In the summer of 2014, Liz Jansen set out on a solo cross-country motorcycle trip, hoping to trace her ancestors’ migration across Canada nearly a century earlier. But a serious accident cut her journey short. In Alberta, miles from the Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park, loose rock forced her motorcycle off the road and into a ditch. Her injuries — and a totaled motorcycle — compelled her to abandon her trip.
Two years later, Jansen began her journey again with a clearer focus, a new perspective and more trepidation, given the disastrous end to her first attempt. Crash Landing primarily describes Jansen’s second venture aboard a motorcycle she names “Trudy.”
Using her ride across Canada as a framing device, Jansen traces the path her Mennonite ancestors took when they arrived from Russia in the 1920s, escaping persecution there. Her story also recalls the hardships her grandparents, impoverished and afraid, faced in a new land.
Crash Landing is, in part, Jansen’s travel log, and her writing does well at bringing readers along. Her narrative voice, as a woman riding a motorcycle solo cross-country, is unique, allowing us to live vicariously through her own adventure — especially for those of us who cannot imagine taking a similar trip by ourselves, using a similar mode of transportation, primarily sleeping in campgrounds between long stretches on the road.
As she travels, Jansen reflects on her life experiences growing up Mennonite, then rejecting her faith community as a young adult. She shares honestly about her disillusionment with the church, especially in terms of the ways her Mennonite Brethren upbringing instilled fear in its children: fear about salvation and about a vindictive God ready to punish every sin.
While Jansen appreciated the values she learned from her parents, and knew they acted from a place of love, she acknowledges the detrimental effect of feeling afraid, worried about the Second Coming and her own depravity.
Jansen compellingly contrasts the fear she learned from her parents and church tradition with what her ancestors experienced, abandoning their Molotschna homeland in Ukraine for an unknowable future in Canada and trusting that God would be with them in their new country.
Despite the intense persecution they faced in Russia, Jansen writes, her grandparents “projected a trust that in spite of a litany of bad experiences, God looked out for them.”
Because of her upbringing, Jansen believed her heart and soul were being oppressed by a belief system that crushed her spirit, which “went to sleep for 30 years,” until her cross-country journey would lead to its reawakening.
In this sense, Crash Landing is a spiritual autobiography as it follows Jansen’s movement away from the church of her childhood and toward a deeper appreciation for the faith of her forefathers and foremothers.
As she drives across Canada, Jansen shares the pathway her grandparents took nearly a century ago, narrating their harrowing journey alongside her own. We learn about Gerhard and Susa, who left Russia on a steamer ship as young adults, having buried their 2-year-old daughter before making the trip. Jansen’s other grandparents, Johann and Liese, followed a year later and also faced enormous loss prior to crossing the Atlantic, as their two daughters died of typhus. Johann died after settling in Canada, leaving Liese alone to care for a farm and for their son, Jansen’s father.
Following the path taken by her ancestors, Jansen learns more about the hardships they faced, but also their resilience, and her own. She visits small communities where her ancestors landed, seeks out Johann’s burial site and talks to people whose forebears probably knew her own. In doing so, Jansen weaves together her motorcycle trip, her faith journey and the story of her ancestors, effectively showing the ways she remains connected to them — a heritage forged by shared DNA but also by deep spiritual roots.
An additional strand in Jansen’s story is her growing appreciation for First Nations spirituality, as well as her sense that the faith of her forebears and that of First Nations people is compatible. That sensibility is integral to her memoir, as she feels the metaphysical presence of her ancestors riding her bike with her, alongside several spirit animals who provide companionship on her trip.
Although some readers might find this idea challenging to their own faith perspective, Jansen makes a good case for a holistic understanding of spirituality. She finds that her acceptance of a First Nations belief system and her Mennonite faith tradition do not only co-exist but are essential to her vocation as a healer and to her calling to walk rightly through the world.
The final chapters of Crash Landing detail Jansen’s return home and her sense that her father, now in his early 90s, would benefit from a trip to visit his own father’s grave and his first homestead in Canada. They traveled together to Beaverlodge, Alta., not by motorcycle but through a series of flights and rental cars that connects Jansen’s father to the people and places of his past.
The pull to this home is strong for both of them, and Jansen expresses gratitude for this journey, too, for this opportunity to know more about the faith of their forebears and to be both rooted and also transformed.
Melanie Springer Mock is professor of English at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore.