Indian Killer and My Trip to Joseph, OR

Wallowa Lake (photo courtesy of: http://wallowalakelodge.com/)
Wallowa Lake (photo courtesy of: http://wallowalakelodge.com/)

It was 11am on a Sunday. Ashley and I were hiking in the snow along a trail just south of Wallowa Lake in eastern Oregon. The way we knew we were still on a trail, some trail, and not just trailblazing our way up the side of a mountain, were the vast amounts of trees we’d pass with initials carved into them. Love-carvings (is that still a thing?), with typical hearts, letters, dates in time. Signs that humans (with knives) had walked this trail thousands of times before us.

We neither thought about nor realized whose trails we were walking. Like many before us, we’d simply driven to the end of highway 82, stayed a night in the town of Joseph, and continued to the road’s end on the southern point of Wallowa Lake the next day. There was a State Park with cabins, snowed-over campsites, and street parking. We parked our Prius behind another Prius, pulled on our beanies and gloves, and started walking. Aimlessly, I’ll add, if not for a sign that read “East Fork: 4mi” and “West Fork: 2.5mi”. We went west. We walked and talked about our future together, career choices, writing goals. We took a few moments to stop, glance around, and look up into the trees before continuing along. A stream with a man-made bridge above had not-yet frozen over. It was very-much alive and nothing close to quiet.

After a mile and a half we came to a clearing where we could take in views of the lake and its surrounding hillsides. It’s a shame it’s not spring or summer, I thought, wishing I could have experienced a landscape without so much white. This—though I was not yet aware—would become for me quite an ironic thought.

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The Jennings Hotel, Room 8

When we got back to our hotel room I noticed a sign above our window that was made to look like part of the window’s molding. It read, “Chief Joseph Hotel.” The room was one of many fully renovated rooms by an artist who’d recently acquired the building. Chances were good that he’d found the sign in an antique shop nearby and cut it down to fit perfectly above the window. I knew we were in the town of Joseph, but I wondered who Chief Joseph was. I sat down and picked up a book I’d been reading. It was a work that I’d later learn the author (Sherman Alexie) decided to distance himself from. Today, knowing what I do now, I wonder why that is? Did he believe himself to be too angsty? Too heavy-handed, too righteous for his cause? One thing is for certain: Indian Killer is not a book for kids.

indian killer

Set in mid-90’s Seattle, Indian Killer snapshots between various characters and their interactions surrounding the issue of an alleged, at-large terrorizer and murderer of white men. The main character, John Smith, is an adopted Indian (I shall use “Indian” at times to refer to “Native Americans/First Peoples” because this is the nomenclature that Alexie used) to two upper-middle class white parents. Among many things, he plays a symbolic role throughout the book portraying the confusion and generational frustration that resides within many Indians today. John never knew his real parents, never knew what tribe he was from, never fit in, and throughout the book, deals constantly with agonizing mental illness (possibly schizophrenia). Moreover, he often hallucinates and dreams of righting the wrongs of the White Man once and for all. It comes as no surprise, then, that the reader initially assumes John to be the Indian Killer.

The most interesting character to me was Marie Polatkin, a fierce college-aged activist who spends her time either handing out sandwiches to the homeless or challenging her Native American Literature professor, Dr. Clarence Mather (a white man in love with the idea of “being Indian” who spent two decades living amongst an Indian people-group in order to study their ways). Marie, herself a Spokane Indian, persistently challenged Dr. Mather’s notions on what it meant to be Indian, often insulting his expertise and insisting that Native American Literature should be taught and written by Native Americans, not white men. One of her most compelling statements came as Seattle was becoming more paranoid about the “Indian Killer”, and as more white people were launching assaults upon, especially, homeless Indians. Marie, herself always doubtful that the killer was necessarily Indian, reflected:

“…calling him the Indian Killer doesn’t make any sense, does it? If it was an Indian doing the killing, then wouldn’t he be called the Killer Indian?” (p. 247)

It was then that my perspective shifted. Not to sound dramatic, but the idea that the real killers in Alexie’s book (and by implication, much of our country’s history), were actually white people got me thinking. I started reflecting upon my 21st century, white, southern-californian education about First Peoples. Like many kids raised in American schools, I was taught about Squanto and the early settlers who came over on the Mayflower, and then in 11th grade U.S. history about various battles that the U.S. Cavalry had with tribes of Natives unwilling to relocate. But mostly, the perspective by which I was taught was that these battles were history. Numbers on a page. Tally marks and facts.

I’ve never read from the perspective of our First Peoples until Indian Killer (Alexie grew upon on the Spokane Indian Reservation). I’ve never been encouraged to and so I’ve never bothered to. The closest I’ve ever come to realizing the bleak situation my country has placed our First Peoples within was riding my bike through north-eastern Arizona, through Navajo-nation (as one white person I’d met in Flagstaff called it). “Desolate” was the descriptor they’d used.

As I flipped open Indian Killer and continued reading, it didn’t take long for me to make a connection. I started wondering about the town of Joseph and about the “Chief Joseph” sign above my window. Soon, I was reading wikipedia pages. Then came articles, and finally a primary source document written by Chief Joseph the Younger himself entitled, Chief Joseph’s Own Story. As I read I learned that his tribe, the Nez Perce, were indigenous to the soil upon which the town of Joseph was planted. I learned that the Nez Perce were initially peaceful to white settlers, and that our government allowed them to inhabit parts of the Wallowa valley. That was until 1863 when gold was discovered in the Wallowa mountains. The U.S. government then asked the Nez Perce to relocate to a smaller reservation in Idaho. Joseph the Younger’s father, Joseph the Elder, declined, and placed poles as boundary lines. To the governmental agents and white settlers he declared:

“Inside this boundary all our people were born. It circles the graves of our fathers, and we will never give up these graves to any man.”

(Chief Joseph: Guardian of the People, p. 73)

From there it’s reported that aggression toward the Nez Perce rose until eventually the U.S. government waged war. By then, Joseph the Younger had become Chief (his father had passed), and instead of fighting, he decided to migrate his people north in what’s been considered one of the greatest tactical evasions ever attempted. Hidden in the mountains of Idaho and dashing through the night while Cavalry pursued, Chief Joseph believed if they could reach Canada they’d be safe. But before they could, and after many among the Nez Perce had died, Joseph was forced to surrender. The tribe was transported to a P.O.W. camp in eastern Kansas before being transported to a reservation in Oklahoma where many in the tribe died of disease. Chief Joseph would continue to lead his people throughout the various places that they were transported. Most courageously, he lived out his days as an activist for all indigenous First Peoples, even pleading directly to President Rutherford B. Hayes.

Chief Joseph (Joseph, OR), photo courtesy of: http://ravenandchickadee.com/2013/06/recovering-in-joseph-oregon/
Chief Joseph (Joseph, OR), photo courtesy of: http://ravenandchickadee.com/2013/06/recovering-in-joseph-oregon/

The town of Joseph today certainly looks nothing like it did 150 years ago. Eateries, boutiques, and bars line Main Street. Artistic culture thrives, especially during the summer. A large statue of Chief Joseph stands near the town’s entrance. One evening a waitress told Ashley and I that when she moved to town she and her husband and many of their visiting friends had intensely vivid dreams. “This whole canyon is spiritual,” she said with an excited smile. “A really, very magical place.”

Visiting Joseph and reading the fictional story, Indian Killer, has caused me to wonder a lot of Why’s?, as might be expected. Aside from the compelling mastery that Alexie has over his prose, and the indescribable beauty of Joseph and its surrounding country, more than anything, these two experiences have made me sad and grieved. Much has been done that cannot be undone. An entire people group has been forced to assimilate. Imagine the state of our country if we had lost WW2. It’s tough to picture, but there’s a good chance that many of us might not even be alive. Still, I’ll never be able to realize what it felt like to be indigenous and then displaced; taken up and then taken hostage; used and then disposed of. There’s not really a handy or bright solution either. Sadness and grief just seem the most appropriate emotions.

2016: Attention & Definition

photo by Stephanie Yu
Full disclosure: this picture of Jack is only here to draw people into reading this post. Photo by Stephanie Yu
The new year is here (and somehow we’re already nearly two weeks in) and I’m happy to report that with it I have resolutions I wish to share here on the blog. But first: creating resolutions (not to mention keeping them) has never really been my thing. This has likely been more out of laziness than some heroically intelligent critique upon the efficacy and/or relevancy of making New Year’s resolutions. The way I see it, the fact that I’ve taken the time to come up with these goals for 2016 is reason enough for mentioning them here. Here they are:

  1. blog weekly
  2. read 3-4 books a month
  3. limit myself to a maximum of 15 leisure minutes on my smartphone each day.

OK, maybe these seem ambitious. Or strange. The smartphone one is certainly strange. But I promise, they don’t come out of nowhere. How these goals came about stems from an activity that a group of friends and I have been participating in since 2012. The idea is to come to New Year’s eve having prayed, thought, and readied oneself to present two words to the group. The words are to be like signs or themes for the year to come. They ought to shape what one hopes the year will hold, and therefore lead the way into the new year.

Last year (2015), my words were Surrender and Peace. I’ll be sharing more about these words and how well they actually did shape my 2015 later. For this year, I shared that my words will be: Attention and Definition. And from these I’ve decided I’ll measure how well I’ve kept my words by assessing how well I’ve kept my goals.

So why Attention and Definition?

Attention. I have to admit, I’m very aware of how distracted I am by my phone. How’s that for irony? No other “thing” consumes more of my downtime than my phone. And to make it worse, my phone even consumes my uptime, like when I’m driving, when I’m shopping for food, or when I’m at lunch with friends. Gone are the days when standing in line means looking at pictures on the wall or (God forbid!) talking to the person next to me. I don’t even have to be bored anymore. Nor do I have to sit with my thoughts, or my emotions. Many of my waking moments, whether filled by activity or not, go accompanied by the blue glow of my phone.

I believe God put “Attention” on my mind when I asked for words for 2016. But I also believe my conscience and my desire to be more present among others did too.

Definition. The way this came to mind was less formal than “attention”. By that I mean, “definition” came to mind like coming up with an answer after pondering a question. After several minutes of mining my heart and mind, it was there. Truth be told, I’m not sure why it’s a word I came upon. Maybe it’ll mean defining my occupation more? Or defining my writing voice more? Or my faith? Or all of the above. Regardless, I know I can use it like a tool to help me craft my year, so I’m going to go with it.

Back to my goals (blogging, reading, & less phone): they’re not the holy grail. I’m not going to judge myself if I don’t follow through with them perfectly. But with many goals I’ve made in my life, I intend to fulfill them. Meaning I hope they happen, and I hope I can report the benefits that aiming for them has reaped this time next year.

And I look forward to more writing, reading, and engagement with what’s going on in the real world! I’m even planning to publish here about the books I read, the fiction and nonfiction I’m working on, the musings about faith I may be having, and ideas I think are worth sharing. This much you should expect.

So, here we go!

Ten Bucks to Meet a Writer

He approached the register. “Yes sir,” I said. “Can I help you with anything?”
He said he was borrowing his daughter’s bike for the week and that it was making funny noises and not shifting right. His accent came from his side of the country. The way he wore his glasses and how said “I’ll give ya ten doll-ahs” made me think I was on the set of a Woody Allen movie. I pointed him over to our work station and came out from behind the register.
“See the way it don’t shift,” he said, pointing at his rear wheel’s cassette.
I’d placed his bike on the repair stand. I’d kneeled and looked at his derailure to make sure it wasn’t bent. I flexed his thumb shifters across each gear and found the problem. Slight adjustment needed to the limit screws—a ten-second fix. “See these two, tiny screws?” I said, pointing with a fine tipped screwdriver.
He leaned in. “Uh huh, oh right. Yeah I see ‘em.”
“Just need a slight adjustment, that’s all. Have you on the road in no time,” I said, beginning to turn the screws a quarter turn until I felt his gears fall into the right place. Bike fixed.
“So you must be some kinda racer judgin’ by the size of those calfs,” he pointed at my legs.
“I wish,” I said. “I just commute by bike. Haven’t owned a car in years. Maybe three or four years.”
“It’s betta’ by bike, wouldn’t you say?”
“It is. I love it too.”
“Betta’ for the environment, betta’ for the roads, betta’ for ya health.”
“That’s right, sure is.”
“You know, I always wish I’d done more about the environment. I’m a retired journalist. Always wish I’d of cared a little more. My kids they went to the West coast. Son in L-A, dwoughta here in Portland. I’m trying to get more in touch with my progressive side, I really am. I’m thinking about moving out this way now, seeing as how all the kids they wanted to get the hell off the East coast soon as they could and all.”
“L-A,” I say, nodding.
“Oh yeah, son was living downtown, one of those posh lofts. Paying something crazy. Something like twenny-two hunded doll-ahs for a studio downtown. Says he can’t even ride his bike anywhere. Says it’s getting betta though.”
“Oh I bet. I lived there in downtown before I lived here.”
“Oh so you know! You know what I’m twalkin’ about. What bwought you here then, to Portland I mean?”
“I’m actually here to study writing, actually. Taking some classes, trying to learn the craft. You know.”
“No kiddin’ eh. What kinda writing?”
“Well, I’ve thought about journalism actually, but I’d like to be a fiction writer. I don’t know though. There’s a lot I’d like to do. I’m writing a memoir right now about a bike trip I took actually, from L-A to New York.”
“No kiddin’ again. Hey now, tell me the truth, did ya take it easy, enjoy the ride, or did ya do it up all fast like the young guys.”
“Fast. Too fast actually. I only wish I wouldn’t have wanted to take that job I had lined up, or to be home with that girlfriend I had. I was twenty-three. I was so young.”
“I know it, I know it. I bet you flew that bike across, got home and wanted to get right back out there.”
“That’s right, I did.”
“So you’re here now. You’re a bike man. You’re becoming a writah. Hey let me tell you a couple pieces of advice. This is coming from my journalism perspective okay. Best writers are journalists anyway, you know. Don’t let ‘em tell you different!”
“I bet. Those deadlines. I bet!”
“Tell you a story. The day I wanted to be a writah, you know what I did? I found a newspaper. I found the firm’s address and I walked right in and took the elevatah up to the fourth floor. I walked in and looked the receptionist dead in the eye, I said, ‘Hi, my name is Bud, I’m a writah, and I’m good. I want to speak to your editah right now.’ As luck would have it, the editah’s office door was open and there he was with his feet up on the desk looking at me. He says to the receptionist, ’Send him in!’”
“No way!”
“I’m tellin’ ya, resume’s don’t mean shit in this industry. You send a resume to a magazine, a newspaper or whatever, and you might as well have never tried. Those go to H-R and those folks are only looking for people wantin’ to follow the rules. They want clean-cut, by-the-book individuals who’ll stay in line. They don’t know what a writah is. But they get so many applicants they hardly have time to call anyone. Go straight to the editor, tell him what I did. Tell him you’re good. What the hell do ya have to lose anyway? Get up the courage, get that confidence up, muster it from somewhere, even if you don’t have it. Tell ‘em to give you a shot. Watch what happens.”
“So you just… I mean just get the confidence. Get it and stand in front of the people who know the craft, who know the business. And just tell ‘em.”
“Exactly. Like I say, what do you got to lose? Look, in the writing world it’s hard, and you gotta be brave and sure. You gotta know what you’re saying. The world is reading what you say. You’re the authority. Believe in yourself, kid. Okay, here’s one more thing: find the watering hole. You wanna succeed as a writah? Find the writahs. Go up to the Oregonian building, go right up to the door and then stop and turn around. Look up and down the street and find the bar. Go in the bar and order up a beer and wait. Just wait ’til you see someone. Start asking questions to everyone until you find a writah. When you find him, tell him you’re a writah and that you want to learn from him. And there you have it, you’ve made a contact. Somebody knows you now, a foot in the dwoor. Then email him. Journalists are obligated to respond to every email.”
“Really? Is that right? Every email?”
“Every, damn, email, even if it’s an auto-response that says they’re outta town. It’s their job to respond. Email the one you know. He’ll write you back. Make human contact in this industry and you’ll go far, trust me on this one.”
“Wow, I… I don’t know what to say.”
“Hey, look kid. Name’s Bud.”
“Bud, I’m Aaron. Nice to meet you.”
“Take this ten doll-ahs.”
“No, Bud. No way. Seriously I didn’t do anything, the bike is great.”
“Aaron, look. Don’t insult me. I’m a journalist. I get insulted all the time. Look, take the money, buy yourself a beer. First one’s on me. Go find the writahs. Go find them and in the meantime just keep writing. That’s all you need to do.”

The Season I Fell In Love

During the Fall of 2010 I fell in love. It was silly how easy it was. Crazy even: a short drive, a salesman, a point, a swipe, a contract, a lifestyle. Stepping out of the retail store with a bag around my wrist and it in my palms, I felt like I was just handed the holy grail. Beams of light seemed to radiate from it. Its fragility juxtaposed with my wild inability to keep my desires contained; I wanted to look at it all day long, my focus captive as a beetle in a glass jar.

I didn’t give it a name, but I did believe its delicacy meant it was a she, and that I needed to take good care of her.

She was simple enough to understand, and she could do everything. My blood pressure seemed to decrease with each new thing I learned she could do. My life would finally be organized, I thought, and pools of knowledge, social interaction and game-play were finally at my finger tips. That night I held her face close to mine and we stared at each other for hours. My body had scarce been this attracted to anything before, my mind never before so enthralled, and my heart never so quickly in love.

The next day I took her to work with me because I was too excited to leave her in my bag or in my car. I had, after all, created a space for her just below my computer screen between my stack of post-its and paperclip holder. We watched each other all day, just as the evening before, and we held each other more often than I’d done with any others before her.

Needless to say, during that Fall season, I accomplished a significantly smaller amount of work than normal.

Why Do You Do What You Love to Do?

Recently, I read a short article on how to write with style. In it, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Keys to the Power of the Written Word were mentioned. It was a great read. Some points hit home, namely: Find a Subject You Care About. Vonnegut said:

Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.

I’ve always had a suspicion that it didn’t matter as much how I wrote but what I wrote about, and that an audience (albeit mine quite small) would see past my well-placed commas and thesaurus-mined words. That people are willing to sift through my 5th grade reading level prose and structure in order to be impacted by the elements of a great story proves that they get something. A beautiful sentence might cause one to reflect for a day, but a beautiful story could change their entire life.

But, it’s easy to shimmy around on a mediocre plot when you can flower up your dialogue with wit and tight grammar. Soon, though (and we’ve all been here), the reader grows tired and the inevitable realization that they’ve been staring at the same page for several minutes and don’t have an idea of what it’s said sets in (this is not always the writer’s fault—though sometimes it is).

Were someone to stop me on the street and ask me, “why do you write?” I am afraid I would hesitate a little longer than I would like to admit. Why? Because it’s one thing to care about something, but it’s another thing to get bogged down by how you want to convey it. In fumbling through my mind to answer the question I would wind up saying something idiotic like, “Oh, well, I like to try to write about bicycles. You know, because they’re good.” My problem would not be the subject of my response, but the thoughts that premeditate my speaking it. The thoughts that, of course, say, you better say this in a convincing way, or at least in a beautiful way, or they’re going to think you writing about bikes is ridiculous.

But that is ridiculous. We all know that. If we have the gall to stand up for what we’ve decided to give our lives to then few will be able to blame us. In this way, confidence, assurance, and die-hard belief leap further than physical strength, beauty, or well-punctuated paragraphs any day.

The reason for this is, again, because a beautiful story can change someone’s life. A painter who slaves at her canvas, day after day, fighting back thoughts about giving up and starting over, has a chance to impact thousands who might see it in a gallery; a business man who deals in medium-grade sod because he knows it will, at least, provide for his family might increase the opportunities his children have later in life; a data entry clerk who enters numbers into spreadsheets, but who chooses to do it meticulously, might be compiling statistical data that could eventually alter the way the world looks at injustice.

Belief precedes product every time.

So why do I write? What subjects do I genuinely care about?

I write because I believe in honesty. It propels people. After fame, strength, knowledge, etc., fade and fall, honesty always remains. People don’t say, “oh, well he was that strong all of his life,” or, “she was always able to out think us when it came to quantum-physics.” But they do say, “she was always an honest girl,” or “he couldn’t tell a lie to save his life.” I have seen people dramatically open their lives to others because they were inspired by another’s honesty, and likewise, I’ve seen people’s lives utterly destroyed because of dishonesty. There is a keen power in honesty then. It doesn’t come with prestige or flashiness, but it does outlive most everything else.

I also write because I’m on a journey. I know that sounds cliche, just bear with me. I can’t say I’ve always known which journey I’m on, or that the journey has always looked the same (because it hasn’t), but I do know that I have had chances to experience sights, smells, people, beliefs, colors and tastes that others haven’t. I see this as an opportunity for others: some of my most profound realizations have come by reading other’s words about their experiences. Mingled with my knack for writing (and really my enjoyment of it), I want to tell the kinds of stories that change people. Not for me, but for them, and for the God who (for whatever reason) gives me the chances to do it (and believe me, I’ve squandered plenty of them).

That’s why I write and, genuinely, keeps me at it. What about you and your passions? What keeps you at it?

On Meeting Bill Kulchin

August, 2013

Medium height. Thin. Jeans, a white collar, a navy blazer. He had old red hair that was recently cut. He stood in front of my display holding his chin like he was looking at Rembrandt.

“I love it,” he said, walking over.
“Thanks.”
“Are you the designer?”
“No. Just wholesale and office work.”
“Gotta start somewhere, right?”
“I’m Bill,” he said, handing me his card. “I do apparel insurance.”
I’d never heart heard of such a thing. I turned his card over. It read: KULCHIN ROSS INSURANCE SERVICES.
“Are you out of L.A.?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Downtown near the fashion district.”
“Gladys avenue,” he says. “I know the area.” He’d picked up a card of mine from a stack on the stand in front me. They were next to another stack of half-sheet informational cards, and a stack of line sheets that still smelled like ink and wood, hours off the press.
“Oh yeah, are you local to downtown?”
“My office is there.” He studied my card. “A writer.”
“Ha. Yeah.”
He pointed at the card and read aloud: “Writer and operations.” He paused. “What does that mean?”
“Oh you know, I do office management and oversee wholesale. And I write.”
“Is that what you’d want to do?”
“What. Writing?”
He nodded.
“Oh man, I’d write day and night if I could.”
He seemed to watch me, crunching the edges of my card between his finger tips. “Oh,” he said.
I shifted my weight.
“Well that’s what you gotta do then.”

Take Two

Portland, OR

In three and a half weeks I am going on an adventure: I am moving back to Portland.

If you didn’t already know that, now you do. About a month ago, I was accepted to Portland State University as a post-baccalaureate student with the intent of transferring into the M.A. in Writing the following year. I will begin taking my first classes this fall. Honestly, I’m pumped (more on those specifics another time).

On May 1st, I will be picking up a rental car, swamping it with my stuff, and swinging through LA to pick up Les before heading north. As it always has, we expect the road to teach us lessons and tell us stories. With a rental car with unlimited miles, the table seems pretty well set.

If you’ve ever driven toward Northern CA, Oregon, or Washington, then you know there are at least three main routes: US-101/1, I-5, and US-395. Allow me to indulge you for a moment:

IMG_4002 101/1 is Steinbeck land, followed by wine-country and the forest where George Lucas filmed the chase scene of Endor in Return of the Jedi. It is like looking at a picture for 15 hours, and it is no wonder it is known as one of America’s best road trips (or bike rides) in the world. It is Redwoods for days. It is marked by length, winding roads, mist and rain, and absolute beauty.

I-5 passes through cities you’ve probably never heard of (Los Banos, Maxwell, or Yreka ring a bell? I didn’t think so), and if you have then it was because your gas tank was below E or you had a hankering for a three-day old convenience store hot dog. On the bright side, if you’ve ever needed to get somewhere fast in California, then you’ve likely taken I-5. Straight as an arrow with plenty of farmland, the color brown, and cow pie stench to go around.

US-395 is by far the road less traveled, in fact I’ve never heard of anyone taking this route further than Tahoe. I’m guessing it is because it seems longer and less inhabited, which perhaps the latter is true, but in terms of distance it is only 40 miles longer than I-5. From Santa Clarita, two roads diverge: one is I-5, and the other leads NE toward Lancaster and eventually highway 395. Unique to this route is that from the foothills of the Sequoia’s until you reach Klamath Falls, Oregon (approximately 800 miles), you spend most of the time a couple thousand feet above sea level.

We’ll drive one of the above routes. Or at least it’ll start out that way. I’ve ridden my bike and driven in cars up and down Highway 1 before, and I’d do it again without hesitation. An indescribable serenity exists in its wild, wet tree-canopy forests. I’d live there someday even. I-5 sounds akin to being dragged by my ankles out the back of a car all the way to Portland. So that’s out (okay, it’s not so bad after Redding, which is two-thirds of the trip). That leaves US-395, or at least pointing the car in that direction and seeing what happens. There’s ample time to stop and smell the flowers, and when I think about it, that’s what I want this three-day adventure to be about: just kind of seeing what happens.

I’m turning a new page, trying out new opportunities, dipping my legs into fresh water. I’ve been to Portland before, but it makes sense this time to travel along a new route. It’ll parallel the other routes, and in this scenario all roads lead to Portland, but not all that’s worth gleaning comes with arrival. This journey is not about the destination. Nor will the next three years be.

If I learned anything from the last time I lived in Portland, any shred of wisdom, it was that I put far too much pressure upon a city to meet my needs. Sure, it was a great time, and I did plenty of new things. But it should be no surprise that after four months and several thousand dollars I was right back in Orange County spinning my wheels again. That, I think, is what happens when you grant authority of your heart to a destination. Places never come through; none are better, only different. I don’t expect this next move to blow me away, though I do hold my hand open to it. I just kind of want to see what happens.

When I get to Portland I’m going to write about Les and my road trip. I’ll recall some of our topics of conversation, sights of mountain peaks and desert planes, smells, tastes, etc. Then I’m going to post it. It’ll be pretty raw and unedited, because a friend mentioned that my writing is more interesting when it’s raw (or at least how I understood it). I hope you’ll join me in reading.

Skipping Between Tenses: a journal entry about moving

February 5, 2014

When I moved from Fullerton to Los Angeles in April of 2013 I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to move back. It was a resolving feeling to drive away from my old apartment, like kicking the dirt off my shoes and pointing my eyes upon the road ahead. It would be dirty, weathered, older, but it would still be in operation. The road would lead me along alright, because that’s what Los Angeles does. It brings people in.

Les and I didn’t know what to talk about that night as we drove from Fullerton to Los Angeles. Sometimes with your best friends you don’t need to have words to say. We looked at the blurring city lights and freeway signs just like we always had when we’d commute in to work. They weren’t different, but they were a little more ours, because we were moving in among them. We were part of the city now too.

The train goes up and the train goes down, gently. I am in the second car from the locomotive, the bike car, as it always was. My bike strapped to the railings downstairs, and I with my feet across the seat in front of me (not allowed), sitting above in the second-story passenger area. The car has 52 seats and there are 12 of us. We are feeling the rumble of steel wheels upon the track, up and down. Gentle.

I’ll probably ride my old route when I get in to Union Station. Spring Street, over the 101, through downtown, left on sixth, through skid-row, right on Stanford. Home. Or, work. But work has always been my other home. My Los Angeles home.

In July of 2013 I was traveling. I flew to Pennsylvania and road-tripped back to California with my brother. Then, I flew to Boston and drove to Burlington for a week with my old high school friends. It was our ten-year reunion, and we chose to make memories on a farm playing games, looking at animals, and drinking beer. And we did. When I came home, to Los Angeles, I told myself I was home. This is just it, I thought. This is were I live. This is it. I looked from my apartment rooftop across the evening skyline at buildings shooting heavenward. I watched airplanes arrive at LAX. One every minute, I’d surmised. There were no clouds in the sky, only empty blackness. I’d wait and watch the planes and the buildings like something was going to happen. But nothing ever really did.

Living with Carl has been brief but relieving. At least I have a place to call home. It’s a 600-square foot studio back house with an oft-not working bathroom faucet and a backdoor that gets jammed every time it is closed too hard. The neighbors are quiet; I’ve met none of them. The library across the street has never been open when I’ve been home. Carl’s friends come over and I say hello. They drink wine and talk about playing Smash Brothers while I look at the walls and wonder where my story will lead now; I wonder if it will be below the crown-molding of another set of walls somewhere else, in some other city, in another time, with different people.

When I was mailed paperwork stating that my rent would rise I knew it was a sign. The foot-traffic in downtown Los Angeles has been on the rise too. Call it from God or just the way things happen (because maybe some things just happen sometimes), but I knew I couldn’t even afford what I was already paying. I looked down at the concrete floors, poured and glazed in an artistically industrial fashion for me to walk on, representing my rent dollars. My over-sized windows (my favorite part) breezing the evening air. I felt indignant, if even only slightly, because I knew the time to say goodbye was near, and I knew that for this place and many like it in Los Angeles, the price was simply too high. Guys like me that are interested in bleeding the color of LA but can’t because we can’t afford the rent.

I can still see the skyline from the train as I ride. The US Bank tower stands above the western United States as a beacon of something (of what I’m still not sure). The other towers are its sisters, looking up at her like one day they might stand for something just as tall. There are gaps between those towers, however, and I know that given the rising cost of living, the new fleets of parking sharks, and the whelming programs to clean up the streets, that soon bigger things will move in. The US Bank tower will not be the tallest building west of the Mississippi River forever. It might become the third, fourth, or fifth tallest. This is, after all, the era that Los Angeles is trying to rebuild itself. LA might finally be a place for people to stay.

The first months after my arrival I did little to settle in. Les and I were like our rolled out sleeping mats on the apartment floor: unmade and carefree. We worked down the street, and we did little more than move boxes in and fall asleep and rise for work. That’s how the production life is in the handmade apparel industry. If it’s not rushing fabric to a cut and sew house or shirts to a screen-printer, then it is brainstorming fresh ideas, showing samples at trade shows, or moving product at street shows. That’s how the startup life is too: trying on hats and wearing them to bed.

Delani and I drank beer and ate reheated ribs on top of a box in the middle of the living room. Like the first few months of living there, my bed was again upon the floor, the walls empty, the dishes all in boxes, and my clothes on hangars stuffed into the trunk of my car. We played guitar after we ate and opened another beer each. Les was in Chicago applying for grad schools, living his dream, and Delani (the other roommate) and I were sweeping the floors and spackling holes to try to muster up some security deposit money. I’ll need it to buy food in Fullerton for the next month, I thought, and Delani will need it for food money in Portland, where he’s moving next month. I tossed a clean rib to Jack wondering if he’d lick it, chew it, or break it and swallow it. Probably all three in succession. He sat there and I said, good boy. He looked at the rib earnestly, and I wondered how long Jack could live with my parents while I’d be with Carl. Jack is family, and so is Carl. But Carl says the apartment is too small for Jack, so I won’t push it.

I’d love to move in for three months, I said to Carl one night in January. He said, sure man. Stay as long as you need, or want. I had expected him to say this. I planned on it when I called him, actually. I didn’t have a backup plan either. I was sitting at the apartment in Los Angeles, not knowing what an empty version of that place would look like a month later. I was thinking, and praying, here and there throughout my last days, and the thought of three months came up. I don’t know how or when, but it did, and I went with it, taking it maybe as a sign from God again. Three months, I’d heard myself start to say to friends. But why? I’d wonder. Or better, for whom?

My first month of riding the train, in 2012, I would un-velcro my bike lights from my seat post and handlebars and lock my bike to the railing with my cable. Then I would sit nearby and inadvertently watch people board, wondering if they’d look at my bike, and why. It was a commuter line into Los Angeles, so how sure could I be? They were normal people working normal jobs with normal ideas and temptations, but my Dad had a number of wallets lifted on buses in Los Angeles. It was a feeling in my gut that began leaping into my throat if my gaze got too far from my bike. Paranoia: welcome to the big city.

Tyler and I were sitting on a knoll at the LA Historic park just north of downtown. We were at FYF, an indie music festival, and he insisted on buying me a beer. We were corralled between four long walls of six-foot high chain-link fence that they’d called a “beer garden,” forced to stare distantly at bands, or people, while I sipped. He didn’t seem to mind so I decided I wouldn’t either. He told me he needed me to step into a new position in the company. I need you to become the Wholesale Accounts Rep, he said. My stomach leaped, but I wasn’t sure why. Was it because I felt valued in the company enough to take on such a crucial responsibility? Or was it because I was unsure that I’d be up to the challenge, or that I even wanted to in the first place? He looked at me and I knew then that there was a reason he was asking me. There was something deeper going on. I told him that I would give it my best shot and he said, good, because I don’t know if you really had a choice. We laughed and I choked on a gulp of beer.

The first time I ever considered moving to Los Angeles was on that day at FYF. I stared off at the hillsides and saw houses built deep into them. I’d never noticed them before, nor had I noticed the century-old architecture, the winding and almost vertical residential roads of Echo Park, and Silver Lake. Anything could happen in those hills, I thought. I imagined the morning views and planting a garden, and most of all, writing novels from my writer’s shack. Yes, the first time I ever considered moving to Los Angeles was on that day.

Like the US Bank tower, I will stand and watch now from a distance. I will know it all but will no longer be called a native Angeleno. I might keep riding the train, up from Fullerton, and down from Los Angeles home, gently and on-schedule, and I’ll probably see the skyline from a few miles away each time and wonder whom Los Angeles wants to call its people. I thought last July that it was I, but I found in February of the next year that it wasn’t. At least, for now, that sounds about right.