I would have felt a bit better about climbing Angel’s Rest if a chipmunk hadn’t beat me to the top.
Yet there he was, the focus of all attention. I watched as a group of hikers ignored the spectacular views of the Columbia River Gorge below, and instead perched themselves on the cliff edge trying to get a snap of the striped rodent.
Alvin wasn’t alone – dozens of chipmunks live on the rocky outcrop at the end of the Angel’s Rest trail, one of the most popular hikes in the Gorge. Their presence adds a cuteness factor to an easy, but rewarding, 442m ramble up from the trailhead below.
My wife and I undertook the hike last weekend, partly to take advantage of the improving Pacific Northwest weather, and also to get back into the hiking groove after a dreary winter of record rainfall in the Portland area.
It’s not hard to grasp why the trail is so popular, and a useful starter hike for the summer season. The trailhead is a minute off I-84, the path itself is well maintained, and the route is unmistakable – mostly because dozens of other hikers are making their way up ahead of you. And many dogs are accompanying them.
After winding through forest, the route opens up to a series of switchbacks, as you climb above the Columbia River below, passing Coopey Falls, a 46m-high horsetail waterfall. Ascending in the direction of Angel’s Rest itself, you hike for 1.5 miles across terrain that still carries the marks of a series of forest fires.
The congestion on the trail means that a clean rhythm is difficult to achieve – the routine of stopping and starting put me in mind of one of my regular city hikes when I lived in Dublin, the circuit of Howth Head, whose narrow trail is also heavily populated on summer weekends. (And whose paths are scarred by brush fires.)
Eventually though, after 2.4 miles and 90 minutes of hiking, a final left turn led us to the payoff, a rocky ridge leading to a bluff 481m up. The spot commands impressive views of the Columbia River, Beacon Rock and Silver Star Mountain across the gorge, and even Portland itself, far off to the west.
Our day was overcast but clear – the cloud kept the temperature down but afforded us the full array of views. It was a gentle reintroduction to hiking after the winter’s hibernation.
We weren’t the only ones who’d hibernated, of course. The chipmunks glanced with bewilderment at the panting climbers, scurrying around our feet on the lookout for scraps of food.
Having encountered goats, sheep, and ibex in the mountains in Europe, I’d assumed that the high places were always home to bigger, hardier, creatures. Add chipmunks to that list.
After a series of snaps and stretches, we started our descent, one made easier on the knees by the forgiving switchbacks. Little more than an hour later, we were back at the trailhead.
And so begins an outdoors summer in Oregon. Here’s to more hikes, more summits, and – naturally – more chipmunks.
One hundred and fifty five years ago today a poorly equipped Mexican army defeated Napolean III’s French troops at the Battle of Puebla.
The victory, part of the Franco-Mexican War, was more symbolic than actual. A year later a French force of 30,000 defeated the Mexican army, captured Mexico City, and set up the short-lived Second Mexican Empire.
The symbolism persisted, though, as Mexicans celebrated Cinco de Mayo (‘Fifth of May’), casting the French defeat as a symbol of Mexican national unity and pride.
All this goes some way to explaining why many people in Mexico’s largest neighbor will spend today eating tacos, drinking tequila, and wearing questionable sombreros. Cinco de Mayo may be a big deal in Mexico, but across the border it’s a wider, and widely observed, celebration of Mexican-American culture.
It’s mostly news to me, of course. I’d been educated on the day by my wife, who grew up in Los Angeles, but I didn’t realize its all-pervasive sweep until I relocated to the States.
Thoughts of Mexico, and food, and the U.S., today bring me back to the first time I visited the country. Back in the 1990s I travelled to San Francisco for a short visit, staying with friends. My lodgings were in the Mission District, and my staple meal was the burrito.
Not just any burrito, mind you. Without knowing its legendary reputation, my friends and I ate daily at La Tacqueria, at Mission and 25th.
The burrito was my one decent meal a day – loaded with rice, refried beans, and meat, and accompanied by a bag of chips, it covered most of the food groups I needed. A steaming, satisfying, beef-laden madeleine, it was so good that I returned with my wife, on a visit to San Francisco years later, to sample it again.
I’m closer to La Tacqueria than previously nowadays, but I’m still a 90-minute flight from that burrito. I also live in a town that offers not just burritos, but burritos and beyond. And so, this Cinco de Mayo, I’ll be doing the (to many) unthinkable – celebrating with a sushirrito.
So, feliz Cinco de Mayo. Or, itadakimasu!
In my mind spring always begins on February 1.
In the Irish tradition, this date is St Bridget’s Day, the day on which the traditional Gaelic festival of Imbolg – the start of spring – is celebrated.
In Ireland the days begin to lengthen, the light increases, the rain is increasingly broken by sunshine.
I don’t think I’ll ever shift from this thinking, despite living in a country that heralded the season, this year, on March 20. (Spring beginning after St Patrick’s Day? That’s just wrong.)
It’s taken even longer for spring to reach the Pacific Northwest this year. Only in the past week have temperatures in Portland crawled up into the high 60s (and temporarily, at that). Only now are the longer stretches of rain-soaked days – five, six, seven at a time – disappearing, to be replaced by sun breaks and heavy showers.
The vernal season is upon us, then. And the brighter, and slightly drier, weather is accompanied by another phenomenon – the eruption of cherry blossoms. Every street in our north-east Portland neighborhood boasts at least a couple of these trees, flowering pink or red or, less commonly, white. Not since a spring trip to Japan a while back – where the cherry blossom is truly cherished – have I seen so many in one city.
The light, delicate petals are some way – in reality and in my mind – from the raw, green rushes we used to make St Bridget’s Crosses when I was a child in Ireland. The petals are prettier, but the rushes last longer.
Which one is the true herald of the season? It hardly matters – spring is here.
As I walked out of the RDS on the night of June 21, 1997 little did I realise that it would be 20 years until I saw Radiohead perform again.
Or that it would be in a city on the other side of the world, a few thousand miles from where Thom Yorke once floated down the Liffey.
But Portland, Oregon, where the band played last weekend, has one thing in common with that summer’s night in Dublin – plenty of rain.
My abiding memory of the RDS show is Yorke, arms extended, singing “rain down on me, from a great height“, as the heavens opened over Dublin.
Portland’s Moda Center is an indoor basketball arena, so there were no such apt theatrics last weekend. Instead there occurred a performance far more powerful than the one I’d seen during the band’s purported OK Computer heyday.
In fact, Radiohead appear to have left their most popular album behind; only ‘Airbag’ and ‘No Surprises’ were aired at the Moda Center (the latter was admittedly one of the highlights of the night, not least for the reaction to it’s “bring down the government, they don’t speak for us line“).
Instead, some 20,000 of us were treated to a loud, jittering, two-drummers-and-plenty-of-knob-twisting production that – days after Khan Sheikhun gas attack and shortly before the U.S. dropped the GBU-43/B MOAB bomb – seemed perfectly in tune with the times.
Songs like ‘The National Anthem’ and ‘Idioteque’ were full-on sensory attacks, performances whose lyrics (“women and children first, and the children first, and the children“) did little to reassure.
Even when things quieted down, during ‘Lotus Flower’ or ‘You and Whose Army?’, the tension remained, the sense of dread shifting from the public to the personal.
It erupted close to the end, with the performance of ‘Burn The Witch’, a song of round ups, gallows, persecutions, and paranoia, an anthem an the age of ICE arrests.
“Burn the witch, we know where you live,” intoned Yorke.
The Nineties couldn’t have seemed farther away.
I blame Kurt Cobain.
More specifically I blame his ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, the song that launched a cultural movement and, on a slightly smaller scale, ended my teenage obsession with soccer.
Before I heard that song I was a Liverpool FC-obsessed kid, growing up in the late 1980s and following every move of the double-winning Reds team of that era.
Then, one afternoon in late 1991, I walked into the old Virgin Megastore on Dublin’s Aston Quay and bought the seven-inch single of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.
That was it for the football. The single led to an album which led to more albums. Before I knew it, I was spending my Saturday afternoons trying to decipher Pearl Jam lyrics and saving for a CD player.
The one nod I made to my former football obsession was a less-than-glamorous one. On Friday nights throughout the early 1990s I would stand on the terraces at the old St Mel’s Park in Athlone, usually freezing through the winter soccer season, watching the local Athlone Town FC.
That ended when I left home for college in Dublin. With the exception of the one or two Irish international games, which were more of a social occasion than a sporting one, it’s been a long time since I stood on a terrace shouting at a group of men chasing a ball.
Until last weekend, when I found myself doing precisely that at Providence Park in Portland, in the midst of the Timbers Army, a well-oiled and loud group of Portland Timbers supporters.
Parts of the evening brought me back – the standing on concrete for hours, the shouting, the echoing hum of a few thousand people on a covered terrace.
I was never much of a singer at St Mel’s Park, but someone handed me a sheet with Timbers’ chants. Beer in hand (something else I never encountered back in the Athlone days), I gamely lashed into ‘Rose City, Whoa-oh’. I even chowed down on the plate of steaming tots – not unlike the steaming chips you’d get for IR£1 from a battered van in St Mel’s Park back in the day.
I’m not sure if Kurt Cobain would have approved, though he’d surely have been comfortable with the number of plaid shirts on display. Which led me to think – watching soccer in the Nirvana frontman’s spiritual heartland of the Pacific Northwest? Perhaps the whole thing’s come full circle.
Teenage Fanclub look a bit different now to how they did the first time I saw them.
Back then it was the mid-1990s, the height of Britpop – a genre that never fitted a band with C86 roots. I was 18 and all I knew of Blake, McGinley, and Love was ‘Sparky’s Dream‘, which I’d heard on a compilation tape, and the fact that Kurt Cobain had called them out years earlier as “the best band in the world”.
They played the cavernous Point Depot in Dublin, a docklands warehouse poorly equipped for sound. Nonetheless they pulled off a great show, topping a bill which included the Manic Street Preachers and Beck, and rounding out a long evening of loud music and warm beer.
(My abiding memory of that night, 20 years ago, is of a local grungy long-hair stepping onto the stage from the audience, and banging away on a tambourine as the band encored with ‘The Concept’. Rock on!)
Fast forward two decades and we’re all a little different. Gone is Norman Blake’s floppy hair, while Raymond McGinley looks uncannily like my doctor. Gone too, are the thousands who saw them in Dublin – Portland’s Wonder Ballroom, while boasting a healthy crowd, isn’t quite full.
And, needless to say, I feel a couple of lifetimes away from the teenager who nodded away to ‘The Concept’ in the Point.
What hasn’t changed is the music. In the intervening years, Teenage Fanclub have released album after album of perfectly-pitched guitar pop. The hooks never flagged, the melodies were never second rate.
They also never attained the status heralded by Nirvana’s front man but, if they had, it’s unlikely I’d have seen them up close in Portland this week.
Seeing though? More like hearing. Visuals were never to the fore for Teenage Fanclub. In Portland, just as in the Point and in Whelan’s (the Dublin venue where I caught them with Jad Fair, in 2002), they led with the songs. And what a batch – the 90-minute set covered music from their first album (set closer ‘Everything Flows’), through the middle years (‘Start Again’, ‘About You’ – a snippet of which below) to their 2016 release ‘Here’ (‘I’m In Love’, ‘I Was Beautiful When I Was Alive’).
Also in the mix is, of course, ‘Sparky’s Dream’, the song that started it all for me, and whose lyrics resonate even more now than they did 20 years ago: “That summer feeling is gonna fly – always try and keep the feeling inside”.
Teenage Fanclub? The best band in the world. Again.
Who listens to radio anymore? I mean, really listens? Who has the time to tune in faithfully to a favorite show, to sit down, not distracted by driving or screens or other commitments, and take it all in?
Not me. My radio listening tends to be on my morning commute, a half hour grabbed as I stop-start along the Sunset Highway out of Portland. Along with 45 minutes on the return leg in the evening.
It’s a far cry from my teenage years in Ireland, when I’d tape Dave Fanning’s 2FM evening show, or my 20s when Donal Dineen’s Here Comes The Night was required late evening listening. Dineen, in particular, was a curator non nonpareil – what blossomed into an obsession with Prestige-era Miles Davis recordings developed from his playing “It Never Entered My Mind” on a couple of consecutive summer nights back in 2000.
It’s a while since I’d experienced that sort of inspired broadcasting. Occasionally, back in Dublin, I’d pick up something new from In The Blue of the Night or, if I had time, BBC’s 6 Music, but it was a rare thing.
Then I moved to Oregon and, in the process, discovered KMHD, a public radio jazz station that broadcasts in the Portland area. Initially I listened as a breather from the increasingly-depressing news cycle; within days I had awoken to the razor-sharp music choices, and was hooked. The morning and evening shows offered a decent cut of those great ’50s Prestige recordings (way beyond Miles, I might add), mixing them up with recordings from local scene artists, modern UK, and European jazz – all sweetened with sizeable dollops of soul and funk.
A case in point – when Clyde Stubblefield died last weekend I knew Derek Smith’s The Morning Session show would celebrate his work. Then, on Tuesday morning, straight after the 8 a.m. news, I duly heard “Funky Drummer”, the James Brown side that features Stubblefield’s legendary drum break.
Now, for the first time in years, I’m coming across new (to me) music and wanting to take note of tracks, artists, and albums. Where once I sat with my finger above the ‘record’ button on my cassette radio now I search KMHD’s website and build Spotify playlists. When I turn on the radio these days, it’s not for a half-hour’s mindless humming, but to source new sounds.
To that end, here’s a short playlist of tracks gleaned from the station’s broadcasts over the past few weeks. The music’s mostly modern, with a couple of classic artists thrown in. It’s a brief, listenable testament to why I’ve fallen in love with radio again.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the Oregon rain. More specifically, about the rain and a folk song it led me back too.
I’d previously written about music and rain. Back in Ireland, one particularly wet December led me to draw up a list of rain songs.
Write what you know, they say. And as an Irishman who now lives in Portland, I know rain – from the anticyclonic squalls that tear over Ireland in the winter to the 1.7 inches that fell on the Rose City in a single day this week.
This morning, as the rain fell on the window and the coffee brewed, I pulled a book from a shelf – a collection of poems by Raymond Carver.
Carver knew rain. Born in Clatskanie, Oregon, about 60 miles north of Portland, he spent most of his life in the Pacific Northwest. Along with his stories, some well known, and screenplays, he also wrote poetry. Inevitably, as an Oregonian, one of these poems features precipitation.
“Rain” is a short work about risks and the need to make mistakes, about giving over to chance. The weather may just be a framing device but, like an Oregon winter, it’s all around.
In lieu of songs about the weather, then, here’s a poem about it. Let it rain, without regrets.
Woke up this morning with
a terrific urge to lie in bed all day
and read. Fought against it for a minute.
Then looked out the window at the rain.
And gave over. Put myself entirely
in the keep of this rainy morning.
Would I live my life over again?
Make the same unforgiveable mistakes?
Yes, given half a chance. Yes.