Tag Archives: Travel

Nobody Plans to Stay in Spokane

SpokaneMy plan for the break was to take a bus from Spokane to Missoula, and get a ride from there to Hamilton, Montana, to visit my grandparents, then travel to Arizona with my parents. To make a short story shorter, the bus was delayed, and now I’m stuck in Spokane for the night. I will depart in the morning, I hope.

My aunt was kind enough to give me a ride to Spokane from Moscow, on her birthday no less. In her profound generosity, she booked a hotel room for me in Spokane after learning the bus was delayed twelve hours. She then joined a friend for per-arranged birthday plans, hurrying because apparently there was an active shooter in downtown Spokane. She told me that her well-traveled husband has only ever been afraid of Spokane. Moscow, Russia? Fine. Dubai? Sure. But not Spokane. Anything but Spokane at night.

Of course 2017 would draw to a close with me stuck in a hotel room in Spokane where there’s an active shooter on the last day of the semester, listening to “Pale Green Things” by The Mountain Goats on repeat. There are worse endings.

The last time I was in Spokane, I was with the only other nonfiction first-year student in my department. He was picking up a friend from New York at the same Greyhound station I will (hopefully) depart from. He and I wandered the town at night, what my well-traveled uncle would strongly advise against. We found cool bars, he visited a dispensary, and we waited for his friend’s bus in his car listening to Utah Philips sing “Solidarity Forever” on repeat, talking about the possibility of unionizing grad students to protect ourselves from the multitude of organizations attacking higher education.

A month later, he had to leave. His story is not mine to tell, but I know that a graduate student union might have been able to help him stay. A better healthcare system, or even expanded medicaid, would also have helped, and stricter environmental regulations would have spared his health from the start. But, as with so many things this year, it’s too late now.

I didn’t expect to be in Spokane tonight. I expected to explain again to my grandparents what a vegetarian diet involves and sleeping in a comfortable old house in the Bitterroot Valley. Instead, tonight I can see the spot my friend and I parked and shared our insecurities from the view of this hotel. What an unexpected gift, to remember the people who have helped me survive this semester. I needed this reminder of the many people who unintentionally hold me together at the seams just by being themselves. At the end of a dreadful year, what an unexpected gift.

-jk

The Place-Based Writer Goes Places

Moscow Idaho“I suppose our capacity for self-delusion is boundless. I knew very well that I rarely make notes, and if I do I either lose them or can’t read them. I also knew from thirty years of my profession that I cannot write hot on an event. It has to ferment.” –John Steinbeck, Travels With Charlie

I’ve been on the road since June 4. I’ve traveled from Nebraska to South Dakota to Montana to Idaho to other parts of Idaho, and I will soon be on my way to another part of Idaho, then Utah, then Arizona. I’ve stayed in a lot of places, and seen a lot of places, and have plenty to write about. The problem is that writing on the road is difficult. Even John Steinbeck, known for writing about people (and dogs) traveling from point A to point B, knew that he had to let his stories stew. I’ve never had that kind of patience. I want to write the moment I get an idea.

I’ve often been accused of being a place-based writer. This makes sense, I suppose, because I place myself in bars with my laptop, then place large quantities of alcohol into my mouth, then place my fingers on the keys and type until I forget which place I’m in. But I also enjoy describing places. Setting is crucial for my stories, because most of my recent writing has focused on historical situations. Most of my stories cannot take place elsewhere, and taking place is an apt description of most of my plots. Setting, time and place, has more influence over my characters than I do, sometimes.

Right now, I wish I could write about the places I’ve seen, notably Moscow, Idaho,where I will live for three years starting in August, where I will hopefully get an MFA in creative writing. The town is small but quirky, surrounded by hills and distant mountains. There is a bagel shop that serves beer and a video rental stores on the same street. I drove into Moscow through a rain storm and misty curving roads, past industrial bridges and tall, deep green patches of forest and small, isolated towns. The campus is old and maintains most of its original architecture. It is a patchwork quilt of red bricks and green vegetation. Under overcast skies and in silvery clouds of mist, the town is surreal, even spooky. It’s the ideal place for a writer.

Not that I need an ideal place. I don’t want to be so tied to place that I need somewhere specific to be comfortable, to be myself. But I will admit that, as far as places go, Moscow looks like a lovely place to spend three years writing about all the other places I wish I was in.

-jk

Reading Terry Tempest Williams in Zion

Zion 2This week, I had the pleasure of joining one of my best friends for a trip through parts of southern Utah, starting in Moab and ending in Zion National Park. We went for the usual reasons (viewing nature, camping, hiking, burning a dictionary and cooking quesadillas over it). After hiking the Wildcat Canyon Trail (a good ten miles of limb-crunching views), we went to our campsite and read our selected book in the fading light, both collections of short pieces on the Southwest and West, Getting Over the Color Green and Northern Lights.

In Northern Lights, I stumbled upon an essay by Terry Tempest Williams, “The Clan of One-Breasted Women.” Williams grew up in Utah in the 1950s when fallout from nuclear testing in Nevada drifted beyond the test sites. As a result, many people downwind of the tests, including her family, suffered from radiation. Williams meditates in her essay on the many women (many in her family) downwind of the test sites who developed breast cancer from the radioactive fallout.

 

At the peak of the hike in Zion, I could see far, far out into the distance. I was surrounded by a place brimming with life; the whole area is a complexity of ecosystems overlapping, intertwined: red and tan oceans spotted green or lush with ponderosa and aspen or colored with sand and pale sunlight. Much of the Southwest doesn’t look alive to the untrained eye. Deserts play tricks on us by hiding their life, but life is always there. Overlooking Zion, I was overwhelmed and haunted by its history.

Zion

In the 1860s, Mormon pioneers founded a town near Zion, Springdale, and named the nearby canyon Zion. To Mormons, Zion refers to a gathering place for the faithful, and naming the canyon was an act of claiming the land for Mormon culture. But while pioneers were in the process of colonizing the area, the region was home to Southern Paiute communities pushed out by U.S. settlement. Like much of the Southwest, Zion is part of overlapping histories and state-sanctioned narrative revision.

The place was shaped by geologic hands, the fingers of rivers, a mind of clouds and rain, then engulfed with diverse flora and fauna, indigenous communities, overrun by Spanish colonization, Mexican statehood, Mormon expedition, and U.S. authority that ignored all previous layers by deeming the Southwest an absolute desert, a place so deserted they could safely test nuclear weapons there without harming anyone or anything worth mentioning. But Williams contests, as many do, that all of it is worth mentioning, worth respecting and preserving and revering.

After reading Williams’s essay, I stargazed with my friend in the desert where the stars are aggressively visible. The Southwest is misleading to those unfamiliar with it. The stars are brighter here, the air is heavier with scent, the land is rougher, and the going can be tough. Zion, a place of peace, a place of eternity, may be an apt name. The whole Southwest may be a kind of Zion, a refuge for wanderers and romantics. Its beauty is rare and atypical, taking on strange shapes and colors, rich sounds and haunting narratives. Its beauty is misfit and misleading, but in its presence it’s impossible to miss.

-jk

Very Near the Last Best Place

“I’m in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana it is love. And it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.” -John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

Snowy Horseman

It’s been especially cold in the Bitterroot Valley this week. The air is fat with moisture, and below-freezing temperatures are typical. Still, there is clarity in the cold, standing at the center of the Valley’s balding head. The crown of mountains rolling up and down across the horizon like changing statistics are garnished with snow and the torn fabric of clouds. The trees carry tufts of it, the fields and sleepy barns hold sheets of it stretched thin into ice, and the sky lets down more, flake by perfect, God’s-eye flake.

River Icy

In the middle of the ring of mountains, I stand surrounded by the monumental totality, the jagged white-purple strips draped below a hazy, bitter blue sky, like skin left out in the cold too long.  My nose hairs freeze as I breathe in and look at the sunlit snowscape, a territory lost in cold dreams of something to bloom later, something better to come, something beautiful in the future. I find beauty in the waiting, or try to. The snow is a fixation for me. This frigid terrarium of agriculture and forestry is astounding.

Fence

Maybe there really is such a thing as timelessness. Maybe there’s a way to stop time, step out of it like out of a beater truck, and frame time within electrical confines. Keep it forever, or send the past into the future untarnished by change. But the snow will melt, and something gorgeous will replace it. Trees will philosophize, flowers will converse, and a listlessness of birdsong will fill the air.

Snow Mountain

I pull my camera from my bag, take my gloves off, and take a picture of the landscape. The snow is so lovely, and it melts so quickly when touched, so I try to hold it in another way. I can hardly use my fingers when I lower the camera. I didn’t notice how numb they’d gotten in the photographic thrill of momentlessness.

-jk

All photos copyrighted material of Lost Compass Photography, 2016. Donations, or else get-well-financially cards, are always welcome.

 

Midnight Train to Colorado

LocomotiveYesterday afternoon, I crawled off the California Zephyr after spending sixteen hours next to a window watching snowy mountains go by as I sat alone with a good book (Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker), some new music on my iPod (Bombay Bicycle Club), and laptop to write short stories (Sci-Fi and Cli-Fi, with very little Wi-Fi). I was completely alone, standing up only to stretch and get coffee from the service car. It was spectacular.

A century ago, trains propelled people into expanses of uncertainty. They helped us contract time and space, a theme I regularly wrestle with. Trains pushed Europe into Asia, and solidified New England. They stapled towns together across the American Midwest like a string of Christmas lights, one after another after another, bringing them to the foot of the Rockies and knitting cross-communal quilts in the process. The railroad changed history entirely.

Today, trains are far from the fastest form of transportation. I could have gone home by plane in a fifth of the time it took by train. But for a historian and writer, trains are the perfect form of travel. Being able to slow down, lean back, and reflect on the past semester was just what I needed.

Midnight Train to Colorado

It’s difficult for me not to be reflective this time of year. Winter break imposes introspection. In one year, I’ve changed more than I thought possible. I almost wrote a novel but completed a poetry manuscript, and saw the publication of two poems, an essay, a story, and a ten-minute play. In the past year, I found more of my voice than I had in ten years prior. I also moved to a new home and school, leaving behind everything familiar. I raced through the last semester too fast to enjoy it, propelled by a locomotive of too much ambition.

These days, trains are a way of retracting time and space, and after running through the semester at full speed, slowing down to watch the nightscapes and frosted mountains go by was a healthy step back, a way to manage the introspection overwhelming me after a year of so many wonderful, terrifying changes.

-jk

Climate Poem: Murder of Crows

Climate fiction (cli-fi) and other forms of ecological literature have been around for a long time, from Edward Abbey to Margaret Atwood. Today, I decided to dabble in ecological poetry about my home state’s claim to fame.

Murder of Crows

See the Grand Canyon, an overture in foliage, The Bland Canyon
a cacophony of life. A murder

of crows, watchful, calculating,
circles above the ever-emptying Canyon.
They perch along the new uranium rigs,
rancourous tourist bathrooms, a clearance sale
of the canyon’s condors, now going out of business.
Sun-dried pilgrims flock into the sandy mouth
by gondola, elevator, jeep,
no descent beyond imagination,

to where the river once flowed when tourists trickled
by the curious dozen. The crows all grin
as the tourists cascade, a new waterfall of sweaty flesh
bringing with them whole picnics
to toss into the shock of relief,

greenless, insect-ripe, a sight to behold.
The murder of crows delights in the garbage,

lab-made meat patties, factory salads,
brownies with a genesis in HTML,
plastic coffee in plastic cups, and endless anti-depressants
packed into health bars laced with enough alcohol
to relax the fast-paced tourist.
The crows become drunk on their dessert

dropped by the sweating fingers
under their generation’s birthright summer scorches.
See the murder of crows feast

on the bodies piled into the Canyon,
sunburned limbs, imported clothes like packaging,
a soup of sun screen and contaminated sweat
fermenting in the Canyon’s deep barrels.

See the crows peck at weeds, fingers, preservatives
dumped into the bone-dry skeleton of the Southwest.

-jk

Copyright Keene Short, 2015. Photograph magnanimously donated by the spectacular travelers at Lost Compass Photography.

 

My Last Letter to Flagstaff

Dear Flagstaff,

autumn forest

There’s no easy way to say this, but I have to say goodbye.

Northern Arizona University

It’s not that I don’t like you. On the contrary, you’re the finest community I’ll ever know. Never mind that you’re the only community I’ve ever known. Having lived in Flagstaff for twenty years and with no actual memories of my life in Pocatello, Idaho, before moving to you, it might be unfair to future communities, but I mean it, Flagstaff. Where else can I see a herd of deer pass in front of my car just uphill from my high school? Where else can I have a mountain for a backyard? Where else will I be an hour from the Grand Canyon and Sedona?

Flagstaff

You’ve been great to me, Flagstaff, but it would be naive to say it was all fountains of chocolate. I mean, you are in Arizona, after all. The snow was nice, but driving downhill on an icy road to a stop light was a little scary. I appreciated the dog food factory, but the smell was a little overwhelming sometimes.

Macy's

Everything good and bad that has ever happened to me, with a few exceptions (Ireland, Montana, Minneapolis), has happened to me in Flagstaff: failed orchestra concerts, a broken arm, publication, falling in love for the first time, crippling self-doubt, hangovers in church, learning to play the violin, becoming an Eagle Scout, rejections from journals, writing my first good poem, writing my first bad poem, saying goodbye at the train station to the woman I loved. I’ve had colds and stage fright, I’ve had frog dissections and marching band performances, I’ve had reader’s theater and photography gigs. I lurched through high school and college in Flagstaff. Spending two decades in a place allows for the accumulation of immeasurable joy and bitterness, and leaving you, Flagstaff, is a tough decision, perhaps the toughest I’ll ever have to make. Sticking around is quite tempting.

Train Station Bench

But I need to see other cities, other states, other countries. I need to travel. I need to study and write and learn. I’ll start by going to graduate school in Lincoln, Nebraska. Lincoln may be the opposite of you, Flagstaff, but everything is packed, and I’ll be out the door by the time you read this. After graduate school, I’ll traverse shores yet untarnished by my footprints.

Duck Pond

Even if I fall for Lincoln, I’ll always miss you, Flagstaff. You were the rough draft of a misshapen side character dropped into the world; you were a place of enlightenment in the saints’ cult of writers; you were the architect of this backpack stuffed with art and questions that I am honored to call my soul.

Christmas in Flagstaff

I owe you more than I’ve given, and you’ve given me more than I deserve, Flagstaff. Perhaps I’ll come back to you someday. I would like to see you at least once more before I die. If I do make it back, I hope you have not changed except to become more beautiful, but I cannot, for the life of me, imagine a more beautiful city.

Pipeline Trail

I’ll miss the hippies and cowboys and geriatric motorcyclists. I’ll miss the perpetual smell of pine trees and incense and dog food. My memories of Flagstaff are like photographs in a gallery hung at random. No real structure binds these moments, and it’s more breathtaking that way. With that, I say goodbye Flagstaff. Wish me luck.

Appalachia

Sincerely,

Duck Pond After Hours

jk