The Cascade Mountains offer an amazing drive. In the warmer months, an endless mosaic of forest greens and slate grays blur together as I focus on the road. There are a few familiar sights. The little island on the still water before the peak. The little springs of water that trickle out from the rocks, breaking the gray monotony with splashes of dirty brown and algae green. The entire range feels alive during the summer months. Conversely, in winter, everything becomes frozen and silent. The dirty slush in the road seems to be the only thing that breaks up the white and gray stillness of the mist over the snow.
In reality, these mountains aren’t all that big. Depending on which pass you take, crossing the Cascades takes a little over an hour by car. It’s not an insurmountable range. It’s merely inconvenient. It’s a hassle to drive from the dry, sunny farmlands of the interior to the gloomy wet coast. In fact, the trip between Olympia and the Colville Reservation I call home is just inconvenient enough that almost nobody makes it. Once upon a time, I used to think that I had to live with a high level of secrecy to maintain my life on the Rez and in Olympia. It turns out, you just have to make yourself inconvenient. Not secretive, not hidden. Just inconvenient enough to get lost in that space between places. Where all the friends we swear to keep in touch with live.
The phrase “walk in two worlds” has become a controversial statement in Indian Country. However, I struggle to find a better way to express this dynamic. Part of my life is lived in a world where people will always check your pronouns. In Olympia, your friends will ask about your feelings in earnest but will have very little to offer beyond holding space for your feelings. The other part is the small world found within the Colville Reservation. There, people rarely ask about your emotions. There the soft gradient of gender gives way to a series of boundaries of differing hardness. You would think that things would be more stiff, unmoveable there. And sometimes you would be right. But there’s a warmth on the Rez that Olympia lacks. It’s one of those things you don’t notice until you stop spending all your time with other Chief Joseph Nez Perce and Wenatchi people.
In both areas of my life, I’m loved and supported. Yet there’s always a part of me that I need to protect for my safety. Olympians want to understand everything. It’s a wonderful place for discussing some deeper things. But it hurts them that there are things that they can’t know.
On the Rez, I exist in a place that makes total sense. Based on which old language is woven in with English, I can tell which family is talking to me. The words let me know what relationship I have with the speaker. There are a hundred ways that I “just know” what to do. It makes sense in a way that’s hard to explain. It makes so much sense that it becomes hard to do something that deviates from the plan.
Deviances like being queer.
Deviating from millennia-old traditions.
These two parts of my life are separated by a mountain range and several hours of driving. When I’m lucky, I’m able to make the trip several times a month. When I think of boundaries in my life, this tends to be the greatest one. I’ve invited several people from my life in Olympia to celebrations on the reservation. Of the dozens I’ve invited, two have made the five-hour drive where I briefed them on things I wouldn’t do and jokes I wouldn’t make while I was home on the Rez. In a similar fashion, one or two family members will visit me in Olympia when they come to town on business. The times that the two parts of my world mix are among the most terrifying.
These days I make the trip alone. It’s much easier on me this way. For the few hours I’m on the road I don’t have to worry about the rules of either place. And since I’m leaving one to go to the other, the drive is one of the few times that both places exist in the present. It’s one of the rare times where I feel and do everything. One mile I’ll be blasting E-MO-TION with my windows down and my hair out. A few minutes later, I’ll be back in a tight ponytail, singing a thousand-year-old song and praying with the same volume and enthusiasm I was giving Carly. This usually lasts until the last hour or so of driving. Oddly enough, when I’m close to the Rez, this means that none of my media works. In the dead zone, I feel myself split between the driver and passenger seat. The two of us finish the trip together. Me in the driver’s seat. Everything that I won’t do for the next several days in the seat next to me.
The last few minutes of the drive feel like sitting with my own ghost.
I get about five hours where I can be myself without worrying about the wrong person hearing me sing an old song from home. Five hours where I don’t have to answer to anyone. Five hours on the boundary between tradition and rebellion.
Five hours wherein there’ll be a perfect moment. Right when one part of me has relaxed and right before the other part of me starts closing up. And in those moments, I dream of the time that this boundary will feel more connective and less like a necessary protection.
Maybe this is being greedy. Maybe this is all anyone gets. Maybe there are no safe people or safe spaces. Maybe there are people who are safe for certain things. Places where part of you is encouraged while you’re asked to hold another part of yourself back. Maybe the things that make our lives beautiful and complex don’t allow for simple feelings.
"Five Hours" by Tyrone Cawston is part one of our seven-part BOUNDARY collection. Check back over the coming weeks as we continue to publish parts two through six.