by Laura O. Foster, April 11, 2016 5:09 PM
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...
by Laura O. Foster, December 17, 2010 10:42 AM
Last summer I led two walks for the City of Portland that began in a Northeast Portland neighborhood, climbed through deep woods on trails once used to pasture cattle, entered a mysterious tunnel, and emerged on a stone-lined roadway, which we strolled to the top of Rocky Butte. Of the 50 people on each walk, most had never been up to the top. When they got there, they were stunned.
Walkers coming up the Grand Staircase to the top of the butte
Rocky Butte offers the best view in Portland, I think: nearly 360 degrees, ranging east into the Gorge past Vista House, north with views of three Cascade peaks, west to downtown and the West Hills, and southeast to the series of Boring Lava domes that lift the land to the base of the Cascades. And even better, the stonework atop the butte rivals Timberline Lodge for its "wow" factor. I first wrote about the butte in Portland Hill Walks and it's still one of my favorite walks for combining so many diverse elements in one urban trek.
Southeast view from top of butte
The butte's amenities date from the same era as Timberline; both were Depression-era work relief projects. The stonework atop it was hand-carved from basalt quarried from the butte itself. The result is a castlelike effect seldom seen in Portland. The viewpoint at the top was a showpiece in its heyday but by the 1980s, not so much. Partiers, parkers (the romantic sort), and dumpers found the dark butte a good place to hang out...
by Laura O. Foster, December 16, 2010 10:49 AM
I've been writing about Portland for years. Without gushing, let's just say Portland is one gorgeous setting in which to wake up each morning. While I give props to volcanic eruptions, the Missoula Floods, and damp marine air for the riches they left behind here, overlaying these natural assets is something perhaps more intriguing: individual citizens whose passions and tenacity have shaped the city — fighting back proposed freeways, mucking garbage out of urban streams, righting toppled headstones in forgotten cemeteries...
They started with no more background or skill than many of us, and simply adopted a corner of town — and over the years, incrementally, have created urban treasures. I've met many of these people in my research and they are, I think, some of our most shining urban assets.
A citizen, the American Heritage Dictionary says, is "a person owing loyalty to and entitled by birth or naturalization to the protection of a state or nation."
Robin Jensen and David Lewis are two Portland citizens who haven't just enjoyed the entitlements of citizenship but have put a citizen's loyalty into actions that have resulted in two Portland places now celebrated by guidebook writers and meetup groups.
In today's post, I write about Robin's involvement with Southwest Portland's Marquam Nature Park. Tomorrow I'll write about David's work on Northeast Portland's Rocky Butte, a 600-foot-high volcanic peak topped with a WPA-era jewel...
by Laura O. Foster, December 15, 2010 10:41 AM
If you’re never uncomfortable how can you recognize comfort?
I’m just about 50, and have been jettisoning stuff from my life for the last decade or so. Freedom from fumbling around in a coat and pack with 12 pockets each, let me tell you, is rich, and in itself both a small pleasure and my revolt against our culture’s obsession with comfort and provision. The less I have or carry, the more I enjoy the challenges of making do in the moment.
Though my work is to explore and walk Portland, a city many believe to be one of the wettest in the country, I don’t own a raincoat or rain pants. Those shoop-shoop noises rain pants make would cause me, I’m pretty sure, to strip them off and make a scene right in the middle of a staircase or city park. Gore-Tex raincoats, so densely pocketed and over-designed, make me feel like I’m in an isolated pod of technology, with every noisy arm-swing keeping me full of myself and out of the scene. Wool, crafted in the laboratory of evolution, is my choice.
An impromptu urban waterfall seen while drenched in Portland.
I live in jeans and own four pairs. I do possess a pair of formal wool pants that I put on when I want to try to convince someone to hire me. They haven’t really worked, however, so it’s mostly jeans I’m in. Jeans are one of the most functional items of clothing: simple, with just four pockets — always in the same places. Yes, they get wet. Humans should get wet. It feels good. What’s more pleasant than being wet and chilled, then ducking into a coffee shop and wrapping red hands around a ceramic mug? Sure, if I were hiking on Mount Hood, I’d be less of a Spartan, but I’m not: I’m trekking around in a city, never beyond a reasonable walk to food, shelter, transit or, when worst comes to worst, a Goodwill store.
My philosophy about the ups and downs of an urban walk is evident too in my refrigerator and pantry, which I keep stocked just enough so that we have to be creative foragers by week’s end. Without too much always available, I’m not insulated from the natural ebb and flow of abundance and shortage, discomfort and relief from it. Ask my children what they think; perhaps they’ll have a different opinion.
What I do carry outdoors in the rain is an umbrella; the sound of a downpour furiously drumming on a ShedRain umbrella is a pleasure that comes just a few times a year. (ShedRain, a Portland-based company, makes the best wind-resistant umbrella I’ve ever owned.) Portlanders don’t need to employ our umbrellas often... most of our precipitation is so misty and soft we want to feel it on our faces, but there are those days when umbrellas are handy, such as Thursday, December 2, 2010. I returned from a five block walk in the rain along West Burnside to find my Prius submerged to its seats in a small, debris-strewn lake created by a backed-up storm drain. And even after stripping off my shoes and socks, chucking the umbrella in the car, and rolling up my pants for 30 minutes of bailing, my wool coat (two pockets) kept me cozy and quiet inside. The rain was epic, I was drenched and soon to be out a big pile of money, but the moment had its magic. And I was in
by Laura O. Foster, December 14, 2010 10:09 AM
When stressed by money, people, or deadlines, I take my feet into a Portland neighborhood and start walking. Søren Kierkegaard wrote, "Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness." So true. I have Portlanders to thank for my relatively good mental health. I live in the forest just beyond the city's limits, and many afternoons I leave my computer and kitchen to climb around in our woods, pruning saw in hand, cutting back dead limbs and toppling small trees shaded into death by our growing firs. I come back tired and peaceful. But walking in the city's neighborhoods makes me laugh and come home optimistic and enthusiastic. At an observer's pace, the small displays of human creativity seen on an urban walk stand up to make you smile: a chimney turned into a climbing wall, a tile lizard inviting you to sit and rest in a homeowner's parking strip, and the poetry posts that are proliferating in yards around town.
A few weeks ago Portland author Gabriel Boehmer emailed me about Portland's poetry posts. Gabe wrote a book called City of Readers and is tuned into Oregon poets and writers the same way I'm tuned in to manhole covers and urban staircases.
A poetry post (or poetry pole or poetry box) is a wooden pole, usually, mounted on private property, so that it faces pedestrians. On top of the pole is a box, with a glass or clear face and a lid. Inside the box is a sheet of paper containing a poem (or, sometimes, prose or a photograph). Sometimes the pole is absent, the box mounted to a tree. That's it.
Gabe and I went on a poetry post tour of his Grant Park neighborhood and passed a poem on NE 36th Avenue. "My daughter and I pass this post every day on our way to Grant Park. She wants to stop and read the poem so we always do." She's four; she's reading poetry in a stranger's yard with her dad. A magical memory, one she can pull from the depths when, at 49 or 54, she's unable to sleep one night, wondering how to pay the college tuition bill and pondering other exigencies that cause a middle-aged person to reflect on life and choices. A memory to smooth the coming bumps.
by Laura O. Foster, December 13, 2010 9:59 AM
I was invited by a warehouse club near Portland to sign books one recent Saturday afternoon. It was in East Vancouver, Washington, an area not featured in any of my books. With a bit of trepidation about that, but thankful they were carrying my books, I arrived and checked in.
2 p.m. I settle in. Passersby and I nod or smile. Sale number one comes after 16 minutes. Was my gratefulness to the couple uncomfortable for them?
Get out the notebook. To shoppers ambling by, eyes focused on the opportunities ahead, it's meant to telegraph that while interested in my surroundings and in them, too, of course, I have a notebook. A purpose. I am not desperate.
"Daddy, can I be the pusher?"
"But I can see!" The girl, about seven, demonstrates her ability to see over the cart handle. But her father's attention has transferred to the display of iPhone docking stations. He didn't hear that last bit, or even notice me. I shouldn't have worn earth tones.
2:24 p.m. Still just one sale.
Typical scene: one person pushes the cart, musing aloud about potential purchases and perceived needs to the other person, who ambles behind, talking to person number one's back; both heads swivel rhythmically: left, right, 45 degrees, 90 degrees, then come to a stop at an object that connects with their desire.
2:36 p.m. No further sales.
"Maybe I should just get me a buggy," says a middle aged woman. A buggy. Is that a Vancouver term? Interesting. She dumps her broccoli and bread into her friend's cart and the friend waits for her at the book aisle. Her eyes flick over me and past, like I'm cauliflower and she's not planning on cooking cauliflower tonight.
Only every third metal halide light in the ceiling is on. On this December day, when the air feels like bright shards of fractured cold, blue daylight pours in through rectangular windows in the ceiling. Some appear to be openable. Nice green touch.
The floor provides an incentive to stay and buy: it's concrete, tinted a quiet, eye-soothing gray, so smooth carts practically flow over it. A cart/buggy filled with four giggling kids is pushed as effortlessly as the empty carts just entering the arena.
What a great place to roller skate. Did the contractors let their kids in to do that before handing it over to be filled with all this stuff?
An abandoned cart with meat in it has been sitting behind me. I snag a red-vested employee and point it out. She grabs the meat expertly and tosses it right back in the cart. "It's done," she pronounces with the air of an ER doctor. Too warm to sell. She ferries the cart away. I wonder about the meat's fate: homeless shelter, or too much liability?
"Bob, are you going to stay right here?"
Bob is middle aged. He nods yes and two women who look like they could be his mother and maybe her friend walk off. He picks up a book and after a bit notices me sitting at the end cap. He smiles and comes over to talk to me.
"I was thinking of writing a book, but I need some bad guys," he says. "I have good guys — half human, half elves."
Bob, I love you! I am so ready for a chat with someone who likes books. But before I can ask Bob any questions about his protagonists, the two women appear, corral Bob between them and disappear.
3 p.m. Light outside is fading; now two out of every three lights are on.
3:03 p.m. Sale number two.
I write down ideas for potential blog posts: should I kvetch about bits of grit that get under my prickly skin — young women in stores who say "thank you" in faux little-girl voices, swallowing the "ank," or people who don't say "You're welcome" on NPR. After they've been thanked by the interviewer, they invariably thank the interviewer back. "I see your gratitude and raise you one." Whatever happened to "You're welcome!" But I veto crankiness as a blog topic. As Oregon's congressman Earl Blumenauer says, "No whining on the yacht."
Maybe I'm just getting in the way of sales. In this vast sea of commerce where computers to diamond rings to frozen spanakopita are for sale, books are like phytoplankton — vital to a healthy ecosystem but near-invisible among the dominant sharks, happy dolphins, and other eye catching reef dwellers. An expectant author sitting in front of her books may actually be exactly what a shopper doesn't want. As a warehouse shopper, you've got a list, and you're not expecting literary conversations. You're not expecting any human connections at all — until you reach the sample ladies.
3:33 p.m. All the lights are on now as the blue light outside deepens. It's quiet in here; at times, I see no one in the main aisle ahead of me. It's a brand new store, open just two weeks, as I learn from a kind employee who has been observing my isolation from the electronics section.
"Are you busy today?" a woman asks a red-vested guy at the jewelry counter.
"No," he answers in a friendly way. She wants to be shown something in automotive. He leaves off polishing the glass cabinets and walks off with her.
At 4 p.m., I fold up my chair, return it to the box of chairs for sale, and head out into a beautiful sunset, happy, mostly, with where I've been
by Laura O. Foster, October 6, 2006 10:02 AM
Ten years ago I moved away from town, seventeen miles is all, but far enough to keep me home at night, missing out on a lot. Portland is rich with readings, concerts, tours of chicken coops, lectures, restaurants, beer fests, public pillow fights
, bookstores, street fairs, farmers markets, bread fests, hikes, bike tours, tours of vintage kitchens and gardens, art fairs, and dog shows. The newspaper’s entertainment listings give a culture fan the same frisson of anticipation a shopaholic feels when entering a mall.
But the trade off is in getting tuned in and tied to the earth's daily and seasonal cycles. It's the harvest now and each day lately we've helped bring in a chestnut crop. We've dried a bumper harvest of plums; the raspberries are still producing and collecting them is one of the few household activities my 18-year-old still participates in. Tomatoes are looking for attention, peppers, eggplants, sunflowers… I can't go to First Thursday tonight because they're waiting for us.
Winter is time for pruning: limbing up our emerging forest, creating new trails from overgrown logging roads, hacking back the ivy that's not going to get more than a toehold on these hills, as long as I'm alive, and watching a series of mushrooms come and go, telling myself that one of these days I'll learn which are edible.
Spring is planting, of course, and harvesting dandelions and other "volunteer" edibles like miner's lettuce and wild radish. More to learn on that topic, too.
Summer is when we play, but worry too. In September, an east wind brought the stench and haze of fire. Ninety degrees, not a drop in months, our fields were parched, with many small trees already dead. A spark, carried on that wind, could be the end of our peace. My husband raced about, getting hoses out, readying the pump to get water out of our small pond. I had to go into town, where no one seemed to notice the weather ? the ominous, stinky sky, the potential for disaster. Driving down chic NW 23rd Avenue among people laden with shopping bags, I felt like a prophet with a message no one could hear. I wanted to be back home, where I can keep the potential for disaster and the potential for each day's beauty and gifts close to my heart.
All this nature stuff is new, and is being taught to me by a fairly inept teacher: myself. I'm a child of suburbia, where shrubs whose name no one knew were severely trimmed and vegetables no one wanted to eat came in cans. Left to ourselves by lovingly benign parents, nature was in hide and seek played in the corn field beyond the schoolyard and running on steamy summer nights through the fog of pesticide that blasted from the back of "the mosquito man's" truck.
Perhaps my organic diet will counteract the damage done on those magical nights. As a middle-class fortysomething, I know I'm just following the pendulum swing that many others are riding, nothing too original. But it feels good to have a found a path I want to stay on until I'm too old to walk
by Laura O. Foster, October 5, 2006 9:23 AM
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
by Laura O. Foster, October 4, 2006 9:31 AM
My cat was limping severely on a Saturday, with her front leg swollen. I brought her to the vet. When our turn came, the vet squeezed my kitty's leg, spurting blood and pus onto my white sweater, and diagnosed an abscess.
"Do you let your cat out?" A loaded question that has tripped me up before. Once, on a cat-seeking mission, I had to leave the Humane Society catless because I admitted my cats use the doors, just like the rest of us. These days, in some quarters, it's bad form to let a cat outside ? the world is a deadly place, and not only should your children be restrained to the indoors, where they can be observed at all times, so should your domestic
Personally, I'd rather forfeit twenty years than be denied access to the outdoors. I live in the country and it's beautiful. My cats climb trees, tag along with us on our trails, dig in the dirt, loll under the raspberries when I'm weeding the garden, and soak up the sun on the lawn furniture. Their enjoyment of life is palpable. Cruelty would be to sentence them to a few decades of my home's not-that-interesting interior landscape while I'm outside having all sorts of fun. Besides, I refuse to buy those ugly carpet covered faux tree stumps when there's perfectly good Douglas fir right outside the door.
But I skipped the back story and went into a lame defensive spiel about how we're an outdoors family, propping doors open as long as the weather's warm. Silence. No "Oh sure, I know how it is, cats love to lie in the sun, don't they?" Just silence.
Then he said, "Well, she's been bitten by another cat, and it probably happened several days ago." Another silent accusation: Don't you notice when your cat is injured?
No. we have four children coming and going, meals to cook, jobs, a large garden and lots of just, plain living to do. The cat has a job: keep the field mice out of the house. We love her, but she has to pull her weight. And I haven't actually even seen her lately, until this morning.
I didn't say that.
So he told me the cat would require surgery and general anesthesia.
I inquired, "Can you give me an estimate?" That brought his head up sharply from the chart he was notating.
"You want an estimate?"
Yes. This is a cat.
That's not what I said. I swallowed the desire to explain myself and just nodded.
He disappeared with a semi-anguished look thrown back at me and soon emerged with an estimate for $370, which might go higher if she had to be kept until Monday, due to any complications or a slow recovery from the anesthesia.
"Three hundred-seventy dollars?" I said, "Wow, I don't know about that." And then I got apologetic: "It's not that I don't think your services are worth it, but $370, or more? I might not want to do this. I mean, the cat kills mice."
The way I see it, I'm humane: using a cat rather than toxic chemicals to kill rodents ? at least that's what those little buggers have been used to for billions of years, not dying by asphyxiation or whatever gruesome death is meted out by rat poison. My cat is great at her job. But I'm not paying a $370 medical bill so she can keep doing it when there are about 18 kajillion cats who could do the same. And millions of kids who will never have $370 spent on their medical care in their entire life. Hell, I think twice before spending $370 on me.
He asked me to accompany him back to the inner sanctum, the surgery room, where a revolting-looking, 30-pound cat was resting in a cage, its face swollen and stitched like George Foreman after Ali had had his way with him. This cat was also in a cat fight, the doctor said, and his owners have paid $600 for his surgery, emphasis on the six, just like an overwrought local news anchor.
Well. Does one asinine decision require another?
Again, I withheld the sarcasm. I stared in awe at the $600 cat and thought of people in Africa I'd read about who, for lack of a $6 mosquito net, die from malaria.
"Well, I don't think I want surgery," I said. "How much is it to euthanize the cat?"
"You want to put a cat down for an abscess?" was the incredulous reply.
No, I want to put her down to avoid paying you $370.
"No one has ever done that before," he said accusingly. Yes, that's me, Hitler reborn. Kill the infirm, the odd, the different.
"Is there any option?" I asked, ignoring his now-obvious extreme distaste for me. I really love that cat but I was way beyond sharing that with him.
There was. For $65, he sent me home with a cat whose paw he shaved, and a week's worth of oral and topical antibiotics. The cat and I bonded mightily as I doctored her. She's fine now and I have a new vet, one out in the boonies who knows a farm animal when she sees
by Laura O. Foster, October 3, 2006 9:31 AM
The best paid CEO at an Oregon publicly traded company earned $15.8 million last year. A new-hire at his newest plant earns $27.50/hour, a great wage these days for factory work.
I'll admit: this guy is more generous than most CEOs at sharing the wealth, with the ratio between his pay and a new-hire at a mere 287: 1. Today, the national ratio between the rich guys and the peons they hire is 411 to 1. For every worker making the national minimum wage of $5.15/hour, or $10,300/year (far below a livable wage), there's a greed-justifying executive making $4.2 million a year. Why the ramp-up in corporate greed? Because it's legal and for too many people, legal means moral. In 1980, the pay gap between CEOs and the average worker was 42 to 1; using that ratio, the Oregon CEO's annual pay would be a still-kingly $2.3 million.
"If shareholders do good, we do OK, and if they do bad, we don't do anything," this CEO said. "I personally believe that's the right way to go."
Besides the poor grammar, this comment exhibits incredible values: a moral compass for which true north is simply to make investors (himself included) richer. He creates jobs with his company's success, yes, but the latest jobs his company is creating come at the expense of the people at the bottom rung of society's ladder. In exchange for building a new plant, last month he negotiated with (bullied?) the county into foregoing $1.8 million in tax revenue, money that would've gone to schools and emergency services. For a company that's wallowing in profits ? net income has tripled in four years ? that's immoral. But it's legal.
Is my anger class envy? No. It's class revulsion. I'm revolted at our culture of acquisition and excess consumption. Voluntary simplicity should be the law, not the quirky exception. But in the U.S., it's about voluntary acquisition: get more, take more, because we Americans deserve everything our hands can grab onto. Some people say it's a God-given right.
My husband and I work less than we could. Work is abundant in our fields but we sometimes turn down opportunities to make more money. We earn plenty, by our standards. By working less than a 40-hour week, we have time to keep learning new skills that make us less dependent on money and that let us work with our kids, teaching them what we know. In a culture that tells us to keep getting more, we have to frequently remind ourselves to work just as much as we need to provide the essentials plus some treats, like an occasional trip, and then to stop there.
My advice: Go outside, plant some edible plants, learn to forage for edible weeds, cook from scratch, run a skill saw, build a shed, learn to make cheese, knit a sweater, sew some curtains, learn to draw, split your own wood. We're all so busy earning money to buy crap we don't need that very few of us actually know how to create anything other than wealth for others. Teach yourself a new skill and then teach it to someone else; maybe if enough of us did this, greed's grip on this nation will start to erode.
Enough is as good as a feast. To borrow a phrase from the CEO, I personally believe that is the right way to go