October 24, 2016

Follow the Yellow Brick Bike Path

When you consciously choose to take a route that differs from the status quo, the little details you’re accustomed to and no longer see suddenly pop out with vivid detail, bringing new life to your journey.

In that spirit, I’ll kick things off with a journey by bike to Powell’s– apparently, the world’s largest independent bookstore- in Portland, Oregon.

Portland is among the top cycling cities in America, and if I were to take my normal route, it would take me down miles of green bike lanes, over the bridge to the treacherously under-served downtown streets, then swoop downhill to Powell’s. A quick route, but I don’t really do much more than mind the traffic.

So instead, I decided to take the road less travelled: SE 10th Avenue. At the cusp of our city’s industrial zone, it’s a place ripe for the unexpected. Up until a year ago, there was a beautiful urban anomaly: an entire city block given over to a goat pasture. Supposedly,  The Belmont Goats were owned and tended by a man who worked in one of the industrial businesses surrounding it. Passing by each day, you could really get to know them- old-timer Carl was my personal favourite.

Sadly, last year, reality hit.

The lot was sold, and a ginormous, faceless development began to sprout up, creating a claustrophobic canyon of construction. They even had the nerve to call it “The Goat Blocks”. I typically drive by daily on the way home from my child’s preschool, shaking an invisible fist as I pass.

But by bike, one block over, it was an entirely different experience.

At a slower pace, I watched the construction workers going about their jobs. They smiled as they flagged me past the maze of machines realising the Goat Blocks. It gave a human face to the industrial sprawl. Perhaps all this recent development in Portland isn’t so bad…

Then, I was stopped in my tracks.

There before me was a true urban oddity: a giant military vehicle, which looked much like a child’s Lego creation. Perhaps most bizarrely, this camouflaged monster, with giant tyres and bumpers straight off a Humvee, was made by Volvo! Talk about a yuppie tank.

Even stranger, I saw two more of these oddities on my journey. Sure, it’s Portland, I’m used to people having meticulously restored obscure vehicles. But multiple of the same? A mystery I’ve yet to solve, despite querying the local social media community. Perhaps a movie in the works?

Before I could think too deeply about it, a giant orange monster appeared on the horizon.

A building length mural, it looked like a Dr. Seuss character gone bad. Getting closer, I noticed some of the industrial tools of the neighbourhood were nestled in its hair. Then I saw what’s become a familiar set of letters on the bottom corner: #fftt, the hashtag for  Forest For The Trees. This annual event brings muralists to Portland from around the world to create epic, large scale works of art, in the space of 48 hours. It’s resulted in some amazing additions to our city- they’re always a surprise to come across. 

As it turns out, the entire building where the monster resided was covered in murals; even the front door of the unidentified business within. Anybody know what’s in there?

Rejoining the conventional route to Downtown on Couch Street ( pronounced “Cooch,” apparently a family name from long ago), another surprise awaited. As I approached the east end of Burnside Bridge, some inventively adapted street signs led the way. Leading me towards Burnside skate park, one of the country’s oldest, I found myself following Dorothy, Toto, and a yellow brick navigation arrow.

You see, those who stripe our streets have a sense of humour and a creative streak. It shows up most often on the cyclist road sign. I’ve seen them turned into fish, dogs, football players, scuba divers and more. On this path into the heart of Portland, with all its creative and culinary treasures ahead, Dorothy seemed the perfect exploration partner.

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