Before I sat one-on-one with someone who would later murder people in their classrooms, I had long been cognizant of my mortality. It began in childhood, with the prayer—“Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.” The lines, “If I should die before I wake/I pray the Lord my soul to take” filled me with dread. I could not then anticipate much beyond my simple existence of less than ten years, since I hadn’t yet experienced the layers of memories, fractured illusions, and displacements that would occur over six decades. For me as a child, it was all either a safe haven with my parents or oblivion–not good.
As a young adult in my twenties, however, on the Deschutes River near Maupin, Oregon, a new idea came to me. Ecstatic in that landscape on a May day with Spring flowers blooming and meadowlarks singing in the scrub that grew in the hills of basalt along the river, I thought I could die here, and the idea didn’t scare me. In that region where evidences of great changes—eruptions, floods, and rockfall–were visible; where the word broken came to mind when I looked at the rugged terrain, flowed the life-giving force of water. Even then, before the upheavals that would define my experience, when I gazed out at the river snaking below me from a hilltop frequented by hawks and eagles, I felt the natural thing to do here was to let go.
The Yakima River in Central Washington State has a similar kind of terrain, and at the boat ramp near Ellensburg today, my friend Kaya’s happiness is giddy, infectious, as she packs her red kayak with gear, eyes shaded by a broad-brimmed straw hat. During the past year, she has undergone chemotherapy, lost the gorgeous copper hair that had hung below her shoulders, had a hysterectomy and a double mastectomy. Her traumas have been very different from mine. The evidence of hers is still written on her body, while my physical body has continued relatively unscathed. However, both of us have experienced great change.
Today is Kaya’s 50th birthday–her visible scars healed, her voluminous hair grown to her chin. She’s now free of cancer cells, but she still has some wounds we can’t see. We’re going to help her celebrate as we paddle. I know the journey will also offer balm for me.
“We” include Sue, a children’s librarian; Connie, a music teacher; Minda, a nurse; Dolores, an art teacher; and myself, an English professor. A canoe, three kayaks and a stand-up paddleboard await our crew of six women (including Kaya). It’s a cool July day with a high of 75 predicted, scattered clouds, a light breeze. The river bisects a high-desert canyon marked by lava rock and sagebrush. Next to the river grow willows and cottonwoods. Bighorn sheep, mule deer, coyotes, marmots, and rattlesnakes frequent the rocky hills above the river. Up a popular hiking trail in one side canyon, the remnants of apple and pear orchards mark a homestead foundation. An old stagecoach road—now hiking trail–heads south from Ellensburg toward Yakima in the hills that rise up to 2000 feet above the river. Beneath that road, under the sagebrush, greasewood, wheatgrass and rye, layers of rock tell stories of eruptions and floods over millions of years.
My own story offers only a few recent layers of memory here. I’m into my 12th year as a Washington resident. I can still recall my first glimpse of this canyon from a swinging footbridge that spans its width a few miles downriver from our launch point. It was the Fall of 2007 then, only a few months since one of my former students had shot and killed 32 people in classrooms at Virginia Tech. I’d come West for a better job before I’d had time to fully grieve. I’d lived and worked in Blacksburg for 15 years. I’d raised my son and stepdaughter in that community. I’d taught hundreds of students, watched my son play games from T-ball to LaCrosse; joined with other moms to try to keep our kids out of trouble; commiserated with them when the kids got into it anyway, and run, walked, shopped, worked, loved, hated, protested, and voted in this small university town where no one anticipated a massacre.
Now I make my home a few miles north of the Yakima River Canyon in a different burg–Ellensburg–where I teach at Central Washington University (CWU). The student population is only a third the size of Virginia Tech, and the police log in Ellensburg regularly reports such innocuous events as a cow on the road or a kid stealing wood from a somebody’s front porch. The currents of my life have carried me on, but even here, my safety is not a given. After the Virginia Tech shooting, I understand viscerally that anywhere, there can be hidden breaches, unexpected catastrophes.
The Yakima River Canyon, along Highway 821 between Ellensburg and Yakima, has several seismic faults—that is, fractures between two hunks of rock that allow the block-like formation of one to move relative to another. Faults can result in displacements, sudden slippages that may cause earthquakes—felling trees and buildings, sending down hillsides, burying human bodies, and/or pushing previously unseen layers up to the surface.
This area is said by the USGS to have a “moderate” earthquake risk. In my county—Kittitas—the magnitude of most quakes has been rated under 3.0, and only 37 have occurred within 30 miles of the county since 1931. For comparison, Seattle has had 1,211 quakes during the same period, with greater magnitudes. Seattle’s risk for a magnitude 5.0 quake is listed as 87.5% while Kittitas County’s is only about 21%. Compare that with the landscape I came from in Southwest Virginia: the risk in Blacksburg is only 2.7%.
Fractures signal both vulnerability and flexibility. When something on either side of a fracture slips, it can divide us from each other by creating chasms or pushing up barriers. On the other hand, slippages and quakes can simply reconfigure, change things without doing terrible harm. No matter how small, each displacement results in new geographies, some more challenging to negotiate than others.
After the Virginia Tech shooting and my move to Ellensburg, the first time I entered a classroom at CWU, I took careful note of its layout in ways I never had before—did it have windows for escape and locking doors to keep out shooters? In 2007, mass shootings were uncommon in the news. The Virginia Tech shooting had the largest number of casualties since 1999, when—at Columbine High School, 13 were killed and 21 injured. In any community, violence on that scale is a shock, but it was even moreso before Parklane, Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, Orlando—or just this week, the Garlic Festival in California, the shopping mall in El Paso, the entertainment district in Dayton. The mind boggles. Because the scale of the Virginia Tech shooting was unusual at the time, I felt special—not in a good way. Somehow responsible. As if, should I make myself known as someone who’d been a teacher of the shooter, I would become a target. I realize now the thought was irrational, but in 2007, if I said I’d lived Blacksburg, where I taught at Virginia Tech, everyone’s reaction was immediately to ask about the shooting. Had I been there? Did I know anyone who’d died? It would have been difficult enough to discuss the losses of friends or acquaintances who were innocent victims, but to say I had been the shooter’s teacher sounded to my ears as if I had instructed him in his madness.
February 2008. I was teaching Technical Writing in a classroom at CWU. Red brick walls, whiteboard behind me, one window at the back of the classroom behind the desks two floors up, with a locking door to my right. I’d just given the students an exercise that required them to write instructions for putting something together with Legos, thinking we’d do something fun for Valentine’s Day. During that lull as they worked together in groups, I checked the news online. Headline: Northern Illinois University . . . Six Shot Dead. Again a man in his 20s. This time a shotgun, a Glock, other weapons and ammunition. He’d stepped from behind a curtain onstage with the professor who never lectured again. Then he’d opened fire on the students in the auditorium. Sitting ducks.
As I read about that first school shooting since the Virginia Tech carnage, I did not know where I was. My focus shrank to the news article and my own body. It was as if I were riding a wave of earth that had knocked me off balance. Despite all we had learned from the shooting at Virginia Tech, it could still happen somewhere else—how could that be? That meant other teachers and administrators could miss the signs. More people simply going about the business of being college students could disappear in a few horrible moments.
Yet my own feet were still under me. I could feel my heartbeat. This time, it wasn’t my school. Not my student with the gun. Not my friends, colleagues and students killed, injured or grieving. The people in their desks before me now were laughing like children, giggling over how to write directions that their neighboring groups could follow. I turned off the computer and walked among them. Each body in the room was wonderfully, vividly, miraculously alive.
Today the Yakima River is much higher than it was when I last floated it. When I watch the water move swiftly past the boat ramp, I get a little tense in the gut. It’s not at flood stage—a time when it sometimes carries dangerous logs and debris downriver, but it’s not slow, either.
Stories passed down by local Indian tribes explain the relationship between the river and the rock in terms of a fight between Beaver and Coyote: Beaver, who lived in nearby Lake Cle Elum, was drowning animals on a regular basis, so Coyote went to the lake to stop him. Beaver dragged him underwater, where the struggle between the two produced so much commotion that the banks of the lake collapsed, and the river pushed through, escaping into and cutting through the canyon.
Geologists, however, unlike the Native Americans of yore, now suggest that rather than cutting down through the canyon, the river predates the canyons. Its meandering structure shows it’s been there for a long, long time, and that the thousand-foot ridges above it “grew” as a result of something called uplift. All this is easier to understand when you watch the locally famous CWU Professor Nick Zentner’s videorecorded lectures, but here’s the short version: movement of the earth’s crust, now detectable in stations all over the Northwest (called the Pacific Northwest Geodetic Array or PANGA), shows a clockwise rotation that is faster on the southern and western coastal edges than it is in central Washington. The slowdown here opposed to the push from elsewhere produces ridges.
Imagine, for example, you have two hands full of PlayDoh. One hand remains stationery while the other pushes the PlayDoh toward the stationery hand. The material rises and folds between the two hands unless you move the stationery hand at the same rate and direction as the other. The geology here in the Yakima River Canyon is further complicated by the aforementioned faultlines. Recently, geologists have found evidence that these faults may run beneath the nearby volcanoes in the Cascade Range (e.g., Mt. Rainier at 14,411 ft; Mt. Adams at 12,281 ft). If this is true, the East side is at greater risk for earthquakes than was previously thought, since any slippage on the West side could shake us here as well. Even if we didn’t suffer as much damage, most of our food and supplies come from the West side, so we’d be in serious trouble.
Still—these things happen in their own geologic time, often measured in billions of years. Many people ignore Washington’s regular earthquake drills. Most, I would bet, don’t keep the recommended jugs of water on hand and three-day food supply ready. They understand that a big quake might happen—but probably not to them. We don’t want to think about such things. We’d rather go blithely about our business. I swam laps as the shooter went in for the kill. Yes, I had read about Columbine. Sure, I understood that we had troubled students among us, and I did what I knew how to help them, but at the end of the day, I was preoccupied with my own life, as ordinary people are. What happened at Virginia Tech wasn’t a thing I had yet imagined. Even if I had attended gun control rallies, donated to mental health services, and offered my students my cell phone number for times of distress, I couldn’t always see when the slippages would occur, bringing the earth down on my head.
Kaya is the lynchpin here, the axis around which this wheel of friendship turns and the organizer of this event. We have landed in her life one at a time, depositing ourselves like sedimentary layers. She’d originally met Connie because, in a newspaper article featuring Kaya’s novel-writing career, Kaya had said she was new to the area and looking for friends who liked to paddle. After they got in touch, Connie and she had floated in boats with others together down the Green River in Utah. I’ve heard them laugh over their memories—including nude bathing and dressing in pirate costumes. Sue, a former Wild-lands firefighter who’d been Kaya’s heroine at a summer camp in 1987, had introduced Kaya to Minda who’d been a belly-dancing teacher then. Kaya had met Dolores while she was walking her dog around town. I’d become acquainted with Kaya through mutual writing interests, after which we became hiking buddies. Her friends from separate times and different places have all come together as cancer forced this upheaval in Kaya’s life, exposing the strata of her past.
Sue has made chocolate cupcakes for Kaya’s birthday, with raspberries on top. We sing happy birthday, Connie the music teacher harmonizing, then eat the cupcakes gracelessly, laughing at the chocolate icing that sticks to our fingers and drips on our clothes. Kaya’s mouth is ringed with it, but the cornflower blue of her eyes is dark with emotion, then moist with tears of gratitude.
The first time I saw Kaya after her breasts had been removed in March 2018, we met for a hike in the desert hills near Wenatchee, Washington. She wore a red scarf over her bald head and zipped her jacket against the chill. In the near-empty parking lot after we hugged, she’d raised her shirt briefly to show me the remnants of her once-full breasts, marked by healing wounds.
“Why couldn’t they cut them straight?” Her voice was thick, her throat clogged with rage and grief.
Normally a strong and confident hiker, now as she walked up the trail, she carefully avoided the many rocks and depressions. “I really really don’t want to fall. All I need now is a sprained ankle.” She stopped to rest and breathe, gazing out across the yellow-brown landscape of dry grasses and brittle brush punctuated by black basalt, recovering herself.
When we arrived at the ridgetop, she’d climbed nearly 1,000 feet in elevation in a couple of miles, and the City of Wenatchee was laid out before us on a flat plain where the Wenatchee and Columbia Rivers meet. She pulled off her scarf to expose her hairless head and asked for a picture. Strangers were about—also taking each other’s photos on the hill–but among them, Kaya was unashamed. Proud that she’d made it to Saddle Rock. Grateful to be alive. Her smile was genuine.
Standing on my paddleboard now, I have an expansive view of the Yakima River, a tributary of the Columbia, named for the indigenous Yakama tribe. It’s 214 miles from headwaters to mouth and drops an average of nearly 10 feet per mile. Where we are, just downriver from Ellensburg, I could easily swim the width of the river. The section we’re paddling is mostly rated Class I (flat) with a minor riffles. The flow is about 3,400 feet per second. It will take us just over three hours to go about 13 miles.
On the paddleboard, instead of being eye-level with a brushy riverbank from the cockpit of a kayak, I’m above it, able to see up and over to the hillside or the road. When the wind is at my back, I barely have to paddle, but when the river’s direction changes, and I feel it in my face, I sometimes have to kneel to decrease my resistance.
The blue of the water contrasts with the pale yellow of dried grasses and light green of sagebrush and willows. Columns of basalt and rockslides interrupt the flow of otherwise rounded hills and folds. It’s July now, so the hills are yellow and brown, but in May, they’re green, punctuated with yellow balsamroot and blue lupine flowers, and in winter they’re often covered with snow. Still, on this warm, dry day, it’s hard to believe I’m in the same region as I was last winter when, one icy day on campus, someone reported shots fired at CWU. I was working at home (I often teach online) and received the emergency alert on my phone. Immediately I checked Facebook for more information. There, people listening to police scanners said they’d heard reports of shots in multiple campus locations, including the building that housed my colleagues in the English Dept. It was after 5 pm, so I hoped they’d gone home, but still I felt the surge of fear, memories surfacing from Blacksburg in 2007, when the campus went on lockdown.
On the morning of April 16 that year, I’d come out from the community pool where I’d been swimming laps and was feeling refreshed by that, as usual. I’d left my cell phone in the car and was surprised to see several voice messages. I heard my ex-husband, locked down on campus, and my boyfriend, from his office near campus, both tell me there had been a shooting, they were fine, but I should stay away from campus if I wasn’t already there. At that point, the number of casualties was uncertain. I drove home and locked the doors of my brick rambler a mile from campus. I don’t remember when I first heard the body count or details of the shooting—I only recall that blow to the solar plexus and feeling of disbelief as I awaited the names of victims and the killer who had shot himself in the face. The next morning, Sunday, I was sitting at the dining table preparing to go out to breakfast, when my ex-husband—also a Virginia Tech professor—called to say the murderer had been an English major we’d both had in class. I remember sitting with the phone at my ear, my limbs suddenly heavy. It was as if the world around me had shrunk to a box of air containing only my body, and the force of gravity had increased tenfold.
I remembered his broad-shouldered figure in my office doorway. His signature ball cap. The rectangular wire-rims. The mouth that sometimes worked hard to utter words he couldn’t speak.
Months earlier, I had urged him to seek help. I’d discussed him with administrators since he wouldn’t talk in class. I’d been advised not to require him to go to class but instead to tutor him one-on-one. I did so three times. Lop-sided conversations. I offered to walk with him to the counseling center—he refused with a shake of his head. Afterwards, I communicated with him by email, again offering to connect him with counseling. No response. Though I didn’t know that he’d already been hospitalized because he’d threatened suicide, that he’d been in trouble beyond the English Dept. for stalking, I worried about his isolation. It wasn’t the other students’ faults—they had tried to include him in required groupwork, but he couldn’t or wouldn’t cooperate.
After the shooting, there was much speculation about his psychological state. At one stage in his life, he’d been diagnosed with a form of autism, social mutism. Some speculate that he was psychotic—unable to perceive reality—or bipolar or schizoaffective, but he had the presence of mind to organize and focus, planning and accomplishing murders, and mailing manifestos. An immigrant from Korea, he’d been bullied as a child. Many people are victimized as children, of course, and not all grow up to be murderers—but who knew what cataclysmic events had shaped him? what fractures he carried within that could, with new pressures, cause the avalanche of circumstance that would carry others to their deaths?
Immediately after the horrific event, the media and FBI arrived—further frightening us. Yet in other small hamlets around the globe, classrooms of teachers and students, churchgoers, health care workers, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters sat down to write us notes of condolence. They sent flowers and banners. They offered assistance and signed with love. Like others in shock and distress, I walked through the displays of support at the Student Union, undone by the kindness of others. Recalling the collages of banners, notes, cards, and flowers brings tears to my eyes still.
The non-shooting event at CWU, on the other hand, was over in about three hours. I’d been completely derailed from my work as I helplessly watched social media for information. Many students and some faculty were as traumatized by those hours huddling in lockdown as if there had been an actual shooting. But in truth, no one had fired a shot. It had been a giant misunderstanding—someone had misheard and then communicated that been shots were fired, and the report was called in to the police. Once one report is out, apparently people think they hear shots elsewhere and call officials with more reports. Those listening to police scanners then share those reports as if they’re actually facts. In the end, the supposed shooting was a non-event. Yet feelings, including mine, were triggered. Students who’d never thought anything could happen to them now understood viscerally that it could. In that way, their illusions of safety were forever changed. It was a very real fracture in the fabric of their lives. A sudden slippage along a fault.
My own aftershock from that slippage occurred a month or so later. I’d had a cold that was settling in my lungs and I felt heavy, depressed, without ambition. I sought help from an acupuncturist. She took one look at me and said, “Oh, I see a lot of grief.”
“Really?” I hadn’t been aware of any particular loss.
After she put in the needles and left the room, I—not typically a woman who weeps–found myself sobbing. Do you know how hard it is to breathe when you can’t move because you have needles in your back, you’re face down in a hollowed cushion, and snot is collecting in your nose? Images of the shooting 12 years prior were surfacing. I hadn’t been in any of the rooms where people were killed and injured, but I imagined bullets cutting into them, puncturing vital organs as they cowered under their desks in fear. Many were not yet 20 years old.
Also, I vividly remembered the shooter’s face—his rounded cheeks, his stuttering lips and vacant eyes. Later I learned he’d called himself Zero. He’d written stories in which his child-protagonists were always victims. In one of my literature classes where he’d been present, we’d read Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a novel about a slave woman who kills her child rather than give her up to the white men pursuing her. Re-reading his essay about the novel after he’d committed his own murders and killed himself, I couldn’t understand how he could articulate humanistic ideas–including empathy–and be unable to practice them himself.
I can’t now even give him the courtesy of a name—I don’t want his final act to bring him notoriety. I still can’t fathom what he did, can’t put together the pistol-wielding maniac in the video he’d mailed to NBC before the shooting with the silent young man I’d known who hid beneath his ball cap and didn’t make eye contact from behind his silver wire rims but cared enough about his writing to keep showing up in my office.
The acupuncturist returned. Surprised by my reaction, she hastily pulled out the needles and handed me Kleenex. “No one grieved for him,” I said. “He did a horrible thing, but he was a victim, too, and I was his teacher.” There. Twelve years later, I’d finally allowed myself to feel the things I’d kept shut away until they were finally jarred loose by a thing that hadn’t actually happened.
Paddling in the Yakima River now, I feel a primordial pull toward the wet, cool, life-giving currents and aquatic surface beneath which trout hide in the shadows of rocks. My muscles relax. As I watch geese float downriver, or paddle in the shallows, I forget to think about whatever might, in off-river life, trouble me.
Ahead of me in her red kayak, a grin visible beneath the red hair and straw hat, Kaya calls out to more strangers that it’s her 50th birthday, that she’s a cancer survivor. As a result, there are two more choruses of “Happy Birthday.” The first is sung by two fishermen sitting on an island drinking beer. The other, a little less harmonious but no less sincere, comes from the only other flotilla we see on our three-hour float: a group on inflatable toys—rafts and inner tubes. Bighorn sheep also make their appearance close by as if to salute our passage. Car horns honk and people hoot and wave at us from the road that parallels the river. A train engineer blows his horn several times as if in tribute to Kaya.
I don’t know everyone on this float as well as I know Kaya, but I do know that Minda was once in a terrible car accident. Kaya visited her in the hospital when her jaw was wired shut. Now she’s married, mothering a baby, and powering her end of the canoe. Delores, a strong paddler, recently nursed her elderly mother through heart surgery. Connie, like Kaya, has had cancer. She and Sue sing harmonies as their boats float close.
As I watch these women handle their crafts, I consider how each of us copes with our losses. Maybe our fault lines are designed to give so that we don’t break. Our worlds shake, and if we’re lucky, we learn new ways to appreciate the changed landscape. It’s good to be among people who count themselves fortunate to see a bald eagle in a tree, a great blue heron rising awkwardly from its fishing, or the quick scuttle of mergansers on the water’s surface. These are women who laugh as they paddle madly to snag “river booty”–deflated inner tubes or lost drybags caught in the brush—before the river carries them past.
Downstream, we see more evidence of geologic events: landslides, layers of ash and volcanic basalt from eruptions as we navigate the river’s snaky curves. Professor Zentner says rivers originating on flatlands “meander” as they age. They experience a continual “shifting of channels.” He tells us to imagine a snake on a flat tabletop, the way it slithers around until it has covered every inch of that tabletop. You can still see evidence of the old river channels when you look at–for instance–the Mississippi River from an airplane. However, since it’s no longer flat in the Yakima Canyon, and ridges have “grown” around the river, such evidence is harder to see.
The reason rivers meander more and more over time is because as rivers curve, the water on the outside of the curve carves away soil in what is called cutbanks while the slower water on the inside of the curve deposits soil, filling in the river. Thus the river moves around until its meanders are so severe that they turn back on themselves in noose-like coils called oxbows. Eventually those oxbows are cut off from the rest of the river channel as the soil fills them in, and over time, as the river cuts off its own oxbows, it straightens itself out again. We pass a formation that looks like a giant crater but actually, according to Professor Zentner, is the impression left of an old oxbow.
Some of us are glad the sediment fills in and cuts off the oxbows of experiences—shootings and cancers, divorces, and car accidents. Others have the desire to meander back to their places of origin, even if they never left their hometowns, because the views they grew up with have changed. In any case, we’re all on a journey toward that place where all rivers connect. The sea receives the tributaries, offering no judgment as it erases their names.
As we near the take-out, we all remark that the journey is over too soon. We dip into the river one last time, take group pictures, then load up boats and gear. Later there will be dinner at a Mexican restaurant. We’ll make Kaya wear a ridiculous sombrero as we sing happy birthday once more. Eyes wet and voice quivering, she’ll speak words of gratitude. Each woman here will return to her temporary earthly duties—whether in classroom, hospital, library, or home. Within us we’ll carry whatever has altered us, just as the landscape does. When I return to the day’s journey along the meanders of memory, the currents will push me back toward the original channels—but finally I’ll leave even that diversion, traveling as I must toward that great and mysterious place of connection where our stories merge.