Portland: Bluegrass in Cascadia
Notes on traveling to Portland, Oregon -- before I moved there.
Updated May 5, 2015
From the plane, I could see that long chain of solitary spires, an uneven line of volcanos which trace the route of an active fault line. The Three Sisters, then smaller cones, the heavenly Willamette Valley, and finally, Mount Hood and St. Helens and Rainier, shrouded by distance.
Even at nine at night, the green-green of Cascadia was visible through the dark, and those solitary massifs were as visible as day. Our plane flew above the Columbia River, and the air was clear so that I could see fires being lit on the sandy shores of islands, canoes and sailboats at bay, and men still casting in the shallows. Cascadia is an alternate name given to the Pacific Northwest - western Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Alaska's southern coasts. A small number of Americans and Canadians use this name to express their interest in an alternative future for the Northwest.
It is said that if Quebec were to secede, British Columbia would no longer have a tie - a need - to be a part of Canada. Many British Columbians, in fact, feel closer in culture to Seattle and Portland than they do to their own country. Separatist movements exist on both sides of the border, with one goal in mind: the Independent Country of Cascadia.
Although now this may all seem bizarre, it is telling of the strong feelings of the Pacific Northwest - a sense of geographical and cultural uniqueness. This attitude compels many more ordinary folks than the 'Cascadia Separatists'.
This regional pride can be wonderful and rich, or dark and xenophobic. All this may seem ironic in Portland - the city that represents the end of Lewis and Clark's scientific expedition and its symbol of union in North America. Portland is all ironies; it is a wildly progressive city, but the ironic success of Portland's progressive heart is how it resembles a more traditional American city.
The city of Portland is of striking architecture. It is like how you would imagine San Francisco from the Bay Bridge, only when you enter Portland, the streets are clean, the facades ornate, the awned cafes are bustling, and the marble fronts are brilliant.
Some complain about Portland's urban planning. But the effort to preserve what is old, and good, about the Pacific Northwest, while creating a kind of modern community, is working. And most of the rest of the country is still outsourcing their town centers to Walmart and losing themselves in sprawl.
There is a strong sense that Portland is leading the way for the Pacific Northwest, toward some sort of community innovation. At times, it works; other times, the city feels self-congratulatory.
Portland, Seattle and Vancouver are the world's cities of the twenty-first century, and aren't so easy to define. As industry and culture take flight from the East Coast, well-planned cities like Portland are becoming the future of America: from high-tech to literary, the infectious environment has doubled the population size in just a few years. This is not to the liking of some Portlanders, who call outsiders Californians, and scorn anything that doesn't comply with their strict definition of what it means to be Portland.
This is different from Oregon's longstanding tradition of racism (Oregon is 89% white and has the lowest minority population in the Pacific Northwest), but it is rather a corruption of this ideal of maintaining a utopian sense of city-planning, environmental practices and clean maintenance in this soggy-wet kingdom.
The conflict this creates is a strange-brew. Since Californians (New York, Midwestern and Silicon Valley Immigrants) are bringing more high-tech jobs to the Silicon Forest, the economy has become less and less reliant on the timber industry: Portland's greatest enemy and benefactor. A few years ago, I was with some friends in a bar called the Boiler Room. Since the bar was small (it only fit about ten people), everybody started talking, and the question came up: Where are you from? So-and-so said Oregon City and so-and-so said Northeast Portland and so-and-so said Vancouver.
And then it was my turn and I said California. Immediately, everybody started hissing and booing. They were being kind of facetious, but on cue I stood up and said, "...And I'm sick and tired of all you Oregon people coming into my state and stinking it up!" I got an uneasy applause for that. But the stereotyping of Californians persists, and in some cases, violence has been committed against them because some see the influx of Californians as a threat to the Portland way of life. The problem with Californians, in the mind of an outspoken component of Portland, is that they take with them a culture that is not their own, that they raise real estate prices and subvert the utopian ideals of Portland.
Drill down, and you'll find that this stereotyping comes almost exclusively from a band of young immigrants, who themselves moved to Portland recently and who adopted their own sense of the utopian ideals of a unique city. Nobody likes too much immigration into their city, but I have always argued that Portland's particular circumstance should embrace it. Portland is an immigrant city; like any other culture that has the ability to become dynamic, the city needs to learn to embrace its immigrants. The richness of New York City wasn't built from Brooklyn.
When my wife asked one of these Massachussetts-Portlanders about this apparent paradox ('But don't you want to see Portland become more diverse?'), he answered, 'Well, Californians like you guys aren't the problem.'
I wondered what made us any different from other Californians, or was he just uneasy with the question? Drill down, and the influx of Californians has done more positive than negative to the City of Portland: Imported cultural and racial diversity, imported new design ideas to restaurants and shops, imported new economy, and a sunny disposition.
The Portland tech-hippie immigrants have been moving north and east, or south and east, into the parts of Portland that could be called the Hood, or parts infested with meth problems (Oregon has the worst meth problem in the United States per capita). They see themselves as gentrifying the community, bringing with them their small mom-and-pop culture. This gentrification should be welcomed, of course, but the residents of those communities complain of the same thing these imports complain of: raising real estate prices and bringing unwanted culture.
The anti-Californians also see Portland expanding outward; Suburbs with awful names are filled with square-box homes and nasty chain-malls. Home owners associations beat every ounce of personality from some of these neighborhoods and hint that someday this Cascadian utopia may look like everyday America - one vast subdivision. Portland is dynamic and forward-thinking in containing its growth, so the community grows upward. What they could never control is that outside communities took advantage of this, and some say that the attempts to contain sprawl have actually made it worse.
Despite all that, despite its failures, we can still say that at least Portland has tried to build itself upwards, not outwards. Things are changing; even in a city that considers itself apart, the suburbs are catching up on Portland. My brother Hans was at the airport, and explained to me the significance of Portland's forest park - a giant grant of land in the middle of the city; a pacific northwest rain forest. At the beginning of the 20th century, a giant housing community was being paved on the band of hills running through the middle of Portland. But a cunning ecologist convinced the city that they would regret it. Today, Forest Park sets Portland apart: a giant wooded park uninterrupted by roads, running right through the city, the largest urban forest park in the country.
He explained that a few had already owned private property in Forest Park before the land was made public. This, naturally, was where Hans lived: A solitary converted garage up a long dirt driveway in the middle of the thick cedars. Hans' cabin is all copper wires, jars of hops and barley and grains, a vat and a keg and dozens of beer bottles along the shelf. Where's the television? And the radio? Hans has learned to brew beer, and make his own bread and jam, and to distill his own water. There is little else in the fridge. I asked him if this is an inspiration from our older brother, Andre, who lives in a cabin in a cornfield.
"Of course," he said, "that's what life is about, picking up the ideas from your friends that you like the best."
But there is little coincidence about their preference for the freshness of home-made food and beer. "I'm learning to make soap," Hans said. Homemade soap is a signature of my grandmother's, who with her husband made buffalo fat soap, and fresh bread, bee-hive honey, home-brewed everything, in a cabin in the woods, surrounded by a cornfield.
Portland resident's have a strong penchant for reading - all you have to do to know this is walk through a famous Powell's Book Store. In Portland, city-life quality is out in the open; you don't have to look hard to find magnificent food; fish, lox, breads and cheeses, salads, oriental restaurants, steakhouses, and that beer!
We headed for a small underground bar which had a name to the effect of "The Musty Squirrel." The band played country and bluegrass. They were called 'Hank Plank and the 2x4's' and would speak with my brother between sets. Hank Plank was part of a growing penchant for Appalachian-style bluegrass in Portland.
In the morning, we walked along a jungly trail in Forest Park, and to his garden-plot, where he was learning to grow everything he needed to keep away from the grocery store.
"Eat this," he said.
"Tastes like lettuce, what it is?"
"St. John's Wort."
"What, you think I need this?"
"It's good for you."
We took to the road and headed east, along the Columbia River valley. In the sunshine, it is all majesty; the sandy-banked rivers, Hood gaping white in the distance, and towers of pine matting the steep mountains and foothills to the south.
We passed a number of vans and trucks, carrying canoes and fishing poles and climbing gear strapped to yet another Yakima rack. I glanced inside the windows of passing vehicles and said, "You know, down in Southern California, people refer to San Franciscans and the Portland set as Earth-monkeys and granolas. I'm looking at these people and I don't know what they are talking about." Hans shrugged. I said,
"I don't like that word, 'Outdoorsy' I don't know anybody who is actually an 'outdoors' person like it rules or dominates their life. Have you ever noticed that people who do outdoors sports or spend time hiking or walking or gardening are also the finest city people? They always seem to be the same ones who know where the music is, and the restaurants." "Yeah, I know what you mean. I don't talk to people who use the word 'Outdoorsy,' he said.
Portland is city and it is country. It is intelligence, restrained class, genuineness. It is rare, and for that I understand wholeheartedly the nature of the word 'Cascadia.' The sentiments about granolas and earth-monkeys sound out of place and laughable. We drove for some time, and then into the Eagle Creek Salmon Hatchery, where we took to the oft-traveled Eagle Creek trail. The trail winds its way up the foothills of Mount Hood, and settles upward along a deep gorge cut by the river.
The water here is blue from Hood minerals; blue like the blue of the Caribbean, and broken by rocks and logs and islands of trees. We walked along stands of Cedar and pine, and rows of Spanish moss and ferns; dripping falls, and along steep and narrow foot-paths that required holding a metal cable. We had come for Metlako Falls, a short distance from the main trail, but rarely visited.
The best view required a slippery crawl through a small wood. Hans the whole time saying, "this is Pacific Dogwood, the Indians used this for bows," or, "see the bark on the red cedar, this is used for baskets and canoes." The view of Metlako was dizzying; I always had an unusual fear of heights and the gorge below dropped straight for several hundred feet: but we crouched for several minutes holding onto trees or branches; the falls poured from above us and into a blue, blue pool which was surrounded by lime mosses and ferns.
Later and up the trail, we found a smaller falls in the shadow of trees, and so we took to it; jumping from mossy rock to log to mossy rock. This was life, I thought: a backpack, a bottle of water and the sun warming the moss between my toes. Hans was still naming plants, explaining that it was an effort, but that one day the connections between plant families would make it much easier.
From here it was to Hood River, for dinner, and then to Northeast Portland, a neighborhood which had grown hip when the McMenamin brothers decided to convert an old abandoned high-school into a set of giant art-deco bars. Here the famous bluegrass band Jack Straw was noodling old riffs into a single-mike: mandolins, guitars, upright-basses and fiddles. This is where we met up with Darin, who had befriended my older brother 15 years ago, and who now employed my younger brother as a Java architect. Darin was like a Huell Howser for Oregon, and it was obvious by the conversation that he had some impact on both of my brothers' familiarity with Oregon: Darin had spent time building fly rods, and spent weekends climbing and then snowboarding the peaks of Oregon and Washington. When the rivers are high, he hangs up the ice-ax and spike-shoes for a white-water kayak.
Darin and his friends were also at the table, drinking Oregon ales and stouts. The conversation was over their day of white-water boating on the Upper Clackamas, which I found suitably unusual. Hans persuaded the crowd into a trek to his cabin to play guitar. Light candles, crack open the last of '1999's brew', and Hans and Darin began wiring up speakers and cables and a soundboard system. My grandmother had once said that the greatest fun in the world was to play instruments with your friends, and so again, it all made sense.
Darin preferred Bob Dylan and Wilco-style songs, Hans preferred Calypso, Spanish jams, slide-blues and funk. I, the guitar-world's nightmare, preferred to be the galactic space warrior. "He's definitely got his own style," Hans apologized for me, and we proceeded into "Little Sadie" and "Jam in E" and "Genghis Khan", "What a Wonderful World" and "Dark Star." With some sense of restraint, I took to the background with a little 'plink, plink, plink' between their 'wah, bum-bee-dum-bah!' and somehow, it all came together; the two of them exchanging vocals, "...And I began to think what a deed I'd done, Grabbed my hat and away I run, Made a good run, but a little too slow They overtook me in Jericho."
Home-brewed is common, but good home-brewed music is not. I told my brother in the morning that "last night is what good improvisation is all about." Here we were, under the Douglas firs, fresh beer tapped, muscles aching from the day. Improvization is yielded from inspiration. Still today, acoustic instruments have not been overrun by electronica for exactly that reason; the variation of human emotion and style to come up with a line of notes that is just right for that time and place.
Music, in that sense, is like travel. You cannot plan adventure; you cannot micromanage what will happen. You cannot wait for a better day. You can only open yourself up to, and prepare yourself for what may or may not happen. 'Classical' music, perhaps the most well-prepared of any style, was at its best articulated instantly in Mozart's or Beethoven's head. Mozart, as it were, could visualize an entire song instantly. The act of playing it out as an orchestrated piece was secondary to its creation. The orchestra is all craftsmen, but Mozart is the traveler into the mind. That rare ability for us to have all 'come together' that night had something to do with the view of Metlako Falls, or Darin in the Upper Clackamas.
For that, music not only resembles travel, but mimics it. Is it no wonder that music from the banks of the Nile mimic flowing dunes with those long-drawn oud notes, or that music from central Brazil is bouncy and rhythmic, like the jungle, and music from the Himalayas is majestic and bassy? On the airplane back, I looked out and could now see those scars on the Earth; miles and miles of clear-cut hills. Oregonians endure months of rain and fog for summers like this. But they also endure the cutting of the land because it feeds their city, which certainly makes Portland sound enough to be the future of America, not of Cascadia.