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.