72ish Hours in Portland

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Just like those NYT Travel articles, but more depressing!

I wasn’t sure I would ever write this piece, much less publish it, but on the bright side it’s so long I don’t think anyone will ever bother to read the whole damn thing anyway. The thought of this story existing anywhere someone might see it, much less in the depths of the internet for any schmuck who happens to stop by, gives me great pause. So here I am months later, agonizing over every word and editing a silly little blog post to near-death as I stave off the inevitable. Eventually I manage to hit the publish button, but only after great protestations from myself and a whole lot of internal discussion. Vulnerability just feels… well, vulnerable. Overcoming that ingrained cultural muscle memory to exclaim “I’m fine” is a tricky thing. And thinking back to this trip still feels a little too raw, too recent. Or maybe not the trip itself, but everything surrounding this trip just weighs me down. I worry that if I look back on this moment, dwell or dive into these things, that weight will latch on again and come back with me to the present like some invasive species (My brain immediately jumps to the frogs eating everything in the “Bart vs. Australia” episode of The Simpsons, though I haven’t watched it in decades). I’m glad I went on the trip, just unsure I did a good enough job leaving the right things behind.

Making my escape

This may sound exceedingly naive, but I truly didn’t believe the lead up to my 30th birthday set all of this in motion (cue 2 paragraphs talking about birthdays to convince myself even further). I’ve never really attributed much importance to birthdays, it’s just another day that happens to line up neatly with your first one ever. I barely tell most people about my birthday, just to avoid the expectation put on us that birthdays need to be accompanied by some extravagant display or self-centered party in order to be considered “successful.” Which is totally fine if that’s your thing, it’s your birthday! You should celebrate yourself. But the idea of ever being the center of attention for anything is just a little anxiety-inducing to me personally. It feels so unearned, all I did was be born! Anyone can do that, people do it all the time! So I end up doing my own thing most of the time.

When I was younger I usually ended up working through my birthday at whichever bar or restaurant I happened to be employed with that August. Not the worst choice in the world for a slightly work-obsessed and probably all-too-shy kid, especially back when I was a few years short of twenty-one. Birthday nights followed the same cadence as most other; work like a madman for six to ten hours, get that nice adrenaline high off of the rush, hopefully partake in an illicit birthday shot or two along the way, and leave with cash in hand. Then make a quick stop at whichever late-night fried food spot was the current favorite and head straight home for a movie followed by the special kind of deep sleep that only comes from a combination of greasy carbs, alcohol, and exhaustion. Plenty of shifts like that were mixed in with late nights out with coworkers and a healthy portion of meeting up with college friends for a similar-but-slightly-different style of debauchery. And I loved every one of them. But a small part of me does wonder, looking back, if I did that because I loved it and because those nights didn’t afford the time to think about birthdays.

But enough reminiscing to set the scene; fast forward to August of 2022. The past month or so had been a real drag (See: Sad Boi Okonomiyaki). It was a strange contrast: thriving at work, healthy and getting back in shape again, working on myself, making progress towards all of those big pie-in-the-sky life goals. I even finally started dating again, to mixed success, and I was having fun regardless of the outcomes. But little by little I found myself feeling more and more alone than I had in a very very long time. I wasn’t wanting for friends or family or everything that give breathe to life, but it all felt… hollow. Time passed and nothing I did or tried to do altered that feeling.

Enough time has passed to recognize this was all an aftereffect of fixing what had been broken; part of me was, and who am I kidding still is, trying to make up for what I think of as lost time from all the years I spent in a fog, sleepwalking (drunkenly stumbling might be more appropriate) through life on my little own hamster wheel. Now that I’ve escaped that cycle some days it feels like everyone is miles ahead while I’m just scrambling to keep moving. I’d use a drowning metaphor here if it didn’t feel so tired and excessive. Think less Rip Van Winkle and more Alan Parrish from Jumanji, if you swap the lions and tigers and not-at-all-subtle manifestation of your father in the form of a British big game hunter for unaddressed mental health needs.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of everything I’ve accomplished so far. And I know this feeling is relative, exponentially boosted by a world designed to inundate us nonstop with only the best of the best while the normal and commonplace sinks underneath the surface. Despite all that I can’t help but see a path I never realized was there before and is too far back to pick up. Mourn a version of me that I can’t ever reach and never fully understood until now. And slowly the weight of this idea attached itself to all those things you grow up being told are the bare necessities for a life well lived: a good career, great wife, nice house, headed towards kids if not already there. And the more I tried to do too much too quickly, that lost time looked more and more insurmountable. And as the days carried on I felt drained, going through the motions of what I wanted, or felt I should want, without any real meaning or substance. And eventually I recognized I had reached a bleak place that felt all too familiar. A déjà vu of despair, if you want to wax poetic about it. Which I surely do, I mean why else write all this?

When I first started improving my mental health, a large part of that work focused on forward-thinking strategies and changes to my life. Which was great, and whaddya know it worked! Improvement was immediate, and I felt like I had upward velocity for the first time in a long time. But I think in focusing on the present and the future, the baggage from my past was left unattended, sequestered to a corner of my mind I decided to simply never visit again. The timeline of my life had been separated into a B.C. and an A.D., I was determined to never stumble across what once was ever again. But I’m sure we can all see the folly and naiveté, myself included now, in that sentiment. And sure enough that weight had slowly started to leak out into the rest of my life.

And then before I knew it I was spiraling, after one tiny little thing pushed me off the edge. It was so inconsequential and petty, a minor annoyance in the course of any other normal day. But somehow this tiny little thing became a catalyst for the reemergence of all my past traumas and shame. Looking back the moment feels too embarrassing to even share the specifics, so I just won’t? I’ve accepted by now that emotionally I’m composed of more highs and lows with fewer middles than most. If it hadn’t been this moment it would have been whatever came next that day: a stubbed toe, some bad weather, a stray conversation with the words arranged in the right order to take them all wrong. Just know that at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter what started this. But I’d rather leave that stupid little moment as my own if it’s all the same.

From there my brain starting blowing every trouble in life sky high out of proportion and my emotions snowballed. I went from bad to worse over the course of a few days and I felt myself reaching a boiling-over point of sorts. So I decided to make like a tree and get the hell out of Dodge (I’m mixing dumb idioms so you know it was serious).

Now I don’t think travel will miraculously change your persuasion in any meaningful way all by itself. There’s nothing more cliché or garish than the never-ending parade of travel bloggers proclaiming a two week pilgrimage to Bali or humanitarian mission for selfies with impoverished orphans in God-knows-where opened their eyes to what is truly important. I’m not saying you can’t ever visit Bali or help some orphans, though perhaps fewer involuntary child photo ops might do the world some good. But travel is a short-term remedy for a long-term problem. In the wise words of Adam Sandler, “if you’re sad now you might still feel sad there.” However, I do believe travel affords a privileged opportunity to step back and refocus or shift your thinking. Like resetting your brain with a positive version of the Doorway Effect. That change in environment opens up new possibilities for your mindset and if properly taken advantage of I think can be a boon for starting fresh upon your return. So with all that in mind I started looking for a decent spot to get away to, somewhere relatively walkable since I was in-between cars and not too much of a pain to reach from Colorado. Chicago was too expensive, Salt Lake City wasn’t nearly debaucherous enough, so on and so on. Eventually my choices dwindled and Portland seemed just right.

I had only been to Portland once before during a brief one-night layover as I headed home from a trip to Japan. Exhilarated, energized, and for the moment full of excitement about the future; travel usually does this. But while the spirit was more than willing, the flesh was too weak for anything besides sinking into the seat of an indie movie theater and watching Spider-Man: Into The Spiderverse. Which to be clear was absolutely fantastic; the fact that I didn’t pass out on that plush leather recliner from sheer exhaustion speaks volumes. But after that I walked right back to my bed and slept for around 12 hours. Fatigue finally overpowered my enthusiasm and the Final Destination-minded voice in my brain screaming about the fact that my dirt-cheap AirBnb room didn’t have a door. Security may be an illusion, but this trip really opened my eyes to what’s truly important about a good solid door ever since. So suffice to say I didn’t gain any real impression of Portland from the visit. But this time around I aimed to do some actual exploring.

The plan was to get some fresh air, wander around aimlessly, have a few drinks, eat plenty of food, and maybe obtain true catharsis if I could swing it. Nothing too ambitious right?

Buddha had a cave. I had an ice cream cone.

Forest Walking

Most every trip I take involves at least one pitstop or quick stroll through whatever green space I can find along the way, if not as many as I can squeeze into my schedule. I’m the type of traveler who prefers to meander around in search of adventure and intrigue, guidebooks be damned! And green spaces are some of the best places to do said meandering: trails, esplanades, walkways, public squares. Heck, even a slightly greener sidewalk can do the trick. There’s nothing better than finding a nice bench or patch of grass to waste away part (or all) of your day, surrounded by all manner of plants and people. Reading, eating, preferably listening to live music from whichever band or busker happens to set up shop that day. Throw in a pinch of people-watching and you’re all set!

Now there are probably thousands of articles and scientifically-backed reports you can read about the importance of green spaces for communities and their impact on mental health, rising temperatures, and a whole host of other pressing issues. But why go through more reading when you can just watch a silly cartoon instead?

Confession: I’ve never actually watched the show

(For anyone else curious about that “dark chapter” line it’s a reference to Seneca Village, the first free Black community in New York City. Founded in 1825, the village eventually became home to an integrated community when Irish and German immigrants arrived. But the village was forcibly taken by 1857 through eminent domain and demolished in order to make Central Park. I grew up a quick train ride from NYC most of my life and never once heard any mention of Seneca Village until I saw this… cartoon theme song. If you want to learn more like I did, Vox filmed a documentary on this and the NPS has some info as well)

Yes, this goofy and slightly-crude ditty is centered (get it?!) around one specific park. But the description, except the dirty hot dog water, applies to most public green spaces: sources of refuge, athletics, activity, community, and of course cuisine. What’s not to love? Plus like the song says, these public spaces make for decent equalizers. Not that having public green spaces will solve all our problems, but I do believe that having places like parks where everyone can go regardless of their race/religion/gender/socioeconomic status/etc. is at least a start. Especially with the lack of free public spaces in the U.S nowadays.

Portland certainly isn’t lacking in places to chose from for forest walking; the entire city is surrounded on all sides by the stuff. But since I didn’t have a car to use I spent most of my time exploring Washington Park, a quick jaunt uphill from the hostel where I stayed.

This certainly felt auspicious on my path up the hill toward the gardens and hopefully enlightenment

The Pacific Northwest’s forests have always held a special place in my heart. Their demeanor has always felt more ancient to me than other forests for some reason I don’t fully understand. At least partially, I get the sense I’m bearing witness to an existence spanning millennia walking under the canopies of those tall treetops more than anywhere else. The plant life is covered with rich colors, bugs, and dewdrops that have been there millions of years and will still be there long after we’re gone. The only downside is I feel I’m playing more the part of an interloper compared to the dry and quiet forests of Colorado that I’m used to, intruding into this living breathing organism and bringing all of humanity’s blustery nature that comes with my presence. Half of me doesn’t ever want to leave, while the other half wants to build a giant wall around the forest so it can continue onward uninterrupted until the end of time. But it’s far too late for that, the park is crisscrossed with paved roads, signage, and the orderly structures of urban planning. Though I do appreciate Portland’s proclivity for nature to creep in alongside its infrastructure and provide a bit of comfort wherever it can. With a longer stay I could have spent hours walking the roads on the edge of the city, surrounded by the tangled overgrowth of trees and bushes on all sides. Perhaps another time.

But wouldn’t you know it, there’s a Japanese Garden inside the park to boot! That sounded like the right place for a bit of contemplation given my current philosophical and emotional state of mind. So I marched farther uphill and deeper into the forest. You can’t call it a public garden since there’s a paid entrance fee, but given the circumstances I thought $16.95 was a small price to pay for attaining enlightenment.

(Some) Inner Peace by way of Japan

It feels derivative to say but necessary nonetheless; The Portland Japanese Garden is beautiful. Carefully designed and immaculately maintained, every inch of the compound is coordinated with the rest of the garden’s space kept in mind. Carefully organized to effortlessly flow in the only way you would expect from a place that draws so heavily on elements of Japanese design. Its presence is made even stronger through the contrasting backdrop of the tall forest trees looming all around you. Just the kind of secluded oasis that I can get behind.

My guys, you are killing the shot composition here

In short, it’s very pretty and a real nice place to visit! The landscape and plant life was of course superb, but I found myself more smitten than expected by the architecture there, an interesting mixture of traditional Japanese elements and modern sustainability practices. Probably the most striking component to me were the LEED living rooftops of the two main buildings. In the layest of layman’s term they are living sod tiles with plant life incorporated into them, fastened onto a steel framework on the roofs to keep them in place. It’s a fascinating concept that I’d love to see more often. I’m sure it’s entirely impractical and exorbitantly expensive for most buildings, but it’s my radical opinion that all our buildings should be absolutely smothered in greenery and rooftop gardens and beehives or whatever other pieces of nature we can reasonably stick onto them, whether rural or urban or suburban or whatever. I didn’t have much luck finding a real in-depth walkthrough of the rooftops’ creation or function, but I did track down a nice walkthrough of the entire garden’s architecture published by Architizer. Hopefully some lovely soul with a lot more knowledge than me on the subject has written or will write a deep dive/case study on these beauties.

Not huge by any means, but it’ll keep you busy for a day

Beyond the main plaza are what you would hope to see at any halfway decent garden: stone walkways cushioned by a vast array of greenery and plant life, calm ponds and creeks trickling underneath wooden walkways, the odd metal sculpture or stone statue. I would love to go back and see the garden in every single season, I have no doubt it’s a different kind of beauty doused in fall colors or a light layer of snowfall. And that’s really all I have to say about that. I don’t mean to gloss over so much of the place; I loved every nook and cranny, plenty of time was spent aimlessly shambling and taking it all in. It was great, it was beautiful, but it was also everything I expected.

One thing I would have loved was an opportunity to explore when there were slightly less visitors around. It’s the naturally selfish contradiction of loving public green spaces while wanting those spaces all to yourself at the same time, uninterrupted by the presence or preferences of anyone else. All of the Instagram-worthy spots were saturated no matter what time of day I passed by; I could forget about any alone time with the koi pond. And with a 10am opening time, relatively limited space, and only five and a half hours of access every day I can’t envision the place ever emptying out all that much. If there’s one added benefit to public spaces, it’s that they usually open early enough to sneak in at the crack of dawn for a little peace and quiet before the hordes arrive. But for this visit I had to be content with small intermittent moments to myself, interrupted by the odd tourist or two snapping photos and speaking in hushed whispers alongside me.

Owning a koi pond is one of my “more money than sense” bucket list stretch goals

Empty Your Mind of Everything That Doesn’t Have to do With Fine Dining… Fine Dining and Breathing.

The concept of meditation has always frustrated me. Part of the problem is I have no earthly idea how to relax and I never will. Just turning down the volume on my brain’s ceaseless stream of consciousness isn’t something that is going to happen. No combination of environment, stimuli, mind-altering substances, or state of mind has ever left me feeling all that relaxed. The closest I’ve ever felt to achieving what you could call relaxation is while scuba diving, when all the world is drowned out except the irregular flittering of oxygen bubbles and that tiny voice in your head saying “Oh fuck, oh fuck, what the hell are you doing all the way down here? Swim back up right now where the air is you moron!” But it’s not like I can pop down 40 feet below the water whenever I feel a need to chill out. Sensory deprivation tanks might end being a similar vibe with a tenth of the hassle, but knowing me I will probably just end up thinking about Minority Report the whole time.

The other problem is that most meditation practices preached nowadays, even general mindfulness, fail to acknowledge just how difficult it is to completely escape all the noise, auditory or otherwise, constantly bombarding us throughout the day. It’s in a similar vein to my criticisms of the various unplug movements advocating for society to limit their use of technology that are so en vogue right now. Whether by deleting social media, reducing internet usage, or even deleting their digital footprint entirely. While these ideas are well-meaning and sorely needed in the internet-saturated society we find ourselves living in nowadays, most of these movements advocate from a position of digital privilege that is rarely afforded to most people when it comes to our internet footprints or mindfulness.

When Aziz Ansari released Right Now, his first standup special since returning from a hiatus in the aftermath of a controversial incident I’m not even sure how to exactly describe, he spent a large chunk of his time talking about abandoning his smartphone in favor of a talk-and-text cellphone. I say talking, but really the whole bit feels more like a “holier-than-thou” monologue lambasting us for our internet-soaked lifestyles; Either I missed the punchline or it never existed. But for most people who don’t have that kind of wealth or name recognition, simply shutting off your digital life isn’t simple or even practical. There are too many essential needs tied up with our digital resources today: access to goods and services, employment opportunities, hell even many of the communities we rely on for our social needs and cultural capital (this Observer article was in response to one of Ansari’s older GQ interviews, but since he seems to have repeated himself you can apply these same criticisms to Right Now). Living life is deeply intertwined with having some measure of digital lifestyle.

The same argument applies for the meditative practices we hear about the most often. It’s not feasible or cheap for many people to easily access things like extended quiet, solitary spaces, or uninterrupted stretches of time that are taken for granted by these methods. Ask someone working in the service world, or plenty of other industries, when they find time to work on their mindfulness or meditate and I imagine the majority would probably laugh in your face. Maybe not as many today as a few years ago, thanks in part to pushes for workers rights and gains in mental health awareness caused by staff shortages, Covid, and a whole host of other intermingling problems. But people worried about putting food on the table or working 12 hour shifts don’t usually have the time or the energy (yes, even meditation has its own energy costs) for any of this. The fact that I’m even able to have this conversation makes me luckier than most, financially and emotionally. I wouldn’t call any of what I do meditation or mindfulness for these reasons. The idea of an “intentional slowing down” feels more appropriate, though I’m a little afraid this phrase is one step away from nosediving straight into a pool of hollow New Age B.S. and shitty self-help books. So I’m open to alternative titles, but for now it will have to do. But enough soapboxing for one day. Back to the exciting stuff: rocks!

The Men Man Who Stares at Goats Rocks

I eventually ended up my way over to the Sand and Stone Garden, tucked away in a corner overlooking the front entrance. It’s a lovely little alcove on a slightly lower level, separated from the rest of the garden by a stone staircase and secluded enough to provide a bit more uninterrupted contemplation time. And it has a bench! Which is perfection since I’m not one for meditation and deep thoughts while standing; there’s a reason Winnie the Pooh had that log to sit on for all his thinking.

Another added benefit to this particular rock garden was its distinct lack of appeal to the average traveler. I remember one couple wandering next to my (yes it’s mine now) thinking bench, dressed in the ceremonial garb of our embarrassingly American tourist forebearers: baseball caps, jeans, tennis shoes with white socks, backpacks, the works. The two of them snapped a few photos, one of them proclaimed “It’s not that great” while the other nodded in agreement, and then before you could say “Where’s the gift shop?” they were gone. Couldn’t have been more than thirty seconds before mission completed and on to the next one. It was a comical study in contrast; there I was wheezing and sobbing (next to? over?) this pile of rocks, and they couldn’t even be bothered by the damn thing. Didn’t they understand the awe-inspiring, paradigm-shifting, life-altering kinds of thoughts to be had if they would just stay put and let these stones soak in for a few minutes? And they didn’t even have the decency to read the exhibit placard, the monsters! Or maybe they just noticed the strange man breathing heavily on the bench and thought better of sticking around.

Now I’m sure these two travelers I’m being a bit of a snob about were in the middle of a lovely garden trip that didn’t bear the need for any emotional catharsis or life-altering transformations (maybe just some fashion transformations, zing!). But while I firmly believe everyone should travel and explore however they see fit, the eternal caveat to this being anyone exhibiting the universally-acknowledged ailment known as “being an ass,” that kind of checkbox sightseeing irks me. Sure, the rock garden doesn’t have the action of the koi pond or the bells & whistles of the exotic plants scattered throughout the grounds. But there can be something comforting about steeping yourself in a piece of art so simple, unmoving, and eternally steadfast in its nature. Perhaps even more so to certain types of people, say a thirty-year-old man going through what one might justifiably define as a breakdown? I fully acknowledge my hypocrisy in this matter; in any other circumstance I probably would have taken a quick gander and been on my way just like everyone else. The circumstances of my life defined the perception of this exhibit, the entire garden, and every single thing I encountered on my trip.

Recently I read Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman (highly recommended! It’s a great philosophical treatise on what you might call an “anti-productivity” approach, and the book is a lot deeper than its sensational title suggests), and one of the more striking sections on slowing down in life refers to an assignment that a Harvard art history professor named Jennifer Roberts gives out. It’s simple in theory but excruciating in practice; every one of her students must sit and stare at the same work of art for three hours straight. The exercise is a lesson in patience and understanding the difference between looking and seeing, to briefly paraphrase Roberts. Now that I know about this I’m excited to try it the next time I find a work of art that resonates enough to be worth the trouble, rock-like or otherwise. This time around I was only perched on my thinking bench for maybe an hour or two and a lot more internally focused, so I didn’t attain the full effect of the exercise. But I managed to accidentally stumble onto a few of the same benefits from my time amongst pebble and stone.

It’s not just a boulder… it’s a rock

I Wanna Rock (Garden)

There I was: exhausted, tired, overburdened. Sitting alone in a mysterious rock garden a thousand miles from home, reflecting on the life that had led me there and all that lay ahead of me. You’re probably expecting the same tired ending after all this build up right? Burnt out millennial goes on a trip to clear their head, ends up finding themselves, and realizes what’s truly important in life. Now is the perfect opportunity for a drawn-out monologue filled with tired clichés about how I changed in that rock garden and came out of the experience the perfectly adjusted person you find writing this story today. Something grand and flashy, followed shortly after by a link to my online wellness course where you too can discover the same wellness in your own life for the low low price of $19.95! But I’m more than happy to buck that well-known formula and maintain what little authenticity I have. If you’re looking for the perfect picture of mental health, problems all solved and tied up in a neat little bow, go find an Instagram influencer.

It’s funny how writing about your own life always feels so unoriginal. Humanity is a shared experience, but we want so desperately for independence from that notion any way we can find it. Still within the sphere of commonality that connects us, but somehow a heroic aberration from this norm all at the same time. If I could just find some way to bend the space-time continuum for the sake of this unheard-of blog and reach both points, surely I would receive all the acclaim and good fortune I deserve? You dear reader would both understand exactly where I’m coming from with these insights, and yet still find me the daring hero who stands alone! Instead I’m confined to this feeling that my life is nothing but hackney and overuse despite writing about singular experiences that will assuredly never be repeated by the very nature of my existence. As if there’s nothing original to be gleamed from my life just because it will be reduced to accessible cliché by the first person to read this and everyone thereafter. Just pointing out the cliché feels like a cliché in itself. But what else can I do but write on regardless? There’s no way to describe this next part that won’t sound like it came straight from the lips of a half-priced Facebook guru. Accepting this as an unavoidable byproduct of the remote possibility that someone, anyone will be able to understand and share in these moments with me is all there is to do. It seems nothing is certain in life but death, taxes, and feelings of unoriginal inadequacy.

I managed to get something out of all this quality pebble time. Looking at that admirable assemblage of stones, my initial caveman thoughts of “look at all the rocks” slowly gave way to something a bit more philosophical. Searching for contrast, I found my brain envisioning motion in these immovable idols. The ripples raked around each of the larger stones started to pulse and oscillate, absorbing and enveloping one another as they collided. There’s just something so musical about this liquid characteristic. Rainy days next to a lake or river, preferably in a screened-in porch with a good book? Forget about it. That visual melody brought with it a sense of calm and my own form of relaxation, letting me move forward onto those looming thoughts and deeper feelings.

Now I suffer from a notorious natural scowl, aka Resting B#@*ch Face if you want to be impolite about it. Because of this I was an oddly paradoxical bar manager; smiling so much that no patron ever took me seriously as the boss, but somehow having every employee thinking I was upset with them simultaneously. So at this point I have no doubt my stony (ba-dum-tss) demeanor was keeping any potential bench-sharers at bay.

But underneath that mildly upsetting face (perhaps more than mildly depending on who you ask), I started to impart more of myself onto what I was seeing. Moving beyond these imagined ripples weaving through the rocks, honing in on the arrangement of the sculptures. Their positions were random, intermittently dispersed throughout the garden space with no real rhyme or reason. And yet somehow they all looked so precisely positioned, so centered around the tallest stone pillar despite the chaotic disorder in their locations. This idea of an uneven centering latched onto my thoughts; I saw myself in that same space, and all of the weight started pouring out of me. I was a mess, but a coherent one. Uneven, but centered as best as I could be. With a past now better supported by this feeling of sturdiness and foundation among all that heavy debris. After a while longer of sinking deeper into those thoughts, I took one last deep breath and felt all the lighter. Not too shabby for a pile of rocks.

Long after returning from my trip, I read through the Portland Japanese Garden’s description of the Sand and Stone Garden. The first thing that stood out to me was the type of rock garden I had been ogling at:

“…this style of garden was not meant for meditation [zazen], but for contemplation.”

Who has two thumbs and is apparently more in touch with their spiritual side than they thought? This guy! The uncultured slob that I am didn’t even realize there was more than one kind of rock garden either. And there was one other nice little piece of validation:

“an important Japanese aesthetic principle underlying these dry landscape gardens is yohaku-no-bi, meaning ‘the beauty of blank space.'”

I think we’re naturally inclined to project our own beauty and meaning when encountering any kind of blank space. So I’d like to believe, or perhaps hope, that I would have been able to find the meaning I needed no matter what blank space I was seeing, whether it was in a pile of rocks in Oregon, a patch of grass in Colorado, or just the hideous popcorn-spackled ceiling of my apartment. The only thing I wasn’t expecting and didn’t really connect with in a meaningful way was the inspiration behind the sculptures:

“…inspired by the Jataka Sutra, a 2,000 year old Indian tale about a previous incarnation of Buddha. The story is recorded on a painted panel in the Horyu-ji temple at Nara and other Buddhist artifacts depicting the Buddha facing the dilemma of saving a starving tigress and her cubs trapped in a ravine. The Buddha’s self-sacrifice to save starving creatures is a lesson in compassion on the path to attaining enlightenment.”

I can’t say I have much experience with that kind of self-sacrifice! Or tigers for that matter. So it’s probably for the best that I didn’t know about any of this ahead of time; I found a better outcome writing my own story from what I saw.

Good Food, Good Meat, Good Literal Grief, Let’s Eat!

Finally! I suppose I should mention everything else I ate/drink/took part in at least a little bit shouldn’t I? Having at long last partially relieved myself of emotional baggage, it was time to move on to the more gluttonous and indulgent portion of my trip. I hit up all of the essentials: foods, drinks, desserts, books, and film. My accommodations ended up being a few blocks over from the Nob Hill neighborhood and a whole bunch of options available for my consumption. Even my hostel had its own kitchen, complete with a few decent Portland craft beers and a solid veggie burger to put together a peaceful patio dinner set to a quiet Friday evening and a nice breeze.

NW 23rd Ave. is littered with all kinds of tourist trappings of the culinary variety. I waded through a fairly long line to try out Salt & Straw, an ice cream shop recommended to me by more than a few friends. The Sea Salt with Caramel, while somewhat tame compared to the rest of their more outlandish flavors, got the job done and helped the place live up to its hype. From there I walked a couple blocks over to Escape from New York Pizza for a warmup slice. A great imitation to be sure, but if I can risk sounding like an East Coast snob for a moment it just wasn’t quite the same thing as the real deal.

Belly now properly filled, I needed somewhere to rest my bones and recover from the food stupor. So I found myself at a movie theater in Portland again, this time at a lovely little indie joint named Cinema 21. A little worn around the edges and classic in all the right ways, they were still screening Nope for one more week which I had been dying to see. Jordan Peele has made some of the best horror movies to come out in the last few years, and this was no exception. It’s a hot take to be certain, but I feel confident saying that Nope is his best movie so far. It is so boldly original, and so much farther out in terms of substance and style than either Get Out or Us. On top of being uniquely unsettling and terrifying in a way I haven’t felt for many other movies. I could write a whole essay on the movie, just do yourself a favor and go check it out.

These two are an absolute force; I can only hope they work together again.

My next day in the city was a little more adventurous; I ended up taking a long walk from Nob Hill to downtown. Partially to get a good look at the place, but also in search of Powell’s City of Books, a mecca of used books according to my more literature-inclined friends. I spent a good few hours wandering the place, it’s massive and worth getting a little lost inside of. But surprisingly enough I didn’t actually end up walking out with any books. Maybe my mind was still a little fractured from everything else I had been thinking about, but I just couldn’t settle on anything to buy. But that’s probably for the best, the last thing my bulging shelves need are more books.

Since I was visiting such a great hub for Asian cuisine like Portland, I had no choice but to stop by a couple more restaurants and further enable my addiction to Japanese cuisine. The first stop was Takibi, a speakeasy attached to an outdoor equipment store I found out about over in Nob Hill. It was a little strange seeing rows of winter jackets and mountaineering gear on the opposite end of the building from your barstool, but ignoring that the place looks every inch what you might find in Japan, if not a little more finely polished.

Karaage? More like Karaag-yay am I right?!

Their food was impeccable, the drinks equally delicious with a good mix of modern riffs and classic cocktails. I also finally had the chance to try out a Whiskey Highball made by one of those confangled Suntory highball machines I’ve been hearing so much about over the last few years. How did it taste? Great. Do I think it was that much better than a handmade whiskey highball? Probably not by much, but by golly that temperature was practically perfect.

The other spot I popped into on my way out of town was Afuri Izakaya on the east side of the city. They had me at tsukumen; I’ll stop by any restaurant that sells this slightly less mainstream staple. Normally I’m a little skeptical of the quality at any Japanese restaurant that sells ramen and sushi and sashimi all at once. But I tried everything at Afuri and wasn’t disappointed by any of it, except maybe the bill at the end. Plus I spoiled myself just a smidge further with a flight of sake and one small pour of the slightly-gimmicky Legent Bourbon, another drink I’d been meaning to try for some time. And with that my needs for this trip had all been met: emotionally, spiritually, and most important of all gastronomically.

All’s Well that Ends is Well

I made one other stop before heading to the airport and my flight back home. It was a small brewpub my sister had heard about called Workers Tap. For starters the beer selection is solid, the taps nice and cold, and they have a few great in-house brews. But the pub is also entirely worker owned which makes buying drinks feel that much better to do. It’s inside of an old house, bar on the first floor and a few randomly decorated upstairs rooms along with a small library full of activist literature.

I sat there slowly sipping at my last beer of the trip, reflecting a bit on everything I had wrestled with and what I was heading back to. In all honesty, I knew nothing was going to be that different once I returned home. A weight had been eased, but that burden was still there and not going away any time soon. Even now, that past of mine still enters the foreground from time to time and I’m not exactly sure how best to handle it yet. I don’t imagine it will ever fully leave me. At the end of it all, I’m the same person as I had been before this trip. I just feel a little better than before, and I suppose that’s good enough for me.