Annice Parrish was in her 70s and I was 13. She and my grandmother lived in the same nursing home, which I visited every day after school, but they were in different rooms and in different places in their lives. My grandmother was gravely ill and conversation was sparse. Annice was spry and spunky, and full of great stories. When grandma was sleeping or receiving care, I would see if Annice was up for a visit.
Annice’s room had something no other room possessed: An old, brown map of the world, hung by a simple wooden frame. Stickpins with colored heads marked where she’d been and how many times. Lying atop the blankets on her twin-sized bed, she propped one leg over the other knee and bounced her foot energetically as she smacked her lips between sentences.
Her memory was as sharp as her body was nimble. I was as mesmerized by the places she’d explored as I was her recollection of detail. She remembered what she had paid for a Coke on an Alaskan cruise in the 1960s, and why she returned to Australia twice. (Koalas.)
I don’t know how many times I looked at that worn map on the wall, checking her legend to see what the yellow pin meant versus the red one. But I do know that meeting its owner in my youth would shape my own expeditions.
At age 18, I traveled alone to the Philippines for a six-week encounter in a remote barrio. The family I lived with and the encounters they provided are etched deeply in my soul. At 19, I spent two summer months in west Africa, a truly miserable experience for a multitude of reasons, but one I would not exchange for the world. The combination of dysentery and malaria nearly claimed my life, but it never stole my passion for travel to remote areas of the world.
Those two early international immersions built in me a craving for seeing what life is like for people living in underdeveloped nations – and removing myself from the comforts and distractions of the “first world.”
Later into adulthood, I again sought exposure to different foreign lands. In El Salvador, I accompanied an American nun to the local hospital with a man suffering agonizing pain, and watched her advocate for his care despite his ability to pay for it. In the remote Guatemalan highlands where Mayans still live in distant history, I witnessed the care of and support of neighbors for one another, celebrating new possibilities as homes received clean-burning cook-stoves that they’d learned would improve their children’s health. In the Dominican Republic, a woman farmer in her 70s led my group in a hike to the top of her mountain to show us how well her crops were doing with the new techniques she had implemented that are better for the sustainability of the land and better for the economy of her community. At the U.S.-Mexico border, I walked through the desert and saw where hundreds of migrants die every year, and witnessed the compassionate work of a Jesuit priest who serves migrants who’ve returned to the Mexican side after denied entrance to the States.
I never weary of these opportunities to meet such incredible people and hear their stories. I never tire of putting pins in my map, so to speak, just as Annice had done 30 years ago.
Here on the banks of the Mississippi, in Hannibal where I lived two decades ago, I wonder:
How much time has really passed? Have I grown up enough? Too much?
This river, these tracks, all the trees along the winding path to get here – they know me. They remember watching me weep, laugh, pray, sing.
Those tracks – even after a million train cars have squealed by, they sense me and draw back to the time a thoughtless (soulless?) boy ripped the pantyhose off a 17-year-old girl in a black skirt with pink flowers.
The river – down the way by the old ice factory – remembers its heavy ice blanket in the winter of ’96 or so, holding up a recent college grad as she tested the frozen bay and traversed to the opposite shore.
These mighty oaks and maples, they remember my love – how I adored them, especially in fall when they showed off their talents, and a few weeks later, showered me with floating leaves they’d discarded, and a few weeks after that, listened as I crunched over those lifeless leaves blanketing the pathway.
They all – the river, the tracks, the trees – watched with delight as my dog ran free, and chuckled to discover I had no control over my furry friend when it was time to go back up the bluff toward a truck that would take her home.
Up above at the stone wall overlook, I would sit for hours, days, months, years – the river, tracks and trees still collecting my thoughts. From there, they would see me scratch out bad poems in journals, watch over my arguments with a guy – a different one, one who definitely had a soul – who would push me to discover more of the world, of myself, of truth. They would nod in recognition that this was good, even as I drove away from a heated discussion, crunching new glasses beneath the tires of a little blue car.
Even Mark Twain himself, made of granite, towering over the river he loved (and maybe hated, too), observed as friends gathered beneath his gaze, taking stupid photos that one day would be prized possessions. Did the river know, or the tracks, or the trees, that one of those giggling friends would die too soon, would crush our spirits, and yet, even in death, make us laugh again?
What did the river, the tracks, the trees think when I visited for the last time before a journey 2,000 miles west, to take photos of my dog and my truck? What did they think of my urge to leave this place behind and to find myself somewhere else? Did they know I would settle along another river, other tracks, among other trees, ones that would never shower me with falling leaves? Did they send wishes through the wind to their distant friends the pines, to be gentle with me, to allow me to continue my journey of discovery? Did the Mighty Mississippi send currents of encouragement through tributaries that would find their way to the Pacific Northwest to say, “Watch this girl. Support her when she walks on your thin veneer in winter”? The iron tracks, did they reverberate codes along rails that traverse the Rockies, and say, “Be steady for her. Be still when she navigates the paths of loneliness, and failed marriage, and parenting alone”?
Did these old friends from Missouri – the river, the tracks, the trees – send me off with well wishes that I didn’t hear? Did they know that someday almost 30 years later, I’d return to feel their presence again? Did they sense – or at least hope – that this time I’d come with a soul mate who would never threaten my trust, who would support me in continuing to grow and learn and search and be myself? And that he would love this river, too – for different reasons, but nonetheless would honor all that my friends, the river, the tracks, and the trees had meant to me?
They may not have known. They may not have planned it or even guided the journey, nor sent good intentions. But it seems they rejoice, today, that all this has come to be.
On November 17, I hit my four-year anniversary at Gonzaga University, a place I had my eye on for a few years before the perfect job opened for me. I remember going to campus with my mom and having her take a photo of me in front of the iconic statue of St. Ignatius by College Hall, and claiming that the job was mine before it was actually offered to me. I remember the two goofs hanging out in my office when I moved in, who instantly made me feel it was the right move. I’d always known I wanted to return to higher education, and being at Gonzaga has confirmed why.
#1.College students are optimistic, not yet so jaded by “the real world.” And when they do see a depressing reality, they respond with, “What can we do to change this?”
#2. There is positive energy on a college campus … all the time. At Gonzaga, music blares from dorm windows on Friday afternoons, students hang from trees in hammocks, they come up with creative inside jokes to just about everything.
#3. College basketball is fun. Who knew? Sports in general aren’t my thing, but the Kennel during basketball season is a ball (get it?) to watch.
#4. Jesuit students are impressive young people who naturally want to serve the greater good and not focus so much on what they will achieve for their own personal benefit. Learning and contemplating among them is a gift.
#5. Lifelong learning is never in question. When you’re surrounded by so many incredibly intelligent people, how can you not be learning constantly?
#6. A campus is a mixing bowl of art and music and meaning and growth that never ceases to produce a craving for more. #magis
#7. Jesuits are cool, thoughtful people. And their tradition of self-examination makes a significant difference in the life of a workplace.
#8. Creating a magazine chock full of examples of all these things is the best job ever.
#9. Doing that with an amazing team that has fun doing the work is icing on the cake.
Seven hundred. That was the population of Perry, Missouri, the town I lived in from age 3 to 20. It had one blinking stoplight and one non-white family, a couple that didn’t stay long. Legend says that a century-old city ordinance forbade blacks from being in town after dark, and we knew people of neighboring communities who still heeded the warning even in the 1980s.
What impact may that have had on my implicit bias, even within a home that was loving and kind toward people regardless of skin tone? What notions lingered in my mind after seeing every black student in our county-wide school succeed as an athlete, perpetuating the notion that sports are the only way for them to achieve?
The first summer I escaped the small town for the metropolis of St. Louis to serve inner-city ministries, I was surrounded by children of color who came from homes of addiction and poverty. How did that influence my notion of race?
These are questions I pondered while gathering with 10 Gonzaga University students in Montgomery, Alabama. Our spring break Mission:Possible immersion experience placed us in the nation’s most historical sites of the civil rights movement, and after long days in museums and lectures, we gathered for even longer evenings of reflection and conversation. These were tough talks where the mostly white participants challenged themselves to face their implicit biases, and where the one black student opened our eyes to her world.
“It sucks to be honest with yourself, doesn’t it?” she said. It wasn’t a question.
In a world where people often approach tough topics in the shadows of online environments, we find face-to-face discussion to be uncomfortable. As a result, the divisive nature of online dialogue has led many of us to stop discussing our views on these social matters.
And yet, we know that the ugliness of racism – in the past as well as the present – must be addressed.
We must be willing to have meaningful conversations that seek understanding and reconciliation. I liken this process to forcing myself to the gym after months of laziness. Setting the alarm extra early. Pulling on exercise clothes. Setting the treadmill at the slowest-possible speed on a zero incline. Eventually, the routine gets easier and I feel better, even craving it.
I hope you’ll read Gonzaga Magazine’s coverage of racism and diversity with the goal of enjoying that kind of mental and emotional exercise. Because as we open ourselves to the sometimes arduous exercise of getting honest with ourselves, we discover a greater hunger for truth and equity.
I arrived in Spokane, Washington, on Mother’s Day 1998. It was a beautiful day with blue skies, warm enough for me to wear light pants and a short-sleeved shirt as I roamed around the downtown of a city that would eventually feel like home. My first stop was the visitors center, a small brick building on Main and Browne, for maps and information. I wandered Spokane Falls Boulevard to see Riverfront Park and then Howard, where I found an interesting little hippie shop that seemed like a place where I might connect with other young 20-somethings.
But that isn’t where the adventure starts.
It began on an Amtrak two months earlier, trudging north from St. Louis and then branching off to the Empire Builder across the flat, snowy plains of North Dakota and eastern Montana. I journaled, I slept, I snacked. I disembarked in towns where that was allowed, to stretch and inhale fresh air. I sat in the windowed car where seats face out the walls of glass, and took in an unobstructed view of the landscape – a landscape that never seemed to change after 10 miles, 100 miles, 200 miles.
As my luck and Amtrak’s schedule would have it, the short March day would wind up for nightfall just as the terrain swelled and rolled, where brown, barren trees morphed into green conifers that trekked up hills and alongside rivers. The train meandered through mountains on high trestles over frozen creek beds, hugged the hillsides, swooped through tunnels. The sky grew darker and the engine chugged ever higher until the Whitefish train station appeared and there were aunts and uncles waiting to greet me.
It was Montana, and I loved it. A week there, with my dad’s sisters and their husbands showing me the local lakes and ski resorts, driving me as far as winter roads would allow into the outer reaches of Glacier National Park, and I was hooked. I didn’t know the grandeur that was hiding behind the fog and clouds, but it didn’t matter. Montana felt right to me. My grandmother, years after moving from Montana to Missouri, had said she could still sense the mountains calling her. I thought they were calling me, too.
But alas, that is not the big adventure either.
Me and My Ranger
After the train ride back through the mountains and across the prairies and down alongisde the mighty Mississippi, I returned to my job and put in a notice: I’d be moving. Starting a new life. Having an adventure. Recreating myself. And I’d be doing that out West.
In 1998, the great World Wide Web was still in its infancy. Google Maps didn’t exist; nor did LinkedIn or even Monster.com. Job hunting was more manual, even a little old fashioned. It didn’t take long for me to realize that finding a job in the Flathead Lake area of Montana would be next to impossible — that place was chock full of writers who were successful as freelancers and wealthy enough to live there without concern for regular work. That wouldn’t do for a young professional just two years out of college.
I spread out a large U.S. map on the family dining room table and announced to my dad, “I’m moving to Spo-KANE.” He replied, “Well, then you ought to learn how to say it: Spo-CAN.”
That was about the extent of the conversation as I remember it. My parents weren’t overly worried about me moving across the country or resettling on my own. I would box up my belongings in the house I rented from them, pack only the essentials necessary for settling once I found an apartment; the rest of it — and my dog — my folks would load into a U-Haul and drive out to me a couple weeks afterward.
The first of May came and, having said all goodbyes, I left my little white house in Hannibal, Missouri, and pulled out onto Highway 36 heading west in my 1996 Ford Ranger. It was turquoise green, a dogged 5-speed stick-shift that had never traversed mountains. It had an extended cab, which allowed me to lean back my seat when I needed to pull over for a snooze. My belongings, packed in Rubbermaid totes, were secured in the bed and covered with a blue tarp that would flap incessantly until it eventually ripped to shreds.
I had been on that familiar stretch of Highway 36 for less than 10 miles when I found myself daydreaming. What would it be like to just hit the road for an adventure and not go back to Hannibal to my daily routine? The thoughts lingered and rolled around in a familiar pattern before the neurons fired and I realized that I was hitting the road for an adventure and not returning to a normal routine.
A burst of energy and excitement shot through me — I felt it in my bones as much as in my heart. I screamed with joy and laughed aloud, rolled down my window and waved my arm back at Mark Twain’s boyhood hometown, far in the rear view mirror.
If I had kept a journal of what I ate and drank along the way, the record would likely show my penchant for Barq’s root beer, Pringles, M&Ms, peanut butter sandwiches, and an occasional burger or taco from a fast-food joint. I’ll bet mom sent me with chocolate chip cookies, too. My Sony Walkman was plugged into my truck radio with a cassette tape so I could listen to essential CDs: Lynyard Skynyrd, Pink Floyd, The Wallfowers, U2, Steve Miller Band, Tom Petty, Tracy Chapman and the Indigo Girls. There may have been more, but these I know for sure.
Scariest Night of My Life
There would be plenty of less exciting moments in that six-day trek. Kansas, for example. Plus the hail storm and pouring rain that prevented visibility, then blinding snow in Colorado and the Ranger’s struggles to muster the strength for slippery surfaces on winding, elevating mountain roads.
Each night I stayed in a different type of accommodation. In Kansas, it was a cheap chain hotel along Interstate 70. In Colorado, a lovely little cabin on a creek near the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park. In Wyoming, I pitched a tent in Yellowstone, and that became a night to remember.
In early May, campgrounds in Yellowstone are nearly vacant; the one I chose had maybe two other campers, one of whom helped me put up a tent that was far too large for one person. I hadn’t camped enough to know the value of small tents, and I had never camped outside Missouri, which means I knew nothing of bear country precautions. I was bewildered by the sight of “bear proof” garbage cans and signs about keeping food inside vehicles. Every warning I saw sent shivers through my body, and each of them reverberated in my mind for several hours as I tossed and turned inside a tent large enough for three of the feared mountain mammals to come join me.
It sounded like that was about to happen. There were scuffling sounds in the campground, near my truck, closer and closer until at last I swore that claws would come ripping through the thin nylon that served as a wall between me and the wild. I had nothing to offer as a deterrent or a defense. I only had my vivid imagination and fear, which I was sure the bears could smell just as well as the package of lunchmeat in the cooler inside my truck.
After an exhausting period (an hour? Three hours?) of envisioning my pending death, I told myself it was ridiculous to assume there were bears out there. The scritch-scratching was probably the movement of bare limbs on nearby bushes. Just as my heart rate slowed by and imagination shut down for a bit a sleep, one of the two other campers down the path fired off a single shot from his rifle. A warning shot to scare the bears away, I was sure of it. Sleep would never come. I would simply wait for morning light, pack up my belongings and hit the road. At the Gardiner, Montana entrance to the park, I’d comfort myself inside a rustic restaurant with biscuits and gravy, eggs and toast, and then push north toward Livingston.
I was back in the land of enchantment, the backdrop of mountains among the wide-open ranches where the deer and buffalo roamed. Heading to Kalispell for a visit with my aunts, I knew that while I was making a home in Spokane, Montana would continue calling me back.
After a couple of days to recuperate from driving, I hit the stretch of I-90 that was then and remains today my favorite section of any interstate in the U.S. Lookout Pass, a stream running alongside the curving highway, the marshy meadows near St. Regis, the basalt walls of Fourth of July Pass, the elevated views above Lake Coeur d’Alene; the scenery is almost distracting, particularly for a flatlander unfamiliar with mountain passes.
The Lilac City
It was Mother’s Day when I drove into the city named for a flower that smells of nostalgia, memories of my grandmother who said the mountains called her. I was only downtown a short time when the area map I now held pointed me to Riverside State Park. That was more important to me than learning the pesky one-way streets or even finding the right place to stay the night.
In retrospect, I could have made accommodations a higher priority. I spent my first night in a very seedy hotel at the corner of Government Way and the Sunset Highway. The activities at such a location scared me nearly as much as the night in Yellowstone, and I spent my nervous moments searching the yellow pages of the three-inch thick phone directory for a hostel.
Spokane’s only (and no longer operating) hostel — The Brown Squirrel — became my first “home” in the Inland Northwest. I sheltered there with a couple of others who were long-term visitors and two girls from Seattle who were just in town for a few days. It was at The Brown Squirrel that I joined the throngs of Seinfeld fans along with fellow hostelers, to unwind in front of the tube after a day of driving around, learning the lay of the land, scouring newspapers for job openings, applying for jobs and searching for a suitable location to apartment hunt.
Within a week, I received a call at The Brown Squirrel from my first employer, and with a job, I could tell a prospective landlord I would actually have income. I became the first occupant of a corner unit with vaulted ceilings, an open floor plan, two sets of sliders linked to different patios in a brand new Bavarian-looking apartment complex that was still half empty. It had only a small stretch of grass, but my dog would be allowed, and the rent was only $495. I quickly came to know my next door neighbors: they were members of what I would soon learn to be a notorious family of gypsies in Spokane. (Does the name Johnny Marks ring a bell?) The matriarch would ask me to drive her to Tidyman’s, which was literally straight across the street, and I obliged the first time or two, trying to be neighborly. Hans, our German landlord, booted them after two months.
Over the last 20 years, I have lived in one apartment on Sprague (not the redlight district of the 90s), one super crappy duplex on 16th (it had a big yard for my hole-digging dog), one much nicer duplex on Best (a place of wonderful memories), a newer home on the South Hill (with the best kitchen ever), and now a more permanent residence off Upriver Drive. There were five years that I lived in North Idaho during my first marriage, but that’s a different story.
Over the years, I have remained unsure how to answer when people ask, “Where are you from?” Can I call myself a Spokanite? What length of time is required to claim the city and have it claim me?
I’ve decided: I cheer on the Zags, know all the great local coffee joints, support local independent bookstores, have ridden or walked all 40 miles of Centennial Trail, completed Bloomsday, watched a Lilac Parade, marched on MLK Day, planted trees with The Lands Council, read Doug Clark’s column, complete “the Best of” polls with The Inlander, and attend the Trees of Elegance every Christmas season without fail. At this, my 20-year Spokanniversary, I’m claiming it: I am “from” here.
Kate Vanskike-Bunch and her family make regular trips to the Montana mountains that call her, but they definitely feel at home in Spokane. She and husband Jeff have a daughter entering high school, three elementary-aged kids, a dog and two house rabbits. They live near Millwood, love the arts community, and contribute to the financial success of local coffee roasters. Follow Kate on Twitter.
[The following letter was sent to Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who represents Eastern Washington in the House of Representatives. It was sent following a visit to her office by a group of Gonzaga University students which I was proud to accompany. In light of the approaching deadline for Congress to reach a bipartisan response to immigration reform and the path to citizenship for “Dreamers” under DACA, I wanted to share this more broadly. Please reach out to YOUR representatives and plead for reform that is centered on human dignity.]
Dear Congresswoman McMorris Rodgers:
Thank you so much for making time in your hectic schedule to visit with students from Gonzaga University and to hear their stories about a recent trip to the Mexico border to learn more about immigration. One central theme we heard during the many facets of our time there – visiting with both government officials such as Border Patrol, as well as humanitarian agencies and migrants themselves – was just how complicated this system is. We understand there is no easy fix that will alleviate all the concerns from all the involved parties and from the broader public.
We want to thank you for listening to our students’ personal perspectives from their families’ experiences as well. You may recall Lydia sharing about the misconceptions of “chain migration” and her family trying to bring an aunt here multiple times through proper legal channels. Rani also shared about her mother’s joy in being able to see a child graduate from college for the first time in her family’s experience, as well as the poignant question Rani raised about the parents of DACA students: it’s awesome to open a channel for those students to work toward citizenship, but what of their parents who sacrificed so much to bring them here?
Our students shared many other perspectives based on the things we witnessed at the border. Francesca mentioned the opportunities we had to see the real struggles with human dignity, and Cameron shared his concern for the environmental impact of expanding a physical wall at the borderlands. Participants in Gonzaga’s Justice in January program have written a number of short blogs to capture these sentiments, and we hope that you might be able to take a few moments to read these stories and to reflect on how they might inform the common sense immigration reform you and your colleagues in Congress are seeking to achieve during these last few days before the President’s deadline. You can find those here.
We remain hopeful that Congress will achieve a bipartisan resolution to immigration reform that:
protects all people from the dangers of gang and drug activity;
allows for DACA dreamers to achieve citizenship;
supports a simplified process for immigrants trying to come to the U.S. legally – including “family reunification” as an alternative to “chain migration”; and
advocates for the type of infrastructure our Border Patrol agents have indicated they need, which is for properly trained agents and technology rather than additional physical Wall extensions that not only endanger ecosystems but actually do little to achieve the goals of protecting our border.
This, as you know, is a critical moment for the current Congress and we think it’s one of the most important issues of our day. You have our prayers for meaningful dialogue not only with fellow Congress members but also with your constituent base here in Eastern Washington.
Thank you again for your time.
On behalf of these four fine Gonzaga students, pictured left to right:
Cameron Marsh, Francesca Nevil, Amayrani Chavez and Lydia Lopez,
as well as other members of the 2018 Justice in January cohort of Gonzaga’s Center for Community Engagement.
Author’s Note:In a Tucson, Arizona, courtroom, a dozen students and two advisers from Gonzaga University witnessed Operation Streamline – a controversial system of justice for migrants accused of entering the U.S. illegally. In less than three hours, we would see 72 individuals processed. Seventy-two times we would hear the judge repeat the same questions to people who did not speak English as a first language (some did not even understand the Spanish translation), and all but a few times, individuals were sentenced to time served and deported back to their homelands. Hearing the legal questioning and the confused answers became the cornerstone of my entire experience learning about the U.S. immigration and deportation system.
How do you plead? Guilty or not guilty? Yes.
An attorney sat with arms outstretched behind him on the bench, arrogance wafting off his puffed up chest. “I volunteer,” he says. Well so does the elderly woman in red — she knows the names of every person on the docket and what their conviction is and what might be done to help them when the attorneys and judges have gone home.
Inside the courtroom, a young girl’s age is argued by people who don’t know her in a language she doesn’t speak. She shrinks away in the presence of the two bulky white marshals who take her back to a stark room where they return her to shackles, and – who knows – maybe strip-search her for the third time that day.
How do you plead? Guilty or not guilty? Yes.
We visit a Border Patrol facility where an armed, green “guardian of the borders, America’s frontline” talks of “bad guys” – “unwanted visitors” – “a bunch a creeps” – “a pregnant chick” and the “community crap” his agency does.
Lizbet crossed the border at age 15. Sixteen years and two American-born children later, she is deported. Stuck. Separated from her sons who remain in Delaware while she sits in a cold 4th-floor room in a concrete building, spilling her heart to a bunch of Americans who aren’t sure what to do with her story.
Bullcrap. That’s what Nayelli did with her life in the States. She shoveled bullcrap. Took a job no U.S. citizen wanted – 12-hour days, 6-day weeks doing the disgusting jobs white people couldn’t handle, making more in one day than she’d make in a month back home. Having returned to Mexico voluntarily to care for a dying grandmother, she’s unable to get back to the States where her two young daughters wait.
How do you plead? Guilty or not guilty? Yes.
Getting to the states legally is a mound of paperwork, money, too many people in power, money, so much at stake, so much ambiguity. But not for me. I can walk across the border on a drizzling gray morning without fear, then get in a car and have a great lunch at a taco truck and go on about my day.
Inside a warehouse stuffed with clothing and shoes and diapers and bandages, we pretend to be real people in that maze of immigration. A border patrol officer on a power kick. A twisted attorney. An employer looking for workers to make him money. A desperate mom, a fumbling dad, people offering their fate to others.
How do you plead? Guilty or not guilty? Yes.
A fence of steel, rising up the hills and back down again. Space between slats where life in a community buzzes. It’s recess and children chase one another in a school yard while the late-morning shadows chase them, too. Unaware – perhaps – of what that metal monstrosity represents.
The wall – 654 miles of steel. A hearty person with a dream can go around or over or under, but only at great risk: being caught drug smugglers, turned in by citizen militia, or detained by Border Patrol, resulting in weeks to months in jail, and the stamp of “ILLEGAL.”
How do you plead? Guilty or not guilty? Yes.
More to come at wordsncoffee.com as well as blogs from the students at gonzaga.edu.