On March 4, 2021, I began walking all the streets in Spokane. Left from my apartment on West First Avenue and walked, my back to the sun, toward Brown’s Addition, the oldest neighborhood in town. I was excited to get this project underway.
Brown’s Addition’s spacious and ornate architecture tells the story of its original residents. This is obviously where the money lived. Nineteenth century homes with artistic window dressings and hand-painted tiles still stand—which is only a novel detail because the devastating fire in 1889 that decimated Spokane was contained before it could level Brown’s as it did the rest of the wooden city.
Coeur d’Alene Park sits in the center of Brown’s. Tall trees line the multi-block green space and lure in passersby. The park was strategically designed by original landowners John J. Brown and A.M. Cannon to attract potential property buyers. The park continues to be an ideal gathering place for folks seeking a whisper of nature a stone’s throw from downtown.
Starting in the 1920s, the mansions in Brown’s Addition began subdividing to accommodate folks seeking low-rent lodging. By the 1930s, the neighborhood housing stock fell to neglect. Locals began referring to it as Brown’s Addiction due to its reputation for rampant drug use.
In 1976, when Brown’s Addition was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, the old neighborhood reclaimed itself. It now accommodates a mix of owners and renters whose yard signs show an interest in progressive issues and social justice. Pride flags, Black Lives Matter signs, and an array of “no hate” messages adorn yards and windows alike. Given the conservative nature of Spokane, this detail, to me anyhow, is a breath of fresh air.
I’m tracking all my miles using a mix of modern tech and old school strategies—a free Strava account, a paper map of Spokane’s city limits, and an abundance of dead reckoning. I log the walk on the GPS, then come home and draw out the route on the folded paper. After only two walks I’ve already encountered a handful of errors on both Strava and the AAA fold-out. But this project isn’t about being perfect—it’s about being out there to explore an area I don’t know.
Which calls to mind the most common question I get when I tell folks what I’m doing. Why am I doing this. It’s the same question I was asked countless times as I walked across the US in 2018. Everyone wanted to know why. Sometimes the question was merely a conversation starter, but plenty of times folks wanted an answer. And since my answer changed by the day, my incoherence often served as a conversation ender, too.
I am walking every street in Spokane for multiple reasons. The simple reason is this: I don’t plan to be here forever, so in the meantime I want to see as much of the town as possible while learning about its history. To paraphrase Barry Lopez, one of my favorite modern writers—wherever we go we ought to become local naturalists. Learn the place’s history, its flora and fauna, and all the details that make it what it is. In my life’s current iteration, I don’t exist without Spokane, so I want to know all about it to enliven my presence while I’m still here.
Walking also gives me a sense of purpose as I battle loneliness and anxiety. Moving here as a single, childless, middle-aged man in January 2020 was challenge enough. Add Covid and quarantine to the mix and suddenly things could go (and went) south, quickly. Moving along at 3.5 m.p.h. gives me a steady rhythm and a constant change of scenery. It distracts me from my less-healthy distractions and keeps me from being sad and sedentary. Call it therapy or whatever, but when I’m walking, I’m happy. So why wouldn’t I walk all the damn time! This is a question I’m trying to answer—I firmly believe that I can turn this easy pace movement into my livelihood…literal and metaphorical. But I’ll reserve that topic for a different blog post.
On day two I left my apartment and walked a long, straight line towards the eastern edge of Spokane. I didn’t carry my map with me, so I overshot the turnaround. I ended up a bit into Spokane Valley unnecessarily, which, at the end of the day’s wandering, brought me an inordinate amount of joy. There’s something about crossing ambiguous borders that makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something. And when that something is a surprise, it feels even better.
I’m trying to understand the small details that fill my heart with delight, and as I realize what they are, I’m doing my best to make sure they don’t get second billing to things that don’t.
I’ve done this sort of walking project before. In 2019, a few months before I packed up my things to upheave my life for Spokane, I walked all the streets in my then hometown, Carrboro, North Carolina. Unless you’re a Tar Heel, odds are you’ve never heard of this town. It’s a whopping 6.5 square miles and contains less than 20,000 people. Spokane, for contrast, is just shy of 70 square miles and current estimates have the population at approximately 225,000. Yet another BIG difference between the two places.
I knocked out all the streets in Carrboro in approximately 3.5 weeks of daily walking—24 long days, to be exact. Spokane’s size difference forces an 11x multiplier—which means if I follow my Carrboro strategy (start/finish all walks from my apartment) it’ll take me approximately 264 days to walk every street in this metropolis. Yikes. That’s a lot of days. Shoot, I walked across America in fewer.
Still, my goal, I guess, is to knock this project out before the end of the year. And as of today, there are 297 days remaining in 2021. Doesn’t leave me much time for my 9-to-5. What I’m up against is not lost on me.
As I reflect on the feasibility of completing this endeavor, I’m struck by my internal ho-hum energy. I don’t think it really matters if I manage to walk every street in Spokane. And I’m not just saying that. Completion would be definitely be cool—a fun little feather in my cap—but being done isn’t the driver. It’s the doing that matters the most to me. But who knows, maybe consistent progress will shift my occasional saunter into a more focused and speedier endeavor. Maybe. But I doubt it.
I can say with certainty is that so far these walks have each been rich in their own way. New sights and sounds. New street names and curious architecture. Day three also offered an actual discovery—three large and identical ceramic tiles found scattered beneath a felled tree in Coeur d’Alene Park in Brown’s Addition. How did they get here, I wonder. The result of a recent storm windstorm? They’re big and chunky and the sort of thing that might decorate one of Brown’s fancy homes. They screamed antique, so I gently socked them in my shoulder bag and gave a closer look when I returned home.
The pieces were stamped “CALIFORNIA ART TILE CO. RICHMOND CALIF.” A quick Google search lead me to various websites about tile collecting (who knew this was a thing?). Turns out the California Art Tile Co. in Richmond, CA existed between 1922-1956, and was a common go-to for lavish and conservative architectural tile enthusiasts alike. From what I could tell from a scattering of websites, the now-defunct company’s pieces are all hand painted with colorful glazes and have since become rather collectible. I couldn’t find an exact match for the small collection I scooped up, but smaller (and less interesting) pieces on eBay were posted for sale between $20-$1000. Woah.
One thing I’ve always known is true—if I’m paying attention, there are always treasures to be found. Not sure if these tiles are an actual treasure, but they are pretty darn cool.
I came across this meme quote in my sister-in-law’s Instagram story: “I wasn’t productive at all during the pandemic but it was actually my first pandemic so I think that’s fine.” The line cracked me up. And got me thinking.
The pandemic, for me, has been filled with doing things. I spent the early part of it revising my book, With a Good Heart, which, after seven or so rewrites, finally got published. I made an attempt to grew vegetables in my apartment (full disclosure—the carrots, kale, and bok choy sprouted, but nothing grew into maturity). I grew blue oyster mushrooms in my bathroom. I made videos of me running all over Spokane while maniacally laughing for no apparent reason. I walked a mile in my apartment. On Thanksgiving I strolled fifty times around my quarter-mile block before sitting down for my solitary feast.
During the lockdown I sold my paintings to clients in New Jersey, North Carolina, Florida, California, New York, Colorado, Arizona, and Texas. I started a weekly poetry writing/sharing habit with a dear friend. I led meditations on Zoom. I counted calories and lost a bunch of weight. I carved a few wooden spoons from wedges of firewood I brought here from North Carolina. I virtually tutored a weekly art class with a 5-year old which ultimately led to a co-written book about dinosaurs at a birthday party. I offered my listening/coaching/connecting services for free to anyone who wanted them and multiple folks took me up on it. I also started this walking project.
And in the thick of it all, I was fortunate to keep the job that brought me to Spokane even if the original plan and agreement looks different than expected. But what doesn’t!
While walking today I thought of my grandfather. He used to repeat the same stories and jokes and sayings over and over again. I’m beginning to catch myself doing the same. One of my quips goes something like, “I’m like a shark—if I stop moving I’ll die.” I don’t know anything about sharks, and have no idea where I picked up this line. These days, every time I catch myself saying it I wish I hadn’t, but then I say it again a few weeks later. If a friend is sharing their desire for life to slow down so they can get their bearings, I’ll likely make the shark comment. “If you stop moving, you’ll die!”
I may not outwardly display all the markers of a middle-aged guy, but trust me, I am one.
What this shark comment is, however, is a projection of how I see myself. I’ve never been good at hanging out or lounging around. I like being on the move, and only recently have I fully accepted this about myself. I used to joke that my resume looks like I’m on the lam. But now I know it’s what’s made me, me, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
To me there’s nothing weird about walking back and forth, up and down all the streets in my neighborhood. Wearing out shoes, dealing with blisters and chafe, and getting sunburned or windburned or rained on for hours at a time. The way I see it, what the hell else would I be doing?
Maybe there’s some truth to that shark statement. Maybe, when I’ve finally stopped moving, I will, in fact, expire. Regardless, when that day comes, I want to be able to look back and know that I didn’t overthink things. I want my life to be like a roaring fire, not just embers. I hope to look back and see years filled with yesses. Because saying yes to life is where the aliveness resides.
I like making stickers then sticking them all over town. Any flat surface will do, though I tend to be a back-of-sign and not-on-private-property guy. I’ve gotten pretty good at it, too. I used to wait until the sun went down and my heart would race as I rushed to peel the back, stick it on, and erratically flatten out the air bubbles. Now I casually stick them anywhere in without concern for who’s watching—because nobody ever is.
People move through their days with blinders on. Rushing from here to there with barely enough time to breathe. If anyone has ever seen me slap an Every Street Spokane sticker on a stop sign, they never cared enough to say anything. My guess—I am invisible. Which is fine. Their hurried life is precisely what I am trying to avoid.
This stickering may seem like vandalism, but to me it’s a way to participate in community. It brings me tremendous joy to leave a sticker on an unblemished bit of urban landscape, then a week later find another one beside it. And then another later still. This slow, quiet, and mysterious conversation between strangers helps solidify my beingness. Validates my existence and gives me a foothold in a place that, at times, has felt like it was drowning me. It’s a small way for me to reclaim myself.
Day five’s wandering was purposeful. Headed to the Mann-Grandstaff VA hospital and got my first Moderna vaccine shot. Had mostly planned a simple back and forth, but after my shot I had a moment of, “Well, I’m already here so…,” and so I scooted into an adjacent neighborhood to knock it out. It was worth it.
As I walked the smooth sidewalk, I came across a ten dollar bill flittering in a patch of thick grass. Money on the ground always takes my breath away.
First bill I ever found was a twenty. I was just a little guy and walking with my mom to the car after a day at Mary’s Nursery School in Livermore, California. I examined it all the way home. The green swirls along the frame, the little red strings embedded in the paper. My mom stuck it to the fridge with a magnet and promised it would stay there until I decided what to buy. This might be the first time in my life I was empowered to consciously consume. Didn’t take long for me to know what I wanted to trade my green paper for.
I bought a Steve Austin 6-Million Dollar Man action figure—his polyester shirt had wide collars and a tiny little snap at mid-chest that left exposed a painted-on gold chain (or, it does in my mind’s eye, anyhow). I also chose a rocket that fit him perfectly—the rocket that, according to his story, crashed and turned him into an experiment in bionics. That word, bionic, was my favorite word for a long, long time. I remember spelling those letters out loud as I waited to fall asleep. B-I-O-N-I-C.
I also bought a toy for my next door neighbor, Sherry. A cardboard blister pack containing Mary Ellen Walton, the headstrong oldest daughter from the popular family show. Her long hair reminded me of my favorite babysitter whose name is lost in time, but whose corduroy bell bottoms whooshed as she walked. That sound made me swoon.
I pocketed the ten and zipped though the suburban neighborhood with ease. As I began my return home, I started feeling a little light-headed. I blamed it on the fact that I hadn’t brought enough water, but maybe it was the shot.
I stopped at a cafe to rehydrate. A young man was busking outside playing the guitar. He played a cover of David Bowie’s Starman. One of my favorite artists and songs.
When I dropped my found ten into his guitar case, he winked as he belted out the line from the end of the chorus, “There’s a starman waiting in the sky, he told us not to blow it ‘cause he knows it’s all worthwhile!”