In many ways today was like a day visiting a European city. We parked the car and spent the day on foot. (We had been planning to take the light rail, but it's not completed to the airport, where we're staying.) We went to the Visitor Center and the AAA and picked up a bunch of maps and guides. We bought tickets to Annie Get Your Gun. We spent a couple of hours at the historical museum, had lunch, and spent a couple of more hours at Powell's Books, a Portland landmark.
We found out that you can ride the buses free in downtown Portland. That seems to be a smart idea, making the city less expensive for tourists, and still making the commuters pay for their longer rides to and from work.
Portland has about 450,000 people; it's not the capital of Oregon, the major state universities are elsewhere, but it's still quite a big city. It's new; most of the European settlement dates from the opening of the Oregon Trail about 150 years ago.
The historical museum had several different threads, which it didn't pull together too successfully. We'd give it a B+. Oregon was one of the last frontiers in the United States. Although the coast was known earlier, Oregon was ignored by European explorers until the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The Spanish missions did not reach this far north. When the Oregon Trail was opened up, Oregon was settled -- by people from the eastern and midwestern United States. The Willamette valley, around Portland, was remarkably fertile, and farming quickly took over. Oregon became a state in 1853.
We didn't know that Oregon was a lily-white state. The constitution forbid slavery, but it also forbade free blacks, and had an active KKK well into the twentieth century. In fact, until 1980, the population of Oregon was over 95% white. (The next census in 1990 revealed some changes, especially in immigrants of Asian background; presumably the 2000 census will show even greater diversity, especially in Portland.)
One interesting piece of trivia from the museum: Portland was almost Boston. There was a flip of a coin to determine the new city's name!
The museum has a beautiful exhibit of native american culture and history, featuring elaborate costumes and orientation. But, as is so often the case with "ethnic" exhibits, the museum display does not integrate the native american culture into the white culture of the state. Perhaps this hasn't happened.
Perhaps the most interesting changes in Oregon have occurred in the last 50 years. Unlimited industrial use had totally polluted the Willamette River, and the state passed a draconian measure with very strict controls on land use. It has worked: the Willamette has recovered. So there is a strong environmentalist movement in modern Oregon.
Our walk revealed a nice, but not spectacular city. Of course there are no thousand-year-old cathedrals to visit! It's still quite open to cars, with parking meters throughout most of the downtown streets, as well as plenty of parking lots and garages.
Powell's is a huge bookstore, or rather, a series of bookstores, because technical and travel books are separate from the main store. It's not beautiful, but practical. New and used books are shelved together. But they're bursting at the seams. We found a bunch of titles of interest and are packing them away for a rainy day (of which there seem to be plenty in the Pacific Northwest.)