written by Kevin Max | photos by Talia Galvin
Nearly every day during my first year in New York, I met Sarah Rose beneath an ornate cast iron bridge at the southern end of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir in Central Park. From there, we’d run loops of four to six miles depending on time, the weather and the prior evening’s payback. Oregon and Forest Park were still some years off.
Sarah, a financial writer at Money magazine, had outlasted and outrun other suitors over the past few years of dating in the City. She was athletic, well-educated and competitive, a Wisconsin trifecta. The men who comprised her courtship were, however, chained to the city and its social structures. They wore shoes with leather soles during the week, cable knits on weekends in Montauk, effortlessly talked about bond yields and drank scotch rather than Leinenkugels.
By that time in my life, I had proven many times over that the best way to get to know a place was to walk it or to run it. The early oiseau gets the worm in Paris. The streets are bus-less, the monuments largely un-peopled before 8 a.m. Dublin is nursing a hangover that doesn’t move until after 10. The air quality isn’t insufferable when the sun peeks over the Guggenheim. Central Park was land-locked with a good six miles around it, where pavement runners could get in some distance before work—many perpetually training for the New York City Marathon. The looping soft bridle paths made for a different experience on dirt, less crowded and quieter than, say, the outer loop and the downtown C train.
All of these 850 acres of Central Park were a gift from the minds of designers Fredrick Law Olmsted, known as the father of landscape architecture and his business partner, Calvert Vaux.
Over time and through many miles in Central Park and, later, running in Prospect Park, Olmsted’s half-scale model in Brooklyn, I made the case for Sarah Rose to become Sarah Max.
It wasn’t until the newly betrothed Sarah Max and I moved to Oregon in 2002 that we began to run in what we later discovered as being another work of art from the Olmsted family, Forest Park.
We began in Forest Park with short climbs from Macleay Park on Upshur Street to the Pittock Mansion on Forest Park’s West Hills boundary. Longer runs followed as we lit out on different trails. At some point, I learned of the Forest Park Marathon, an annual and unusual 27-mile trail run to raise awareness and funds for the Forest Park Conservancy.
Nearly forty-five years of study and a few marathons, and I had gathered enough evidence to suggest that any feat of running should go no farther than thirteen miles in continuous length (on purpose) and last no more than two hours in duration. Swollen knees, blistered feet, an aching back and days-long recoveries all argued against my participation in such events. Well?
Forest Park Marathon starts at the end of Thurman Street and climbs Wild Cherry Trail to 53rd Street and eventually Wildwood Trail. The race then snakes northeast along the spine of the Wildwood Trail, before turning back for home around mile eighteen. A beaute for sure.
Sarah and I had prepared for this race as busy people typically do—by not preparing. We had done a handful of recent runs that lasted around two hours and assumed that we could muddle our way through the final hour and a half. Athleticism, focus and muscle (fatigue) memory would make the finish line appear closer.
I recalled how I felt when a friend of mine had shown up at my house a couple of years prior and said that he was set to run a marathon in a month. I asked him how his training was going. “I haven’t really started running yet,” he said. “I do Cross Fit.” The pull-ups and tractor-tire-flipping must have been too much in the intervening month as he ended up downgrading to the half marathon and then dropped out of that while contemplating the difference between fitness and endurance, I suppose.
The Forest Park marathon is unique in the fact that it’s limited to 100 runners and, with the exception of a few park users here and there, you can go for miles without seeing another human. For comparison, the New York City Marathon is essentially a traffic jam set to music along a corridor of cheering people. There are funk bands, rock bands, parties, cocktails and adventures in anonymous food handouts. I may be one of the few people who gained weight running a marathon–to the annoyance of my wife. Corned beef sandwich? Thank you. Cheese cake, you say? Well, maybe one slice.
Forest Park, however, is forty miles of Douglas fir, western cedar and a couple of other inedible tree species. It’s a quiet pillow of a buffer in an otherwise bustling city. To walk or run here is to get away, to breathe.
Waiting for the race, there was Ed, a salesman from Chicago who has a master plan of running dozens of marathons. Sarah empathized with a mother of two who managed to squeak in enough miles to make a go of it. The tall thin prototypical runners sport their Compression Era socks—blood-circulating panty hose for the “in” crowd.
The Wildwood Trail is the park’s longest trail, beginning in Washington Park near the zoo and winding 27 miles up to Newberry Road. The initial few miles feel like what most people would describe as “awful,” climbing Cherry trail while trying to conserve energy for the next 24 miles.
Running long distance is never really about the miles, though we all have seen or experienced body failure at some point. The bigger problem comes from the neck up. It’s about where your mind goes over that distance. The fact is that, unless you’ve been incarcerated for some time, you really don’t have any practice at spending that much time inside your own head. Solitude is rare these days. It is an app that, for 99 cents, brings you together with millions of paragons of solitude for polite social interaction about being alone with one’s thoughts.
“I so h8 talking to myself!!”
“Do u run?”
“Yep, just not long.”
At mile 10 or so, I resolve to create Yu, a cutting-edge minimalist app that sells for $100 per download on iTunes. The screen turns a luxurious black, leaving only your face looking back at you for quiet reflection, self-engagement and solitude. Let’s not omit the next generation of app-buyers-in-the-wool. After their parents have signed a lengthy disclaimer, kids age 9 and younger can try my free download that comes standard on all phones that are turned off or otherwise battery dead. Yes, this is where the mind goes to keep the feet pounding dirt.
As far as histories of urban parks go, Forest Park’s is a good one. The Portland Municipal Park Commission, under the leadership of Rev. Thomas Eliot, hired the Olmsted Brothers of Brookline, Massachusetts to sketch their ideas for a city park. Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and his brother, Charles, had worked with their father on projects such as the Baltimore Estate and the World’s Columbian Exposition before applying themselves to Portland greenery. Their ideas culminated in a report that advised the city to create a 40-mile parkway from St. John’s ferry on the Portland’s northwest boundary with the Willamette River to the Sellwood ferry along the city’s southern boundary of the river. This parkway would connect many city parks along its spine, including the forest that now comprises Forest Park. That area, the Olmsteds insisted, should remain pristine. “No use to which the land could be put would begin to be as sensible or as profitable to the city as that of making it a public park or reservation, leaving out of it, if it should be found necessary for economy, the top of the ridge, which might come to have special value for country residences.”
Perhaps this foreshadowing should have informed future developers.
In 1907, the city procured $1 million in bonds to carry out the Olmsted vision. This all took time, rights of way and consensus to implement. Soon a Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip, would effectively push aside the world’s major public works projects by assassinating Archduke Ferdinand of Austria and triggering World War I.
In the early twentieth century, people who must have come from a flat, dry area in which landslides were not common and the laws of physics untested, sketched out subdivisions on and around this steep hillside. These ideas were printed on wasted paper. The planned Harbor Heights could have easily slid down to become, merely, Harbor Flats. Assuming Portland, in 1915, received as much rain as it does today, the proposed Marine View would eventually have Submarine Views. Though the City of Portland maintained a logging camp for the unemployed around this time, this area remained largely undeveloped until The Great Depression. In 1931 and 1932, nearly $2.5 million from relief bonds were appropriated to put the unemployed back to work, namely grading and building Hillside Drive, or what is now Leif Erickson Drive.
Because this wilderness lay on the edge of the city, a number of parks sprouted in the area. By 1947, Macleay, Holman, Clark, Wilson and Linnton parks had become places for hikers, picnickers, Boy Scouts and Camp Fire girls.
Over nearly fifty years and two world wars, there was no shortage of theme variation on the Olmsted Brothers’ initial kernel. Then, along came Garnett “Ding” Cannon, president of The Standard insurance company in Portland. There were parcels of land yet to be acquired before the urban forest could become Forest Park. Cannon made the creation of Forest Park his thing and helped acquire these last parcels that would ultimately form the untouchable portion of the Olmsted Brothers’ vision.
At mile 12, or so, I reached the only infrastructure in miles. This feed station had water, bananas and power bars. Central Park has restaurants, an ice rink and gobs of pale humanity running in circles. With the exception of a some benches and a few bridges that span washout flows, Forest Park has few signs of human handiwork. It’s one manmade icon—the so-called “witch’s castle” near Lower Macleay Park Trailhead—crumbles into history. The positive spin is that it’s just becoming more “Portlandia-ish,” with tattoos gaudily enveloping its body, too cool to stand upright.
This structure was once an architectural marvel of stone-ensconced lavatories designed in 1929 by Ernest Tucker and later built by work ers in the WPA program. Park users could study its masonry while seated on one of its flushing thrones. These days, the park’s distinguished visitors are relegated to artless restrooms at the Lower Macleay trailhead. So much for inspired movements. Right after my new solitude app, I’m going to launch a Kickstarter campaign to restore the castle to the height of its glory, with the donors’ names engraved in the stones opposite its captive audience.
What’s perhaps most impressive to me at mile 15 of this ramble is the vastness of the park. Fir after fir, maple after maple, and bracken fern upon bracken fern. I’m drawn into a green world splashed with red and brown here and there. A late summer kaleidoscope.
The lack of training is now brandishing its ugly armor and piercing my knees and hips and feet. Sarah is somewhere ahead of me and likely feeling just as awesome for not training.
Once providing employment for hard-timers throughout the early twentieth century, Forest Park became a secret home to one family in the early twenty-first century, that was later chronicled as historical fiction in the book, My Abondonment, written by Portlander Peter Rock. A father and daughter set up a shelter, a small garden, a swing and makeshift bathroom and lived there undetected for four years between 2000 and 2004. That story broke my heart, too.
I snapped back into the present and realized that I have been alone with my thoughts far too long. I should have hit the turn around a half hour ago. I should have seen others, the do-gooder training types, returning along the same path. Those damned orange course cones a few miles back appeared to urge me in this direction, down this trail, this line of thought. Damn Yu!
Just then I hear a strange bird in the canopy. I need an excused to stop and listen, to take my mind in another direction. Coo. Coo. Coo. It’s only then that I remember I’m carrying Sarah’s cell phone.
“Honey, it’s me,” Sarah blurted. ”So glad I found you. I’m calling from an aid station, and we missed the turn-off.”
I look at the time. We’ve been running for three hours already, maybe one of them in the wrong direction.
“Let’s meet back at the next aid station,” said Sarah. “We can decide what to do from there.”
Before I reunited with Sarah Rose Max, before we hiked out of the back side the park on Skyline Boulevard, before we got in the back of the cab, before that cab sped us back to the finish line and before I huffed three Motrin to head to our girls’ soccer game, I laughed about the vastness of a park whose marathon would accommodate someone being lost for an hour without seeing another racer, without startling that runner out of daydreams, without even thinking it odd that you could be isolated for so long, yet in the middle of Portland.
Next year, Forest Park Conservancy is bringing back the half marathon to this event. If my solitude app hits pay dirt by then, I might pay a proxy to run in my place. Then again, I might need some alone time in the woods.