One of the nation's liberal hotspots, Portland is also one of its most walkable communities. Oregon's controversial urban-growth boundaries, established as law in 1973, limit how far a city can extend into surrounding rural and forest lands. This metro gastric-bypass surgery has focused new development within the metro area, often in the form of tall residential loft and condo buildings instead of standard street-hierarchy suburbs. In addition to keeping swaths of farmland under cultivation rather than concrete, the boundary created a dense, easily navigated downtown core of mixed, street-level commercial and residential developments, and a stellar light-rail and bus system.
Portlanders love public transportation the way New Yorkers love diners. In a city that prides itself on being a pain in the establishment's ass, having no car has become de rigueur, pedestrianism a badge of indie honor, legs more than just something to shave, stroke or sculpt on the Stairmaster. Despite its very real environmental and political ramifications, using your legs to walk and pedal in Portland has reached the status of fashion accessory, an expression of identity accentuating your character-ensemble, much like the "No Blood for Oil" bumper stickers that, without a bumper, people stick on their bikes. As a Portland trademark, resistance is one of the city's strongest attractions for the "creative class." Cheap rent, abundant bookstores, a progressive, intellectual, dissident culture -- that's what drew me here in 2000.
Between light rail, buses and my apartment's proximity to work, I soon discovered I could afford to ditch my car. It just took my mind a while to adjust. Missing trains; dragging cumbersome lamps and thrift-store nightstands home on crowded buses; learning to balance an umbrella on my shoulder while carrying groceries in the rain -- I struggled during those first months. Bushmen trek for miles with water-filled pots on their heads, but carrying groceries in drizzle seemed too much for me. I needed to deprogram from a lifetime of cul-de-sacs, shed my old Phoenix attitude toward walking.
Hoofing it leaves you feeling naked, searching constantly for that giant, four-wheeled handbag whose weight you no longer feel tugging on your person. What pedestrians sacrifice, really, are options. What if you need that book that's been in your trunk for three months? That stiff, oil-splattered peacoat you keep near the jack in case it snows? Like backcountry campers, foot commuters have to pack everything the day might require: snacks, computer, the shirt you intend to return at TJ Maxx. All the crap you normally keep spread across the floorboards now accompanies you. You have become a kind of turtle. Venturing into the world lugging only what your spine and sore shoulders can support reveals not only the extent of your pitiful machine addiction, but the weakened state it's left you in. You're the junkie just off methadone: shaky, your nerves unbuffered, learning to operate without a crutch. It's a fragile readjustment, and you suffer the growing pains of a shifting paradigm: irritability, confusion, and the nearly overwhelming desire to resume the old ways. The familiar comforts call: oh, that warm euphoric rush! Not to mention all that trunk space! My god, you think one cold rainy day, I can't do this. Convenience is my birthright, walking a return to the primordial ooze. Given the choice, would Hugh Hefner go back to his early workaholic days just to regain his pre-Viagra stamina? Faulkner to his mailroom job just to live in an Oxford where neighbors didn't begrudge him for writing their lives? But somehow, rather than racing to a car dealership, you get used to it. Walking becomes the new default, a form of blinking.
Soon, you quit missing that car, or at least you miss it only while walking on rainy nights, when the paper Whole Foods bag gets so soggy that carrots poke holes in the bottom and you have to cradle the tattered flap to keep jars from falling out. Seeing cars whiz past, likely with dry groceries in their trunks, you know their drivers also drive to and from the jobs that they work to pay for the privilege of driving to and from work. And it's then that the car you sold, the car you called "Big Red" or "Anna Banana" (it was yellow) becomes "that stupid car," just a snakeskin shed as the residue of a new, emerging you. How did you ever waste so much time and money on that luxury? you think. Like an open relationship, it seemed a good idea at the time. When you look at smiling couples loading groceries into Subaru Foresters in the Co-op lot, you see dinosaurs standing unknowingly in the path of a comet, petro-dactyls soon to be eliminated by Darwin's undiscovered theory of subcultural selection: Survival of the Coolest, baby. Then you walk the mile home in the rain.
When you overhear strangers mention "emissions tests," you can barely remember what those stations look like -- some sort of archways with tubes and technicians? But you remember changing a flat on the Interstate's narrow shoulder during a freezing December rush hour, how the draft from passing semis blew the snot right from your nose, how thankful you were the rest of you didn't blow away with it. You remember how buying new tires made for an impoverished Christmas. But that's something for Phoenicians to worry about. You need only remember they raised bus fair 10 cents last Tuesday.
You, the newly liberated walker -- the saved, hallelujah! -- develop a new math. Calculating your commute, you factor in the walk and all the stops the bus might make to load handi-capable riders on that slow-moving forklift thing. When it snows, you factor in how carefully you'll step crossing slush. All this means that you have to stop trying to do so many things at once.
See, you used to multitask feverishly, because, able to go 80 mph, you figured you could make up on the road the time you spent enjoying the steamy shower. You habitually overextended yourself because your car closed the gap. So you waited until the last minute to iron your shirt, you brewed coffee while burning CDs and showering, and checked your e-mail one last time before leaving at 8:20 for the 8:00 party. Cars fed procrastination, enabled overachievement, or, as your Dad and last three girlfriends called it, your poor planning. But now the old 30-minute commute takes upwards of 60. It's healthy, you think, the exercise, fresh air, sea change. If your ecology minor taught you anything, it's that if you're not changing, you're dying, though that could've been some New Age quote or a lyric from a Bob Dylan song.
I'll admit: Walking is often a laborious inconvenience. Even after the initial adjustment, I arrived late to work a couple times a month, every month, most of my Portland years. I knew pedestrianism was the right thing in my new home, and I had sufficient reasons to hate my car. With the constant repair costs, the way my CV boot always broke after I returned home impoverished from vacation, or my engine quit holding oil while crossing the Mojave Desert, resentment was inevitable. But pedestrian life has its own set of hurdles.