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Ingredients for an Urban Trek

When planning routes for my urban walks, I have standards: the route can't be found elsewhere; must be a loop; must have a story to tell; must contain somewhere to spend money, whether on coffee, beer, or books; and must be at least three miles long, preferably longer.

When I begin planning, my first thrill comes via topographic maps: tight contour lines mean views. Great views are one of life's sweetest rewards. Then, before I research the area's natural or cultural history, I'll map out a route, using what I already know about it. Next is research into the area's National Historic Districts, if any, and mining of the text (and bibliographies) of old Portland books, for offbeat sources of information. Then I drive/walk my draft route, making changes as I encounter a wall made of nineteenth century ballast stone, a park where two streams converge, or a lonely bridge spanning an isolated forest canyon.

My goal is to have each neighborhood, park, and the city's geologically varied landforms tell their stories so that a walker can see why they're here, who and what created them, and discover dozens of reasons to come back to enjoy them again. Here's a list of things that make for a great urban trek:

1. City staircases, at least fifty, preferably in one staircase. The steeper the better.

2. Alleys, unpaved, ideally, with old apple trees and unimpeded views of backyards.

3. Dead-ends with unmarked public right of ways behind them that let you shortcut the street grid and go where the neighbors would rather you not.

4. Free-flowing creeks in the heart of the city.

5. Walls, tunnels, buildings, anything built by the WPA.

6. Old Carnegie libraries.

7. Old school buildings with their quaint touches: a sundial in a gable end; a terra cotta girl, pigtails hanging down, over the girl's entrance; an old "keep off the grass" sign embedded in the wall, evidence of an era when adults were sterner to children.

8. Odd vantage points, like under the soaring, surprisingly beautiful arches of a freeway bridge, or inside the world's longest enclosed pedestrian bridge.

9. Trees or bushes with an interesting ethnobotanical pedigree.

10. An assortment of man-made quirks: a yard filled with rock cairns, a home that has turned its chimney into a rock-climbing wall, a wall embedded with hand carved stonework recycled from a demolished downtown office building, a street of houseboats long ago hauled up the bank and turned into regular homes, but with subtle clues to their past, if you know where to look.

11. Districts on the National Historic Register: they always have a story to tell.

12. Architect-designed homes, or neighborhoods of kit bungalows and foursquares — always charming, and in Portland, invariably lovingly restored.

13. Big trees that haven't been topped.

14. Landforms created or impacted by the Missoula Floods.

15. Cemeteries and Water Bureau property, de facto parks that don't get much attention from the general public, and which invariably offer views and peace.

16. Transitions: where industry meets residential, cliff meets bottomland, neighborhood segues into forest, river meets its beach, or forests canyons hide under freeway bridges, a green world unseen by the speeding vehicles flying far above.

17. Most important: a commercial district, preferably from the streetcar era, of local shops and restaurants, because every walk deserves a destination to anticipate.

The book I'm writing now, Portland City Walks, is like Portland Hill Walks, but it covers some classic neighborhoods too flat for the first book, such as Irvington and Piedmont, and five historic towns around Portland, such as Oregon City and Vancouver. My favorite comment when I give walking tours is from native Portlanders who'll say, "I never knew that!" There's a universe of intrigue and forgotten stories on every street.

÷ ÷ ÷

Laura O. Foster is a writer and expert on the history of Portland, Oregon, and the small towns around it. She is the author of The Portland Stairs Book, Portland Hill Walks, Portland City Walks, Lake Oswego (Images of America), and the writer/editor of Walk There! 50 Treks In and Around Portland and Vancouver. When not writing about Portland, Foster is busy creating new urban adventures or leading walks for local governments, civic groups, and nonprofits. She blogs at portlandwalking.blogspot.com.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Portland Stairs Book
    New Trade Paper $12.95
  2. Portland Hill Walks: Twenty...
    Used Trade Paper $7.95
  3. Portland City Walks: Twenty...
    Used Trade Paper $13.50
  4. Lake Oswego (Images of America) Used Trade Paper $11.50
  5. Portland Hill Walks: Twenty...
    Used Trade Paper $7.95

Laura Foster is the author of The Portland Stairs Book

5 Responses to "Ingredients for an Urban Trek"

    Judy Blankenship October 5th, 2006 at 9:51 am

    My favorite walks are those I get to take with Laura as she scouts new routes! I'm always angling for an invitation, and even though I know our chatting distracts from the work at hand, it's fun to have a personal guide through, say, the historic Kenton neighborhood, while Laura points out turn-of-the-century workers' houses built by the meatpacking giant Swift, the company that owned the town then...
    ...I can't wait for the next book, Laura!

    Andrea October 5th, 2006 at 4:16 pm

    Your unique look at our city has opened the eyes of even the most long-standing citizens. Your book is a source of continual joy and amazement. You have given all your readers and walkers a greater appreciation of our fair city. Many thanks.

    Jeanne October 6th, 2006 at 8:31 am

    As a testament to the popularity of this book, I've had several copies of this book blatently ripped off from my house. Visitors and locals alike take a look, since I keep it on the living room table, and walk away with it. Of course, they say they're borrowing it and will return it but so far...no returns. And I don't mind a bit. It's a pleasure to "pass on" a good book.

    Beth October 6th, 2006 at 8:45 am

    The last book was great and I can't wait for the next one! Irvington is one of my favorite neighborhoods!

    Nancy Henry October 7th, 2006 at 5:05 pm

    I too have loved Laura's book, Portland Hill Walks. Because I know and love Laura too, I got a kick last spring from passing trekkers huddled intently over her book on the downward end of a steep hill in the Alameda neighborhood. A few months later, I became an "east side traitor"--sold my house and moved to the hills of Portland Heights. I reread Laura's accounts of the walks in my new neighborhood (glorious!). And wouldn't you know--just last week, I passed another couple heading onto English lane, Hill Walks book in hand. This book gets around!

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