Salem: Old stomping/new chomping grounds


I spent the last three days in Salem, Oregon. It was a wonderful time, with beautiful weather, lovely fall foliage, and heartfelt get-togethers with several friends.

On Wednesday, I biked from my Portland friend’s house in SE down to Union Station. I had three great conversations on the way: one with an old friend I ran into on the street, one with a former coworker when I popped into the store once more, and one with someone new at the train station who admired my rig and struck up a conversation. (Kalena, if you’re reading this, hi again!)

I loved the aesthetics of the Steel Bridge on my way to the station, and as always, I loved the aesthetics of the station itself.

The train ride was pleasant, and it felt good to step out onto the platform in Salem again. Some of you know that I used to visit Salem twice a week, for seven years, when I was together with my amazing former partner (now close friend) Johnny, who was and is incarcerated at the Oregon State Penitentiary. He and I worked together for five years to build a Japanese healing garden inside the prison—Johnny’s brainchild, a first in the United States, and an unprecedented half-million-dollar project for which the incarcerated men raised all the money, using no public funds to build it—which was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life.

When I used to visit Johnny, I often traveled by some combination of bicycle and train, so this was a fun reminder. And I’ve always liked Salem’s quaint station.

I stayed in Salem with my friend Kristi, with whom I also stayed last year in my travels. I’m really enjoying how this new year’s loop is giving me new experiences as well as wonderful reconnections with people and places from last year, and from my past. I’ve known Kristi for more than ten years, and I got to meet some of her other friends this time.

I also met up with my friend Robert—whom I’ve also known for probably at least five or six years—to tour the new Chomp! chocolate factory. It was a really fun tour, and I loved visiting a local, all-vegan chocolate company who are committed to using fair-trade and sustainable practices to make their delicious confections.

I also got to support another of my favorite Salem businesses, Infinity Room, where I ordered a to-go wrap for dinner as soon as I arrived in town. The co-owner/kitchen goddess/my longtime friend Summer met me outside to hand-deliver the wrap along with a hug.

I enjoyed some beautiful weather, and a handful of lovely parks in the area, during my short visit.

Probably the highlight of my Salem time, however, was my reconnection with Johnny—two three-hour visits, on back-to-back days—after not having seen him in person for two and a half years. Our last visit had been in March of 2020, right before the prison shut down visiting for the pandemic. Shortly afterward, we ended our romantic relationship, and then the prison kept visiting shut down for most of the rest of the time before I embarked on my travels in September of 2021. Over this past year of my travels, we had been able to keep in touch by phone to some extent, but seeing him in person made my heart happy. He is one of the most remarkable people I have ever met. I’m sad that I probably won’t see him again in person for the next year, but who knows?

We took a photo, which I wish I could share here, but unfortunately since the last time I visited, the prison photo process has become much more convoluted and time-consuming, so I probably won’t see the photo for another couple of weeks. Maybe I can share it then.

Johnny shared his excitement about his new “venture,” which involves bringing elements of the healing garden and nature/the outdoors to the patients in the prison’s infirmary, some of whom are in hospice. The infirmary is a very bleak space, and Johnny has ideas for adding outdoor access, plants, art, and various other tools to support a better healing environment. I’m excited to hear how it all unfolds.

Today, after Robert and I visited the chocolate factory, he dropped me off at the train station, where I saw Kevin, the staffer whom I had seen and chatted with many times over the years. It was serendipitous, because he said he will be retiring in 289 days. (But who’s counting? I thought with a chuckle.) So, I might not ever see him again. He was tickled to see me after such a long time, and it was cool to catch up a bit.

The train ride to Eugene was scenic in the afternoon light.

When I disembarked, I made my way over to the iconic all-vegan Cornbread Café for an early dinner, and then wended my way along the beautiful riverfront bike path to reach the house of my friends Mike and Jaimari. I had stayed with these two several times in the past as well, including on last year’s journey.

I love keeping up all these community connections as I travel.

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