Following the road West

Moving west meant a lot of time alone. A lot of time with just my thoughts to keep me company.


Moving west meant sorting through unanswered questions and buried emotions that had lay dormant since childhood.


“You conquer loss by going to the place it happened and replaying it, saying the name of the face in the open casket right,” wrote Richard Hugo.


My journey west has served as both a scathing indictment of my father and a time of realization and understanding.


I’m not the first in my family to run off to the West, but I’m the first to make a home here.


Branding cattle Monday, May 5, 2014, at the Eagle Ridge Ranch outside Casper, Wyo. (Photo by Ryan Dorgan)

Branding cattle Monday, May 5, 2014, at the Eagle Ridge Ranch outside Casper, Wyo. (Photo by Ryan Dorgan)

My birth home is Indiana. It will always be home, but growing up, it never really felt like home.


I remember spending my summer days in the forest behind my parents’ house just south of the Michigan border. I’d dig pits just to dig. Build little lean-to huts against the old pine trees that seemed like giants to me back then. From sunrise to well past sunset, I’d crawl through the farm fields not far from home, pretending I was a Marine or a cowboy.


Getting out was always just what I did. There was no cable TV in our house, and I gave up on video games once a second joystick made controllers too complicated.  Getting out was a way of dealing with the stress of everyday life, even as a child.


I didn’t have the perfect childhood – no one does – but being away and alone was ironically the only way I knew how to deal with my dad leaving.


He was hit head-on by a drunk driver when I was two and suffered a closed head injury. Six years later, after a series of small seizures from the earlier injury, he passed out at work and hit his head again, unearthing the nasty effects for the first time.


The last screw had been knocked loose, and it was like waking a sleeping giant. After that, he struggled to deal with his high-stress job and the pressures that come with being a good husband and a father to three young boys in the American Dream that was Midwestern middle class suburbia in the 1990s.


When life got to be too much, he’d drive.


He always drove west.


My parents moved us out of the city when I was very young. We lived on a busy intersection not far from downtown South Bend, and they wanted to raise a family away from everything that makes a city unbearable. They wanted us to have a nice, quiet upbringing with room to run and climb trees and crawl around in the dirt. By most standards, I had a terrific childhood.


Dad would come home from his job selling insurance and surprise my little brothers and me with the newest Power Rangers action figures. He’d change out of his suit and play catch in the backyard. We’d come inside and watch The Simpsons or Seinfeld, and I’d sit beside him, too young to understand any of the humor, but laugh just because his laugh was so infectious.


But I remember the trigger always being when we sat down for dinner.  Something would set him off, and he’d leave.
At first he’d drive down the street and come home. Then he’d come home after driving across town. Then the county.


One night, he didn’t come back. Days went by before we heard from him. A family friend in the police department helped track down his credit card transactions. After following the cross-country string of restaurant and gas station stops, my mother asked her parents to phone a family friend – a priest – who lived not far from where my father was staying. He called and told my father it was time to go home.


Dad called from Rosemead, California. He’d had 2,000 miles of open road to clear his head, and he was coming home.


I was 9, maybe 10. He promised me he’d never leave again. Life went on for a while. Then he’d be gone.
A call from Green River, Utah – 1,400 miles of clearing his head. Lincoln, Nebraska – 600 miles of clearing his head before he decided it was time to come home to his family.


And all this time, life went on. I played in the woods. Built forts. Dug holes.


We were part of that wave of 90s suburbanization. A nice house with a five-digit county address and a little land to call our own. Farmers knew there was money to be made by selling to developers, so they did. Before we knew it, the city we left had crept back to us. Neighborhoods and shopping centers and hotels going up closer and closer to our slice of paradise. My escape from it all slowly being taken away.


Dad’s last hurrah in his string of westward misadventures was a stint in California, where he stayed for six months. As I grew, I remember becoming accustomed to life without him. He was either gone or in bed, a victim of debilitating depression. I never invited friends to my house. I didn’t want anyone to ask questions. And all the while he lay in bed, I wondered what it was like out there. I wondered what was so special about the West he kept running away to that was so much better than his family.

Eventually, things got back to normal and my mother and father planned a few summer trips across the West. It might have been his way of apologizing, showing us what he’d discovered out there. We saw the Black Hills, Devils Tower, the Front Range, Zion, Hoover Dam, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, ancient adobe towns in the Southwestern desert, Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, and all the endless stretches of rock and sand and sage that linked these iconic Western outposts. I finally understood. I was obsessed.


15 years went by between that last family road trip and my first job offer as a staff photographer. 15 years of life in the Midwest, where the forest kept shrinking and the buildings kept going up and I never really felt at home. I dealt with my own spell of debilitating depression. An opportunity to move to Wyoming came when I needed it most.


By that time, at just shy of 25 years old, the West was all again new to me. My father rode shotgun on the two-day drive to Casper, with an overnight stop in Sioux Falls. We arrived in the middle of an early October blizzard that had dropped almost two feet of cold, wet snow on the high plains, killing tens of thousands of cattle across the region, shutting down Casper for my first couple days in town. After settling in to my apartment, I drove my dad to the airport where he rented a car. For the first time in my life, I waved goodbye as he headed east.


Over the next 27 months, I drove nearly as many miles as Wyoming is square while covering the state for the Casper Star-Tribune. I’d spend my days off just as I did many of my days on – alone on the road with a camera. Each day out, each mile further down the road, I came a little closer to understanding why my father needed this.

Moose browse on sagebrush Sunday, March 6, 2016, in Grand Teton National Park.

Moose browse on sagebrush Sunday, March 6, 2016, in Grand Teton National Park.

“A thing both wondrous and powerful drove him,” wrote William Kittredge. “Maybe it was a need so simple as being out, away.” This here was open, unchanged country. You could pull off to the side of the road and see ruts through the sagebrush from wagon trains headed west 150 years before. You could stand atop a hill and strain your eyes to see any sign of life or human impact in any direction and come up short. You could drive 10 minutes from town and be completely alone.


That was my therapy. That was my time of reflection and understanding. Coming to understand that perhaps my father had found himself fully grown and with a family before he’d seen what he needed to see. Before he’d had a chance to “get his wiggles out” as another Wyoming traveler I met put it.


And now as I settle in here, I’m thankful that the very intrigue and curiosity that brought me here is what keeps me here. Despite being thinly populated, Wyoming and much of the West is an incredibly complex place that I know I’ll never tire of exploring.

Branding cattle Monday, May 5, 2014, at the Eagle Ridge Ranch outside Casper, Wyo. (Photo by Ryan Dorgan)

Branding cattle Monday, May 5, 2014, at the Eagle Ridge Ranch outside Casper, Wyo. (Photo by Ryan Dorgan)

As I began this essay, I called my dad to let him know I was writing about him. Much of this story has gone unspoken in my family for obvious reasons, but every now and then I bring it up. I want to know.


Now 28 years old, almost two decades removed from all of this, I asked him why he did it. Why he went West.


“I drove west because that’s what my dad did when my parents got divorced,” he told me.


He went on talking about my Grandpa Wally – a man I never met – and the story he’d put in my father’s head. Recently divorced, Grandpa Wally set out for California in his gold Cutlass Supreme with mag wheels and a bench seat. Along a desolate stretch of highway, he set the cruise control, put his legs up across the bench seat, and drove west.

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1 Comment
  • Robert Johnston

    What a wonderful essay by a man who is near and dear to my heart.

    April 27, 2016 at 7:03 pm