People often ask how I “find” the urban walking routes in my books. The question fascinates me: Doesn’t everyone make a habit of creating inefficient, circuitous routes to get places? Rewards and opportunities abound on a nonlinear walk or bike ride: spotting a distant tree’s crown and zigzagging over to admire it, discovering new streets that appear when you follow a footpath from a dead end, stopping to study a yard or house and getting invited in for a closer look. Along the way, time spent hanging out — not moving at all — lets the scene sink into your experience, as you eat or drink, chat with someone, or read the neighborhood newspaper in a cafe.
Writing about urban meandering in cities wasn’t an intended career path when I graduated with a finance degree and headed into commercial banking. But increasing discomfort with the satisfied isolation bankers can create for themselves led me to quit. So I decided to study woody landscape plants and nursery management.
Ultimately, ornamental horticulture was not a career path I followed. But it was a meander that still brings sweet satisfaction, almost daily. It taught me the names and characters of plants that share the world with me. Wherever I walk, I recognize them or their cousins, and I know some of their secrets. Prunus serrulata
, Mahonia aquifolium
, and Quercus garryana
: encountering them on a walk is like seeing an old friend.
Once I left the paved path for sometimes pot-holed routes, life became a series of uncertainties, but also of small delights, delivered not in two-week vacations but in ordinary moments 12 months a year. Many Northwesterners have done the same: we seem to culture multipreneurs
here, people with two or three discrete money-making endeavors that allow our sparks to flame up and shine for others to enjoy. This sparky brightness is one of Portland’s most endearing qualities, I think.
On a recent walk to look at the architecture in the Buckman neighborhood, friends and I passed a fur-covered van. We stopped to marvel at it and discovered it belonged to a nearby chocolate shop. After free samples, a few purchases, and intriguing stories about chocolate-making, we exited, giddy with discovery, feeling like modern-day Magellans.
But so what: A chocolate shop? How ordinary.
Ah, but the ordinary is rich and wonderful, if you only stop to let it be part of your journey. It’s life’s ordinary moments in a pre-Portlandia
Portland that Beverly Cleary
noticed and wrote about: a dog getting lost and interrupting a football game at Multnomah Stadium, sure that he saw his boy in the stands. And ordinary is the girl teased to extremes by a boy in school, and who metes out a satisfying punishment in an icy Laurelhurst Park. Ordinary is the boy who rides his bike to an interview on Knott Street for an Oregon Journal
paper route job, hindered slightly by the kittens he found along the way and zipped into his coat. It’s also the girl sincerely puzzled by her teacher’s annoyance when she accidentally smashes a raw egg into her forehead in a Portland public school.
All so ordinary, but all so satisfying, and so connective. Who hasn’t lost a pet, had an awkward interview, dealt with a jerk, or felt misunderstood by someone in authority?
Beverly knew ordinariness was golden — it’s the way we are all linked to each other. But often ordinary
has a pejorative connotation. It’s not super
, words that social media has trained us to attach to our experiences. Beverly doesn’t post on social media, but I’m guessing she would find its subtle push to curate a series of superlative status updates sort of nauseating. (I think, though, she’d like the cat videos.)
She knew there’s sublime universality in the ordinary. It can be hard to see its value when it’s your
ordinary, but Beverly did. She took the Grant Park neighborhood she lived in, in the then-unheralded Portland, Oregon, of the 1920s, and mined nuggets out of it. She didn’t bother to make them shiny and perfect. As a child, books about noble dogs and smooth-haired, virtuous children didn’t fool her. She’d snap a book shut when she sensed a lesson lurking in its pages.
I aim for that universal, unvarnished connection in my books’ routes, in showcasing joys to be found in the ordinary places we forget to see when we live in a city. Creating a walking or biking route, even if it’s just to show readers the houses, schools, parks, and streets of Beverly Cleary’s life, is not about efficient passages from A
. It’s also about the nearby places and urban layers that help tell a larger story, and diverting the reader to them, as well as the places they actually came to see.
When I create routes for books like Walking with Ramona
or Portland Hill Walks
, I’m inspired by rivers — not rivers that have been straightened into channels like the Willamette in Portland, but wild rivers that meander, form exasperatedly inefficient oxbows, pool for quiet spells, then drop with a sudden wild commotion.
Occasionally when I lead walking tours, a man (it’s always a man) will tell me that it’d be quicker to get to our destination if we went “this way,” said with an authoritative point.
Ah, true. Quicker. But better? A good walk — one where you want to be part of a place and not hastening through it — is like that meandering river. The straightest path isn’t the path you’re going to have great discoveries on. Straight paths, like straightened roads, have hidden costs: as you travel atop a paved line of rock-and-fill instead of around a valley’s curves, or along a road cut across a mountain’s slopes, you’re traveling fast and getting to your destination efficiently. But the tyranny of speed won’t permit you to slow down, and the linearity doesn’t offer many attractive options anyway.
Truly, it’s in the curves and meanders where life is richest. On a walk, meanders created by following your instincts, exploring side streets far from the fast flow — that’s where people’s creativity lives: a sculpture placed in the woods by a neighbor, a front yard turned into a cairn garden, a poetry post sending thought vibes into the neighborhood. That’s where you and the scene come together. You’re not just passing through; you’re part of it for a while, a layer in its fabric.
Beverly Cleary couldn’t see a paved path forward as a teenager. As a Grant High student during the Depression, she didn’t have a smooth roadbed to college or a straight route to the independence she craved. Her dad was deeply unhappy, torn by economic forces from his beloved Yamhill farm and relegated to a series of jobs guarding bank vaults. Her mom, a once-adventurous woman, became emotionally cramped by restrictions of the era. She hovered, criticisms at the ready, over Beverly’s shoulder. Lack of money was always an issue, and laughter, Beverly notes, was not a sound that bounced off the walls of their Northeast 37th Avenue home.
But like a river that runs up against a boulder midstream, Beverly didn’t rebel. She went around the obstacles that the economy and her parents created. She flowed, sometimes in a straight path as she worked her way through college, and sometimes into a meandering side channel. She took up a career in librarianship that didn’t last, but which, like Steve Jobs’s famous foray into calligraphy, indelibly informed her later literary success, at age 34, with the publication of her first book, Henry Huggins
For those with the good fortune to have some control over our economic destinies, the straight path can end at a disappointing destination. So here’s to the meandering path that takes us to life’s dead ends, its side streets, and its challenging stair climbs. It’s that path that reveals, when we slow down enough, opportunities along the way and the ever-present inspirations from others who inhabit those less-traveled spaces.
My favorite Beverly Cleary books are nothing but a series of meandering, satisfying tales about boys, girls, and dogs in Portland. I recommend Ribsy
, Henry and the Paper Route
, and all the Ramona books
. Ramona is so ordinary but so magnificent in her personhood, even when she was only three. She’s a great role model for exploring your own life’s meandering paths. And if you love learning about Portland, books to read in sequence are Beverly’s two autobiographies, A Girl from Yamhill
and My Own Two Feet
, which cover her life from birth in 1916 to the publication of her first book in 1950. Afterwards, my book Walking with Ramona
takes you to the places you just read about: the places of Beverly Cleary’s Portland.
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Laura O. Foster
writes about the Pacific Northwest. Her Portland-based books explore the city's geology, architecture, neighborhoods, and human and natural history. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her family.