Getting My Bearings

[Personal Essay, Field & Compass Magazine, Issue 001]

by Sarah Hauge

He walked with purpose, and he walked a lot. Or so I assumed, because several times a week while out for a run I would see him, striding down the sidewalk on what I imagined was his daily stroll, ruddy-cheeked, white hair bouncing slightly with the footfalls of his sneakers, and always, always wearing the thing that had drawn my attention in the first place: a neon nylon windbreaker, 1990s-style, vibrant with fluorescent greens and pinks and oranges. It was not a common fashion choice for a man in his 60s in an upper middle class neighborhood, and because of this, it made me really, really happy.

Each time I saw him it somehow made me feel like I was in the right place, even though we never spoke. This man became one of my personal Spokane landmarks. Maybe that term doesn’t usually refer to people, but when I say landmark, I simply mean the things I’ve noticed that make this city feel like it belongs to me, and I to it—the beautiful, the unexpected, the strange. When I moved here 12 years ago, a transplant from western Washington where I had lived my entire life previously, my landmark list was blank. Like any other transplant, after the move I felt lost, uprooted, a little fragile. My then-new husband was the only person I knew well and I missed my friends and family, the vast water of the Puget Sound, even the way each western Washington hub shares close quarters with the next, big cities shouldering against smaller cities shouldering against suburbs. By comparison, my eastern Washington home had what first felt like a paltry trickle of water and seemed land-locked and isolated. I also had a new job, a dull, unfulfilling 8-to-5 in a windowless basement. I found myself with lots of restless energy, which I channeled into running. I’d started jogging a couple of years earlier in a fairly consistent but casual way. Now I became a disciplined, many-times-a-week runner.

Of course, I got lost a lot—my sense of direction has always been terrible. My first couple of weeks here I’d get turned around, pretty sure I was within a half mile of my apartment but, to my great embarrassment, clueless whether I needed to head east or west to get back home. Running on my lunch break at work, I’d get mixed up about which of the footbridges to take across the park to return to my office downtown, finally hurrying back to my desk sweaty and breathless. But, I kept running and slowly I found my way. I discovered routes I liked: early morning jogs through sleepy neighborhoods, past overgrown gardens and empty basketball courts; lunchtime runs along the water, where I’d pass by marmots snuffling along the river banks near the university; weekend loops through beautiful parks, down a series of bluff trails, and back home.

As time passed I got to know the weather: four official, distinctive seasons that I appreciated after the consistent mild temps and trademark rain of the Seattle area. Running past, I’d make mental note of the day the duck pond froze over in the winter; on frigid mornings I also experienced the strange new sensation of frozen nose hairs (something I’ve written about before and will never get over). At the dreary tail end of winter I’d notice, with joy that surprised me, the delicate, climbing perennials starting to blossom on the rockery in one of my favorite parks, followed weeks later by the yellow wildflowers that bloomed along the bluff. In the summer, those hot, dry days that smelled like a dusty campground, I learned that even a 6 a.m. run left me with bright red cheeks and skin dripping with sweat. The seasons cycled on and on, and other things changed. I switched jobs, made friends, went back to school, had a baby, and then another. I kept running.

My mental list of landmarks is now quite long: the gorgeous parks, the river (which I now love), the way the seasons feel, the shortcuts and neighborhood side streets I’ve taken dozens of times. And then there are the quirks, the things that—though I realize this is not actually true—make it seem like the city somehow gets me. Such as windbreaker man, whose repeat appearances have given me a strange sense of comfort as I’ve pondered his backstory. (Jacket worn ironically, or continuously for the past few decades? Hopefully the latter.) Similarly, the pirate boy: a little kid I often see out with his parents and younger sister by the playground or coffee shop in my neighborhood, garbed in full swashbuckler gear, eye patch on and plastic sword in hand. Or, the decorative stone dogs on the front porch of one of the stately old homes in a historic neighborhood that overlooks the city skyline, whose owners accessorize them for holidays and special occasions—witches’ hats near Halloween, runners’ singlets around the Bloomsday road race, a parade of costumes that always catch me off guard, each a tiny, welcome surprise. Who are the people who dress these dogs? I’ve wondered. Where do they keep the off-season costumes? In boxes stacked neatly in the attic marked “Mardi Gras Beads” and “Leprechaun Beards”?

I’ve never learned the answer, but that’s not the point. It still feels like a private joke for anyone who finds their way down that particular side street and happens to notice. They go on the landmark list with all the rest, windbreakers and wildflowers, worn old bridges and unmarked trails, all these details accumulating, adding up to what feels like intimacy with the place I now call home.