Philosophy Of Travel U.S. West Coast 2012

Portland — Why I’ll Remember The People Over The Place

I would love to say that this will be an account of the wonders of the city of Portland. Because here is another city of the north-western States that manages to effortlessly exude its own particular flavour from the moment one begins to wander the downtown gridwork of avenues and cross-streets.


For years I have been wanting to put some first-hand experience to the second-hand whisperings I’ve heard surrounding Portland. The first came from a young American, Simon, a fellow bicycle traveller who I met in Istanbul while passing through on my way east towards an exciting and uncertain future. When not on the road he spent much of his time between Portland and Vancouver as a sometime squat dweller, connoisseur of vintage Italian track bike frames, cycling advocate, and political activist.

That exciting and uncertain future led, five years later and entirely incidentally, to the very town he’d talked of, and Nick, Ben and I rolled into the outskirts late one night after a gruelling 72-mile afternoon. Erin, who had hitched into town that morning with a sore knee, greeted us in a layby with pizza, and I can tell you now that never before did a takeaway taste so flamin’ good.

A couple of hours later, Nick and Erin had gone to their hosts’ house, and Ben and I were warmer, cleaner and better fed than we’d been since the journey began. Thus began the ‘couple of days’ off that led to a stay of many more. And I will remember Portland not for her bike lanes and boutiques and bubble tea (do watch this for a fantastic, hilarious intro to Portland), but for the people amongst whom I’ve spent this precious time.

Firstly there are our hosts, Tomik and Carlo Thomasian and their son Tony (and two dogs and parakeet). Tomik is my father-in-law’s cousin, who I last saw at my wedding in Armenia two-and-a-half years ago. Ben had been there too. “We’re going to cycle down the west coast of America some day”, we’d half-joked with him. “Well, you’ve gotta visit us in Portland!” he’d returned.

Well — here we are! Ben and I are now a part of the household, and having to leave this, our adoptive second home in Oregon, will be utterly awful. Being typically Middle Eastern, my relations’ hospitality has surpassed all reasonable expectations by several orders of magnitude, and being family, their welcome has been the warmest that one could hope for outside one’s own home.

Leaving family behind in Portland

My gratitude is surpassed only by my regret that Tenny couldn’t be here too. Very few people in this world have the freedom to travel so freely as a British citizen, and — thanks to successive government tightenings of immigration laws — it’ll be some years yet before my wife is eligible even for permanent residency in the UK, let alone citizenship or a useful passport to travel on.

Secondly are the people I’ve had the fortune to bump into during this short week of city life. Americans in general, while visibly more suspicious towards strangers than I believe used to be the case, still prove eager to open up once introduced, and in Portland, a city that manages to be both provincial and liberal, relatively non-commercial yet clearly thriving regardless, there has been no shortage of characters to bump into.

A chance meeting outside a donut shop


Street music #2

Hipster #1

Hipster #2

(Last two photos intentionally left ironic)

I know that leaving here will bring with it one of the perennial dilemmas of travel. Yes, you’re continuously arriving at new places, having fresh experiences, meeting new friends and being exposed to new perspectives. All of this is broadening, mellowing and enriching to life. Travel needs no further excuse or justification.

On the flip side, you’re constantly leaving those same new places, and you’ll unavoidably have grown into some of them more than others. The fresh experiences, coming thick and fast, will fade from the memory, diaries and photos a poor attempt at capturing so many fleeting moments. New friends will go their own ways, and it’s simple maths to show that the vast majority of people you meet will never cross your path again, whether or not you’ve added them on Facebook — and besides, how meaningful would such meetings be? And new perspectives do indeed open the mind, but sometimes so much that your brain falls out.

I have enjoyed my time amongst Portland people so, so much. But, with leaving growing imminent, there seems to be an element of tragedy to the traveller’s lifestyle which is difficult to avoid.

Or maybe it’s just me…

What do you think?

My U.S. Pacific Coast ride is kindly supported by Kona Bikes, Cascade Designs and Schwalbe. Read more about the gear they’ve supplied.

2 replies on “Portland — Why I’ll Remember The People Over The Place”

There is a certain bittersweet quality about the traveler’s lifestyle, but I think it’s only natural — you meet so many wonderful people in this vast world we share, but there is realistically no way to set down permanent connections to all of them.

Tom, I’ve been reading your blog for nearly three years now, since before you met Tenny, and I’m proud to say I’ve enjoyed being along for the ride. You are part of the reason I am taking my own expedition in a very short time. I’ve always found your writing to be engaging and thoughtful without delving into complicated intellectual jargon, and this post is much the same. Great job so far, and I hope you enjoy America!

Happy travels, my friend.

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