Central Wyoming, from Rawlins to Lander, is one of two routes from southern Wyoming and points beyond to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Many people tell me they find that stretch of road to be an uninspiring wasteland, but it’s one of my favorite areas in the world.
The terrain varies between flat, mountainous, and rolling hills with craggy breaks. The land itself bears a variety of colors: green grass and sage in the spring thanks to the snow melt, golden brown once the land has dried out, red with oxidized iron deposits, yellow with hydrated ferric iron, or grey due to a chemical reaction between water and ferrous iron. (If you don’t remember the difference between ferric and ferrous iron from college chemistry classes, don’t worry: it’s enough to understand that their different properties yield different soil colors.)
The sky is remarkable in this part of the world: in the summer, it’s often azure blue, dotted with puffy white clouds. While the color is striking, what’s most remarkable is the fact that there is nothing—no trees, no buildings, no cell towers—to break the line of sight from horizon to horizon. Montana may have claimed the moniker Big Sky Country, but I’m convinced that Wyoming pioneered it.
As if the land and sky aren’t enough to grab your attention, pronghorn (commonly though inaccurately called antelope) gather in small groups, their tan-and-white hides a sharp contrast to the two or three months of spring green and the perfect complement to the golden hills and snow during the rest of the year. They placidly munch on sage, ready to run if they sense any threat. Being skittish animals, if they’re close to the road, the question becomes not whether they’ll run but whether they’ll bolt toward or away from oncoming traffic.
How anyone finds this stretch of road dull, I can’t imagine. Perhaps it’s because there’s hardly any cell coverage, leaving the constantly-connected feeling edgy without the dopamine hit of incoming emails and text messages.
I’ve traveled on this stretch of road almost yearly for as long as I can remember, and usually three or four times a year now that I live in Wyoming. Especially when I drive alone, as I often do, my mind drifts to the years when I’ve traveled with others.
My childhood years playing with Barbie dolls in the backseat while my mother tried to point out Oregon Trail landmarks even though I was far more interested in the latest drama between Barbie and Ken.
Many years later, my driving alone after I left my marriage and escaped to Wyoming for the summer, tracking some of those same Oregon Trail landmarks. I wish my mother had lived to see that even though I missed many of the particulars, she did teach me to care about the pioneers and prompted me to seek out their lessons when I was trying to establish a new life.
My 50th birthday trip with girlfriends, when a group of us drove this stretch of road four times in nine days: from the Denver airport to the Tetons and back twice, with two sets of friends since we couldn’t find a week with overlapping availability.
Most especially, the years when my dad and I drove from Rawlins to Lander together while he was journeying with dementia. Perhaps it’s because those years were so intense, my mind always lands on them.
Those years started with a trip just a few days after my dad had been diagnosed with dementia. Taking the big curve down from Beaver Rim, cradled by towering red rock walls on one side of the road and open pasture on the other, my dad shared the details of his estate plan. I listened because he so desperately needed to tell me, his urgency revealing to me in ways nothing else had that he knew he was in a cognitive decline that would only get worse. He wanted to be sure he’d told me everything he needed to, and my job was simply to listen.
The trip perhaps 18 months later when he talked continuously but unintelligibly. During that trip, I discovered that even if I didn’t really know what he was saying, I could interpret and then model his body language, tone of voice, and rate of speech. Imagine overhearing two people apparently speaking a language you don’t know: if the flow of the speech seems right, you’ll assume it’s conversation.
Doing so gave the illusion of a conversation, and it was enough. It had to be enough: that’s all we had.
Then there was the trip a couple of years after that, my first without him, when I reached one of the few central-state areas with cell coverage and discovered that two of my dad’s caregivers and his hospice nurse had called me. I couldn’t get enough of a signal to listen to their voicemails, but I assumed that the confluence of the calls meant that my dad either had died or was dying and that everyone was trying to reach me with the news.
My body thrummed with adrenaline as I drove through that striking landscape for close to two hours, trying to accept the news I expected to hear. I practiced taking deep breaths to soothe myself so that I could drive safely, knowing that just as I had to survive my dad’s dementia, I would somehow have to survive his death.
As it turned out, the multiple calls within a few minutes of each other were sheer coincidence. One caregiver was calling to check in, the hospice nurse needed to know if we needed meds refilled, and the other caregiver was reporting the bank’s refusal to cash her check. My dad was fine—at least, as fine as he had been. I was felt weak after the adrenaline drained away, but I pressed forward anyway, knowing that I needed time to decompress even more after the fear those calls had ignited.
Heading to Grand Teton National Park this past May, my mind flipped through each of these memories as I drove between Rawlins and Lander. It landed on just how much my life has changed in the almost four years since my dad died.
I’d left Atlanta and moved to Cheyenne.
I’d emptied and sold my parents’ house, where I lived with my dad for the last seven or so years of his life, where my mom had died in 2003.
I’d started to revive the business I’d put on hold in 2014, when my dad went into hospice, and I’d started writing again, just for fun.
I’d taken the handful of videos I thought might help a few caregivers and built a growing 501(c)(3) nonprofit that now reaches over a hundred thousand people.
I’d followed my dad’s footsteps to chair a Section of the American Bar Association, and I’d been appointed to be a Section Delegate, just as he’d been.
I’d even started dating again, though with low expectations. To my absolute astonishment, I met a man who enriches every aspect of my life, a man with whom I’m now planning to build a life.
If my dad could look at my life now, he would not recognize any of these details.
And just like that, thinking about how distant my life today is from the life I lived while my dad was living, I plunged back into grief.
But I didn’t want to derail my vacation, and so I reminded myself of an analogy I’d offered during a presentation I once made to former family caregivers.
Grief doesn’t go away, it simply becomes more or less intense at certain times. It’s like eating a blueberry muffin. One bite might be mostly batter: a light taste, nothing too strong or noticeable, perhaps with just a hint of blueberry flavor. And the next bite might include one or more blueberries: intensely flavored, impossible to ignore, perhaps tart enough to pucker the lips, maybe even make the eyes water.
On this drive, I took a bite full of blueberries, with no batter to tame the intensity.
And so I tried what I suggested to that room of grieving family members.
Deep breath. Know that the intensity will pass. Maybe not immediately, but in time.
Reach for gratitude. I’m grateful for the years with my dad.
Grateful for the lessons he taught me.
Grateful that even when we couldn’t communicate in words anymore, we still remained closely connected.
Grateful that I was blessed with an amazing dad.
Grateful for all of the memories.
Grateful for his full life that touched so many people.
Grateful that his suffering is over, that neither he nor I had to face the dual struggle of dementia and a pandemic, that I believe he’s now whole and healthy and reunited with my mom.
Grateful. So grateful.
The gratitude by no means put an end to my grief, but it turned it. The grief lost some of its sharpness. The loss was smoothed by the rest of the story.
I could find some batter among the blueberries.
I could find gratitude for the shifts in my own life, shifts that my dad would have wanted for me, shifts that would have been impossible if he were still living. And I could find gratitude that even though he wouldn’t recognize the particulars of this new life, he would know that I had moved into a life that is completely authentic for me. He would know that in leaving the home that I had shared with him, I’d come home to myself. He would be proud of that way I’d moved forward.
And then, the event so improbable that I would discard it as impossibly graceless if I were writing fiction: one of my dad’s favorite songs, the one we danced to at my wedding and one of the ones that accompanied the slideshow of photos at his funeral, started playing on SiriusXM.
Yes, Daddy, I get the message. Despite the sadness, What a Wonderful World.