Spokane, Washington

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, July 1995

Spokane, Washington

A town where you can have a real job, a real life, and still get to move in with the scenery. Several reasons to split the city and head for the Big Outdoors.
By Mike Steere

Population: 185,600; Spokane County, 392,000
Gestalt: Northwest Cinderella

Spokane is a medley of home town architecture, from Turn of the Century to Leave It to Beaver, with one minor false note. The city seems to have a deep, very nineties problem: low self-esteem, brought on by an old rap labeling it an intermountain toad on the wrong side of the state. Spokane, individually and collectively, makes a near-painful effort to please, and the natives seem startled by my wild enthusiasm.

Get used to it, Spokane--you're a babe. For some years now, Seattleites have quietly been slipping away to resettle here. Brainy little companies that could go anywhere are relocating, too. Taking the pack-up-and-go plunge and finding a decent job puts you in Blue Heaven. Spokane's South Hill is the leafy neighborhood refuge the whole weary and frightened world is looking for. Go up toward Manito Park and there it is, an architecturally significant cutie-house reaching from the front yard with mature tree boughs and cooing, "Come on in, honey." The response, even if you've never been here before, is to fall down, weep, and swear you'll never leave.

Out there: Go home from work, change, and traumatize yourself kayaking Class III-IV whitewater in Riverside State Park, a narrow but lengthy 7,500 acres along the Spokane River that starts right in the city. A small mountain range about 35 miles northeast provides the city with Mount Spokane Ski Area, which has a respectable 1,800 feet of vertical. Though delightfully unrainy by coastal standards, the area has 76 lakes within a 50-mile radius. North Idaho's biggies, Lakes Coeur d'Alene, Pend Oreille, and Priest, two hours away, give the city cottage sites and wild shorelines for warm-weather weekending. Though the big wheatfield to the west seems like a barrier, it's only about 200 miles to the Eastern Cascades.

Paycheck: Arriving jobless might be merely crazy instead of insane. Spokane has a growing economy that straddles every sector: basic manufacturing, high tech, corporate data crunching, regional services, and the old standbys, agriculture and forest products. Kaiser Aluminum, Key Tronic, and Hewlett-Packard are the top three manufacturers, and Egghead Software Inc. just made the move.

Home: Big updated Craftsman-period cottage, with museum-grade wooden detailing, $160,000, about a mile from downtown on South Hill, where even $100,000 or so buys something decent. Nearly-new ranch house on a few acres in the foothills, 15 miles east, about $175,000. Save by going farther east into Idaho.

Neighbors: Factory rep for outdoor gear, already nostalgic for Spokane's low-profile days. Banker volunteering business expertise to a women's shelter. Folks who own an appliance store.

Très Spokane: Know that très goes against the local grain, except for très well adjusted and pleasant; say "you betcha!" for "yes," "howdy" for "hello," "take care" instead of "good-bye"; revere the memory of local son Harry Lillis (Bing) Crosby by taking out-of-towners to view the Crosbyana collection at Gonzaga University.

Please, no more: Teachers. Local higher-ed churns out pedagogues who want to stay in Spokane.

Prices of paradise: True alternativeniks may shrivel in this essentially big small town. Stridently festive parks and public buildings on the riverfront don't quite revive a tired central business district.

Kindred spirits: Boise, Idaho; Albuquerque, New Mexico.

See also: Find out what readers thought and how Mike Steere responded in our special online forum.

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