I’ll be completely honest, I have spent so long trying to compose this essay primarily due to the fact that my trip to the Pacific Northwest was wholly stunning yet overwhelmingly underwhelming compared to the expectations I had created for it. Which, in the defense of the Pacific Northwest, is entirely my own problem and not that of the specific geographic location.
As someone who has lived the entirety of his twenty-five years in the Mighty Midwest — the extravagantly flat middle ground between the East and the West and, in my case, more east than west and not really in the middle — the prospect of seeing vast mountains and trees taller than buildings had been understandably arresting. Unfortunately, I had created an idea that upon arriving in Portland, Oregon, I would stumble upon some life changing epiphany or meet someone who would tell me the secret to life. This, as you can imagine but I did not, failed to happen. Or at least not in the way I would have thought it to happen.
The original plan had been to meet a close friend of mine in San Francisco and drive up through California to Portland, stopping wherever we pleased to see the beautiful landscape that is Northern California and Oregon. About a month before the trip, my traveling companion’s most noble steed (his car) fell to a mysterious illness (engine failure), leading to flight changes, a few hours on AirBnB, and a vastly different set of plans.
The new plan became flying directly to Portland, spending a couple days there, taking a train north to Seattle for a few days, and then returning to Portland for the remainder of the trip. Other than that, we had no major plans. We only knew that we wanted to see nature, experience the culture and people of the two cities, drink a lot of coffee, and go to a lot of book stores.
In that regard, the trip was a major success. In fact, I am fairly sure I came back with an even higher tolerance to caffeine than when I left Columbus, Ohio. The majority of our time was spent roaming around the cities, exploring the neighborhoods, and riding their public transportation in no particular direction.
One night in Portland, we set out to explore the local neighborhoods but were quickly overcome by jet lag and a lack of inspiration. Before we decided to retreat to our sleeping quarters, we stopped in to a small pie shop and discovered that Portland’s pie scene means business.
We left, crossing the street to our bus stop, and stood in front of a bar with a soft blue light pouring from its open door and a live jazz band playing wildly inside. We turned to each other and, without saying a word, hopped down the steps in to the bar and fell in to the first available seats. The whole bar melted with energy and we quickly realized how badly we needed to be there.
Later, when the band stopped and we left the bar, a bus pulled up as soon as we stepped through the door. It was almost as if the bus driver had been listening too and waiting for us. That is the kind of vibe I felt in Portland. Everyone lived there for a reason and welcomed those around them to join, fully understanding the improvisation of life.
The train ride to and from Seattle proved visually euphoric and gave us a small glimpse of what we missed from our lost road trip opportunity. We arrived in Seattle and met up with my family who were gracious enough to give us a place to sleep after discovering we could not afford anything in Seattle and had more or less resigned to sleeping in the subway bathroom or public park.
We spent a great deal of our time simply roaming around and exploring the areas, taking in the clean air and throwing glances over our shoulders to the mountains surrounding the city. A seven dollar ferry ride to a nearby island, which was perfectly timed to catch the sun on it’s evening descent, offered a beautiful view of the mountains and the city. My favorite spot, perhaps, was a book store that had a shop cat and a record store next door. How good can it get, right?
As we returned to Portland for our remaining days, smoke began to drift in from nearby forest fires. It created an eerie red haze that covered the city as if it were hiding at a masquerade ball and dropping bits of sulky ash on the similarly masked people dancing below. It was a haunting feeling and reminded me of the fragility of the world around us. Not because the world is weak, but because it is vulnerable. Not unlike a lover who opens his or her heart to you and then cooks you a meal from the remains of their last grocery trip. The kind of vulnerability that, if taken advantage of, stokes the fires burning in their stomach and makes the air dangerous to breath.
Ignoring the air-quality alerts, we decided to visit the Portland Zoo and the International Rose Test Garden. One of the first things we noticed in the rose garden, was a sign explaining that anyone who stole or destroyed a rose would be fined $400 per rose. It was a strange feeling to then walk through these places knowing fires were stealing an overwhelming amount of flora and fauna from the surface of the earth less than a hundred miles away. Still, the scent of over 7,000 roses fusing with the smoke and ash from the fires, that have now burned through almost 50,000 acres of land, resides in my lungs and burns in my stomach.
Throughout the week, I obediently carried my camera around my shoulder, growing ever disappointed in what I saw through my lens. I would realize, looking through my photos later, that I had entirely missed the small things while standing there with my camera against my cheek.
While Portland and Seattle were beyond incredible, I became so wrapped up in searching for the big defining moment that I missed everything important. Looking back through these photos helped me see what I had missed. Often, the smallest moments in life, the seemingly mundane, are the most important events we experience.
It is no secret that the world is filled with tragedy and heartache. In fact, almost every day it seems as if something else is happening, but as the smoke blows in around us and we rub the ashes from our eyes, it is absolutely necessary that we remember the roses and the perseverance of life in the harshest moments. There, we will find the courage to move forward when darkness surrounds us. If there is anything I have learned with any certainty in this world, it is that life finds a way, big or small.