It’s not a long drive.
I start on the old North Trunk Road, once one of the few paved routes leading out of Seattle to the north. This part of the road is trash-strewn and poverty-withered, and it makes me heart-sinkingly gloomy, even though I’ve traveled it, open-eyed, it for most of my life. I once worked at one end of it, and am going now to where I once went to college, at another end. Entirely incompatible with its current state, it is called by a fairy tale name, lyrical and elegant: Aurora Avenue.
I’m heading to Seattle Pacific University to turn in an exam. I’m not in a season of life requiring many term papers, but the five-year cycle of teaching recertification is drawing to a close, and this essay test is all that stands between me and a fresh professional certificate. It comes at the end of HIS 5600: History of the Pacific Northwest. For reasons too convoluted and dull to recount here, I’ve been taking this course for ages, more than a year, and am just now finishing with these 12 pages of essays on topics like “How is the Pacific Northwest different from and similar to the American West?” and “What is the importance of water as a natural resource in Pacific Northwest History?”
Though its end has required me to dust off some structured writing skills long dormant, mostly this course has consisted of independent research. In theory, it was meant to be a self-designed exploration of our region. If I’d been twenty-three, a teacher tired from a busy school year, it would have been heaven, an excuse to spend a summer driving around the state and going to museums and national landmarks. If we hadn’t spent the last year in the grip of a global pandemic, I might still have at least visited half a dozen museums here in Seattle, drinking in a bit of silence and knowledge on my own self-curated field trips. But I’m not, and we have, so instead, I’ve spent the year poking around the internet, reading city archives and listening to historical lectures and panel discussions on topics like Japanese incarceration, the artist Jacob Lawrence, and the history of Seattle City Light. It’s been a good time. Mostly.
Aurora gives way to Highway 99 somewhere along the way; I still haven’t learned where. This highway used to go on for ages, all the way to San Diego, and it started way back in Canada, so surely the Aurora of it all began and ended somewhere, but I’ve never known just where. The road cuts through through the old estate of Guy Phinney, who once treated it like his personal kingdom on a hilltop, filling it with exotic animals and elaborate gardens. The green fences that used to tell me that we were driving through the zoo are peeling now, and the park is mostly a campground these days, but it is still the forested wilderness of my adolescence. Here, I’d race other high school girls through leaf-strewn cathedral halls, we would sled in the winter down a series of hills called the Camelbacks, I would take my lunch breaks from being a reception for an insurance agency in a hot, buzzy rose garden, and I’d walk through the zoo after a long day of answering calls and wondering if this was really what work was, and how I could possibly avoid it as an adult.
I recently finished another class, this one offered by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), a weekend intensive in wilderness first aid. I took the class because I’m spending a few days this summer leading a backpacking trip for some women at my church, and it seemed an important bit of knowledge to take with us. For two and half days, I soaked up information like hot cement at the end of summer, assessing theoretical patients and imagining how I would use this information in the wild. It was all quite fascinating, in a “write this down and it could save someone’s life, someday” sort of way.
At the end of the first aid class, though, I found myself comparing these two courses I was taking. One was obviously useful, important, even critical. The other, my history class, I had a harder time classifying. Because I’ve spent a good bit of my professional career justifying the importance of studying English literature, I have some experience with countering accusations that the humanities are “impractical.” I can pour plenty of eloquence into why poetry, drama and fiction won’t save your life in the wilderness—probably—but will still make the life you’re living, if you’re not critically wounded, better all around. But history? I’ve only taught history once, for a very short time, and the Canadian high school students I taught were far too polite to bother questioning why they needed to know any of this.
After Woodland Park, the view opens up. The highway slides down to a bridge, and directly ahead of me the overturned teacup and saucer of the Space Needle pokes its iconic head over the top of Queen Anne Hill. (I didn’t spend even a minute looking into the design of the Space Needle, which seems like a bit of an oversight now. I kept saying I’d come back to it, but I never did. Much like the Space Needle, actually.) Below me, hundreds of feet down, is the shimmering surface of lake, a famous one where Tom Hanks used to discuss loss with late-night radio psychiatrists at the behest of his young son.
Around the corner of the lake shore, before the houseboats and the rowing club and the kayak rental places, a man named Cheshiahud used to live in a cabin, one of the last of the Duwamish people who had lived here before a wave of Dennys and Borens, Terrys and Maynards came and called this place Seattle. He held a party there, a celebration for his wife, a fête so grand that it was written up in The Seattle Times. Lake Union is lower now, draining into the deep canals cut on either end. It would have destroyed the villages that depended on this shoreline and the fish it contained, but the villages were already gone. As the cabin is now, too.
I took this course because I hope to teach history someday—any kind of history—and Washington State history was a glaring hole in my Social Studies repertoire. That was the practical reason, I suppose. But today, driving these roads I’ve driven forever and looking at this topography I know as well as the veins and knuckles of my own left hand, learning local history feels more important than just shoring up a weak resume. If we don’t learn history, we’re told, we will have to repeat it, again and again, doomed to live out the mistakes of past generations forever. What no one mentions is that learning it, especially all at once like this, gives you a bird’s eye view on all the mistakes already made by generations who didn’t know anything about their history. No one tells you that learning these kinds of details, about a place whose history is knit together with your own, will fill you with the kind of frustration and disappointment that can only, really, coexist with the deepest love.
I leave the old highway just after the bridge, muscle memory taking me down roads I’ve never known the name of to my old university. The hilltop neighborhood is venerable and reserved, muscular chestnut and oak trees concealing the very sidewalks from the nosy gaze of the sun. I can imagine the first families who moved here, eager to escape the muddy, raucous streets of the village by the water, with its shrieking sawmills and bursting saloons. They came up here, built mansions that reminded them of the East, or of Europe, chateaux like they’d read about in books. They built walls, real ones at first, and generations later invisible ones, signed into the ink of each house’s deed. Don’t come too near, they’d whisper, as their trees grew up around them, as their homes passed from white hand to white hand.
At some point, at the base of the hill, a seminary moved in, a seminary that would become a college that would become a university. At some point, the city told them that they couldn’t choose the buyers of their homes based on the color of their skin, but by then a lot of the damage was done. By them, and by everyone else. And at some point I would move here, to Queen Anne Hill, and look from my mid-century dorm room across the human-dug canal to my own high school, one of the oldest in the city, at the top of what had once been a fishing village. Home, I would think. I haven’t really left it.
I lived on tiny San Juan Island, nearly as far west and north as you can go and still be in American, and I still feel something in my soul relax when I walk on along the driftwood mazes and clamshell floors of a Pacific Northwest beach; that was my first home, and I thought it was mine, mostly. It’s easy to claim ownership of a beautiful place where you were small, where you learned what the world is like. This is a sidewalk: three squares buckling over unruly tree roots. This is winter: a colder, greyer version of autumn. This is parking: Wedge your car in between two others, on a hill, and pray that everyone’s emergency brakes hold. I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else, Seattle, but how can I lay claim to this land? Familiarity isn’t ownership. This place belonged to others, belonged even to itself, long before anyone who looked like me moved to the neighborhood.
I’ve collected stories, these months, stories that have surprised and delighted, shocked and horrified. I may never forget about the lone Seattle City Light employee who kept the current going to Beacon Hill by throwing snowballs, one after another, at the transformer, for hours, until the power switched off at midnight, or that well-heeled ladies and gentlemen would ride the Seattle, Lakeshore and Eastern train out to Snoqualmie Falls on sunny afternoons, picnicking in our western answer to the Niagara. I will be haunted by an empty Pike Place Market, bereft of 75% of its vendors, Japanese-Americans who were sent inland to makeshift camps during World War II, and by the fate of the Duwamish people, on whose land my city is built, who were cheated not only out of their land, but out of a reservation or recognition as a tribe at all. I live in a city of stories now, layers of the past that whisper and clamor, echo even when I’m barely listening.
A friend recently asked me if I would want to teach this subject, now that I’ve spent time learning it myself. I suppose the practical answer is yes, of course I want to teach this, though I’m hardly in a position to plan my career around finding a middle school in need of a Pacific Northwest history teacher. But I find myself distracted by a larger goal, a dramatic and impractical one: I want everyone to learn this.
Maybe not all of it, not 150 hours of research in the middle of a pandemic, but everyone should know more than they do about the ground beneath their feet: who has lived here, who has left it behind, and why. Taste the depths of affection and disaffection that come from asking all sorts of questions about a place, and poking around until you get an answer.
And of course these questions aren’t limited to the Pacific Northwest. Wherever you live, get to know it better. But especially if you live here, and your last class in Washington State History was in eighth grade (or twelfth grade at night school, because you went to a Christian middle school and they couldn’t be bothered with Washington State history), and you can’t remember any of it. Especially then: learn the history of your home, to love it and hold it accountable, to help this place to grow better with each generation.