1. On my first morning in Portland, I threw out my back while brushing my teeth. I was thirty-one, and thought I had at least ten more years before that kind of thing happened. I wanted to call for help, but the thought of speaking, of sending any vibrations at all through my chest, terrified me. I felt as helpless then as I ever have as an adult. The night before, I’d lifted suitcases and walked several miles and generally felt like a young person. And now I was reminded that all of these activities are enabled by the whims of a body I can barely control. LauraBeth found an office chair nearby and rolled it behind me. She forced me to sit, though I was afraid any movement might tear me in half. I sat motionless for a half hour while she gave me Advil and found a heating pad and eventually forced me into the first, painful steps of a new chapter in my life. Then I went to the zoo.
2. LauraBeth’s childhood friend, Chrissy, joined us on this vacation. They’re both tall, thin, short-haired, and pretty, born five days apart. People often mistake them for sisters. Chrissy was divorced a few years prior, and this would be our first vacation as a group. That first morning, with my bad back, I thought: I am going to have to go to the hospital. And I thought: I am going to ruin this vacation. I pictured LauraBeth and Chrissy exploring the city while I stayed in bed watching Law & Order reruns and taking as many painkillers as I was allowed, plus an extra one or two. They would come home after a late lunch, a little drunk from afternoon wine, and ask me how I was doing. I would tell them I was fine and listen to all the things I’d missed, wondering if I was even there at all.
3. We stayed in an immaculately maintained Airbnb in a small complex of townhouses in the Alphabet District. There were newspapers on every doorstep, so we knew this was not a complex for young people. All the tenants were middle-aged gay men who’d moved here during the eighties when this place had a reputation as a safe haven. On the second morning, I went out to get coffee for the three of us. My back was feeling a little better, but I spent most of the vacation afraid of stillness; I thought the next time I sat down might be the last time. On my return from the coffee shop, I met a neighbor, sitting in a lawn chair on his front steps, a purring cat in his lap. He offered me a cookie. He told me about how he’d become an accidental gentrifier, how the rents here used to be very cheap. “We made this place trendy,” he said. “Now I’m just an old gay. Nobody cares about us anymore.”
4. Above the bed where LauraBeth and I slept, the owners had hung a surprisingly detailed painting of two men in Ancient Greece engaged in anal sex in front of a crowd. It was, I thought, a bold design choice.
5. The water in Crater Lake is so perfect, it feels like you’re on another planet. The lake was formed when a volcano collapsed, and is the centerpiece of a sprawling National Park. We took a boat tour of the lake that lasted a half hour longer than it needed to. We learned about various rock formations, plus a tree stump that is famous for having been a floating tree stump for a very long time. The guide showed us the stump and we all agreed that it was, indeed, a floating stump. I was badly sunburned, which is as much a vacation tradition as anything we do. I asked the guide a question, and when he said that’s a great question, I felt an embarrassing surge of pride, a remnant of my days as a grade-obsessed student. Chrissy and LauraBeth also asked great questions. A young gay couple sat in the front of the boat, and they were so in love it was inspiring. They held hands and locked eyes when they spoke, and the way they smiled at each other it was clear they felt like they were the only people in the boat, like they’d been set free to explore the whole planet on their own. Chrissy took a picture of them, an act we later decided was a little creepy, but also I got it: it’s good to have confirmation that love is a true and possible thing.
6. The homeless and panhandlers in Portland were so much younger than their counterparts in Philly. Homeless kids crouched on corners throughout the city with skateboards and dogs and begged aggressively, confrontationally, with all the arrogance of young people with nothing to lose. I hated the part of me that felt contempt when they reached out and touched my arm, and I also hated the part of me that guiltily threw a handful of change into the cup of a kid who was obviously going to use it to buy heroin. I hated feeling so small in the face of a problem I barely understand. Sometimes when a homeless person asks me for money, I freeze because I don’t want to deny his essential humanity, and yet I also find myself unwilling to give away money. Usually I pretend I don’t have any cash, or, if I actually don’t have cash, I feel an embarrassing need to explain myself. I’m afraid one day a homeless person will ask me why I deserve the life I have instead of theirs, and I won’t be able to answer. I donate to food banks, but that seems so insignificant. I have five half-finished essays on homelessness on my computer; I have the luxury of sitting around and thinking about it for a while.
7. We ate at a Peruvian restaurant where the food was so good we’ve been talking about it for three years. I have no memory of what I ate. All I know is that we left that restaurant talking all night about how good it had been. Most of our travel is built around food. We try, in a few days, to fill ourselves with as many of the essential local foods as possible. We collect those experiences and try to absorb every detail, and then we go home and the details become blurred almost immediately. We just have the memory of a brief period when there was food on our plates and it was incredible. We’re the owners of a series of half-remembered things that add up to something, though we can’t quite put our fingers on what that is.
8. I have an internet friend named Justin who lives in Portland. We’re friends because we both like the same football team, and we talk about liking that football team in the same places online. I knew a lot about a very small portion of his life, and very little about the rest. He and his wife took us to a local winery, where we sat outside and looked at hills and valleys and fields of grapevines. We drank a couple bottles of wine. This place had one of the most impressive bathrooms I’ve ever seen, though it’s been long enough now that I can only remember thinking: how does anybody afford this? Justin and his wife met us for drinks a few days later in Bend, Oregon. At this point, they had become real life friends. They had a son two years later. Among the hundreds of child pictures I see on my Facebook feed, theirs are among the best.
9. Driving from Portland to the Oregon coast, we saw a forest fire. We saw a Native American reservation on a small stretch of utterly useless land. We started seeing a lot of Confederate Flags and trailer homes owned by people who strongly preferred not to be tread on. I was in charge of the music, and LauraBeth was the driver because otherwise the winding roads would make her motion sick. Chrissy sat in the back, scrolling through her phone and reading us the latest headlines about the royal baby. Every mile we drove, it got colder and grayer.
10. The last place we stayed was a riverboat bed & breakfast in Newport. We were greeted by three dogs—Charlie, Jazz, and Arf, all Westies—who jumped into our laps as soon as we sat. At night, we sat on the top deck of the boat, drinking wine and beer with Michael, one of the innkeepers. He and his wife, Gloria, were planning on selling the boat soon and retiring after two decades in the business, so he was feeling wistful. He told us stories about the various men who lived on the docks. He warned Chrissy to stay away from the fishermen, who he described as ne’er-do-wells, but to find herself a rich logger while she was in town. “You can tell the loggers,” he said. “The smell of them.” In the morning, Gloria served us breakfast and broke down into tears several times. She was waiting on medical test results, but didn’t want to talk about it. At the next table, a white man named Tyrone and his wife ate plate after plate after plate of food. They wore all white every day, and they had the persistent smiles and disconcertingly enthusiastic voices of youth ministers. Nights when they saw us drinking on the top deck, they didn’t even step through the doorway, as if they were afraid of catching a contact drunk. I assumed they were missionaries, or maybe ghosts.
11. On the last night, we walked to the rocky coast and hopscotched along rocks out into the water where we saw seals so close we could have named them. Later, we sat on the sand and watched the sun set. What possible thing can I say about a sunset that hasn’t been said? We watched it because we were on the coast and we felt just a little bit closer to the sun than we’d been at home. We watched it because we were tired and it was nice to sit down. We watched it because what else was there to do? We were on vacation and had spent a lot of time and money to have a moment where we could do something like this: to feel calm and comfortable and alive for a while.