An outsider’s guide to insider Portland

Dispatch from a dryland alien in the rainy Northwest.

  • Alien Sarah Gilman sips a cappuccino at Random Order, a funky coffee, cocktail and pie joint.

    Sarah Gilman
  • Alien Sarah Gilman hikes an old firelane in Forest Park.

    Sarah Gilman
  • Alien Sarah Gilman takes in the view of Portland’s famous bridges from the Eastbank Esplanade.

    Sarah Gilman
  • Alien Sarah Gilman visits a kindred spirit at the Peculiarium

    Sarah Gilman
  • Alien Sarah Gilman dashes through Oaks Amusement Park.

    Sarah Gilman

Ever since pilot Kenneth Arnold reported saucer-shaped objects flying near Mount Rainier in 1947, spawning the term “flying saucer,” the Northwest has drawn extraterrestrial tourists. Last year, Oregon led the nation in per capita UFO sightings, many of them in Portland. But the typical alien sojourn appears to be a mere flyby, sans a single visit to a vegan strip club. Perhaps, like tattoo-less Midwestern tourists in ill-fitting pants, they feel out of place here.

As a recent transplant from rural Colorado, I can relate. What we aliens need, I figure, is an outsiders’ guide to insider Portland. So, on a rainy Saturday, I don a silver onesie and homemade alien mask, and set out by bike to concoct one.

First, I pedal along the Willamette River’s industrial waterfront, where I peer at graffiti-decorated freight trains, then hit the Eastbank Esplanade, a multi-use path with great views of downtown that connects to the lengthy Springwater Corridor trail. Two women spotted a cigar-shaped UFO here in 2004. But all I see are passing joggers who studiously avoid meeting my black ovoid eyes. Hoping for friendly banter, I ask a man at an overlook — an out-of-towner like me — to snap my picture. But he returns my iPhone as if it burns him and strides swiftly away.

Just to the east is the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, where I pocket my alien face (no masks allowed) and visit a large public display of human fetuses. At a computer terminal, I age my actual 33-year-old face to a wizened 58, then wander a maze representing the hydrologic cycle, “falling” from the sky as a raindrop on a diminutive zipline before a spin of a giant dial “contaminates” me with mercury and I “flow” into a trash-filled “ocean.”

Portland’s oldest planned neighborhood, Ladd’s Addition, lies several blocks farther east. With picturesque houses, big trees and main streets arranged in a giant X, it makes an inviting UFO landing pad for extraterrestrials hoping to sample the profusion of great restaurants and shops on nearby Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard and Southeast Division Street. After grabbing a rich Vietnamese bone-broth soup and a microbrew at the Double Dragon, I pop into the Independent Publishing Resource Center to watch locals make prints on ancient letterpresses, then buy a ’zine from a converted cigarette machine.

Oaks Amusement Park, where UFOs were spotted shortly after Arnold’s sighting, is a pleasant ride south down the Springwater trail. It offers roller skating-curious aliens a historic wooden rink complete with a Wurlitzer pipe organ. At the evening roller-derby class, instructor Next of Ken teaches us to crossover our skates and speed in tight circles. Perhaps because we ETs are more accustomed to interdimensional movement, however, my skates tend to fly out from under me.

HAUS Shows, a network of private homes that host occasional concerts, are easier on the tailbone. At that night’s venue, I squeeze onto a sofa amid hip young people to listen to sweet-sounding folk and Americana. The singer from a Colorado band smiles at me with something like recognition: “Luchadorable!” he exclaims.

Even so, being an alien is exhausting: Baristas ignore you, passersby yell obscenities. So fellow extraterrestrials might consider escaping for a hike in Forest Park, one of the nation’s largest urban parks, where moss-furred trees exude the homey air of an X-Files set. To warm up after, head for a soak at Common Ground Wellness Cooperative, a co-ed, clothing-optional hot-tub spa.

Then there’s the Peculiarium – an oddity emporium and art gallery in northwest Portland. The alien autopsy display is insulting (I would never use barbecue tongs to handle intestines!), but I have my picture taken with it anyway, then befriend the giant Sasquatch and contemplate a life-sized gummy brain on a Styrofoam tray.

But it is zoobombing that fills my alien heart with the most joy. Participants meet every Sunday night to ride kiddie bikes at lightning speed down one of the city’s tallest hills. Around 10 p.m., I join a dozen men and women fiddling with custom rigs as hiphop pumps from a set of speakers lashed to an ancient road bike. Some strap on dirt-bike helmets with full face-shields. “Cheap dental insurance,” one zoobomber explains helpfully. A sprightly woman in striped stockings and garter belts calls out the rules: Dont block people! Yell out when you see a car! Dont leave anyone behind! Then we’re off, screaming around steep turns on rain-shimmered streets through silent neighborhoods. Ahead of me, a man in a studded denim vest with “DROPOUT” emblazoned across the shoulders miraculously stays upright atop a bike built for a kindergartener that keeps losing its chain.

I stop at West Burnside Street, the downtown drag that will lead me to my truck, and watch the other zoobombers descend. Through my mesh eyeholes, their evenly spaced taillights seem to blur into one graceful machine. Like a UFO, gliding out of sight into the city. 

Sarah Gilman, formerly HCN’s associate editor at the home base of Paonia, Colorado, is a contributing editor in Portland, Oregon.

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