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Laura O. Foster leads the way in Portland-area walks

by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: LINDA STARR - Laura O. Foster leads occasional walking tours of the Portland area. The author of five guidebooks for urban explorers lists stairways as among her favorite sites.

Laura O. Foster does not get in a hurry when she takes a walk. She strolls at a leisurely pace, soaking up the sights and sounds around her, pausing to admire a front-yard garden or ponder an architectural curiosity that other pedestrians might zip past.

“I was walking in Willamette Heights and went by a 1970s home, and there was a chimney that turned into a climbing wall,” says Foster, author of five guidebooks to exploring Portland and surrounding areas on foot.

For Foster, walking feeds the soul and leads to paths of discovery. A walk is an unhurried pleasure, a revelation of visual riches, one of the purest of all human activities (right up there with “procreation and eating,” she says in an essay posted on her website).

“Walking is a wonderful way to be out in the world — I could just keep passing on through,” says the 53-year-old Northwest Portland resident, whose books steer readers off the beaten path toward quiet neighborhood lanes, river beaches and little-known urban vistas. Sometimes she leads walking tours for Metro, the city of Portland and other agencies.

Foster is drawn to dead-end streets and staircases (“They can link really good places,” she says). She loves Oregon City and Forest Grove (“good walking towns”). She likes to combine MAX light rail with walking routes (“Ride to a stop, then walk to another one”).

“I walk slowly and stop and observe a lot, My advice is to look up. When I lead walks, I see everybody with their head down,” Foster says.

“Often I’ll lead a walk and it’s usually a man who says, ‘We could get there a lot quicker if ... ‘ It always cracks me up, because that’s not the point.”

The route to Portland

Foster wasn’t much for walking when she was a child. “I grew up in a sort of suburban barren wasteland,” she says, recalling the Chicago suburb where she lived.

Then her family moved to Dubuque, Iowa, “a wonderful town with bluffs and hills that didn’t get scoured away by glaciers,” she says. She didn’t have a car or bicycle, so on Sunday afternoons she took long walks and learned that she liked “getting lost.”

She attended college in Boulder, Colo., and earned a bachelor of science degree in finance — her father was a banker, and there was an economic downturn at the time, “so I went the practical way,” Foster says.

From there she moved to Tennessee, married a Tennessee guy and worked for a bank. In 1989 she and her husband moved to Portland. There was nothing in particular that drew them here, Foster says, “but it was close to the ocean and mountains.”

She had a baby, then another one, and for a couple of years did freelance and technical writing, “really soul-numbing stuff,” she says.

Later she worked for Beyond Words, a publishing company in Hillsboro. “As an editor, I realized that a lot of people with good book concepts didn’t have great writing skills,” she says.

She had a book idea of her own, sketched it out and took it to Timber Press, which published it in 2005. Titled “Portland Hill Walks,” it was Foster’s first guidebook.

By this time she had remarried and borne a third child. She credits her husband, geologist/geotechnical engineer Kevin Foster, with getting her started on writing books. Kevin showed her stairways and other other places she didn’t know about (“The Portland Stairs Book” is another of her guides), and explained the terrain they saw. “I learned the ability of interpretation from him,” she says.

Let’s get lost

Gathering ideas for walking routes is the best part of writing about them, Foster says. “It’s like planning a vacation.”

Her research is a blend of studying maps and “being on the ground, hearing interesting things I like to investigate,” she says. “The streets behind freeway walls, those are always interesting.”

Then she starts walking. Foster walks three or four times a week, generally covering 4 to 6 miles at a time (she also bikes and swims). After a recent Sunday hike with her husband, they both agreed “we like urban walking much better, where you have more to look at and see how creative people are, and stop and eat,” she says.

Getting lost — whether she wants to or not — comes with the territory. “I still get lost in Southwest Portland,” she says. “If it’s a cloudy day and I don’t have the sun to rely on.”

Books by Laura O. Foster

"Portland Hill Walks"

"Portland City Walks"

"The Portland Stairs Book"

"Walk There!"

"Lake Oswego" (from the Images of America series)

Foster's website: LauraOFoster.com