After living in Portland, Oregon, for two years, I decided to break my habit of shuffling through cities and rooted myself here with a mortgage instead. I moved away from a very walkable part of town to a more affordable neighborhood dominated by cars and buses.
For many, home ownership is the next step forward into official adulthood. That was never the case for me. I’m restless by nature, and owning a home always sounded claustrophobic. The same walls? Year after year? But I did it because I’m 30 and single and seemed to be in a state of perpetual packing and moving; buying a home was one way to lay claim to adulthood. Also, I really wanted a garden.
Turns out, walking past other people’s gardens is really more my thing. My neighbors spend hours in their yards, clipping unruly branches, watering flowers, and staking claim to the earth. My yard is a tangle of dead grass and bushes I can’t identify. I regularly flee the house to drive or bike to neighborhoods where I can plant my feet on dependable concrete or grass that someone else maintains.
It bothers me that I’ve grown more isolated since purchasing a house. I miss strangers and strange smells and the sound of traffic. Most of all, I miss walking.
On my third visit to Bogotá, Colombia—during a five-month stay in South America—I used that familiarity as an excuse to foolishly walk back to my hostel with a bag containing all of my valuables (cash, passport, camera, credit cards), draped carelessly over my shoulder. La Candelaria, Bogotá’s historic district, is packed with tourists. It’s also the neighborhood that tourists are warned about: keep your camera hidden and don’t walk alone—especially after dark.
But I’m a walker. The holes in my socks spoke of the jungles and mountains and city streets that I never would have known had I hailed cabs the entire trip.
I was only a couple of blocks from my hostel when I noticed a group of young men walking toward me. My vision narrowed in on their jolting figures in the dulled colors of the dark alley. Immediately I knew they were going to rob me.
A firm grip on my shoulder. A knife. A broken flip-flop and the feel of the cold, wet asphalt beneath one bare foot. My bag, dangling carelessly on one of their shoulders as they ran away, laughing. I walked another two blocks before I started to cry.
My time in most cities has been measured by one foot after the next. And while this walk didn’t end well, it was miles and miles of solitary walking that allowed me to fall in love with Bogotá. It’s how I came to know the brightly painted homes, the sweet and savory smells of street food, and the crescendo of reggaeton pouring out of bars on neon-tinged nights.
Walking is how I’ve come to understand not only cities, but my place within them.
When I moved to Chicago after college, I started training for marathons, which is basically walking really far but a little faster and eventually with fewer toenails. As my legs grew stronger and my lungs gained stamina, I developed a deeper understanding of the layout of the neighborhoods and the flow of the city streets. I loved that I could cover them with only my body propelling me forward.
Two years later, I moved to New York City and I started almost every day with a run or a walk across the Williamsburg Bridge, where I memorized the graffiti scrawls that covered the Pepto-pink-painted steel. In 1903, before spray paint was invented, the opening of that bridge led to a flood of migration from the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Brooklyn. One hundred ten years later, I crossed it again and again and again, making an unfamiliar place feel more and more like home, like so many had done before me.
Portland is lauded as one of the most walkable cities in the country. As with any city, some neighborhoods are more walkable than others.
Portland has five sections: Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, Southwest, and North Portland. The Willamette River runs through the city, dividing east and west, and Burnside Street separates north and south.
The Willamette River is a prominent divider and the center of the most happening part of the city, but significantly more of the city stretches east, away from the tree-lined neighborhoods and cozy commercial strips of the inner eastside. Those closer-in neighborhoods attract walkers with big windows, sandwich boards, and sidewalk sales. But they fade around the intersection of Foster Road and Powell Boulevard, as you make your way east, where it is far less convenient to walk around. For many people, it’s the end of the Portland they know. I live about 40 blocks east of the Foster-Powell intersection, where sandwich boards are replaced by billboards that are too big to absorb while walking. There are fast-food restaurants with drive-throughs and parking lots where you can pick up truckloads of gravel. There are shops for used tires, porcelain counters, and washers and dryers. These things don’t come in cute gift bags, and you can’t carry them home on the back of your bike.
I decide to walk 20 miles around Portland—to reclaim the activity that once made me feel at home here. I hope it will make me feel that way again.
I begin my walk at a coffee shop I frequent on Foster Road in the Foster-Powell neighborhood. The small, beige structure is dwarfed by a Subway sign (“Try our sub of the day!”) on one side and a Burger King on the other. It’s easy to drive past if you don’t know to slow down. Speedboat Coffee is plopped in the middle of a gravel parking lot, where, until recently, a smattering of tents slouched against one another, held up by grocery carts and tattered tarps. It’s legal to pitch a tent on the sidewalk in Portland, so you see a lot of these homeless encampments around town. They pop up temporarily, and then drift elsewhere.
The lot now has “No Trespassing” signs tied to the fence, and there’s a little more room to park, which is good for business since very few people walk by. But once I have my coffee in hand, I do.
Foster-Powell is a triangle of city blocks, held together by three major transit arteries: Powell Boulevard, 82nd Avenue, and Foster Road. It’s been the “up and coming” neighborhood for a long time, but the commuter nature of this section has prevented change from happening quickly.
There’s a plan in motion to make this neighborhood more walkable. Instead of four lanes, Foster Road will soon shrink to two, with a lane on either side reserved for bikes and buses and more greenery separating future pedestrians from cars.
The owner of EuroClassic, a furniture store on Foster, has a lot to say about this plan, and he says it with big posters, plastered across his storefront.
“Expect long delays getting home,” says one. “SAVE FOSTER!,” says another.
I’d personally love to see this neighborhood become more walkable (for my own selfish reasons), but businesses that sell four-poster beds and L-shaped couches probably won’t benefit much from more foot traffic.
My route leads me north on SE 50th Avenue, snaking northeast towards Mount Tabor, Portland’s finest (and only) urban volcano. Since it’s definitely not going to spew lava, it’s a lovely place to bring a picnic blanket and watch the sun set over the city. I used to walk up here almost every day, and I miss the view—that sweeping reminder that so much city life is happening around me, even when birds in the trees and a few joggers are the only sounds I can hear.
When I was new to town and lived on Hawthorne Boulevard, I had a lot of time to walk around. Between stints at coffee shops, I’d take meandering walks through neighborhoods lush with gardens and trees dropping fruit on the sidewalks.
“This place feels like some kind of residential fairy tale,” a friend visiting from San Francisco once noted. “Like, it can’t be real.”
An ex-boyfriend from out of town even dropped the line, “I could see myself living here with you,” as we walked past vintage stores and a bar serving more than 20 different types of local cider.
Something about these blocks makes everyone a little dreamy for domesticity.
I was drawn to the Hawthorne neighborhood for the cross-section of urban details I love (lots of storefronts, a little bit of chaos, late-night options) with the things I might someday learn to love (private yards, driveways, neighbors who will lend you eggs).
But that’s no longer a neighborhood that a freelance writer can afford to buy into. The median home listing currently stands around $525,000, just west of Mount Tabor, and if you’re looking to buy, you’ll hear tales of cash-only bidding wars that raise prices by 10 to 20 percent.
I’m swallowed by shadows when I enter Laurelhurst Park. Despite its location in the middle of a busy neighborhood, Laurelhurst Park feels immediately secluded when you enter its gates. There are rolling hills, a pond, and lots of trees. This is the Central Park of Southeast Portland.
I’ve never had the patience to sit still and meditate, but I imagine that people who do aim for an experience similar to the one I have while walking. It takes time to achieve a rhythmic level of relaxation on a walk, so by the time I reach Laurelhurst, I find my meditative groove.
The bouncing of a basketball on the pavement and the squeal of children on a swing set fall into the rhythm of my pace. Step, bounce, cry. Step, bounce, cry.
This 26-acre park is where I brought my dog to learn how to play fetch when he was barely big enough to hold the ball in his mouth. He barked at ducks in the pond and rolled around in Portland’s winter mud.
Next I meet a friend for coffee at Tiny’s Coffee near the Hawthorne Bridge.
Liz is a dog walker, so she too has built her relationship with the city over many miles on foot. A pug named Blue joins us and we walk over the Hawthorne Bridge.
At the start of our friendship, when we were both new to town, Liz and I often made plans to catch a bus downtown together from our adjacent Hawthorne apartments. But once we started walking and talking, it often made more sense to just keep going.
Our lives have changed so much since we lived in walking distance to the Hawthorne Bridge, so I’m grateful that I’ve come up with this excuse for us to cross it again. We stop halfway to take in the view of downtown, which is a little hazy from distant forest fires. Blue is tired, so they turn back while I continue walking.
Two years ago, my younger brother came to visit from Connecticut. Together we walked across the Burnside Bridge to sample the bizarre confections of Voodoo Doughnut and to watch face-painted fans scream the words of songs he didn’t know at a Timbers game.
The Burnside Bridge is one of 12 bridges that connect the city’s east side to the west. A homeless man with a knife was being talked down by cops, as we skirted around their skirmish on our way to get doughnuts.
Portland isn’t Bogotá. No one will tell you that you can’t walk around certain neighborhoods alone. But there are still some places that make your pace quicken. Old Town, a downtown neighborhood at the edge of the Burnside Bridge, is one of them. My office is there so I’ve grown accustomed to the behavior of addicts, people with mental illnesses, and other houseless people making homes on the sidewalk with cardboard and shopping carts full of cans.
Today I walk past a couple, curled around each other with a blanket that is too small. His dreadlocks are splayed across the grass and his shoulder blades look like they’re trying to escape his skin.
The sidewalks of Old Town are smattered with unidentifiable liquids and glass, and the homelessness and drug problems that plague our city are in plain view—often blocking your path forward. Like most people, I often look away. It’s too exhausting to acknowledge my inability to make a difference every time someone asks me for spare change. We all know the feeling. It sucks. But we keep walking.
Since the presidential election last year, protests have demanded more space on these city streets. The Women’s March took up all of downtown, spilling over into the bridges that connect the west side to the east. Despite the many cities and miles I’ve covered by foot, walking as a form of protest is new to me.
When two young women were threatened by a man hurling racial slurs on the MAX train, and the three men who stepped up to defend them were stabbed (only one survived), I became aware of a new facet of Portland.
When I walked next to Black Lives Matter protesters and learned that Oregon was the only state founded on the grounds that black people were not allowed to own land or reside here, another reality collided with the one I held true of this city. Not everyone feels welcome here. Not everyone feels safe.
Turns out, you can walk all over a place and still only know your own path. It took this past election to inspire so many of us to look at the ugly truths of places we call home. And in the miles I’ve walked with a new, post-election perspective, I’ve begun to accept the limits of what I can really know about a city, or what it’s like for other people to live here.
Whether we’re talking about homelessness or the insidious racism that plagues this deceivingly progressive city, not everyone is given the opportunity to feel at home in a place that became one for me so easily.
For most able-bodied people, putting one foot in front of the other is not a challenge. Some people literally walk in their sleep. We face other types of challenges when we walk, though. We face strangers and strange corners. We face the occasionally crushing noise of our own thoughts, which get louder the farther we go.
When I arrive at the International Rose Test Garden, in Washington Park, I sit on a bench and watch couples canoodle on blankets and kids chase each other on the lawn. I watch and listen to the edges of busy lives and complicated relationships and feel invigorated by the complexity and mystery of it all.
There are more than 500 varieties of roses here. They arrived from Europe in 1918, after the Oregon Journal editor, Jesse A. Currey, pitched the idea for a safe haven to harbor these hybrid species while bombs fell on Europe. The roses were saved by moving to Portland, and today this is the largest rose test garden in the world. They’ve thrived here.
Washington Park is full of tourists. But there are also homes—elegantly manicured homes that must be worth millions of dollars. Homes with stately, columned porches and geometric hedges. I wonder what these homeowners think about all the visitors walking past their driveways, looking for the Rose Garden, day after day. I wonder if the wanderers, the visitors, and the lost ones collide much with the people watering their own gardens.
It’s 7 p.m. by the time I finally turn back toward home; I’ve covered nearly 20 miles, and I’m exhausted. I make plans to meet my boyfriend at a familiar restaurant, and he drives me the rest of the way. My dog is waiting at home, wondering where I’ve been all day.
It isn’t until a week later that I decide to walk the stretch from that coffee shop on Foster Road, where I started my first walk, to my house—down all those streets where the billboards aren’t meant to be read by pedestrians. After my 20-mile expedition, this stretch of less-than-perfect walking territory doesn’t feel so vast. I stop for a beer halfway, and I sit on a patio, facing the street. Turns out, there are a lot of people walking around here. There are people getting off buses, riding their bikes, and pushing strollers down this very busy stretch. I pick up groceries on the final leg and promise myself I’ll start walking around this neighborhood more. I’m rejuvenated by the idea that I still have unexplored territory right around my home.
The word “home” naturally encompasses the intimate and the familiar. There are no strangers at home. There are no unfamiliar smells. There are no unidentifiable objects. Home is the place you know best. There is you, your loved ones, the smells so ubiquitous to your life that you no longer smell them, the objects you could find in the dark.
Most of us are able to feel safe at home, but in order to interact with the world, we must continue to make ourselves vulnerable to the unfamiliar. I may only know a singular path through Portland, no matter how far I walk. But in walking, we share this city with everyone—our paths cross, our gazes meet, our personal spaces collide. We look for the places that feel like home, with and around each other.
Editor: Sara Polsky