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 doll 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!”
Another destination day. This time to the Hillyard branch of the library where I picked up a few things: My new card, a librarian-curated assortment of thru-hiking memoirs, and a few packs of flower and veggie seeds. I’d failed on my attempt to grow anything in my apartment during quarantine, but I had grand ideas for some guerrilla farming in the sidewalk planter boxes facing my apartment building.
I had heard a bit about Hillyard before venturing out that way. Used to be its own town until annexed by Spokane in 1924. Came about to serve the needs of the Great Northern Railroad and, in its heyday, was home to the largest locomotive shop in the nation.
Hillyard housed railroad workers—a hardscrabble group of laborers. The town developed a reputation as a rough-and-tumble yet prideful sort of place. Today it’s the poorest neighborhood in Washington state.
It surprised me to find a couple stretches in Hillyard where the streets remain unpaved. Made me feel like I had ventured far from the Spokane I knew. And, quite literally, I had. This near-20-miler would be my longest walk in Spokane yet.
While walking in the thick of a block, I came upon a yard sale where everything was free. Nobody was monitoring the tables, so I let myself in through a thigh-high wooden fence to give it a look. My eyes went immediately to a few vintage items which I promptly tucked in my shoulder bag and carried for the ten remaining miles home.
An antique 1934 tin toy (manufactured by Marx Co.) featuring cigar-smoking radio comedian Joe Penner and his duck, Goo Goo. It’s meant to wind up and scoot around, but unfortunately it’s no longer operating. The toy is constructed with bright, but faded lithographic colors and shows Penner carrying Goo Goo and a basket of ducks. The basket side depicts a note that reads, “Wanna buy a duck? Sincerely Joe Penner.” The original toy wore a hat, too. This one’s is lost in time.
On eBay, the same Joe Penner toy in new condition (in its original box) is listed for $799. Used versions like mine are posted for a range of prices, but none lower than $139. Not one listing for this old timey thing has a single bid. It’s rare, sure, but it seems there’s no market for it.
I also snagged a 1941 Woody Woodpecker 8mm film titled “The Cracked Nut” still in its original box. Stuff like this is often rare and collectible. But this film, turns out, is basically junk.
And a vintage and well-used Allway-brand mini-saw with a handle shaped like a pistol. But no dice. This thing, too, basically worthless.
The last item I brought home made my heart race as I stuck it in my bag. A three-ring binder covered in Power Ranger stickers, in which were 17 pages of odd-sized Fleer football cards from the early 90s. A slight hint of stale cigarette smoke wafted from each turned page.
I collected sports cards in this era, but never had I before seen this style of card. With the recent resurgence of sports collectibles as capital investments, I prayed to god I had just landed my windfall. This was just what I needed to finally “retire” and just walk for a living.
But a quick look on the PSA grading website took the wind out of my sails. These cards (which were included with meals at McDonalds) were also not worth the effort of reselling. Though the names on the cards transported me to my own glory days—the likes of William Perry (the Fridge!), Ronnie Lott, Art Monk, Shannon Sharpe, Jim Everett, Deion Sanders, Randall Cunningham, and so many more—I should have just left them on the table for another wide-eyed fool to find.
My friend Victor says something like, “Don’t ever mess up a good walk.” I love this. It often crosses my mind while I’m listening to the sound of my HOKA Bondis crunch against the pavement. In these moments I take a quick mental inventory and ask myself—What am I thinking about right now? And though the answer is usually, Nothing, the question always brings me back to center.
I like to think of myself as a thoughtful person, maybe even to a fault. But I am certainly not exempt from getting unnecessarily lost in nonexistent things.
I am a worrier. And since I’ve been blessed (and cursed) to see and hear everything around me—a detail that likely contributed to my success as a middle school teacher—my heaviest worries come from accumulated minutiae I spend way too much time analyzing.
What did that person’s glance mean? Why did so-and-so use that turn of phrase? Did that person’s comment imply a judgment on me? Should I wash my hands again? What if I’m not masked up? Is she/he reading me wrong? Do they think I am hitting on them? Is that thing I said actually true? Did my words come out right? What’s that clicking sound mean? Do I have a fever? Can my neighbors hear the movie I’m watching. Are they laughing at me? Who am I making angry? Who am I disappointing?
Today the wind gusted strong enough to knock over trees. I usually enjoy being outdoors in severe weather—Bring on the thunderstorms and blizzards! Bring on the hellish humidity!—but wind is a nuisance when performing alone. But I channeled Victor and went out anyway. Spent the entire threeish hours squinting as I worked through some of West Central and Nettleton (Nettleton’s Addition is a sub-neighborhood of West Central).
The West Central Spokane district was originally plotted in 1887. Most of the homes were built between 1900 and 1912. West Central started as a railyard and played a central part in the streetcar era. There are still parallel tracks cutting down the center of some of the long streets.
West Central grew fast, then suffered extensively when the thriving railroad industry lost steam. Homes fell to disrepair, property values plummeted, and the neighborhood traded its original allure for crime and disenchantment.
One of my favorite singer/songwriters, Willy Vlautin and his band, Richmond Fontaine, wrote a song called “Three Brothers Roll into Town.” There’s a line that goes like this: “They drive to the biggest city that they’ve ever been / They stay in a basement room with their cousin / In a part of town called Felony Flats / The cousin’s out of work / They sleep on the floor in sleeping bags.”
This downtrodden “Felony Flats,” as mentioned in Vlautin’s song, likely refers to Spokane’s West Central neighborhood.
These days, like so many other areas undergoing extreme “revitalization” (read: gentrification), an area that was once feared is now being exploited. Frankly, it’s easy to assume that what’s now called Kendall Yards (which always makes me think of the Kardashians) has always been Kendall Yards. But it hasn’t.
I work for a company that does business in a gorgeous retail building in Kendall Yards. Unless you venture north a few blocks, the memories of old West Central remain hidden like bones. And though ornate facades, specialty shops, and weekly farmer’s market serves an eager community of shoppers and folks out for a walk, the newness is also soulless, as is often the case when the main driver is more and more green paper.
But after spending too much time on these thoughts, I left them alone. Didn’t want to mess up a good walk.
There’s a part of Hillyard called Dogtown. Unpaved streets lead me past ancient workshops and busted up cars, past homes held up by duct tape and good intentions.
There’s a tap house tucked within that’s barricaded by a gleaming chrome chain of Harley Davidsons. As the occasional biker rumbled past, I squinted to see what club was advertised on their leather back. One group of four riders wore Hell’s Angels colors.
As I walked the perimeter of a junkyard, the largest German Shepherd I’ve ever seen did all it could to attack me through the cyclone fence. Spit shot from its mouth as it barked until it was hoarse, then it stalked me—coursing through and around salvaged cars and giant mountains of rust and rubbish, breathing heavily, until another surge of energy brought it back to life. I tried to ignore it. Moved off the sidewalk and into the street so I wouldn’t aggravate it further. But it didn’t matter. It worked hard to terrify me away.
As I walked the block, I worried there might be a gap in the fence big enough to fully unleash the dog’s wrath. Given a chance, I’m pretty sure this dog would have torn off my limbs. Just doing its job.
There are various explanations regarding how Dogtown got its name—one claims the majority of dog owners in old Hillyard lived in this sector, which strikes me as a little too vanilla.
The story that seems most likely is one that claims the name Dogtown started as a slur referring to the rail laborers. The working “dogs” couldn’t afford to live in the fancy homes west of the yard, so they filled the bunkhouses on the opposite side of town. They’d drop their respective tools, scrape the accumulated soot from their eyes, then hoof heavy feet precariously across the rails towards home.
This eastern part of Hillyard was, Dogtown, is quite literally on the other side of the tracks. The blue collar section. Not much money, but lots of callouses, long hours, and camaraderie. I like to imagine it was mostly quiet. The kind of quiet that accompanies fatigue. I imagine the constant white noise of locomotive thunder became gradually unnoticeable.
Over time, the Dogtown residents embraced how others named them and held fast to it with a sense of pride. Modern times reappropriated the name and rallies around it. Though Dogtown is in Hillyard, it definitely isn’t Hillyard.
Though the Dogtown neighborhood felt dirty and tattered and desperate, it also was peaceful. The honest landscape and absence of pretense offered an unexpected comfort. I felt significantly less at ease on my return home as I passed through fancy neighborhoods. Two separate walkers silently hid behind sunglasses as I offered up a late-afternoon, “Hello,” to which they offered no reply.
Spokane’s city limits contain 1669 streets. The website, CityStrides, allows me to connect my Strava results to an ongoing and cumulative mapping of everywhere I’ve walked. I open the page that consolidates my completed walking routes and shrink. Nine days of walking may as well be zero. The visual buzzkill is enough to make me question what I’m doing—which is a great reminder that this project has nothing to do with completion, and everything to do with simply doing.
Right now is all I’ve got. Right now is all that matters.
Now more than ever, I live by a routine. I wake early, prep coffee, make the same cold soak oatmeal I have for the past ten years, do yoga, do some reading, do some writing, and depending on whether it’s a workday or a weekend, I’ll then walk to my office or go for a stroll elsewhere.
I’m most creative and productive in the mornings so I do my best to fully harness this as much as possible. Afternoons, however, are generally dictated by whims. My evenings consist of an easy dinner (usually homemade), more reading, some planning and prep for the next day, and screen time—which is usually Netflix on my iPhone since I don’t have a television. Some evenings feel special so I’ll treat myself to a beer. A patio pilsner or hazy IPA at BrickWest or Black Label in the Saranac Commons.
Every day since the beginning of quarantine has been basically the same (minus the brewery visits). I often worry I’ve gotten so embedded in this new routine that I’ll never step out of it. I’ll become that old dude who lives in a comfortable and sustainable groove, grumpy about everything except my way of doing things.
When I walk, I look at Spokane’s hidden bones and nooks and think about my future. My tendency is to assume this place isn’t for me. But truth be told, my tendency has been to deny many good things that have crossed my path through the years.
Since the earliest days of quarantine, I’ve had the same book sitting on my desktop—The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook. It stares me in the face every morning as I sip my aeropress coffee and eat my almond-milk oats. I’ll occasionally flip its pages when I’m feeling optimistic, but more often I’ll eschew it. When my outlook turns scrambled, which these day sis often, it’s really, really hard to pay attention to self care. Which is probably when I need it the most.
I know this workbook contains the sort of work I will most benefit from. My internal landscape could use some fine-tuning. But so often I let other things get in the way of me shining a spotlight on the internal hard stuff. Which is ironic because when it comes to external things, I seek out the hard stuff. I am a conundrum to myself.
I have so much still to learn. So many walks to go on. I have many hopes and dreams and aspirations and half-baked plans for my various nexts. I want to hike the Appalachian Trail. I want to restart my business. I want to to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. I want to open a vegan food truck. I want to walk the Camino. I want to live in a van (I think). I want to walk Hadrian’s Wall. I want to become an antique picker (part time). I want to walk the King’s Trail. I want to write a business book. I want to walk the Pan-American Highway. I want to learn how to sew. I And the list goes on. Never-ending.
But I forget all these things when I am directing my focus onto what I know matters the most. Which, right now, I’d define as me. When I add some regular self-reflection to my life, whether by exploring that self-compassion book or just taking time to think, I stop looking for ways to “improve” things. Instead, I accept myself for who I am and interact more authentically with the world.
This is the headspace I get in while zigging and zagging the streets of Spokane. And today, a rainy and cold Easter Sunday in the heart of West Central, I opened a tiny bit more space in my heart. The ten miles came and went in a blink. And I was better for it.
I keep a large piece of butcher paper on my living room wall where I scribble down random ideas for future writings. Right now the wall has the following notes, all of which have been scribbled haphazardly over the past year:
- I have cockroach trauma (every shadow I see is a bug)
- Walk into my apartment and am greeted by a talking puppy
- Step out of the shower into a place I used to live
- YouTube musical time machine
- ATM dance password
- Person who cuts off unnecessary body parts until only the essentials remain
- An “essay” of comforting sounds
- The idea of distance and toil
- Photo essay of saudade
- Babysitting story—stuffed clown who came to life after kids went to bed
- The man who talked to a crucifix (screamed)
- Childhood—things I learned while watching dirty movies with dad
…and so on
I don’t recall the last time I plucked a topic from the wall and sat down to write a story about it. But these scattered ideas and imagery are definitely part of my writing process.
Today I ventured back to Hillyard and put in a marathon day. Knocked out a complete block, north-south and east-west, and even had to double up a couple sections because I forgot to restart my Strava after stopping for a trail mix break.
There’s a store in Hillyard that only sells old and new postcards. I can’t stop thinking about how amazing this is. Even if you don’t like postcards, you have to marvel at the fact that someone loves them enough to open a store where postcards are the only products for sale. People are truly amazing.
If I could spend my days earning my livelihood surrounded by a material object I love, what would it be? I question the initial answers my brain fires off—mainly because they are not honest. They are the sorts of answers that (I believe) increase my social capital. Like books. And though I love books, I don’t love them so much that I want to be around them all the time. I’d much rather be around used things. Broken things. A thrift store, a junkyard, a shop filled with all sorts of historical artifacts—each of which tells a story. I want the thing (like a postcard) to be a doorway to so much more.
Oh, but also records. Or at least music. My life requires an all day soundtrack.
But more than anything else, I am driven through life by discovery. To me, discovery is directly connected to stories, research, revelation, and deeper understanding of myself.
Discovery is what I live for. It makes me happy to know what makes my heart sing.