“In 1898 a party of thirty church ministers, seeking the larger view, boarded six horse-drawn carriages in town and headed uphill at 4:30 pm. Two hours later they arrived [at the top]. Convinced that native people had held council at this lofty site, the ministers named it Council Crest. Today, a two-hour drive leads to the limits of this view and beyond- to untold forest, snow-capped peaks, or the rugged Oregon Coast. And still, seeking the larger view, we gather here to gaze upon Portland, a city great but merely human in the grandeur of its natural setting.”
-inscribed on the stones at the crest of the hill-
Council Crest Park, Portland, Oregon
It’s easy to get into the mode of urban exploring where your mindset constantly reverts to, “Something new, always something new!” In a way, this is a positive indication, that I have lived in cities which call out for constant exploration. But as Henry David Thoreau and Joseph Connell both point out, sometimes exploration of our familiar places can be equally, if not more, rewarding. I like to remind myself of this when thinking up adventures- that sometimes the greatest adventures can happen in our own backyards. As a matter of fact, this is a concept I try to impart to my students in the field- that we can find wonder in our everyday environments that seem so familiar, places we may overlook as ordinary. So I hope to remain true to my words and implement a “backyard” attitude in my own exploring.
A favorite destination of mine for many years has been Council Crest Park, the highest point in Portland. Located at 1, 073 feet above sea level, it gives visitors incredible vantage points from which to view the city and its urban center…and even beyond to the snowy peaks of four nearby mountains: Mount St. Helens, Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, and Mount Hood. I remember numerous childhood adventures that ended at this park, especially involving a small tree at the summit of the hill that I used to love to climb. Though it looks small now, it was quite the exciting destination when I was five years old. I was so proud of myself for climbing this tree. I felt like a spritely wood nymph, one with the branches, and I thought my mom would never find me here. This past weekend on a visit to the park, I was delighted to see a little boy around four or five years old playing on the same tree. I had a feeling of timelessness as I watched him swing on the branches and clamber around the trunk.
I entered the park most recently from the Northwest side of the park, up a slightly paved incline of trail lined with stately firs and maples. To the right, the hills of the Western suburbs sprawled beautifully in their rolling, undulating way and displayed themselves in bands of light blue and navy. A hazy overcast sky was behind, lightened by a hesitant sun. Eventually, the trees opened up, exposing a sloped greenway of cropped and manicured green lawns. Dogs trotted casually across the surface, bikers congregated and rested after their surely arduous climb, and families supervised their kids pretending to be gymnasts, balancing on a low rock wall. And true to Portland style, this sort of activity is expected on the weekends here year-round.
I have found that this park consistently offers its beauty to me when I am least expecting it. One December morning a few years ago, I ventured up the hill from my house to Council Crest via the trails through Marquam Nature Park. It had just rained the night before, the morning dawning foggy and cool. As the morning sun became warmer and hit the molecules of vapor hovering low, they began to evaporate, lightening the load of fog. As I reached the final trail ascent and looked up at the peak of the hill directly above, I was arrested by the beauty of the morning. Fog still lingered around the branches but the sun streamed through in streaks, extending out from the trunk and following the line of the branches. It was as if the trees themselves were glowing, almost holding arms out to me in welcome. The trees were grey and the light, white, setting a tone of neutral colors in simplicity and grace. And the trees behind, further up the slope, stood out in black sillhouette, a contrast to the ethereal light in the foreground. I only had my camera phone at the time, but it has stuck out in my mind the last few years as a reminder of the beauty that pops up in everyday life regardless of our ability to capture it.
I have begun to realize, as a returning Portlander, that my city has so much rich history underlying it that we in the present don’t typically acknowledge. Every place has a fascinating and dynamic history in its own right, of course, but there is something very enticing about moving back to your city of origin as an adult and realizing that there is much about your place that you don’t know. Maps can help us explore this history, or at least help us become more aware of the complexity of the landscape, but we can also draw on our own imaginations and books/pictures of first-hand accounts to peak our interests and spark curiosity. And as I have explored previously, sometimes this curiosity is all we need to drive us in a new creative direction. After walking around my neighborhood more and noticing all the little pieces of history that are still intact, like one of the first Benson Bubblers and remaining horse hitches, I was inspired to spend an afternoon in the local library researching Portland history. I was particularly sucked into the Postcard History Series, Portland edition, the picture postcards so evocative of a city I know so well but so foreign at the same time. It is also interesting to view a city through postcards, as this medium is often portrayed in a somewhat propaganda manner (see upper right). While reading this book, I tried to imagine myself in my current place, just many years removed. I hope to do more research on Portland, particularly this neighborhood, and share it with you on this blog soon.
Sitting at the top of Council Crest inspires a certain kind of curiosity. What came before it in this place? How many stars did people see on summer nights? What sorts of things did they talk about when they came here? What sort of view did they have? Well, certainly an intact Mount St. Helens! For one, I do know that Council Crest used to be the site of the Council Crest Amusement Park which operated from 1907-1929, but what was this attraction really like? Who went? What was there to do there? Endless questions abound. If I squint over the view of the city, I can almost imagine the view of the first ministers (see opening quote), journeying for two hours up the hill for a taste of “the larger view.” A view with a sense of purpose, with a sense of itself, almost displaying its own unique personality. As a landscape changes over time, the styles, the humans, the buildings, they all undulate and shift. In with the new, out with the old. But amidst all this change, which seems so fast and innovative to us, is a consistence, a human history forming in conversation with the Natural. And as I quoted earlier, at the end of the day we are all merely human in the grandeur of the natural world. As a mountain or tree sits and contemplates history over the progress of time, patiently, quietly, imaginatively, doggedly, we move so fast, so agitated, so anxiously, so fiercely, so irreverently. We can learn something from this mountainous approach, to step back and appreciate what has come before us, as we seek the larger view.
so the question I ask you today is:
what places in your life have inspired you to think about local history?