A few paragraphs by David James Duncan explain why I enjoy bicycling in the southwestern section of Portland, Oregon, the area anchored by a place called Multnomah Village.
In an essay entitled “The Non Sense of Place,” Duncan tells his readers that after living the first four decades of his life in Oregon, witnessing “the ruin of so many beloved native places,” he tried in 1993 to “move from the Oregon of the nineties back to the Oregon of the sixties—by moving from Multnomah County, Oregon, to Missoula County, Montana.”
He acknowledges, however, that he will never know his niche in Montana as fully as his children may come to know it, because “as a child you eat, drink, and breathe a place in so deeply it becomes part of you for life. This is precisely what excludes me: as a child I ate, drank, breathed, and became part of someplace else” (50).
My earliest years were spent in the Palouse country of southeastern Washington, but when I was in the second grade we moved into the rainy, rural world west of the Cascades. After two false starts, we landed in a transitional zone on the other side of the west hills from downtown Portland.
I was just getting started in the fifth grade.
Alpenrose Dairy pastured cows, raised hay, milked and bottled across the road, and other small farms around us also produced milk that they sold to Alpenrose or to its competitors, Silverhill and Fulton Park Dairies.
While we lived in the country, the city was close by, and Multnomah, established as a station stop for the defunct Oregon Electric Railroad, was its outpost. Part of the Portland system, Multnomah Grade School was dramatically different from the one-room school I had attended down in the Willamette Valley. From there, I went to Lincoln High which provided a liberal arts education far superior to the one I later received in college.
Because our family didn’t own an automobile, we walked places: a mile up Vermont Street to catch the city bus to downtown Portland, a mile and a half to Multnomah to buy groceries and drug store items, attend church, and patronize a branch of the city’s library system. By the time we were eleven or twelve, my brother and I had bikes—my freedom machine is the way my brother describes his—and the larger world was ours.
I moved away from that world when I was eighteen—to college in Eugene, Oregon, seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana, five years in northern California, and thirty-three years back in Indianapolis.
“True home places,” Duncan writes, “are like true loves. I imagine a lucky individual could experience thee or four such places. But the usual karmic dose, per lifetime, seems to be one, maybe two.”
In the two generations of time since I moved away, the urban outpost I knew has gentrified a little, hence the adding of “Village” to its name. The feed and grain store became a lawn and garden tractor store and now is the Starbucks where my brothers and I meet for coffee once in a while. Multnomah School across Capitol Highway is now a community center. The old storefronts have been updated with new businesses. The library’s gone, but Annie Bloom’s Books is a splendid replacement.
On Friday morning (February 28), after breakfast on S E Broadway with the old guys from my church, I renewed my heart while adding some hard conditioning miles on my Waterford winter bike. Across the Willamette on the Broadway Bridge, a stop at Powell’s Books, and then I headed south: the gentle hills of Terwilliger Boulevard, up Slaven Road and Capitol Highway through Hillsdale to the Cider Mill, and then west on Vermont Street.
A long coast past some farmland turned into a park brought me within a city block of the spot where my childhood home once stood, and then I continued on to Oleson Road. In Garden Home, I spotted the old school turned community center where my mother taught third grade for a generation, and then worked hard cycling up the grades on Garden Home Road until I reached the viaduct that goes into the old main street of Multnomah.
My lunch was a bowl of turkey chili at Grand Central Bakery. Although this little place on Multnomah Boulevard (which once was the Electric Railroad right of way) is part of the village’s more recent life, it suits me exactly.
As I write this, I realize that I feel much the same about the Illinois Street Emporium, a short walk from my long-time home in Indianapolis. Maybe I do have two “karmic doses.” But for now, my bicycle takes me over my “niche” in the world, and my heart sings.