Portland Urban Hike Day 8
Miles: 12.5 miles
Starting: Grant Park
Ending: Nob Hill
Neighborhoods Visited: Grant Park, Irvington, Steel Bridge, Old Town, Chinatown, Downtown, PSU, Goose Hollow, Southwest Hills, Burnside Bridge, Morrison Bridge, Nob Hill
So…for the 1st time in 7 urban hikes, I’ve been accosted. Virgo, who is thru-hiking with me and filming the Portland hike (and hiked the Seattle urban hike with me and made this great video), and I were headed from NE Portland over to the Steel Bridge. Now, this is a very public area and it was a sunny day. We were walking in broad daylight and there were tourists and families about. It happened in a place where I felt very safe. We were pumped about the day and about crossing over to the west side.
We were headed down some stairs towards the pedestrian bridge entrance and Virgo, like usual, had found a beautiful angle for me to walk through and was setting it up to get the lighting right. A guy came walking up the stairs saying, “Don’t f-ing take a photo of me.” Virgo told him, “Sir, I am not running the camera right now and wasn’t taking a video of you. I am just metering the camera.” The guy then did a high kick towards the camera and stepped on Virgo’s foot and got into his face as if he was going to fight him. Virgo remained calm (though I could tell he was holding back) and reassured the man that he had not been filming him. The man then lunged at Virgo’s face and grabbed his Ray Bans off his head and threw them to the ground, shattering them. Meanwhile, I watched on, shocked and too scared to be of much help. I was really impressed by how cool and respectful Virgo was. The man proceeded to make overtly sexual comments towards me while insulting Virgo’s masculinity (he must have assumed we were a couple). It was really awful, but we played cool, respectful, and waited until he left to continue filming.
We were both in shock. I really want pedestrians and urban hikers to reclaim their city, but I guess this was bound to happen sometime. I just didn’t think it’d be in Portland.
Not 10 minutes later, we were on the west side of the Steel Bridge and needed to go up some stairs. There were three homeless people sitting on the stairs with their shopping cart-ful of belongings blocking the entrance. Virgo knows that I’m a purist about getting all the stairs on an urban hike—a “rule” I’ve imposed on myself even though no one is watching (and no one cares, either). Even so, I told Virgo, “let’s just skip this stairway.” I was too shaken from the earlier incident to have another confrontation.
I’m so lucky to be doing this hike with another person, and one as street savvy as Virgo. He kindly and respectfully asked them if it was ok with them if they would move. They were actually very, very kind. Yet, when we walked between them, it was clear they were using drugs at the time. One guy was bloody behind his ear and on his hands and arms. It looked like he had just gotten beaten up. It was really heartbreaking to see, and yet I was still scared. People who don’t have the ability to get proper sleep due to laws or fear of being attacked are going through sleep deprivation. Having done a sleep study, I get that. You can be angry, irritable, unpredictable. Virgo told me afterwards that he was concerned they may try to stab him with a needle for his camera. It seemed like there were so many people, desperate and needy and addicted to drugs, who eyed his camera.
The stairs along the Morrison Bridge proved to be frustrating and dangerous. My Portland Stairway book calls these stairs infuriating—requiring pedestrians to go up and down sets of stairs so that cars don’t have to stop. These suspended stairways were filled with trash and needles. There were so many needles and tops of needles everywhere today.
Despite our dampened mood, nonetheless, we made the best of our time today. We visited Hair of the Dog Brewery. We walked through PSU’s campus and the North Block Park.
A highlight was visiting the Portland Montbell store on 10th and Yamhill and seeing Tommy and Panorama. I got some more warm and lightweight clothing before heading out back into the rain.
We visited the famous foodcart island and grabbed grilled cheese sandwiches before doing a mandatory ice cream stop at Ruby Jewell and visiting by Powell’s bookstore. Then we crossed over to the NW quadrant for the first time. I had kind of expected to feel safer in the NW quadrant, but we walked along a sidewalk stair near the stadium instead of taking the stairs because a couple was what appeared to me as having sex on the tunnel-like stair we needed to be on. Virgo said it looked like they were doing drugs. Either way, since it was a sidewalk stair, we could still get where we needed to go by walking the other sidewalk right by it. Yes, I know, now my urban thru-hike is invalid 😉
The trees today were gorgeous and as we went uphill into NW 23rd Ave, it felt like we were walking into a completely different planet than we had experience today.
The stairclimbing community in LA always told me that the best way to prevent crime in public spaces is to have people out and about walking—families, petwalkers, tourists, commuters. I still believe that and ultimately, one guy who clearly was having a rough day, shouldn’t make us forget about all the wonderful experience an urban thru-hike can offer.
What surprises me the most about the event was that outsiders—people who don’t live in Portland—never thought this could happen in Portland while locals were not surprised. Portland definitely has an identity bolstered by the TV show Portandia and by the trendiness of Mississippi, Albina, Williams, Alberta, Clinton, NW 23rd Ave. Outsiders were willing to forgive Portland and refuse to believe this could happen in Portland (myself included). For seasoned world travelers, what happened to us is not terribly notable. It just has never happened to me, and that’s why I found it so upsetting. Urban hiking—I suppose like backcountry hiking—is a game of numbers. Eventually, something is bound to happen, even if you make smart decisions. I’m just glad that no one was hurt and the only property loss was a pair of sunglasses.
Yet ultimately, it is a city with all the good things and all the bad things. We just ran into an “urban grizzly,” and although we were bluff charged, we didn’t get mauled.
Liz "Snorkel" Thomas
Liz Thomas is a well-traveled adventure athlete most known for breaking the women’s unsupported speed record on the Appalachian Trail in 2011. She has completed the Triple Crown of Hiking–the Appalachian Trail, the 2,650 mile Pacific Crest Trail, and 3,100 mile Continental Divide Trail–and has backpacked over 15,000 miles across the United States. While not on trail, Liz lives in Denver, Colorado.