The Outsider’s Ode to the City

The metal spires and busy streets of a city pale in comparison to snowy peaks and undulating countryside, but there's something redeeming—dare I say special—about the concrete jungle

Once a city loses a bit of its lustre, you finally start to see it for what it is—a landscape in its own right. (Simone Becchetti)
Photo: Simone Becchetti

As a lover of the outdoors, I know firsthand how tough it can be to live in a city. Soon after I moved from Boulder, Colorado, to New York City in 2007, a neighbor suggested that “we should lunch,” as if eating sandwiches together was linguistically and spiritually akin to riding singletrack. Others in Manhattan expressed surprise that people actually lived in Boulder, which they thought of, when they thought of it at all, as summer camp for adults.

I should’ve known better. I’ve lived in mountain towns like Boulder long enough to count the needles on a pine tree, but over the last two decades, I’ve also found myself living in bustling metropli, everywhere from Seattle to New York to Reykjavik to Boston. 

Each move followed the same pattern: I rented an apartment, bought a pass for the bus or subway, and then set out to “get a feel for my new city,” which entailed drinking and eating to excess. Out of habit, I also sampled whatever adventures are close at hand. 

Unfortunately, this meant mustering enthusiasm for boardwalk rollerblading and “bakery bike rides,” for short indoor climbing walls and a particularly impoverished variation of birding known as “mothing,” in which flashlight-toting Manhattan retirees would gather at midnight to spot the brown flying bugs in Central Park's Shakespeare Garden. In each instance, I was weirdly reminded of my first visit to Nepal, when the peaks I’d seen in so many photos proved to be way more impressive in person. City life has just the opposite effect—it often delivers exactly the let down you expected. 

But before long, I’d start getting fat. So I’d double down on my search for real physical activity. In Boston, this meant finding the Community Boating Center, a nonprofit devoted to the most humanitarian of goals: “removing the barriers to sailing.” The upshot: for less than $300 a year, I could sail anything from a dinghy to a 23-footer, with unlimited guest privileges. (Apparently the price includes smashing a boat into the shore of the Charles River, too, because I haven’t been charged for that yet.)

While living in New York, I tried (and failed) to get into indoor climbing and boxing, but I did surf great, empty waves that broke just blocks from a subway stop in Queens, and I pedaled my road bike and singlespeed 29er with a passion. This sounds boring, I know—a poor man’s attempt at infusing my city life with a sense of adventure. But it wasn’t. I remember my first weekend spin up Fifth Avenue, with a buddy who encouraged us to leave at dawn so the roads would be empty. Birds took flight from the buildings as we sped by. The rising sun streamed down the cross streets. The green tuft of Central Park shimmered in the distance. Nevermind the thrill of riding the wrong way up a potholed four-lane arterial, it was the scenery that astounded. We had Retail Canyon, part of the Midtown Range, all to ourselves. 

Once a city loses a bit of its lustre, you finally start to see it for what it is—a landscape in its own right. Or as Outside contributor Chris Solomon once asked, “Can it be only happy coincidence that mountain climbers and architects share the same language to describe the objects of their passion, that both talk of slope and cornice, spur and buttress, fluting, pitch, spire?” I don’t think so. And this opens up all sorts of possibilities, even if you’re not into urban exploration or parkour or buildering. You can kayak canals, cross-country ski walking paths, or leap stairs on a trials bike.

Is this adding up to anything? Here’s what I mean: If our love of the outdoors is partly an eagerness to be humbled by forces larger than ourselves, to feel free to err and tough out the consequences, to exhaust our bodies and minds so we can see where our limits lie, to connect with a humming, primeval something, then only those without a bit of pluck and verve would let some concrete stand in their way.

The rest of us, we will explore and improvise and rage, rage against the mothing. 

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