The Wandering Writer: A Tour through Inner Northeast Portland with Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed wants to show me the “dog bus” – but first we have to find it.

We walk along her quiet residential streets in Northeast Portland trying to track down the intriguing vehicle, my imagination running wild. Are we about to free a group of shackled dogs from animal control? Does Portland send its furry friends to school with their owners?

Eventually we locate our target on NE Halsey and 26th Street. The converted school bus is painted bright blue and splattered with paw prints and pup faces. The license plate says WAG. Strayed explains that Meg, a local woman, runs the quirky pet sitting service. It’s the kind of whimsical spectacle that you’d expect in a city that uses the slogan Keep Portland Weird – and it’s just enough off the beaten path that it feels like a bona fide glimpse into this tight-knit community where Strayed has landed.

She arrived here off the beaten path, too. Few folks today can claim that they literally walked their way to a new life, but Strayed is one of them. While hiking the Pacific Crest Trail at age 26, the subject of her bestselling-soon-to-be-Reese-Witherspoon-starring-book Wild, Strayed traversed the state of Oregon before winding up in Portland. It was 1995 and her finances were shockingly grim. Her life savings hovered around twenty cents.

“A friend of mine had a room for rent in her house and she said I could pay rent once I got a job,” Strayed says. “I didn’t know that I’d end up staying. I just knew that I needed to regroup and make some money.”

Her first modest moneymaking scheme was a yard sale where she offered up the few possessions she’d kept in storage, no more than could “fit in the back of a pickup truck:” thrift store purses, books and clothes, mostly. She mentioned to a friendly woman who bought a dress that she needed a job.

“She was a dancer,” Strayed says. “A modern dancer, not a stripper.”

It’s an understandable clarification. Portland residents often proclaim with varying degrees of pride or shame that the city has the most strip clubs per capita in the U.S., though some deep Googling leads me to believe the statistic is likely local legend.

Strayed’s new dancer friend also waited tables at the French restaurant L’Auberge, where Strayed soon started working, too. A Portland institution, it’s now closed, like many of Strayed’s old haunts from the 90s, including Satyricon, the rock club where Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain met wild child Courtney Love during a Dharma Bums concert.

This is back when a grimier Portland was ruled by street movements like the zine and punk rock scenes.

“All that stuff is gone,” Strayed says. “It’s been replaced with lovely things but things that are a little shinier and a little more polished.”

She’s fond of some of the improvements – she loves Stumptown Coffee and the food cart scene – but feels something has been lost as the city has gentrified. She admits she’s nostalgic for old Portland but also frustrated by an apparent psychological shift here.

“Maybe the biggest difference from when I first moved here is that nobody in Portland back then thought they were super cool because they lived here. There was Portland pride but it was coming from a more authentic internal place. Whereas now, everywhere I go, when I say I’m from Portland, people are like: Oooooh. I’ve heard it’s so great.”

While Portland is great, it has its problems, like anywhere. Strayed’s husband, Brian Lindstrom, currently has a documentary film out about an innocent forty-two year old man with schizophrenia who was beaten to death on the street in the now posh Pearl District. He died in police custody and there was a cover up surrounding his death.

“That’s Portland, too,” she says. “People forget that this city is complicated like every other city.”

Still, it’s clear Strayed’s heart is here. She’s traveled all over the world and Portland remains her favorite city, warm-hearted and community-focused. The inner northeast, along with the inner southeast, have always been her stomping grounds.

“I’m an east side person,” she proclaims with an authority that makes me need to know exactly what this self-designation means.

“East side isn’t as wealthy,” she explains. “You know that Everclear song, where he says: I’ll buy you a big house in the West Hills? Those are the West Hills of Portland. It’s swankier there. The east side has more working class vim, more of the people I think of as my tribe: writers, artists, filmmakers. It’s more funky.”

She’s generalizing, she acknowledges, like we all do, but it’s too late. I’ve already definitively proclaimed in my own head that, I too, am an east side person.

One of her favorite spots in the neighborhood appears filled with her tribe on this sunny Monday morning. Costello’s Travel Café on Broadway is a place with great pie and great coffee, where you’re offered a flag from some far-flung nation after ordering to signal not your allegiance but your waitress.

Over steaming pots of tea, I ask Strayed if she’s become a more public figure in the neighborhood after the success of Wild. She has, she says, and finds the change mostly flattering and surreal (see: nice lady stops her on the street to say she enjoyed the book) with an occasional smattering of unnerving and frustrating (see: someone tweets about her being at the grocery store at the exact moment she is in the grocery store).

One of the places where she’s surely most recognizable is at nearby Broadway Books, Strayed’s local independent bookseller. She worked out a deal with the owners to direct any requests from her website for signed copies to the store. This way, she can stop by on a leisurely afternoon to mark up her goods.

“When we pop by, they might have a few copies waiting,” she says.

It turns out the bookstore has many more than a few copies waiting for Strayed, 196 copies of the paperback version of Wild, to be exact, officially on sale the next day. Strayed promises to return soon to tackle the signings. For now we have a slightly more delicious quest in our sights in the form of the bakery across the street.

If Strayed ever feels nostalgic for old Portland, the Helen Bernhard Bakery might be a sugary cure. Established in 1924, long before Portland was cool, she calls the place “a real bakery.” To strengthen her case, Strayed offers up this incontrovertible evidence: you can get a glazed twist here.

She picks out two elaborately decorated cupcakes for her kids, one adorned with the face of a mischievous looking panda and the other a suspiciously happy cat. The grandmotherly cashier delicately places them in separate boxes and cautions us to be careful on our way home to prevent squashing the animals. It’s good advice that proves futile. An hour later we’ll present a mangled-face panda to her towheaded daughter who won’t mind in the slightest that her artful snack has been on the losing end of a heavy jostling.

Before we head back to Strayed’s house, though, we’ve got two more stops. The first is the straightforwardly named Great Wine Buys. The store is having a special where customers can order cases from a small vineyard in Italy.

“You can buy wine in the grocery stores in Oregon,” Strayed says, “but I prefer a bit more of an individual interaction.”

Our last stop is surprising after the row of independent enterprises we’ve been patronizing: Strayed leads me to the Lloyd Center Mall. More specifically, she takes me to its indoor ice rink.

“I had not been to a mall in, seriously, fifteen years, but my kids wanted to go ice skating one day and I wanted to pass that tradition on to them because I’m from Minnesota. And, lo and behold, there’s a rink in the middle of the mall.”

As the family-friendly scene unfolds, I ask Strayed if she’s staying in Portland for the foreseeable future.

Her answer is an emphatic yes. “This is home. I love Portland. I feel so lucky that I have access to an incredibly vibrant urban center – which is really where I see my life – and also the wild places that are so close, within thirty minutes. The coast, too. It’s just an hour and a half away and there you are on this incredibly rugged beach.”

Strayed spent her first few years questioning if she should stay. She kept asking: why am I here versus anywhere else? Am I only staying because I’m in love?

Then she and her husband moved to Syracuse, New York, so Strayed could get her MFA. It was only after leaving that she realized how much she missed her Portland community. They returned a few years later and she’s never looked back.

“For me,” Strayed says, “It’s always been important to leave a place. I think that’s a really important piece of growing up. It’s a conscious act. You’re not letting some river just take you. You’re actually directing yourself.”

And Portland is where you’ll find the grownup Cheryl Strayed, though, if you happen to run into her, maybe refrain from tweeting about it, okay?

About this Wandering Writer
Cheryl Strayed is the author of #1 New York Times bestseller WILD, the New York Times bestseller TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS, and the novel TORCH. WILD was chosen by Oprah Winfrey as her first selection for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 and optioned for film by Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Pacific Standard. WILD was selected as the winner of the Barnes & Noble Discover Award, an Oregon Book Award, a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, and a Midwest Booksellers Choice Award. Strayed’s writing has appeared in THE BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS, the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post Magazine, Vogue, Allure, The Missouri Review, The Sun, The Rumpus–where she has written the popular “Dear Sugar” column since 2010–and elsewhere. Her books have been translated into twenty-eight languages around the world. She holds an MFA in fiction writing from Syracuse University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and their two children.

On The Road With NPR Music: Matt Fleeger At KMHD, Portland, Oregon

Beyond travel, we’re also big music fans here at Gadling, largely because music is a great way to get to know a place. This month happens to be Public Radio Music Month and we’re teaming up with NPR to bring you exclusive interviews from NPR music specialists around the country. We’ll be learning about local music culture and up and coming new regional artists, so be sure to follow along all month.

Portland, Oregon might be known for its indie scene, but as Matt Fleeger shows us, it’s also home to a burgeoning jazz scene. As Fleeger points out, when most people think of jazz, they think of a scene that ended in the late 60s. On the contrary, it’s a genre that’s alive and well, full of fusion acts and creative ensembles. Check out Fleeger’s playlist for a good feel of what this city has to offer.

Name: Matt Fleeger

Member station: KMHD Jazz Radio

Regular Show/Contribution Beat: Program Director/Host of “New Jazz For Lunch” M-Thurs 12 (noon) to 1 PM, M-Thurs.

When people think of music in Portland, what do they think of?

A DIY, underground approach to music, independent music. In terms of Jazz, highly creative ensembles and players – people who aren’t afraid to think outside the box a bit.

How do you help curate that musical scene?

At KMHD, we try to “hold up” the really creative, interesting, different sounds that are coming out of our city. We partner with the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble, which is an organization is concerned with fostering new Jazz compositions and releases a different CD featuring a Portland band each month. We bring local musicians into the studio every Friday afternoon for live performances direct to air, and we film local bands playing in various spaces throughout the city. My show in particular features all new releases in an attempt to expose our audience to new sounds. Often times, the Jazz audience gets caught up in the thinking that Jazz ended in 1969, but there are many very interesting sounds and directions happening within the scene today.

How has the Portland jazz scene evolved over the last few decades?

Portland has always had a certain forward-thinking aesthetic when it comes to music, but on the other hand there’s a very laid-back sensibility at work here, too. The Jazz scene has changed a lot over the past few decades, but it’s always been inventive. In the 70’s – Portland (and Eugene, to the south) gave birth to a sort of world-jazz fusion through bands like Oregon, or saxophonist Jim Pepper. Music education factors heavily into the equation as well, whether it’s from Thara Memory (Esperanza Spalding’s mentor) or Portland State University’s Darrell Grant, who is a world-renowned Jazz musician in his own right.

What would you say is the most unique thing about your music scene?

Really it’s the people. And by people, I mean the audience, the people who consume the music. Portland is very (VERY) supportive of its homegrown talent. For example, during the Portland Jazz Festival at least two of the 12 headlining shows are always local acts, and these shows always sell out before the national or international acts that are visiting. That’s something you don’t find in most cities.

What are three new up and coming bands on the Portland scene right now and what makes them distinct?

Nowadays, it’s bands like the Blue Cranes or Grammies that are fusing the improvisational ideas of this music with other bands or genres that influenced them (think Fugazi or tUnE yArDs).

For a Gadling playlist, what are your favorite tracks?

“Everything is Going to Be Okay” – Blue Cranes
“Echolalia” – Kin Trio
“Strong Fire” – Andrew Oliver Sextet
“XSABCESS” – Grammies
“Give Thanks” – Darren Klein
“Rainy Day, Sunny Heart” – Gunga Galunga
“Blossom Bell” – 1939 Ensemble

Listen to the complete playlist on Spotify.

Impact Of Sequester Cuts On Travel: Festivals Not So Festive

Recent sequester cuts have had a big impact on travel in a number of ways. Cutbacks have resulted in everything from grounding the Navy’s Blue Angels at dozens of air shows around the country to turning Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental into a third world-like airport. Cuts to the budgets of national parks have popular attractions opening on a delayed schedule, closing visitor centers and operating without campgrounds.

But those who (still) work and operate facilities, festivals and events that would normally draw travelers from around the world are pressing on, promising to make the best of a bad situation.

A highlight, if not the main attraction, to Fleet Week at a number of major U.S. cities is a showcase of active duty military ships, recently deployed in overseas operations and brought to town for the event.A tradition of the United States Navy, United States Marine Corps and United States Coast Guard since 1935, Fleet Week began in San Diego with 114 warships and 400 military planes. Since then, annual Fleet Week events began in San Francisco, New York City and Fort Lauderdale. Seattle, Washington, includes fleet week during the annual Seafair. In Portland, Oregon, fleet week is part of the annual Portland Rose Festival.

The shows brought ships full of military personnel to town, as well as travelers who looked forward to tours of ships, military demonstrations and air shows, adding to local tourism revenue. But on the heels of the secretary of defense announcing that ships will not be visiting, show organizers are turning to a different focus.

“We’re all about bringing a little more recognition to our local units,” said Jean-Sebastien Gros of Broward Navy Days Inc., the non-profit organization that spearheads Florida’s Fleet Week Port Everglades, in this NBC Miami report.

The Fort Lauderdale Fleet Week event, still scheduled for April 29 through May 6, normally has hotels booked full and Florida highways clogged for a week. Organizers hope to keep the lion’s share of that activity by hosting a variety of other events.

Golf tournaments, a 5K race, major league baseball games, culinary competitions and deep-sea fishing will attempt to replace active-duty warships and the Blue Angels. Canceled ship tours will give way to honoring the active duty military of the United States Southern Command and Coast Guard District 7, both based in South Florida.

It’s a sign of the times to be sure and event organizers are to be commended for pressing on. Still, this travel-affecting result of sequester budget cuts can’t help but make one wonder if there was not some other way to address this problem with the nation’s economy.

“No one can deny that we have passed through troubled years. No one can fail to feel the inspiration of your high purpose. I wish you great success,” said President Franklin Roosevelt in 1935 at the beginning of the first fleet week.

[Photo credit – Flickr user St0rmz]

On The Road With NPR Music: Jeremy Petersen At OPB Portland, Oregon

Beyond travel, we’re also big music fans here at Gadling, largely because music is a great way to get to know a place. This month happens to be Public Radio Music Month and we’re teaming up with NPR to bring you exclusive interviews from NPR music specialists around the country. We’ll be learning about local music culture and up and coming new regional artists, so be sure to follow along all month.

Name: Jeremy Petersen

Member station/Regular show: OPB Music (from Oregon Public Broadcasting)
Producer/Blogger Host – “In House,” weekdays 2-5 p.m. PT

When people think of music in Portland, what do they think of?

It’s not really much of a secret – Portland is particularly noted for being a kind of indie mecca. It’s not exclusively the flavor, but the earnestly literate and melodic likes of Elliott Smith, The Decemberists and more recent transplants The Shins are some of the more recognizable names that have set the tone for many who have come after. The Rose City is also home to a number of indie labels that fortify the scene, homegrown and otherwise: Kill Rock Stars, Tender Loving Empire, Hometapes, Hush, amigo/amiga, Greyday, Badman, Dirtnap, Magic Marker, Fluff & Gravy and Marriage are but a few of those worth exploring.

How do you help curate that musical scene?

We try to shine a light on acts we’re truly excited about as fans. Of course we’re all over more established artists that people are more likely to know, and of course we try to connect the dots between what’s current and what came before it, but we also spend a large part of our time looking for what’s new and interesting and worth pointing out. That usually means some combination of airplay, presenting the music in a live showcase, and/or recording a session in our studios. These are often the kinds of artists that aren’t going to be getting air in most other outlets, either yet or ever.

How has the Portland scene evolved over the last few decades?

The history of pop music in Portland seems to begin with The Kingsmen and their party staple “Louie Louie.” That seems oddly apt given its idiosyncratic nature and unlikely combination of flavors. The local scene has been, and remains, healthily eclectic – folk, jazz, hip-hop and various strains of roots all enjoy vibrant pockets alongside the more well-documented rock variations. One thing that has definitely changed is the regard for Portland nationally and even internationally: a musician’s status as a Portlander seems to carry automatic caché in many circles.

As scrappy as the indie scene still feels here, to hear some of the old guard tell it, up-and-coming bands are generally more sophisticated now than a couple of decades ago. That means not only more performance-ready from their first show, but also more business-minded and with a better grasp on notions like self-marketing.

What would you say is the most unique thing about the Portland music scene?

I’ve heard musician after musician here talk about the camaraderie that exists in the scene, and these are often those who have lived elsewhere. You can see that kind of thing play out in a lot of different ways and it’s inspiring to see what can come of it. I think it clearly empowers creation and makes the work coming from the city that much stronger. It also makes it feel like a much smaller place.

One other thing – as a musician destination as of late, Portland is really interesting simply because of who happens to be around at any given time, whether that’s temporary, permanent or part-time. There’s always someone of note around working on a record: Other Lives, Deer Tick, Neko Case and Beth Orton are some recent examples. kd lang lives here now. Johnny Marr’s still a part-timer. Peter Buck is often around. Add names like that to the homegrowns and long-timers you’ve heard of and the ones you haven’t (yet), and it equals a rich and vibrant place for musicians to be.

What are three new up and coming bands on the Portland scene right now and what makes them distinct?

This easily could have been a list of ten.

Radiation City: I find them notable for a lot of reasons, the first of which are the vocals of Lizzie Ellison, who brings to mind Astrud Gilberto and sounds as comfortable covering Etta James as she singing the band’s own indie bossanova haze. They’re the rare young band with an ear for subtlety both on record and in performance and they’ve simply gotten better every time I’ve seen them. Look for their second full-length coming soon.

Shy Girls: It’s not often a band from the local scene can claim un-ironic influence from names like Bell Biv DeVoe, GUY and the Backstreet Boys – even less often still that they execute those cues well. Shy Girls, the band started as a one-man bedroom act by frontman Dan Vidmar, sounds transported from two decades back while still maintaining a freshness that rises well above novelty and recalibrating the notion of “neo-R&B” (it doesn’t necessarily come from 1972 anymore).

Aan: This is dynamic indie rock that succeeds largely on the pairing of lead singer Bud Wilson’s cathartic vocal gymnastics with twisting, turning, unpredictable hooks that keep the listener guessing. But it’s not chaos– the band keeps its avant-pop just avant enough while simultaneously daring you not to bob your head. Aan’s just been slated to open up for The Smashing Pumpkins on several of their dates later this spring, and have a full-length release coming later in the year.

For a Gadling playlist, what are your favorite tracks?

Elliott Smith: “Ballad of Big Nothing”

Caleb Klauder: “Can I Go Home With You”

The Thermals: “A Pillar of Salt”

Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside: “Danger”

Heatmiser: “Low Flying Jets”

Quasi: “It’s Raining”

TxE: “The Basics”

The Decemberists: “Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect”

Menomena: “Evil Bee”

Onuinu: “Happy Home”

Listen to the playlist on Spotify.

[Photo credit: Inger Klekacz]

5 Spring Break Trips That Don’t Require Boozing In Mexico

Neon colored fruity cocktails consumed poolside with college students and bad house music in the background not really your thing? Spring break can be a lot of things, and it doesn’t have to fit the classic stereotype of sunburned jocks taking tequila shots in Cabo.

Spring is that perfect time of year when it’s not quite summer but the weather’s nicer so you can take full advantage of the great outdoors while still avoiding the larger crowds of tourists. If you’re willing to invest a little time in adventure planning, you can get some serious payoff. This is the time of camping and road trips after all.

So start packing your tent and down sleeping bag and get ready to explore. And although you might not be boozing at Senor Frogs, feel free to bring a flask of high-quality whiskey. It’s perfect around a campfire.

Explore Red Rock Country, Southwestern Utah

Some of my best spring break trips have been spent in southwestern Utah. This is the hotspot of mountain biking, canyoneering and just good old-fashioned exploring. If your mountain biking legs are itching to get out, you can’t do any better than the White Rim Trail. Arches National Park is always busy no matter what time of year, so either be sure to reserve your campsite in advance or opt for the less frequented Canyonlands; Squaw Flat Campground in the Needles District is easy to access from Moab, but is far enough out that you’ll definitely feel off the grid. You’ll freeze at night, but during the day you’ll get dessert spring heat and low crowds. Be sure to bring ample down and wool for when the sun sets.

Hike in Yosemite National Park, California

One of the most iconic and most visited National Parks in the US, you should do whatever you can to avoid Yosemite National Park in the peak of summer. Springtime, however? Have at it. Because you are at elevation, you will need to pack layers, and you’ll need to be ok with the potential of waking up to snow on the ground, but you’ll have a beautiful park with a touch more peace and quiet than most people see it in. Take a day hike to explore a small part of the John Muir Trail.

Highway 101 Road Trip, Oregon and California

It might not be warm enough to do the Pacific Coast Highway in a convertible, but a drive down the coast of Oregon and California in springtime is a beautiful thing. There are plenty of state parks along the way, which are much less crowded this time of year, and you’ll pass through enough cities that you can log in some urban adventures.

Bike in Yellowstone National Park, Montana

In the summer you can barely see a buffalo without a tourist and a camera right next to it, and cycling within the National Park would be near suicide, but in the early spring when the roads are plowed and the crowds have yet to arrive en masse, cycling is an excellent way to explore Yellowstone. It’s still a time of year when you are subject to the desires of the weather gods, so you will want to check with the local park service which roads are open.

A Hut-to-Hut Trip at Mount Rainier, Washington

Cross country skiing and snowshoe in the Mount Tahoma Trails Association‘s hut and yurt system. The trail system lies just outside of Mount Rainier National Park, and includes two cabins and a yurt for overnights. You’ll want to be sure to check availability online, and weather can quickly change your winter adventure into more of a muddy hike, but the views of Mount Rainier from High Hut are stunning and certainly worth it.

[Photo Credits: Anna Brones]