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Kristina Roth

Migrating Home

          The landscapes we know and return to become places of solace. We are drawn to them because of the stories they tell, because of the memories they hold, or simply because of the sheer beauty that calls us back again and again. Terry Tempest Williams

          I’m seven years old and, as on many weekends, we’ve come up to our trailer in the woods, permanently parked on a rise in a small valley in the Black Hills, a short walk from Sheridan Lake. It’s only a thirty minute drive from Rapid City, where we live in a modest 1970’s ranch-style house. A tiny stream fronts the edge of our spot, young willows shooting up like tall grass in the gravelly bottom. My sister and I are so small that this little swatch is a mysteriously huge place to us. We watch water spiders glide on the stream and try to capture the glowing fireflies at night. “Let’s catch some sunfish at the lake and take them back to the pond,” one of us suggests, and so we carry them home in large buckets of water and seaweed. Our father leads us on walks and small hikes through the ponderosa pines; points out whitetail deer as we drive. We admire the birches, aspens, and spruce that accent corners of the woods; carefully pluck the tiny ferns and flowers in our little field. At night, Teri and I are cozy under old quilts on the sleeper sofa with a fire going in the wood-burning stove. Such are the hallmarks of a weekend routine that will end up shaping my days even after I leave home. For eighteen years I, unwittingly, was falling in love with this place.


Danaus plexippus, Monarch butterfly

          In September 1997, in the southeastern corner of South Dakota, four hundred miles from the Black Hills, monarch butterflies cling in dense clusters like a second set of leaves to the elm trees at our student rental house one sunny afternoon, apparently stopping to rest while regaining strength for their journey south. Those of us who are home rush out to witness them. In the days before the advent of butterfly gardens, we have never seen anything as novel as hundreds of monarchs in our own yard. “David, where’s your camera? Please get some shots of this,” I implore. He is already adjusting settings. The monarchs are on their way home, following an inward navigation that is strong enough to guide them even though they have likely never been to their destination in Mexico. Monarchs typically have a lifespan of only four to five weeks, so their migrations are often completed as a generational tag-team from place to place.
          I myself returned to this corner of the state only a few weeks earlier for my senior year, once again leaving my hometown with reluctance. The years I spent in Vermillion had been a challenge, so unexpected was the homesickness that twisted me in my freshman autumn. In spite of making dear friends and growing in new ways, I still long to be home. Weekends back are a respite; tears unexpectedly wet my cheeks upon leaving. I know foreign students, Germans who crave the dense bread of their homeland and Kenyan immigrants recruited for the track team. I haven’t migrated as far from home as they, but my reasons are similar: seeking an education and knowledge to help me survive in the years to come.


          I have a photo from childhood that I have come to love, taken on our annual family drive to Spearfish Canyon to witness the autumn colors. But I didn’t love it at first. In it, I’m wearing a plaid coat, its earth tones echoing the changing trees. An old coat, it was certainly not in style in the early 1980s, likely picked up at a garage sale or thrift store. I hated that coat, although a kind teacher once complimented me on it. I was likewise uncomfortable wearing boy’s jeans (they were cheaper) and having only two or three outfits to get me through an entire school year. I’m sure, however, that the clothes weren’t the reason why I was such a reclusive child, playing alone for hours in our basement with my toy horses and ranch set. On weekends in the Hills, I brought my toy horses with me and herded them along the tiny stream. I imagined that the horses loved being outdoors as much as I did, loved sitting in the shadow of the young aspen trees as well. I look at that photo of me now, in my outdated plaid coat, and see a cute kid who found a solace early on in the forest, who was secretly flattered that her dad took the time to pose her in front of Roughlock Falls for a photo. I look at it as proof that my early memories of the Black Hills are not imagined. I look at it now and realize that nature was a refuge and escape for all four of us.


Zalophus californianus, California sea lion

          A year after the witnessing the monarch migration, David and I drive over to the north central coast of California nearly every weekend, seeking open space and clean air, a relief from the crowded South Bay. We often go to Greyhound Rock. From here we spy whales’ fins slapping the ocean surface far off on the horizon. At other beaches, we are entranced by the quiet seals that swim in the shallows and by the noisy sea lions. In fact, it is the California sea lion that we witness in the largest numbers as they congregate on dark rocks offshore or on San Francisco piers while lustily barking at each other. “Just look at them! How goofy they seem,” we comment back and forth, cameras again in hand. Goofiness is a quality both of us admire. The male sea lions are back for the summer after winter migrations along the coast, while the females have stayed at the colonies with their pups. Their antics do not fail to entertain the people who flock to see them.
          Shopping in Palo Alto, I am enchanted by the multitude of languages overheard in one store alone: Spanish, French, Chinese, Russian, Arabic, Japanese, and more. Neither David nor I have a kitchen, so we walk up and down University Avenue most evenings, finding sustenance at Indian, Chinese, and Mexican restaurants; heavenly malts and burgers at American-style cafés. Here, it seems, we are almost all immigrants, washed upon the shores of Northern California, shifting together to locate comforting snatches of home while competing for housing and jobs in one of the most expensive places in America. All of my co-workers in the publishing company at the top of Sand Hill Road are Americans, but David is one of only two Americans in his graduate class. He is often called upon to mediate arguments between Pakistanis and Indians, or to explain why blonde girlfriends and nice cars aren’t handed out to all male newcomers to the U.S., so ubiquitous as they are in films.
I only last for a year among the crowds before I give in to my yearning for the quietness and simplicity of life in South Dakota. David and I caravan across the West with his mother, my 1983 Buick LeSabre packed full. I am thrilled to be home again. I wonder if the sea lions feel the same way when their winter travels are over and they haul back onto the beach they were born on.


          For many years, Mount Rushmore National Memorial and the Black Hills National Forest participated in the Youth Conservation Corps, which drew upon local high school students for seasonal labor. Selection was random. I’d spent three days working in a confused haze at Burger King, my first job, when I got the call. Barely sixteen, nothing could have made me happier at that point. With a brilliant stroke of fortune, I spent the next three summers in the forest, piling logging slash and helping to maintain hiking trails. Our assignments involved much traveling around the Hills, sixteen teenagers piled into two old lime-green Forest Service Suburbans driven by adult leaders. My strong familiarity with the Hills grew even stronger, and I was able to direct my dad or friends to new routes and new hiking paths on the weekends. Even now, I am proud to traverse a trail I helped scratch out nearly twenty years ago; find myself drawn back to my favorite spots in the forest from those summers. The enchanting path that runs behind the hamlet of Silver City remains the dearest to me, its stands of spruce and birches following Rapid Creek for miles, thick and verdant moss clinging to the steep canyon walls above. “Can we go just a little bit further? There’s a spot around the bend I want to see,” I often ask. Without fail, whitetail deer stand sentry as we enter and leave the canyon. I am thankful to be able to go back alone, with David, and not with the rowdy teens with whom I worked in the early nineties. I sometimes, however, wonder what has since happened to them. Is it too much to hope that these months in the woods made as big of an impression on them, that they realized their own fortune in escaping summers of fast food or retail work?


Mirounga angustirostris, Elephant seal

          On the central coast of California, just north of San Simeon at Ano Nuevo beach, elephant seals have created a colony for themselves that ebbs and flows with the seasons. In the winter, the seals lie packed, blubber to blubber, crawling over each other to reach the shoreline. Estimates are well in the thousands. Giant males charge and battle each other near the water; females give birth to pups. Gulls wait for the afterbirth, indicating to human observers where a newborn lies amidst the hills of seals. Within a few weeks, the chubby pups are abandoned to their own defenses, the adults hauling out to sea to begin their migratory search for food yet again.
          We are married now, and the coast is the best place to escape from the Central Valley heat of Bakersfield, where we live from 2001 to 2005. The beach is fenced off to protect the seals and humans from each other, and volunteers offer information and reminders to act safely. “Amazing,” we murmur to each other. “I think that’s a newborn right there – look at those dark liquid eyes. But the gulls are rather creepy.” We pull ourselves away from the entrancing scene with reluctance; the photos we take cannot do the phenomenon justice. I didn’t think about it then, but these days as I imagine the seals’ migration, the edges of my psyche tingle with trepidation. What courage to swim out into the deep sea, up and down the coast, violent predators and emptiness all around. Of course, they know nothing else, but don’t we need to draw upon a similar courage to leave the safety of our birthplace behind and plunge into the unknown?
          Several of my closest friends in Bakersfield are young Turkish women, bright and friendly. One of them speaks no English when I first meet her. They’d followed their husbands to the United States, like so many before them. We meet often for tea, which for them involves setting out massive spreads of savories and sweets, enough for several meals. All of us miss our families and homes, but our afternoons together are as sweet as the sugared tea we drink from tiny glass cups, carefully clasping the rims to drink, as Turkish teacups have no handles. When they do manage to return to Turkey, they stay for long periods of time, luxuriating in a return to their homeland, resting after a period immersed in the expanse of sea that is America.


          With my homesickness in mind, I chose to return to the Black Hills from the University of South Dakota in Vermillion for the summer of 1994. Tickled pink, I accepted a job at one of the interstate rest stops. At age nineteen, I was delighted to be able to point tourists to worthwhile destinations and share local restaurant favorites with them, serving as a de facto ambassador for the Hills. The drive to Wasta from Rapid City was forty-five minutes, east over the prairie, down cedar-studded ridges and into the Cheyenne River Valley, populated by the largest cottonwood stand I have ever seen. Without my realizing it at first, these peaceful hours driving to and from gave me ample time to think and pray, and led me to embrace the grassy openness that I sometimes shunned in favor of the forested mountains. This peace balanced a turbulent summer at home, where my mom was struggling with ongoing health problems. My younger sister worked as a camp counselor that summer and lived on the prairie herself. Dad and I took many drives and hikes in the Black Hills on my days off, with him sometimes veering through thick bushes down dirt tracks so rutted that I wondered if we would get stuck. We found safety and comforting familiarity in the ponderosa pines and along the paths we’d hiked for years as we chased after stability that summer.


Piranga ludoviciana, Western tanager

          Once or twice in the last few years, we have caught glimpses of brightly colored birds in the tree tops in the Black Hills during our summer trips back. Their unfamiliar, exuberant plumage is hard to miss. We are lucky just to see them; capturing a photo is out of the question. “Do you think it’s an escaped pet parrot? Or maybe a bird blown off course?,” I ask David. With a little research, however, we discover they are Western tanagers, appearing in the farthest reaches of their habitat. The males’ yellow and black bodies are topped with a bright red head. They move north to nest after wintering in Mexico and Costa Rica.
          It is while living in Bakersfield that my own annual summer migration establishes itself. As Terry Tempest Williams writes, I sometimes wonder if, “Alongside the biological facts, could migration be an ancestral memory, an archetype that dreams birds [and us] thousands of miles to their homeland? A highly refined [. . .] intuition, the only true guide in life?” Like the tanager, I return to the Black Hills early every summer. A Pakistani friend once called it my annual pilgrimage. It certainly is in a way, but it better fits the pattern of migration. Clearly, I’m not going back to lay eggs, birth pups, or search for spring pastures, but like the animals, I do go back to the place where I was reared in order to find a similar nourishment and stability. For while we’ve migrated south to make a living, I migrate north again to feed my spirit. For me, going home is a migration toward resources and memory, away from a depleted, barren landscape and toward one that offers something for which I am in desperate need. I am incomplete without this annual journey home, one that has stretched from two weeks to three and now to four.
          And what exactly is it that nourishes me while I am here again? Much of it is spending time with my family and old friends again. I typically stay with my sister. Thirty-plus years of friendship and shared experiences allows us to be ourselves with each other, to poke fun and tease. Before she passed, it was visits with my grandma in her smoky house, percolator coffee and day-old donuts in hand. It’s the comfort of returning to my clan, enjoying backyard potlucks and seeing faces that I have known for many years -- parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and now a nephew -- whose features reflect my very own. The simplicity and convenience of life in South Dakota is utterly reassuring, as is the no-nonsense attitude and practicality that pervades personalities up here. Professors new to the state sometimes told us, “South Dakota is a mindset,” and perhaps it is.
          Obviously, it’s not just the people that enliven my heart, but the landscape itself and the many memories embedded therein: weekends at the cabin with my family, working for the Forest Service, seeking out the autumn colors, collecting pine cones and pressing leaves. As any true-blooded Westerner knows, the cooler temperatures and dry air are energizing, the open space soothing and quieting. The northern flowers and trees whose beauty seems so ethereal compared to that of the subtropical plants of the South are duly celebrated. I nearly swoon as I tenderly cradle lilac blossoms in my hand or gently lift a peony toward my face. The flickering movements of a cottonwood or aspen’s heart-shaped leaves are just as lovely. Not ironically, many of these plants were brought over from Europe by earlier immigrants who yearned for the flora of their homelands. An old newspaper clipping tells just such a story of my own great-grandfather, German immigrant John Schmitz, who tried for years to find a pear tree that would survive in chilly North Dakota. Eventually he was successful.
          Unlike the Western tanager, I didn’t fly for many years, so my patient husband usually drives me back. We can almost always make the 1500-mile trek in two long days, usually staying over somewhere in eastern Colorado or Kansas. We often watch spring’s own migration north as we drive, from trees in full leaf in Texas to bare branches in Nebraska. We are traveling with other migrants along the way, truckers who follow the same routes week in and week out and tourists who follow the paths that others have made.
          The varied license plates of the interstate traffic calls to mind both Americans and non-Americans alike migrating all over the country, leaving home and family behind in search of greener pastures. This saddens me, this loosening of the warp and weft of people’s lives. And yet most of us would not be here were it not for our ancestors having migrated themselves – certainly not me without my German ancestors, or David without his paternal Syrian and maternal European ancestors seeking religious freedom in this country. These migrations are undoubtedly the story of humanity, of the shiftings we endure in the face of necessity. Like the birds, we sometimes must travel far in order to take care of ourselves.


          Even the entire summer of 1994 wasn’t enough to quench my yearning for home, for Rapid City with its many parks and bike paths, for the Black Hills and the peace of the wind blowing through the pines, for my sister and grandma’s companionship. I left Vermillion after my sophomore year. My summer job at Wal-Mart was miserable compared to previous employment, but at least a broad view of the Black Hills stretched on from the parking lot, summer thunderclouds billowing over the black and green undulations of the mountains. That September, as a new student enrolled in the few humanities classes I could find at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, I was introduced to the man who would eventually, like the Black Hills themselves, become another anchor for my life. “Hi, I’m Kristina,” I said, reaching out my hand to clasp his, strong and reassuring. “Hi, I’m David. Nice to meet you.” Our friendship grew in fits and starts over the next few years as I returned to Vermillion and he moved on to Tucson and then Palo Alto, with summer jobs in Oregon and Chicago for me and an internship in Michigan for him. We traveled to see each other as often as possible, navigating airports and highways as we began to navigate the twists and turns of our relationship and of the migrations ahead. We became migratory points for each other.

Felis concolor, Mountain lion

          Early June about twelve years ago, a friend and I are following a quiet gravel road through the forest, on our way to back my car after a short hike near Storm Mountain in the eastern Black Hills. A dusty sedan slows upon nearing us; its occupant lowers his window and sticks his greasy head out. “You girls want a ride? We’ve seen lots of mountain lions around here. We wouldn’t want you to get hurt.” The mention of mountain lions makes me nervous, but my friend wisely tells the guy to bug off. In the last decade in the Black Hills, the mountain lion population has grown tremendously, perhaps fueled by the correspondingly large whitetail deer population. I have never seen a lion in the wild, but they are often reported in places I’ve been, even in the middle of town. I urge my dad to leave notes at home when he goes hiking alone, should he not return. Lions have stolen small poodles off of decks and looked in the back door of a friend’s home. They are outgrowing their territory, and so the young males turn their backs on the Hills and move out over the prairie, seeking a place of their own. DNA testing on lions in Chicago, Wisconsin, and Iowa has shown that these very Black Hills lions roam farther than imaginable. Such long migrations may not be typical in their species, but the hunt for resources drives them onward.
          At my local Wal-Mart in Sugar Land, Texas, where I now live, my fellow shoppers are often Indian women or Muslim women covered head to toe. I have known several who, like me, go home for long stretches of time, and some who even spend most of the year at home while their husbands stay behind to work. We’ve all piled together like grains of rice swept into a bowl, like dust blown into the corners from a Central Valley windstorm, as we search for what we need to survive. Many of us have a homing device for one particular place -- our homelands -- imprinted on our psyches as deeply as the mysterious navigational systems that allow monarch butterflies, elephant seals, and Western tanagers to migrate to and from, traveling by the sun and the angle of the earth.
          I spend my days mostly in quiet, in my suburban house, and sometimes wonder where our next migration will lead us. The birds in my backyard here are not migratory, as far as I know. The blue jays make me giggle with their outraged squawks, pulling me back instantly to lazy summer afternoons playing in my grandma’s yard. I try to take pictures through the windows of their fuzzy adolescents when they bathe in the puddle near the kitchen. Mourning doves bobble, confused and flustered, amidst my salvia and herbs, their calls reminding me ever so much of summer trips to see family in small-town North Dakota. “Quick, look, the cardinals are here!” I sometimes exclaim to David, as they flitter in and out, considering poor places to build nests. The mockingbirds locate a wise spot to nest, in the twisted jasmine outside our bedroom window. As infuriating as their late-night songs can be, we are relieved to see birds that show some sense in raising their young. I am envious of these birds’ stability, of the provisions that allow them to stay close to one place, and yet I am grateful for their lively presence and the memories they conjure. Meanwhile, I understand all too well how the young mountain lions must leave the Black Hills to seek out their own territory. Unlike them, at least, I have the advantage of returning every summer to pace familiar paths and gather ferns from the forest floor. My hope is that one day this migration home will end and will instead become a permanent return.