On tour: The Old West Scenic Bikeway

Riding the range

Donnie and I biked three and a half days through the John Day area of Eastern Oregon, along the 184-mile Old West Scenic Bikeway loop. I'll be writing more about the trip later so I won't give too much away — but I wanted to share a few pictures in the meantime.

touring rigs

 Bikes loaded with the essentials: tent, sleeping bags and pads, warm clothes, bars and goos, coffee.

Morning coffee

Morning brew at Bates State Park as the sprinklers whirred and hummed.

Scenic bikeway

The signs we followed.

Picture Gorge bike

On this trip, I finally learned how to snap photos WHILE STILL RIDING MY BIKE. This is a huge development; in the past, I've had to stop and firmly plant my feet before pressing the shutter.

Not what you think

Donnie demonstrates how to stay cool while riding in high temps (for those still unclear: by soaking your shirt with water).


Another principle of happy, healthy riding: apply chamois cream to below-the-belt hot spots! 


 Trail treats: Bud Light and Freezie.

water for riders

Finding water is difficult on several long stretches of road. We always carried extra in our paniers. Heavy, but a good safeguard.

Big Bend hello

Under the juniper tree at the BLM's Big Bend campground. Several hours later, sitting on the ground by the camp stove, I looked down in the dark to see A SCORPION 6 INCHES FROM MY LEG. I backed away in time and developed a new paranoia.



J Dot RanchAlong the way: ranches, barns, cows, fields of hay.

cant ranch

Cathedral Rock

Oh and crazy geologic formations.

John Day Fossil beds rider

John Day Fossil

Bald eagle

Watched by a bald eagle.

Forest fire

When we rode by this wildfire in the morning, it was tiny. When we looked back hours later (and took this picture), its smoke had taken over the sky.


Despite what our instincts told us, we rode INTO this lightning storm in an attempt to get to our campsite by dark. When the strikes got too close for comfort, we ducked into barns on the side of the road and waited.

thunderstorm cover

The following day, we got caught in ANOTHER lightning storm. Seconds before the sheet of rain drenched us, we hunkered down under our tent fly on the side of the road and watched as everything around us got soaked. 

Out of the rain

We survived.

Rider on the crest


Life on stilts: Oregon's Pickett Butte Fire Lookout Tower

DSC_0114 "Do we have to stay on guard the entire weekend, or are we allowed to take breaks?" Donnie and I wanted to ask the ranger at the Tiller Ranger Station when we stopped in to inquire about the area. We'd rented the Pickett Butte Fire Lookout Tower, a 12x12 cabin on 40-foot stilts a few miles up the road in the midst of the Umpqua National Forest in Southwest Oregon, and we wanted to clarify our responsibilities as the tower's weekend occupants.


When they're not in use, the Forest Service in Washington and Oregon rents out about 70 houses and fire towers that the Civilian Conservation Corps built in the 1930s for the “smoke chasers” who patrolled the forests for fires. For $35 to $90 a night, campers interested in hiking, snowshoeing, skiing, horseback riding, fishing and hunting on the surrounding forest land have a small base to call home. (Friends and I stayed in another of these cabins, the Ditch Creek Guard Station, last winter. The story here.)

Built on a hilltop named for William T. Pickett, the homesteader who claimed it in 1898, the Pickett Butte Fire Lookout offers a single bed; a wall heater, stove, mini-fridge, and lanterns all powered by propane; and wall-to-wall windows providing expansive views of the Jackson Creek Drainage area and distant higher peaks. We used the rickety plastic egg-crate pulley to lug up the necessities (i.e. sleeping bags, warm clothes, coffee, boxed wine, and cheese) and settled in. Lucky for us rain-weary Portlanders, we enjoyed clear, sunny, 60-degree days, and T-shirts — in February!


 Donnie, acclimating to life on stilts. In his favorite shirt.


The cabin's interior.


Our mapping tool, on a wooden stand in the center of the cabin, would have allowed us to pinpoint the exact location of any smoke we saw in the distance. We spent hours practicing just in case.


 The privy, while handy on special occasions, was extremely inconvenient for regular use, being four precarious flights of stairs below. Not to worry: we figured out a workable system.


Physics at work: we used water in the bottom of a translucent bottle to magnify a headlamp's light and an upturned bowl to up the volume on the music. (Cush camping, admittedly.)


 Veggie egg cheese scrambles + french press coffee = the breakfast of champions

When you're living up in the air (in an area without many hiking trails at least), the activities of the sky outside play a pretty central role in your life. The sunset colored the sky deep pinks and purples and cast a warm glow over everything in the cabin.



And when we woke up the next morning, the clouds that had rolled in overnight still filled the valleys below us.




A random pretty: a waterproof leaf in the gravel road leading up to the cabin.

On Day Two, we took a two-hour road trip to Crater Lake for some cross country skiing, entering a white winter setting that was a stark contrast to our sun-drenched paradise. From the south entrance, we headed clockwise along the snow-covered road that circles the lake, meandering off trail a few times across the meadows sloping down from the rim.


Donnie and Wizard Island, the cinder cone at the west end of the lake.



Mount McLoughlin in the distance


Cutting the cheese (more literally than usual).



Oh, just stretching. Or something.

The dining options near Crater Lake in winter are limited, but upon a recommendation we picked up on the road, we stopped on our way back to base camp at José's Mexican Restaurant, an unassuming hole-in-the-wall spot six miles past the town of Prospect. The family-run establishment serves up fajitas and enchiladas made with fresh ingredients and scratch-made tortillas. Delicious. Because the place was empty and we didn't want to feel lonely, we ate in the adjoining Gorge Lounge bar, where a group of mustachioed locals chatted with the bartender while drinking Budweiser and Coors and half watching an obstacle course TV show involving rotating foam arms and whipped cream. One of the men started sputtering and snorting in a dramatic fake coughing fit before realizing we were behind him eating. He apologized, saying he didn't realize the place "had company."

After lowering out stuff our of the fire lookout on Day Three to head back to Portland, we made another stop. I wasn't aware before, but the Umpqua National Forest boasts an extremely impressive feature: the world's largest sugar pine. We had to pay homage.


The 400-year-old tree, measured in February 2012 at 255 feet, towers over its companions. The base of this tree has a giant chainsaw-induced wound from its run-in with vandals in 2000. (Who DOES that?!)

A day in The Dalles

Many adventures begin in The Dalles, the end-point of the main Oregon Trail, a small city on the banks of the Columbia 85 miles east of Portland. The wide open roads just outside of town, sparsely trafficked and surrounded by rolling farmland, make for some excellent cycling. dalles

When it's pouring in Portland, you can usually find sun in The Dalles.

While I'd used The Dalles (rhymes with "pals") as a departure point many times, I'd never actually stopped to get to know the town. And so Donnie and I decided to visit without bikes in tow. Rather than clipping on our helmets and pedaling off as soon as we arrived, we lingered for an afternoon, wandering  up and down the streets, observing the details we never noticed when we were on our way somewhere else.

We discovered a working-class city struggling for a comeback from the long-ago collapse of the aluminum industry — and succeeding in quite a few instances. We encountered a thorough mix of elaborate and gritty: ornate, turn-of-the-century properties sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with plain, uninhabited storefronts with "for lease" signs in the windows; a fancy French bakery, a brewpub in the old brick courthouse building, and recently renovated Moorish-style theater down the street from an empty car dealership, a cheap steakhouse, and a shop selling bedazzled tangerine-colored prom dresses.

The city is certainly trying: an urban renewal agency has invested in the port district, a snazzy underpass that connects the city with the river (formerly separated by Interstate 84), and various buildings downtown, including an historic hotel, a flour mill, and a Masonic lodge. (In 2005, Google established a server farm in town as well, but not much as changed as a result, because the company keeps its operation top secret.)

Here are a few of the sights we came across during our ramble:

madison lane

Sunshine Mill, a 130+-year-old wheat mill, which still contains the old flour milling equipment — and apparently now a wine bar, bocce ball court, and performance venue as well


A functioning-since-1905 blacksmithing shop, with a particularly cool sign.


No better recreation than bowling and prime rib. Amiright??

The ticket booth for the old, Moorish-style Granada Theater, which, built in 1929, was the first place west of the Mississippi to show movies with sound. It reopened in the last few years as a live performance venue. (Historic pics here.)



One of many vacant properties downtown seeking tenants. (You'd get jazzy windows!)

White and wires

A back alley

A shadow and its fire escape.

window lines

Oh, you know: air conditioners!

Steaks, burgers, beer

Down by the river-side train tracks.

While I'm sure we'll still frequently breeze through The Dalles on our way to the open road, we're also likely to hang around longer after we return — for coffee, pastries, beer, or a quick round at the bowling alley.

Home, home on the range: Ditch Creek Guard Station in winter

Five friends and I snowshoed through the dark to the Forest Service cabin in Oregon's Umatilla National Forest, aware only of what fell within the narrow beams of our headlamps — snow, mostly, and the dark silhouettes of trees. It wasn't until we woke up in the morning and stepped outside that we really knew what surrounded us: snow and trees, yes, but also a pole fence and horse corral, a meandering, half-frozen stream, and multiple pairs of fresh animal tracks — sometimes parallel, sometimes crossing — evidence of the nighttime dramas we'd missed.

The Ditch Creek Guard Station is one of about 70 houses and fire towers that the Civilian Conservation Corps built in Washington and Oregon in the 1930s for the "smoke chasers" who patrolled the forests for fires. The Forest Service now rents the structures out for $35 to $90 a night to campers interested in hiking, snowshoeing, skiing, horseback riding, fishing and hunting on the surrounding forest land.

Our cabin consisted of a kitchen stocked with pots and pans, a living room with a futon, table and chairs and a bedroom with two sets of sturdy bunk beds. While there were a propane-powered fridge, stove, and freestanding heater, the water was turned off for winter, so we scooped up a pot of snow from the yard and melted it on the stove whenever we got thirsty or wanted to flush the toilet (this happened once, at the end of our stay; we called it The Big Flush and all gathered 'round).

My friend James and three pots of melted snow

The Forest Service has excellent taste in art.

On Saturday, we snowshoed to Penland Lake, which, this time of year, is completely frozen over. Cyclones of snow periodically lifted up and spiraled over the lake before setting themselves down again.

On the way:

Jake, a Chesapeake Bay Retriever/Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever mix (introductions were never short), during one of the times he WASN'T wearing his fur-lined moccasins.

Lots of running happened

Also, lots of resting

The coolest cabin ever.

Me, Stasia, Laura

Ditch Creek flowing through its valley, south toward the north fork of the John Day River

While I was out

I'm terribly sorry to have disappeared since, well... April 12. I got caught up in my job reporting for The Times (serving Tigard, Tualatin and Sherwood, Ore.) and funneled most of my writing energy into covering a rabbit hoarder arrested for breaking her restraining order against rabbits, a police investigation of a hobo hit by a train, the rise of a rapper from suburbia, the school district's firing and rehiring of its teaching force and other stuff involving the city of Tigard, 10 miles south of Portland, and its 15 schools. I loved my job at The Times, but, alas, Friday was my last day. I'm headed for the creative nonfiction graduate writing program at Portland State University, which starts Sept. 28. I'm looking forward to dedicating the next two years of my life to learning everything I can about the craft of writing and stretching myself into new territory. I'll also be teaching undergraduate composition classes as part of an assistantship, which will be an adventure in itself.

In an attempt to make up for my months away from Out to See and offer a glimpse into the summertime scene in Portland, I'll post a few photos from the last few months.

Bikey fun

Portland celebrated Pedapalooza 2009 from June 11 - 27. The two-week bike festival featured a naked ride through the downtown streets, rides in which all participants dressed up as pirates, cowboys and zombies, a couples-only Bike Kiss-In during which riders smooched at intersections, and an urban homestead ride where participants visited three expert veggie gardens in the Portland area. Above, unicycle jousting at the culminating event, a bike fest in Colonel Summers Park. It got ugly.


My sister Laura and I went backpacking in the Elwha River Valley in Olympic National Park in late July. Unfortunately, we didn't take a good look at each other before we left town and realized on the way — after several sets of strangers commented — that we were wearing the EXACT same outfit: blue shorts, gray shirts, hiking boots. Unfortunately, neither of us had brought a change of clothes, and we had to put up with the comment "I'm seeing DOUBLE!" from multiple people we passed on the trail.

Morning light on ferns — the view from our tent.

The peeling bark of the evergreen Madrona tree.

Full of hot air

I went up in a hot air balloon for a story I wrote about Tigard's annual balloon festival for The Times. I took this shot from the basket just as the pilot released that black piece of fabric from the top to lower us. The story I wrote about the experience is here.

A rock in a haystack

When our parents visited, we took a field trip to Haystack Rock on Cannon Beach. Then we ate Shrimp Louie at a nearby restaurant.

Lots of pots

Laura has continued her study of pottery at the Oregon College of Art and Craft. I've continued my study of breakfast, out of pretty bowls.

The Decemberists in July

Unlike most of Portland, I wasn't a huge Decemberists fan before I saw them play with Blind Pilot and Andrew Bird at the McMenamins venue outside the historic Edgefield Manor near Troutdale, Ore. But after seeing the band perform its rock opera "Hazards of Love" live, my mind changed. They were incredible.

Opal Creek

We could hear rushing water all during our night hike into the Opal Creek Wilderness on the west slope of the Cascades (the beams of our headlamps picked up a a frog, a newt and two scorpions — ack!). In the morning, we realized we'd been walking beside a crystal clear creek full of deep, wide swimming holes. They were freezing, but the sun was out, and we jumped in.

The broken windshield of a rusted car we encountered along the trail on the way out.

Soapbox Derby

A giant rodent, miniature ice cream truck and normal-sized coffin roared down the road winding around Mount Tabor during the 9th-annual Adult Soapbox Derby on Aug. 22. The event required them to get down the mountain in a car powered soley by gravity in the quickest time possible.

Among the rules:

  • Each car must be piloted by a driver that will remain sober until the car is no longer racing
  • The car must have functional brakes
  • The car must have a horn
  • The car may not weigh more than 500 pounds
  • Teams may not spend more than $300 on their vehicles

We watched from a grassy spot along the road — and pretty much avoided getting wet from the competitors who opted to douse spectators on their way down the track.

Team Lego Maniacs hydrates for the competition

They might look like they'd go fast, but team Twin Barrels Burning crept and swerved unsteadily down the mountain

That would be team Pigs in Space (note the pig ears and noses on the participants).

OK, well that's pretty much all I have in my "things I should have blogged about" file. I hope to be more attentive to this site during my next venture.

And you thought it was simple

I like my coffee like I like my men. That's right, you're thinking it: COMPLEX. Turns out, I'm in luck. According to the experts at Portland's Stumptown Coffee Roasters, coffee beans have about 800 flavor characteristics, more than twice the number found in wine. The staff at the Southeast Belmont Stumptown offer twice-daily "cuppings" (at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.) to inform people about the finer points of the beverage. My sister Laura and I attended one with our aunt and uncle, who were visiting from Spokane last weekend.


Coffee buyers carry out the ritualistic cupping process before each purchase to determine the quality and qualities of the beans in question. And really, they approach the whole thing with a mug-half-empty mentality: they're in it to find the defects.


We were encouraged not to share our observations during the cupping so as not to influence each other's impressions.

At our cupping, a Stumptown coffee master lined up seven trays of coffee beans — from Guatamala, Panama, Ethiopia and Kenya — along the shop's low, wooden counter. We sniffed, snorted and sipped our way down the line five times, evaluating the beans each time in a different way.

The process took about an hour and went something like this:

  • We smelled the dry grounds of each bean, making sure to inhale the fragrance through our noses AND our mouths.
  • We sniffed the grounds again, this time soaked in just-boiled water.
  • We used spoons to break the crust that developed on the surface of the solution and and inhaled the aroma again.
  • We dipped our spoons in the coffee mixture and slurped it up as loudly as possible, trying to get the coffee droplets to reach both our tongues and the back recesses of our nasal passages. (The Stumptown staff member demonstrating had this part of the process down, but when I tried to execute with as much gusto, I ended up just inhaling the coffee. Cough.)
  • We slurped down the line again to taste the coffee at a slightly cooler temperature, when its true qualities are said to reveal themselves.


Some are fruity, some are nutty, and now I can tell you which is which

I've been aware that different blends of coffee have different characteristics, but I've never paid attention to what those differences are. I just drink whatever's in my cup and have a general sense of whether I like it or not. The process of tasting coffees back to back enabled me, for the first time, to note the nuances that make each bean distinctive — and realize I have a lot to learn when it comes to café.

Oswald West State Park: BEACH TRIP '09!!!

It was February, and it was the Pacific Ocean off the northern coast of Oregon, but we dove in anyway. Stripped to our skivvies and plunged headlong into the waves. The shock was invigorating, paralyzingly so, but by the time all 45 degrees had fully registered, we were sprinting toward dry sand and a large rock in the sun. img_2311

My sister Laura and I and our friends Beth and Benjamin spent the entire day on the beach at Oswald West State Park, located in a secluded cove bounded by old-growth spruce, fir, hemlock and cedar trees. The 2,400-acre park, a mere 90 miles northwest of Portland, stretches four miles between Arch Cape and Neahkahnie Mountain and contains a section of the Oregon Coast Trail that we didn't explore but would like to.

We'd expected weather typical of the Oregon coast in winter, but the day was so unseasonably warm and sunny that between our arrival at 10:30 a.m. and our departure after sunset, we never pulled the fleece hats, winter jackets and rain gear from our backpacks.

Here's how we kept ourselves occupied:

  • Tiptoed into and bolted out of the ocean.


Note the wet hair. Yes, we went in all the way.

  • Accepted the Cartwheel Challenge (meaning 30 in a row) and eventually became unable to distinguish the up from down.



  • Ate mass quantities of Parmesan-flavored Goldfish crackers and chocolate that melted in our mouths, but first, in our hands.
  • Scaled the rocks as menacingly as possible.


I don't know how I remained so calm in this situation.

  • Bumped, set and tried to spike a small yellow volleyball that we dubbed "Big Red" until our forearms could not take it anymore.
  • Tried to imagine why women in skorts and a large group of children were carrying around My Little Ponies and a life-sized plastic dummy with well-developed calves.
  • Stared into the ocean, listening to the waves crash into the jagged rocks offshore.


  • Read our books, which pretty much digressed into taking naps.


  • Watched the setting sun cast the sky in shades of gold, then sink into the horizon.




All in all, a perfect day.

Foiled by ice in the Columbia River Gorge

img_2158 I would have loved the waterfalls. At least that's what my sister Laura told me as we turned around less than a mile into our hike on the Eagle Creek Trail in the Columbia River Gorge, 40 miles east of Portland. After crossing several patches of black ice over a 60-foot drop into a rushing river — and listening to a string of turned-around hikers describe the trail ahead — we joined the parade of bundled up people and sweatered dogs heading back to the parking lot.


Laura on a vigorous hike

Good thing, too. On the descent, my right foot slipped on a patch of ice, sending me hurling toward the ground. Rather than busting, though, I caught myself in the deepest lunge I've ever done. My left knee hovered a mere centimeter from the ice for a few seconds before I pulled myself up and recovered my composure.

"Not the Eagle Creek Trail you're used to, is it?" asked a member of the Forest Service crew working on the trail, passing us by with a chainsaw balanced over his shoulder.

Under less-icy circumstances, it would have been a great hike:  The Eagle Creek Trail climbs 13 miles to Wahtum Lake along the wall of the gorge, passing through forests of moss- and fern-covered conifers and by a number of waterfalls, including Punchbowl Falls (15 feet high, two miles from the trailhead) and Tunnel Falls (100 feet high, six miles in). We'll definitely go back  when it's warmer.

On the way home, Laura and I stopped at Multnomah Falls, a 620-foot waterfall along the side of Interstate 84 — the second-highest year-round falls in the United States and one of 77 falls on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge.


The scene wasn't much better. We hiked a quarter mile up a paved path to take in the view from the arched bridge beneath the falls, and upon arrival, found a chaos of people sliding around the icy structure, holding onto fence posts, trash cans, anything that would keep their legs under them (the highway signs are true, bridges DO ice first). I clobbered a 12-year-old while trying to make my way past her along a fence. People clung helpless to the handrails as they tried to secure their footing. Grown men bowled over their children. Laura caught the tiny woman who came flying at her.


Fortunately, everyone present thought the situation was hilarious. And the falls was spectacular as well.



Off to Oregon

I have packed up the back of my Subaru Forester, and tomorrow morning early, my sister Laura and I will set off from Greensboro, North Carolina driving west on I-40. We will probably be listening to the She & Him album we can't get enough of, or immersed in the teenage vampire angst of the book Twilight, which we're not afraid to admit we downloaded from iTunes. A few days later, once we hit Bakersfield, Callifornia, we'll turn right and head up the coast. Our final destination is Portland, Oregon, where we've both decided to settle for the next little bit; Laura, to study ceramics at the Oregon College of Art and Craft; me, to write-write-write.

There are tons of unknowns — where I'll live, and how — but I am excited about all the possibilities in this venture. Plus, I know I'll enjoy living in a place where excellent trail heads, cups of coffee and microbrews are just a bike ride away.


Oh! And in other news, Laura built me a new Web site, which you can find at www.christinacooke.net. Check it out!

White water wafting the White Salmon

Q: What do you get when you put three dental equipment salesmen from Kansas City together in a river raft? A: Knock-knock jokes!

I’ll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say, I learned quite a few one-liners during a recent rafting trip in Washington State.

My friend Jonathan guides rafting trips on Washington’s White Salmon River for a company called Wet Planet. He took Helen and me — and the three salesmen — down the river on a recent Saturday morning.

Within seconds of shoving off shore, we were negotiating churning Class III and IV rapids (out of V navigable types) that didn’t relent until we pulled the raft off the water at the end of the run. This took a well-coordinated digging of paddles, an every-man-for-the-team mentality — and some skilled steering from the back.

The White Salmon River starts on the glaciers on Mount Adams, ends at the Columbia River near the town of Hood River, Oregon is protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The clear, frigid water was on its way through a narrow, steep-walled canyon of volcanic rock during the eight miles we followed it. The setting has a pristine beauty about it; flowers and ferns grow from cracks in the canyon walls, needly trees arch out over the water, and osprey circle overhead.

We abandoned our raft upstream of the first waterfall, BZ Falls, and while the empty vessel floated over the 24-foot drop by itself, we walked around. Then we jumped off a cliff and met it at the bottom.

“Make sure you land in the dead center of the river,” our trip leader had said before we hurled ourselves off the edge. “Land too close and you’ll hit the rock ledge on this shore. Land too far away, and you’ll hit the rock wall on the other side.” Instructions like that make for an exhilarating free fall. No really, it was fun.

The trip concluded at the base of the 10-foot Husum Falls. We stayed in the raft for that one, and practiced a stay-in-the-raft tactic as we approached. When Jonathan said "Get down!" we swung our paddles along the outside of the raft (being careful not to remove each other's teeth in the process), scooted our butts onto the floor and grabbed a safety cord.

Here we are in action:

CRAFT IDEA: Why not print out these photos and staple them together to create your very own Husum Falls flip book?!!

Notice our calm composure as we approach the drop. That's me, back right. Helen is directly in front of me.

OK, not as much composure here. This one has more of a "HOLY SHIT!" feeling to it.

That's Jonathan, our guide.

You can still see his arm.

Aaaaaand, we're back. And all accounted for!

Oh, to be alive!!!

I'd say that was a bonding experience

After Helen and I dried off, we drove to Giffort Pinchot National Forest to hike the Sleeping Beauty Trail. The 1.4-mile path ascended through a forest of firs and hemlocks draped in lichen.

It ended at a 4,900-foot rock outcropping that overlooked Mount Adams (pictured above), Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Rainier.

Helen and me, windswept, at the top

And, a shot from the way down, some lichen in the sunlight:

Rafting photos courtesy of Wet Planet.

Portland, Oregon: Quite a catch

Portland wears graphic tees and skinny jeans and slings a courier bag over its shoulder whenever it goes anywhere. Its favorite color, by far, is green. The city defies traditional categorization in many ways. But it also has some definite preferences. And here they are, in no order whatsoever:

  • Likes: Riding bikes, listening to indie rock, brunching, biodiesel, light drizzle, green space, sketching things in notebooks, brewpubs, organic stuff, reusable grocery bags, hanging out at coffee shops, tending vegetable gardens, feeding the chickens in the front-yard hutch
  • Dislikes: The Man, 9 to 5 desk jobs, strip malls, carbon footprints, categories, automobiles

I visited Portland, Oregon last week to scope it out as a potential next home base. I stayed with my friend Helen who moved from Birmingham in April. She lives in a newly-renovated, two-bedroom apartment in the hip Southeast part of town and started work last week as a teacher at a preschool where the students sing songs to Mother Earth and are allowed to take off their clothes whenever they want, provided they keep their undies on.

Helen lives with four cats who are constantly plotting against each other. This one LOOKS cute and harmless...

Here are a few things I really liked about Portland:

Everyone rides bikes I felt very Portland as I rolled up my right pant leg, swung a leg over my bike and started peddling across town for a lunch date. In the west coast port city, the majority of the population, it seems, moves about on two wheels, and the question "Wanna ride bikes?" is as common among adults as second graders. Just my style.

A guy riding his bike in the park downtown along the Willamette River, taken with my old-fashioned camera. OK, not true. iPhoto is fun.

Voodoo Doughnuts I have never tried a doughnut coated in Tang. Or Fruit Loops. Or Butterfinger crumbles. All these toppings were options, though, at Portland’s Voodoo Doughnuts, located downtown on SW Third Avenue. I opted for the doughnut smothered in chocolate, peanut butter and Rice Krispies — and mmmm, was it good.

The doughnut shop, located in a small brick hole-in-the-wall near the river, offers such specialties as:

  • The Memphis Mafia — A large doughnut covered with glaze, chocolate chips, banana and peanut butter
  • The Arnold Palmer — A cake doughnut covered with lemon and tea powder
  • Triple Chocolate Penetration — A chocolate doughnut smothered in chocolate glaze and cocoa-puffs
  • And, get this: The Cock-n-Balls — A doughnut shaped like… well, you know… and filled with triple crème (ewwwww!)

BTW, the folks at Voodoo are also licensed to wed, so if you’re feelin’ the love, here are your nuptial options:

  • Intentional commitment: $25
  • Legal commitment: $175 (includes the wedding, with doughnuts and coffee for 10)
  • The Whole Shebang: $5,000 (includes airline tickets, a hotel room, sightseeing in Portland and the wedding package)

Powell’s Books

The flagship Powell's Books is three stories tall and a city block wide. As such, it’s a good idea to have trail mix, water and a few Band Aids with you as you enter, and it’s also smart to leave your itinerary and expected departure time with a trusted friend.

The Portland institution — which operates seven stores in the Portland area and a nationally successful Web site www.powells.com — is the largest independent bookstore in the world. Despite its size, Powell’s maintains personal touches, like handwritten reviews below especially noteworthy books.

Food carts I tasted the best cupcake in the world — and I do not kid about things like this — from a food cart on Alder Street called The Sugar Cube. The so-scrumptious piece of heaven, called the ‘Amy Winehouse,’ was described on the chalkboard as “boozy yellow cake with a hint of orange zest dipped in sexy chocolate ganache. DAMN!”

Damn is right. (I returned the next day for ‘Highway to Heaven’ — a “chocolate buttermilk cupcake filled with salted caramel, topped with chocolate ganache.” And, damn again.)

Owner Kirsten Jensen in her cart

The Sugar Cube is one of many food carts lining the sidewalk at 9th and Alder. The mobile restaurants, which have popped up all over Portland in recent years, serve short-order cuisine from all over the world — everything from falafel to Polish sausages to vegetable pakoras to beef burritos. The options can overwhelm, but the food is tasty, quick and generally a good bargain. Plus, the sidewalk tables offer a premium vantage point for people watching.

Cheap bowling Got a quarter? Then get yer bowlin’ shoes on! We could hear the rumble of balls rolling and pins falling as we walked through the parking garage at AMF Pro 300 Lanes, which is located directly under the alley. The start to my game was rough. I knocked down maybe two pins during the first three frames (faulty ball, right?). My luck turned around during the second game, however, when I scored three strikes in a row and dominated the rest of the game.

I felt oddly tempted by the awesome socks in the vending machine.

Public Art Been looking for a place to ditch the My Little Pony you no longer play with? Free-range dioramas are pretty common to run across on sidewalks and street corners. Anyone can contribute.

Take this telephone pole, for instance

Stumptown Coffee Roasters This Portland coffee roaster, which operates several cafes throughout the city, serves super high-quality espresso coffees, many of which have delicate designs swirled in the foam on top. Stumptown owner Duane Sorenson flies all over the world — to Africa, Central and South America and Indonesia — to develop personal relationships with coffee bean farmers. He pays them more than fair trade price to help them sustain themselves and their communities. The coffeehouses are hipster centrals and usually packed with folks socializing or tapping away on their MacBooks.

Noble Rot The Noble Rot wine bar serves ever-rotating “flights” of wine — or three two-ounce pours with a common thread. We opted for the Willamette Valley Pinot Noir flight to get an idea of what’s produced in the area. Apparently, Oregon produces some of the finest Pinot in the world. We sampled:

  • J. Daan, 2006
  • St. Innocent, 2006, White Rose Vineyard
  • Belle Pente, 2005 Estate Reserve, Yamhill-Carlton District

And our favorite? Numero tres.

Backyard fun

The Portlanders I met were smart, creative, laid back and fun. Makes for stimulating cookout conversation.

Obama all the way In Portland, even sea creatures have the sense to support Obama!!!