Leaving Spokane: A Home No Longer A Home

Posted on August 2, 2012


I hereby commence a mini-reboot of this blog, which has lain dormant for the past two-and-a-half weeks, during which time I primarily hid in my little subterranean lair in Spokane, WA. As I mentioned in my previous post on Uzbekistan, I often have trouble writing while in Spokane (one of many psychic maladies I’m stricken with upon returning to the swaddling of my hometown). But now that I’m out and about on my massive road trip, the creative juices flow—admittedly, they flow lugubriously, but it feels like the Deluge after a dry spell in Spokandyland. Still, I feel the need to write something of my time in Spokane, and that peculiar lethargy and oddity that comes with a necessary homecoming to a place I’ve actively renounced as my home.

The first week of my return’s silence resulted largely from a visit by Hannah, who graciously used her one week off between teaching summer school and doing another stint of teacher training to … well, to come to Spokane and do absolutely nothing with me. Nothing was a necessity, and always is after a great deal of travel. Chiefly in my personal book of justifications, my guts need time to re-twist themselves into alignment with an American diet, and I needed a bit of space in which to rebuild probiotic cultures in said twisty, fleshy maze. But what I communicated to the outside world was a desire to rest my mind. And I was mentally exhausted—two months covering a vast swath of the world on less touristed tracks, constantly moving from climate to climate, from experience to experience, from debacle to debacle, it really does grind one down more so than I’ve ever found myself ground by academia or by consistent physical labor. A week of sprawl was necessary, indeed.

But aside from Lord of the Rings marathons (the version I did with Hannah was weak sauce compared to the endeavor my father and I undertake once every year or two—all three extended editions back-to-back in one day, no naps, no sleep, delivery of pizza only), I did my hostly duty and took Hannah out and around a bit to show her the lay of the land. And I think it’s safe to say she’s fallen slowly in love with the northwest (she came to Seattle with me in the fall, during my narrow miss of the Rhodes Scholarship). She, as does everyone, native and outlander alike, scoffed at first when she saw our little city’s motto outside the airport: near nature, near perfect. I think it’s well known that I’m a big critic of Spokane, and do not look fondly on my childhood here, but even I have to admit that there’s some truth in that silly braggadocio.

Proof of claim: Just coming back to my house from the airport, one drives down Sunset Highway for a piece, through flat, open scrub land, covered in baked brown grass but erupted here and there by a spindly pine tree one bad day away from a brush fire. Across the Highway, one winds through the occasional small basalt canyon, a black-and-brown geographic cut that, with this type of rock, could have been made either by man or nature—it’s impossible to tell. Hanging a right onto Maple and merging onto Cedar, you rise up the South Hill until the road becomes High Drive, which skirts above something between a soft cliff and a steep incline, thickly forested for several hundred feet of downward fall, both with trees and with scattered car parts from many a drunk driving accident. Beyond the drop-off, Latah Valley, a thick forest set afire with purples, golds, and blood reds each evening by a setting sun in a hazy, pale blue sky.

Just beyond my house, up past Moran Prairie, I took her out onto the Palouse, a wash of wheat fields stretching on and on over rippling hills, created by the uneven yet smooth waves of an ancient flood which would have made Noah blush. Alternating green and gold and purple, cut by the occasional barn and cow pasture (no one believes me when I say I live ten minutes from cow pastures), the Palouse regularly features in Natural Geographic’s yearly travel photo contest winners (number 35 in 2012’s selections). At the center of town, the Spokane River, thin compared to the Mississippi, but with more raw, murderous power than I witnessed at the grey churning of the Oxus—white foam cresting up dozens of feet and washing the foot bridges from the waterfalls where salmon bash themselves dead and bloody on their way upstream. To the north of town, Riverside State Park, so thickly forested but so hot and dry that it’s constantly fumigated with a thick, sweet sort of natural pine incense.

I showed her the turn-of-the-century mansions, worn down with the charm of peeled paint, exposed wood, and age. Showed her the stately affairs throughout Rockwood, and the little, tucked away cafes, the restaurants shaped like giant plaster milk bottles, the remnant brick clock tower from the days when this was a rail hub through the northwest, the legacy that stitched together a confederation of small towns around a rail-based square mile of urbanism, but which continues to fracture with each year of its continued modern irrelevance. I took her down the To Kill a Mockingbird themed region of town, the superb novelty shop Boo Radley’s, the coffeehouse Atticus, the little bar Scout, and pointed out the remnants of a large Expo that created the post-railroad town in the 1970s and then left it to live in the shadow of that brief past glory. The old-west brick buildings, memories of a desire for permanence and strength after a fire gutted the frontier town in 1889. I showed her all the bits there are to love—even those crumbling bits have a grit and aspiration to be admired. But I didn’t take her to the bars, nor to the streets in the wee hours of the night.

We skipped those old haunts that constituted such a large part of my youth in the area in part because jet lag still had me locked into my bed by ten for the bulk of the week, and in part because of the Exodus. My high school had a good graduation rate for the region, and a fair rate of college attendance (something like a 75% graduation rate, a 30% poverty rate, a 33% college readiness rating by graduation, and a scant majority of the graduating class going to 2- or 4-year colleges), so a good chunk of my friends fled the region for college, mostly winding up in Seattle, Portland, Eugene, Pullman, Walla Walla, Bellingham, Tacoma, Olympia, Boise, Moscow, Missoula, or some other part of the Northwest. But even those who skipped the college route have been siphoning off over the past four years, to the point that where I once walked down the street and saw ten people I know, now I’m lucky to run into one over the course of two weeks. I could read it as brain drain, but I feel it would be unwise to become overly analytic of my peers’ paths and my hometown’s future.

As chance would have it, soon after Hannah departed, an old friend came to town. She too had rarely visited town over the past four years, and I’d not seen her in person since a New Year’s shindig perhaps three years prior. We decided we should meet up at a new bar in town, the Baby Bar, a small hipster dive praised for its good jukebox by some and for the excuse to press up against drunk strangers under red lighting by a certain group of others. I’d been to the place previously to watch a show by my old English teacher’s band in the adjacent Neato Burrito and found it to be, off peak hours, a pleasant enough place to spend a bit of time. After the necessary run-down—where are you living, what are you doing these days, are you still so dirt poor you’ve got to check the couch cushions to find enough change to afford a carton of eggs for the week?—we got to discussing our old friends (none of whom, we decided, would pass muster for acceptance to the Rapture) and hit upon the fact that a number of them were in town briefly. Some were looking for work after college, others were visiting family, but all were up for a hop the next evening through some of our old bar haunts.

We started off at Zola’s, me passing up the Pabst Blue Ribbon, drink choice of the region, for an RC Cola. We chatted for a while on wood benches around oak barrel tables—most of the guys now have scruffy beards and a few discussed scars acquired while working at metal shops. Some are developing nascent beer guts, but most are still the fit, flannel-clad bunch I remember. We moved on to Mootsy’s, with its gold-painted wooden busts of naked women, eclectic movie posters, and moronically lewd graffiti for another two-for-one Pabst deal and began discussing the future, the hard job prospects in the region, and the large number of friends with kids, settling down, or moving into set careers. I always get a bit of a chill up my spine at that notion. I think in my next post, in which I will cover Western Washington and the first leg of my trip, I will have an excuse to discuss my obsession with freedom and mobility, and my fetish for stability, but my intense fear of it.

After stopping by the Baby Bar again to say our hellos to a work-a-day friend lurking in his standard booth, we wandered down the street for a bit, passing by those who come out at night—the people with beef jerky skin and a little meth hollow to their eyes. The drunks in Levis with their three-hair country goatees and their chew. The not-quite-pulling-it-off gangstas in Toyota trucks. We passed by the empty shell of Empyrean, where high school bands used to play their shows or present their slam poetry, and decided not to go into the Satellite, the greasy basin where the bartender used to take off his shirt and show patrons his bar fight scars, before turning around to blast Pantera on the juke while we’d turn back to our mushy french fries and midnight conversations. And, while the others crawled on to the east, I checked out just after we breezed through Revolver, a gentle place to end off, nondescript as can be. Hands were shaken, hugs exchanged, and we all half-believingly said we’d see each other in another five years. But I don’t think any of us will return to Spokane in five years’ time, unless we live there. There’s no prospect there save a past that, at least in my case, I have little connection to.

It’s hard to say what’s eroded between me and this place. Perhaps it’s that I’ve changed too much. I must admit that my time in New York has made me more image conscious and physically meticulous—in the Northwest, a NorthFace jacket and a ripped flannel is high fashion. And my time at Columbia turned me into a real bastard—driven, competitive, hyper-efficient, bristly, and swift with judgment and justice. I am not who I was when I lived here. For the better, in many ways, as I recall my meekness and confusion. For the worse as I mourn my humility and wider compassion. But those lost traits may be regained without returning here.

More likely it’s just that those bonds of friendship and family have severed from the location. Perhaps it’s that, without those bonds, all that remains for me in Spokane are the memories of some personal tragedies, unforgivable mistakes (on my part and on the part of others), and follies I’ve learned from, thoroughly internalized, and do not wish to have thrust before me as I walk through the woods and smell a thick ooze of sense-memory-riddled pine sap.

I’ve written about that haunting before (here, if you’re interested). It paralyzes me. I’d not like to lose all of the friends I made in my younger days in Spokane, but I can keep them in other locales. Even the happiest memories of the place are best invoked from afar, while my proximity to the spot is just … a ghastly experience. I’d soon enough be rid of it.

So goodbye to Spokane. Hopefully this is the last I write of you. Onward, now, to more cheerful posts as I continue with my 9,200+ mile circuit of the borders of the continental United States.

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