After three wonderful days in Eugene, I caught a ride north to Portland with one of Courtney's housemates and her boyfriend. The drive was scenic and otherwise uneventful; I spent a large portion of the route slumbering peacefully in the back seat. We missed just one turn on the journey - and that was not well-signed - before arriving in the sleepy, leafy suburb of Hillsdale, a mere ten-minute drive to the south of the city centre. Here I rendezvoused with Maureen and her genial husband Jim. I met Maureen and this couple's daughter Mikaela above the clouds in Bariloche, at Hostel 1004. I was part-way through a wholly un-engrossing meal when the two asked if they could join me, bringing with them tantalizing smells of an altogether more impressive offering. Of course, my stomach and my mouth acquiesced and we soon fell to easy conversation, within which the usual questions were asked including intended routes after Bariloche: upon hearing that I would one day be travelling the west coast of the US, these two charming ladies insisted upon demonstrating some of that legendary American hospitality and urged me to get in touch, should I need food, shelter, companionship and the like. Never one to pass up such generous invitations, I remained in e-mail contact with this couple (and a good number of other acquaintances, as is probably apparent by this late stage) and now made good my stated intention to take up such laudable hospitality.
I took my two bags from the boot of my friend's car and drew near to a sizeable dwelling constructed predominantly of wood, nestled within a grove of trees: the scene practically screamed rural Americana and I was reminded of the wondrous lake-house owned by some family friends in Florida, set against a backdrop of tree trunks and serenity. Upon stepping across the threshold my jaw must have fallen at least slightly agape - noticeably I am sure: I stood in a large, airy space quite unlike a typical hallway. A stairway ran across my path to the front, a warm, spacious kitchen opened behind this and to my left lay a huge lounge-space. The ceiling soared high above, reaching the height of the house itself: there was no ceiling partitioning the two floors - the whole layout followed an arresting, inspiring open-plan design. Tasteful artwork covered vibrantly coloured walls and their was even a well-kept upright piano hiding behind one corner in the lounge. This utterly inviting setting could only be bettered by the warm welcome extended to me by the home's occupants themselves: Maureen is as friendly as I remember her and Jim equally genial.
I took some time to settle in, become acquainted with the layout of the house and catch up with Maureen, while growing accustomed to Jim also. As the afternoon lengthened, I accompanied Maureen into town and she dropped me off on her way to the barbershop outside the famous 'Powell's' book-store, the largest retailer in America west of the Mississippi! This book-worm's paradise sprawls across an entire city block, any one of its numerous rooms housing enough hurdles to slow to a limping gait even the most thorough-bred of readers. Needless to write; I was in my element here and spent some time combing a mere fraction of the heavily laden shelves. The very air was heavy with the scent of learned scholarship, the atmosphere shaped more closely to that of a university library than any such literary selling-place to which I had ever previously visited. I soon discovered the store's café and with it the option to retire inside with up to five books through which one could browse while enjoying a drink and a bite to eat. The ambiance in this eatery was one of utter contentment and tranquility; a quite magical place in which to settle one's senses. Three hours and one very filling granola and yoghurt combination later, I was finally sated and ready to continue my exploration of downtown Portland beyond the book-shop.
I enjoyed a slow, leisurely wander along the busy streets of the downtown area. I was left un-accosted despite the rather thick volume of fellow pedestrians, alone in my own world where I was still trying to make sense not only of a new city but, also of a still slightly unfamiliar air on the back of my six months in the south: my re-adjustment is taking time and I am glad to be able to embark upon the process while still in a country able to offer so much by way of necessary distraction and rivalling enjoyment. Portland is an incredibly green city in more ways than one: it boasts an enviable proportion of parkland within its city limits and enjoys what is widely regarded as the best public commuter system of any city in the entire country of the US. Its citizens recycle with a fervour rarely seen outside a religious context. It seemed wholly appropriate to me that I should arrive in town just in time for the annual Portland marathon taking place that weekend: here, everyone abandons the car and all manner of other harmful travel methods wherever possible.
Strolling the pedestrian-friendly streets, dodging electrically powered trams and weaving between leafy organic lamp-posts in some anonymous rural enclave, nonetheless I felt a sense of melancholy descend upon me. Such bouts are infrequent yet, I am never particularly surprised to find myself - sometimes rather suddenly - within such a state: indeed, at times I welcome the condition and follow the advice of Keats to 'glut thy melancholy' as necessary. I suppose that such an outbreak at this late stage in my adventure was to be expected and anticipated much more than it was to be hoped for an avoidance of the issue. I have been travelling seven months, passing through each destination upon my route with haste, especially since leaving Buenos Aires half a year past. Places and faces have come and gone, ever transient, evanescent. Ahead lies a return home, drawing swiftly near, suddenly tangible to the senses; to taste, to smell, to sound - like the approach of a train along the tracks of time. Thus am I caught, neither able to look wholly forward nor wholly to concentrate my mind's eye on the recent past. Distracted by both I am left near-blind when contemplating the present, the stop-gap between much greater forces, stirring far stronger emotions. Placed within this context, it seems completely sensible to me that Portland should seem little more than a dreary delay, a pitiful barrier against my haste yet, capable of promoting confusion and hesitation into which such a bitter-sweet grief as melancholy can enter. Mercifully, such states of mind never endure with me for long and by dwelling upon the emotion and its potential motivating factors in this dreary stop-gap of a present, I was able somehow to banish the mood quickly and return to appreciating a truly enjoyable American city.
Night falling, I made my way to a main street to await a bus back to Hillsdale, to a stop a short walk from my temporary abode. The remnants of my recent clouded contemplation hanging about like the residue of sleep encrusting the eyes, it took me some time to realize that I stood upon the wrong street corner, attracting buses that although they displayed the desired route numbers were nevertheless bound in the wrong direction. Rectifying my error, I caught a bus and then caught my breath, after a short run from the depository stop, before arriving back in the kitchen in good time for the evening meal. Ah, what a treat that meal proved to be! I entered the house to the dim strains of Eric Clapton, teasing his acoustic guitar and teasing memories from within - there was one song in particular that I had not heard for some years; not since I was a lowly school-boy. I entered also to the delightful scents emanating from the kitchen: pesto, compiled from freshly gathered basil growing in Maureen's garden, tangled within the smoky odour of Jim's barbequed salmon. As we sat down to eat and to join in conversation, Jim suggested a bottle of his wine: his wine - Jim is a wine-maker. Truly, either I have unwittingly committed acts to bestow good karma enough to bless my life or else I am receiving these gifts before their due and my future acts must be of leviathan proportions! The ensuing food and drink was a real treat; utterly delightful. The company also was wonderful and I retired that night with any potentially lingering thoughts of melancholic disposition completely banished from my freshly balmed mind.
The following days spent in Portland were a dream. I grew swiftly accustomed to being a guest in the home of an older couple, falling into step with routines and suggestions: it was an experience to serve me well in preparation for my eventual return home to Mum and Dad. Keen that I should see as much of Portland as possible yet, aware that some vistas could be better introduced by others, Jim and Maureen wasted little time introducing me to their son Ian, who still lives in the city. We got along quite well and arranged to meet up one evening with some of Ian's friends to better explore Portland's burgeoning night-life. After enjoying a tasty meal out with Jim, Maureen and some of their friends in a plush restaurant in a lively part of town, I rendezvoused with Ian for a whistle-stop tour of some necessary nocturnal venues. We began with drinks at a dark, sophisticated bar where Ian knew the DJ (who was rather good) and I garnered attention for my accent and form of identification - my passport. It has been quite an experience, familiarizing myself with the cost of items here in the States, relative to further south in Latin America, although I suppose that the transition will stand me in further good stead preceding my return to Telford and the pound.
Tiring swiftly of the DJ set, we headed on to 'Ground Control'. To judge by its name, I assumed that this would be a typical American experience of a night-club and was not at all convinced that this could amount to anything removed from the ordeal back home. I envisaged sweaty bodies, haughty glances, often terrible music selection, bullying bouncers and feelings of ridiculously low self-worth. I was pleasantly surprised: 'Ground Control' is not a night-club; rather, it is a homage to wizened computer arcade games - the more obscure, the more musty, the more oppressed by time, the better. I am sure that anyone of roughly my own age reading this can recall the brilliance of 'Pac-man', 'Tetris', 'Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles', 'Street-fighter', 'Mortal Kombat' - the list seems endless, bristling with games that have assumed a cult status even among those of us less technically inclined. I had great fun rediscovering a long-forgotten interest in these distractions from my childhood, although my ego took some severe knocks: only 'Pac-man' provided any evidence of residual skill on my part - a poor trade-off after all those hours of juvenile practice, leaving me feeling rather aggrieved. The room dark, the screens humming brightly, the place positively dripped with nostalgia, though predominantly on account of the games being offered - I do not wish to imply that I spent much, if any, of my younger days loitering around dark areas, Mum.
The trip down memory lane complete, our bellies whining oh so slightly with that confusing demand that often follows upon a late night of restlessness or entertainment, I was whisked away once more. Our next target was promised by all involved to be a gem of an experience: people likened it to the most earthly, the most satisfying of our carnal desires (most of which, from personal experience, seem inexplicably entwined with my stomach). We were on the look-out for a Portland institution in the field of late-night take-away, a food van that changes location nightly, the destination of which can be discerned only from daily 'tweets' on the 'Twitter' site or the goodwill of fellow adventurers that have already found their elusive pot of degusted gold. The food itself is an eyebrow-raising mix of Mexican and Korean barbeque: tacos, burritos and their brethren, crammed full of Korean grilled meats, laced with hot, Latino sauces. My stomach still feeling quite contented after my earlier 'family meal', a restricted myself to a taster course of a taco. The food was delightful: from the first mouthful my stomach growled its appreciation, mixed with regret at this being the only morsel available. While we salivated over our respective choices, a whole herd of young bucks, flushed with their nocturnal labours thus-far, descended en masse upon the trailer van, confirming - as if there remained any need - just how popular this little enterprise has grown to become.
Our latest hunger pangs mollified only in part, the night growing old, Ian decided that we should finish our evening's exploration at a 'staple' in the Portland night-scene, once again parading a central theme of food (ah, America). So it was that we pulled up, in no time at all, outside 'Voodoo Donuts'. I stepped inside, into the warm, well-lit, inviting eatery, to consume one final experience of the night. Think 'Dunkin' Donuts', just on a quainter, more cultish scale (yes, this evening was heavily laced with 'cult' Portland experiences, Ian's stated intention from the outset). I settled down to sample a deliciously indulgent offering of doughnut, generously laden with icing sugar, into which were set enough chunks of 'Oreo' cookie to satisfy a small ecosystem of adolescent creatures. Sated yet, curious, I bought one other item for the journey home; the celebrated 'voodoo' doughnut, shaped like a man, a 'twiglet' plunged into his chest, itself filled with jam-'blood'. This spooky offering did not even survive the whole car-ride back to Jim and Maureen's, I am sorry to say, although my stomach is not.
I slept late the next day, before rising to check my inbox. There was another lovely surprise awaiting me on 'Facebook': Scott, a good friend from Cambridge days, where we were graduate students within the same college, had moved back home to Olympia, Washington state and had posted on my wall, wondering whether there would be chance for a Stateside reunion, no matter how brief. So it was that we were able to rendezvous in Portland one clear, bright, autumnal weekend day. I had not seen Scott since my graduation day back in Cambridge and it was great to savour this chance for a catch-up, while further exploring the delights that Portland both displayed brazenly and hid slightly out of view, requiring a little more curiosity than can be placated by the average city inhabitant, rushing through their busy day. Scott introduced me to a couple of his friends from Seattle, Lisa and Sarah, and the four of us took to the leafy, suburban streets of the upper-west side of town, window-shopping, browsing, tasting and trying, conducting our adventure with frivolous conversation and witticisms. Promenading arm-in-arm with Lisa (yes, she did have to direct me so that I provided more support than hindrance), I was subjected to scrutinizing questions that left quite a mark upon my mind: perhaps it was the way that the light fell across our path, perhaps that my mind had by this time grown so close once more to home; maybe it was the captivating quality of her character that drew me to Lisa anyway: in any case, I emerged from her wonderings, prompted by no more than curiosity, with a new-found sense of wonder at my own place within the great journey of my trip and of the part of me occupied by loved ones back home. There was little time to meditate upon these blossoming lines of thought, as we packed the rest of our day together as a quartet with a trip to more shops, a meal out at a tasty Thai restaurant and finally drinks followed by a cinema outing. It was a simply wonderful manner in which to spend my final full day in Portland, surrounded by friends - old and new - and fulfillment.
The following day, I spent a little time with Jim and Maureen, before packing my bags and catching a ride north in Sarah's car, as she returned to Seattle, dropping Lisa off en route: Scott had already departed from the city earlier that day, excusing himself with chores that needed to be put to rest before the commencement of another working week (ah, the novelty). Time was dwindling away quickly now: I had but one final night to spend before catching my flight back home the following day, departing from Seattle and Tacoma's international airport. I settled down in the back-seat to enjoy the vistas passing by outside and the emotions passing through inside my soul: soon I would be home.
Best wishes to all!