Jess Walter: The Urban Outdoors


By Jess Walter


This is what occurred to me a few weeks ago as I was handing out plastic cups of gin to thirsty Bloomsday runners at the six-mile mark.

Runners do not appear to like gin. Especially Kenyans.

I find it the most refreshing of the boozes myself, but as lean-muscled grimacers in hankie-shorts ran off with cups of the cool clear liquid, they almost all spun to glare at me. Perhaps they were disappointed to not find garnishes or olives; I can’t know what’s in the heart of an athlete, aside from doped blood.

But as I watched those runners shamelessly litter their cocktail cups onto streets and into shrubberies, I thought about my environmentally-minded friends who’ve been scolding me for the pointlessness of this column. “I saw your column,” they’ll say, and then shake their heads. (The consensus seems to be that with a pathological moron in the White House-uh, all due respect-and money-grubbing corporations and developers routinely slipping roofies to forests and streams before taking them back to their fraternities, I am somehow complicit in the rampant abuse of natural resources because I have thus far used this valuable platform to write about: 1. the pair of climbing shoes I accidentally bought, and 2. poop.)

Guilty. I know my enviro-buddies would be happier if I wrote about substantive things like, say, litter. Or rivers.

But I have two problems with classic environmental writing. First, so many of the descriptions are dangerously close to pornography. (I have only seen two things referred to as a “purple-headed soldier” and one of them was a tree.) And second, so much outdoor writing is humorless, romanticized and scolding. (I exclude from all criticism the great Rich Landers, because he is funny and reasonable, and because I still owe him $1,400 over a drunken bet and the ensuing emergency room bill after he lamely insisted that I couldn’t shoot a can of Miller High Life off his bare ass with a crossbow.)

There is another outdoor writer whose work I admire greatly, who made some money in the oil business, and then moved to Montana and set about trying to save the Yaak Valley. The Yaak is a stunning place and saving it is a great cause, but I wonder about moving to “the woods” and then slamming the door shut behind yourself to protect it from other people who only want what you have. Namely, the woods.

This is why I might be the greatest environmentalist in the world. Because I avoid the woods at all costs. And I grew up in the woods. My family still owns some of the woods and unless my dad reads this column, I stand to inherit some of the woods. But from my experience in the woods, it is boring and there is very little ethnic food.

This is why I’d have a lot more respect for outdoor writers if they penned their porno screeds from downtown condos somewhere. Spokane, for instance. Where every May they could help me pass out liquor to thirsty distance runners.

Jess Walter’s novel, Citizen Vince, will be available in paperback at the end of June.

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