Up the mountain

On my last day in Portland, I’d walked around Ladd’s Addition all morning. Ready for more adventure, I prepared for another long hike—uphill this time—towards Mount Tabor.

I’d already heard a little bit about the mountain from various conversations. The day before, I’d mused about the cleanliness of the tap water to my host, and she’d nodded in pride. She told me it came from the Mt. Tabor reservoir. Huh, I’d thought without even expecting to visit it, interesting. Portland’s nature is so luscious that I couldn’t help but feel envious. As I began walking towards it, however, I realised one step at a time that Portland deserved all the love it got from nature lovers. Not only was the mountain and the surrounding park adding beauty to existing grandeur, but the path leading to the mountain was also full of feasts for the eyes.

Hawthorne Blvd. was a lengthy street with trees and quirky buildings flanking the sidewalks. For a hike lover like myself, the journey was more thrilling than exerting. I felt as if I’d walk all day without tiring or boring myself. Characteristic to Portland, I came across coloured heads and clothing rebels everywhere I turned. And catering to such a preference-diverse population are stores that made me stop and stare.

From coffee shops with a twist to clothing lines worthy of a movie star, retails in Hawthorne Blvd are nothing short of awe-inducing. Detouring multiple times, I stopped at various stores taking in the feverish atmosphere of people being unapologetic to show off their tastes. Unlike most other places I’ve been to, the people of Portland don’t care what others think of them. Everyone represented themselves as they wanted. And that gave a beautiful hue to the city. That’s what makes Portland so welcoming and cheery—no one judges another because no one is perfect. And they’re happy to flaunt their imperfect bodies and habits. As a solo traveller from a judgemental society, Portland seemed to me the epitome of freedom.

Aside from the enthusiastic folks of the city, nature itself seemed to reflect the people’s mentality. Or perhaps it’s the other way round. Portland’s nature is unparalleled in abundance, with a tendency of giving I saw in its people, too. Just as people opened their arms and spread their smiles, trees, too, cast wide shadows and cooling views. Although the climb towards Mt. Tabor was big, the trees and the people along the way made my way all the more enjoyable.

Walking along I had to stop at the Portland Cider Company. After an internal debate as to whether I should or shouldn’t get drunk while on such an important hike, I entered nevertheless. Not only did I get to taste some amazing apple cider for free, but I also learnt about cider preparation and pairing—all from a great host and conversationalist. I’d done something I’d never dreamt of doing—a daring act from the perspective of my social circle—and it was the do-your-thing attitude of Portland that influenced me to shed my inhibitions. On the way to a high point, I’d paused for a short moment of self-high. Bravo to me.

Mt. Tabor 1

Reaching the end of the street, I was at the Portland reservoir number 6. Before me, behind bars sprawled a mass of water. Standing by one of Portland’s major sources of water, I was transfixed by its size. I walked round the reservoir, and past the tennis courts. There, leading up to reservoir number 5 was a rocky staircase. I took to it, my legs aching from all the walking. Even without realising it, I’d traversed over 20 miles in two days, and the stress was beginning to settle.

But the pull of nature was stronger than the pull of my muscles, and I reached the top just to gloat that I’d made it. As soon as I finished congratulating myself on my feat, I turned around and dropped my jaw. Reservoir 5 was bigger, rounder, and far more beautiful. At that moment, I knew it was all worth it. I no longer felt the pain in my legs, for the ecstasy in my heart was more domineering.

Mt. Tabor 3

The rain started again, plunking on the surface of the water. I remained, breathing deep. When you’re in the presence of the best of nature, you don’t need to force meditation. As I turned away, my heart felt cheery and my steps light. My adventure in Portland had come to its close and I left wishing for more.

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Strolling through Ladd’s Addition

On my last day in Portland, I asked my friend what’s the one place I should visit to complete my trip complete. And without hesitation, he wrote back: Hawthorne Blvd, and Ladd’s Addition. It’s got an interesting floor plan and there’s a rose garden I could look around, he’d said. Although I’d grown a little tired of roses, I looked up the place on my map and the structure of the neighbourhood fascinated me at once. It had a diagonal street pattern, unlike any other street I’d seen anywhere else.

With that image to look forward to, I walked down the street leading to the quaint district of Ladd. I was on Hawthorne Blvd which occupied an entire corner of the square, and so from where I stood I could walk right into the neighbourhood and keep walking until I reached the other end. The weird thing about walking within the Addition was there’s no way to get lost. Although every turn looked the same to me, my friend had assured me I’d end up at a clearing if I just kept to the trail.

It felt, at first, as if walking into an unknown jungle. All around me trees loomed overhead and leaves swept the ground. Then from somewhere in the distance, came the screams of ecstatic children. Unnerving though it all was, I soon went past a school somewhere within the district where I caught a glimpse of children playing in the school ground. Their voices rang out throughout the area. After a while, it became less creepy and more welcoming. The roads all looked neat and well-maintained, but there were almost no vehicles to appreciate the vacant traffic.

The houses reminded me of mansion life in the 1800s. They were large with porches and picket fences, attracting my eyes and inducing my jealousy. No one was out. People preferred a quiet afternoon indoors with their dogs or books. The sun shone bright overhead, illuminating the path ahead of me where autumn’s first victims expected my feet to crunch them.

Ladd's Addition, Portland

It was a glorious place to take a walk. However within minutes I realised how much of a pain it must be for visitors to find the right house. It’s too easy to get overwhelmed and confused because every house had a similar design. I was addicted the the serenity of the neighbourhood, as I approached the nearest rose garden. Excited by the what I’d already seen, I was looking forward to what would come. Perhaps there’d be some interesting design in the way they were planted, too, I hoped. As I got closer, I felt my heart racing. Never before had I felt such a mad urge to see flowers. I felt so unlike myself, speed walking down the street. When I reached the garden, however, the expectation that’d welled up within me burst in a flash. Rows upon rows were remains of roses. The entire area reeked with gloom and not a single flower in bloom. In a devastating moment, I observed dying leaves and rose buds cowering as a mild rain dropped on them.

The barren garden
The barren garden

Despite my disappointment, I still felt optimistic. Perhaps, I just arrived at the wrong season, I consoled myself. Perhaps the roses would bloom in spring, I decided walking away.

The more I roamed, the more happier I felt at being there. Portland’s customary rain had stopped for the a moment, and the sun peeked from behind the clouds. Autumn was just round the corner and as pigeons flew from one tree to another, dried leaves flew in their wake. It was a sight I’d never forget. Within minutes I’d forgotten the dying roses, cheering up and gearing up for the what came next.

As I turned a corner, I stood stunned. Facing me was a huge garden of roses, all in bloom and in glory. Roses I’d seen before, roses I’d never seen before, roses in red, roses in white, in yellow, and even in blue—they were everywhere welcoming me.

The blooming garden
The blooming garden

All of a sudden I felt a surge of admiration towards nature. The dead roses I’d seen before wasn’t a work of nature but a work of human negligence. And sure enough I came across a sign that confirmed my theory.

Shaking my head in disbelief, and also shaking with laughter at the same time, I moved on. Ladd’s Addition had added immeasurable value to my trip.

Testing waters

Although it’s been a while since I got back from my vacation in Portland and Seattle, I’m still a little hung over from the experience. Not only was it my first time in the US, but also my first time travelling solo. Every day and every minute of the trip was an experiment, doing lots of things I wouldn’t have dreamt of otherwise doing. On my last day in Portland, wanting to see as much of the city as I could in one afternoon, I took a stroll down Hawthorne Boulevard towards Mt. Tabor. Eager to reach the top before sundown, I rushed along when a sign forced me to pause. It was the Portland Cider Company. I hesitated, confused between my desire to go in and also worried I can’t go on if I got too drunk.

I entered anyway. I gave myself a chance to experiment with a type of alcohol I’d never had before, and everything turned out fine. Oh, and Mt. Tabor was wonderful, too.

Portland Cider Company

Stopping at Lan Su

What’s not to love about Portland? Nothing, I mused as I made my way towards the Lan Su Chinese Garden. It was another wet day in the city and I, clutching a borrowed umbrella, snuggled within a borrowed raincoat, walked into what promised to be one of my best experiences in a garden.

I recalled how excited I’d felt about the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco, before realising it is less impressive than I expected. And so I was, at first, skeptical about visiting the Chinese Garden. I’m glad I did though. Upon entering, I received a booklet with a map of the garden. When I opened it, I saw that it’d guide me through the garden with interesting snippets about each part and each structure in the garden.

The garden itself exuded a calm beauty that progressed within me. The moment I entered the cavern of trees, bushes, and beautiful architecture, I felt as if I’d walked into serenity itself. Every step I took, took me further in to nature’s welcoming arms.

The garden swarmed with tourists, Chinese and others alike, although, unlike in San Francisco’s Japanese Garden, the folks here weren’t crazy about taking pictures. Observing the displays of culture meant more than selfies with Chinese plants. It indicated, again, how Portlanders are more intellectual than flippant.

Segmented into various parts, each part of the garden has a long history and purposeful structure. The Painted Boat in Misty Rain, for instance, appears as a boat anchored on shore, so as to give the impression of small waves rocking it. All these and more, I learnt from the map cum booklet that I received as I entered the garden. I must admit, though, that handout made experiencing the garden even more splendour.

Chinese Garden Portland 4

Unable to resist myself, I stopped a while looking at the Chinese Fortune Sticks in the Painted Boat. Following the instructions on the poster and on my booklet, I tried my hand at some ancient fortune-telling. I ended up predicting that my wish for the day would come true. Although I don’t recall if that happened, it was still fun reading my own fortune. I was travelling alone, and at that moment, I felt in complete control of my life. It was liberating to stand on a rocking boat predicting my own future without having to depend on another person. It was one of those moments during my trip when I appreciated solo travel to its full extent.

Chinese Garden Portland 2

The entire garden seemed built over a lake that housed hundreds of fish. Looking into the fresh water I saw yin and yang complementing each other—an example of perfect balance in the body and mind. Inexplicable, but there was a spiritual aura about the garden that infected every one present. And as I walked around the garden unwilling to leave, I spent a few additional moments observing the inscriptions on many of the constructions. Even though every one of them was in Chinese, my booklet contained translations.

Chinese Garden Portland 3

At the end of the day, however, my visit to the Chinese Garden was wonderful. It was so not only because of the magnificent vistas, but also because of the handout I received. That was my gateway into the garden and into the traditional value of the garden. As a tourist,  I’m grateful for the design of the booklet and the wealth of information it contained. To me it seemed as if the garden authorities wanted to educate the visitor, and not just to entertain. Therein lies the beauty of the Chinese Garden. It isn’t about building beautiful structures and compiling unique plants—appreciating culture is about watching to learn and learning to understand.

Going up the Beacon Rock

While researching vacation spots in the West Coast of the US, it was one thing that sealed the deal: The River Gorge that runs through Portland. Even months before my travel, I started fantasising about my weekend by the river. I dreamt up perfect picnic scenarios with friends and beer. It would be the best vacation ever.

Beacon Rock 1

Fourteen days before my flight to Portland, a fifteen year old kid set a firework loose in the river area, burning up most of the bicycle and hiking trails in and around the gorge. Within days, the damage had extended to over 55,000 acres of land, and my picture perfect picnic evaporated in a cloud of fiery smoke. I was in Pleasanton when it happened, but I’d already made arrangements and didn’t want to change them at the last moment. Besides, devastating though the news, my friend had promised me a drive around what remained of the gorge. And so with a mixture of excitement and apprehension I landed in Portland. After visiting the Washington Park and the Powell’s Book Store, however, I was glad I hadn’t bailed on Portland.

On a Sunday my friend wrote to me asking if he could take me on a small hike up hill somewhere near the gorge. Not one to turn down a walk, I agreed, and with bubbling eagerness we drove towards the Beacon Rock. It began to rain on the way, but I’d been in Portland long enough to know that it’s typical of the city. Unlike myself, my friend came prepared with an extra rain coat. When we reached our destination, the rain had reduced to a drizzle. Gearing up nevertheless, we took the first step of what would be many.

Beacon Rock 3

It was my first real hike. I’d walked a lot before, but it was the first time I followed a proper trail uphill. The way was well-paved and easy to walk on, but on either side trees and bushes rose in all their wilderness and glory. It was as walking through a dense jungle without the strenuous effort of walking through a jungle. About two minutes into the hike, my friend stopped, directing me to wipe my feet on a small stone on the side. On the stone was a brush that wiped away impurities from our shoes, so we don’t carry harmful elements onto the rock’s surface. I’d never heard of such a practice, and we repeated the process in the way down, too.

After that first little stop, we stopped no where else for a long time. We kept climbing, stepping on sliding stones, and stumbling on smaller slopes. The trail, though scary in a lot of places, felt safe to trek on. Most of it had been formed by chipping the rock itself, but here and there wooden planks supported the structure. As we went, Portland clouds welled up and teared on an off.

Halfway up the rock, we stopped to examine the view. Below me spanned the entire Columbia River, looking majestic and unapologetic as is its right. Along the river appeared the gorge as a thin vein cutting through a fleshy mass. The smog from the last of the fires hung over the gorge like a pall shrouding the city with its death-like gloom. In the distance, my friend spotted smoke rising from the still-raging, yet now diminished fires. It took me a while to discern the smoke from the trees and the fog from the clouds. When I did, however, my heart expanded with fresh and fierce venom at the kid who thought it a good idea to set fireworks off in the wilderness. All I could do though was seethe in fury.

Beacon Rock 4

The further we went, the more I saw of the river. By the time we reached the top, I was so moved by what I’d seen that I’d forgotten about the kid. I still fumed, but the glorious water made me realise how thankful I was just to experience it. No one can predict if the gorge will regain its grandeur. One thing’s for certain, though: The river gorge is beautiful beyond words. And a fire does nothing to depreciate the affection that Portlanders (and I!) have for her.