Raccoonboy’s guide to urban wilds

When in doubt, climb; fences are made for hopping.


Bryce Gladfelter

I moved to Colorado Springs to attend college when I was 18 years old. Like so many good outdoorsy New Englanders before me, it wasn’t books and lectures that drew me west so much as it was the mountains, the Rockies. I figured my four years on the southern end of Colorado’s Front Range would be filled with alpine scrambles, sudden thunderstorms, airy bivouacs, and wide views. 

Little did I know.

By my sophomore year, I’d hiked a few hundred miles and climbed a dozen or so 14,000-foot peaks, but something felt off. Getting in the car each weekend to drive into the high country was fun, but it was also a chore — and alienating, too. Each outing left me more lost in the place I actually lived, the Monday-through-Friday maze of strip malls, car dealerships and industrial blight. After pulling an all-nighter writing a term paper on, say, Plato’s Theory of Forms, I needed a brain-cleanse, and I needed it fast.  

Where was my local nature? Where was my Colorado Springs backyard?

Turns out it was, well, right there in the backyard. Snaking through and beneath the city grid were a number of sickly yet wondrous waterways, the living, flowing energy of the place corralled by concrete culverts, dirt embankments and razor-wire fences. You know these creeks. We all do. They gather shopping carts, empty vodka bottles, thick brush and raccoons. They are both repulsive and intriguing. They are part of the landscape of 21st century America, like it or not.

For two years, I aimlessly, joyously, filthily explored the sunken spaces, the ghost spaces, the spaces routinely overlooked and underloved. George Mallory said it best in reference to climbing Everest: “Because it’s there.” Slowly but surely, with each Tuesday afternoon and Saturday morning spent sloshing and slinking and discovering, the mountain ridges slipped from my mind. Eventually, I myself became a raccoon. Not a real raccoon, of course, but something close — a raccoonboy. A creature caught between the foothills and the flatlands, between civilization and the wild. A masked adventurer with muck beneath his paws.

So: If your travel funds are running low, or if you’re tired of driving hours to seek postcard-quality scenery, or if you’ve finally had enough of the notion that excitement always lies elsewhere, beyond the glittery horizon — here, grab ahold of my tail. Come along with Raccoonboy. I’m no expert, but I’ll gladly share with you some things I’ve learned about breaking into what, for lack of a better term, we might call the Trash Can of the Everyday.

Bryce Gladfelter

Perhaps Los Angeles is the Yosemite Valley of urban wilderness and Phoenix is the Grand Canyon of sprawl. I don’t know, nor do I particularly care. Idealizing any landscape, whether pristine or paved, has a way of dulling our senses to the miraculous possibilities of the here and now. Here and now in Las Cruces, New Mexico? In Twin Falls, Idaho?  Heck, yes, to both, and to a hundred other cities, big and small. The great liberating joy of finding nature everywhere is – duh, finding nature everywhere. Start where you are. Step into that manicured park or designated greenbelt, then work your way out to the weedy lots, the abandoned buildings, the shadowy zones near exit ramps.

There are countless portals to the urban wilds — trails, alleys, Wal-Mart roofs, the list goes on — but in my opinion, nothing beats a pinched, gurgling drainage. Gutters collect water. Water collects life. Sometimes you get an open canal, sometimes a froggy trough, sometimes a trickling tunnel that beckons you into the sub-freeway bowels. Once you sink your left boot in past the ankle, you’ll be surprised how eagerly the right boot will follow. 

A few years ago, I went on “vacation” and spent four days wandering the San Francisco grid, each night setting a hammock high in the crown of a redwood or cypress tree. My neighbors in the branches above the sidewalks were red-shouldered hawks, scrub jays, rainstorms, and long lines of ants. One morning, when I returned to earth, I surprised a homeless guy sleeping in a cardboard bed against the tree’s trunk. A secret green metropolis awaits those who crane their necks. (Acrophobes needn’t feel left out; try clawing your way into a clump of shrubs.)

An important question: Is this legal? An honest answer: Beats me. The goal is communion with elemental reality, with urban ecosystems, not with cops and ticked-off homeowners. If you’re serious about following your own fascination, you might feel inclined to make like a dandelion seed and drift back and forth across the lines on human maps. Tsk, tsk! Bad seed. I myself have “accidentally” trespassed more times than I care to count, but that’s not to say you should. If you do, however, be sure to tread lightly and always — I repeat always — plead ignorance. And apologize.

Which is to say, dress for splinters, dog feces, cobwebs, toxic sludge, desperate heat, snow squalls, chicken-wire and knee-deep cigarette butts. You want to feel loose, limber, flexible, free. My suggestion: Wear what you find. There isn’t a ditch in all the West that won’t cough up a beat pair of jeans and a tattered sweatshirt if you give it a chance. Take your rags home, wash them, and you’ve got yourself a uniform.

Humans are animals, too, right?  Yes, and a big part of the braided fear-fun of exploring a city’s ratty fringe and shriveled heart is bumping into other wandering conspecifics. The maze of alleys and underpasses is not just your playground, it’s also somebody’s home, somebody who has likely fallen on harder times than you can even imagine. So, please, show consideration for tarp encampments and stashes of what might at first appear as broken, soggy junk. Meth-heads and screaming weirdoes can be threatening, but I’ve found that most folks are kind and interesting. They know the territory, and they often have an uncanny sense of incoming weather.

Bryce Gladfelter

GEAR 101
If you’re a dork, fine, bring your GPS and your GoPro Selfie Stick and your cyborg Bluetooth headset and all the rest. Personally, I’m a fan of baby carrots, a Swiss army knife and a harmonica. Headlamps can be useful for nighttime missions, as can beer. A fellow raccoonboy used to carry cans of spraypaint in a canvas satchel, but again, that’s bad seed behavior. Go light. If you think you need it, you probably don’t.

Respect the gunky, funky cracks and crannies where crumpled orange parking cones collect and foxes rear their young. Give those pups a wide berth. My policy on trash is as follows: I will unearth cans and other artifacts for inspection (or just to kick them around a bit), but I will not remove them from their habitat. Recycling is not the name of the game. Like the true backcountry, urban wilderness cannot be improved upon.

Granted, you don’t want to bury your nose in a book at the expense of missing some smog-enriched sunset (nor get so distracted you step on a snake or a rusty spike), but literature can do wonders for deepening your engagement with the ground underfoot. Cities are thick — socially, historically, architecturally, geologically, botanically and zoologically. Research what was going on in a given place 100 years ago. A book is a shovel. Dig a hole with it, and lower yourself in, headfirst.

Great blue herons stand like statues in a pond by the scrap-metal yard. Shabby cottonwoods near the train tracks speak to those who listen. And the raccoons, they’ll all but shake your hand if you let them. I have sat vigil more often than I have waded, clambered, run and squirmed, and what I have learned is that silence and patience are the urban naturalist’s best friends. Pretend each dumpster is a grizzly bear. Approach with caution, on tiptoes. Better yet, hunker down and watch. Wait and see what happens, then wait some more and see what happens next.

There are worlds within worlds within worlds — to discover, to get lost in, to celebrate. We are all children with wonder sparkling in our eyes, all foreigners here in the Local, the Normal, the Trash Can of the Everyday. Or at least we can be. As the Zen master Robert Aitken once wrote: “It is possible to train yourself to be dull. … The dull person is one who has practiced not noticing closely.”  So get out. Pay attention. Keep your tail clean and your paws dirty. And do as Raccoonboy says: No matter how thirsty you are, never drink the water.

Leath Tonino’s writing appears in Orion, The Sun, Sierra, Tricycle, New England Review and other publications. He lives in San Francisco and edits poetry part-time for the Afghan Women’s Writing Project.

Bryce Gladfelter, an adventurer at heart, has traversed the Rockies on a llama, crossed paths with grizzlies in Alaska, and survived Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. He illustrates from his log cabin home studio in Pennsylvania.