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From The Asian Reporter, V16, #23 (June 6, 2006), page 16.
More than just a walk in the park
Portland Hill Walks:
Twenty Explorations in Parks and Neighborhoods
By Laura O. Foster
Timber Press, 2005
Paperback, 300 pages, $19.95
By Andrew J. Weber
The press material for Portland Hill Walks promises no "restaurant ratings, or rehashed explanations of how the city got its name," an effort to distance the book from the likes of Zagat and Fodor, which have built grand travel publishing franchises on just that sort of information. The claim is not quite true; a section entitled "Food and Drink" is part of the header for every walk, highlighting local wayside cafés (although, admittedly, without assigning numerical ratings). Yet the book is better for it, and the point has been made; Portland Hill Walks is unlike many of the popular national publications and makes a great guidebook, even for locals.
Laura Foster provides a real familiarity with the neighborhoods she describes, which only a veteran Portland walker could produce. Such intimacy is often the lonely domain of the self-published, who tend to unite a great depth of knowledge with a regrettable lack of professionalism, but there is nothing amateurish about Portland Hill Walks. Indeed, any publisher would be well-advised to take a good look at the thought and care that Timber Press has lovingly put into this book.
The business of printing guidebooks is tough for any publisher due to the geographically restricted market. There is negligible demand for a Portland walking guidebook outside of the city itself, and Portland is a small city to begin with. Yet the high quality of Portland Hill Walks shows the considerable investment Timber Press was willing to place in this publication, regardless of the expected returns. It is this uncommon commitment that makes this guidebook so worthwhile, where small details are highlighted and celebrated rather than glossed over or ignored.
With only 20 featured trips, many of the walk descriptions stretch to 12 pages or more, leaving Foster plenty of room to provide lavish details of every notable point along the way. History, geology, and geography are just a few of the diverse topics addressed on each route. Although rehashed explanations of how Portland got its name might be off limits, the origins of individual neighborhood names are thankfully included, from early settlers like Albina Page and John Sellwood to the mysterious and now absent Guilds Lake.
Beautiful black-and-white photos are generously provided throughout the text, with some full-page and even a few double-page spreads, providing a mix of current neighborhood views with classic historical images. The excellent photos are worthy companions to the narrative, providing perspective on how much things have (or haven’t) changed over the years. The accompanying maps are clear and detailed, and more than sufficient for effective navigation on unfamiliar streets.
Hill walks are promised in the title but Portland is a hilly city, and so "Hill walks" is better understood as "Neighborhood walks." Covering all five of Portland’s major city sections, the walks have a particular concentration in the Southwest, which boasts nine tours altogether, nearly half the total. Commendably, a full 17 of the routes are loops, an optimal configuration that prevents having to retrace any steps and maximizes the value of time spent along the way. Additional options are frequently provided, allowing the walks to be lengthened or shortened depending on personal preference.
Foster was lucky to find a publisher in Timber Press so obviously willing to exploit her strengths. The walks described in this book are good enough to warrant repeat visits, with new treasures awaiting discovery each time. While reading along in the text, it is easy to imagine Ms. Foster as a familiar companion, explaining the history of the route, pointing out sights along the way, and unearthing forgotten nuggets of local history. A photo in the book bears the caption, "One of Portland’s secret passageways between streets." The reader is left to imagine just how many such hidden byways Ms. Foster could have included in this book, as surely she is familiar with them all.
Andrew Weber is the author of the hiking guidebook 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Seattle, from Menasha Ridge Press.