There’s always been a mythology for Wyoming in my family, or at least in my narrative. There was a trip, in 1968 or 1969, that took my father, grandfather, uncle and a few of their friends across country, in a brand new Ford pickup in order to hunt “big-game.” Michigan was Up-Land country, whitetail deer, rainbow trout, pheasants, and those creatures dominated family scenes. But, out West, that’s where elk, mule deer, the “big-game” would be found.
No animals were actually shot on that trip and I was so young that I really have very little recollection of the event or any of its proceedings. But, there were two ideal that burned into my psyche from this trip; the words “Jackson Hole” and the image of the front of a blue and white Ford pickup parked at roadside stop with a mountain in the background. I would later find out that this was the Sleeping Indian, and many stories have had their closure here.
My first trip to Wyoming, and Yellowstone. Four days, unencumbered, a young man’s paradise chasing a dream.
I’d largely forgotten about Wyoming through my teens. Yes, I’d grown to understand the geography, and certainly knew all I could about Yellowstone, but the draw or myth seemed to subside. That was until I was given a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by a sociology professor, and while reading about the author Robert Pirsig’s journey across the Badlands, the Big Horns, and into Yellowstone, a huge piece of that mythology was rekindled.
At that point, I was a freshman in college and had no idea that within a few years I would be moving to Colorado and that my life would be on a very different trajectory.
By the time I was living in Greeley in the summer of 1989, I had my second motorcycle and I had a new myth about Wyoming to unravel. It was the end of that summer and my girlfriend wanted to take a trip to Lake Powell. I’d gone with her already that summer, and certainly wanted to see it again, but something else was calling. I’d reread portions of Zen on and off over the previous year, and I knew I wanted to see with my own eyes some of those sites. I was wrapping up my families mythology, of “Wyoming” and “the West” in this new myth, and I knew that I needed to see it with my own eyes.
So, she headed south and I packed the motorcycle and headed north. The trip was everything I’d imagined. Yellowstone had just had the huge fire but all the sites were still there. So much contentedness and satisfaction washed over me as I rode passed Old Faithful, the Lodge and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. This moment was a realization of a number of dreams, and I was at peace like I hadn’t been in many months. It was on the ride back that’s moment of doubt came up, and I had a gut reaction to my relationship with Kay.
We started too much, too soon, I had other relationship issues to work through, and I honestly felt that we were different enough in our likes and dislikes and separating now would be the best course for both of us. It was a grueling conversation when we finally had it, and we came to terms. It centered on our potential, not on our present. And the picture she painted was compelling, and full of promise.
The result of that conversation is obvious. Two brilliant, ever evolving and graciously humble young men, a hugely rewarding 23 (and counting) year teaching career, and a partnership that was rich, humorous, but ultimately, and unfortunately, caustic to both members.
As a family we’d made one trip through Wyoming and to Yellowstone in our 18 years, but the adventures that we thought should have been numerous, didn’t always bare out. We had to be broken before we realized just how hurt we were; our hurt was huge.
It wasn’t until the end of that marriage that I made the trip again. Again on a motorcycle. Again to Yellowstone. Again, it felt like a pilgrimage. A few new sites to see, and a close friend to spend some time with in Jackson.
It was supposed to be a retreat, it was supposed to be a reprieve, it was supposed to provide some clarity, but I didn’t see it for what it really was, the painful and haunting bridge to the next phase of my life. I re-rode much of Yellowstone, toured the Tetons and spent time with April, my high school buddy, exploring her new hometown, Jackson. I did sleep deeply after long runs along local trails. April and I rode over to Idaho, seeing things I didn’t expect to. When finally saying goodbye to April, I headed north and east, exiting Yellowstone along the Lamar Valley and over Beartooth Pass, spending a night in Red Lodge, Montana.
Another red bike, strapped with dreams and regret.
The Beartooth, and northeast Yellowstone offered new open roads and open vistas that put my mind back on the issue that I’d pushed aside for the previous five days; divorce. Kay and I had a court date in under two weeks. We’d been communicating (I thought) in a way that we hadn’t in years. We’d spent time together that was meaningful and helpful to each other and our family. Our tone had been different and “ending” our marriage didn’t seem like the solution it once did. Waking up in Red Lodge on a final morning alone, my heart hurt and my thoughts raced. I didn’t want to rush the ride home, I was certain it would be two days and I didn’t want to push myself emotionally or physically. I wanted to savor the ride (it’d taken 21 years to make it back?!) and I wanted to steady my heart. I ached. Waking up sobbing and barely breathing had become part of my routine in the previous five months, and this morning greeted me no differently. While in Jackson that had stopped, but now, heading south, I was becoming tortured and anxious.
I rode through Cody, along the Wind River and through Riverton and followed the plateau, climbing and climbing until I found a spot I’d stopped at once before. I’d been so certain about the divorce just a few weeks, even days, before. But, with each minute and mile I became less and less sure of it. The weight of the loss, the pain on my family (pain I hadn’t even really seen yet), the grief that was welling up started to choke me. I pulled over, tears streaming, stopping the bike, peeling my gloves off with my teeth, trying to wipe the pain away from my face. But the hurt didn’t stop. The sobbing just rolled out of my chest, chasing the joy from my heart, wrenching itself in my throat, requiring all my force to expel it in order to breathe again.
My mind flashed in an instance. I suddenly knew the pain I wanted to avoid. I felt saving the relationship would keep this pain from coming. I set my mind to saying “no!” To beg, to plead, to do anything that would save the marriage. I rode, faster and faster, wanting to return to Denver as quickly as possible, and wanting to share this revelation, wanting to stop the grief from coming, wishing to “say anything” to make this nightmare stop. What had been a decision 21 years before to end the relationship was now a flight to save it.
But, her answer would not changed. She said “no.” She said it now “had to end.” Crushed can’t even begin to describe my state. The next weeks, months and years were simply a spiral of grief and detachment. Because, that’s what divorce can do.
Somethings just would not have happened, like this trip with Tanner. Our second big journey out on our motorcycles.