The park glimmers in my mind sometimes. On hot summer days, when the sidewalk downtown is baking and the air feels dead and still, I think of the leaves on the maple trees up there in Forest Park–in the hills just west of the center of Portland, Oregon. They’re almost iridescent green, and veiny, and bending in the breeze amid the evergreens. The trees are a little higher up, elevationwise, than the city’s streets–kind of like heaven–and you know that, if you get up there and start walking around under those leaves, you’ll feel the soft springiness of the ground. You’ll feel the pine needles underfoot on the hiking trails, and it will feel like the world is suddenly breathing again.
Forest Park is the nation’s largest urban woodland. It covers more than 5,000 acres, stretching on for eight miles along the cragged and steep northeast-facing slope of the Tualatin Hills. And while it’s technically a city park, it’s no manicured green space. It has the aura of wilderness. There are no grassy ball fields here, no swing sets. Rather, there are 70 miles of hiking paths and one route, the Wildwood Trail, which winds along for 30 miles. There are mountain bike and bridle paths. Wild elk have been sighted in Forest Park. Sword ferns often grow profusely under the trees, and in some places you can entirely escape the sound of automobiles.
Myself, I’ve visited Forest Park, usually to hike, once or twice a week since I moved to Portland after college twenty-odd years ago. I’m familiar with certain small rocks on the Wildwood Trail, and I know which knobby tendrils of tree roots have been worn shiny by footsteps. I’ve been in the park in a blizzard and when the trees were veiled in a thin fog that glided along, ghostlike, through the canopy. At times, the place can offer up the sort of aaaah! moments that we all dream of, sequestered at our desks, slaving away so as to finance the next backpacking trip to Yosemite or the Tetons, or wherever.
Therein lies the true charm–and the hard reality–of Forest Park: It’s not a faraway wilderness. It’s a second-growth forest set within a metropolis of 2 million people who engage in an intricate, daily dance with the wilds. Office workers stroll at lunchtime here, and kids go searching for crawdads after school. Hikers and riders and birders and runners connect with the woods, each in his own way. Maybe Forest Park is the sort of place we all need, just like we need the glamour hikes caught in our screensavers.
I wondered: What if city councils across America decided that wildlands and hiking trails were just as important as parking garages and correctional facilities? What would it look like? Last year, I decided that I would explore the whole park. I wanted to venture off the well-trodden paths close to downtown and just wander–into, say, a little stretch west of town where there are no paths, only a fire lane through tawny grass awash in the sound of nearby trains.
I wanted to discover the park in all its dimensions.