Spirit Run: A 6,000-Mile Marathon Through North America’s Stolen Land by Noé Álvarez
These passages spoke to me when I was reading this book.
“They keep me strong, give me hope, friends whom I met sophomore year of high school, when I joined their ranks in honors classes, sitting quietly in the back of the rooms. As solitary and quiet as the Yakima-bred Raymond Carver who attended this school in the 1950s. A working-class boy like us who went on to become one of the greatest short-story writers of all time—a writer who captured the extraordinariness of ordinary people and their reckless acts. Within a one-mile radius of our school, you call it the Casteñeda Orchard,” he says, after his family’s name. His view of the orchards and life in general has always been more positive than ours. That always centered me. It was he, in fact, who’d introduced me to the works of Carver. We create pacts over french fries and tacos, and stack onto our shoulders the kinds of promises that weigh on first-generation youth: to be the ones who save our families from things like poverty, deportation, and harsh labor conditions.
“Congratulations!” the letter announces. In a mixed moment of joy and anger I slam the package as hard as I can onto the front lawn, forgetting myself. I feel so much joy, and anger for all the times I was told to set my goals lower. Anger for all the times that I was reprimanded in elementary school for speaking Spanish, and the times I was made to do janitorial community service because, as people said to me then, “that’s what Mexicans do.” Cleaning other people’s messes.”
“His face is still stuck in the shock of somewhere else. He never seems happy and I usually give him his space. He’s happy about the college letter. I leave it there. I don’t tell him where I’m going to get the money to pay for school. That would be a conversation for another day. I let him rest.”
“A couple of months later, my family accepts an invitation to attend the Hispanic Academic Achievers Program (HAAP) banquet—an event held every year at the convention center in Yakima honoring college-admitted migrant students and presenting them with scholarships. I am happy that I am being considered for a scholarship, but we are not told in advance how much support we will receive.”
My mother has treated herself to a new dress and a visit to a hair salon. My father bought the works: a clip-on tie, a dress shirt and pants that are a little baggy, Payless shoes, and suspenders that don’t quite match the rest of his outfit. Their rough hands rest on the soft white tablecloths.
A mariachi band plays in the background. Steaming hot plates of Mexican American food are served to Mexican mothers who make comments about the rice. Too much cumin. Their home-cooked tortillas are much better. Eyes glance around for direction on how to proceed, what silverware to use first, and some jest about what items to steal at the end of the banquet. Some brought Tupperware.
my heart beats as hard as that time when in middle school a car full of bullies tried running a friend and me down through alleyways and backstreets. The ceremony isn’t over, and already I am afraid of being run down in college by the pressure to do great things. To secure the career that will solve all my problems.
Then, the host announces: I have been awarded a full ride. I shout in excitement and punch my fist into the air. I look over at my parents, their faces aglow with pride as we shake hands with the governor. Finally, at least for today, I bring them happiness. My mother grips her arms tightly around my waist. We can’t believe it. I will finally get out of town.
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We look on, our faces softened by the shock of so much paradise. We get out of the car and step onto this new ground gently, as if expecting it to crumble beneath our feet. My father comprehends the wealth and intellectual power around us, and for the first time, I see fear on his face. I look around, waiting for someone to approach me, to tell us that we’re at the wrong place, and that it’s all been a mistake. But no one does. The paper in my pocket assures me that Lyman House will be my new living space.
We enter my white-walled two-room suite on the third floor, where we’re welcomed by my Hawaiian roommate and his father. They gift us with leis and chocolate macadamia nuts. In return, my mother nudges me to hand them a bag of apples. I’m embarrassed that these overripe fruit are a reflection of me. I unload two duffle bags onto my bed, open my window, and stick my head out. Barefoot jugglers and tight-ropers gather below on the grass. In that moment I am overcome with a wave of optimism and think of all the things I will accomplish in college.
Out of nervousness, I take multiple laps around the buffet stations, buying time, collecting myself while I read and study my environment—rehearsing in my mind for that moment when I will summon up the courage to squeeze myself at a table between friendly strangers. On the following nights, I sit in my room, my stomach growling, staring at my clock and waiting for that crucial fifteen-minute window before closing time to enter the dining halls to eat alone.
In order to become someone else—achieve the full potential of my being, I have to engage in new imaginative acts. Running is one such act for me, a bonding with the world through the soles of my feet.”
“Peace and Dignity Journeys occur every four years and start with Indigenous runners on opposite ends of the continents (Chickaloon, Alaska and Tierra del Fuego, Argentina). They run for six months through hundreds of Indigenous communities where they participate in their respective spiritual practices and traditions; spark dialogue on the issue of peace and dignity for Indigenous peoples; model their responsibility to Mother Earth, Father Sky, communities, and themselves; and receive the community’s prayers. These prayers and conversations are then carried to proceeding communities until the runners reach the center of the hemisphere. When the runners meet at the Kuna Nation in Panama City, Panama, it will symbolize all Indigenous peoples joining together in a spiritual way to manifest the prophecy of the Eagle and Condor.”
Pacquiao explains what running means. “To our people, running is our connective tissue and a form of prayer. But it is not for everyone and the run will quickly teach you that.” There are many obstacles to conquer, mountain slopes to overcome, emotions to rein in. The bad weather, physical pain, and living with scarce comforts. All in order to invoke the spirit inside of us in the ritual of running.”
“Orchard life has contaminated my relationship to the land. I saw the land assaulted with pesticides, uprooted with shovels and tractors, overharvested with apple trees, and bordered with animal traps. Animals caught in these traps were then dumped into a pond by the owner.”
“I grew to hate the land for what was done to it, and for what it had done to my parents, whose calloused hands I can never forgive, nor forget.”
“Two women from the run, Ipana and Kara, greet me, and I follow them outside, one bag over my shoulder. I inhale this new air deeply. It’s icier, crisper, almost sweeter than anything I have inhaled before. The surrounding mountains are massive and green.”
“We said little during those times,” my father would say to me at the dinner table when he shared stories of his past. “That was the way of the campesino—concerned only with things like who’s hiring next, the next job, location, pay. We really couldn’t talk of our dreams or plan too far into the future.”
“My mom rarely spoke of Mexico with me. It was probably too painful for her to talk about how she immediately regretted coming to Yakima, having had a happier life with her family in Mexico. It would be many years before she disclosed to me her labors planting pines in the mountains near Yakima and having all her wages taken by her brother.”
“Thirty years later in Yakima, when I see my mother sit in church, her parents now deceased, her milky white hands clasped together in prayer, I kneel beside her, wondering if she thinks it was worth it all.”
“They starved them,” she says. “I think that’s why many of us are unhealthy and overweight now. When people like my dad escaped residential schools, they ate everything they could.”
“Mother Earth is crying harder than ever before. It’s time we listen to her, to her animals, to our surroundings. She’s been crying for a very long time,” he says. Native Americans have no economic strength, he tells us, because “we have to buy the land that was stolen from us.”
“He began thinking about Native beliefs, too, and adopted these beliefs as his own. He talked to his family about Mother Nature, and how he was strongly against barriers and borders. How humans belonged anywhere they wanted to belong.”
Her grandmother reintroduced her to culture and took her to potlatches. “You’re valuable. You’re worth it. You have the right to live and be happy, I told myself,” Zyanya Lonewolf says. “Life is a gift. I always thought I was a mistake because I didn’t have anything growing up. People tell you you’re nothing and after a while you start believing it.”
“When I have kids, they will be born in the manner of the old way,” he asserts. In a forest, under a tree, on a mountain somewhere. I listen to him with the same desire to be reconnected with that eternal pulse reverberating in the land. His voice carries the weight of wisdom covered under a layer of broken glass. A wisdom that draws blood. I too desired to retrace my origin story to a specific spot on this earth, a specific soil from which my people’s spirit first sprouted its first words. To know where exactly, in what house and village, my people first yearned for freedom. “All things require hard work,”
“When you arrived, it was like a breath of fresh air for me,” he says. He tells me that after the participant died, there was a feud between Trigger and Andrec in how the run ought to be organized, but Trigger had more pull and authority over the others. But he was a reckless leader and driver and endangered others’ safety. In his opinion, Andrec was more reliable and worked hard at establishing safer running routes. Trigger cut corners, didn’t appear to care if runners suffered, and he considered pain part of prayer.”
“They knew that to be a warrior was not about carrying guns or violence. It was not about tearing people down like some of us are doing here on the run.” Andrec’s words carry a lot of respect, but they are, I can see, grating on Tlaloc and Trigger. “To be a warrior is to know how structures of power work,” Andrec continues. “It is to sacrifice and dedicate one’s life and energy to something bigger and greater than oneself.”
“This is it. It’s time to be tumbled and eviscerated from this path like a mudslide, relinquished from this world by the mouth of a beautiful lion. We are alone in a forest, encroached upon on all sides by a tumultuous life, and compelled forward by survival. But I project. I then remember Refugio’s advice for surviving animal encounters: “Thank the animal.” It snarls again, and lowers its tail. It moves toward me. I step back. Again it moves. I step back. I turn my head behind me and think about running. As if I could I outrun it. Trembling, I raise my arms slowly toward the sky, and shout as loudly as I can, “Thank you.” It doesn’t appear to hear me. “Thank you!” I say louder and louder until it moves away. I tear up. “Thank you!” I shout, as if speaking first words to my father and mother, whom I never thanked. The cougar seems to register this and runs up the hillside, behind a boulder, and for the first time in a long time I cry.”
“I stop, realizing I’ve lost them. I’ve no idea where to go. I can’t retrace my steps. No name of the place we’re supposed to meet even. I look around, hoping to catch a glimpse of something familiar. A landmark, runner, anything, but I see nothing. If there’s one thing I know about growing up in a tough neighborhood, it’s to always act and walk like you know where you’re going. Look like an outsider and you might attract unwanted attention. So I keep running, falsely confident. I remember the joke: when in doubt, turn left. I keep myself to a pace, circle around a couple of bars and taverns where men shout indiscernible things at me. I ask a woman for direction, but she backs me into the street with curses and territorial hand gestures.”
“Confused, lost, even a bit frightened, I recall my run-ins with gang members in Yakima who bullied and beat me up. Then, my heart drops at the sight of a fellow runner. I spot another staff with those comforting feathers, and I bolt toward them until I am once again part of the current of runners. Family.”
“Today I am reminded of the tenderness of both these men, warriors with seemingly impenetrable skins. They sing of flying eagles and call on them for support. Two beautiful men mending the hurt within them, unafraid to let their love wash over this street. We are invited into this pain. I had been wrong about them, and I realize that it is in the heartbreak and frailty of others where we heal and see ourselves as we really are.”
“I had cast upon them my own mistaken notions and let that cloud my relationship with them. I had trouble recalling that maybe what drove them to be hardened people sometimes was the lesson of a troubled upbringing, as it has done harm to me. I look upon these men with admiration, as examples of the kind of man I would like to become, had people like me not been so side-swiped by trauma. My heart breaks for them. I make my peace knowing that they will never accept me into their circle.”
“Sorry that I wasn’t brave enough to stop this. “Tell her . . .” My chest tightens. “Tell my mom to never come back.” Those last words really choke me. My father’s words had become mine and I became a perpetrator in the destruction of my relationship with my mother. Our neighbor cautions us, “Be careful what you say. You’ll end up regretting it your whole life.” I immediately do.”
“Again, later that evening, the block becomes heavy with the wails of a Dallas man who sways over an electric keyboard. Deep-bellied, measured, his voice braided in torment. The man crouches over his instrument and sings strange words of sorrow. His music grips me, notes that seem to punch him and me in the ribcage. He rocks his head back and around, blowing out soft cigarette smoke as if absorbed in his own church. These are the sounds of Southern fire, ignited by the hands of a man speaking in a language he calls the Texas Blues. A language that resonates with me. Dallas goes by that nickname to avoid the law, or so he says, and is somewhat of a surrogate father to us.”
“The horse has brought much healing to our communities,” they tell me. “It is because of them that we could hunt and trade over vast lands.” “But we do not own them,” they continue. “We partner with them. We are equal in our quests.”
“Running on PDJ is helping me to see my life and family’s migratory experiences in a different light. To recognize its healing aspects, while also not overlooking the detrimental effects of it, like forced migration. It is a complex relationship.”
“Running is rhythm connecting me to the wind, the water, the woods. It is about “belonging to the land”—a value deeply held among Native communities. It’s about performing the gesture that reminds us that there is always something bigger than us and to respect our environment. It calls on us to defend the land like we would defend our very own mother, and understand that we can never own it. I learn this in the act of digging my toes into the earth as I run barefoot through nature, attuning myself to vibrations bigger than myself. To run over the land is to run with attention.”
“The day drags on and my knees are in agony. Sometimes I slow to a power walk, but I don’t stop. My parents’ history comes to me in the fragments of each step. It gives me the strength to push myself. Here my people will welcome me.”
“smoke he sings the “Andaleteo” song, a song that describes the ocean’s battle between happiness and sadness. Later, through an interpreter (Chapito doesn’t speak Spanish), Chapito tells me that the road to happiness is also the road to sadness. “To be happy,” he says, “one must be sad.”
“Writing can be a medium for spiritual awareness, social justice,” he says. “Change can be activated in a society by way of story.” He tells me that because of his refusal to keep quiet, his stories, activism, he was ousted from the only home he ever knew: Uruguay. “If you create words and repeat them enough, they can elicit change.” He knocks his pipe against his foot and reloads it with tobacco. “Our words,” he says, “must be hurled with precision.”
“I step into these waters as if to cast my own body into its whole memory of life and death. As if to let the water know whose son I am. To ask it to release us of any ill will, for any past wrongs our family may have inflicted onto the cosmos, and to let us grow. Here, I ask the water for forgiveness. To wash me of the pain passed down from father to father to son to brother. 36 Zapatistas:”
“I come upon three smiling kids. Two are on a bike, a brother and a sister—she in a muddied dress, her brother in a Spider-Man shirt. Their friend is in a patterned wool sweater and walks beside them. We play off of each other’s energies, each picking up the pace until we’re in a full-fledged race. Their laughter melts my heart. I cheat and set off into the grass. They bring out the kid in me again, and I dash over the soft soil and suck in the pine-flavored air around me. The burst of energy rejuvenates me, and I think of the Yakima Valley—the river and hills. Of my family. The children know these lands—every wrinkle of earth and hair of grass—better than I do. They know happiness better than I do. I run even harder, all to make them laugh when suddenly my knees are gripped by an excruciating torture, like knives twisting into them. There I sit, feeling like a failure, bracing the flesh of my legs. I go no farther. This, I think, is where it all ends for me.”
to the turquoise waters of the Agua Azul waterfalls before leaving
“I know now that every bit of earth contains the sacredness of another person’s existence. Aided by a foundation of peace, dignity, and self-love, I return to the adventures of college several months later. This time, I achieve degrees in philosophy and creative writing from Whitman and Emerson Colleges.”
“These days, Mazat is at work as a psychologist. He does temazcal—i.e., sweat and danza once a week with youth and adults with a history of substance abuse. Since first discovering PDJ, Mazat continues to dedicate his life to ceremony, running and traveling all over Latin America to teach and learn from others. “I live for ceremony,” he says. He’s an avid reader, leads workshops in the mountains, and is a student of poetry and kung fu.”
“Here, I contend not only with the mental fatigue of museum silence, but the nervous reality that has haunted and pestered me all of my life: that I will always be working-class.”
“The clacking dress shoes over marble floors remind me that I am surrounded by people who know where they’re going in life. In these small spaces, even in the most trivial of conversations, I pretend that I matter, that people value my insight into random matters of life, literature, and local events.”
“Three Latina women laugh without restraint over a video on their phone. They are people who know how to enjoy the small things in life. The train resurfaces near Northeastern University where throngs of students crosshatch the night streets. It rains. We pass a fire station where a wet American flag slaps against its pole like a slab of meat. At home in my apartment, I can never tear it off fast enough—my tie, suit, button-up shirt, dress shoes that change meaning once inside my apartment. Like shedding snake skin. Tomorrow is another run.”
Davidson Hang is currently in Sales at Cheetah Digital which is a Marketing technology company located in NYC.
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