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The Wild Edge: Exploring Portland’s Forest Park

When urban trails blend with raw wilderness, the sum is much greater than the parts.

The park can save you. Once, on a spring evening 20 years ago, I met this girl for a hike up to Pittock Mansion, a baronial estate built in 1909 by a newspaper publisher. Now part of the park, it offers up lovely rose gardens and a spectacular east-facing view of the city and even the glaciers on nearby Mt. Hood. I brought a bottle of wine and a picnic blanket; she brought grapes and a chocolate bar. We hiked up through the woods in the gathering darkness. The light was gray and thin, the hill steep with switchbacks, and as I climbed my brow filmed with sweat. I felt transported, like things were about to change in my life. I’d just finished college, and the whole new struggle of being an adult–of being a young writer and getting rejection notes–had me feeling unrooted and uncertain. But now–this girl. I’d just met her, but from the three sparkling dates that we’d shared–well, I could just tell.

We reached the lawns of the mansion. The sun was setting; our only neighbors were other couples canoodling behind various rose bushes. I set down our blanket, then corkscrewed the wine. And then the girl let slip that, actually, she’d met this other guy.
I was cordial all the way down, but for me the world went black when she said that. I went home and slammed a forty of Hamm’s and slept in my clothes. The next day, amid torrential rains, I returned to Forest Park, this time walking along the principal waterway, Balch Creek. I walked uphill, so the storm-swollen creek raged through its pebble-strewn course as the overstory of fir trees gleamed green in the midday semidarkness. It felt like the surging water was filling my veins–scouring me and making me new. I thought of this line from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem God’s Grandeur: “And for all this, nature is never spent.”

Ever since, while visiting the park, I’ve felt a silent kinship with other hikers I see coming along the path toward me. I note the lone walkers, preoccupied, their minds seemingly in a distant, meditative place even as they negotiate the trail. And I think: Does the green, mossy splendor of the park seep into them slowly in the calm of the woods? Or does it come at them the way it hit me that one time–hard, offering instant revival? I don’t know, but I regard them as pilgrims.

The park keeps secrets. A few years ago, I read that somewhere deep in the park a few kids had pulled together planks and fallen tree limbs to build an obstacle course–Neverland, they called it–where they jumped from log to log, laughing. I looked for the place and asked people about Neverland. I never found it. Had it been dismantled? Did it ever exist?

One morning last fall I found another strange dreamscape in Forest Park when, with a friend, I drove west alongside the railroad tracks and parked. On a wooded shelf just above Fat Cobra Adult Video, somebody–probably a contingent of teens–had built an illicit BMX bike park. There were perhaps 20 elliptical berms, each one about five feet wide and five feet across, in a spread the size of a tennis court.

The place was deserted, though, and the berms were lightly covered with vines, abandoned. My friend dismissed the whole project as a destructive mess. (“Look,” he said, “at how they hacked up these tree roots.”) But I knew that we were standing in some fanatical kid’s notion of heaven on earth. All the construction had been done with shovels and picks. It must have taken hundreds of man-hours. And yet I could find only one tire track in the mud of the berms.

What happened? Where were these BMX kids now? It struck me that every square mile of Forest Park had probably played host to some secret and half-baked adventure. The Portland Humpin’ Hash House Harriers run on the park’s trails (and off-piste) almost every Tuesday, and whenever a Tuesday happens to fall on the twenty-second of the month (two-two) the harriers all wear tutus. Is there video footage of these shenanigans? There is not.

Perhaps this is a good thing, for in a city as big as Portland, it’s nice to live undetected–in the woods and out of sight–even for a few hours.

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