Return to Healy Heights

HH keller house

A 1956 Colonial once owned by Portland businessman Ira Keller is a prominent sight in the Hessler Hills neighborhood.

In April, a friend and I set out on an urban hike that was supposed to take us on a 4-mile loop from Hillsdale to Healy Heights, a posh hilltop neighborhood in Southwest Portland.

I screwed up. What should have been a 2-hour hike became 5 miles and 3 hours because I didn’t pay close enough attention to directions in my guide book and we veered off course. Making matters worse, light drizzle turned to steady rain as we plodded along, culminating in a steady downpour at Council Crest Park, where supposedly unrivaled views of Portland were obliterated by cloud cover and a pounding rain.

I scolded myself and vowed to come back on a sunny day.

On the last Thursday in August, I did just that. And I was amply rewarded.

This time, the hike did take just two hours. Although I saw plenty of familiar sights, following the correct route took me into areas of Healy Heights I’d missed before. Plus, I made it to the 1,000-foot summit of Council Crest, trekking to the end of a dead-end street where you come to the locked gatehouse of the Stonehenge radio tower. The antenna rises 607 feet and is easily visible from Portland’s east side.

Enough chatter. Here are the highlights of my second trip:

Keller Woodland: Reached via a dead end on Northwood Avenue, this beautiful greenspace is owned by the Three Rivers Land Conservancy, according to Laura O. Foster, author of my well-worn copy of “Portland Hill Walks.”

Portland businessman Ira Keller originally owned the nearly 40 acres, but sold it to the Nature Conservancy, which later gave it to Three Rivers, Foster says. It’s too bad it’s so secluded. Then again, light foot traffic is what keeps the forested area so lovely.

Hessler Hills: The woodland trail leads into what Foster calls “the isolated and tony” Hessler Hills neighborhood. Except for the forested path, there’s only one way into this area of gaudy homes and panoramic views of the Willamette River, stretching from the Fremont Bridge to Ross Island.

Walking here and along Fairmount Boulevard, another forested route in this hilly area, I spotted a handful of “for sale” signs with asking prices ranging from $1.1 million to $2.2 million.

Not for sale is the spectacular home once owned by the aforementioned Keller. It stands alone across a ravine on Northwood, with a commanding view of the Willamette and the Cascade Range. This is the same Keller who served as chairman of the Portland Planning Commission and for whom a fountain across from Civic Auditorium is named.

Fairmount Boulevard: This 4-mile-long, two-lane road without sidewalks is popular with joggers and cyclists. Sure enough, I saw people on foot, more with and without dogs, and on bicycles.

If anything, the homes along this road are even more ginormous than in Hessler Hills, with three- and four-story homes built on stilts on wooded hillsides.

Healy Heights: Unlike the April hike, when I lost my way and wound up at Council Crest Park, this time I walked up steep residential streets with constantly changing views of the city.

From Foster’s book, I learned that the area was developed in the 1930s by Joseph Healy, who called it “the Switzerland of America.” A bit of an exaggeration. Healy named the streets after various family members: Carl, McDonnell, Patrick and Bernard. A nice gesture, I suppose.

On one street corner, I saw a number of crushed cardboard boxes spilling out of a recycling bin. Hmm, I wondered, does a Nike executive live there?

Further up the bill, a funny coincidence. I had just started up Carl Place, the dead-end street, when I heard a Spanish-language commercial for a local car dealer, Carl Chevrolet, coming from the vicinity of one of these big-ass homes. One Latino laborer was on the ground using a leaf blower while another above him was tossing roof shingles and other materials into a trailer. They were, of course, listening to the radio as they worked.

Descending the summit, I came across more of the same: Latino men cutting tree limbs by hand, mowing lawns and building new homes for even more well-to-do owners. Where would this country be without the myriad skills provided by mi gente?

Healy Heights Park: If anything symbolizes the isolation and exclusivity of this area, it’s the neighborhood park. It’s owned by the city but it has the look and feel of a private playground.

Barely more than an acre, it has climbing equipment, a soccer goal, a baseball backstop, and a basketball court with a surface made from recycled shoes donated by Nike. Sure enough, the trademark swoosh is found at center court. Signs advertising a neighborhood potluck added to the private vibe.

Hillsdale: The trek back down to flat land took me back along a previously traveled route, from Fairmount Boulevard to a series of hidden staircases descending to a range of midcentury homes along SW 19th Drive and Sunset Boulevard.

Even after two visits here, I still have unfinished business. Gotta come back one more time to hike the Marquam Nature Park trail connecting Council Crest with the Oregon Health & Science University campus.

 

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