Jess Walter: The Urban Outdoors


By Jess Walter


I apparently own climbing shoes.

I bought them at the Nordstrom Rack for fifteen bucks because I wanted brown and black shoes to wear with jeans. It wasn’t until I got home that I saw they were “for alpine spires, talus scrambling and moderate climbing.”

I don’t climb, moderately or otherwise. I wouldn’t know a scrambled talus from a poached phallus.

But sometimes when I wear my ultralight midsole for supertrek and uphill scrambling and light big wall third class skipping shoes, real climbers approach me as if I’m one of them and start talking about “holds” and “routes” at places like “Mini” and “Zion.”

It’s like walking around town in a wrestling singlet. (“You sucking down to 148 this year?”)

Don’t get me wrong. I like all of the climbers I know. What’s the saying? Some of my best friends…

Knowing how climbers love being the first to do something, I had an idea once to be the first person to climb Steptoe Butte-with oxygen. (Or oxycontin. I’m not particular.) I’d go all out, hire some Sherpas, set up a base camp next to the convenience store there, do one of those time-delayed webcasts, make an IMAX movie, start trudging up the paved road in our oxygen masks, single-file, and-at the first sign of bad weather-do something outrageous and unimaginable, the consequences of which I’d have to live with the rest of my life. (At the premiere of my award-winning documentary, I offer this weak self-defense: “This is so unfair. You eat one lousy Sherpa and they call you a cannibal.”)

But I’m not a climber and I can’t help but feel the disappointment in some people when they realize that, in spite of my shoes, I haven’t chewed off an arm that was pinned beneath a boulder. It’s one thing I’ve never understood about outdoor people-the way they create extreme social castes around their hobbies. Ever listen to skiers? Telemarkers dismiss downhillers (unathletic fogies) who look down on snowboarders (boorish punks) who laugh behind the backs of telemarkers (yuppie squares).

To this day, whenever I walk into cliquish REI (okay, I’ve only been there twice), I feel like I’ve walked into a junior highschool lunchroom. You can ask about the kayaks or the hiking shoes, just like you could sit at the jock table or the cheerleader table or the just-made-a-bong-in-shop-class table, but you won’t exactly feel welcome and there’s always the fear someone will yank your underwear until it looks like you’re wearing a hoodie.

And climbers?

All I can tell you is that my brother once asked a climber-girl out and she said, “I only date climbers.” Of course, this could have more to do with my brother, who has been rejected in the past two weeks for each of the following reasons:

  1. I’m half your age.
  2. I’m twice your age.
  3. I prefer men with two distinct eyebrows.
  4. Sir, that’s inappropriate given that I’m a state patrol trooper. Now put down the martini shaker and step out of the car.


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