Skidmore Bluffs, Columbia Park and The Things We Found Instead of the Keys

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Sometimes to open a door you need to lose a key, I managed to say before bursting into hysterics, after three visits to the Skidmore Bluffs in approximately 24 hours.

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From Colonel Summers Park we voyaged there for the inaugural visit. Our driver recounted a previous visit to the cliff-side grass patch months before in which she lost the keys to her truck. It is a sad fact, it was agreed, that wondering where one’s keys are occurs in the moment when the sunset has ended and light has altogether disappeared. The keys were eventually found, of course, and the incident far from resembled a disaster.

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Arriving at the end of Skidmore we parked down the street from the four-car dead end parking lot and a van pulled up and parked across the street. Immediately a woman wearing what appeared to be a Burger King uniform engaged us as she crossed the street. Do you want tamales, we were asked and, yes, we did. I gave her five dollars and received an aluminum then plastic wrapped warm bundle and we began to walk to the bluffs. They were nopales tamales and the corn husks were adorably tied by thinner ribbons of husk. We removed the precious wrapping and placed them back in the plastic bag. A rectangle of husk fell to the pavement and our canine companion nosily inquired into the delicious smelling moment of litter. We followed the road with a ravine to the south opening up to the precipitous drop down to the Willamette and residences to our right whose occupants, we wondered, must find a festival-like exodus every summer dusk to be a little tiring.

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We found our friend who had invited us on her magic blanket with her bike resting on the ground next to her, one improvised picnic in a tapestry of dozens on the slim brown-grassy stretch on the lip of the bluff. The park offers one bench which hosted a party of beer-drinking young urban professionals behind us. Trash cans greet the visitor at either entrance. Apple trees provide shade and fruit or grow outwards and above the clattering rail yard below. Bats appear, as a friend who recommended the site to me promised, as the dusk fades to night. People converse and drink as the drive-in movie commences, a living landscape tableau of industry and nature in their daily interaction.

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As the time to leave arrives we realize our hubris in discussing key misplacement as though it were not in that moment taking place. Cell phone flashlights scoured the area. We had no keys to the truck that shuttled us to where we were so far from our SE home.

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North Portland is a kind of paradox. The fifth quadrant, implying that Portland is more than one city but rather 1.25. To the math-inclined denizen the city’s layout is a thing of beauty, a graph whose x-axis is a street called Burnside and whose y-axis is a river that flows naturally and perfectly north. But behold, just past the street that divides north from south whose bridge straddles (0,0), the river rebels and flows, though still almost precisely, NW, and a land suddenly lies north of the west side yet east of the river. The heads of city scratched their heads momentarily before declaring it North Portland, a land liberated of numbered avenues, these great united states conveying Portlanders north and south.

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As the city found its way toward the mid-century with the rest of the country the automotive inevitability to which America resigned itself, which many from Los Angeles to Detroit celebrated, those seeking Seattle zoomed north through the neighborhoods on what is now known as Interstate (decidedly not César Chavez) Avenue, and then soon those who sought Salem blew south on the I-5 which ripped through half a dozen city blocks and may be crossed on sporadic through streets or pedestrian overcrossings that present the spectator to the bizarre and violent space that we know so well from the other side of the wind shield. A local born 53 years before in the Mississippi neighborhood explained to us this evening that they referred to the speeding intruders as “honkies,” not simply because they were white, black folks drove cars, too, but because they would blare their horns when you were trying to cross the street. She also spoke of the Vanport Flood of 1948 which brought much of the african-american population which lived and worked in Vanport City between Portland and the great Columbia to the north. She also spoke of a great cataclysm that would change the world we know to its very core. When you’ve seen how much North Portland has changed in 60 years not much comes as a surprise, I imagine.

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From our house this side of Mt. Tabor, North Portland is farther away than some surrounding towns. No longer knowing the location of the truck key is therefore a problem from this awesome perspective over the moonlit terminus of the Willamette to the north and the distant light-speckled buildings and bridges of downtown to the south, which are themselves miles west by northwest of our house. We improvised, necessarily after much head scratching, and walked with our friend and her bike to her house, from where she agreed to drive us back to our side of Burnside, and, as I researched and composed Colonel Summers Park late into the night, a return to the Skidmore Bluffs like disappearing ink in reverse declared itself in the datebook of my mind.

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When one looks for keys s/he finds many things. Driving back to North Portland in a borrowed car we found a dresser which was invisible when we were looking for one. We parked, approved of it, removed the drawers and managed it into the back of the car. I found a raspberry bush when we parked and found the truck, and a spider who had used the truck’s proximity to the raspberry as a gravity-defying aid in the construction of a web. The berries were not undelicious. We looked through the cab, now in the light of day, and did not find the key. I looked on the ground around it and found a handmade piece of jewelry. We walked down the same street we traversed the night before, slowly, eyes glued to the ground like park scholars. The prodigal corn husk is identified. The posts of the entrance bear no truck key nor affixed dreamcatcher. The view is spectacular. A group of beautiful women set up either an art installation, photo shoot or faerie picnic. The grass contains too many key-shaped Swisher Sweet wrappers and an earring and another errant corn husk. The tamales were incredible but too small, it is remembered as the evening before passes before us like a riddle. I find an S hook that must have been used for a badminton net. We look underneath an apple tree at the edge of the bluff that we ransacked for the perfect pink apple that dangled over the abyss. We gave up and found a free push lawn mower on the way back to the car. We push it in the street and the blades mowed the air before the owner stops us with a shout to enjoy her former tool. She asks us if we want a big door of which she also wants to avail herself. We weren’t wholly uninterested in this kind of door, so we came to look at it. However, as we had one car filled with a dresser and another truck that soon would have a lawn mower and to which we didn’t yet have a key, and we didn’t really need a massive sliding door missing one wheel, we said thank you, no, but, to show our gratitude for the push mower, could we help her carry it to the spot across the street recently freed of a mowerr? And yes, we could, and yes, she also had a Ford Ranger, and yes, though there are many things that a key will not open, yes, one always has access to many things.

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Columbia Park is impossible to miss as one drives west on North Lombard. its tree-lined paths extend north and its annex to the south pulls the driver with equal temptation to the south, a promenade that brings one to the dramatic view south over Swan Island and the Willamette that I first found on my one and only visit to the University of Portland six years ago.

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On this occasion, after a two hour recuperation and planning session at Overlook Restaurant by the Skidmore Bluffs, a Greek/American diner with a lounge and an enthusiastic recommendation from this author, we decided to buy a new ignition cylinder for the keyless car that still sat parked a block from the Bluffs, thinking it would be relatively inexpensive, we could install it ourselves, and that the old one might need to be replaced anyway. It was Sunday and the closest automotive parts stores were several miles in either direction. We opted to stay in North Portland and voyage north to Lombard and west to the store, which we passed accidentally twice, causing us to pass Columbia park three times, the third of which we stopped and visited.

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In terms of information about the park on the internet, unfortunately, a closed loop of unsubstantiated fun facts (wikipedia citing the online version of Portland along with everyone else) tells us

In 1909, G.H. Hoch, the head gardener for Washington Park, oversaw the design work for Columbia Park. He patterned the park after a famous park in Berlin, Germany.

Now this would be fascinating if we knew how, why, which “famous park” was the inspiration, etc. and particularly for myself having realized this past fall while in a “famous park in Berlin, Germany”—namely the Tiergarten—that I wanted to be an international park connossieur, and perhaps already was.  Instead it is a kind of meaningless detail that makes me wish I had a damn book in my hands instead of a computer. The Friends of Columbia Park page, however, has some fun facts you can sink your teeth into:

Nestled among towering fir trees lies a cottage. Born of a bygone era, it sits like the gateway to your imagination.

Columbia Park is a large urban park on the peninsula where the mighty Columbia river meets the Willamette. A mile long walking path circumnavigates vast lawns, tennis courts, picnic tables, play equipment, baseball diamonds, an indoor pool and, of course, the cottage.

The cottage in Portland, Oregon’s Columbia Park was built in 1940 and has served as field house, dance hall and National Guard command center to name a few. In 1989, when the city wanted [to] build a parking lot for Columbia Pool, the neighborhood banded together and saved the magical cottage.

Today, the refirbished cottage is a compelling location for your company seminar, family reunion or your wedding reception. Conveniently located near the quaint St. Johns business district, the historic Kenton neighborhood, Portsmouth neighborhood stores, Portland International Raceway,  and Jantzen Beach and with easy access to Interstate 5, the cottage and park are easily accessible to all your attendees.

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My companion and I were more interested in the play equipment, the interactive fountains and the children’s birthday parties than this cottage that “sits like the gateway to your imagination,” probably because we didn’t see the cottage and we still had to resolve the situation with the key and the truck. We noted it as similar to many other rectangular and/or square parks in Portland that are very welcoming to bicyclists and pedestrians, though not to drivers who must leave their cars vulnerable at the periphery, different than Mt. Tabor, Council Crest or Washington Park where the public is welcome to drive deep into the park and step out from the car and take in breathtaking views. Perhaps this is the difference between a city-wide (or even internationally recognized) destination like the Rose Garden in Washington Park and a community-oriented park like Columbia. To someone who grew up in California in the glory days of anti-smoking and play equipment safety, I am constantly amazed at how fun the playgrounds are in Oregon, and Columbia Park does not disappoint. I vaguely can recall teeter-totters and merry-go-rounds from my toddlers recollections; but perhaps they were even gone by then. Dennis the Menace Park in Monterey, for example, is unrecognizable today compared to the utopian space for imagination and free play that it was designed to be in the decades before I was born. One day I will return to Columbia Park and not just as a break from a Sunday afternoon quest to find the keys, but with a book, a picnic or a friend.

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We returned to the Bluffs one last time. The truck was still there, our things (including the lawn mower) remained in the bed of the truck beneath the unlocked camper. We walked out to the park one last time, the fairie picnic now in full swing. We witnessed a young girl in a flower dress approach the women and request magical boons with which to return to the world. She ran back in the frolic that 3 year olds employ to move as fast and with as much joy as possible, with flowers in her hands and a wreath upon her crown. No note, no keys were found and we noticed our friend in her front yard again, sketching and drinking the tiniest glass of wine. We approached her for the second time that day and updated her on our progress, that we needed a wrench, not just a screwdriver as we thought, to take off the steering wheel and install the ignition cylinder. She, ever enthusiastic, friendly and helpful, agreed to meet us back at the truck, where we then headed, brainstorming where the owner’s manual might be, which we needed to consult to avoid the “potential injury or death” that the activated airbag might cause. It was not in the cab and I checked the back. The lawn mower sat on a jacket that I forgot was present the evening before; it was brought to the park in case it got cold, it was then returned to the truck when the puppy ignored the views and began to disrupt the twilit serenity of the us and the crowd.  I took the jacket from beneath the lawn mower, looked through its pockets and saw the key and dreamcatcher fall from on top of the jacket where it lay into the bed of the truck. I picked it up showed it to my companion and burst into laughter. She immediately went off to stop her fellow Ford Ranger owner from needing to walk all the way to the truck with the ratchets, for we now had the key to the truck and the activated airbag was a safety benefit, not something to worry about, and in the next few days the spare key would reveal itself in whatever ill-conceived corner it had decided to inhabit.

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