how to travel near a salmon street

Ever since the Timbers officially joined MLS as an expansion team, the American soccer community’s fallen all over itself to go on and on about how great the Portland fans are and how perfect their gameday setup is. I knew I had to see for myself if things lived up to the hype, not least because Portland’s where our pal, freewheelin’ stealin’ healin’ Mr. Mystic of the Goal himself, Adin Brown landed after leaving Norway. You know what this means: a self-indulgent recap of an ill-advised vacation! Follow along with the photos and join the fun.

The Revs game in Portland wasn’t until mid-September, giving us plenty of time not to plan a goddamned thing towards actually going there. Even better, the Revs season was, ah, not exactly one to inspire long-distance travel. No matter–at least one of us was gonna do this, and it might as well be me, considering Mike got slammed with work and wasn’t able to make it. Slacking off on planning meant I had to get creative with cashing in some miles, but them’s the breaks, and at least it meant I was able to extend my trip by a day once I found out my brother’s book tour wasn’t actually stopping in Boston.

Wednesday morning, I board the flight to Dallas. I’m in a middle seat, and the adjacent window seat is the last one filled before the door closes. The guy who fills it spends the entire flight elbowing me in the side/face and ordering every can of tomato juice in the plane, but also clearly has a developmental disability, so I can’t exactly slug him without looking like an insensitive jerk. Besides, I get rewarded for my patience with an exit row on the Dallas to Portland leg. I don’t know why I’m so amused by the ad in the Spanish-language in-flight magazine heralding AA’s deals with MLS/USSF, but I am.

Land in Portland and immediately see Timbers merchandise for sale at the gate. I realize that Portland doesn’t have a whole lot of other sports options, and that adidas’s US headquarters is in the area, but it’s criminal that adidas does not put MLS gear for all of the league teams in their local tourist stores. I can’t get Revs stuff at Logan or FCD stuff at DFW, and that’s inexcusable, not least reason for which is it sets up a chicken/egg dilemma of “well if we put it out it won’t sell/but it won’t sell because we don’t put it out.” Get with it, fellas.

Took the light rail in from the airport, and as we crossed the river into downtown, all I could think was how much the view reminded me of Pittsburgh, like I was coming in via an open-air Fort Pitt. Checked into the hotel, stopping on the way to surprise a lady getting into a car with Boston University alumni plate frames (“HEY! Class of 97!” “Oh! Uh, hi, class of 04?”), realized hotel is in kind of a less exciting area of downtown Portland. In Boston terms, it’s like booking downtown expecting Back Bay but getting downtown as in Financial District, i.e. the restaurants and shops are all limited service deli and sundries outlets that shutter by 4pm. So I’ll have to walk a bit to get to anything exciting. I fight the urge to pass out in the comfy, comfy bed and walk over to Powell’s, as required by the terms of my Simmons library school alumni association membership.

I’m not terribly used to traveling solo, but then I remember that since I’m outside of the northeast, random strangers, especially anyone working in a service position, will chat with you for no real reason. This makes me feel a little less awkward for having Twitter as my dining companion for a not as good as it sounded dinner at Zeus Cafe or for closing the night with a hibiscus tea at a taqueria. Walking back to the hotel late is a little weird when you’re not sure how benign the local panhandlers are, though.

Thursday, I head out to spend the day on a walking tour of the city via latte consumption. First stop was Public Domain, which was fantastic. I keep running into the same group of Canadian women tourists who’d come in with me from the airport the previous day. Perhaps they were spies. Walked through several crafts and secondhand shops, none of which disabused me of the notion that the Portlandia TV series was nonfiction. Grabbed a neat brooch for this year’s AO Prom gown and had several shopkeepers ask me about being in town for the away team.

Many shops have RCTID (“Rose City till I die”) Timbers motto stickers in the window, and most bars have banners and neon signs advertising game viewings. The team’s front page news in the sports section. Again, this is all easy in a town where the other sports options are the Trailblazers and college sports, whose seasons don’t wholly overlap with the MLS summer calendar. In a city where you’ve got not only representatives of the four other major sports, but those four teams are internationally popular, among the best in their leagues, and have entrenched old-guard sports media backing them, well, it’s a little more difficult to capture popular sentiment.

Sadly, I can’t crash training for either the Timbers morning session or the Revs afternoon one, as both require legitimate media credentials rather than “dude told me I could be here.” Instead, I wind up back at Powell’s in time to interrupt Kyle McCarthy’s training break. I ask how Jeld-Wen field looks. “I want one,” he says.

After dropping in at a yoga class, I go out for a grilled cheese sandwich at a dive bar downtown, then keep walking in search of maybe some ice cream or something. Turns out there’s a giant Mexican Independence Day festival happening at the mall, and there’s food vendors selling more snacks I can’t get in Boston, like elote. As I’m standing there, eating an ear of corn the size of Rhode Island that’s covered in mayo, cheese, and chili powder, obviously something that can be eaten most elegantly, I spot a familiar face buying a bottle of water. “Hi, Benny!”

Feilhaber and I chat for a few minutes about being, as far as I know, the only away fan who made the trip. The idea of watching a Mexican Independence Day ceremony with a Tri-killer tickles me. Too late do I think to ask “so as you’re walking through the crowd seeing all these Mexico jerseys, are you thinking ‘meh, I beat ’em?'” Next time, maybe. A random guy at the cerveza garden starts to chat, and is shocked that the only part of Mexico I’ve ever been to is Nogales, because of the danger. I tell him it was a day trip over 20 years ago, before all the narco nightmares came up, and he’s further shocked that I’m old enough to reference something I did 20 years ago. Thanks for the ego boost, random dude!

FRIDAY, 9/16
Friday morning, I meet up with my pal Sarah for waffles, after several people browbeat me into going to Waffle Window. I’ve actually known Sarah online since, like, 1998, from way back when we were both doing anime websites, but this is the first time we’ve met. She’s now a photographer setting up her own business, and we have a great discussion about being entrepreneurs in creative fields, which totally justifies me declaring this a business trip for tax purposes.

An awful lot of people are asking me for directions on the street, suggesting I blend in to the surroundings. I’m not sure how to feel about that.

Walked back towards town via even more wacky resale shops, stopping for fries at a cart because apparently they won’t let you on the plane out if you can’t produce at least one receipt from a cart-based meal. My actual lunch date is Jay Hipps and his wife Krystal, who are in the area partly to catch the games this week and next, and partly to catch a live taping of Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me. I’d last seen Jay in a jammed Pretoria bar, so this was a much lower key affair. I could, and did, spend hours talking to those two; lotta great stories about silly MLS and US Soccer adventures, including all the ones pre-2002 that Jay got to see and I didn’t.

After a recharge back at the hotel, I threw on my gameday gear, including Adin’s old Revs jersey, and lit out for Jeld-Wen. Along the way, some crusty punk at a bus stop spotted my Twellman tribute scarf. “HEY, IT’S A JFK SCARF!” she yelled. Eh, New England, close enough. Not very many people notice that I’m an away fan, possibly because I’m in goalie grey, not fielder navy. Everyone I talk to insists that I stop pregame for a drink at the Bullpen bar, so I take the advice and have a fun chat about away game travel with a guy who went to DC from Portland for a game that got postponed. I notice that the publishing works for the Oregonian are right across the street from the ball park, and wonder if the Globe would keep giving the Revs such short shrift if someone threw a stadium on Morrissey Boulevard.

As I walk to the Will Call window, I see a surprising sight: Another away fan! I try to get his attention, but can’t yell loudly enough. Next to the Will Call line is bike parking for season ticket holders, and here’s where I get jealous. I can and do bike to Breakers games, since Harvard Stadium’s about a mile away from my house. For Revs games, theoretically I could bike to Gillette, but at 35 miles one way, it’s not exactly a get in and get out affair, nor would I be thrilled to try it for any game that ended after dark.

Adin, who is at home tonight recovering from minor surgery, has informed me I’ll be seated with the wives and girlfriends. I ask if this requires expensive shoes and a purse. Nope–turns out I’m seated with friends of Matt Reis, who are entertaining as hell, and by entertaining, I mean hammered. One of my seatmates spends the game talking about how she lives one block from the stadium, but never goes to games because $7 beers are too expensive. She keeps getting drowned out by the sound of the world’s smallest violin. I walk to the front of the section to get a closer look at warmups, and chat with the one other away fan. His name’s Paul, he’s from Waltham, and he was here on a business trip that he was able to schedule around the game.

During all this, yes, as seen on TV, one entire end of the stadium is jammed with Timbers Army members who’re on their feet singing at least an hour before the game starts. (Favorite chant: “SPARE CHANGE? LITTLE HELP? SPARE CHANGE?”) That end’s also lined with flags and banners. Here, too, is where I get jealous, or rather, here’s where I realize just how bored I am with the tailgate culture back home. Since the front office/stadium itself has never been especially conducive to growing a solid in-stadium culture, New England fan culture developed around tailgate parties and what goes on outside the stadium, not inside. The Fort only fills in at the national anthem, and if you ask why we don’t get in earlier, the front office gets blamed for not extending tailgate time, except during the occasions when there is an extended tailgate, the section is still empty until about 15 minutes before kickoff. It’s an issue where I know I can’t win, since if I press the question, I’m reminded that since I don’t do meat or alcohol, of course I don’t “get” tailgating, and there’s no way I can keep up the conversation without looking like a teetotaling scold.

Lest it sound like I spent the whole game looking for things to add to everyone’s “why can’t we get…” list, I did try to find things we’ve got at Gillette that Jeld-Wen didn’t. Answer: cupholders. Also, better railings to hang banners. And the sunken pitch setup wouldn’t be so hot in a city that’s roughly at sea level. So, you know, we got something.

As for the game itself: Well, it was an decent production of Our American Cousin. My team lost 3-0, and I don’t ever want to hear any EPL commentator talk about how great some team’s away support is for getting on a bus for some candy-ass four hour trip, like, oh, north London to Blackburn. I didn’t even get the chance to stand up and cheer at least one consolation goal, thereby being THAT GUY who’s the one away fan in a full home crowd, i.e. what I am on the occasions I’ve seen the Penguins at TD Garden. Only the Pens are reasonably popular, so I’m rarely that isolated, plus they’ve been reasonably good the past few years.

Towards the end, one of the I LOVE YOU MAN drunks in my row starts teasing me, saying “aw, c’mon, I just wanna crush her spirit!”
“Honey, please, I’ve watched these motherfuckers lose four titles.”

I do get to check Stumptown off my list of local coffee producers, as that’s what’s on offer at concessions, and the biggest disaster of the night comes when I spill some down my favorite pair of pants. Postgame, I’m in the front row holding up my scarf, angling for the team to wave to the two away fans, but they all make a hasty retreat.

As I walk back after the game, I notice there’s a bus pulling up outside what I know to be the team hotel, so I go stand at the door, arms folded, looking like I’m waiting for a boyfriend who knows I just learned he’s cheating. Nicol’s the first one off the bus. “So, who’s paying for my plane ticket home?” I ask. I chastise Shalrie for not at least throwing me the jersey he still owes me from some freelance work.

“I didn’t see you,” he said.
“I have goddamned orange hair!”

I chat a bit with team management, who don’t seem to realize I’m deadly serious about perhaps being reimbursed for the evening, and thank Reis, who, the following day, is flying back as early as possible to host a charity golf tournament for multiple sclerosis research. My best friend’s had MS since 2002, so I tell him about Mara’s adventures since the diagnosis (“Gonna take my friend for steroids! The friend who’s got MS, or the friend who’s a pro athlete? You decide which one’s funnier”) and he explains he’s got a friend in the same boat.

Walked closer to Chinatown to browse the bars and nightclubs, stopping along the way to chat with anyone who recognized me as an away fan, plus a rookie I didn’t recognize other than he was wearing the team travel tracksuit. Nobody gave me any flack for being on the losing side. Instead, I got a lot of kudos for having flown cross-country to watch a 3-0 loss, once I explained I really did come from Boston and wasn’t just a Rev fan who happened to live nearby. “Wasn’t the first time I’ve traveled this far to watch my team lose, won’t be the last time,” I said, “it’s all part of the game.”

I also got to sample some of the fascinating conversations folks have in a nightclub district, such as “okay, do you know where my dick is right now” and “it was a country music concert, I was the only black woman there.” Thought about stopping in a bar that advertised live music, noticed bar band was playing Steve Miller covers, kept walking right past.

Saturday morning, I met with Jay and Krystal once again at the famed Voodoo Doughnut. No, I did not have the maple-bacon bar. It is, however, the second dining establishment I’ve patronized this weekend where the walls are decorated with veves.

All week long, people advised me to hit the Saturday Market to see real live old hippies, unaware that if I want to do that, I can just call my mom. Jay, Krystal, and I swing by, though it’s too rainy to spend much time looking at the handicrafts. Instead, we walk to the farmer’s market over at the Portland State campus, where Twitter buddy Ben tracks me down to give me a RCTID scarf so I don’t go home without a souvenir.

I have to switch hotels for the evening, this time to a B&B that, to my amusement, is located in roughly the same neighborhood where the Ramona Quimby books are set. Around 5, Adin remembers we haven’t actually been able to see each other all weekend, and comes to pick me up for dinner. I can tell this is Adin’s car because I have to push aside a pile of x-rays to sit down. With him is his brand new wife Elisabeth, who came with him when he left Norway.

They take me to their favorite restaurant in town, and it’s by far the best meal of the weekend. We enjoy a leisurely meal and catch up on what injury he has this week what’s new over the past season. (“So, with all the dudes retiring with concussions lately, you figure missing most of 2004 was getting in on it before it was trendy?”) As expected, the city really seems to agree with them. Got a brief driving tour of the city, inasmuch as I could see through the rain, and then called it a night, as I had a 6am flight.

I wake up a little too late for a last-second Voodoo Doughnut run before the airport. I do have time to pick up some souvenirs at an in-terminal shop; above the cash register is a hand-painted sign reading “PUT A BIRD ON IT,” because no, apparently, Portlandia really wasn’t making it up. The couple in line ahead of me at security live in Harvard Square, though they’re on a different flight back. Who is on my flight: one of the referees from Friday evening.

“That was a great game,” he said, “unless…”
“…yep,” I answered, “I was there for the Revs.”

Got back to Boston in time for dinner with Mike, and told him all about how next year we’ll both have to visit this city that’s a flatter, greener Pittsburgh run by Harvard Square pit rats.

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