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.
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.
Let me be honest: Until the last decade or so of my life, I haven’t been incredibly interested in history. In high school and in college, it was simply a required class. In the latter, I’m embarrassed to say, history was the one course I nearly failed because I was taking way too many credit hours, working, participating in a musical and volunteering, and that was the class to take the fall. (My French class would have taken a fall too, if it weren’t for my mom doing my homework for me. Better put an ‘s’ on that confession in the headline.)
What’s my point? At age 43, I finally learned about the deep and twisted history of racism in our country. I learned that lynchings didn’t just happen “way back when” – they still occurred in MY lifetime. I learned that the civil rights movement didn’t end in the ‘60s when Lyndon Johnson finally signed the civil rights act a week after Martin Luther King, Jr. died for the cause. I learned that whites in America have continued to mold our history and frame the facts in such a way that they can feel better about themselves while slavery and racism still exist, just under softer terminology. OK, so we aren’t still “owning” people but our supremacy still flourishes while black families continue to teach their children to be cautious around whites.
I had to own up to all of these facts – and more – while spending a week this spring with college students on a trip to Montgomery, Alabama, where we were immersed in the history of our nation’s civil rights movement. Museum after museum after bloody museum called to my attention the horrible realities I missed in those history classes, whether due to my lack of interest or the lack of truth in our written records. In the evenings, the 10 students and two staff members in our group debriefed together – sometimes for two hours or more – processing what we’d seen and sharing our discoveries. Our discussions were academic and intellectual, but mainly painfully personal and vulnerable as we reflected on the natural biases we’ve carried, and ill-informed assumptions we’ve made.
As one student said, “It sucks to be honest with yourself.”
I grew up in a Missouri town, population 711, which had no black families. (Well, there was a black family once in the 20 years I lived there, but they didn’t stay long.) I went to a college that had approximately 10 black students. I moved to Spokane and lived in white neighborhoods and attended white churches. All the while, I learned from our (mostly-white) media about crime rates among blacks, little of it placed into context of the continuing harsh realities for blacks in America. (Consider the criticism of blacks taking to the streets following the deaths of Freddie Gray or Michael Brown.)
I don’t believe I’ve ever knowingly acted racist, but there is no excuse for my ignorance and the ways it has undoubtedly played a part in my thoughts and actions over the years.
And now … I have no excuses.
I have poignant encounters etched into my memory that won’t allow me to continue in ignorance. I have shared the dinner table with a professor who, at the age of 17, was a driver for blacks during the Montgomery bus boycott of the ‘60s. I have linked arms to sing “We Shall Overcome” with men who marched side by side with Martin Luther King, Jr. – men who, by the way, feel our nation’s current situation is worse than it was during that era. I have listened to the barber who cut Dr. King’s hair share stories never recorded in our history books. I have looked deeply into the old, brown eyes of a black man who recalled not having been able to look a white woman in the eye. I have stood inside the home of Dr. King with a black woman who passionately impressed on all us that Dr. King’s greatest legacy was love, even when he answered 20-30 hateful, threatening phone calls daily. I have discovered more about Bloody Sunday and decades of violence against blacks than I wish was necessary, and I have stood by monuments erected for children who were victims of white pride and stupidity. I have also witnessed the fervent hope and faith of the black community intent on trusting the same God who abusive whites claimed to follow (which in and of itself begs further reflection).
I am ignorant no more. And that means I can no longer allow instinctive unjust thoughts to take root in my head. I can no longer assume that the mass incarceration of blacks is legitimate, or that African Americans have the same opportunities as whites, or that the slavery and racism and cruelty of the past has not continued to inflict pain on people today.
What I can and must do now is to continue the education, the discussion, and yes, the vulnerability, that 12 of us experienced during a life-changing week in Montgomery, Alabama. Because the question Dr. King asked more than 50 years ago still needs to be asked today: “Where do we go from here?”
Day 1 On the plane, drifting over clouds And so it begins. We will play in unfamiliar settings and take in all the smells and textures that make up the tiny portion of the Dominican Republic which awaits us.
Day 2 On my bed, beneath a creaky ceiling fan Sweat. Drips. Sopping wet. H-U-M-I-D is how you spell Dominican Republic.
Day 3 On the bus, heading to our first community The intern announces, “It’s Terrible Joke Tuesday!”
Later, he says our gang of 6 participated more than last week’s group of 18. We attribute that to Senor Tim.
In a school room where the Village Savings & Loan members meet A woman says, “We are grateful a thousand times a thousand – grateful for so many things. If we were to share them all, it would take days.”
Day 4 On a balcony, surrounded by Dominican people, food and music The Merengue starts, with guitar and drum and guida. They sing about the hard work of coffee growers. We clap and dance.
In a one-room church building, where children line the walls, eager to engage The teacher leads a lesson on a familiar story: the birth of Jesus. Her emphasis is on a detail maybe we’ve missed before: “Jesus was born into nothing.”
Day 5 On the patio, while roosters call and shoo away the morning gray Doves embark on playful races and the chants of a dozen birds are muted by the scuffing of tired feet. Morning has broken.
On a thickly forested mountaintop A young boy and his father drive the oxen to haul logs – carefully selected trees removed for the health of the forest.
Rosa, a most impressive farmer, shows the diversity of plants she has tended. Watching the chatter between gringos and her neighbors, she wraps her arms around a tree and smiles.
Day 6 On a restaurant deck, over the lapping waves of the Caribbean Sea We eat breakfast: four weary Americans and a cheerful Dominican named Chico.
How quickly bonds are made. With or without a common language, there is joy and understanding.
Day 7 On a bench outside Denver’s Union Station Three new friends reflect on their good fortune: they have seen poverty and richness redefined by Dominicans. And they forge ahead as apostles of a gospel that blends care of the earth with care of those who inhabit it.
Written by Kate Vanskike, who journeyed to the Dominican Republic with Amber Smith and Tim Busse to experience the work of Plant With Purpose, August 2016.
For more on how planting trees has helped diminish poverty, visit www.plantwithpurpose.org.
Attending Zags basketball games
Taking a college class as an adult (critical thinking)
Producing Gonzaga Magazine from start to finish
Joined the board of Healing Hearts Northwest
Biking to work, and along Lakeshore Drive in Chicago
Hiking the Avalanche Creek trail at Glacier
21 miles in Spokefest
Serving as parent advisor for student council
Family Camp at Camp White
Spending my birthday at Glacier National Park
Fall harvest at Green Bluff
4 weeks of Christmas activities
1 New-ish Tradition Kept
Hosting an international visitor. And I just have to say more about this. Last year, we had a 14-year-old student from Japan for 3 weeks and she was delightful. This summer, we had two medical students from Guatemala for a month, and they were so much fun and wove their way straight into our hearts. We are somewhat leery to do it again, only for fear that our next visitors won’t be as wonderful as Saori, Ale and Julia.
4 Fun Trips
Philadelphia – living history
St. Louis – all my parents’ favorite stomping grounds
Chicago – work and reflection, and biking downtown in the rain
San Francisco – Christmas road trip
5 Books Finished
“I’m in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana it is love.”
Unbroken (Laura Hillenbrand)
Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil (John Berendt)
Travels with Charlie (John Steinbeck)
Tibetan Peach Pie (Tom Robbins)
The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini)
A Jesuit’s Journey through the Tumultuous 1960s (Paul Swift)
7 Books Started
Jesuit’s Guide to Almost Everything (Fr. James Martin, S.J.)
The Book of Wanderings: A Mother-Daughter Pilgrimmage (Kimberly Meyer)
Another Roadside Attraction (Tom Robbins)
In the Company of the Poor (Paul Farmer)
Tattoos on the Heart (Fr. Greg Boyle)
Just Between Us (Meredith Jacobs)
The Girl in the Spider’s Web (Stieg Larsson/David Lagercrantz)
1 Big Wish
Peace, in our hearts and in our world. Courage to defend what is right. Finding God in all things. Assuming the best in people. Laughing more. Drinking more spiced tea, eating more veggies, buying less crap, enjoying more music, saying thank you more, celebrating all that is good. Peace, in our hearts and in our world.
Many roads in Big Sky Country have become familiar to me over years of quick weekend getaways, but my favorites are the less traveled paths I take spontaneously without knowing where they will lead. Oftentimes, a map doesn’t include these roads and there are no signs: this is the best way to explore Montana.
Part of the thrill is wondering whether my adventure may include running out of gas before finding civilization, and contemplating what that experience might be like with a toddler in the car. I was driving my old Explorer on one such excursion back in 2009, a vehicle that could plow through about anything but would guzzle fuel while doing so. My daughter and I were on a winding dirt road through miles of ranchland when I began to wonder whether I might reach a dead end and have to retrace my path on fumes and prayer.
As I topped the hill at this gorgeous point overlooking the Flathead River, I saw a man on a horse, walking another horse. I stopped the car and waited for him to approach.
“Hey there,” I said. “Can you tell me if this road will eventually take me out to a highway, or I do need to head back where I came from?”
He got off the horse and looked at my map, showed me where I was in the midst of blank spaces on the page, and told me where I would eventually come out. Then, looking into the back window where he saw my daughter, he said slowly, “What are you doing way out here?”
“I just want to see Montana from the backroads,” I replied.
“Me too,” he said. He was a trucker from Lewiston, Idaho, got laid off, and decided to buy two horses and pack them for a journey through the countryside up to Glacier. All the while we were chatting, one of the horses stuck its long nose through my window for a sniff inside the car and some friendly strokes on the nose.
“What’s his name?” I asked.
Figures. My grandpa had a pony named Rusty. Grampa and Gramma loved Montana, having started a family there before moving to the Midwest to farm. Years later, Gramma would tell me Montana still called to her. It called to my aunts, too, who moved from Missouri back to the Wild West where they’d stay for the rest of their lives. It had my number as well, beckoned me back with regularity; it anchored me, it connected with me, it always left me feeling at ease.
I was thinking about all of this when the traveler’s eyes met mine, and for an instant, he was Grampa, back in the flesh.
He shook me out of my reverie saying I’d be on the highway before too long, and to enjoy the views along the way. He winked at my daughter and called to Rusty to move along.
I stared ahead, a bit dazed, as if in the desert confusing reality with mirages. Then I grabbed my camera and stepped out of the car to capture the image of the man with his horses walking on down the dusty road.
There was no one there, and the only picture I took was of the silky green river winding its way to the mountains.
I have unfairly judged North Idaho. Terms like “backwoods” and “redneck” most often come to mind, based on experiences during my five-year residency there—the same timeframe as my five-year marriage to a true North Idahoan. I’ve written off the panhandle of the Gem State as a home for bigots and racists, with a smattering of California transplants who’ve successfully transformed some beautiful landscapes into well-known tourist spots.
While my sentiments still feel (somewhat) legitimate, I must recognize there are many well educated, thoughtful, open-minded souls residing there, and beyond those fine individuals, North Idaho mustn’t be written off.
For one thing, I love good, unadulterated wilderness, and there remains plenty of it in the state’s panhandle. North Idaho has a collection of pristine lakes and rivers, and ranges of mountains and forests left to themselves, seemingly empty of capitalist commercial juggernauts ruining them for the sake of a buck. No, here—where locals drive big trucks with fishing rods, rifles and dogs—the land is pure as it can be.
Take, for example, the St. Joe Scenic Byway and rugged Moon Pass through St. Joe National Forest. Every twist and turn in the road delivers a new treat to behold—from marshes to road-side creeks to mountain-flanked riverbeds. Moon Pass follows part of the old Milwaukee Line—which would be an adventure unto itself, even without the surrounding mountain views, thanks to its tunnels and single-lane trestles high above the valley floor. Moss-covered rock walls tell where water rushes over in the spring and trickles down in summer. There are picture-perfect picnic spots high above the river, where the only sound comes from the water itself and the air is so crisp and clean, you want to bottle it up to take home.
And then …
Then there are the ghosts. The cedar ghosts. Hollowed out shells of trees left standing since the big burn of 1910 when fire roared through the forest and the lives of countless acres of giants and dozens of human lives, too. They were 300-500 years old when the fire scorched their trunks and snapped off their tops. And here they stand – gray and cold and unmoving, but not dead.
Oh, not dead. For something in them spoke to me. They want to recognized, loved. They have stories to tell and I must listen. Stories of a land called North Idaho that calls to be loved rather than labeled.