Though I won’t be officially retired for a couple more days, the question is already popping up.
If life were normal, it would be simple: hitting the gym, meeting friends for coffee, traveling with Lori. I’d also like to get back to simple pleasures like bowling and poker, movies and concerts, and Blazers basketball.
But life is anything but normal right now.
So Plan B means diving into a stack of books that’s been building up while I’ve been consumed by teaching.
First up: “Homegoing” the highly acclaimed debut novel by Yaa Gyasi. Three chapters in, I’m absorbed by this multigenerational novel that begins with two half-sisters raised in opposite circumstances — privilege and captivity — during the slave trade in 18th century Ghana.
I bought the book 15 months ago during a spring break visit to Ithaca, New York, the last time I saw our youngest son and his family. Lori and I had scheduled another visit in March, but that got canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak.
I’ve got plenty more books lined up. They’ve come to me as gifts, book exchanges and pick-ups from neighborhood lending libraries.
What else is on tap?
Well, a mix of entertainment media and a return to the outdoors both sound good.
I’m planning to explore the expanding world of podcasts along with lots more of the content available on streaming services. Totally enjoying the British crime show “Broadchurch” right now, after having recently finished “Schitt’s Creek” (hilarious) and “Doctor Foster” (gripping).
I want to resume the day hikes that I used to do so regularly before my part-time teaching job turned to full-time.
And I want to spend more time just hanging out with Lori and Charlotte, our feisty little terrier mix.
Once travel becomes safe and normal again, I’m hoping that can become a regular thing.
I am still running. Six weeks ago in late April, I thought I had finally reached the point where my body was telling me, “No. Just no.”
I went out the front door, like so many hundreds of times before, and started a slow jog. Couldn’t even make it to the end of the block. Argh!
My left hip was tender from a few previous runs but I thought I’d be able to power through another one, even with a sore knee and perpetually tight hamstrings. Not a chance.
Maybe, finally, all these years of running on neighborhood streets, pounding the asphalt, had caught up with me.
During these three months of stay-at-home living, I figured I would make up for the loss of access to a gym by alternating running and bike riding.
The bicycling has gone just fine, but running has been hit and miss. With my teaching schedule eating up my mornings, and related schoolwork often gobbling up my afternoons, I’ve found it hard to achieve any consistency. And that ain’t good.
I made myself lay off for a month after that aborted one-block “run.” Enough time for common sense to kick in. Enough time for my personal trainer (um, Lori) to suggest an alternative: Why don’t you think about running on a softer surface?
And that’s how I wound up driving to Wilshire Park, a city park about two miles away, to run on a bark-chip trail with patches of dirt and gravel.
Wilshire is a leafy, neighborhood gem in Northeast Portland and it’s proven to be just what I needed. Lots less stress on my feet and legs.
I ran just three laps around the park’s perimeter the first time two weeks ago. I went back six days later and did four laps. Today I went back and did four more. All went well.
At this point, with 10Ks and half-marathons in my distant past, I’m not worried about speed or mileage. I care more about whether it’s a pleasurable, pain-free experience.
Though I ran competitively in high school (and clocked a PR in the one-mile run of 4 minutes, 38 seconds), I’ve been running since then for the sheer enjoyment. Breathing the fresh air, taking in the scenery and sounds. Running in every kind of weather all year-around. Going in whatever direction, at whatever time and for how long I’ve wanted, whether here in Portland or on the road.
It’s early Monday. The garbage trucks have come and gone, leaving a peaceful quiet in their wake. Today marks the beginning of Finals Week, my last as a college instructor at Portland State University, and I’m about to dive into one last stack of essays.
Normally, I’d be heading down to campus to give the first of two final exams. But in this age of Covid-19, students will log on from home and take their test remotely.
No complaints, though. As the term winds down, I find myself in a positive place — a far cry from a week ago, when I was despondent over a feeling that our country had come apart at the seams.
In just a few days, so much has happened across the nation and around the world to give me reason to believe that we have at last reached a turning point on a handful of racial, policing and political issues — foremost among them, an emphatic declaration that Black Lives Really Do Matter.
Who could have imagined what we saw play out last week? Donald Trump being widely ridiculed for the Bible photo op at a D.C. church. Retired and still-serving military brass pushing back against the president’s threats to mobilize National Guard troops against their fellow citizens. The National Football League admitting it was wrong when it criticized players’ peaceful protests against police brutality. An apology from the freakin’ NFL?
Maybe there is hope after all.
That belief comes in part from seeing how protests sparked by the deaths of George Floyd and so many other unarmed black people have spread virally into so many unlikely places — rural, conservative, nearly all-white communities in Oregon, Colorado, Montana, North Dakota and other states.
That belief also comes from conversations I’ve had with my students. For their final assignment in one class, students had to record their media consumption during the last weekend in May and contrast it with what they had logged during the first weekend of the term.
Understandably, concerns about the coronavirus and lost jobs were most important then. Students’ media diets often leaned heavily toward escapism and entertainment — movies, TV, video games, Instagram and Snapchat — and strongly away from news content.
Their health and financial worries haven’t gone away, but now students outraged by the videorecorded deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd have been moved to action themselves. They’ve set aside their studies to join in protests on Portland streets and bridges, using social media to connect with others and contribute to funds in support of fellow protesters and racial justice.
“We’ve so far survived a once in a lifetime pandemic, and we have watched the biggest civil rights movement in history unfold before our eyes,” one student wrote.
“It is really inspiring to see these small towns coming together to show support for this movement. It makes me hopeful that we are on the right path to creating some real structural changes that will better serve everyone in our society.”
To be sure, not all students have become politicized. Many of them have retreated from the sensory overload of 24/7 coverage to whatever gives them comfort, be it a cooking show, reality TV, K-Pop music or yet another episode of “The Office.”
I’ve encouraged that as a healthy reaction to all the stresses in their life. Just as a mix of media is essential to understanding today’s complicated world, so too is finding a balance in order to maintain good mental health.
From where I sit, all signs point to a long, long overdue societal shift in understanding systemic racism and demanding changes in police practices. If I’m right, we’ll see a big change in November, too, the one we have so desperately needed to end this train wreck of a presidency.
I’m glad to have my students fully invested in drawing meaning from recent events and understanding them within a framework that they didn’t have before.
Until the coronavirus changed everything, I had two places very much on my mind: New York and Berlin.
If things had gone as planned, I would have caught a late-evening flight tonight and arrived Friday morning in the picturesque village where our youngest son and his family live in upstate New York. There I would have joined Lori for a weeklong visit during spring break.
If things had gone as planned, I would have been celebrating the official go-ahead for a summer course I was scheduled to teach in Berlin. There I would spend two weeks in the German capital with about 10 students, exploring the city and delving into issues where sports, culture and the media intersect. Lori would join me at the end of the program and, we hoped, we would use Berlin as a jumping-off point to visit Prague in the Czech Republic.
But now? We canceled our flights to New York. My employer, Portland State University, has put the Berlin course on hold, awaiting further developments. It’s unlikely that things will change quickly and for the better, but one can always cling to a sliver of hope.
In the meantime, here I sit on a glorious morning — the first day of spring — looking out the window at runners and cyclists, knowing I’ve got another full day of work ahead.
I’m nearing the end of finals week for the winter term, giving the second of two online finals and preparing to enter final grades for my students.
At the same time, I am gearing up — make that frantically gearing up — for the start of the spring term when I and my colleagues in the Department of Communication begin teaching all our classes remotely. I had looked forward to a week of down time between terms, but now I’m plunging ahead into uncharted territory knowing I’ll have to change my teaching methods substantially to reach nearly 100 students in two courses without the benefit of a traditional classroom.
That means becoming familiar with the video conferencing and messaging platforms Zoom and Google Hangouts, as well as Slack, software designed to enhance workplace communication and collaboration. I’ll also need to make better use of PSU’s online learning features. All of this before classes resume in just 11 days on March 30.
Rising early this morning, with the streets again eerily quiet and people cocooned in their homes, I had a moment to catch up with a beautifully written piece by John Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning sports reporter at The New York Times. He explores a question that may strike some as trivial — What do we now without a world of sports? — but which sheds light on the important place that sports holds in our society.
Sure, sports are fun to play or watch. They serve as an escape from the stresses of everyday life. But they also reflect our society in every possible way on issues of race, gender, politics, economics, mental health and more. These are the issues I looked forward to exploring in Germany in July.
If the program is canceled this year, maybe, just maybe, it can happen in 2021.
Final exams are done and official grades have been submitted in all three of my classes. I’m done with the fall quarter at Portland State University and looking to make the most of the winter break.
Under the teaching contract I signed for this academic year, that means one down, two to go. In other words, make it through the winter and spring terms and I’ll be done in June, ready to retire — although “retire” comes with an asterisk that I’ll explain below.
First things first.
Last Thursday felt like I had reached the peak of the proverbial roller coaster. That morning I gave my last final exam, and I’d already finished grading final essays the day before, so I took time to unwind.
Somehow, I squeezed in a massage, a meal out, a museum visit and an at-home movie — all in that same day.
It was a stroke of genius to schedule a massage right after the final exam. I came home rested and relaxed, then Lori and I went downtown to a Chinese restaurant for an early meal. From there, we headed to the Portland Art Museum to catch the final day of a special exhibit focusing on photography, advertising, and modern art and their role in perpetuating stereotypical images and ideas mostly pertaining to African Americans.
We viewed the exhibit at a leisurely pace and, upon arriving home, realized we had time for a movie, too. Popped in a DVD and enjoyed “On Chisel Beach,” a British film about a young couple whose seemingly idyllic romance runs into complications on their wedding night. Saorise Ronan, whom you may know from “Brooklyn” and “Lady Bird” stars as the young bride.
As for this fall, I did the usual: taught Media Literacy and supervised students in the Communication Department’s online internship course. I added a third course, Media Ethics, which meant I had a full-time teaching load for the first time at Portland State. Accepting the FT job here meant I had to give up teaching part-time at a second campus, Washington State University Vancouver.
It was a fine tradeoff. I moved into a larger office with a window, leaving behind a cramped, windowless space. I was able to hold regular office hours, made new connections with faculty outside my department, and even found time to attend a couple of lectures given by other professors.
By attending monthly meetings of Comm faculty, I learned more about campus politics and budget issues and the frustrations of working within the university’s bureaucracy.
In the classroom, it was all good. We had lively discussions about media ownership, real news vs. fake news, misinformation (honest mistakes) vs. disinformation (intentional deceit), ethical decision-making, credibility, transparency, social media influencers, native advertising, diversity in storytelling, and the intersection of entertainment, marketing and viral content, as seen in the “Baby Shark Live!” phenomenon.
Once again, I marveled at the diversity of PSU’s student body, with about one-third of my students coming from racial or ethnic minority backgrounds and a dozen foreign-born students in one class alone.
In addition, the LGBTQ community is well represented, as are as non-traditional students (mid-20s or older), first-generation students, transfer students, veterans, and native-born Oregonians from rural, urban and suburban communities. Most work part-time while going to school, some at more than one job.
As one example, my teaching assistant in Media Literacy grew up in Estacada and now lives in Molalla. He’s majoring in Applied Health and Fitnesss with a minor in Communication. In addition to a part-time job as a personal trainer, he coaches the girls’ wrestling team at his alma mater.
I’ve lined up TAs for the next two terms and that makes me happy.
My next challenge? Here’s where the asterisk gets explained.
I’m fully invested in recruiting enough students to join me in a new study-abroad adventure. My hope is to take along 10-12 students to Berlin, Germany, next summer for a class titled “Sports, Culture and the Media.” I’ve taught the course many times before at WSU Vancouver but never at PSU.
Why Berlin? Good question.
I would have been happy to return to London for a third year in a row to teach Media Literacy. But the Education Abroad staff I’ve worked with in the Office of International Affairs asked me one day, “George, have you thought about teaching another course in another city?”
I hadn’t. But once I realized all it would take is proposing a course, producing a syllabus and pitching it to my department chair, as I did with London, I was in.
At this writing, five students have started their applications. I’m excited but also a bit nervous about reaching the minimum number of 10. There’s still plenty of time to meet that goal, and I have faith that things will work out. Just hope it happens sooner than later.
I considered other European destinations but settled on Berlin because of its unique experience with regard to the 1936 and 1972 Olympics Games, its status as a soccer powerhouse, the doping scandals that characterized East Germany, and the country’s unique history during the 20th Century.
Earlier this month, Americans celebrated Veterans Day, an observance that originated as “Armistice Day” on Nov. 11, 1919, the first anniversary of the end of World War I.
One hundred years after the first Veterans Day, I found my thoughts skimming across the Atlantic Ocean to the southeastern coast of England and the humble little town of Dover.
During my second summer of teaching abroad, I had the opportunity to take a day trip from London. I considered my options and chose Dover for two reasons: One, the city is home to the world-famous White Cliffs of Dover and, two, I wanted to learn more about the community’s role in World War II.
I wasn’t disappointed on either count.
The White Cliffs are part of an 8-mile-long ridge of chalk hills along the English coastline facing the Strait of Dover and France. They don’t make the list of Seven Wonders of the World, but that doesn’t mean they are any less impressive.
From Dover, you can walk along a national trail that takes you up and above the seaport town, providing stunning views of the Strait as well as a path leading to Dover Castle, an 11th century fortress where the Brits first housed troops and equipment in a complex of barracks tunnels during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). During World War II, the tunnels were converted first into an air-raid shelter and then later into a military command center and underground hospital. Amazing.
You’re only 21 miles from the European continent when you’re in Dover. With the naked eye, I could barely make out the distant coastline.
I was captivated during the few hours I spent there, touring the city on foot and meeting a few people. I vowed to learn more and bought myself a book written by a couple of locals: “Dover in the Second World War.” (More on that later. Bear with me as I share more on one day in Dover.)
I left London’s Victoria Station early on a Sunday for a relaxing train rise that would take me about 67 miles east in roughly 90 minutes, allowing for several stops along the way. I brought along a book and a journal, looking up occasionally to catch glimpses of the pastoral countryside once we got beyond the city.
Arriving at mid-morning, I joined a gaggle of other passengers walking toward the center of Dover. The town had a working class feel, with mom-and-pop restaurants, tattoo shops, discount variety stores, and posters slapped onto walls and telephone poles advertising a pro wrestling event.
Near the town center, there was a church with an adjoining cemetery on the main street. It was St. Mary’s Church, one of several that would be mentioned in the book I bought. Nearby, the central plaza known as Market Square had a visitors center and museum, where I began to appreciate the historic significance and geographic vulnerability of Dover to invading armies over the centuries. During WWII, Market Square was bombed relentlessly.
From there, I headed to the seafront, where I observed new construction alongside older residential buildings, dipped my hands in the seawater at Harbour Beach, and met a young couple out for a walk on the esplanade with their charming niece.
I made my way to the White Cliffs, passing through a picturesque neighborhood and soon found myself among a passel of international visitors on the national trail.
The hike was an easy one along dirt trails and I welcomed the quiet after a week of being in London. Afterwards, I sought out a policewoman to ask for the best fish-and-chips place in town, only to discover it was closed. I settled for a tasty lunch of roast lamb that I consumed at an outdoor table as I watched townspeople and visitors alike pass by on Cannon Street.
I would have liked to stay longer but with time running short, I bought myself the aforementioned book and headed to the train station.
Back in Portland after the end of my study-abroad program, I, ahem, dove into the Dover book. I loved it.
At just 147 pages, co-authors Terry Sutton and Derek Leach do a masterful job of describing the hell-on-earth that Dover residents experienced during the Second World War. Though I’ve been exposed to stories of wartime loss in Britain and other countries, I have to say, somewhat sheepishly, that I didn’t fully grasp the magnitude of death and destruction until I read this account.
Drawing on the first-hand descriptions of survivors, as well as newspaper accounts and historical archives, Sutton and Leach vividly recreate the terror of those times. And the assault was staggering.
Beginning in July 1940 and continuing for the next four years, 2,226 shells landed on the town of Dover with many more in the harbour waters, in the Dover Strait and in the nearby countryside. In addition, around 464 high-explosive bombs, 1,100 fire bombs, three highly damaging parachute mines and three V1 flying bombs dropped within the town’s boundaries.
No wonder, the authors said, Dover became known throughout the world as “Hellfire Corner.”
Dover’s population fell from about 40,000 in early 1939 to an estimated 12,000 in 1940-41 before some of those who evacuated began to drift back to the town. Imagine a similar-sized community in Oregon — Lake Oswego, Keizer or Oregon City — sustaining that kind of damage and losing two-thirds of its population.
Owing to its location, Dover had felt the wrath of war before, going back to the days of Roman invaders and up to World War One, when German planes dropped bombs on the town and enemy destroyers in the English Channel shelled the city.
King George VI and Prime Minister Winston Churchill both visited Dover during WWII as regular troops and reservists arrived in the port city in the early days of the war. As the fighting grew more fierce, schoolchildren were evacuated to the west to South Wales, and town councilors feared the city and its remaining shopkeepers would go bankrupt.
In 1941, Dover played a huge role in the evacuation of 338,000 British and French troops from Dunkirk. The majority of them — 220,000 — were landed at Dover’s western docks, and local hospitals were swamped by hundreds of badly injured soldiers and sailors. So many died that mass graves had to be dug at the town-owned cemetery.
The book is filled with black-and-white photographs showing before and after shots of bombed-out buildings as well as soldiers, civilians and children. What’s especially haunting is reading the names of ordinary people who were perished in the attacks.
One of the worst incidents came in 1941 when a parachute mine floated down onto a row of working-class homes, causing 16 deaths.
The authors soberly reported: “Those who were killed were Mr. and Mrs. John Willis, their sons Horace and Brian, their 16-year-old daughter, Vera; and a married daughter, Hilda Mills (six out of the seven in the family); Mr. and Mrs. Fred Moore and their two-month-old son, Frederick, and Minyon Elise (aged four); Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Cock; Doris Smith (aged three), and Charlie Talbot, whose wife Minnie died in Maidstone Hospital three weeks later from her injuries. The damage was so bad that more than forty houses on Randolph Road and Union Road had to be demolished.”
Every other page, it seems, there is a similar listing of three people killed here, five people there, 10 soldiers perishing in combat.
Reading about the pummeling that Dover took during both World Wars, and especially the Second, made me appreciate the resilience of the city and its people. To walk those streets in the present day, knowing that 70-plus years earlier they had been bombed into oblivion, is to behold the legacy of unbelievably courageous people who’ve rebuilt their city by the sea.
Dover’s population today is about 30,000. It’s almost beyond my ability to imagine a time when nearly every day brought air-raid sirens, low-flying planes and devastating shells.
As best as I can tell, nearly 500 civilians died in Dover and nearby towns and another 2,500 were injured, according to a tally by the volunteer-run Dover War Memorial Project. Never again will I join in honoring America’s armed forces without thinking of this scrappy little city on the other side of the ocean.
Just before August ended, I dug out my guidebook of urban hikes and headed for a part of town I’d otherwise have no reason to visit.
This would be Dunthorpe, a wealthy enclave of homes in unincorporated Multnomah County, just south of the Portland city limits and a few miles north of Lake Oswego, the affluent suburb that lies in Clackamas County not far from Tryon Creek State Park and Lewis & Clark College.
On this particular weekday morning, I set out to see two public gardens about two miles apart on opposite sides of Oregon 43, the state highway running along the west side of the Willamette River. I wound up seeing one.
No big deal, though, because I saw plenty in my two-hour hike following the directions outlined in Laura O. Foster’s “Portland Hill Walks.” She does an amazing job of providing ground-level detail and historical context no matter which neighborhood walk she is describing.
This walk was titled “Dunthorpe Gardens.” And so here we go:
Starting at the intersection of SW Riverwood Road and Military Road, a stone’s throw from the river, I headed west, up a hill toward a leafy neighborhood full of big homes and lots of gated driveways. A plaque nearby informed me of what had been there long before: an 1870s-era structure called the White House that featured a casino, dining room, dance hall and racetrack. It was destroyed by fire in 1904 and the area was later developed with homes.
In recent years, the area has become popular with the Portland Trail Blazers, as players have bought homes here or further south and east in Lake Oswego and West Linn. I didn’t see anything that screamed “NBA player lives here” but I had just barely begun my walk when I spotted an open garage with a silver Jaguar. Talk about the Dunthorpe stereotype.
Moving forward, I heard the banter of a Spanish-speaking crew hired to maintain the grounds of one of these sprawling homes.
(Quick aside: Military Road is an old American Indian trail that once ran across the Tualatin Mountains. Farmers would bring their produce via this road to the ferry landing, whose owner so happened to be a business partner of the man who owned a mill directly across the river in Milwaukie. The pair would offer free passage to any farmer who ground his grain at the Milwaukie mill. Can you say “monopoly”?)
It wasn’t long before I turned onto a quiet side street, SW Military Lane. Beyond two giant sequoias at the end of the lane was my first destination: Bishop’s Close.
According to Foster, close is a Scottish word that refers to a road, usually with private homes, that vehicles can enter only from one end. A bishop’s close is a cloister area set apart from but still accessible to the public.
In this case, a wealthy couple who moved into this area in the early 1900s are the ones responsible for the lovely garden found beyond the end of the lane. Peter Kerr, a grain merchant from Scotland, and his wife Laurie built a home on an estate that also included a garden, tennis courts, swimming pool and golf course. The grounds were designed by the stepson of Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous designer of New York City’s Central Park.
After the couple died, their two daughters set up an endowment to provide for maintenance and gave the property to the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon with a stipulation that the grounds remain forever open to the public.
And that’s how I found myself visiting Elk Rock Garden with its impressive collection of trees, plants and flowers, and a footbridge.
The sun was still rising and the automatic sprinklers were going, keeping everything green and misty. I followed a small stone staircase that took me onto narrow gravel and dirt trails that passed through the rock garden. At the southernmost end of the trail I came to the Point.
The Point is where you can peer carefully over a low wall built on sheer cliffs and see down to the Willamette River. Here at the Point the view is somewhat narrow — a 180-degree panorama at best — but you can get a good view of Milwaukie on the east side of the river as you walk back to he main garden. Also plainly visible is Elk Rock Island, which the Kerrs owned and later gave to the city of Portland in 1940 on the condition it be preserved as a natural area.
With my garden tour completed, I headed back out to Military Road and resumed my hike. I crossed the busy highway and soon came to Riverdale Grade School (pre-K through eighth grade). The grade school and its sibling, Riverdale High School, are the only two schools in the exclusive Riverdale School District, which serves about 600 families in the neighborhood.
Leaving the grade school behind, I was grateful for the shade as I made my way up the twisting two-lane road without sidewalks. As with residences nearby the river, the homes in this area are characterized by luxury and privacy. At one point, I came upon a cluster of streets carved out of the former Henry Corbett estate, named for a U.S. senator who served during the 19th Century.
I turned off Military Road onto a side street and headed for my second destination: Berry Botanical Garden.
According to the guide book, the garden is known worldwide for its species plant collections and conservation efforts. The garden is named for Rae Selling Berry, a Northeast Portland resident. She and her husband bought nine acres of previously logged-off land here in 1938 after she had run out of gardening space at the family’s home in Irvington, the neighborhood where we live.
There was no sign for the garden and as I reached the end of the street, just past the last house, the road headed downhill, as if I were about to walk down someone’s private driveway. That’s when I spotted the “No Trespassing” sign.
Turns out the garden is closed.
After Rae Berry’s death in 1976, a nonprofit group bought and maintained the property but sold it in 2011 because of funding problems. The new owner? The Environmental Science and Management Program at Portland State University.
Foster’s book was published in 2005 and reprinted in 2006 and 2007. How was she to predict the Berry Botanical Garden’s fate?
I was only mildly disappointed to learn the garden had closed. After all, I had enjoyed the solitude at Bishop’s Close and got in two solid hours of walking up and down hills. I turned around, took a few more photos on SW Summerfield Lane, and headed back to my car, this time going downhill.
I was grateful to have Foster’s guidebook. Without it, I would have never known about these public gardens in Southwest Portland. More to the point, it’s been an indispensible resource as I’ve ventured out beyond my neighborhood and learned more about the history and topography of this city I’ve adopted as my own.
I may have missed Berry Botancial Garden, but I will gladly return to Bishop’s Close for another visit to Elk Rock Garden.
The road keeps climbing in front of me. There are almost no trees. Instead, the brown hillside is dotted with stocky blue-green sagebrush.
The low cloud cover that was shielding the sun’s rays for much of the morning is burning off, so the temperature is climbing. And I’m running low on water.
But I’m wondering: What would Kristin do?
She’d keep going, of course.
I should have started earlier in the day. In fact, that was my plan. I was going to begin my ride by 9 a.m. But as I often do, I procrastinated. I was staying with my brother-in-law, Galen Louis, at his condo in southeast Boise, and we were having a pleasant post-breakfast conversation about community theater, one of his passions in retirement.
Before long, it was 10:20 a.m. Aargh. Time to put on my cycling gear and go. It’s supposed to climb well north of 90 again today, which is pretty normal for Boise in August.
Galen has been battling some health issues and my sister, Peggy, was going to be out of town for a few days. He said he would be fine, but she was a bit concerned, so I said I could come over to Boise for a few days and keep him company.
And I had an ulterior motive. Boise has some mighty fine cycling. So I threw some clothes and my road bike into the back of my old Volvo wagon and headed east.
One ride that I wanted to try while there was the road that heads from town up to the Bogus Basin ski area. It’s a steady climb, rising about 3,400 feet over 15 miles. The road takes you from the foothills of Boise – elevation 2,700 feet — to the base of the ski area, which is about 5,700 feet.
I had done this route once before, but that was 43 years ago when Marlie (my wife-to-be) and I were living in Boise. I was 25. Now I’m 68. But I’m a pretty avid cyclist and I do a fair amount of climbing in Portland’s West Hills, so I figured I could handle it.
I wasn’t sure I would do the full 15 miles. Instead, I wanted to see how far I could get from the time I left the condo and headed up the road, which is in north Boise.
So I aimed my bike north, turned west when I reached the gorgeous Boise River Greenbelt, pedaled through the Boise State University campus, and then took North 13th. I knew it would take me to the base of the climb.
All the while, my mind was alternating between the traffic and thoughts of Kristin Armstrong. For those who don’t follow competitive cycling, Armstrong is a bit of a legend — and a Boise resident.
A former swimmer, distance runner and triathlete, she focused on cycling in the late 1990s and developed her true talent. She won gold medals in the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics in the time trial discipline. She also won world championships in that event in 2006 and 2009.
Along the way, she also helped promote cycling and bicycle racing in the Boise area. Boise responded. The city these days has a burgeoning network of cycling pathways, cycling events and bike boulevards. It also has some of the best single-track riding in the West.
In thanks, Boise renamed a city park after Armstrong and — more to the point — has designated Bogus Basin Road as the Kristin Armstrong Bikeway.
Which is where I am right now.
Awhile back, I passed the 3,000 foot marker and I’ve lost count of number of switchbacks as I climb — slowly but steadily — up the grade.
I look down at my Garmin — the small bike computer fixed to my handle bars — and note that I’m averaging about 6 to 9 miles an hour. Not speedy, but not bad given the heat and the steady 4 to 8 percent incline.
So far, I’ve seen more bikes than cars on the road, which is nice. It’s a Tuesday and most of Boise is at work, so that makes sense.
I’ve heard stories that this was one of Armstrong’s main training regimens as she prepared for the Olympics. I can see why. I’ve climbed steeper grades in Portland’s West Hills, but none of them go on and on — and on — like this one does.
I pass the 3-mile marker, the 5-mile marker and then the 7-mile marker. Another sign says 4,000 feet. The heat is starting to build. The grade isn’t doing me any favors.
I’ve finished off one of my two water bottles and take a sip from the second. I also pour just a bit through the slots on the back of my helmet. The cool water runs down my neck and onto my back. The relief is short-lived, but much appreciated.
I don’t know where Armstrong lives but I find myself wondering if there’s any chance I might see her as I climb. I know she’s retired, but I hear she still rides. In fact, I saw her on a YouTube broadcast a day or two ago when she was helping promote a cycling event in Boise. She looked ready to race.
She’s actually become a sort of hero to me, partly because she’s a champion cyclist, partly because what she’s done for cycling in Boise – and the world.
And there’s the fact that I actually met her once – sort of.
It was in the summer of 2002 and Marlie and I were in Boise for our niece’s wedding. The ceremony was actually held at one of the lodges at the top of Bogus Basin Road. Our niece, Brooke, was also a former collegiate distance runner and had converted — like Armstrong — to cycling. She also had found that she could excel on two wheels and had been invited to join the women’s T-Mobile professional team with Armstrong.
They became friends and Armstrong and some of her other teammates were among the bridesmaids at Brooke’s wedding. I can’t say I have strong memories of her or the others, but I do recall being introduced to several very tan and fit-looking young women wearing bridesmaid dresses.
There’s the 8-mile marker. I’m about halfway through the second water bottle. The clouds are gone and the sun is truly getting hot.
I’m also thinking about the fact that I told Galen I would be home by 1:30 p.m. I do some mental calculations. I know I will descend about three times faster than I am ascending. I roll the numbers around in my head. I pass the 9-mile marker, and take another drink.
I’m actually still feeling pretty good. Up ahead, I can see that I’m not too far from entering the pine forest that starts up at about 5,000 feet. Shade! I also know that just after that, the road flattens out considerably and most of the climbing will be behind me.
A little less than 1,000 feet and I’m on top. But there’s not enough time. Not enough water. And honestly, maybe not enough energy.
Time to turn around.
I pull over, snap a couple of photos with my iPhone and begin the downhill spin. I can hear the gentle, rapid clicking from the rear hub of my bike.
I’m coasting at about 25 to 30 miles per hour. The rushing air feels cool. Boise is in the distance below, but crawling steadily closer.
I’m mildly disappointed that I didn’t keep going, but I did climb about 2,600 feet, so it was definitely a good workout. Also, the Bikeway is well kept and the pavement was smooth. And very few cars. As a cyclist, you can’t ask for much more.
And as it turns out, I just missed Kristin.
I’m a member of Strava, which is a social network for cyclists and runners. One of its features is called “fly by.” After a ride or run, it allows you to see other Strava members who you passed or who may have passed you or ridden near you.
I mouse over to “fly by” and there, two names below mine, is “Kristin.”
What? I click on the name to get more info. Sure enough, the rider’s full name is Kristin Armstrong of Boise, Idaho. I click on her route from that morning and realize she and I just missed each other. She was riding some nearby roads as I was climbing the Bikeway. In fact, for a brief time, we were probably within a few hundred yards of each other.
For a second, I wondered what I would have said had I seen her.
But I knew. I would have smiled and waved and felt a momentary surge of excitement — and just said thank you.
John Killen is a retired journalist. He worked for The Oregonian for 27 years and for two other newspapers before that. He now spends his time riding his bike and helping his wife Marlie take care of their two granddaughters.
Editor’s note: John and I started at almost the same time at The Oregonian. Though I’ve never biked with him, we’ve found common interests in teaching, basketball, bowling, hiking, journalism, parenting and now grand-parenting.
Tomorrow:Patricia Conover | Thoughts on returning to Oregon
My name is Eric, and I have a confession. I am an addict. I love food. I know what you’re thinking. The guy must be a glutton. No, it’s not quantity I’m talking about — it’s variety and quality.
Notwithstanding my protestation about quantity, you may think that I’m about 5’ tall and 300 lbs. Well, you’d be half right — or close to it; I’m 5’ 5”, but am pretty scrawny, thanks to the other thing I love, which is riding a bike. I’m not talking about gentle turns down the bike path. My addiction is worse than that. I’m talking about rides on terrain, and to places, that only fellow two-wheeled addicts think are normal.
OK, so I’ve made two confessions. I’m happily an addict, and this is the story of how Portland enables my addictions, and fails me in one small way.
I come by my food addiction naturally, as I am a New York City refugee with no regrets about living in the Diaspora. I grew up in New York, left home to go to college, and never returned. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, if they make it anywhere, you can get it there, in NYC — at least when it comes to food.
Unlike the stereotype, I don’t miss New York, and have no desire to return – ever. Life is hard there in many ways. Notwithstanding the difficulty of life in New York, the food is great. I’m not talking about Michelin Star restaurants. I have in mind mom-and-pop restaurants, kosher delis, pizzerias, Chinese-food joints, bagel bakeries and open-all-night diners.
Until I went to college in a small town at 17, I thought you could find something good to eat anywhere, at any time. When I was a kid, I loved to pick up the Sunday New York Daily News at midnight on Saturday, and swing by the Chinese take-out for some fried rice and soup. I’d head home, spread out the sports page and devour my feast. So, that’s the genesis of one of my addictions.
The road to my other addiction is more circuitous. I woke up in grad school one day, and I was fat. I had never been fat in my life. I always played sports and was naturally thin — until I wasn’t. I realized I put on weight because all I had done for two years was live in a library. No sports. No physical activity. Very little fresh air. So I did what many neurotic people do, I overreacted. I started running. Not Forrest Gump running, but some significant mileage: 60-70 miles per week at times. I did this for decades, until I couldn’t. That’s how I became a cyclist. When you’re a runner, your body breaks. When you’re a cyclist, the machine breaks.
By the time I got to Portland a few years ago, both my addictions were in full bloom, or so I thought. Portland has an abundance of two things I didn’t find anywhere else I’ve lived: hills, and their larger siblings, mountains. My cycling addiction hit overdrive the day another cyclist asked me if I liked to ride up hills. Not having much experience with vertical reality, I lied, and claimed l loved riding up hills.
Turns out, I wasn’t wrong. I have seen beauty from the saddle of a bicycle that rivals travel posters. Paved roads, dirt roads, forest roads and gravel ruts — they all run up the sides of mountains in the Portland area. They yield wild flowers in the spring, reach-out-and-touch-it views of Mt. Hood in the summer and a real appreciation of fireside warmth after a winter’s ride in the drizzle.
As for food, Portland has the gift that keeps on giving: food trucks. And they are great, mostly. Egyptian, Thai, Serbian, Lebanese, Ethiopian, Somali, vegan, paleo – almost everything you can think of; we’ll talk about the “almost” part of things in a second. And breakfast is a sport here. In our house, Wednesday is Breakfast Day, where the only rule is we have to eat somewhere new.
And now for the “almost” part of things. Portland sates every part of my addiction, except one of the loves of my life: New York City kosher deli. I cannot understand how a city that indulges my food addiction so well, continues to fail me this critical way. Do not tell me that Kenny and Zuke’s fills the bill. Do not ever tell a NYC refugee that K & Z is a kosher deli. The only way that place evokes a New York vibe is as a punch line to an old Yiddish joke: “The food is so bad here, and the portions are so small.”
My name is Eric. I am an addict. I like to ride my bike uphill to food carts. Hit me up if you know where I can score a good kosher pastrami sandwich.
Eric Scharf has lived in Portland since December 2015. They used to say that Portland was where young people came to retire. Eric isn’t young, but he is retired and is enjoying pretending he’s young, as he pedals around Portland visiting food carts and breakfast joints. Born and reared in New York City, Eric bounced back forth between the coasts before he was lucky enough to land in Portland for his second childhood.
Editor’s note: I’m happy to welcome Eric to the VOA community after meeting him earlier this year. His wife is a client of Lori’s and we’ve discovered mutual interests in food, exercise, IPAs and food. (Oh wait, did I mention food already?)
Tomorrow: Lakshmi Jagannathan | One step at a time
Sky diving is a very safe sport, but when things go wrong, they can go spectacularly wrong.
The young lady nearest the door, probably in her mid-20s, is getting ready to do a “pop and drop.” As the roll-up door on the side of the plane is opened, cool air flows in and the noise level goes up. According to the altimeter on my left wrist we are nearing her jump elevation of 6,500 feet. She is small and with the main and reserve chutes, she looks even smaller.
She has at least 10 successful solo jumps in her log book, so she knows what she is doing. She checks her harness and altimeter then tightens her chin strap, gives a thumbs up to the jumpmaster, and receives a thumbs up in return. She moves to the doorway, positions her feet and body to face forward into the wind. She leans out, pulls back in, then steps out. She’s gone…
The jumpmaster leans out, watches for a few seconds. The door is rolled down and we continue our climb up to my jump elevation: 13,000 feet.
Alone in my thoughts in a crowded plane, in a male macho way I think, if she can do it I can. The jumpmaster leans over, tugs on my harness, smiles and gives a thumbs up, I try to smile back, but can only manage a nod. He points to my helmet and signals to put my goggles on.
This is my second solo jump. I so badly screwed up my first that I have to do it over again. I did everything wrong. Most importantly, due to bad body position, I couldn’t find my main deployment handle (commonly known as the rip cord) and the jumpmaster had to move in and pull it for me. No matter how well you do everything else, if you can’t pull the main deployment handle, you pretty much fail the jump. So, I’m jumping again, I have to prove to myself that I can do this.
There are actually three of us on the jump: the jumpmaster, assistant jumpmaster and me. These two men will be right next to me, watching my every move, adjusting my body position as needed, and in case I have problems like my first jump, they will move in and take over.
As the plane turns into the jump run at just over 13,000 feet, the door is rolled up. The sky is clear blue and cold. Off in the distance and slightly below us is Mount Hood. Ground is two and a half miles down. This is it. A check of my goggles, harness and altimeter, a quick touch of the pull handle, it’s where it’s supposed to be. A nervous thumbs up and a smiling thumbs up in return and we are ready.
The plane isn’t big enough to stand up, so we move in a crouched position. The assistant moves to the doorway and leans out, then he climbs out the door and hangs on the outside of the plane and waits for me. I’m next. I have to move to doorway position myself in the opening with each foot aligned with the edge of the sill. One hand on a grab bar overhead, one on a grab bar on the jamb and I’m ready.
This position only lasts for a few seconds, but seems forever. I’ve got 100 mile per hour wind in my face, the noise drowning out all other sounds. Making eye contact with the assistant, I yell “check-out.” A nod in return, looking back then forward l lean out and shout “out.” Pull back in, shout “in” then yelling “oooout” I step out and let go.
The next few seconds are absolutely amazing, incredible adrenaline rush, complete freedom, no control and everything is a blur.
Then back to the task at hand, getting safely to the ground. First, body position: on my stomach, head up, legs spread, toes pointed, knees slightly bent, arms spread out, elbows bent so hands are just above your head, back arched. All good. Then check the horizon. It’s there where it’s supposed to be. Which means I have good body position. I make eye contact with the jumpmasters, one on each side, look for any signals from them. Lastly, check the altimeter on my wrist: 11,000 feet. I’ve already dropped 2,000 feet and I haven’t done anything. We are falling at a rate of a thousand feet every 6 seconds, almost terminal velocity.
Thumbs up from the jumpmaster. This is the signal to do three practice touches of my pull handle, a cloth ball about the size of a golf ball positioned in the small of my back, just above the right hip. I reach back, find it, grab it, pretend to pull it. All good, do it again and again. Thumbs up, all good.
Now I get to look around. Horizon, yup. Jumpmaster, yup. Altimeter: 9,000 feet! Time really does fly. It is beautiful, the sky is clear, horizon all around, earth below, complete and total exhilaration.
Check the altimeter: 8,000 feet. Thumbs up from the jumpmaster, I return a double exaggerated thumbs up. Look around, check my body position. Check the altimeter: 7,000 feet. Focus on the altimeter.
At 6,500 feet the process to pull the handle starts. First, wave off the jumpmasters. They move further away to avoid becoming entangled. Wait a few seconds then reach back, grab the ball, pull hard and fling the ball away.
As the pilot chute deploys, in turn pulling out the main chute, there is a gentle jerk as I am pulled into a vertical position. After a few anxious seconds, the slider drops down and the chute is fully deployed, bright yellow and beautiful. Everything is now completely quiet. Drifting along on a silent wind at about 5,000 feet. I reach up and grab the loop pulls.
Over the one way radio I hear “yellow chute turn right.” I pull down on the right loop and turn right. “Yellow chute turn left.” I pull on the left loop and turn left. I am flying the chute. Pull both loops and I suddenly get a brief period of lift. Let go and I start back down. Flying the chute is fun. I take a few turns and spins. Next, I need to find the drop zone, right next to the runway, all good. I get to play for a minute.
At about 1,000 feet “yellow chute turn right.” I turn and line up parallel with the runway on the downwind run. Holding this direction for the length of the runway and dropping to about 300 feet. “Yellow chute turn right.” I turn. “Yellow chute turn right.” I turn again. Now on the final leg, at about 200 feet.
Pulling down slightly I slow and control my descent. 200’, 100’, 50’, 30’ 20’ “flare”. With a slight jolt, like stepping off a low wall, a roll and I’m on the ground.
I did it. According to the jumpmaster all went very well, except I didn’t have to roll on the landing. For that minor error I only got a score of 3 out of 4. I am relieved, I did it. I proved to myself that I could do it. And as my jumpmaster said, “any jump you walk away from is a good jump.”
But, I still had two jumpmasters as my safety net. The young lady that did the “pop and drop” was on her own. She had less than 9 seconds to get through the full jump sequence, less the practice pulls, before things start to go wrong. That is what the jumpmaster was watching before he closed the door. Apparently she did everything right. I have a lot of respect for her, I’m not sure I could do that.
My jump was a good jump, but probably my last.
Eric Wilcox is an architect living in Northeast Portland with his recently retired wife, Sue, and Murdoch (“Not-a-bear”), their Newfoundland.
Editor’s note: Eric is a longtime friend and neighbor whom I’ve known for 30 years-plus, ever since our wives met through a play group that included each of our youngest-born children. As the years pass, I find more to admire in my friend’s artistic side (a designer and maker of stained glass) and his adventurous side (Spartan Race finisher and now skydiving).