From Stumbling to Stepping: Making Our Way in Portland

Before we knew our way around Portland, before the rain stuttered and summer passed and the rain returned in tsunamic downpours; before we had jobs and a mattress and a toilet of our own, Taylor and I sat on a bench in the Vancouver, Washington public library, a phone pressed to my ear as a reluctant voice told me we didn’t get the jobs we’d driven across the country for.

Three thousand miles from home in the middle of January, neither of us knew what to do. We didn’t want to drive back and we didn’t know where to go. We’d been living in a car. I was tired of driving and tired of fighting my tiredness. At that moment I wanted nothing more than to forget the whole trip happened, curl up in my warm, childhood bed and abandon adulthood.

Quite frankly, our situation wouldn’t allow much wallowing time. We had to do something, so through a decision reached by a mutual shrug, we agreed to try life in Portland. We’d heard it was a fun city, although that was hard for me to see at the time with all the rain and traffic. We needed to create time to look for jobs and an apartment, find a place to stay that wouldn’t cost much. WWOOF USA was an option, a website that connects travelers with farmers in need of help. The deal is you work twenty hours a week in exchange for food and housing. We found a homestead in Banks, Oregon, an hour from Portland, run by a skinny man named Jesse and his brother, whose name I forget.

When Taylor and I arrived on the property, it was clear they had a lot of work to do. Calling it a homestead was a huge stretch. There was nothing but a ramshackle pottery studio and a tool shed. The land was not beautiful. Overrun by raspberry bushes, littered with trash and scraps of old car parts, everything wet and mossy. Jesse, baby-faced and baggy eyed, showed us to a broken down trailer where we’d stay. It was a hundred feet from the main farm-house where he and his brother lived. There had been an attempt to make the trailer homey with red paint and Tibetan flags, but it was for the most part, dreadful. No electricity or plumbing, mice infested, with the clashing odors of musty attic and organic decay.

It was the longest week of my life, shoveling gravel and hacking raspberry bushes with a dull machete. Not to mention Jesse’s annoying little dog that resembled a rat and cried like an infant, that wouldn’t leave me alone. I could rant about how Jesse misunderstood what WWOOF USA was supposed to be about, but it didn’t matter enough to me at the time and still doesn’t. Every free moment of the day I was emailing people on Craigslist looking for a temporary sublet. Most of them refused couples. When the moment came that we were accepted by two women in need of a temporary third roommate, we were overjoyed. We told Jesse goodbye and hauled our stuff back to the city. Valerie and Julie lived in Northeast Portland, were around forty years old, worked from home and kept to themselves. They gave us a month to find jobs and an apartment.

The apartment we found was a shitty little place – part of an old yellow duplex split into ten tiny studios with a shared bathroom – but all we could afford. It was pure luck that the apartment was close to where I’d eventually get a job, and even luckier that it was in a neighborhood we’d grow to love.

Through the summer we’d spend glorious days hiking in National Forests and depressed hours sweating in our apartment, unable to move from the meager relief of the fan. I’d kill what felt like a thousand house flies with the spine of a book (sorry, Erik Larson), crushing their guts on the walls and windows. I’d read at the park, until it was so overrun with homeless people, that it belonged to them and them alone. We’d cook dinner and wash dishes and drink beer and watch Netflix and do it all in our underwear. We’d feel friendless and sick of each other in a way that made us laugh a crazy, howling laugh. Jenna and Taylor, Taylor and Jenna, that was all, there was nothing else.

A voice in the back of my head would question it all. There were times I missed my friends back east so much I thought I couldn’t bear another second. We discussed moving back home multiple times, never reaching a decision. Our flip-flopping drove me mad, until finally I decided we had to move. Not out of Portland, just out of our apartment. I needed a space with windows that had screens to keep out the flies. I needed my own bathroom. I wanted a real fridge, not a mini fridge, that didn’t shed so much water it drowned all the vegetables. I wanted a bed frame that didn’t sag in the middle, causing us to roll into each other at night and our backs to ache in the morning. Towards the end of our tenancy we gained an upstairs neighbor who startled us awake every night with incessant banging, from doing God knows what. I was sick of being able to hear conversations happening on the street. I was sick of the constant state of our apartment that no matter how much I cleaned was always filthy. There we were, financially stable in Portland, living like we were barely surviving. If we could afford a better place, I wanted to be there.

The next three weeks would behold overwhelming stress and a mistake I’ll never make again. Assuming we’d get the first apartment we applied for, I told our landlord we were leaving in thirty days. Then our applications were denied. Again and again, we were denied. Apartment searching in Portland is like throwing yourself to the wolves, especially when you mistakenly give up the home you have with no guarantee of finding another. Here I thought we were making good money, and yet we were losing to applicants who made more than us. There was a string of days where I was convinced we wouldn’t find an apartment in time and end up right where we started – living in a car. I sat on the creaky floor of our cruddy apartment and cried, watching the colors of the room unravel, feeling the world I’d built around me crumble and fall like a pile of bricks, burying me irretrievably.

Like I said, I’m not one to wallow or stick with a situation I don’t like that I can change. In reality, I was maybe a little dramatic as I tend to get when I’m alone with my emotions. By the time Taylor returned home that night, I’d picked myself off the floor and continued searching. Two days later I got a call from a landlord, Ann, approving us for an apartment.

The first few nights in our new apartment felt like a luxury hotel experience in comparison. It’s on the top floor of a medium-sized brick building with windows glancing over the quiet streets. It’s in the same neighborhood we love – residential, next to bars and food carts and the library and grocery stores. Our bed is no longer in our kitchen, we have our own bathroom and more cabinet space than we know what to do with.

We’ve gone from tent to car to trailer to a room in a house to an actual apartment. We survived living in close, filthy quarters with each other. We laughed through the pain, and laughed and laughed and never stopped laughing. We’ve gone from having no friends to at least a few. In other words, we’re not as lame as we used to be. We’ve gone from being neighborhood newbies to coffee shop regulars. From hating the rain to finding comfort in it. From not knowing what our near future entailed, to being happy that it remains in Portland.

The decision was easy. Looking back at how far we’ve come since that day sitting in the Vancouver library with nothing, no job, no direction, I needed to remind myself to be proud. I have to give thanks to all the people – strangers – who inexplicably entered our life and helped us along the way. I was reminded how important it is to persevere, and that just because something might not fall into place as easily as you’d like, doesn’t mean it’s not meant to be. I also learned that you don’t need a reason to live somewhere, like a job, school or family; you can be somewhere for the simple reason that you’re a human being with a short life in this crazy world, and you want to see it.

Camp Lake to Middle Sister

In the words of Miley Cyrus, it’s the climb.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned how to do in the past seven years it’s how to pack for a backpacking trip. I’m always packing that extra layer, thinking of everything, because I hate wishing I had something on the trail or forgetting something important. And yet that’s exactly what happened when I arrived at the Pole Creek trail head in Sisters, Oregon last weekend. I was all packed and ready to go, with the exception of one crucial item—boots. My boots were no where to be found. I swore I had them in my hand when I left, how could I forget something like boots? But it didn’t matter how much I swore, how much I repeated, “I put them right there!” They were not right there. They were no where. They were at home, three hours away, in our one room apartment. Luckily I had my Chacos. If I were to hike in anything else, it would be my Chacos.

The first eight miles of trail was a mix of flat and gentle ascent, consisting of soft dirt and sand. I was thankful for that. Beautiful surroundings of the North, Middle, and South Sister volcanoes. The trail came to an end at Camp Lake, where we’d spend a night. I wanted to sleep right next to the lake so we could watch the sun set and look up at the stars. Once our tent was up, we left everything but a water bottle and headed for the summit of Middle Sister.


Middle Sister is 10,056 feet high, an active volcano less traversed than its North and South sisters. The summit was two to three miles up a steep, unmarked climb. Once above tree line, we followed old foot prints, or satellite trails. We had passed a couple of people on our way up to Camp Lake, but now we were alone, standing at the base of the volcano.


The top seemed so close and yet so far. Trails had completely disappeared, leaving us with a loose strategy – to aim for the summit, the point way up there, and oh yeah, good luck. Up and to our left were fields of snow and on our right was a rocky ridge that we didn’t want to cross, so our trail was narrowed up the middle. And it was steep. I looked at my phone moments before it died; it was 2 PM, plenty of daylight left. I wished we had brought more water. We took small sips, enough to keep our mouths wet in the high dessert climate. The ground consisted of black rocks, ranging from the size of my fist to the size of my body. They weren’t smooth or nice to walk over.


Given the elevation, I had to catch my breath every few minutes. At one point I climbed on all fours, in a crippled slow motion, panting like a dog. I admit, it was a little pathetic. Finally after another half mile, I had had enough. Every step higher made me feel stupider for forgetting my boots. I kept thinking, if I saw a girl trying to climb this mountain in Chacos, without water, because she made her boyfriend carry the bottle, I’d be like, “Booo Go Home.”

I was torn between my desire to reach the top and my desire to save my feet. My feet, which had grown callouses like an ogre’s in the matter of a day. My knees down were black with soot. The straps of my Chacos pinched my red, swollen skin. I wanted to prove to myself that I was tough, but going any further could be dangerous. High winds, the summit still far away. At any moment a rock could tumble and smash my foot. Or I could twist my ankle. Or were these mere excuses not to push on? I’d hiked mountains more difficult than this one, but all those times I was wearing boots. Today I just, I don’t know, wasn’t in the mood to be a dare devil.

While debating in my head, Taylor climbed on. He was out of yelling distance when I decided to turn around and head back to camp. I had nothing to prove. I made it high enough that the view was incredible, the journey a memorable one, and I avoided further pain. The way down was easier to some degree, but incredibly annoying because all the little pebbles got stuck under my feet. I constantly had to stop, take off my shoes, and shake them out. Three steps later they’d be filled with rocks again. At one point I hiked barefoot, because screw it.


My mood restored while sitting by the crystal blue lake eating trail mix. When Taylor returned he said it was good I didn’t keep going, the summit was sort of sketchy. He showed me his boots and they were all torn up, the sole peeling and stitches loose. That made me feel better about my decision to turn around. If I had remembered my boots, I’m positive I would have made it to the top, but sometimes you have to accept the reality of your mistakes. That, and you have to take a difficult climb seriously. Middle Sister is not a climb that anyone could or should just do. Any idiot can hike to Camp Lake, but beyond that, you are on your own. It’s not tourist friendly, and maybe that’s why there is no official trail to the top.


My plan to star gaze by the lake didn’t quite work out either. Temperature dropped at sundown. After dinner (instant mash potatoes and kielbasa) we went straight into the tent and listened to the wind storm. We must have been in a tunnel, because it was crazy. The wind pushed on our tent so hard, bending the poles, crushing the nylon dome to where it was inches from our face. The sound made it impossible to fall asleep. It was so intense, I thought, how am I not flying through the air right now? It seemed impossible for the weight of my body to be stronger than the wind outside. But it was, and Taylor and I played Would You Rather until we retreated into our thoughts and eventually found our dreams. It didn’t feel like sleep, but like I was dipping between the wind storm and my dreams.


The Phish Fest at The Gorge

“We’re like on a big hill right now!” Taylor says, referring to the thousands of people grooving on a grassy hill overlooking the Gorge amphitheater, the band Phish inducing musical waves upon us, the sea of heads drowning in dopamine. “We’re all being pulled towards the sound! No one is in the same place that they were before!” Taylor continues, in awe of the obvious.
“Gravity, dude!” I say, lightheartedly mocking the absurd pot-friendly hippie world we entered two days ago, like an alternate reality soaked in tie dye. Despite our state of mind, Taylor is right. No one in the crowd is in the same place they were before. Before the song, before the set, before the weekend. A weekend I can only describe as spectacular and extreme, from sweltering white heat to chilly darkness, relaxed bum-nothing days to sensory explosive nights, from who we are outside the Phish fest to who we are during. It’s the fourth and last set, and with the cotton candy sunset swallowed by nightfall, all I see are stage lights, blinking and twirling, stunning me into slack jawed amazement.

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Checking In, Stretching Out

It has been a while since I last posted, sorry about that. Not that anyone cares except my guilt and ego. Anyway, it will be a short post because I don’t have a lot to say. Actually, that’s a lie, I have so much to say but nothing that applies to the theme of my blog. I simply want to check in with the blogging muscles, like doing yoga after a long time without. My muscles might be tight, my breath shallow and unsteady, but we’ll work it out. The reason I haven’t been blogging, well, there are a few. One is that I am doing so much writing in other genres (yay!) This is good. Working in the evenings gives me all day to write in the solitude of my one room apartment or read in the sun at the park.

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The Homeless Man on 20th

A reflection on Portland’s homeless problem, the most visible crisis affecting every life.

It used to be much bigger, his tent. A month ago it was impossible to walk on the sidewalk. Five gallon buckets, shoes, sleeping bags, bottles, trash cans, a broom, a grocery cart, clothes, kitchen appliances, items collected from the street. Then one day it all disappeared, and so did the man. Only a dark, mysterious stain remained. Gradually items reappeared on the sidewalk. A tarp. A cart. A bucket. Then one day blended into the litter, I almost didn’t notice him sitting in a plaid button up shirt, cleaning his toes, red bites on his shins. He looked like something that shouldn’t be in sunlight. I saw him but didn’t really see him, reeled in by curiosity, deterred by fear and the social rule that it’s rude to stare.
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Monday Funday at Summers Park

IMG_2215[1]Every Monday that the weather is nice, people gather at Summers Park to enjoy the last few hours of sunshine playing Frisbee, hula-hooping, slack-lining, juggling, doing yoga, smoking weed, standing on heads, and playing an adult version of Airplane. You know, that game you played as a kid when you’re dad would lie on his back, put the soles of his feet on your squishy belly and send you flying into the air. It’s essentially that, but between thirty year old hippies. Yes, Funday Monday or Monday Funday, never sure of the order, is a word-of-mouth event big enough to make drivers at the red light turn and stare.
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Spring Awakening: Hiking Dog Mountain

Ten minutes on Interstate 84 East and the city is behind us. We ride along the crisp edge of the Columbia River Gorge, growing richer in color as the sun burns away the morning fog. A blue sky is the greatest gift on a Saturday morning. To my right are swelling hills of green, puckering up to the sun. Trees, relieved from winter rain, uncurl sulking spines and stretch their shoulders. Trickling down the hill crevices are gentle blue blades, shining rocks and lathering earth, evidence of snow coaxed by the sun.

Taylor and I cross the Bridge of the Gods and turn right, cruising another fourteen miles past fishing docks and crusty mountain towns.

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