This article was written by Erik Tonkin in response to the City of Portland’s decision to ban bicycling in River View Natural Area.
This will not be about my own personal narrative of biking, racing, and River View, but that’s where I’ll start because my life in Portland began on the cemetery trails.
I flew to Portland in 1993, 22 years ago this month. It was just my second time on a plane and my first time west of Minnesota. I was a freshman in college back home, and I’d saved up my work-study money for a round-trip flight to Portland. I was considering a transfer to Lewis & Clark College, so I came to give it a closer look.
“I somehow got to Brugger Road and turned left, heading back toward Palatine Hill — and that’s where I saw an opening in the woods, over a bald mound and through an ivy-choked but gorgeous green curtain of trees. I was in Oregon now.”
I landed at PDX and promptly got on a bus headed for downtown. I got off at the first stop and found a phone booth and phone book. The very few listings for bike shops quickly led me to the Bike Gallery. I walked over and rented a Bridgestone MB-3. I put on my big backpack and pedaled south toward Terwiliger and the college, where I was scheduled to attend a student orientation for the weekend. Eventually I crossed Taylors Ferry and, just after and to the left, saw my first Portland gravel road. I had no choice but to follow it, losing my way to school on the side streets of Burlingame.
I somehow got to Brugger Road and turned left, heading back toward Palatine Hill — and that’s where I saw an opening in the woods, over a bald mound and through an ivy-choked but gorgeous green curtain of trees. I was in Oregon now. That poor MB-3 got quite a workout before I even made it to campus, and I spent most of my time that weekend on the trails, on the bike.
The cemetery trails — which are also known by a more formal name, the River View Natural Area — offer me sense of place. I’ve lived and worked near to them ever since — without interruption, and by intention. The place made me the athlete I am — or, perhaps, was! In fact, today marks the 19th year of my shop’s informal group ride we call the Wednesday Night Mountain Bike School. The list of Oregon-based riders and racers who’ve done their tour-of-duty with me out on those River View trails is legend. (I am proud of that fact, but without arrogance — it’s just another reason those trails are hallowed ground for us.)
I don’t just go to River View to train and ride. While the bike is my preferred mode, I also like to walk. I saw my first Portland coyote there. (This was many years before the Sleater-Kinney track, an ode to the old-new of our town.) I discovered the waterfall hidden deep within. I encountered college kids and homeless folk doing things on and off the trails that they should — and shouldn’t have — been doing (it’s a heavily wooded area in the city, so let your imagination run wild).
The place is not mine. Nor is it owned by Portland Parks and Recreation and the Bureau of Environmental Services. They have some agency over it, but so do I. We all own it and have agency over it. Most importantly, we are all its stewards.
For my part, I do not plan to stop going there once this new ban is in place on March 16th. I honestly don’t think I can stop at this point. I will be on foot, but I’ll mostly be on my bike. I could be called a scofflaw. And yet I could also be called a Transcendentalist of the 19th century variety. “Among their core beliefs,” so says Wikipedia, “was the inherent goodness of both people and nature. They believe that society and its institutions…ultimately corrupt the purity of the individual. They have faith that people are at their best when truly “self-reliant” and independent. It is only from such real individuals that true community could be formed.”
I said this wasn’t going to be about my personal narrative, and it isn’t. Yes, the city graciously named me a “stakeholder” of the River View property. Yes, it’s personal for me. But now, what it’s really about is this: we are all stakeholders in River View because as citizens of this fine city and state we value open process and honest politics.
Unfortunately, what’s happened here so far is bad policy from poor politics and a failure of leadership in a closed process. And I don’t like it.
I could add conjecture and draw conclusions, editorializing until the end. But we all can. What matters is that it happened. This is not just about whether or not we can ride bikes off-road in River View. This is about faith and trust in our elected public officials. We deserve better.
— For more on River View, browse our archives.