New Years 2017: Portland, Oregon

by Sarah Birdsong

For as long as Sean cared to remember, he rang in the New Year with one of his oldest friends. This occasion saw itself becoming scarce when John decided to start over in Portland, Oregon. In the fall of 2013, John with his partner Elizabeth left for the other side of the country, leaving behind the humidity and sweet tea. However, this year Sean decided the distance would no longer stand between him and one of his treasured New Years tradition.

After very little deliberation and a last-minute shuffling of schedules, we had secured our accommodations for an extended weekend in Portland, Oregon.

Oregon: a Brief History

Oregon finds its etymology hotly contested. Per the Oregon EncyclopediaTravels through the Interior Part of North America by Jonathan Carver noted a river called “the Oregon,” the “River of the West.” In 1920, John Reese from Idaho State University suggested a derivation of ogwa (river) and pe-on (west) of Shoshone origin. Later in 1922, historian Jacob Meyers suggested a Sioux origin from the phrase Owah-menah Wakan, perhaps shortened to O’Wakan. Translated, it amounts to “river of the slaves.” Additionally, arguments exist suggesting another derivation from the herb oregano or Aragon, a French synonym for Spain.

The Pacific Northwest exists somewhere between your garden-variety contemporary metropolis and an extraordinary realm whose veil is pierced in the most unlikely of places. Seemingly a territory of allegory, Oregon’s rich farmland sits between the eastern Cascades and western Coastal Range, bounded by desert and ocean on the other side of either. Competing with these natural treasures is the phantasmal heritage of its countryside; Sasquatch, Batsquatch, Ogopogo, and the ghosts of Wizard Island all call this region home.

Revered by indigenous legend, the ranges brought to life a capricious and vindictive host of deities. Tacoma, modern-day Mount Rainier, purportedly hosted a wreathing lake of fire, the home of a malevolent spirit. Originally called Takhoma, the Mountain that was God, its ascent was forbidden for its spirit would consume unwitting travelers. These pre and postmodern interpretations of the natural world complement our scientific age. In spite of living in a world charted and accounted for, the natural world interpreted through myth offers us a fresh lens with which to perceive it.

The phenomenon is inexplicable and difficult to understand without visiting the region yourself.

In the same way, Portland is a masterpiece of contrasting palettes; it is both a blue-collar lumber workforce and a bastion of counter-culture.

Places to Visit in Portland

John and his partner Elizabeth’s Fifth Quadrant home was quite small. As such, we booked a lovely AirBnB right down the road. Here the gravel alleyway struck the divide between scores of homes, fenced and intimate. Directly across from our BnB sat Columbia Park which was often bathed in a chilly golden light. Portland averages daily highs of 43.9 °F (6.6 °C) and lows of 34.4 °F (1.3 °C) in December. Annually, it receives 4 to 9 inches in precipitation. This makes for a damp end to the year—cold and wet though not oppressive. Thus, the landscape finds itself permanently bedewed until highs of 82.4 °F roll in during the summer months.

Though our travel plans were last minute, we were nonetheless able to procure affordable tickets with only one layover in California. All told, it took us nearly ten hours to finally touch down in Portland. Bedraggled from our long flight, Sean and I endeavored to spend the rest evening in, catching up with our friends.

The next morning saw us to one of Portland’s famed landmarks: the Cathedral Bridge. The sky was overcast for the whole of our visit, darning earth to sky in a thick shroud of fog. This day was no different with a velvet backdrop of mist descending from the mountains on the Willamette River along the wharf’s length, vague patches of light and misted veil obscuring the sky. This did very little to dampen our spirits, however, and only added to the city’s intrigue. Later in the morning, we took brunch at Harvest at the Bindery which boasts a fully plant-based menu tailored to diets of preference and medical necessity.

We didn’t have extravagant plans for our New Years. Instead, we spent the 30th of December exploring the Portland countryside. Oregon’s rustic countenance immediately brought me back to my childhood. Specifically, Warroad, Minnesota. Oregon’s coniferous lumber country is hemmed by the Pacific Ocean at its western edge. Conversely, Warroad—so named for its indigenous population using the route for warfare—sits in the southwestern corner of the Lake of the Woods. Six miles from the Canadian border, it is mild in the summer and bitterly cold in the winter. The quayside town finds itself surrounded by densely thriving timber as well, swallowing the territory in its growth. These similarities, no matter how far removed, saw me to frequent fits of nostalgia such that I was often forcibly removed from my thoughts.

Sunset comes early for Oregon in the winter months; at 4:30pm the light wanes, leaving the city dark for sixteen hours during the winter months. After we had taken our tour of the mountainous hills surrounding the city, we returned our host’s home to prepare the evening. They were simple but not lacking in warmth; we sat watching our favorite movies, drinking our favorite beer, and eating finger food until the countdown for midnight began. Unfortunately for Sean, the change in time zones meant his natural rhythm had seen him to midnight already. When Oregon’s own midnight arrived, three hours past Georgia’s, we woke him for the toast. Immediately after we carefully him collected into the vehicle and returned to our AirBnB. It was less five minutes away by foot.

Things to Do in Portland

On New Year’s day we explored the city. At this point, our hosts believed it imperative that we visit The Gold Door. Equal parts occult and curiosities shop, it houses all manner of materials for myriad faiths. Additionally, it features jewelry and crafts from independent artists as well as small businesses ripe with Portland flavor. It is definitely worth its own trip.

Later, Elizabeth and I, both great lovers of thrift finds, perused Red Light Clothing Exchange while John and Sean imbibed down the street at Mulligan’s Bar and Grill. Incidentally, Portland is well-known for its wide selection of vegetarian and vegan-friendly food options. Similar options exist in Atlanta, though concentrated in the so-called alternative parts of town. Portland is unique in that it features multiple stand-alone vegetarian restaurants. In fact, most restaurants offer vegetarian options alongside more conventional menu items. To this effect, there are two locations for Fire on the Mountain, a Portland-based wings shop featuring vegetarian wings next to their poultry counterparts. They offer the cultural experience missed by many after abstaining from meat.

The afternoon was decidedly casual as we took in our surroundings and appreciated all the local spirits that we could stand. We had many plans for our trip; the mountain ranges were calling to my Denver-born sensibilities, the coast to Sean’s saltwater veins. Pressed for time as we were with intermittently threatening skies, we settling instead on neighboring nature preserves. Mount Tabor Park became our afternoon destination, a popular spot for bikers and runners alike. Named by Plympton Kelly, the volcanic cinder cone’s name comes from the mountain of the same name in Israel, six miles east of Nazareth. This name features Portland’s distinct Jewish settler past. And though the day’s chill bit clean to the bone, it was an uncharacteristically sunny day, with the sky peeking through the clouds throughout the day.

The city built water reservoirs on-site between 1894 and 1911, visible through the deciduous overstory sloping down the hillside. The understory features ferns in overabundance, competing viciously with the moss that grows over anything still long enough. In fact, being so invasive, annual roof moss-removal postpones inevitable wood rot. But in the forest, unharassed and left to grow, aged trees bowed beneath its weight. The virescent growth teams with microscopic life, filtering particulate matter from the air.

That evening, we were taken to the Falafel House, an all vegetarian shawarma food truck. Renowned for its food truck culture, the fare is as being as far removed from greasy empty calories as a conventional sit-down restaurant.

The trip was rapidly coming to a close, but we still had one more day left.

Attractions in Portland

Our final full day in meant that we had downtown Portland left to explore. Compact and walkable, downtown Portland makes up for what it lacks in height and space with cultural flair. Nine bridges dissect the downtown and immediately adjacent areas. These cramped quarters create the need for the revitalization of each building for want of space. This lack of room for commercial expansion lends itself to more diversity per square block.  Portland finds its history preserved rather than abandoned.

If you have been regaled with stories of Portland by friends, they’ve no doubt told you to visit the famed Powell’s City of Books. Tucked in the Pearl District, Powell’s proclaims itself the largest independent bookstore in the world with 1.6 acres of retail floor space, nine color-coded rooms, and over 3,500 different sections. I had a single-minded goal in exploring this store; to repurchase a book I read in college.

The Spirit Catches You & You Fall Down makes a compelling case for intercultural understanding. It makes the case for the intersection between the dichotomy of cultural belief systems and modern medicine. It argues for the fair treatment of immigrants struggling to understand their new world.

The book follows the Lee family’s migration to the United States after the Vietnam War’s displacement of the Hmong people. Her epilepsy diagnosis became compounded by a lack of education and cultural understanding, her death considered avoidable. My first anthropology instructor suggested I read this book in 2011 after I submitted my final paper on the Akha. However, I was only able to read it in my Culture, Health, and Disease class two years later. Considered required reading by anthropologists and sociologists alike, it’s also Anthropology 101 material.

After exploring downtown, we were taken to McMenamin’s Kennedy School. Originally opened in 1915, the historic elementary school has since become a renovated hotel. It hosts 57 rooms, a restaurant, a movie theater, a pool, and myriad bars. The chill was no less pronounced this evening, which made The Honors Bar with its rustic wood stove and old boiler an easy choice. Its menu offers local brews and ciders alongside a finger menu designed to satiety rather than fill.

The weekend came to a close in warm, close quarters with spirits raised high from within and without.


I have compiled a list of additional resources regarding this entry and its contents for researching the topics therein:

Travel Portland: if you’re unsure of where to get started when planning your trip to Portland, Travel Portland is an excellent place to get your toes wet.

Foodcarts Portland: Portland is renowned for its food truck culture that caters to every dietary preference you can think of! You’ll find no shortage of delicious food on the go, here.

Eater Portland: alongside its booming food truck business, Portland has an extensive list of top-notch breweries. There is something for everyone, and if there isn’t, maybe you’re too picky!

Parks to Visit in Portland: a comprehensive list of parks to visit while in Portland!

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