Lost in the West
by Candace Dempsey
From Solo: On Her Own Adventure and Gifts of the Wild, a collection of the best stories published in the Seal Press Aventura series
Photo: Our family homestead in Idaho
I never went anywhere when I was a child, all because of a pighouse my mother had burned down. She'd grown up on an Idaho homestead without running water or electricity. Her Italian immigrant mother was too busy grinding pork for homemade sausages, plucking chickens, and performing the million other tasks of the pioneer to keep an eye on her nine children.
One day while playing with matches in a fit of boredom, my mother and her cousins accidentally burned down the pig house. This could have been a tragedy, fire spreading rapidly over the dry fields and wooden buildings of the farm. That didn't happen. Still, that red pig house, its long troughs filled with rotting table scraps, shaped my whole childhood.
"We ran wild," my mother recalls with horror. "I made sure you kids were watched."
To this day she claims her greatest mistake was allowing me, third oldest of seven children, to escape to Yellowstone Park for a summer job. When I boarded that dusty Greyhound bus I was seventeen, a skinny girl with a high school diploma and blue plastic suitcase. Never had I been more than 30 miles from the border towns in Eastern Washington and Idaho.
"You'd be a different person today if you hadn't gone to Yellowstone," my mother claims. She means I'd be a household saint, not a travel writer. But I believe wanderlust is in the blood, as natural to certain people as water cascading over cliffs, the tumbling of tumbleweeds across desert sand.
Until this escape, my life had been like a toy train stuck on a single track. I grew up with three brothers and three sisters in a pretty pink ranch house in Spokane, Washington, a landlocked city of stone and pine on the edge of a vast wilderness. After Sunday Mass, we piled the family into two cars and drove across the state line to the Idaho farm where my mother was raised. Down the road on a small lake stood the log cabin where we lived every summer.
We never went anywhere else, because my mother saw no need. Our life was a closed circle of family, family, family.
"You can go, but don't go too far," Italians tell their offspring, whether they are toddlers or grownups with kids of their own. "Stay near your folks. They're the only people you can trust."
In Italy these rules confine children to the range of the village bell. In America we stayed within range of my mother's police whistle. In summer, that gave us the run of the farm where the pig house burned down; the nearby lake and the meadows above it; woods with makeshift teepees and wild strawberry patches; fields of clover and wild peas. Not to mention the joyful company of countless cousins.
In Spokane we felt our chains. The pine woods above our new housing development offered mysterious caves and tantalizing boulders to climb. Kim Momb, later to stand atop Mount Everest, trained on the black lava cliffs that rise from the Spokane River Valley. But this paradise was forbidden to me.
"Those are city woods," my parents warned. City woods were overrun with perverts and hermits and vandals who pushed stolen cars off cliffs.The fact that nobody ever spotted these desperados did not bother my folks one bit.
So we braked our bikes at the edge of the woods, trembling with fear and desire. The price of disobedience was high -- what my parents called "a good licking." Convinced they had radar that could track our every move, we still defied them with mad dashes into the woods.
The odd thing was the neighborhood kids, who found our old-fashioned clothes and countless rules bizarre, allowed us to follow them into the forbidden realms. Forging ahead through the brush they must have felt like bold adventurers, leading pilgrims through untamed lands. What they took for granted, we found magical: fields of yellow bells and violets, breathless games of hide-and-seek, the mesmerizing scents of syringa and wild rose. We hunted blue-tail lizards, fled porcupines, waded barefoot across murky ponds floating with water lilies. We shot our Flexible Flyer sleds down snowy slopes called "Suicide" and "Danger."
"Where have you been?" my mother asked whenever we failed to respond speedily to the police whistle. "I've been calling and calling."
"Just riding our bikes."
Somehow she managed not to see the pine needles in our hair. Once, I convinced her that the wood tick she had to remove from my scalp had fallen from a maple tree at school. My best excuse, although I was afraid to use it often, was I had to go into the woods to retrieve our Brittany spaniel -- a spotted rebel named Penny who hated girls and wouldn't come when I called.
The few lickings we got for our forest explorations made us philosophical about crime. "Damn it, it was fun," we said, once the pain wore off. We vowed to do it again and again.
While my mother kept us home, Dad fed our wanderlust. I'd always suspected he would have been a rolling stone if he hadn't gotten hitched. At bedtime he dazzled us with stories about his days in the Merchant Marines. He knew how rain fell in the South Seas, what Shanghai looked like before "the Commies" took over. He filled our house with adventure books, detective stories, sci-fi thrillers. He read us everything from The Illiad and The Odyssey to Tom Sawyer, The Arabian Nights and The Jungle Tales of Tarzan.
He taught us to believe, boys and girls alike, that we could stride the world in seven-league boots, ride magic carpets, and climb beanstalks to castles in the sky.
These dreams eventually took me places my father did not wish me to go. Anger came between us. Yet he himself came from a restless clan, German and Irish. His German grandmother had a pass on the Chicago-Milwaukee Railroad -- courtesy of her husband, who worked there -- and she rode the rails all her life.
Sometimes she took her kids; other times she boarded them out with family members. Although based in Spokane, she spoke casually of St. Lous, Minneapolis, and Chicago -- golden cities glittering out of my reach like names on a movie marqee. I never saw a jet rise over Tower Mountain nor heard the whistle of a west-bound freight, hell-bent for the coast, without imagining myself on board.
"How could she?" my mother says of that vagabond grandma. "How could she dump her children on her relatives and gallivant around the country that way?"
How could she not? Alone, my great-grandmother could reinvent herself. I like to think she went by a different name on the train (something daring like Carlotta Delmonico), changed her clothes and hair color and said she'd gone to finishing school in Paris.
How I long to possess that train pass, that life -- as beguiling to me as the silver passenger trains that still roll across the dusty flatlands, high deserts, and blue mountains of the west.
Like that mad German grandmother, I am famous for mad dashes, for suddenly deciding I must breathe the air in another state or country. I believe in following these impulses even when they're dangerous. When I was in my twenties and two weeks shy of getting married, I boarded a dented Chevy Nova and hightailed it from my parents' home in Spokane all the way to Eugene, Oregon. About 1,000 miles roundtrip.
My excuse for fleeing was I'd left belongings in Eugene, where I'd just wrapped up graduate school. But the truth was I feared that brief journey down the aisle, that sudden loss of freedom.
After marriage my new husband and I would live on the East Coast for several years. I wanted to be alone when I said goodbye to the West, which I had loved longer than any lover.
Listening to my mother's travel advice for the first and last time ("You must get an early start"), I left Spokane hideously early that spring morning and shot south. Plowing across wheat fields and deserts and lava outpourings for many hours, I finally caught I-84 and turned west. This road, which follows the Columbia River along the Washington-Oregon border, is famed for its high cliffs, deep gorge, and bold blue water. It unfolds like a series of beautiful postcards, but the same postcard mile after mile.
Quickly, I got bored. I thought about stopping to drink coffee from the thermos my mother had provided, but I'm not the kind of person who likes to stop. I didn't know I was in trouble, not even when I found myself simultaneously driving and reading a road map. What a sensible way, I thought, to pass the time.
Then sunlight drifted into the car, wrapping around me like a soft blanket. I blinked a few times and then slipped luxuriously into sleep.
Sometime later I felt a jolt. I opened my eyes. The Nova was on the gravel shoulder. I could see a ditch. I slammed on the brakes. That threw the car into a tailspin. Round and round it spun on that broad highway. The spinning took forever.
I had time to think: This is it. This is how I'm going to die. Scenes from my recent life flickered before me. There I was, cramming for finals, pulling my wedding together, packing up my things. I saw that life was nothing but struggle. It was a relief to give in.
Then something inside me said no. I grabbed the wheel and held onto it until the car stopped spinning. Then I steered the car, like a runaway sled, to the side of the road. Finally, it stopped.
When a highway patrolman knocked on the car window, I jumped. I thought I was hallucinating. He told me he'd been parked at a rest stop and seen the whole thing.
"I was sure you were going to flip," he said, as though that would have grieved him. "Do you know how lucky you are that nobody else was on the road?"
I shook my head. I felt so lost. I couldn't look that patrolman in the eye. I waited until he left and then tried to pour black coffee from my plaid thermos into a plastic cup. My hands were shaking so badly that I gave up the attempt.
Then I remembered what wranglers did in movies. I told myself to get back on the horse.
I rode that Nova all the way to Eugene, a lovely red-brick college town of geenery and mist. For two blissful years I had studied journalism there while carrying on a long-distance romance with Mark Rosenblum, a law student in Spokane.
I'd kept my two lives so separate thant nobody in Eugene knew I was about to get married. But that night I bunked with a grad-school friend named Jill. Over a bottle of wine, I managed to spill my secret.
She said she understood. "Sometimes it's hard to talk about the things that mean the most to us."
The next afternoon, I followed the McKenzie River east out of Eugene and cut across Three Sisters Wilderness and its haunting stretch of snow-draped volcanoes. Then I swept into the high desert of central Oregon, a land of lava spires, dry washes, and fossil beds.
Shying away from I-84, the highway of my near death, I drove the back roads all day and far into the night. I was determined not to think. I had no one to talk to and a busted radio. There was nothing tbut the wind blowing across the desert and the occasional clatter of a passing truck. Nothing but the grip of the steering wheel, the earth rushing by, the sweet scent of the Oregon blueberries I'd bought for my mother at a roadside stand and stashed in the back seat.
Over the next ridge I saw another trackless flatland. But something glowed on the far horizon. I followed that glow for maybe 20 miles until the lights of a town sparkled ahead. Ritzville, about 60 miles from Spokane. "A pit stop off the interestate," I would have called it a few days earlier. But that windy night it was enchanting. Brightly lit gas stations and burger stands, curtained houses, and boxy tavens with flashing beer signs.
Pulling into a Chevron station, I filled up the tank. Then I stopped at a painted shack for a double burger and French fries. Dipping into the greasy paper sack, which gave off an intoxicating fragrance, I hungered for the road. Even though I'd been gone only a few days, i felt wiser and more joyful than before. I knew now that I was capable of getting myself into terrible jams, but also of wangling my own way out of them.
Nothing could stop me from roaming, not even a gold wedding band.
All these years later I still love to climb into a car for no reason and drive hundreds of miles.
"What are you looking for?" asks my husband. He gew up in New York, where nobody calls driving 30 miles for Marlboros "just a hop, skip and jump." Like many vagabonds, I married a person who never wants to leave town.
"I'm not looking for anything," I tell him. "I just want to go."
Trusting in the kindness of strangers, I've been everywhere I dreamed of going when I was a landlocked little girl--and I've only begun to wander. I've seen the sunset on Mount Kilimanjaro in Afirca, hopped a plane to Jordan after the Gulf War, watched the moon rise over the olive grovers of Calabria, where my grandfather once herded sheep across the rocky land.
Like my father, I've seen Asia. Tokyo, Bangkok, Hong Kong. I've seen how rain falls like the wrath of God on the South Seas and then stops as suddenly as it began. Blue skies appear over the coral lagoons of Bora Bora, coloring the water, and white boats ride the waves once more.
Even though I'm a grown woman with a child of my own, my mother still frets every time I step out the door.
"Something might happen," she says.
"That's the whole idea."
"Can't you go with someone else?"
"Not even your husband?"
I'd rather set off on my own, even when I feel scared and lonely. Something might happen: I might meet a stranger, jump ship, climb an unnamed mountain or lose myself on a winding trail.
I might forget who I am and where I came from.
Who knows? I might even run away from home.