Today I headed south. Left downtown and climbed up up up along High Drive, Latah Creek to my right. I imagined this land before modern development. Steep bluffs and exposed basalt left behind by prehistoric cataclysmic floods. Bald eagles on bare branches, antlered elk scrubbing through shrubs, marmots anxiously absorbing midday sun. I made a note to learn what this area was named before white people came. Before the city of Spokane subsequently memorialized the names and history if its white-skinned settlers.
At the far top of the hill, I landed on one of Spokane’s southern limit borders—the Comstock neighborhood. The sort of nook where affluence is evident, if only by the abundance of Teslas. It was a peaceful walk, albeit one with only occasional sidewalks. On a handful of telephone poles was stapled a photocopied child’s drawing of what looked like a smiling dog. The message at the top in large, wobbly letters, “Save the Wolves.”
The Comstock neighborhood lounges quietly atop Spokane’s opulent South Hill. Barring the community pool, this section of town is without any mixed-used businesses. Just homes. Giant homes. The development was the first in town to incorporate cul-de-sacs—dead ends that make the entire neighborhood feel like a gated community. I pensively walked through it like I was being watched.
The neighborhood is named for James M. Comstock, a Wisconsin native who arrived in Spokane in 1889 and eventually held the role as president of Spokane Dry Goods Company. Between 1894-1899 he served on the Spokane City Council, two of these years as Spokane’s mayor. He became well-known for his philanthropy, contributing heavily to many city parks, schools, and other buildings. He died in 1918.
Comstock was instrumental in starting The Crescent, one of the largest department stores in old Spokane. He also was an active member of The Spokane River Parkways Association—an organization whose goal was to create a highway that connected the Bowl and Pitcher, Seven Mile, and Deep Creek Canyon.
Comstock Park, the 21-acre anchor of the neighborhood, resulted from a land and money donation from Josie Shale, Comstock’s daughter. The park opened in 1938.
For decades the Comstock foundation dished out financial aid to all sorts of local needs, dreams, and ventures. New hospital wings, a piano for the Spokane symphony, a women’s shelter, dozens of scholarships for local kids heading off to Gonzaga and Whitworth, and more. The organization dissolved in November 2000.
Upon my return home, I found a website that names ancestral lands on Turtle Island. I currently occupy space on traditional Spokan land where, for thousands of years, semi-nomadic people lived along the banks of the same river that runs three blocks from my downtown apartment. Where I often go to sit and read or watch ducks and geese commingle. Where I close my eyes and listen to the summer melt as it rushes to fill parched banks untouched all winter long.
Spokan translates to “children of the stars” or “star people.”
I wonder what this place, or any place, would be like if I actively learned the histories of people who spent millennia here before my arrival. I wonder if, instead of numbly participating in a society that willingly erases names and human dignity, I eschewed my colonizing forebearers’ capitalistic pursuits (and my own) and instead humbled myself to the area’s ancestral people. The star people. The outcome can only be good since all flourishing is mutual.
I believe in order to fully be in a place, I need to learn stories. My own honest story, my family’s true story, the intricate story of the landscape that surrounds me. All there narratives make up the interconnected web on which we all vibrate.
It’s impossible to absorb it all at once, so I’ll do my best to just take it one step at a time.
There’s been a substantial gap between this walk and the last one, so today’s 4 hours took about everything out of me. But whatever, because I’ve got to start somewhere.
I skipped walking last week because a dear friend and her husky came to town for the weekend. I didn’t ask them to accompany me on my obsessive walks about town, but we still put in a bunch of miles on some local trails.
My friend knows more about plants than anyone I’ve ever met. She can identify, name, and rattle off the medicinal and energetic properties of nearly every bit of flora. Which makes hiking with her feel more intimate than when I walk past trees and greenery with no sense of what they are. “Look at Alder,” she’d say. “And a Dogwood! And Elderberry!” And tons more names that temporarily acquainted me with a world I often take for granted. She inspires me to want to know more.
At about mile 3 on a trail leading to Upper Priest Lake, my friend suddenly stopped, let out an overjoyed gasp, and pointed at colorful growths on a flower whose name I can’t recall. She told me the glowing clumps were the egg clutches of parasitoid wasps. I suddenly noticed the pops of parasitic color everywhere, which immediately made me feel more connected to the landscape.
The next day we followed a local’s whisperings about a secret swimming hole to a sharp and hidden curve in the Spokane River. The grade of the approaching trail challenged our balance, yet it’s precisely what keeps the refreshing spot from being overrun with cooler-lugging bathers. With her nose in the air, my friend’s dog cut through trail scrub to more quickly reach the shoreline. She was the first one in, but we were close behind.
These companioned hikes kept my walking legs marching as I put a dent in the North Hill neighborhood. I left my place downtown and ambled north, up the Monroe hill, and beyond one of the long-ago borders of early Spokane. Hard to imagine that the bustling Garland district was once a dense forest—but the same goes for every place. I suppose this was on my mind after the previous week’s single-track adventures through endless communities of trees.
I passed the locally famous Milk Bottle on Garland Avenue, built in 1935 along with its sister location on Cedar Street downtown by the Benewah Creamery chain. The bottles were originally designed as retail outlets for dairy merchant Paul E. Newport who ran them for 40 years before closing in 1974. The one on Garland is now Mary Lou’s Milk Bottle, a greasy spoon sort of joint where a burger and shake are worth the wait.
As I ticked off another square block, I snapped photos of curious yard decor: A front yard gargoyle and a weathered McDonald’s Grimace on a Rubbermaid pedestal. I wondered about the human need for expression—for altering a natural thing to make it ‘more appealing.’ All these yards and fences, buildings and signage—all done up in an effort to make a place feel more accommodating.
I let my eye wander to the crops of living things effortfully reaching for the sun. One flower in particular I remembered from a hike with my friend. One she aptly named as we stopped to watch it sway in the breeze. Its name escaped me, so I simply said, “Hello beauty. Looks like you’re doing just fine.”
Did another bit on the North Hill—a shortish day that mirrored yesterday’s reentry. And though I could feel the hours and distance in my tight muscles and creaking bones, my energy only amplified as the miles stacked up. I was made for this. And the more I do it, the more I want to do it.
In my approach to the goal neighborhood I passed through Emerson Garfield via Post Street. A shady and cool downhill walk that I’m sure I’ve done already, even if my map didn’t say so. At Grace Avenue, an old vehicle caught my eye. I hung a sharp right for a closer look.
It was a Chevy Caprice Classic Brougham. Late 80s. A forgettable car in its time. The sort of ride some old folks down the street drove slowly, like a land yacht, up and down my street as I shot hoops in our driveway on Kitty Hawk Drive in upstate New York. But take that same car today—ripped top, cloudy paint job, nicked windshield and all—and add some fresh rims and oversized tires, and suddenly that blue-hair boat becomes a life-sized version of the toys that brought me the most joy when I was a kid. Hot Wheels.
Most kids had carrying cases for their Hot Wheels collection. The most common sort was blue vinyl and rectangular and had two stackable trays that held the miniature cars in their own private garages. Most of my friends had at least one of these cases filled with their assortment of well-used hot rods. I, on the other hand, kept my collection in my dad’s military-issued laundry sack. I’d reluctantly drop my newest cars in the bag knowing they’d lose their shine far quicker than if I had a proper case. The sound of cars mixing in that bag gave me anxiety.
When Santa brought me a carrying case for my Hot Wheels, I couldn’t have been happier. But my case was different. It was black and wheel-shaped and held more cars than the standard blue ones. Mine was different. Special. It caught attention, and I carried it proudly around the neighborhood like a briefcase. Kids always wanted to see how my cars packed neatly into the circular shape. I always reserved the center spot for my newest addition—which was usually some version of a flamed-up muscle car with a raised rear end and beefy chrome motor. Hot Wheels were serious business. They served as entertainment, currency, and bragging rights. When I rolled up with that hefty, wheel-shaped case, I felt like a high roller.
Before I was a decade old, I rode my Huffy Pro Thunder over the tallest jumps with brothers Loren and Darren, older neighborhood boys who took me under their wing. On a few occasions my eagerness got the best of me and I ended up in the emergency room for stitches or a cast. Loren and Darren also let me control my own joystick on their Atari—something even my grandfather wouldn’t allow when he got himself a Pong system. “No Tommy, you might break it!”
Loren and Darren let me use actual hammers and saws alongside their mini-construction projects—making hockey goals and skateboard jumps—and never changed the rules to accommodate me in games of front yard tackle football. I followed them to the farm where we collected blue-bellied lizards, then ran like hell when the owner blasted through the front door with a shotgun, screaming for us to get off his property. I always went home dirty, bloodied, and bruised. But I always also went back for more.
One distracted summer day I left my Hot Wheels case on the lawn at Loren and Darren’s house. The next morning it was gone. My King ‘Kuda, gone. My Ferrari 312P, gone. The Porsche 917, the Demon, the Mantis, the brown Paddy Wagon, gone. The Seasider, the Sand Crab, the Swingin’ Wing, and the Whip Creamer, all gone. And worst of all, my favorite car of all time, the chrome-glowing, steel-helmeted, blood red dream of a car, the Red Baron, gone. My mom’s response, “That’s what happens when you leave things out, Tommy.” I was in shambles.
When Loren and Darren got wind of my loss, they assured me they’d take care of things. They promptly zipped off on their GT and Mongoose bikes—thick knobby tires humming as they frantically pedaled down the hot asphalt. An hour later Loren and Darren delivered my case of cars back to me. Everything was intact and accounted for. My dad opened his wallet and offered them five bucks, but they waved it off.
As they rode off, my dad told me I’m lucky to have friends like that. Even now, more than 40 years later, I vividly recall looking up and my dad and thinking, “No duh, dad. Tell me something I don’t already know.”
Way too hot for a baseball hat. So I busted out the bonnet-like straw hat I wore between Cleveland, Tennessee and Brooklyn, New York back in 2018 and rocked it on today’s urban hike to Chief Garry Park. No way I’d have been able to do 22 strong miles without it. These days function beats fashion. Maybe it always has, but at age 49 I’m 100% fine looking dorky if it means I’m able to comfortably walk for 6 hours in 95 degree heat.
[Click here to read about my straw hat’s backstory—Running Insight p. 46—It’s a doozy!]
Chief Garry Park is one of Spokane’s oldest neighborhoods. And, shamefully, it’s the only one named for a member of the region’s Native people. Worse still, Chief Garry Park is ranked by AreaVibes as Spokane’s sixth “most dangerous neighborhood.” Which, to me, means it’s one of the most neglected neighborhoods in town. What a slap. Name a part of town for a respected Native elder then forget all about it. Let it crumble. Let it fall to disarray. Let it become the other side of the tracks.
Well-resourced Americans have been colonizing for so long that most of us don’t even see it happening all around us. Chief Garry Park is one of America’s countless (and ongoing) examples of blind and destructive occupation of Native lands.
Chief Garry was born Slough-Keetcha around 1811. At age 14, the Hudson Bay Company transplanted him to an Anglican mission school in Winnipeg, Manitoba. His ensuing anglo name, Spokane Garry, was a combination of his tribal name and the last name of a prominent Hudson Bay Company officer—in this case, Nicholas Garry, deputy governor of the HBC. Such horrific renaming systems was common back then.
Slough-Keetcha learned English and, according to Wikipedia, “found adjusting to the new life difficult.” I imagine this is a purposefully-vague understatement. All of my research about this man feels like a romanticized mess of glazed-over mis-history. Yet an all-too-often used, though erroneous, historical trope.
Upon Slough-Keetcha’s return to Spokane in 1829, his fluency in English and French made him a liaison of sorts between white settlers and local tribes. I wonder how he felt about this role. I imagine he must have been conflicted.
In 1892 Slough-Keetcha died in his teepee in Indian Canyon, now a golf course. The Spokane Historical Society says he succumbed to, “congestion of the lungs.” I choose to interpret this cause of death as a metaphor. Maybe Slough-Keetcha could no longer breathe in his fake name. Maybe he could no longer inhale his role as medium for settlers’ twisted words and broken promises. Maybe he simply couldn’t imagine another breath of capitalistic industry swallowing his ancestral land.
Whatever the case, Spokanites who ‘love Spokane’ ought to give this heartfelt sentiment more than just lip service. I get it—I’m falling for modern Spokane, too. But we can’t just name a part of town for, or dedicate a park to, or build a monument in remembrance of someone and expect that to enlighten the masses.
At one point, Spokane installed a totem pole in Chief Garry Park to honor its namesake and his people. But a totem pole is insignificant to Plateau culture. From a 2008 article in The Inlander: “To indigenous sensibilities, replacing Chief Garry with a totem pole is akin to putting the Eiffel Tower in Poland and saying it’s all European.”
Come on, now. We can do better. Even if by “doing better” we’ll be eschewing the American norm. Shaking the foundation. In “doing better” we’ll be acting completely un-American. Which is just fine by me.
As Robin Wall Kimmerer says in Braiding Sweetgrass, “To love a place is not enough. We must find ways to heal it.” And if facilitating and allowing healing is un-American, please mark me with this moniker.
What are we, as individuals, doing to heal land named for a displaced and disrupted human being? The true legacy of Spokane Garry is a touristy blip unless we learn who this man truly was. I want to better understand what he, and others, endured in order for modern Spokane to have a stupid Starbucks on every corner. I’m holding myself accountable to this learning.
I’ll start by disregarding the Hudson Bay Company’s name forced on him and so many other Native peoples. I’ll take these white words out of Slough-Keetcha’s lungs to maybe help clear the air a bit. To maybe help breathe him, a human being, back to life.
It’s only fitting that I take an occasional tally of accumulated data. Here’s the skinny since I started walking on March 4, 2021:
Total Days Walked: 25 days
Total Distance Walked: 367.53 miles
Shortest Day: 6.16 miles (day 1)
Longest Day: 27.94 miles (day 13)
Average Distance Per Walk: 14.13 miles
Total Time Walked: 96 hours 58 minutes (or, 4 days, 58 minutes)
Total Elevation Gain: 9104 feet
It’s sort of fun to think I’ve spent the entirety of more than 4 days this year walking the streets of Spokane. If steps are your bag, during this undertaking I’ve taken a total of approximately 650,000 steps. Lots more to come.
“Games and Amusement” underscores the faded 7-Up sign on North Howard. Each of the 4 barred windows frames a white silkscreened skull bordered with the text, “Superhit Studios Spokane WA.”
I Google Superhit and find a Facebook page listing it as a “country club/clubhouse/social club.” The accompanying run-on description doesn’t lock things down any further. What is clear is the organization’s enthusiasm for music. “We love all music and promote every aspect of it. We wear a hat rack of many hats, we like to get involved and get others involved as well.” Their tone is earnest and enthusiastic, but what Superhit actually does, in regards to music anyhow, is unclear.
But it’s that vintage sign hanging out front that’s caught my eye every time I’ve walked past. 7-Up Games and Amusement. The word, amusement, is what grabs my attention. Amusement isn’t a common word these days. It feels like the analog version of entertainment. Amusement is proactive and dependent upon a certain amount of effort and togetherness. Amusement is what my grandparents sought during their downtime—playing cards, checkers, doing puzzles. These days, folks lean towards a more passive, and possibly more solitary sort of consumption to serve a similar purpose. We watch TV or Netflix or play video games and are thus entertained.
I like this word, amusement. So, between red lights, I Google its etymology.
Amuser first showed up in the late 15th century in Old French and meant, “to fool, tease, or hoax.” It’s likely a derivative of the Latin ad + muser, meaning “to ponder or stare fixedly.” Or possibly the Greek amousos which means, “without muses” and “uneducated.”
The definition of amuse morphed through time to mean “deceive/cheat,” and ultimately came to be understood as entertainment. All entertainment, if you look close enough, is a form of deception. Of being duped. This word but a clue suggesting humans have always had a penchant for beguilement.
Which sort of makes Superhit’s circuitous, mashed-up, and rambling explanation of self ironically perfect. It’s a country club! It’s a clubhouse! It’s a social club! It’s all things music! It’s whatever you want it to be!
But whatever it actually is, Google says it’s permanently closed. So there’s that.