Journeys With My Father
Things my father taught me about silence, sandstone, and Chevy Suburbans.
Posted May 16, 2018
There’s no way to count the number of trips we took in my father’s ancient yellow Chevy Suburban. I could give you an educated guess: he owned the car for about thirty-two years. I visited Montana every one of those years. Let’s say I stayed for an average of a week each time. Dad and I took at least two or three trips per visit. Let’s call it a hundred, give or take.
A hundred times we enacted the rituals of preparation, loading, and embarkation. The nature of the ritual varied according to the nature of the trip. A simple day-long fishing trip meant hauling out and checking the reels and tackle bags to make sure there were enough sinkers, hooks, and various kinds of bait. Then we had to make the sandwiches, load everything in the car, and stop by the hardware store to pick up some night crawlers.
For the camping and backpacking trips, Dad made up a list on his office typewriter so we wouldn’t forget anything. When he died, I came across this list as I was cleaning out his dresser. He kept it in the top drawer where it would be easy to find, and where he could glance at it when he reached for his pills. I like to imagine him smiling to himself as he spied this list every morning. I didn’t save too much of his stuff when he died, but I rescued the list, along with the floppy old hat he always wore, the one with frayed edges and dotted with stains and splotches.
The most ambitious trip in “the Sub” was our ten-day journey from Montana to Southern Utah. I went there to make photographs; Dad just wanted to be there, read a book, and remember the days he spent he spent in that remote territory as a young geologist.
For years he’d talked about a road he’d found into the Utah wilderness and what a great day that had been and it sure would be nice to see that again. We pored over his ancient maps, narrowed it down to a few finalists, and eventually, for better or worse, we found the road, or what was left of it—a rocky, bumpy, barely visible one-laner that hadn’t seen the business end of a road grader for at least a decade or two, that headed thirty or forty miles into some of the most remote and desolate canyon country I’d ever seen.
Not that I was nervous. I should say, not that I allowed myself to appear nervous. But my best guess was that if something happened, it would be weeks before anybody would be foolish enough to do what we’d done: drive that far into the Utah backcountry in any car, much less an eighteen-year-old bucket of bolts that had already broken down a few days earlier.
We spotted a rocky streambed that led to what looked like the mother lode of sandstone canyons. “Let’s stop for lunch,” he said, “and then we’ll go take a look!” He grinned at me as he turned the ignition key. The car’s gas-guzzling V-8 engine spluttered and died, and the vast silence of this wild place flowed in.
The memory of that walk up the canyon is as fresh as it was the day it happened. At least it feels that way, almost thirty years later. There wasn’t a footprint to be found for miles. We imagined that a human being hadn’t walked where we were walking for decades, maybe centuries, maybe ever. The silence was overpowering. Some unspoken feeling of reverence made us stop talking, and the only sound was the echo of our footsteps off the canyon walls. Occasionally a bird fluttered out of a bush, or a lizard flashed by as it bolted toward its hidey-hole, but mostly we were the only thing moving.
At that moment my father and I were about as close as we’d ever been and ever would be. And we barely said a word for at least an hour. Finally, we looked at each other and knew that we’d gone far enough.
I needed to find a memento to remind me of that day, so as we walked down the canyon I studied the ground. Finally, I saw what I was looking for—a perfectly formed sphere of pale sandstone, about an inch in diameter, lying on the sand. That smooth piece of rock had been rolling around there for centuries, gradually eroding during the occasional thunderstorm, and it was about as rare and as fine a prize as could be imagined on that day, in that place.
I grabbed it, put it in my palm, held out my hand, got his attention, unfolded my fingers and said, “Hey—take a look at this one!”
But he’d been studying the ground too, and he was always better than me at seeing interesting things. He bent down and nabbed something off the streambed, studied it for a few seconds, then showed it to me. It was also a perfectly formed piece of sandstone, about the same size as mine, but instead of a single sphere, it was two spheres. Imagine an elegant three-dimensional “figure eight” made of eroded sandstone—that’s what he’d spotted with those trained geologist eyeballs.
We looked at each other and started to grin. The grins became chuckles, and we stood there laughing for probably five minutes. As we turned and headed toward the sub, he tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Want it?”
“You bet I do.”
So he handed it to me. And I still have them, those two pieces of sandstone. I can see them now as I type at my computer. They’re resting comfortably with similar trophies on top of one of my bookshelves. I have a lot of mementos, and the truth is, with most of them I have no idea anymore where they came from. But that’s not the case with those sandstone spheres. Those, I remember.
In case you’re wondering, the car started right up, and we drove out of there two of the happiest people in the world.