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Stripping It down for an Urban Walk

If you’re never uncomfortable how can you recognize comfort?If you’re never uncomfortable how can you recognize comfort?

I’m just about 50, and have been jettisoning stuff from my life for the last decade or so. Freedom from fumbling around in a coat and pack with 12 pockets each, let me tell you, is rich, and in itself both a small pleasure and my revolt against our culture’s obsession with comfort and provision. The less I have or carry, the more I enjoy the challenges of making do in the moment.

Though my work is to explore and walk Portland, a city many believe to be one of the wettest in the country, I don’t own a raincoat or rain pants. Those shoop-shoop noises rain pants make would cause me, I’m pretty sure, to strip them off and make a scene right in the middle of a staircase or city park. Gore-Tex raincoats, so densely pocketed and over-designed, make me feel like I’m in an isolated pod of technology, with every noisy arm-swing keeping me full of myself and out of the scene. Wool, crafted in the laboratory of evolution, is my choice.

An impromptu urban waterfall seen while drenched in Portland.

I live in jeans and own four pairs. I do possess a pair of formal wool pants that I put on when I want to try to convince someone to hire me. They haven’t really worked, however, so it’s mostly jeans I’m in. Jeans are one of the most functional items of clothing: simple, with just four pockets — always in the same places. Yes, they get wet. Humans should get wet. It feels good. What’s more pleasant than being wet and chilled, then ducking into a coffee shop and wrapping red hands around a ceramic mug? Sure, if I were hiking on Mount Hood, I’d be less of a Spartan, but I’m not: I’m trekking around in a city, never beyond a reasonable walk to food, shelter, transit or, when worst comes to worst, a Goodwill store.

My philosophy about the ups and downs of an urban walk is evident too in my refrigerator and pantry, which I keep stocked just enough so that we have to be creative foragers by week’s end. Without too much always available, I’m not insulated from the natural ebb and flow of abundance and shortage, discomfort and relief from it. Ask my children what they think; perhaps they’ll have a different opinion.

What I do carry outdoors in the rain is an umbrella; the sound of a downpour furiously drumming on a ShedRain umbrella is a pleasure that comes just a few times a year. (ShedRain, a Portland-based company, makes the best wind-resistant umbrella I’ve ever owned.) Portlanders don’t need to employ our umbrellas often... most of our precipitation is so misty and soft we want to feel it on our faces, but there are those days when umbrellas are handy, such as Thursday, December 2, 2010. I returned from a five block walk in the rain along West Burnside to find my Prius submerged to its seats in a small, debris-strewn lake created by a backed-up storm drain. And even after stripping off my shoes and socks, chucking the umbrella in the car, and rolling up my pants for 30 minutes of bailing, my wool coat (two pockets) kept me cozy and quiet inside. The rain was epic, I was drenched and soon to be out a big pile of money, but the moment had its magic. And I was in it.

÷ ÷ ÷

Laura O. Foster is a writer and expert on the history of Portland, Oregon, and the small towns around it. She is the author of The Portland Stairs Book, Portland Hill Walks, Portland City Walks, Lake Oswego (Images of America), and the writer/editor of Walk There! 50 Treks In and Around Portland and Vancouver. When not writing about Portland, Foster is busy creating new urban adventures or leading walks for local governments, civic groups, and nonprofits. She blogs at

Books mentioned in this post

Laura Foster is the author of The Portland Stairs Book

One Response to "Stripping It down for an Urban Walk"

    K Slip December 15th, 2010 at 1:34 pm

    I mostly agree with you with one addendum: You have to have the shoes. There is nothing fun or romantic about wet feet and anyone who's walked any distance with soggy socks bunching up under their arches knows thick soles, extending some way onto the uppers and woolen (or wic-a-way) socks change walking in the rain - and the puddles that go with it - from a misery into something to do on purpose.

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