In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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I ’m at the halfway point: 1,042 miles from northern Idaho and the life I have lived there for the past seventeen years. I’m on my way back to my native Illinois to begin the second half of my life. At this moment, my wife is getting settled into our new home, with our mismatched furniture and 126 boxes of stuff. We are returning to the Midwest to care for ill and aging parents, to create fresh memories with them, and to repay the unspoken debts we as children owe. With only the memory of what I am leaving, and little knowledge of what’s ahead, I’m running on faith.
“Where is my home?’’ I asked myself today at a rest stop on the Idaho-Utah border. “Where is my heart?” The two are separate now. The answer to both questions came from the car radio in the form of a Gertrude Stein quote: “Do not fear the transition.” Again, as at so many times in life, I am asked to be brave.
Many years ago, at the age of seventeen, influenced by John Denver singing about Rocky Mountain highs and Jack Kerouac writing about a life of poetry and adventure on the road, I abandoned my Illinois roots and headed west. I was part of a modern-day pioneer migration, only instead of Conestoga wagons, we traveled in Volkswagen microbuses, or by our thumbs. I rode in other people’s cars, smug in my self-inflicted poverty, gazing at mountains and weird rock formations and listening to Gram Parsons sing, “ ’Cause I headed west to grow up with the country / Across those prairies with those waves of grain.” I believed in that myth, along with others of my own creation, never realizing that one day I’d feel another kind of hunger and longing, one those peaks and canyons wouldn’t be big enough to satisfy. Suddenly (yes, it feels that quick) I am a grown-up with a profession, a college-age daughter, and decades of experiences that didn’t in the slightest resemble what Denver, Kerouac, or Parsons wrote about.
Although this move fulfills a powerful moral obligation — to care for my mother, who, against tremendous odds, raised my brother and me single-handedly on the South Side of Chicago — I am dragging my feet. How hard it is to abandon one’s history, even if it began as myth. To me, a twenty-seven-year veteran of six Western states — not to mention a dismal earning record and severe frostbite — returning east feels like a defeat, a large crack in my identity. If I am no longer a Westerner, what am I? Maybe the answer lies a thousand miles in front of me.
At the age of forty-four, I am also halfway (if all goes well and I continue to wear my bicycle helmet) through my time on earth. Writer Edward Abbey viewed each decade of his life as a day of the week. He assumed we all had about seventy years, or one “week,” of high-quality living — although many people now live until the following Tuesday. By Abbey’s reckoning, my current age places me at midday on Thursday, with the weekend looming not far ahead. And weekends go by faster than weekdays. Whatever it is I need to accomplish — correctly identifying every warbler; reading Moby-Dick — it will have to be done in the next three days.
Today I drove from nine in the morning until eight at night. In western Utah, I passed massive turkey ranches and coiled rattlers baking on the hot asphalt. I frequented McDonald’s for bathroom stops because of its antimicrobial soap and generic cheeriness. I listened to sports talk radio and tried to understand why there were so many home runs hit this season. Is the ball “juiced,” or are the hitters just stronger? On Ag in the Morning, the host announced eagerly, “Today we’re going to talk about hay!” And we did. Then Dr. Laura cackled like a gleeful witch at a single mother’s trauma, and Rush Limbaugh accused President Clinton of causing all the evils in the world. I drove through the worst traffic in Salt Lake City, where transportation engineers are busy ripping up the freeways in frenzied preparation for the 2002 Winter Olympics. Salt Lake City is not my home, I was happy to note.
Tonight my home is a tent whose thin nylon walls provide little sense of security. The spring wind is working its way up the base of the La Sal Mountains and making its presence known. The radio reports that forty-two thousand babies were born on this day in India, bringing the population of that country to a billion. Forty-two thousand is enough to fill a small city. I imagine an entire city of babies — babies going to work at software companies; babies talking politics over tea; babies reading newspapers; babies jogging behind racing strollers; babies directing traffic; wall-to-wall babies on the sidewalks.
Where I am camping tonight, there are no babies to be seen or heard, only a retired German couple who are touring the Americas in a VW van. I’ve been avoiding them because I want this trip to revolve around my own thoughts. Since I began this journey, I have hardly talked to anyone, just thank-yous to cashiers and short orders given to short-order cooks.
I have left my own baby, my twenty-year-old daughter, back in Idaho. This is the first time we will live so far from each other. She wants no part of moving to Illinois, although we extended the invitation. The night before I left, I went over to her one-room downtown apartment with a goodbye card and a Hallmark refrigerator magnet that expressed better than I was able a father’s love for his daughter. I wore sunglasses to hide my tears when I handed her the card. I knew I was supposed to say something profound, but I couldn’t think past my sorrow. She glanced quickly at the card and the magnet, but didn’t cry. “Let’s go get pitas and watch a video,” she suggested, defusing the tension.
She chose Being John Malkovich, a movie about entering another person’s mind and seeing the world through different eyes — something I’ve wanted to do at certain moments in my life. My daughter and I sat together on her old couch, staring at the TV and playing with her orange kitten, neither of us knowing what the other was feeling.
All I can think now is that, with a new job and plenty of long-term friends and her dad soon to be a comfortable fifteen hundred miles away . . . well, my daughter is just getting to the good part.
Down the road from my campsite, in Moab, Utah, the streets are crowded with braless, tan, skinny women in Lycra shorts and Teva sandals, and loud, goateed, aggressive men with their caps turned backward, which I suppose suggests a rowdy, against-the-grain attitude. Twenty-seven years ago, I, too, came to Moab looking for adventure. I was at the beginning of my adult life and full of lofty, unsubstantiated opinions about the world. I wore beads and a fringed jacket and a flat-brimmed leather hat because Neil Young did, and I wrote down all my observations in a small red book because Kerouac did that. Back then, Moab was just another sleepy Mormon town with watery coffee, uranium cowboys, and 3.2 percent beer. Now it’s an athletic marinade of muscle and youth committed to biking, climbing, hiking, four-wheeling, rafting, kayaking, swimming, and drinking exotic coffee blends. They are attractive to look at, these young people, as they exercise and preen against the red-rock backdrop, but the speed and noise of this generation of adventurers are too much for me. Driving the narrow Colorado River Road, I felt pushed from behind by four-by-four pickups bristling with bike racks and bumper stickers denouncing the petroleum industry. What is the hurry? I thought.
I’m trying to enjoy this trip despite my intermittent anxiety over the disruption of moving and the dangers of traveling alone. Enjoy this moment, I advise myself, as if I’m two separate beings, one more stable than the other. Don’t regret not reading or hiking more. Don’t worry about the past. You are a good parent. But the loaded questions persist: How, precisely, have I been passing the years? Can I remember what I did in, say, 1991? Was 1993 a good year, and, if so, why? What, exactly, have I been doing for the past two decades? Only a few touchstones pop out: Raising a daughter, certainly, and establishing a career in writing. Divorce filled up a few sad years with weight gain and sloth. And now I’m in a new marriage that has everything the last one didn’t.
I’d planned for this trip back to my home state of Illinois to be about taking stock at midlife. The world moves with such velocity that sometimes I have to sit still and remind myself that this stillness is actually my life: Oh, so this is what it’s all about. I get it now. Hey, this feels good, this living in the moment. But that epiphany soon fades, and I’m back to chewing on my nails and pulling out my eyebrow hairs one at a time, remembering some ancient hurt or chance not taken. Now, what was it that felt so good a minute ago?
Unlike twenty-seven years ago, when I lived mostly in the future, I now sift through the past, trying to slow the galloping pace of time. How have I evolved between my seventeenth and forty-fourth years? What shook out, and what stuck? Alone hour upon hour, my mind wants to play an endless loop of regret: missed opportunities, inadequate parenting, loss of self. I fall back into the well-greased groove of beating myself up for low productivity while forgetting to praise my accomplishments.
I’m noticing a more labored quality to my step lately. I no longer glide over the trails like the twenty-year-olds I saw in Moab. On the trail today, I remarked to a fellow hiker that I’d hiked that same canyon more than two decades ago. Looking up at the ancient slabs of rock, I said to him, “Everything looks exactly the same.” I was trying for a joke, but he didn’t laugh. “Things don’t change that much here,” he said.
But we change, of course, even in our relationship to landscapes. In 1973, did I notice — really notice — the twisted bark of the oak trees, the leathery texture of the segment grass, or the flickering brilliance of the penstemon? I doubt it. More likely, I was trying to strike a pose, to affect an image I thought was original but was actually stolen from an album cover or a movie. Today my vanity has diminished. With the thick fog of adolescence lifted, I see clearly my remaining days and wonder how I will fill them up.
Still, I want to know what became of that seventeen-year-old kid from Chicago who changed his reality so dramatically by moving out west. How much of him hangs on? Frustration and longing are what I remember most, much of it pent-up, biological urges that never got worked out to my satisfaction. There was a longing for accomplishment, and a more urgent need to earn money. But why did I need anything beyond the practical? And why does that longing persist even tonight, in this lonely place?
Out of all my stops and starts, two passions remain: writing and playing music. All that journal writing, as banal as it was, developed a muscle that led to a way of living in and interpreting the world. And all that guitar practice — figuring out songs, mastering the tricky barre chords, and finally achieving the alternating bass — that amounted to something, too. Neither has led to fame and fortune, but, if nothing else, poetry and song are agreeable ways to pass the time. More than that, the journals and the fingerpicking amount to a sort of spiritual retirement account, with compounded interest in creativity and a high-yield orientation toward the world.
Writing and music: those two bridges between adolescence and middle age are easy to track. Thoughts and feelings are more elusive. It seems impossible to go back and reinhabit a past life. Do we ever regain the constant drumbeat of thoughts that occupied our time decades ago? Why would we want to?
On this spring evening in the Utah desert, I spot a falling star and listen to the evening birds’ songs announcing the close of a long day. East-facing cliffs glow in the last vestiges of scarlet light. As the winds die down, a nearby creek grows louder. Above, bats circle and dive. Soon the nighthawks and coyotes will start to call. It’s not a bad life here at the halfway point; not bad at all to live in the present tense, to fall into the arms of a May evening in the desert. The second half of my life is beginning, and there is nothing left for me to accomplish except to pay attention to and be generous toward this world. I will notice everything, I vow, as I start to drift off. Even if it hurts.
Stephen J. Lyons