The Urban Fun Badge

by Kevin Taylor

I have a friend who, while hiking, was chased by a bison. He had nearly tripped over the snoozing beast in a dust wallow. It was a scary, pulse-pounding near-death encounter that made him feel acutely alive and more than a little silly.

I have other friends who raft the Grand Canyon and take amazing hikes in stunning backcountry where nature in all its splendor sings like a choir of angels directly into their souls.

I appreciate the stories they tell me. Really, I do. But let's face it, this summer and every summer, there are those of us who believe scat has more to do with jazz than bear poop, that "Huckleberries" sounds like a great place for breakfast and not something off a bush.

So can you be a Happy Camper and earn merit badges by staying in the almost urban canyons of Spokane? Well, duh. Let us count the ways:

1. Mummery.

2. Traffic circle marathons.

3. Marmot fishing.

4. Looking for God in all the strange faces.

5. Looking for love in all the wrong places.

6. Drag racing Grandpa's RV.

Spokane has a reputation as Near Boredom, Near Comatose. Such a mindset, like a powerful invisible force, can create full-body numbness.

The key to resisting the cosmic yawn is by remembering what the kid told Neo: "There is no spoon." The quest to find fun in Spokane is not unlike uncovering the Matrix.

Mark Camp and his buddies experienced this liberating mind-bend several years ago. Already veterans of creating their own fun - a coffee house, live performance stage and recording studio all bundled into an old transmission repair shop - they were still facing a summer of boredom.

Wouldn't it be cool if someone showed movies projected against the wall of the pharmacy next door? Their eyes would brighten for a moment, then their chins would sag once more into their hands. Sigh.

"We were looking for someone to get it off the ground and then we said `Screw it.' We have to do it before anyone else does," Camp says.

They researched the ins and outs of movie distribution, painted a bright white screen on the wall of the Altamont Pharmacy and this week announced the lineup of their fourth summer of free Saturday night outdoor movies.

"It's been so much fun. It's been a blast," Camp says. "It's something goofy to do and it's pretty low on the pretentiousness scale.

"It's such a weird scene. We get 300, 400 people in the parking lot. You see people dragging furniture across the neighborhood. Guys with chaise lounges on wheels, or people drive up in a truck and drop off a couch."

It's grow-your-own fun, and it's contagious.

Susanne Croft had this "a-ha!" moment just last week. She and her husband had planned to go to Seattle over the Memorial Day weekend, but then felt too tired to spend the better part of two days driving across the state with high holiday traffic counts and higher gasoline prices.

So they stayed home, Croft says, and viewed Spokane as if they were visitors.

"We had an amazing weekend," Croft says. They went to tastings at wineries they had never heard of before, had terrific meals at restaurants they typically didn't frequent, discovered cool little shops.

The revelation carried over into City Hall, where Croft works in the Economic Development office. Research shows local businesses pour three times as much money back into the city economy as chain stores, she says.

There is a street-level awareness brewing that "tourists" discovering fun things to do in Spokane could very well be the people who already live here. Croft cites a variety of attractions from superb golf courses to galleries, crafts, hiking and biking trails, parks and concerts.

In addition to the usual, this summer features the release of the latest Harry Potter book on July 15. Wizard fans everywhere can flock to places like Auntie's Books or the Tinman Art Gallery for late-night parties and releases.

One local woman has even rented a block of rooms at a downtown motel for kids to pull an all-nighter reading the book once the festivities end. For info, call Auntie's at 838-0206.

You probably know about most of these. But let's be honest, you can't expect to earn a merit badge by bringing your chardonnay to Comstock Park for a symphony concert.

Badge-worthy fun has to have more of a secret smile component.

Try mummery

It's an archaic word for street performance. The idea is simple: Your group comes up with a witty, topical play - don't let it run longer than five or seven minutes - and then you suddenly appear wherever crowds are gathered (the STA Plaza, a City Council meeting). Then perform and vanish. Style points for costumes. Mass style points for group mime.

If people ask what you are up to, do not explain.

Traffic Circle Marathons

Spokane has two traffic circles. Road engineers call them "traffic calming devices," but they can have the opposite effect. I have been known to go out of my way to hit the traffic circles and whiz around and around and around and ...

You get the idea. If you are alone in your rig, this is just retarded. With passengers, it's a surprising laugh. Style points for making it around without adjusting the steering wheel.

But be aware of traffic and don't try it at 60 mph.

Finding the Face of God

This is not fun in a "ha-ha" sense, but is a terrific way to better know your city. Pick a different church to go to each Sunday.

I had friends who did this and they discovered everything from the obscure - a Ruthenian Byzantine church - to the ebullient - black gospel churches.

"We did it not to see the churches, but to see the culture," my friend Diana says.

The Byzantine church, an eastern orthodox sect. "was interesting. It was like a Catholic mass, but not. And then you get to go downstairs and eat Eastern Orthodox treats in the basement with long-bearded priests and their wives.

"I enjoyed the black Baptist churches. I loved the music - that was terrific - and how everyone got up and spoke their minds," Diana says.

Recent immigrants from territories in the former Soviet Union gather at a former Methodist church downtown; various Buddhist temples are scattered around the city.

Style points for being curious, yet respectful.

Finding the Face of Love

Go speed dating, even if you are married or in a relationship. In fact go together and pretend not to know each other. What's not to like about speed dating? The assembled people are so random there is little chance of finding a "soulmate" who could train-wreck your orderly life, so the premium is on talking and fun. Think about it: 10 or 12 people of the opposite gender and you get only 7 to 10 minutes to make an impression on each. Go!

There is a pitfall to the local speed dating scene that could blow your carefully crafted self-image worse than a local anchorman's toupee. I remember walking into one event and saying "OK, this is Spokane, who is here that I know?" The first person I saw was my ex. Luckily, we both laughed.

Hook up with your partner later and compare notes on blowhards and pickup lines.

Style points for scoring. Mass style points if you "run the table," so to speak.

Catch-and-release marmots

I walk around downtown and see all these fat rodents poking their heads up out of holes in parking lots, sidewalks, river banks. Makes you wonder, a colleague said, if subterranean Spokane is a huge network of tunnels filled with cigarette butts, 40-ouncers, Fritos and flat-screen TVs.

I'd like to fish for these marmots. Not with hooks. I'm thinking the fishing line could end in sticky tape loaded with apple slices, Cheetos, nuts. Imagine Brad Pitt in A Rodent Runs Through It. Stand far enough back so you don't scare the critters and see if you can drop the morsel into plucking range. Style points for best use of a Popeil Pocket Fisherman. Mass style for a dorky hat loaded with bait.

And if the game warden comes after you: Dude, I never wrote this.

Thunder! Thunder!

Thunnnn-DERR! in Grandpa's RV. This one will cost money, but the payoff is the potential to be a World Champion just like me. The annual drag races at Spokane Raceway Park have categories for more-or-less ordinary rigs. Many people who enter are motorheads who soup up their cars, or at least make them sound really loud. There is a lot of 30-weight talk about "performance."

A rare few, however, take the opportunity to the level of performance art. One guy, years ago, actually did enter and race an RV down the fabled quarter-mile. I entered a '71 El Camino my father-in-law gave me (the most expensive free car I ever owned, and my everyday go-to-work rig) and actually won a trophy, which I have to this day, that proclaims me a World Champion. (The secret to my success? No other car was entered in my category,)

By now, Happy Campers, you get the idea. No whiners, no boredom. Spend the summer creating fun. You always wanted to be an Olympic athlete? Get your friends together in matching "togs" and jog down the Centennial Trail, or through the bus plaza or a crowded park before the symphony plays. You carry the torch, someone else has the flag of your favorite country and another bears the boombox loaded with Vangelis. Chariots of Fire, here you are.

If someone asks what you're doing, don't explain.

So get out there, Campers. Awaken the sleeping bison within us all. Be goofy. Be strong.

Publication date: 06/09/05