June 8, 2007
Wood Village, OR to Salem, OR
We had been looking forward to this day for weeks. We were making a pilgrimage to the world's largest bookstore, Powell's Books in downtown Portland.
But first we had to eat. A few miles from the motel we discovered the glories of northwestern restaurant chain Shari's. We started out by sharing a huge cinnamon roll. Then I had crepes with sweet filling buried in " burst-o-berry" topping (marionberry and some other berries I can't remember) along with another plate full of eggs, bacon, and sausage. The crepes were awesome, but I feared a serious sugar crash a few hours later (luckily, this never materialized). The rest was pretty good, too, and Shari's moved to the top of our list of PNW eateries (this would later become a sort of obsession for me).
Next I had to find my way to downtown Portland and Powell's. The directions from their Web site didn't quite work for me. I don't know why I ever trust anyone else's directions because nine times out of ten I can find a place better on my own. Anyway, after following those directions to the wrong exit, I instantly knew I was off course and performed a fast U-turn across several lanes. I got back on the expressway to the next exit, and from there the directions worked fine (they had said to get off at the first exit, but they should have said second). Downtown Portland was annoying to drive around, as bad as Chicago in some ways. Despite the city's friendliness toward cyclists and pedestrians, the streets are choked with automobiles. Pedestrian rights in Oregon and particularly Portland are a shock to Illinoisans, and unfortunately pedestrians show no courtesy whatsoever to motorists (example: one of my rules as a pedestrian is that if I make a car wait for me to cross a street when that motorist is planning to turn, I never make that same motorist wait for me to cross the street he is turning onto as well -- that's just rude).
We found the Powell's parking garage, one of the tightest places I've ever had the displeasure to navigate. I should have taken a picture because no one would believe how many brightly painted columns there were in this poorly designed garage (it must have been retrofitted into the existing building, or it was engineered by sadists). I was glad to have a Mazda 6 instead of something bigger. My mother-in-law's Buick never would have fit. But my biggest complaint about the Powell's garage is that only the first hour or two are free. I think one should get additional hours of parking, especially if one spends a lot of money at the store. As someone who can spend a couple hours in an average Borders, I knew Powell's would take much longer.
The scale of Powell's is overwhelming to some (though they offer a map as well as a virtual tour to prepare for your visit). We spent a few minutes just looking around, and then I got down to business. I headed for the water and hydrology section. I've had a fascination with western water issues ever since I read Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert: The American West & Its Disappearing Water. But even Chicago's largest bookstores carry only a handful of books regarding water, and those are generally the same books from store to store. With Powell's being not only the world's largest bookstore but also being in the West, their selection of water books was astounding. I must have spent an hour plowing through five shelves, picking out half a dozen books to buy including former Illinois Senator Paul Simon's book. I saw some recently published books of interest, but I had decided beforehand not to buy any new, full-priced hardcovers (I spent enough money just on paperbacks). I photographed each with my cell phone to record the title and author, and I'll wait for them to show up in paperback.
Once I had finished with the water books, I wandered all over the sprawling, city block-sized store. As with any urban meeting place, the people-watching was fascinating. For the first time since we left Chicago that I consciously felt overweight and out of place. Portland is definitely full of attractive, young people, not just old hippies. Maybe that's why we only went to Powell's instead of exploring the whole downtown. But as Chicagoans, we don't enjoy visiting cities on vacation that much anyway.
I picked out several writing books and checked out the " local" section. Although I like Oregon and Washington, nothing there piqued my interest. The next place where I camped out for some time was a series of racks of discounted books near the restrooms (not too close, thankfully!) in the Purple Room. I picked out ten more books on a broad range of subjects (all non-fiction; I rarely read fiction).
By then it was late afternoon, and I started planning our departure based on what time we entered the parking garage. I didn't want to pay for an extra hour if I could avoid it. I called my wife -- it's much easier to communicate via cell phone in Powell's rather than try to physically locate someone -- and asked when she would be finished. She was pretty much exhausted, but I was still going fairly strong. My mom taught me the art of endurance shopping long ago, so I usually outlast my wife.
Anyway, I had a few more subject areas to explore, so she headed to the coffee shop and I headed for the media and popular culture sections. I found another five books there, and now my Powell's shopping basket was straining at its limit. I had to walk with my body listing to one side to counterbalance the weight of the 33 books in my basket. I called my wife again, and she was still lollygagging in the coffee shop. With only 20 minutes left in the current hour of parking, I strongly encouraged her to get down to the room where we had entered the store. In the meantime, I sat on the floor and made a final pass through my basket, looking for anything I could live without. I managed to cull three books from the stack and handed them to a woman at the information desk (she appreciated that I didn't just dump them on an inappropriate shelf).
Now I was ready to check out with fifteen minutes to spare, but where was my wife? My phone rang. She didn't know which room she was supposed to meet me in. " The Orange Room. And hurry up!" I really didn't want to get stuck paying an extra few bucks because we were two minutes late getting to the garage. I hate paying for parking. She finally showed up with a pitifully short stack of books. It was hard to believe that someone who had so looked forward to this expedition would spend five hours and find so little, but I had enough books to make up for it.
My wife is a notoriously bad shopper -- I like to say that when she tries to put a sale item in her cart, it jumps back out. Consequently, her seven books totaled $134 while my 30 books were only $240. The total bill including a Powell's T-shirt was $390.50 with no sales tax (something to love about Oregon!). Add the parking, and we spent about $400.
When we got back to our car, someone was trying to park a big Buick in the garage and having the damnedest time. Once he was out of the way, we headed out into rush hour traffic. Then I remembered I hadn't taken a single photograph. As we approached the first stoplight, I looked to my left, grabbed the camera and shot this. It's not the " classic" view of Powell's, but it'll do:
I found southbound I-5 fairly easily (I love my intuition!), and we headed toward Salem. My wife's cousin Kristie told us Salem was a pit (she worked there for several months), but it was conveniently on the way to visit her new home in Corvallis so we risked it. First we had to sit in stop-and-go traffic on I-5 for a while. I suggested a concert CD from another Oregon band, the Decemberists. I'm not sure whether I like them yet, but they are at least listenable. My wife disagreed; after three or four songs, she ejected the disc and put in a Rolling Stones concert from 1972. A few songs later, she was complaining about the sound quality. What do you expect from a 35-year-old bootleg?
We checked into a Travelodge in Salem. Kristie later told us we had stayed in a not-so-great part of town. Although it definitely wasn't a tourist area (no other motels or restaurants nearby), we didn't have any problems. When you're from Chicago, it's rare to find a city of 150,000 that has enough problems worth noticing. It's not like there were junkies and prostitutes hanging out under the Travelodge sign. We went to an Olive Garden by the interstate for dinner. On the way back to the motel, I stopped to buy a drink. I was shocked when the clerk said it was $1.59 for a 20-ounce bottle of A&W that would cost 30-60 cents less anywhere else we had traveled.
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