Jess Walters: The Urban Outdoors

Out There Outdoors

I have sort of an embarrassing problem with this month’s urban outdoors column (and I’m not talking about the above illustration which often portrays me wearing suspenders and shorts, like a Von Trapp family singer.) Here’s my problem: I haven’t actually been “outdoors.”

Instead, I spent the month in a series of hotels and airplanes, where I invariably encountered chatty retirees demanding to know: a. where I’m coming from; b. where I’m going; and c. whether it’s wise to drink a tenth airline bottle of rum before takeoff. (Distrustful of that whole seat cushion business, I stockpile the little bottles just in case, “during the unlikely event of a water landing,” I need to make my own flotation device.)

“So … Spokane,” the passenger next to me will usually say. “What’s that like?”

“Oh, you know. Sophisticated. Urbane. The Paris of Eastern Washington.”

“What are the big industries there?”

“Abstract painting. Interpretive dance. Carnie training.”

“Is there a lot of traffic?”

“There would be, but almost everyone kayaks to work.”

One thing I’ve noticed about Spokanites: when we’re here, we mostly complain about it. But when we travel, it’s suddenly heaven. I know I do this. And when I talk about Spokane’s charms, I inevitably find myself bragging about our many outdoor sports and activities, even though I practice almost none of them. For instance I’ll go on about the great snow skiing, even though I only go once a year. I’ll even brag about rock climbing, mountain biking, parasailing, anything I can think of.

“Do you parasail?” the retiree will ask.

“Honestly,” I’ll say, draining another rum, “I don’t even know what that is.”

So, recently, I vowed to only brag about the outdoor events that I actually participate in.

This happened on my last cross-country flight, returning to lovely Spokane. I was hoping to sleep but I found myself wedged next to a sumo wrestler (in uniform) apparently suffering from Ebola virus. Various parts of him spilled over onto my seat and when I sat, we were … sort of … as one.

He coughed on me. “Sorry.”

“No, it’s okay.”

The woman on the other side of me was homicidally cheerful. She kept smiling at me and kept grabbing my arm to tell me how friendly the flight crew was. “It’s like they take happy pills, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” I said.

“So where are you from?” the woman asked cheerfully.


“I’ve heard that’s a great outdoors town.”

And vowing to only mention the things I actually do outdoors, I said, “Yes. There’s wonderful lawn mowing. And raking. It’s a great place to walk to your car.”

And right then, the sumo wrestler shifted and I wished to God I hadn’t worn my shorts and suspenders because the rubbing of our haunches sparked a small fire that quickly engulfed the wing and as the plane dipped I clung to my little booze bottles, and prayed that in the unlikely event of a water landing we wouldn’t hit any commuting kayakers.

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

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