Jess Walter: The Urban Outdoors

My brother and I were making preparations for our annual State of the Spokane River Float (this mostly involves getting my brother out of his home-detention ankle bracelet) when a Montana “friend” made a snarky comment about our beloved river. “Do you actually go in that water?” he sniffed, like a French wine snob over a box of Gallo. “Isn’t that, like, one of the most polluted rivers in the country?”

Damn you Montanans and your crystalline streams and poetic fly fishermen. Maybe if Ted Turner would buy up our whole state for emu farming, then our river would be undeveloped and gin-clear, too. (A side note: do you ever notice how many Montanans live here and pine for the Big Empty? So here’s a question: if Montana is so freaking perfect, why don’t any of you live there?)

So I said, “Sorry goat boy, but we have an urban river and if you think we’re going to apologize for the fact that our river foams like a poured Guinness and has more heavy metal than a 1988 record store, then you need to go back to Flathead Lake, rent a studio apartment for $1850 a month and get a job cleaning the back hair out of Sylvester Stallone’s hot tub.”

The truth is, the Spokane River gets a little cleaner every year-at least every year that the city doesn’t dump raw sewage into it. Although it’s counterintuitive, I think the recent and proposed development along the river canyon downtown could bode well for the river’s long-term health. Right now you’re more likely to see rusted Oly cans than fish, but if there’s one thing rich people hate, it’s litter in their front yards, so they’re at least going to keep the banks clean.

My brother and I got a good look at those banks on our annual state-of-the-river float. We put in below his house in Peaceful Valley and finally flopped out of the water beneath the T.J. Meenach Bridge, near my house. It was one of those 160-degree days and so the riverbank was packed with people standing up to the threads of their cutoffs, drinking cans of Keystone and huffing glue. Some days, floating the river is like being in a parade in the Ozarks. Yet even the toothless mountain people laugh at us.

My brother and I make the same mistake every year during the State of the River Float. We do a hurried count and then buy a “two-person” raft, which translated, means “one-person” unless you’re talking about two persons who have a level of intimacy that, frankly, my brother and I simply don’t have. (“I wish I could quit you,” I whispered as we snuggled in the raft like two fingers in a glove hole).

It really is a stunning river, alternately calm and roiling and you can find yourself in stretches that defy description. We were in one of those places, shaded by leaning firs, our raft barely above water level, my brother and I wedged into it like Scandinavians in a two-man luge, when we happened to float by a drunk guy holding a forty in one hand and his George W. in the other (perhaps figuring his piss just ends up in the river anyway, he was skipping the middle-man). He pointed at us with his big beer. “Rub-a-dub-dub,” he said, “two men in a tub.”

It was at that point my brother said, “Hey, your oar keeps poking me in the back.”

“That,” I said, “is not my oar.”

Jess Walter’s new novel The Zero is available in bookstores.

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