PORTLAND, Ore., Sept. 1, 2015 – The piece I’d just bought in Monograph Bookwerks, an art book store in Portland’s Alberta Arts District, was called “Sasquatch Cave.” It was a crude, glazed clay-brown diorama depicting the typical day in the life of a family of Oregonian Sasquatch. A mom Sasquatch sits on a log in front of a fire, nursing her Sasquatch baby. Her neck is craned and her facial expression is derivative of a Wookie. The Sasquatch father stands, brooding at the edge of the diorama, contemplating life after what I can only gather, is the end of civilization. His right arm is bent as though holding a (craft) beer, almost invisible in his giant Sasquatch hand. His expression is dour and distant. In one corner of the cave is an animal skull.
Stalactites hang from another corner of the ceiling, and if the diorama is properly lit, one can see rough-hewn hieroglyphics of a semi-truck and an airplane on the cave’s wall. It is like the Sasquatch exist peacefully beyond the ordinary world.
The diorama is child-like in its execution and absurd in its attempt to be profound, but effectively so. Perhaps that is the point. After all, I am buying this piece in a store that specializes in books specifically on fine art.
“Who made this?” I ask the lady working the register of the quaint bookstore.
“An artist named Aaron Murray,” she says, matter-of-factly, as though the piece I was asking about wasn’t a hacky social commentary on transportation and the use of fossil fuel as depicted on the wall of Sasquatch cave but rather a generic floral landscape of Provence in the spring.
“Oh,” I say, immediately wondering about Mr. Murray and his affection for the hairy bipeds of the great Pacific Northwest.
“He’s a member of a secret society of artists known as ‘The Mystic Sons of Morris Graves,’” she continued, as though “The Mystic Sons of Morris Graves” was the Portland chapter of an Elk Lodge.
“What in the world is that?” I ask, suddenly wanting to know everything about not just “Sasquatch Cave” as a work of art but also about the Morris Graves and his mystic male offspring.
“I don’t know,” she said, taping the bubble tape around my latest and greatest acquisition. “It’s a secret society.”
I picked up my esoteric diorama, which like an Oregon Pinot, would prove to only get better with age, and walked out onto Alberta Street on a stunning, rare sunny January day in Portland, convinced more than ever that the expression “Keep Portland Weird” was a not just a suggestion but a mandate.
While not everyone in Portland belongs to a secret society that believes in Bigfoot, there is something special about Portland and its people. Their commitment to culture, to community and to environmental efforts to sustain the natural world it makes you feel, when visiting, that you are getting a peek into something special.
I am staying in the Sentinel Hotel in downtown Portland. The Sentinel Hotel, built in 1909 and recently remodeled, is a stunning hotel themed after great visionaries, with giant black and white photos of iconoclasts like Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali lining the hallways. In the elegant lobby is an antique typewriter where guests are encouraged to type short stories about their stay in Portland, leaving them for others to read.
Across the street from the Sentinel, is the 10th and Alder Food Pod. Food Pods are collections of local and internationally influenced food carts, of which there are more than 600 across the city. Tenth and Alder is home to 30 outstanding food carts, including the famed Nog’s Khao Man Gai where locals line up as early as 11am to get a taste of Nog’s famed chicken and rice coated in Nog’s special sauce.
I opt instead for a Douglas Fir Latte from the Ole Latte Coffee Roaster Cart, one of dozens of coffee carts in Portland. Portlanders treat coffee as an art form and nowhere is it more present than here. As I take my first sip, I learn that my Douglas Fir Latte is not merely named after Oregon’s famed Douglas firs that grow in the forest, but is actually flavored with Douglas fir clippings from the tree in the barista’s front yard. It is as delicious as it is strange and it warms me as I make my way through downtown toward Powell’s Books.
Powell’s Books is the world’s largest used bookstore, taking up an entire city block and boasting more than a million books. Inside, visitors wind through pulpy smelling catacombs of obscure and popular titles waiting for something appropriate to fall off the shelf. Outside Powell’s, in a gentle rain, cheerful aspiring writers sit on wet pavement, crafting emotive poetry on antique typewriters using recycled paper, hawking their words for a buck a poem.
From Powell’s, I make my way to Forest Park. This park, dense with Grimm’s Fairytale inspired Douglas firs, western hemlock and 112 species of birds, overlooks the Willamette River and is America’s largest urban park.
It covers more than 5,000 acres and is home to more than 80 beautiful miles of trails running through dense forest and along pristine streams.
On my stroll through the enigmatic woods, a group of fearless, altruistic Portlanders hover over a dying opossum, debating how best to get it medical attention. Where I see rabies, Portlanders see an animal in need.
The more of Portland I see, the more remarkable it becomes. Six percent of the city’s population, despite frequent rain, commutes to work by bike, the largest percentage of cycling commuters in the country. Hopworks Urban Brewery, one of the city’s finest, uses escaped heat from its pizza ovens to boil water used to make beer.
The brewery’s delivery trucks run on biodiesel made from spent fryer oil. Scapegoat Tattoo Co. actually specializes in vegan tattoos.
On Mississippi Street, one of Portland’s trendiest must-see spots, one can indulge in a variety of boutique stores, including the peculiar Paxton’s Gate, specializing in used taxidermy and other oddities. There are countless restaurants not to mention another the extremely popular food pod, but most intriguing along this road is The Rebuilding Center.
This remarkable non-profit offers “deconstruction services” rather than “demolition services” and carries the city’s largest volume of used building and remodeling materials with the intention of eliminating enormous landfill waste while making home reconstruction affordable for everyone. The center offers workshops in how to safely work with reclaimed building materials.
In the Alberta Arts District, Portland’s most eclectic region and home to the aforementioned Sasquatch Cave,
Eco Power Fitness, a local gym, uses energy created by cardio machines to power the lights, televisions and music. On top of Alberta Street’s trashcans are cup holders for empty cups so that the local homeless population doesn’t have to dig through garbage to find recyclable bottles and cans.
Street corners have kiosks where people leave books so that when they are finished, others can read them.
And while one can’t help marveling at the district’s bohemian benevolence, Alberta Street buzzes with live music and a remarkable food scene including renowned restaurants the Indian gem Bollywood Theater and Bamboo Sushi, home of the city’s best sushi and Izakaya.
One need only visit Portland for a couple of days to realize that it is not only a fantastic city to visit but also is a city with a remarkable self-awareness and that the citizens of Portland fully embrace that identity, pushing well beyond the cliché hipster moniker and into something truly authentic.
As I consider my recently purchased Sasquatch cave and the way the Sasquatch family considers the outside world as though they are merely looking in while reveling in their own preferable natural existence, and then consider Portland and all of its virtues, I can’t help but think, maybe the Mystic Sons of Morris Graves and the people of Portland know something the rest of us don’t.