We were maybe twenty miles west of Billings, Montana, when we topped a hill and the land fell out before us, plains running in a soup bowl to the next plateau, the purple-blue sky a canopy fastened to the horizons at 360 degrees. Elisa drew in a breath and said, “I never get used to it. It never gets old.”
I knew what she meant. She’s been looking at the American West for a few months. I’ve been looking at it my whole life. And now I was taking her through it on our way to meet her future mother- and father-in-law.
“You know what?” I said. “It never gets old for me, either.”
I wanted to tell her more, about the hundreds of miles yet to come. About the Bighorn Mountains that would grace our next gas stop, the great emptiness of Wyoming, the Front Range, Pike’s Peak, the Spanish Peaks. Colorado, a corner of New Mexico, and then the vast maw of Texas, on to the suburb I’ll always call home.
But there would be time enough for that, an unfurling at 70 or 80 mph.
I held her hand. She looked out the window. I watched the road. And everything else.
As we peeled off the miles, we did talk about it some. She told me about growing up on Long Island, how vast space made her look for the water, because that’s the only place she ever saw it. Montana, she said, seemed unfathomably huge: the open space, the snow-streaked Crazy Mountains, the distance of the horizon. And the sky. Always the sky.
Her boundless wonder at this place that she has startlingly come to call home made me smile. I tried to tell her I had an equivalent in her part of the world, when I’d climb the stairs out of the darkness at Penn Station and alight on the sidewalk and New York—at once so familiar because of pop culture and so foreign because, well, just because—would assimilate me. Breathtaking, every time.
We batted those concepts between the seats of my Toyota, deconstructed them and examined the individual parts, and then we settled on a way of looking at our disparate perspectives.
“They’re the landscapes of our minds,” I said, borrowing and repurposing the subtitle of Ivan Doig’s This House of Sky. “Mine is here. Yours is there.”
She nodded and smiled at me knowingly. And we get to share them with each other.
We approached Casper, Wyoming, after dark. An hour earlier, in the waning light, I’d helped her find antelope beyond the fencelines. But now, the city twinkling, beckoning at the foot of Casper Mountain, we rode quietly even as my mind stormed. Memories—some clear, some faded, some composite—came to me, and I wondered how I’d construct the stories for Elisa and make the case that I’m both a son of this place and a fugitive from it.
I showed her my first home, a little cracker box in the roughed-up town of Mills. I lived there till I was three. I returned to it every summer through age eight. It’s a place of nostalgia and youthful longing. I’m also dead certain, as sure of this as anything ever, that the greatest gift I ever received was removal from it. I’m the son of an oil man, and a good deal of my self-image is tangled up in that. I’m also the son of a suburban mom and stepfather, and almost everything that informs who and what I am and what I do is touched by that. Casper is genesis. North Richland Hills (and all points beyond) is realization.
It’s hard to explain. I’ve been trying all my life, and I haven’t figured it out yet.
I’m trying to collect these runaway thoughts from a hotel room in Trinidad, Colorado, as Elisa lies next to me and unwinds by watching The Odd Couple. One more day of driving awaits us. More to see. More to talk about. More to take apart and put back together.
It occurred to me, as we covered the final few miles before calling a night, that these sojourns into the West are essential to how I maintain contact with the past and how I shape the dreams I send out ahead of me. I rarely feel so alive, so a part of the world, so connected to my country as when I sit quietly and take it in.
What a privilege to see it, through my own eyes again and through hers for the first time.