Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Portland Adventure Hour

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Vital stats:
Format: Portland-related gab sessions and interviews
Episode duration: 30-38m
Frequency: weekly

As soon as my feet touch Portland soil, in flood the good vibes. Every time I emerge from a car, plane, or MAX train into the fresh, cool, only slightly moist Portland air, I echo the words of Brigham Young reaching Salt Lake City: “This is the place.” These feelings only intensify when I’ve sat myself down in the nearest McMenamin’s with something locally brewed in hand. Yet I live not in Portland but Los Angeles, a city whose neighborhoods Portlanders either denounce as Portland’s moral and aesthetic enemies or deride as mere brittle simulacra of Portland. In search of convenient shots of Essence of Portland when I can’t fit in an actual trip north, I discovered a new, highly suitable-sounding podcast called The Portland Adventure Hour [RSS] [iTunes].

At first listen, the show sounds like a typical three-man gab session where you can’t tell which voice belongs to whom and don’t bother because it will peter out in eighteen months anyway. But, being Portland residents, these three men make occasional reference to the things they see and do in their fair city, which immediately ups the interest level. (Usually, this sort of production emanates from spare rooms fifteen or twenty miles outside my own fair city, not that that stops the hosts from griping about “living in Los Angeles.”) The format quickly takes on an unusual hybridity: some episodes go with the gab, while others present one-on-one interviews with Portland-resident creators and businessmen, like a comedian [MP3], a wildlife photographer [MP3], a ski-builder [MP3], and the proprietor of something called a bouldering gym [MP3].

Unsurprisingly, The Portland Adventure Hour features conversations about not just bouldering but semi-unconventional methods of kayaking, skateboarding at age thirty, reading artisanal comic books, playing vintage arcade games, and using similarly vintage video game hardware to generate entire DJ sets. The ability to act fruitfully on these impulses, so the hosts claim, is what Portland is for. I would argue that Powell’s Books is what Portland is for, but I take their meaning. Give me a day to browse those bookshelves, scale an indoor climbing wall, and pump a few quarters into Galaga, downing signature Stumptown roasts and ales all the while, and you have given me a day of Earthly Paradise. Yet, as in the early, feverishly productive years of a socialist nation, one senses faintly that, for all the evident success of this Utopian experiment, life has narrowed in a way that bodes vaguely ill.

For all its evident affection for the city, Portlandia has forced us all to stare hard at our Portland-related delusions. “The dream of the nineties is alive in Portland,” sang that show’s cast; the line refers equally to Generation X’s eclectic idealism as to its bitter complacency. Portland, in both the most positive and most negative senses of this word, enables: in the dream of the nineties, you escape the meaningless pressure of a normal career and find near-automatic support for even your most obscurantist efforts, but you do it in insular, uncomfortably monocultural (I once heard a Portland-based writer refer to his town as “Lord of the Flies with urban whites”) settings in thrall to troublesome ideologies of their own. We’ve heard this story before, as a myth which Richard Lloyd Parry summarizes best: “It is like one of those fairytale undersea realms where the simple fisherman follows his water nymph, only to realize after a few years of bliss that he can never return to the air.”

You can hear The Portland Adventure Hour realize it during a discussion of the meth-heads of Chinatown [MP3]: this complicated, uneasy Portland may not trigger that special endorphin release, but it holds much more interest in the long run. Just beneath the Portland of Portlandia lays the the Portland of Gus van Sant’s Paranoid Park. Both van Sant and Chuck Palahniuk seem able to reside in this Portland and remain internationally relevant creators, a trick few others seem able to pull off. Living in any of Portland’s realities, while fun, seems to get a lot of people branded in the wider culture, often with good cause, as not particularly serious about their craft. Will this show wind up as yet one more of Portland’s half-attempted, prematurely contented projects with a withered inclination (or indeed capacity) to reach beyond the walls of its hometown? Something in these guys’ lively speech, their active curiosity, and their ability to keep episodes under forty minutes makes me believe they can realize their idea's higher ambitions.

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[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes]. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]