goth riding a skateboard while his dog tags along only catches your eye for a second.

So Portland might live in a bubble, but it’s a pretty damn appealing one in a number of ways. By the end of the trip, I found myself asking: could I do it, just go out to some town to write? Just write?

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It’s a question I’ve been considering for a while now, but never did it hit me so clearly as it did in Portland: watching the sun go down on my 22nd birthday, Fleet Foxes playing, wondering what the fuck I was doing here and where the hell I was going. Birthdays always make me a little melancholy: it’s a celebration sure, but it also forces you to affirm your place in the bigger picture, and I’ve never been able to adequately do that (there’s always questions, loose ends, always more to be done). And so it’s perfectly fitting that, bringing in the year that my life (likely) changes forever, I’d get to ask that in a place where I get a glimpse of the other side of that canyon: life beyond classes. The big ‘And Then What?’.

Portland started the questions, and in San Francisco those questions only ballooned.

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