How Portland made me feel like an old lady.

How Portland made me feel like an old lady.

I should have known better than to get my hopes up. I had really high hopes for Portland, but Portland didn’t return my compliments. Instead, Portland made me feel old, boring, dreadfully normal! Maybe I should thank Portland for giving me a preview of how I’ll feel everywhere in twenty or thirty years.

Don’t get me wrong, Portland made me happy too. Portland made me happy at Powell’s City of Books, a giant new/used bookstore that covers an entire city block. With that many books, Powell’s needs to be seriously organized, and it is. It’s not set up for the casual browser — maybe you could happen upon an interesting read, but it’s more likely that your head will have exploded before you do. It’s easy to find exactly what you’re looking for; it’s harder to find book serendipity. Leave that for the smaller bookstores. At Powell’s, I found a few books I’d been looking for for some time: John Wesley Powell’s account of his trip down the Colorado, an anthology of Robert Frost poems. Paul picked up a copy of Alice in Wonderland — I have one in storage but he was starting to feel deprived at having not read the book. Overall, I loved Powell’s, despite it being insanely busy. I did not love the prices, though. The City of Books’ rent must be expensive.

People on their laptops at Powell's, looking depressed.
People on their laptops at Powell’s, looking depressed.

Portland also made me happy at the International Rose Test Garden. Who knew that Portland was the City of Roses? Well, plenty of people knew that, but I didn’t. Four to five hundred different varieties of roses are planted in the 4.5 acre Test Garden in single-variety sections, with the total number of plants estimated at ten thousand. Or so. According to the official site, “Portland’s International Rose Test Garden [founded: 1917] is the oldest official, continuously operated public rose test garden in the United States.” Driving around Portland had made me feel like a homicidal maniac; the rose garden made me feel human again. The views of Mt. Hood over the garden didn’t hurt.

Just a small section of the Rose Garden.
Just a small section of the Rose Garden.

Here’s just a few of the thousands of roses planted in the garden. Click on the thumbnail to enlarge. Warning: these images are not scented, so keep a safe distance between you and your screen. It’s a pain to clean the grease spots from your nose off.

Portland also made me happy when we stopped to visit our close friend’s dad and step-mom and were treated to a tasty local food buffet and a sampling of rosé wines…all while gazing over the east side of the city towards Mt. St. Helens. But then Portland made me unhappy when we were unable to coordinate our schedules to see one of Paul’s childhood friends before we left town. It’s always challenging to make everything align just right.

Mt. St. Helens, east Portland.
Mt. St. Helens, east Portland.
Mt. Hood from the Rose Garden.
Mt. Hood from the Rose Garden.

Another thing about Portland that made me happy: it’s just a really well-planned city in a great location. People have talked about this for pages and ages, from the negative to the positive, so I won’t add too much more, other than the fact that I found it amazing to be able to get out of a large city so easily. There’s no extensive sprawl — you get to the edge of town and you can actually tell you’re at the edge of town. Thirty minutes and you’re in the countryside. One hour, and you’re in the middle of the Mt. Hood National Forest to the east; drive a little longer and you’re skiing on Mt. Hood (year-round!). An hour and a half, and you’re on the Pacific coast to the west. Drive 30 to 45 minutes southwest and you’re in a major wine region, the Willamette Valley. There’s the Columbia River gorge to the north. It’s easy to find produce and food from within a short distance of the city because the farms that have always existed outside the city still exist outside the city. I like this arrangement. It was always so hard to get OUT of Chicago. Drive an hour and a half and you’re in…Milwaukee (or still in traffic)! (There’s one of those here, too, but it’s spelled Milwaukie, and it’s only 15 minutes from downtown.)

There is a lot about Portland to love. On paper, it sounds perfect. But overall, I just felt irredeemably uncool and out-of-place there. It’s so important to get a feeling for a city before you commit to living there (as in my obsession with Burlington, VT, which had been number one on my list until I actually visited the place). So I guess, Portland, it’s not you, it’s me. If we all loved you, you wouldn’t be able to stay so cool.

6 thoughts on “How Portland made me feel like an old lady.”

    • Portland, Maine is high on my list of cities to visit. Looking forward to checking it out this spring! Any recommendations?

      • Well, you guys are tough. I think you should go and dig around. It has become a bit Disney in parts of the downtown, but there’s still working waterfront to see — and over 50 miles of footpaths around town. Be sure to check out the East End for some funk (Mama’s Crow Bar is a favorite hip dive). The thing I like about the city is that it isn’t all kids and it’s less self-absorbed than Portland West. (Not that there isn’t plenty of dramatic navel-gazing.)

        If you have some specific likes, I can offer some specific suggestions.

        • The dive bar is right up our alley. Any thoughts on used bookstores, seafood places, classic food spots? Thanks for the ideas!

          • Used books: There used to be a great on on the corner of Congress and State, though gone now. “Yes Books” 589 Congress, just to viewer’s right of the Eastland Park Hotel, is fun. More upscale at Carlson Turner at 241 Congress — guy’s a bit of a crank, but I loved going in that store.

            C-T is also near two bars your should check out. 1st is the Snug right near by; Mama’s Crow is about a block up the hill (both on Congress). Don’t miss Gritty’s who brew their own on site (mostly — some is contracted to Shipyard in town).

            Food in Portland is stupid. There are more great restaurants than you could hit up in a month, over most prices. Best seafood is dear, but I recommend Street and Co., and the Portland Sea Grill for their oyster bar. Everyone likes to talk up J’s Oyster Bar, right on the water, but I think it’s way over-rated. Used to be a sweet divey place; you might want to check it out for the ambiance. Avoid DeMillo’s.

            There are like 5 decent sushi places in town. Cheapest is “King of the Roll.” Best is probably Yosaku (near the statue of John Ford).

            Enzo (up on that hill) and Otto (middle of town) make good pizza; for a neighborhoody place, hit up Bonobo’s in the West End.

            Great drinks at Local 188 and a cool bar. Best breakfast is a tie between Bintliff’s, Front Room, and Hot Suppa (IMO). Best latte is at the Bard (some would say Arabica, but I say it’s no contest).

            Hit up Portland Trails ( for a map of pathways to ride,

            run, walk, etc. It’s a very dog-friendly city if you have one.

            The Portland Museum of Art is a small gem, with a better collection of impressionists than you’d expect, as well as good representation of surealist and cubist stuff (not to mention the best Homer collection).

            I can keep going…

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