The last time I was in Portland was in 2008, when I lived there for a summer that would change my life. Now that I’m back four-and-a-half years later in gloomy and rainy mid-December, I’m reliving bits and pieces of those memories. At this very moment, I find myself in what seems to be a quintessential Portland activity–sitting in an Albina Press Coffeehouse drinking a fresh brew of Stumptown french press coffee–and letting those summer memories of ’08 wash over me as I hide away from the winter rain outside. For various reasons, I view my time in Portland in the summer of ’08 as a major turning point in my life, and since then, I’ve idealized the city.
Portland was founded near the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers, just an hour away from the Columbia River Gorge, an expansive canyon noted for its beautiful scenery and waterfalls. The Willamette snakes through the center of the city, effectively dividing it into two regions, an east and a west. Using the Willamette River as the marker for east-west and Burnside St. as the north-south divider, the city was split into five sectors: Southwest, Southeast, Northwest, North, and Northeast.
Portland is a city known for its oddities and quirks, so much so that it’s even inspired a satiric tv series called Portlandia. The city is home to not only Forest Park, the largest wilderness park within city limits in the United States that covers more than 5,000 acres (2,023 ha), but it’s the city that also founded Mill Ends Park, the world’s smallest park (a two-foot-diameter circle, the park’s area is only about 0.3 m2). Many of Lawrence Halprin’s best known works are also found in Portland, most notable the Ira Keller fountain.
In 2008, I moved to Portland for an internship with Mercy Corps, a non-profit global aid and relief organization. That summer in Portland changed my life in many ways. It was as if the earth cracked open and stream of knowledge surged up: cycling, urban agriculture, composting, sustainability, farmer’s markets, green roofs, urban design, car-free living, the meaning of a community, the list goes on. This exposure eventually led to my enrollment as a landscape architecture major.
Now that I find myself back in Portland, trying to get back into that summer state of mind seems impossible. I feel as though I’m moving through the city as a shadow. It may be the dark days of winter rain and cold casting its dark shadow on my trip, but there just seems to be something missing this time around. It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed my stay, but there’s a quality missing that’s hard to identify, or perhaps its homesickness for an idealized past.
During my stay, I toured around and revisited a couple of my favorite places: sitting at the (now-dry) Ira Keller fountain; lining up at one of many food cart pods (there are so many more now!); drinking from Benson Bubbler fountains; losing myself in the aisles of Powell’s Bookstore; eating Hot Lips pizza (again, again, and again); savoring Indian food while perched atop Pioneer Courthouse Square; taking a dip in the hot salt baths of the McMenamins’ Kennedy School.
On a trip to Voodoo Doughnuts—so I could finally sink my teeth into a Maple Bacon Bar, the doughnut that was always sold out when I visited in 2008—I unexpectedly stumbled across the fancy new LEED-certfied Mercy Corps location. I first took a brief tour inside of their Action Center, their visitor’s center with rotating exhibits and programming and was stunned by the level of creative thought in creating the hands-on, educational exhibits. It was great to revisit!