Places I Love: Voodoo Doughnuts . . . um Portland!

City of Bridges, Rivers and Highways

I have just under 24 hours to explore Portland, OR.  Having never spent any real time here, I am curious to check out the city, its bike paths, restaurants and Powell Books.  I call my college classmate and former San Francisco roommate, Dave, and tell him I am in town.  He meets me on bike at the hip n’ cool Jupiter Hotel, where I stay for the night, and we head out on the town.

Our first stop is a local watering hole: Crush.  It’s not long before it feels like old times.  We catch up on the last 15 years of our lives; career, love, family and more.  There is a great sense of satisfaction I feel in our exchange – it is good to share life stories with a chum.  We move over to the trendy Accanto restaurant in the neighborhood of Belmont and continue our repartee.  It is great fun.

Downtown Portland, OR

Our night cap takes us on a walk to downtown Portland and Voodoo Doughnuts, where at 12:30AM there is a line of about 40 people waiting for doughnuts.  I order a caramel round and Dave gets the bacon maple bar.  We walk and eat; I notice the vibrancy of the city – Portland is alive and loud in the early morning.  Perched on our outdoor bench at the secret bar Central, we watch trendy, young club-goers, drag queens, homeless men and women and people in search of late night eats fill the streets with activity.  I head back to the hotel and climb into bed around 1AM.  I dream of sweat rings of fried cakes and seriously consider a Voodoo run at 3 AM (they open 24/7), but sleep gets the better of me.

The next day, after a most delicious brunch at Wild Abandon, Dave and I find ourselves in line at Voodoo again; this time at the alternate location, which is bright pink and architecturally resembles a former IHOP.  It has the atmosphere of a carnival – black velvet paintings of Kenny Loggins, pinball machines, tourists and locals, and the grande dame: a four tiered, glass-enclosed doughnut case.  My eyes start to spin like a cartoon character as I consider which deep-fried ball of delight I will devour.  A closer look reveals a vegan top shelf.

The Voodoo Doughnut (yum!)

I settle on the signature doughnut – a raspberry filled, chocolate covered bar, complete with short arms and a pretzel stick used for performing black magic rituals.  “Bite the head off!,” Dave instructs me.  I do, then eat the entire body, growling as if I am King Kong or some other giant animal.  Before leaving, I decide to take a couple dozen sinkers me to the Soul Retrieval workshop I am about attend in SE Oregon – I figure that retrieving souls is hard work and people would appreciate the sustenance.  Plus, it allows me to eat two more doughnuts in the car ride to the retreat center.

I leave Portland feeling full from the dunkers and happy to have reconnected with an old friend.


My (Brief) Life on Vancouver’s Skid Row

E Hasting Street (aka Skid Row)

Dressed in khaki shorts, trendy t-shirt and a baby blue bike helmet, I jump on my bike, with camera around my neck, and head to Vancouver’s skid row.  I wandered onto Hasting Street the pervious night in search of a late-night Chinese noodle shop.  What I found instead was drug deals taking place in front of me and residents smoking and injecting drugs openly.  The only other place I have seen anything like it was in Zurich in one particular block.  In Vancouver, the squalidity goes on for blocks and blocks . . . and it is crowded.

I imagine myself using the photos I will take today to tell the story of drug addiction in Canada.  A couple blocks in, the smell of old urine and used beer hits me like an epiphany.  The streets are dirty and filled with trash; apparent addicts in filthy bright-orange worker vests roam the streets.  I imagine the city gives them “jobs” that don’t ever get quite done.  I bike on.

Pay-by-the-hour Hotels Line the Street

I stop at a street corner where I can see up and down Hastings Street.  At 11am it is nearly as thick as the night before.  It feels like a bad remake of Night of the Living Dead; the citizens of this land shuffle down the street, some in torn and/or dirty clothes, vacant, almost dead expressions on their faces.  A transgender prostitute – with a bit of life in her – shouts “hello handsome.”  “Lookin’ good girl!” I yell back.  She smiles.  I bike on.

Another stop and I  encounter a man named Michael digging through the city-owned trash can.  He thinks I am an officer of the peace and, pointing down the street, tells me that someone stole a painting.  I tell him I am not the fuzz, but I don’t think he believes me.  A moment passes and Michael hands me a crumpled, hand written note titled “this is my inheritance.”  The collection of words make up sentences that don’t quite make sense. . . to me.  Still, I read it – out loud – out of respect.  I see that it doesn’t matter whether it makes sense to me, it is important to him that others see his heirloom.

To be honest, I am more interested in the couple sitting behind him on the street, grey skin, sunken cheeks, preparing something for a glass pipe.  I guess heroin, but ask Michael.  He looks down to avoid the question.  I step past him and say good morning to the twosome.  Neither look up at me, but go about their business.  I ask if I may take their picture – the woman says, again without looking at me, “I don’t want my picture taken today.”  I feel suddenly warm and as if I am intruding.  It feels like I am in someone else’s living room, but I see no furniture.  I bike on.

Another man on the street declines to have his picture taken.  The warmth I was feeling starts to expand from my belly into my chest – I identify the feeling: anxiety.  I look around; I am not welcome here – physically or energetically. My mind tries to justify my presence: I know what it is to fight the monkey on my back, to jones and to feel as though nothing else matters.  I see the battle scars on my own body and identify with the uninhabited faces I witness walking past me.  I am them and they are me: we are the same.

Looking down the Alley

But on the outside, I look like a tourist.  I feel like a tourist in that moment and, although I hate to admit it, I am.  I have come into someone else’s living room – their life – with the intention of capturing something exotic and taking it back to my own world.  I bike a block and then take my camera out to at least capture a street scene.  I get two snapped off when a rather tall man approaches me: “I don’t want my picture taken,” he says.  My heart beats faster, now I am feeling fear.  “I’m just taking them of the street,” I respond.  “Yes, but when you take a picture of the street, you take a picture of the people, and no one around here wants their picture taken.”  There is incredible clarity in his statement.  I finally get it: this is not where I belong; I am not invited. “Sorry, no disrespect meant, I’ll put it away.”  I roll a few feet on my bike and another man who witnesses the exchange tells me the residents of Hastings Street will “riot” if anyone takes a camera out.  He concludes ”it’s too bad, such nice architecture.”  I bike on.

A few blocks over and I am in the trendy part of Gastown.  Taking a quick bathroom break in Starbucks, I then head over to the Inuit Gallery where I see First Nations artwork in the range of $1000 – $25,000 CAD.  I fit more easily into this world than the one I was in 15 minutes ago.  Reflecting upon the difference between me and the people on Hasting Street I realize that I am able to bike, walk or drive away to more comfortable surroundings.  With this unexpected revelation comes immense gratitude for my life.  Thank you Universe for the amazing life I have today, yesterday and tomorrow!

Places I Love: Vancouver

Vancouver Harbour

I fall in love with Vancouver as soon as I arrive.  The mountains, bridges, glimmering high rises,  streets, and energy infects my soul and I hear my mind negotiate with my body: you won’t get much rest or sleep while here, but you will have an amazing time.  The first thing I notice is how expansive the city feels, maybe because of the mountain peaks – some still snow capped – that provide dramatic backdrop to this Northwest metropolis.  Vancouver feels open and airy.

Vancouver Convention Center

I settle into the Nelson House Bed and Breakfast in the West End and then take a spin around town.  I bike to Stanley Park, which is a 10 minute ride from the B&B; I am amazed at how quickly the city fades into trees and trails.  With exception of the road, which bisects the green space, it feels like I am in a secluded section of the Northwest.  I make my way around the seawall to witness amazing views of Vancouver harbor, downtown and the North End.

There is a different vibe to Vancouver: It is not an American city.  I realize the absurdity of this statement as I make it, but it’s true.  If cities have soul, this one certainly feels tangibly different than even the other West Coast urban centers I visit.  Although I have a hard time putting my finger on the difference, I settle on this: People are nice here, less stressed out – I notice this as I bike through the neighborhoods.  Drivers rarely honk their horns and there is a certain politeness I don’t find in the US.  There is a huge Asian influence here, but that is true in other places (for example, San Francisco).  I eat Korean food for dinner one night and Vietnamese Pho the next.

Totem at UBC MOA

One of the reasons I came to Vancouver is to experience the UBC Museum of Anthropology (MOA).  I am drawn to the repository to find out more about Inuit and First Nations’ art and mythology, a subject in which I have growing interest.  MOA is impressive; it houses literally hundreds of thousands of art pieces from indigenous artists, both modern and archaeological.  Many are stored in research display cases, resembling large, glass-covered file cabinets, giving me the opportunity to ‘discover’ works on my own (not to mention spend hours getting lost in sliding bins).  My favorite display is a covered mask on an altar.  The description says it is cloaked to represent the First Nations view that everything is not for public view.

Before I leave Canada, I stock up on my 400mg tablets of Advil and Allegra-D, both of which are over the counter.  I take a walk and cycle around the city (one of which I describe in a separate entry) and try to spend all the Canadian money I have collected while in country: I am mostly successful, except for a Loonie or two and a few CAD quarters, dimes and nickels.  I think to myself before I hit the road again that I would like to spend a month or two or three in Vancouver getting to know her.  I wonder if first impressions are always correct.

For pictures of Vancouver –> Click Here

Disconnected in Canada

Oh Canada!

Within a few miles of crossing the Canadian border my cell phone reception fades.  I think to myself that I would like to have at least a few more miles (or kilometers), but instead notice my phone connected to ROGERS, not AT&T.  Calls now cost $0.79/minute; I joke to myself that at price I had better have a smile on face at the end of the exchange!  Next, I receive a text indicating the data roaming plan: $15.36 per Megabyte.  I turn data roaming off, which means no more GPS maps, text messages or internet surfing . . .  I am in a foreign country and now completely cut off from the world.

It’s not long before I am patting myself on the back for finding my way to the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal (about 45 minutes from the border) without GPS.  Even prouder for making it to Cindy and Brendan’s house in Victoria, BC, although it is not without help because I am able to download GPS maps while on the car ferry due to the fact they offer wi-fi.  In fact, as soon as I figure out I can connect my iPhone to the boat’s wi-fi, I shoot Cindy an email: “I’m on the boat, be there around 5:30.”  I next check my email and turn on my Google Voice account, texting a few friends my “alternate” contact information “just in case there is an emergency and you need to reach me,” noting that I need to be connected to a network in order to receive messages.

Victoria is beautiful and mellow, and Cindy and Brendan’s house reflects that essence.  Nestled on a short “dead end” street, they each work out of their home and grow vegetables and flowers in the backyard. The island is one of the only places in Canada where you can grow things year round, so there exist amazing gardens, plants and trees everywhere.  I settle in for a week with my friends and take my bike off the roof rack for the second time in 4500 miles.  I bike around town and take in the backyards and fresh sea air.

Victoria Blueberries

Cindy and I venture to a farm just outside town where we pick blueberries.  The abundance is astounding – we spend an hour-and-a-half and return with over 17 pounds of blues.  As I pick, I think about how disconnected I am from my food, from the earth.  Normally I go to the store and pick out my fruit in plastic or green paper containers.  I sometimes know the country from where it came – US, Mexico, Peru – but rarely the location and never the actual farm.  Rarely do I actually work with the plant, earth or animal that is feeding me.  Not so today, I am actually pulling big, beautiful, ripe berries right from the bush where they grow, popping one or two in my mouth here and there.

Victoria Landscape

Later in the week, we take a hike “up island.”  The rocks and land crash into the water in a dramatic and beautiful way.  Juniper and sequoia trees cling to the dark rocks projecting shade onto pebble beaches while hearty ocean grasses and vines grow nearby.  In the distance, the Washington coastline jets up above the clouds to reveal snow capped mountains.  Suddenly I receive text and voice message alerts.  I am picking up AT&T signal from the USA!  I jump for joy and nearly forget I am hiking with friends.  I shoot several picture texts off just to make my friends jealous: “my current location,” I send with a picture. I receive a text back with a picture of my friend on his couch: “my current location,” he responds

It nearly escapes me that the disconnect I feel from the earth is less concerning or alarming than the disconnect I feel when I cannot get a mobile phone signal.  I reason that it must be because I have spent a lifetime ‘getting used to’ not being connected to the earth and only a few years with the feeling of disconnect from the network.  It makes me think: If people experienced the feeling of disconnect from the earth as intensely as they do when their technology doesn’t work, would we have as much illness, pollution or problems as we see today?

Dirty Work: Rockhounding in Idaho

Shovel in the garnet area

With the exception of a few moments to send a text or make a quick call, I have little cell phone reception from Glacier National Park through most of Idaho.  I choose to leave the radio in my Jeep off and the windows down, taking in the fresh country air.  I have a day-and-a-half to kill before I am due to be in Spokane, WA to stay with an old friend of my mom’s.  I decide to jaunt down into the Idaho Panhandle National Forrest from I-90 for a night.  A day or so before, I had read about a place where visitors can rockhound for garnets.

Without cell phone reception I have no GPS, so stop at the Idaho Visitor’s Center – it doubles as a miner’s museum – for a map and directions.  I have been impressed by the these information hubs in every state; the staff behind the counters have always been knowledgable and helpful.  In all cases they have given me too much information, but steered me in the right direction – mostly off the major interstates to smaller, more scenic byways.  The man behind the Idaho Visitor’s Center counter leads me over to a large pull-down wall map of the area where I plan to camp.  He traces the road I should take: State Road 3 through the town of Saint Maries to the Emerald Creek Campground.

By the time I leave the center/museum it approaches 3:30 PM and I still have to stop for supplies (which I find in St. Maries) and find bivouac for the night.  On a Sunday night, I am one of three campsites that will be occupied – the encampment is quiet and surrounded several varieties of evergreens.  I’ll gain an hour tomorrow (by crossing into the pacific time zone), so the sky stays light a little later than usual.  I set up tent and settle in for the night.  Again I am able to stoke my relationship with the with the stars, hold a conversation with the trees and watch as the fire dances in her pit.  I roast S’mores and recollect my youth.

Dry sifted earth and rocks

The next day I’m up early and prepare a camp-side breakfast of hash browns, eggs and hotdogs.  I drive two miles to the Emerald Creek Garnet Area, where, for ten dollars, I am given a permit, two buckets and a shovel.  I didn’t realize I was going to be doing hard labor.  The forest rangers explain the process: “fill the buckets, dry sift them in the sifting area, then wet sift them in the washing area.  Look for dark-dark red, almost black, glass-like rocks . . .  and keep anything else you like.”

The washing area

I love rocks and collect them from different places.  Occasionally, I will buy a semi-precious stone from a store.  But, there is something satisfying and fascinating about digging my own out of the ground.  As I work, I feel connected to the earth.  I love that my clothes are increasingly muddy and my hands and arms (and even face) turn yellow-orange from the clay I wash off the rocks I mine.  I love watching the faces of the children – both young and old – standing beside me asking “is this one?” or exclaiming “I found one!”

My prize for the day come in the form of a nearly perfect dodecahedral garnet crystal.  The rangers all agree: “very nice.”  Along with it, I take three grams of garnet (the rangers weigh everything that comes out of the site) and leave with a smile on my face, a song in my heart and stained yellow-orange clothes and skin.  More than that, I leave with the satisfaction that connected with mother earth, I know exactly where my rocks were born.

For pictures of Idaho, Washington State and Victoria, BC –> Click Here

Glacier Rocks! (and the story of how I almost didn’t make it out alive)

My pattern of pulling up to park entrance gates late in the afternoon is not broken by the time I reach Glacier National Park.  I know immediately — even though the sign says “open” — that there will be no camping available in the main campground by the time I get there.  And, as luck would have it, the lesbian couple on motorcycles in front of me score the very last camp site in Fish Creek that evening.  I am OK with this outcome as I intend to stay in the back country anyway.  I drive and watch as the bars representing my cell phone reception disappear.

Amazing Bowman Lake

Bowman Lake is a 16 mile drive (10 miles unpaved) from the Apgar (West Glacier) entrance to the Polebridge (north west) entrance, then another six miles on rough, dusty road where to drive any faster than 25 MPH is certain car death.  A small mercantile at Polebridge sells supplies and amazing sticky buns, but I blaze past in search of a place to sleep for the night.  Bowman Lake campground on a Thursday night is practically empty – a few other campers are there – and friendly.  I set up my tent and sleeping arrangements and then take a walk.  I am slapped in the face by the awesome beauty of Bowman Lake.

I meet a friendly older man, Leo, and (presumably) his son, John.  They offer me firewood and advice on hikes and avoiding the bears: “you don’t have to worry about them for about four miles, but always makes lots of noise”.  I jump in the lake; the water is so cold that it hits my skin like a million shards of glass.  I swim 10 feet and start to hyperventilate.  The cold snaps me into thisreality – I know I am alive – I yell at the top of my lungs: “whoo hoo!”  That night I light a fire with the wood that Leo and John gave me, and watch as the orange and red flames dance around the pit.

Stars over Bowman Lake

The stars that night are mind-blowing.  One of the things that I miss the most in NYC is my relationship with the stars – when I look up on a clear night and witness the millions of tiny lights in the sky I feel more connected to the universe, the planet.  I no longer feel small or insignificant – I don’t think that we are just a fleck of dust whirling in empty space.  My presence in this world is significant and observing the universe allows god to witness his/her/it’s amazing creation.

The next morning I get up and decide, after looking at a map, that I am going to do the Quartz Lake loop. Twelve miles.  If I leave by 8 am, I should be back before lunch, I think to myself.  I grab a liter of water, a pack of Trader Joe’s Turkey Jerky and two Cliff Bars.  The trail has two inclines – one of about 900 feet and the other of about 1000 feet – on either end of the hike.  Any real hiker will look at my preparation and start to worry.  I start out along Bowman lake and rather than taking the harder incline first, which I had intended to do, I take the easier.  I am sweating and panting just a mile into my hike.  Even in the cooler air, I begin to strip clothes as I walk . . . and walk.

Quartz Lake and her smaller sister, Lower Quartz Lake, are beautiful, secluded, undeveloped and primitive. I meet two groups of campers at Quartz Lake and forgo the naked dip out of fear that I might interfere with their peace.  Lower Quartz Lake is a different story – one group and by now – nine miles into the hike – I am exhausted, sweaty and bug bitten.  I strip off my clothes and jump in – again the feeling of the cold, recently glacier-frozen water hits my skin.  “Whoo hoo!” I yell, and leap out quickly, before I cannot catch my breath.  Well past the lunch hour now, I don’t have time to waste – I must get back to camp.  I borrow some bug repellent, finish the turkey jerky and eat my last cliff bar.

In no time I see the final 1000 foot incline – a mountain – representing the last two miles of the trek.  I take my last swig of water and begin.  Here is where I realize that the level of fitness I THINK I am capable of and the actual level are different.  Add to this my poor planning – I am out of water, food and energy – and I start to doubt my ability to survive this walk in the woods.  I sweat profusely and pant almost uncontrollably.  I hunch over and grab my knees to catch my breath.  I imagine the hikers behind me finding me dehydrated, nearly dead and curled in fetal position on the side of trail; I decide this is not an option (vanity pushes me forward). I start counting the number of steps I take; agreeing with myself that if I take one hundred steps, I can lay down and take 100 breathes.  I do this for the next 1000 – 1200 steps, sometimes going a little over or under so I can rest in the shade.  Finally, the top of the mountain.  The last mile of the hike is downhill.  “I can do this!” I think to myself.

By the time I made it back to my tent – well after 2 pm – my legs are cramping so bad that I cannot lay down.  I eat a whole watermelon and some energy beans (basically souped-up Jelly Belly jellybeans) and drink a liter or two of water.  Leo suggests potassium or bananas for the cramping, so I drive back to the mercantile in Polebridge.  No bananas, so a sticky bun – or two – will have to do.  It does the trick (along with four Advil) and I am able to sleep well that night.  I make myself dinner, then sit back and look around.  The lake, trees, stars and everything else is even more beautiful than it was just the day before.

Looking back, I guess any quest would neither be meaningful nor complete without moments where one’s survival was in question.  Next time, I will plan better.

For pictures of Mt. Rushmore, Devil’s Tower, Glacier Nat’l Park and more –> Click Here