The Boring Volcanoes, 2: Kelly Butte, April 8, 2020


My adult life here’s been a story of the city—at least, the city I knew—receding. The Portland I knew in high school was a glorified lumber town. The best restaurant was that kinda shitty pizza place across from Powell’s, or maybe the place with communal tables under the Morrison. Good beer was Henry’s, or maybe an anonymous amber from Full Sail or Bridgeport if you were feeling fancy. There were punk rock record stores and a bathhouse on Burnside. People still spoke Mandarin in Chinatown.

But then the money came. Boutiques replaced the record stores. Us white folks metastasized. They started naming condo buildings after the things they displaced. “The brewery blocks.” “The Alberta arts district.”

Of course everyone feels this about how the world’s changed from when they were young. You get to know a place, then, like all things do, it changes. And you view the change as alien. But that alien world is home to a new set. And so on.

But I miss that home.


My favorite place in Portland—I like to think of it as a bulwark of the old guard—is 82nd. I can’t explain why. Maybe it’s the absolute absence of condos or boutiques or stores selling essential oils that’ll heal your inflammation, or at least your ennui. Maybe it’s just that it looks like the city looks in my memory.


Kelly Butte’s a small hillock in southeast Portland, just east of 82nd. I walk there on a sunny early April morning, from the big new houses on Tabor to the older Asian neighborhoods around 82nd, where the signs slowly shift out of English.

Under I205, there are an astounding number of unhoused folks camping. I see the tent Krista and I bought on a lark for Death Valley. We used it once and probably never will again. And here it’s someone’s home.


Past the interstate, there’s no clear way up the Butte. My GPS shows several trails, but none seem to exist. So I circle around on surface streets, staying as close as I can.


Eventually I figure out the trick: go south on 103rd past Clinton, and follow it as it curves improbably through a few steep hills to the summit quarry.



The first white settler here was Clinton Kelly—he of Clinton Street, and also Kelly Butte—who arrived at the edge of the first big wave of white settlement in 1848 and set up a farm. He tended the farm for decades, then his children did, until 1906, when the last child died, the city bought the land, and built a prison work center. At the top was a quarry, where prisoners broke the rocks that would become Portland’s roads. The labor camp lasted about as long as the farm. In 1956 the city repurposes the prison into a Cold War era emergency operations center. The idea was that, when the Soviets decided to bomb Portland, the municipal leadership could come up here and survive the blast in a shared bunker. They even made a short movie about it.

That whole history’s faded now. The only bit that still shows is the quarry. The summit’s lined with broken rock walls.


Broken rock walls and tents.

As I leave the road for the trail that’ll evidently bring me to the top, I interrupt a man in his mid-20s, who’d been sleeping in the midday sun. He apologizes, and I tell him he’s got nothing to apologize for. But he keeps going, almost mournfully. “It’s my first night, or… my first day out, and I guess I should find a better hidden spot…” I tell him I think he’s got a great spot. He could be Kelly Butte’s official welcoming committee. He almost—almost—smiles.


The top of Kelly Butte is wooded, and in the woods are dozen more tents. Near the very top is a lived-in camp, with an older man and woman, reclining on moldering cushions in the dappled sun. The king and queen of Kelly Butte. I apologize for interrupting their afternoon, but the man’s magnanimous. “Nonsense!” He coughs like an old sea captain. “Do you need a place to stay tonight?”

I tell him I don’t—at least, I don’t for now. “But thank you. For your generosity, you know?” Again: “Nonsense!” I gather it’s something like his catch phrase.

“There’s…” I’m cautious. “There’s a kid down in the quarry that seems like he could use some help finding a place, if you know of one.” The man smiles, again magnanimously. And begins walking down the hill.



I don’t want to go back the way I’ve come, so I end up taking a weird—and not necessarily legal—route down the southwest side, through the new water reservoirs the city setup after decommissioning the reservoirs at Mt. Tabor.




At the bottom, there’s another camp, this one a bit more organized. A couple of guys from a local bahn mi place are here, smiling and handing out sandwiches to the residents.

There are obvious language barriers—they seem a bit more comfortable in Vietnamese than in English—but they’re doing their best to joke around. “You like it spicy, I can tell!”

And it strikes me, as it has a lot lately, how beautiful people can be, even—maybe especially—when things get hard. And it strikes me, as it also has a lot lately, that this is still very much my home.

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