|LOST TIME: A ROAD TRIP JOURNAL
by Jordan King May 19, 2016We had planned for ninety days. Thirty to sell and sixty to close. If it went to plan we’d be ready right when our new house was. But our house sold the first day to the first person who saw it. Above asking price no less. We asked to postpone the closing, but the buyers couldn’t wait. They had their own schedule to maintain.
My office was a laptop, and my wife, Jody, homeschooled our nine year old son, Logan. So we put everything that wouldn’t fit in our car into storage and took a six thousand mile road trip to kill the time.
I had to make a last minute doctor’s appointment and made a desperate appeal to my doctor to give me more pain killers for my chronic back pain so I could actually function during our trip. He gave me way more than I really needed and I should have known better than to take them all with me without mentioning it to Jody.Logan was the best traveler. He didn’t complain or ask if we were almost there. He looked out the window at the landscape passing by and asked questions about mountains and buffalo, about my childhood and why I ever wanted to leave.
I hadn’t been to Colorado in five years. Before that there was another five year gap. The six years before that, I was scattered all over the country and across the Atlantic. Fixing airplanes, shining boots, and saying yes, sir and yes, ma’am.
As we drove through my old home town, I barely recognized the place. Everything was different. The Colorado I grew up in was open, empty and quiet. By then the town was nothing but traffic and noise. The hills and fields I wandered as a kid were gone. In their place was an endless expanse of subdivisions and shopping districts, each one a copy of the last. The only hint of wilderness was the occasional coyote or bear that wandered into a neighborhood following the smell of wasted food in lines of blue trash bins. Every road was brake lights. Every lake and river crowded by fishermen. Every trail was torn up with overlapped footprints. May 24, 2016The whole morning in the car on the way to Grand Teton National Park, the base of my skull throbbed and my vision blurred. In the spot I knew too well between my shoulder blades, something was wrong. The discs were over-inflated balloons, impinging on nerves. My right hand was numb and in bursts would come back to life just long enough to burn.
We pulled into the parking lot. The distinct mountain tops, like the tilted tip of Gandalf’s hat, were covered in low clouds, but the beauty of the surrounding area and the lake at the base of the mountains was enough to make the stop memorable.
When I stepped out of the car, the back spasm I hoped wasn’t coming took my breath away. Jody asked if I was okay. Just stiff, I lied.
I took a double dose of Percocet and muscle relaxers when Jody wasn’t looking. I hid the pain to avoid ruining our day, but I also hid the excessive amount of medication from Jody in particular, who knew from years of experience that I lacked self-control.
I’m grateful for the pictures we took that day; otherwise I wouldn’t remember a thing. My back problems started in 2002 with a herniated disc; one too many times contorting my body inside an aircraft wheel well or carrying a hundred pound toolbox all over the flight line.
In the years that followed the diagnoses piled up and my symptoms intensified exponentially. At first the myriad of doctors I saw all agreed I was too young to be having such problems and that it was too early for them to perform any kind of surgery. A few years of failed treatments later they all told me it was too late for surgery and I’d be dealing with the symptoms for the rest of my life, barring some new medical discovery.
We hiked trails for about two hours before I had to stop for a break. I took off the backpack I was carrying and set it in the rocks along the shore of the lake. I remember the quiet and how fresh the air was, but at that point I was so consumed by the pain that very little of the beauty and tranquility seeped through my scattered frantic thoughts.
I took another dose of Percocet hours before I should have, and then turned around to grab the backpack so we could keep hiking, but Logan beat me to it.
What are you doing? I asked him.
Dad, I know you’re hurting. I can see it on your face. Mom already has a bag. I can carry yours for a while. Really, it’s not too heavy.
I couldn’t make eye contact with Jody when Logan said that to me because I knew I’d start crying if I did, so I just thanked him, touched his freckle dusted cheek and continued down the trail. He carried the bag for me the rest of the day; he was adamant that I let him. May 29, 2016Our next destination was Missoula, Montana. The movie A River Runs Through It had been one of my favorites for a long time and for nearly twenty years I looked for an excuse to visit the town the movie was based in.
At the beginning of 2005 I was single, a few months from leaving the Air Force, and had plans to move to Missoula. I would attend grad school and get back to the natural world I had been missing since first leaving Colorado. My back hadn’t yet developed into the nightmare it would become. By the end of that year I was married, had two adolescent daughters, and a baby boy on the way. No Missoula, no grad school. We moved to Moore, Oklahoma and I got an administrative job at the law school. It was a strange twist of fate, but a beautiful one.
The next ten years, though not even a whisper of what I had planned, were the best of my life, despite the constant pain. The girls had grown into wonderful women and moved out to pursue their own lives, and Logan was already a better person than I’d ever been.
As we crossed the state line into Montana, I looked at Jody then into the back seat where Logan slept, not quite believing so much time had passed.
I could tell why Montana was called “Big Sky Country.” It really did seem bigger than everywhere else, or that you were closer to it. There is probably a scientific explanation, but I never want to find out because it would take away the mystery and magic of its beauty.
Driving through Montana was like traveling back in time to the Colorado I grew up in. It was open, vast, and quiet. Every town was small, and slow, and polite nods from strangers on uncrowded sidewalks.Glacier National Park was our last stop in Montana. The lake at the entrance of the park was the loveliest place I’d ever been.
A barely visible path off the main road led us to the shore of the lake. The beach wasn’t sand, but pebbles the size of corn kernels, smooth as glass. Where the pebbles ended the mirror began. Two rows of evergreens, two stacks of mountains, two rows of clouds rolling across two skies. The three of us huddled together on the beach and mirrored the scene in our own way, with silence. There was a hint of breeze that put soft ripples in the water and gave the occasional tree cause to creak.
I took a small handful of those pebbles with me. Any time I’m overwhelmed by the noise and pace of the world I run my fingers over the smooth pebbles, close my eyes, and listen for the sound of that breeze. June 2, 2016On our way out of Montana we stopped for a break from the car. Even the rest stops were beautiful and empty. My back hurt. It was a dull, ever present realization. I hadn’t experienced a symptom free day in over five years. By then I was grateful for symptom free hours in the day, and even those were rare. Jody said that would make her go crazy and my response was to ask what makes you think I haven’t? Do I even resemble the man you first met?
When I first met Jody I was confident, healthy and very active. I had dreams, goals, and the optimism to believe I could accomplish anything I set my mind to. By the time we had that conversation about symptom free hours I was completely broken down by years of constant pain. I still looked like the man she fell in love with, but felt like every other part of that person had vanished.
The pain wasn’t bad when we got to the rest stop, just there, and after a failed attempt to convince myself I didn’t need it, I took an extra dose of Percocet. My supply was getting too low, too soon, but I took them anyway.
Behind the small brick building with bathrooms, water fountains, and highway maps was a river. Jody made a phone call and plotted the rest of our trip to Buffalo, Wyoming while I walked with Logan to the river. We sat on the river bank and put our feet in the cool water. I held him in my lap, and rested my chin on the top of his head. His soft hair tickled my beard. Neither of us said a word, just looked at the water as it rolled across rocks until Jody said it was time to go.
We walked through the long green grass holding hands. Jody watched us; one hand shielded her eyes from the sun. We looked at each other and she smiled, the little one where the left side of her mouth curved up. We made him I thought and her smile widened.
There was no reason for choosing Buffalo, we just didn’t want to drive further. The town had seen some desperate times. There were abandoned houses and decaying businesses down every street, but there were also signs of resurgence. A park near the cabin we stayed in was one of them. There were several tall slides, obstacle courses, baseball fields, and a new imagining of a tire swing. It was a massive steel octopus with chains for dangling tentacles and large multicolored plastic mold tires attached to the bottom of each chain. The whole contraption spun. I got it going fast enough to make Jody nervous and Logan squeal. A group of local kids wanted in on the fun, so I stopped it so they could each get on. They kept screaming faster and more. Their laughter was my fuel, and I kept going until I was exhausted, pouring sweat and grateful my back was quiet.
I was surprised I hadn’t hurt myself, but it was always so unpredictable. One day I could play with Logan and feel fine, the next day I’d have a back spasm and be bed ridden for a week because I dried my hair too vigorously. Even though I was fine in the moment I knew there would be a price to pay later. At the time I didn’t care because Logan had so much fun. I would care later.
The parents of the local kids on the octopus swing came over and talked to us. Everyone kind and welcoming and full of stories. They said the town had been revived when a fracking company came. That’s why everyone was driving new cars, and new houses and chain restaurants were built in between the crumbling remnants of the old town.
The only thing missing is the girls, I said to Jody when we got back in the car. I know she said and instantly welled up. I felt bad for bringing them up, but their absence was weighing so heavily on my mind that day, and I’m sure she’d thought of them already anyway. It’s still so hard to believe that they’re grown and out in the world. June 6, 2016We made a pit stop in our old stomping grounds of Moore, Oklahoma. We didn’t live there long, less than two years before moving to Ohio, but that’s where Logan was born though he had no memory of it. The only real plans were to visit our old house and the hospital he was born in.
The first stop was to the hospital. Although a hospital was there, it was brand new and looked nothing like the hospital Logan was born in. A quick internet search showed us that the original hospital had been destroyed by a tornado the previous year. No one was killed, the warning systems there are top notch, but the room Logan was born in was gone forever.
Our old house was so small, smaller than I remembered, but there was so much laughter and happiness there.
A vivid memory hit me as we sat in our car outside that house. When it was time for Logan to start sleeping through the night, no more midnight feedings, we let him cry it out. Jody had already been through that twice, but for me it was a first, and it was harder than I imagined. He cried and we sat there listening, but only for a few minutes before he went back to sleep. He didn’t cry in the night the next day or the next, or ever again.
As I sat in the car, remembering, Jody and Logan got out to take pictures. An unexpected wave of sadness hit me when I realized that Logan’s sleep training was one of the few vivid memories I had from that house. I was on Oxycontin at the time. The crippling desperation of the pain, coupled with the memory erasing ability of that particular drug, especially when abused, left me with patches and shadows where the first eighteen months of Logan’s life should have been.
When they got back in the car, I was bitter about the pain and how it invaded every aspect of my life. Soon the bitterness faded and turned into disgust with myself. I couldn’t help the pain, couldn’t stop the injury from happening, or the healing from going all sideways, but the missing years of Logan’s life were entirely my fault. I had abused my prescriptions over the previous ten years to the point that I should have been dead, many times over.
My disgust turned to unmasked self-loathing when I thought of how many times I’d openly wished for death. But even in that moment of self-realization I still had drugs coursing through my blood stream. I had more drugs in my pocket, in the glove compartment, in my duffle bag in the trunk, and in my toiletry bag inside that. I wondered, and not for the last time, just what exactly I was going to do about that. June 10, 2016We’d travelled through fourteen states and over five thousand miles. We’d been in wilderness, small towns, and big cities, and spent time with three generations of family members.
Our last destination was Fort Walton Beach, Florida. We rented a condo on the oceanfront and didn’t even consider getting into the car again for a whole week.
We bought boogie boards and rode the waves, built sand castles, and laid on the beach for hours on end. Every night we’d huddle together on the sand, watch the sun go down and listen to the waves. Rows of pink and orange light shot out of the western horizon and mixed with the darkening blue sky that revealed distant stars. Tight formations of birds flew overhead. The waves crashed on an endless loop, the milky foam slipped to our feet buried in the sand, and then retreated to start all over again.
My back had gotten progressively worse throughout the week and it got harder to ignore and pretend like everything was okay. Our last night there, as we enjoyed the quiet peace of each other’s company during one final sunset, another back spasm came. It was even worse than the one that happened at Grand Teton, worse, in fact, than any spasm I’d had in years.
It started slow. The back of my neck got hot and my face started to tingle in waves that mimicked the ocean. The muscles in between my shoulder blades suddenly cramped and I heard a pop. A jolt of electricity went from my spine to my fingertips and my vision doubled. My spine felt like it was wrapped with barbed wire and every movement, every breath, was a mistake I could never take back.
We went back to our room and against Jody’s wishes I slowly hobbled across the street to the liquor store and bought the strongest rum I could find. I laid down with Logan on his bed and listened to him talk about his favorite parts of the trip and how grateful he was to have experienced it, but that he was also eager to get settled into our new home and play his guitar through the amp again. We made sure there was space on the road trip for his guitar, but it just wasn’t the same without it being plugged in and turned up high. I kissed him goodnight, told him how much I loved him, closed his door and went into the kitchen to make a drink.
I took a triple dose of Percocet, a double muscle relaxer, and half a dozen Ibuprofen. They numbed me a bit, but on the inside I was still raging. I didn’t really want to die, that’s what I tried to convince myself of anyway, but if I happened to catch a break and never wake up, then I would’ve been fine with that.
When I woke up in the morning, Jody was shaking me and crying. Logan sat against the wall of our bedroom hugging his knees, looking at me, crying the same desperate frightened tears his mother was. I guess they’d been trying to wake me for a while.
It had taken over a decade of abuse, several involuntary detox sessions, countless lies and arguments with Jody, but the looks on their faces that morning changed me for good, though I knew it would be a long road ahead.
I can still see their expressions. The mixture of confusion, anger and fear in their eyes. It’s a visual that will always follow me. June 12, 2016First sober twenty four hour period in five, maybe six years. It was a strange, long, maddeningly uncomfortable day but it wasn’t as bad as I expected and, unlike many days before it, I could remember everything. I didn’t tell Jody I was trying to get through the day un-medicated, mostly because I thought I’d fail.
I was using a mixed bag of Percocet, muscle relaxers, marijuana and alcohol which meant that I hadn’t taken any one thing long enough to have to detox. Having gone through that before I was grateful for the reprieve.One of the many things that convinced me Jody was the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with was her complete disinterest in playing games. We had always been equals and I could count on her to not bullshit or manipulate me.
She hadn’t said much to me since we left Florida. What needed saying couldn’t be said around Logan. When he got into the shower at the last hotel we stayed in before returning to Ohio, she finally spoke up.
She said she knew that I’d lost time and that I’d suffered. She said that all the years of watching me go through the pain and treatments and doctors and finding nothing more than a perpetuation of the misery had all but broken her. Then she told me that even though I’d lost so much already, I was lining up to lose everything. She took a deep breath and looked into my eyes for a long time without saying a word. Then she gave me the best, most honest, most Jody advice I could have asked for.
Now with that said, stop being such a pussy. We need you. You’re in a bad situation, but you’re only making it worse. Wake the fuck up. June 20, 2016Closed on the new house. Logan was so excited. The first thing he wanted to do, after picking out his bedroom, was plug in his amp to test out the new acoustics. Jody and I sat against the wall in the empty living room and listened to him play Thunderstruck.
I had heard of people who seemed born fit for something, whether it was music, or math or sports, but I had never known anyone like that personally until Logan started playing guitar. It won’t surprise me if he’s playing in stadiums one day.
As I listened to him play, I realized that I wanted to be around to find out. The pain was a daily struggle. It never stopped, but I could do a much better job of managing it. I could manage it without substance abuse, without putting myself in a position to wonder if I’d wake up. I wanted to wake up the next day. Wanted it more than anything. I just didn’t fully realize it until that moment.
I could rarely hide anything from Jody, and right then she seemed to be reading my mind. She said that I’d get through it, that it would get easier, that she believed in me. I nodded and kissed her, uncertain of why she believed in me, and for the first time in years I started to see some of that old brightness return to her eyes when she looked at me.
Entire chunks of Logan’s childhood and the girls’ adolescence are missing. They float somewhere in the shadows of memory and I can never find my way through them. The pain I can deal with. It’s been with me long enough that I expect it to be there when I wake up in the morning the same way I expect the sun to rise, but that lost time will always haunt me. About the Author:Jordan King is a creative writing MFA student at Miami of Ohio. Lost Time: A Road Trip Journal is a formal experiment; he wrote it as a series of journal entries. It’s about a month long six thousand mile road trip the author took with his wife and son in 2016.