The Great American Road Trip Part 2: West Coast

The modern travel way, Olympia, Washington

The modern travel way, Olympia, Washington

My epic summer travels continued this month up and down the West Coast. After two weeks in the Midwest, the West Coast felt like familiar territory. I used to live in Portland, Oregon on-and-off between 2000 and 2004 and I’d recently visited Seattle and San Francisco. Unlike my Midwest adventures, I for this trip I relied more on public and mass transit to get around, except in Seattle and Olympia where your flexibility is limited by the public transit options and I find that in Seattle, like LA, people obsess over talking about traffic and parking.

The sweet, seductive architecture of SE Portland

The sweet, seductive architecture of SE Portland

My sweet, borrowed PDX ride "Banana Lightening"

My sweet, borrowed PDX ride “Banana Lightening”

While it has a reputation for being a rainy climate, the truth is, summer in the Northwest is glorious. Days are overall sunny with warm days that cool off at night. It’s the perfect temperature to dreamily drink an iced coffee, ride a bike leisurely around the city, meet your friends for a picnic in the park, or sip cocktails on the patio.

Sharing a table with Meredith at the Portland Zine Symposium!

Sharing a table with Meredith at the Portland Zine Symposium!

Zinester mail from @nicolejgeorges xoxo!

Zine symposium mail from Nicole Georges!

The Portland Zine Symposium was a big reason why I chose to be in Portland when I did. It’s really amazing to see a project I helped start 13 years ago continue with such vigor and be taken up by a totally new team of people. I feel like that’s the exact legacy I hoped to create with the symposium and I’m so glad to see it worked out. It was also nice to return as a participant and not have the stress of an organizer.  However, much of Portland reminded me of that heady time in my early 20s when I lived there. I would be biking along a street on my borrowed, bright yellow, vintage folding bike named “Banana Lightening” aka “Banana Question,” and remember a feeling I had in that same place over ten years ago. I felt amazed that I had grown up, but still half way convinced that I was going to encounter my 22-year-old self around any given corner.

I love Olympia!

I love Olympia!

I felt a similar feeling in Olympia, where I hadn’t spent too much time since attending the Yo Yo A Go Go music festival in 1999 when I was 18. Then I was a giddy teenager fresh out of my small town. There I saw acts like Elliot Smith, Quasi and the Need play the historic Capitol Theater and spent time blissfully sleeping on a motel floor with four other indie rock fans and meeting up with my zine pen pals from all over the country.

Capitol Theater, Olympia, Washington, where indie rock history was made

Capitol Theater, Olympia, Washington, where indie rock history was made

Olympia now has a strange, sleepy vibe, though it is still home to a very dedicated creative community. The staples I remember like Dumpster Values thrift store, Rainy Day Records, and K Records homebase, are still there, though they have moved. There’s plenty of new, cool places, like the Northern for all ages shows (and good coffee in the morning from a coffee bar called Bar Francis) and Quality Burrito for delicious tacos and cocktails. One of my favorite places to re-visit was The Reef – greasy spoon diner in front, dive bar in back, where the bar tender played KARP on the jukebox in an evening that felt perfectly fitting for Olympia past and present.

An Olympia classic

An Olympia classic

Karaoke pandas, Olympia, Washington

Karaoke pandas, Olympia, Washington

My last day in Washington State got a little cloudy, so it was quite a big change when I hopped an Alaska Airlines flight down to hot, sunny and flat Sacramento. It was my fifth time in California in the past year and it felt great to be back in the Golden State. I got to learn about the growing creative community in California’s capitol and present at the sweetest nonprofit, Hello XOXO, a new space dedicated to fostering women’s creativity and entrepreneurship.

Hello XOXO - a nonprofit fostering women's creative community in Sacramento, CA
Hello XOXO – a nonprofit fostering women’s creative community in Sacramento, CA
Decor love at Hello XOXO

Decor love at Hello XOXO

I wasn’t long in Sacramento though, and after just a quick afternoon and evening I headed to Berkeley to browse the selection at Amoeba records, and meet up with my favorite California boys, Torches, who were touring up the West Coast while I was headed down. It was great to compare road notes over sandwiches and mimosas and think about how much we have all grown creatively since meeting about a year and a bit ago.

Tour highlight: lunch with these rock stars @torches_music

Lunch with Torches, also on tour, in Berkeley

After sending the boys off I took the BART into San Francisco, my last tour stop. I love how San Francisco’s hills rise up over the bay, how the fog blows across it in strange wisps, and how the pastel buildings tile up its impossibly steep slopes. That said, by the time I reached San Francisco I was feeling a little tired. I was ready to go home.

Brunch seriousness

French “Soul Food” brunch in San Francisco!

Fortunately, if you’ve got a friend in San Francisco, they usually know what you need. In this case, Amy took me to Brenda’s, an amazing French Soul Food influenced brunch joint, and then bought a bottle of champagne that we drank out of plastic cups in a park full of palm trees, lavender plants and cute dogs. It was the perfect end to my travels.

Champagne in the park in the 3-D Nickey Hayden glass

Last day of tour and living the San Francisco park life

Seeing new places, returning to places I love and meeting up with people I love in these places, is one of the most life affirming things one can do, in my opinion. At the same time, I’m happy to have a solid home base in Brooklyn, a place where I can nurture my own creativity and reach out to the world from. Being on tour especially means being on almost every waking minute. It means putting your best foot forward always and being open to possibility and risk while getting what you need to do accomplished. My summer was hardly relaxing or carefree, but it was a hugely absorbing journey that’s left me so grateful for the opportunity I was able to create to talk about my passions and projects and remember what’s valuable to me: community, connection, and creativity. And it’s through that kind of risk taking that we learn and grow.

Who Dares Wins

My new motto on the wall of the Makeshift Society

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The “Other Portland” Reconsidered

Dinner view

My early life is a tale of two Portlands. I grew up in and around the city of Portland, Maine. It is a small city of about 60,000 people about two hours north of Boston that features century-old brick buildings, wharves, narrow cobblestone streets, and handsome Victorian houses. Growing up there it had a vibe of being cultured, yet sleepy. There were bohemian feeling cafes, concerts and a good, but small art museum. In the early 1990s I saw “Alternative” bands of the era like Dinosaur Jr. and Belly play at a mid-sized theatre. It was relatively safe and very walkable. All in all, it was a great place to grow up.

Hover, in my mid-teens I fell in love with the “other” Portland (in New England speak), the much larger Portland, Oregon that came into its own in the 1990s as a hotbed of alternative culture and is now the reigning city of hipsterism (besides, perhaps, my current home town of Brooklyn). When I moved to Portland in 2000 I had to explain to people that I was, actually from the “other” Portland (that would be Maine, in Oregon and most everywhere else, speak).  Confusing!

Portland, Maine!

I always felt like Portland, Maine had great potential to be a hotbed for creativity. It’s not terribly expensive to live there, there’s old industrial space that could be available for artists and creative people, there’s an art school and a large public university an a cultural infrastructure in place to support creative people. Did I mention the restaurants are excellent? I always felt vaguely frustrated and let down by Portland, Maine in the 1990s. While places like Olympia, Washington were becoming focal points of DIY culture making Portland seemed to not quite be able to have it together. Bands from Portland rarely toured and when they did seemed to only make it as far as Boston. People barely expressed an interest in touring bands. The local art scene was dominated by cutesy crafts and lighthouse art. Until now.

Back for post-workshop, pre-pizza party cocktails

Cocktails at Eventide Oyster Company

In the early 2000s a few businesses helped usher in what seems to be a new wave for creative people in Portland, Maine. Ferdinand started selling letterpress goods, silkscreen t-shirts and vintage finds. Space Gallery started bringing in shows by cutting edge contemporary artist and hosting emerging and established touring indie rock bands. Geno’s rock club moved up from a scuzzy (but beloved) dive bar to a sprawling new space (it used to be a porn theater back in the day, but hey…), the Nickelodeon Cinema started showing indie as well as second run mainstream films downtown for cheap, and Z Fabrics started selling beautiful, contemporary cool cloth. These places helped breath life into Portland independent culture stalwarts, like Bullmoose Music and helped re-invigorate a tradition like the First Friday Arts Walk.

Serious hipster coffee comes to Portland, Maine

Coffee at Tandem

Returning to Portland on a recent weekend I was surprised at all the new, creative businesses that have opened up and feel like the city is supportive enough of independent, DIY, handcrafted culture to make a go at it. You can now get locally roasted coffee in the Bluebottle tradition from Tandem Coffee Roasters, outfit your inner (or outer) dandy at Portland Dry Goods and David Wood (David Wood has been a leading menswear purveyor in Portland for decades), embrace the prepster aesthetic and support “upcycling” at Seabags, browse hip, vintage, local, and handmade goods at Pinecone + Chickadee, and score amazing vintage deals at Find. Did I mention eating? Try Eventide Oyster Company for craft cocktails and yes, oysters, and Duckfat, which seems to be known the world over, for hearty sandwiches and fries cooked in the restaurant’s namesake (vegetarians beware!).

All of this to say, this past weekend I walked around in a state of quasi-disbelief. What I always hoped for “my” Portland is happening. I’m not quite ready to move back, but I’m looking forward to my next visit. Sitting at dinner at the hippie pizza place Flatbread Company I overheard a member of a bachelor party near us ask in all sincerity, “Are there nitrates in the pepperoni?” To which the waitress immediately replied, “No, of course not, they are homemade.” I had to pinch myself. Which Portland was I in?

Portland Revisited and Seattle Discovered

The house in Portland, Oregon where I lived in in the summer of 2002 and 2003

In the fall of 2000 I packed my life into boxes, shipped them across the country, and began a five year love affair with Portland, Oregon. I lived in a house that housed a record label, regularly hosted indie pop shows, and sheltered a somewhat revolving cast of characters who were indie rock musicians or appreciators of the genre. After a year of zine making, playing in bands, biking and making intense friendships (the kind you kindle when you are 19 and you are linked by common interests, far fetched ideas and, often, a lot of drama) I moved to NYC to go college. That was right in time for September 11th, but that’s another story.

Sign outside the Independent Publishing Resource Center

While I was in college I returned to Portland as often as I could and lived there in the summers and helped organize the Portland Zine Symposium until 2004. I deeply associate Portland, its relaxed lifestyle, political commitment and particular aesthetic with my early 20’s, with finding and revising my identity and informing the person I decided to become.

Crepe cart at Cartopia on Hawthorne in Portland

Portland has changed a lot in the past 10 years. By changes I mean it has intensely gentrified and every year another street seems to be taken over by a host of art galleries, wine bars, eco-friendly, artisan produced goods, and food truck pods. I often wonder what the underlying economy is that drives this relentless development. It’s also become somewhat of a national joke thanks to the (very funny) TV show Portlandia. Sometimes it really does feel like the dream of the 90’s is alive in Portland.

Brunch at Junior's, one of my favorite PDX breakfast spots then and now

However, I’m also happy that many of my friends have grown up and been able to buy houses at relatively cheap prices and been able to build their adult lives in Portland. I visited my favorite place, the Independent Publishing Resource Center, which is growing and flourishing. I even attended the Portland Zine Symposium, which is still going strong after 10 years. The choice of zines and dedication to independent media and radical ideas about and society was just as strong as they were when we began it 10 years ago.

Pony Boy Press' Table at the Portland Zine Symposium

Playing in the park with my former housemate's daughter

After Portland I headed further up I-5 to Seattle. Despite my long standing, long-distance fascination with Portland I had hardly spent any time in Seattle. SMH went to college there and despite growing up in Central Washington, his family now all live in the Seattle area.

Puget Sound, Seattle

We jumped in to some touristic activities. This included visiting the Crab Pot, a seafood restaurant on one of the downtown piers that give you a pot of steamed seafood, a mallet, a board and a bib. Coming from Maine I know that lobster crackers would be much more effective than a mallet, but with no shame I donned my bib (I had to go to work after lunch and was wearing work clothes) and dug in.

Seafood Lunch at the Crab Pot

Donning my bib with no shame at the Crab Pot

I also got to enjoy some delicious coffee on Capital Hill, and an astronomically large, grease soaked breakfast (in the middle of the afternoon) at Beth’s Cafe in Green Lake.

Breakfast at Beth's. The hasbrowns and coffee are unlimited. The portoin sizes are legendary.

I really wanted to love Seattle. At first I thought that it would combine my need for a big, cosmopolitan city with the nature, greenery and relaxed lifestyle I love the Pacific Northwest for. But here was a problem I did not anticipate: the traffic. Seattle has terrible urban planning and only adequate public transportation. This is surprising to me, given that Portland, Oregon, has made a major commitment to improving its public transit infrastructure over the past 20 years or so. Seattle’s current mayor is a major bike supporter, but I don’t see a lot of infrastructure being created to encourage cycling. And parking. In addition to traffic and whether I-5 will be totally backed up, that’s all everyone talks about. Where to find it. How to pay for it. I do not want this to be my life. So for now, Seattle is off my “I’ll move there one day when I get sick of New York City” list.

Outside of Trading Musician in Seattle