Twice Charmed by Portland, Oregon

The Pacific Northwest city captivated the author first when she was an adventure-seeking adolescent and again as an adult

Portland has a "goofy, energetic optimism," says novelist Katherine Dunn, sitting on the city's Hawthorne Bridge. (Robbie McClaran)
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We’re polite here. Just say “thanks,” or “you too,” and you’re fine.

I’d focused on what made the city different from rural, small-town life. The newcomers reminded me that not all cities are alike. In 1967 I left Portland for other places, urban and rural, and on different continents. A decade passed and my son was ready to start school. I’d been missing the rain, and the Portland of my memory was an easy place to live, so we came back.

Portland’s population has mush­roomed since I was a kid. The perpetual tug of war between preserving and modernizing saws back and forth. Urban renewal ripped out communities and poured in glass, steel and concrete, but some of the replacements are wonderful. The town is better-humored now, more easygoing. That feel of the old hobnobbing with the new is more amiable. Of course the blood and bones of the place never change—the river, the hills, the trees and the rain.

Mount Hood still floats 50 miles to the east, a daytime moon, ghostly or sharp depending on the weather. It’s been 200 years since Hood’s last big eruption. But when Mount St. Helens blew her top in May of 1980, I walked two blocks up the hill from my house and got a clear view of it spewing its fiery innards into the sky. Volcanic ash fell like gray snow on Portland and took months to wash away.

People who come here from elsewhere bring good things with them. When I was young, exotic fare meant chop suey or pizza. Students from New York City begged their parents to ship frozen bagels out by air. Now restaurants offer cuisines from all over the world.

Many of my neighbors love being close to hiking and rafting, skiing and surfing. But the steep miles of trails through the trees and ferns and streams of the city’s 5,000-acre Forest Park are wilderness enough for me. I love standing on the sidewalk and looking up at clouds wrapping the tall firs in a silver wash like a Japanese ink drawing.

The weather here is not out to kill you. Summers and winters are generally mild. Sunlight comes in at a long angle, touching everything with that golden Edward Hopper light. No one loves the sun more than Portlanders. Café tables spill onto the sidewalks and fill with loungers at the first glimpse of blue sky.

But the rain is soft, and I suspect it fosters creativity. Although Portland harbors doers and makers, inventors and scholars, athletes and brilliant gardeners, what touches me most is that this town has become a haven for artists of every discipline. They are reared here, or they come from far away for mysterious reasons. Their work makes life in Portland richer and more exciting. Several theater companies offer full seasons of plays. If you’re not up for the opera, ballet or symphony, you can find stand-up comedy or dance and concert clubs in every musical genre. Animators and moviemakers burst out with festivals several times a year. Most surprising to me are the clothes designers who bring an annual fashion week to a town best known for plaid flannel and Birkenstocks.

Rain or shine, it’s just a 15-minute stroll from my door to that beautiful library, and after all this time every step of the way has layers of history for me. The oddest thing is that I’ve grown old over the past half century while Portland seems brighter, more vital and younger than ever.

Katherine Dunn’s third novel, Geek Love, was a National Book Award finalist, and her most recent book, One Ring Circus, is a collection of her boxing essays.


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