The capital of weird

Portland is regularly parodied for its hipness. Barry Divola discovers the genesis for the jokes in a wilfully individual city.

Did you see that Portlandia episode about the vegan strip club where the girls can only remove non-animal-based clothing? How about the skit involving the self-compacting garbage bins that run on solar power, in a city that gets more than 150 days of grey skies and rain a year? Or the one about the annual naked bike ride attended by over 10,000 cyclists?

The truth is that even if you're an avid fan of the TV show that satirises the hip hub of the US north-west, screened on ABC2 in Australia, you wouldn't have seen any of these. That's because the strip club, the garbage bins and the bike ride are all real.

Portland, it seems, has taken its unofficial motto to heart - Keep Portland Weird.

In a development that seems straight out of Portlandia, I wake up on my first morning in town (in the hip but hospitable Ace Hotel, which was parodied as The Deuce in the TV show), and on the front page of local paper The Oregonian is a story about an Englishman challenging Portland over its long-held claim to owning the smallest park in the world. He calls Portland's park "a glorified flower pot" that does not even qualify as a park.

I immediately think two things. Firstly, is this the first time in history that two cities have argued they have something that is "the smallest" rather than "the biggest"? And secondly, I have to leave the hotel straight away and find Portland's Mill Ends Park to ascertain its minuteness.

It's not easy to spot unless you know where to look. After all, it's only 60 centimetres in diameter and sits on the median strip of a busy road called SW Naito Parkway. The story goes that journalist Dick Fagan used to have a newspaper column called Mill Ends. One day in 1948, he looked out his office window and noticed that a hole dug by city workers, which was intended for a light pole, had never been filled. He decided to plant flowers and a small shrub in the hole, then wrote a tall tale in his column about a leprechaun named Patrick O'Toole granting his wish of owning a park.

For the next two decades, until his death in 1969, Fagan would update readers on the park and the leprechaun and it became a much-loved part of Portland life. In 1971 it was officially named smallest park in the world by Guinness World Records. But does it qualify as a park, or is it just a hole with some greenery in it? The leprechaun is not available for comment today.

I decide that over the next 48 hours I will experience as much of Portland's weird side as possible. As I've skipped breakfast, it only seems right to head to Voodoo Doughnut, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. There's no need to check if it's open yet; this Portland landmark is open 24 hours.


"I can make recommendations," says the rail-thin, panda-eyed Elvira lookalike behind the counter. "But I don't actually eat doughnuts any more. I did when I started working here but at a certain point you just have to stop."

Glass cases groan with sugar and calories. There's one delicacy that is encrusted with Froot Loops and another topped with bacon. I opt for two of the store's best-known doughnuts. The Portland Cream is chocolate-coated and vanilla cream-filled, and in 2008 the mayor declared it the city's official doughnut, which makes me wonder why all cities don't have an official doughnut. The other is the Voodoo Doughnut, shaped like a gingerbread man, filled with blood-red raspberry jam and finished with a pretzel stick through its chocolate heart.

Elvira packs them in one of the shop's signature pink boxes and informs me that, if the sugar rush goes to my head and I'm able to find a suitable partner, I can get hitched while I'm there as they also perform weddings. I explain that I'm already married. "We also have a recommitment ceremony," she says. "We call that the 'Redo Your I Do at Voodoo."'

It soon turns out that every time you learn a new fact about Portland you're forced to question its authenticity because it sounds so off-kilter. For instance, did you know the city was named as the result of tossing a coin? Seriously, it was. In 1845, city founders Asa Lovejoy (who wanted to name it after his hometown Boston, Massachusetts) and Francis Pettygrove (who was pushing for his beloved Portland, Maine) flipped a penny to decide. Pettygrove got the best two out of three. I see the coin that coined Portland for myself on display in a glass case at the headquarters of the Oregon Historical Society.

As I walk around town I get the eerie feeling I'm stuck in an episode of The Simpsons. That's because Matt Groening grew up here and so many of his show's characters, including Ned Flanders, Reverend Lovejoy, Mayor Quimby and Kearney the school bully, were named after streets of the city.

Look down - hiding among the paving bricks of Pioneer Courthouse Square, each one bought by a Portland citizen and inscribed with their name, you'll find Elvis Presley, Mr. Spock, Bilbo Baggins and Jesus Christ. Look up - does that sign really say that this is a skateboard lane? Yes, it does. Portland recognises skateboarders as cyclists in the eyes of the law and has given them equal road rights. Look over there - what on earth is that monument that looks like a cluster of kids' bikes attached to a pole? That, my friends, is the Zoobomb Pyle.

Each Sunday since 2002, groups of riders, some dressed as animals, fairies or superheroes, have taken the MAX light rail to the Oregon Zoo, which is set high on a hill in Washington Park. They either take their own bikes, skateboards and scooters or grab one of the minibikes from the Zoobomb Pyle. Once they get to their destination, they freewheel en masse at great speed down the steep streets that radiate from the zoo, often filming their exploits. Why? Because, you know, it's fun. And, you know, it's Portland.

The next morning I head to north-west Portland on the streetcar and find The Peculiarium, which was recently voted Best Offbeat Museum by The Oregonian. You may think it wouldn't be that difficult to win this award. I mean, how many offbeat museums can there be in a city of less than 600,000 people? A lot, as it turns out, including a hat museum, a canoe and kayak museum, a BMX bike museum and a vacuum cleaner museum.

The Peculiarium lives up to its name. Opened by Mike Wellins, an animator who has worked on films such as Coraline, it's a cross between a believe-it-or-not emporium, a house of horrors, an offbeat art gallery and a novelty store. The displays include a Bigfoot and an alien autopsy, and at the ice-cream parlour you can ask to have dried mealworms sprinkled on your scoop. In case you're wondering, they taste like a cross between sunflower seeds and pistachio nuts.

In the afternoon I take a bus across the river to visit Stark's Vacuum Cleaner Museum (no, it doesn't completely suck), ride a stationary bike outside Hopworks Bike Bar for 15 minutes to create electricity for the building and get an official discount on my beer, and then stumble upon a 1965 double-decker English bus that's been converted into a vintage clothing store called Lodekka.

"This kind of thing could only happen in Portland," says a girl on the bus who is trying on a pair of brown corduroy culottes. She has cat's-eye glasses and facial piercings that make her look like the keyboard player from the Dandy Warhols. It turns out that's exactly who she is. Somewhere in my head I can hear the song from the first episode of Portlandia, The Dream of the '90s Is Alive in Portland.

That night I'm browsing the shelves at Powell's, one of the world's largest independent booksellers, doing some serious damage to my credit card, when I notice a section labelled Weird Books.

I can't believe my luck. It's a toss-up between Satan's Bid for Your Child or Firewalking: Guiding Yourself into a Spiritual Reality until a tome on the bottom shelf catches my eye - Manifold Destiny: The One! The Only! Guide to Cooking on Your Car Engine!

I don't even own a car, but I decide I need to own this tome.

Weird decision? Come on! It's Portland.

Barry Divola travelled courtesy of Virgin Australia and was a guest of the Ace Hotel.


Getting there Virgin Australia has a fare to Portland for about $1510 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne including taxes. Fly to Los Angeles from Melbourne in 14hr 35min and from Sydney in 13hr 50min and then to Portland (2hr 20min with Delta); see or phone 13 67 89.

Staying there The Ace Hotel, 1022 SW Stark Street. Phone 503 228 2277; see Standard rooms with bath from $185, including a turntable and selection of vinyl records (very Portlandia).

See + do Mill Ends Park, SW Naito Parkway at Taylor Street.

Voodoo Doughnut, 22 SW 3rd Avenue. See

Oregon Historical Society, 1200 SW Park Avenue. See

Zoobomb Pyle, corner 13th Street and W Burnside Street.

The Peculiarium, 2234 NW Thurman Street. See

Stark's Vacuum Cleaner Museum, 107 NE Grand Avenue. See

Hopworks Bike Bar, 3947 N. Williams Avenue. See

Lodekka, N. Williams Avenue between Failing and Shaver. See

Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside Street. See