Toby pulled off Interstate Eighty and halted the long, slow downhill slide from the Rockies on a long ribbon of concrete cutting a swath through the Midwestern corn and bean fields. While the scenery was pastoral and evocative of a simpler time in America’s short history, he was eager to plant his feet on some solid ground. The exit wasn’t littered with billboards boasting cheap coffee or the state’s oldest saloon, or a replica of an Old West town, instead he was greeted with small signs that ran the length of the flanking cornfield proclaiming Granum Seeds. He’d spent the last week exploring the National Parks of South Dakota while trying to avoid obvious tourist traps, but every truck stop along I-90 and gas station had some gimmick.
He cruised through the quiet streets and turned down the narrow residential road. GPS led his customized Toyota Tacoma to a small brick house with shuttered windows and even a white picket fence. Home. He threw his truck into reverse and parked in front of the Iowa Realty sold sign and left the driveway open so the moving van could back into the driveway in the next hour or two. He pulled a folding camp chair out of the back seat and set up on the lawn with a mug of coffee and a book about Wild Bill Hickok.
He read half a chapter of the Wild Bill biography before he was bored and restless. He dumped the bad coffee on the lawn, the caffeine wasn’t doing him any favors. Toby grabbed a can of beer from the cooler in the bed of the truck, tucked it into a koozie, and sat on the lowered tailgate. He felt no guilt about sipping a beer before most of the world had woken up. The beer in his hand felt and tasted like freedom. He sipped without the worry of tempting an alcoholic wife and without concern about what a nosy neighbor might say.
“Can’t drink all day if you don’t start in the morning,” he said to himself.
The thought of moving into this house today was baffling after living out of his truck for months. The moving van was mostly his library of books, a few bookcases, and his closet. No dishes, not a single pot or pan. Not even a bath towel. When he walked away from his marriage and career in Denver, he’d left it all behind.
He took full responsibility for the demise of his marriage. He and Vanessa married months after his MBA program. She tended to domestic issues while he climbed the corporate ladder at MacGregor Pharmaceuticals. Vanessa was the perfect corporate wife: stunning, independent, and the life of every party, but the higher he climbed – from regional vice president to Chief Operating Officer – the more she drank. The deeper she slid into the bottle, the easier it was to throw himself into his work.
More than the devil’s water, Vanessa was addicted to the downward spiral into rehab. She reveled in the attention she got the first three months of sobriety. As the adoration faded and the newness rubbed off, she started allowing herself a glass of wine with lunch. She couldn’t face the hard work of sobriety: taking a personal inventory, admitting her shortcomings, making amends, and living the rest of her life with nothing less than rigorous honesty. After six months, Toby would find half-drunk bottles of lemon flavored vodka hidden in the linen closet. He stood at her side and held her hand through two rehabs. After the third inpatient stint, this time at the Hazelden Clinic in Minnesota, he dropped her off at her mother’s house, turned in his resignation, and traded in his Mercedes for a used Tacoma. He outfitted his every camping need at REI and drove west into the sunset.
He could finally hear himself, his own voice distinct from the social constructs of husband and head of a Fortune 500 company. That small voice resembled the novels he was reading and took on the tone and timbre of Edward Abbey and Jon Krakuer and Norman Maclean. After a week hanging out with some hardcore climbers in the Bears Ears area of Utah, his voice gained strength and efficiency of language. As fall became winter, he followed the Colorado River south into Arizona. He hiked into the bottom of the Grand Canyon and his voice finally felt his own. They’d finally merged into one consciousness and his anxiousness melted away like warm butter dissolved into flapjacks.
The first time Toby heard the voice was the weekend before Vanessa returned from the Hazelden Betty Ford Clinic. She’d be newly sober, fragile and all amends all the time. The prospect terrified and exhausted him. Toby stood in the Rocky Mountain National Park Alpine Visitor Center taking a break from an impromptu road trip. He held a guide book to the national parks and scrutinized at the map of the national parks of the west. A deep, raspy voice said, You should go.
Toby spun in a circle to see if the man was talking to him, but the shop was vacant aside from an aged volunteer in a fishing vest and a bored ranger examining his nails at a corner desk. Toby shook his head, dismissed the voice with trepidation and leaned closer to peer at the cluster of parks in Utah.
Pack your shit. Let’s go. The voice was clearer and stronger this time.
Toby didn’t spin in a circle this time, but looked over his shoulder. Instead of shaking it off again, he gave the voice a moment’s consideration. He bought an armload of guidebooks and maps to appease the voice. He called in sick on Monday and spent the day pouring over the materials and became more resolved to heed the voice’s edict.
Once the divorce was settled and he felt solidly in his own skin, he started his job search from his laptop at a truckstop outside Joshua Tree. He was looking for something outside pharmaceuticals and far from his former stomping grounds in the boardrooms of Denver. Mineral Springs seemed to check all the boxes and maybe he could continue to play around with his new photography hobby.
He had the weekend to settle into his new home before work started on Monday. The founder and CEO of Granum was looking to step away from the chief role and focus more on the development side of the business. Although Toby wouldn’t step directly into the big office on his first day, he would take the helm within the year. His soul vacation across the National Parks had been crucial for doing the work on himself that his ex-wife seemed incapable of. While his personal inventory would never be complete, he’d forgiven himself for staying too long in a broken marriage, for enabling Vanessa’s disease, and for abandoning his career in Denver.
He regarded his new house much like a fresh campsite: do the bare minimum to claim the spot, then it was time to explore. He studied his new neighborhood. The real estate listing for this house hadn’t done the neighborhood justice. Ash trees, each with a metal tag tacked into its trunk as part of the town’s fight against the Emerald Ash Borer, flanked the street and ran up the massive hill creating a canopy over the street and framed the row of houses. Most were built during the 1940s during the town’s heyday. The houses ranged from small bungalows to larger craftsman style homes.
In his posh Cherry Creek neighborhood in Denver he hadn’t know any of his neighbor’s personally, just whatever splashy headline made the front page of the Denver Post about the Broncos tight-end that lived across the street or the triumphs of the energy company Chief Marketing Officer to the west or the messy divorce of the socialite that he shared a back fence with.
In the driveway across the street was one oddity: a rusted out Dodge Caravan with a huge vinyl sticker on the back window advertising Tupperware by Bonnie. Must be hard times in the MLM business, especially when cheap Chinese knock-offs could be delivered to your door in two days courtesy of Amazon. Jesus, he moved in across the street from crazy. A figurine of a duck sipping an umbrella drink hung from the rearview mirror. The weak attempt at whimsy confirmed that Bonnie was certifiable. Hope she isn’t single, because crazy was just his type and he wouldn’t abide any romantic entanglements at this point.