Becky Ohlsen’s Walking Portland (Wilderness Press, 200 pages, $18.95) keeps up a blistering pace through Portland’s gridded streets while stopping at every worthy watering hole and potential Instagram selfie backdrop along the way.
Ohlsen, a former Willamette Week copy chief and longtime contributor, opens a window onto the city’s history and cultural evolution, starting back with Meriwether and William’s famous expedition. The heart of Ohlsen’s project is MapQuest-style directions and blue-and-white aerial maps. The directions from points Ankeny to Burnside are key to the guide, but the insightful lines surrounding them make the book more than reference material.
The book—part of the Wilderness Press’ urban walking series, which also includes Boston and San Francisco—features 30 short outings spanning both sides of the Willamette River, from Forest Park to Montavilla. The two-to-five-mile treks are primarily urban, winding through narrow, bamboo-lined corridors near Goose Hollow to bustling portions of “neo-hippie” Hawthorne. Fortunately, several of Portland’s flagship parks make the cut, either as complete excursions or noteworthy detours into the hilly neighborhoods of tony Northwest.
Although Ohlsen’s historical narratives add character to many locations, they never cause the walks to drag. Passages are detail-rich but not overbearing, often providing enough information for the casual urban trekker while enticing history buffs to research further on their own.
“Balch Creek is named for Danford Balch, an early Oregon settler with quite a story,” Ohlsen writes about the underground creek at the start of the Lower Macleay Trailhead leading into Forest Park. That story: Balch shot his daughter’s lover after a scuffle and became the first man hanged in Oregon. She also addresses Esther Lovejoy, the Pittocks and the hipstered-out inner-eastside park where “pasty-skinned Portlanders exposing disconcerting amounts of their Pabst-fueled bodies” play Hacky Sack.
The guidebook features sporadic rundowns of selected restaurants and bars, critiquing assorted dishes, drinks and service based on her 15 years in Portland. She talks about the “grumpy” service at Escape From New York, the Casa Del Matador “cougar bar” on Northwest 23rd Avenue, and the “awesome Mason-jar drinks” at the Bye and Bye, among others.
Despite the rather
shallow history and personal reviews, veteran Portlanders will most
appreciate the history. For instance, did you know the White Eagle was
once nicknamed “the Bucket of Blood” for its notorious brawls? Ohlsen’s
guide tests your knowledge of local trivia as well as your physical
endurance—I found I had neither after a breathless jaunt from Southwest
Park Place to the International Rose Test Garden.
GO: Becky Ohlsen reads at Powell’s on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd., on Thursday, May 2. 7:30 pm. Free.