7/13/89 – 12/28/10
Katie Simianer had a premonition she would die young, her mother Marty Goslee Jaramillo said, but no one thought that day would come before she turned 22.
Katie was finishing her high school degree in the welding program at the Pine Ridge Job Corps near the Black Hills in 2009 when she had her most dramatic brush with death. She was doing well in the program, “just ripping through it,” her mother said. More than half-way through the course, Katie and some of her friends went on a weekend trip to a nearby town and rented motel rooms.
She went off to the bathroom and didn’t come out for some time. A friend went to check on her and found her passed out on the floor, not breathing. He called 911. The paramedic got her heart started again and transported her to a hospital in Rapid City in a Med-Evac helicopter.
“That had happened to her three or four times, that she passed out for no apparent reason,” Marty said, noting that someone else in her family has recently been diagnosed with a rare heart defect. “This one was the most severe. From that moment on, she was: I want to go. I want to travel. I want to experience things. I have to hurry. I have to live my life while I can.”
Katie planned to use the skills she picked up in the welding program in her art. She was excellent at drawing and sculpture that featured the happy themes of the 1960s. “Arts and crafts, rainbows and mushrooms, love and peace and bonfires, braids and bandanas, feathers in her beautiful ginger hair,” her mother said, with affection. “She was a modern day hippie, born 30 years too late for the era where she belonged.”
Marty and Katie’s father Scott Simianer had married in 1985. Their first child Carl was born in 1987 and Katie was born in the summer of 1989. The couple divorced in 1993. She was raised in the small railroad town of Alliance, Nebraska, a place that bored her, her mother said. She was always itching to leave. The restlessness overtook her when she was a junior in high school.
She dropped out and made her way to Colorado with her boyfriend Johnny. After they broke up, she came home to start the welding program. When she finished that, she enrolled in Chadron State College, 50 miles north of Alliance but found the math part of the curriculum hard going. She dropped that class and when she had trouble re-enrolling, decided she’d start her adventures.
Marty’s sister Jo Gottstein offered her a ticket to stay with her in Alaska, and Katie took it. Before Katie left, her mother bought her a journal and pleaded with her to write about her adventures with the hope that together they would write a book some day. Katie tucked it into her bag and set off for Alaska, where she stayed with her aunt from February to April. When Marty offered to pay her way back home, Katie refused. “I just can’t come back to Nebraska,” Katie told her mom. “I’ve always wanted to go to Portland.”
In Portland Katie found another home. She stayed for a time with her Aunt Jane Porter, but she easily found a new group of friends.
Heather Jones remembers the first time she saw Katie was at the weekly waterballoon fight she and some friends had at Colonel Summers Park in Portland. “I remember thinking how beautiful she was. How effervescent she was. She had a huge smile on her face the entire time. She was always laughing this infectious laugh,” Heather recalled. “After all the balloons were busted, they sat in a circle in the sun, drenched and trying to whistle. Boy could that girl whistle a tune. I can barely make a noise when I whistle so I was impressed.”
Music was another of Katie’s talents, and obsessions. She’d played saxophone in the school band and could play piano and guitar, but her mother said she had an encyclopedic knowledge of the bands of the ‘60s, right down to the side players on the songs. What Heather remembers was how catholic Katie’s interests were. When she took books from the library, the topics were broad: how to train dogs (even though she didn’t have one), handwriting analysis, the dunes of Oregon, and alternative medicine. She supported herself with a job at Greenpeace and mostly lived on the couch of the apartment Heather shared with some roommates.
As summer ended, Katie decided to hit the road with some friends who were following the Rainbow Gathering, a nomadic latter-day hippie encampment. Her mother objected to what she considered to be an unfocused adventure. She wanted Katie to have a job. Katie told her mom, and her friends in Oregon, that she would be back in a few months. She even left some of her possessions behind in Portland.
At first Marty didn’t suspect her daughter was hopping trains, and Katie deliberately kept from her mom. She didn’t want to scare her. Heather was a little frightened for Katie too. “I have to admit that I was a little jealous of her. I would love to just hop a train, with no plan, just the rails ahead to guide me,” Heather said. “She had no fear. Her motto in life was ‘I promise myself to never stop living life as an adventure… I want to wake up every morning smiling and go to bed every night exhausted.’ and she lived that with every fiber of her being.”
Katie and her companions traveled to Northern California, San Diego, Arizona and Texas. In San Diego in October she met Jeff Geerts, a very talented young guitar player, who was traveling with Jonathan Guerrero. Jeff became her boyfriend. The goal of this meandering journey was always to get to New Orleans, where they arrived in November of 2010.
New Orleans wasn’t welcoming. The young men they were traveling with were busking in front of a store in the French Quarter trying to earn a little money when the cops arrested them. Katie saw them being hauled off by the cops and went running behind, trying to convince the police to let them go. They said if she didn’t leave them alone, she’d get arrested too. Then their packs were stolen.
Marty was suspicious of where Katie was staying. Every time Katie called home, she heard the sounds of trains in the background. Katie told her mom that she had been learning to cook over an open fire. “What does that mean? Why do you have to cook over an open fire in New Orleans?” Marty asked her. Katie brushed aside her questions and got off the phone as fast as she could.
Marty’s routine while Katie was on the road was to look at her Facebook page every morning to see if it held any news or clues about what Katie was doing. When she signed on the morning of the fire, the MSN home page featured the story. ‘Oh, I better call,” Marty thought. “I know she’ll be right in the middle of that.” When she got no answer on Katie’s phone, she scanned the video coverage trying to see if she could make out her daughter’s face in the crowd. She left a message on the voicemail at the drop-in center, where she had just sent Katie’s Christmas money. She also called Jonathan Guerrero’s phone, another number Katie had called from, not knowing that he had perished in the fire.
“She’s helping other people,” Marty thought. “She’s just like me. She would be down there helping them and consoling them.”
Later that day Tyrone Keelen from the drop in center called Marty to tell her that they had found Katie’s singed purse in the ashes of the warehouse. Another traveler, Rachel Simmons, who had refused to sleep in the warehouse because she thought it wasn’t safe, had rescued Katie’s beads and a knife that Katie’s father had made for her. Rachel sent Marty the beads and the knife and the drop in center much later sent Marty Katie’s purse. Marty gave the knife to Katie’s dad, but held on to the purse and the beads.
As Marty was getting ready for the memorial service for Katie on January 4, she got a phone call from a woman in New Orleans. She said she owned an abandoned building in the 9th ward that was behind a big fence, very hard to break into. She and her husband had gone to look at the building that day and found a heap of old backpacks. Her husband had wanted to throw them away, but the woman objected. She was concerned that the packs might belong to the kids who died in the warehouse fire.
When she opened up one of them, she found Katie’s journal. Inside the book Katie had written, “If you find this please if I’m dead or hurt real bad, please call my mother.” Katie had written the phone number. “There’s only a little writing in it, but it’s priceless to me,” Marty said.
Marty also treasures Katie’s artwork. She left a lot of it behind when she started to travel. “Every time I look at it I see something different in it,” Marty says. She came across a drawing Katie did many years before she died of the back of a girl who had wings made of flames with the caption, “Live, Love, Burn, Die.”
Heather Jones has kept the things Katie left behind, too. She has a feather Katie wore in her hair, a bandana, some clothes, which she wears often, and some other items. “My favorite mementos are not anything I can see,” Heather said. “They can only be felt, and held very dearly in my heart. The sound of her laughter, the way she lit up a room, the way she made people feel. Listening to the song Home, by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros over and over again while we simultaneously listened to a bank robbery and police chase all over our neighborhood on a police scanner. I am just sad for all the people who never got a chance to know her.”