My Power Place

A trip to the Grand Tetons fourteen years ago brought Roger L. Durham into contact with something profund.

I wasn’t sure why I was going, but I knew where I was headed. The Tetons. I was heading west, looking for adventure, or escape, I wasn’t sure which. Everything in my life was changing. I had just made a major shift in vocation, from being a minister of a church to becoming a business partner with my brother in a business our dad had established.

I was leaving the familiar and comfortable for something foreign and challenging. I didn’t have a business background. I knew what a balance sheet looked like and I could recognize a Statement of Income. I had a general sense of the importance of managing cash flow, but that was about it.

At the same time I was going through a separation in my marriage. It was a separation I had not wanted. I didn’t ask for it, but there was a sense of inevitability that had been building in our household for months.

We told our sons that mom and dad were going to spend some time apart so that we could figure out how to be better at being married. We didn’t tell them how much was going to have to change in order for us to remain a family. I’m not sure we even knew, at the time. We didn’t lie to them, but I’m not sure we told them the truth either.

My heart was heavy. I could hardly stand the thought of spending half of the rest of my son’s childhoods apart from them. The weight of that was crushing—almost more than I could endure.

♦◊♦

So there I was, 38 years old, failing at my marriage, getting ready to leave a profession that I was really good at, for another that was completely new to me. My life felt completely upside down. I didn’t know how to move forward gracefully.

So, I decided to get in my pickup truck and drive as far away as I could from everything I knew—as long as I could get back in two weeks to start my new job. I had always wanted to go to the Tetons—the Grand Tetons. And this was my chance. I would not be this unencumbered again for a long time. So, on my last Sunday in my church job, I stepped down out of the pulpit, climbed into my pickup, and headed for the Wild, Wild West.

It didn’t really qualify as a “vision quest” in the Native American spiritual tradition, but it felt something like what I had read of those. It was certainly a turning point for me. And a raven and a moose did visit my campsite in the Tetons, though, I don’t think they were there to be Guardians of my journey. Still, there was something deeply spiritual about the trip, and I wasn’t really prepared for that.

In mapping out the trip, I decided not to plan it too tightly. I knew I wanted to end up in the Tetons, and I wanted to pass through the Badlands of South Dakota. And I had read about the Bighorn Medicine Wheel in Wyoming. For some reason, I wanted to see the Medicine Wheel.

I drove hard for the first two days—stopping somewhere in Iowa, then getting to the Badlands at the end of my second day. It was an 1100-mile push, but I wanted to push hard early, so I could spend as much time as possible in the wilderness of South Dakota and Wyoming. I had my pickup truck, a tent, a sleeping bag, cooking gear, provisions for two weeks and a map. This was before GPS or smart phones. It was an exhilarating drive. I felt compelled by some undefined desire to get away to some foreign place to sort out the mess that had become of my life and to make my transition from the familiar to the unknown, both in my professional and my personal life.

My memory of the trip comes in snapshots. I can remember standing on a bluff, overlooking prairie and sand, at the end of a two-hour climb in the Badlands. I could almost imagine hearing voices of generations of people who had walked the paths below, honored the land was their home, paying homage to the wildlife that was their sustenance. The formations of sand and stone seemed otherworldly to me. They were terrifyingly beautiful. The lure of the beautiful landscape seemed as dangerous to its inhabitants as a spider’s web to a fly.

A couple of days later, I was standing at the Bighorn Medicine Wheel somewhere in Wyoming. It is a desolate spot in the Bighorn mountain range—only accessible in the warm summer months. I was there in late May and did not know how remote it was or how much snow would still be on the ground. So I found myself thigh-deep in snow as I made my way out to the Wheel. It is an 80’ diameter wheel-like pattern made of stones, laid out in a precise and ancient pattern. The wheel is thought to have been constructed by the Plains Indians between 300-800 years ago.

♦◊♦

I don’t know the history, or the meaning, of the Medicine Wheel, but it was clear that it is a sacred place. A fence has been erected around it—to protect it, I suppose. But all around the circle of wire fence, there are pieces of cloth tied—articles of clothing, amulets, and little pieces of something that people left behind to mark that they had been there. Some stories attribute healing power to the wheel. Others present it as a place of transition and transformation. I’m not sure why I was there, but I was moved by its ancient and simple beauty.

By the time I got to the Tetons, I had peeled away a lot of who I had been. Or so it seemed. Gone, for sure, was a full measure of the certainty that had marked my career. Surprisingly, I had created more distance between my new present and my past. I had let go of my identity as a minister. Already. I had stepped out from behind the veil of my assumed “piety” and found myself exposed to the reality of life in a way that I had not been able to do as a minister. It was what I had come there for. I knew that.

It felt real in a way that I can’t really explain. It wasn’t that being a minister was not real. I suspect that my experience would have been the same had I been leaving a law firm, or a medical practice, or a banking or security trading position, or a job as a construction worker or nurse or teacher or teller or store clerk. I had this sense that for much of my life I had hidden behind what I was doing, professionally, and pretending that was the reality of who I was. But in the Tetons that was peeled away, and to my surprise, and delight, there was still something there. Me. I was there.

I found myself connected to something more profound than I could articulate. It was more than my small world could contain. It was more than any profession I would pursue, or any role I would play as husband, or father, or son, or friend. I was connected to some vitality that goes beyond what we know, or what we produce, or what we can measure.

I have never, to this day, felt that same connection, some 14 years later. But I think about it. Not a lot. But I do think about it. And it calms me. It focuses me. It compels me to live and act differently than I otherwise tend to act. I call it my “power place.”

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About Roger L. Durham

Roger L. Durham is an ordained Presbyterian minister, a former business owner, and is currently working as a client development manager for Summit Energy.

Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing your Power Place Roger. It is truly empowering when we define ourselves by who we are rather than what we do. Spirit can meet us when we are empty, not so full of ourselves. Our busy lives don’t often allow this opportunity.
    I have fond memories of backpacking in the Tetons, very beautiful. I met my first grizzly bear there. He came walking on his hind legs into my camp, probably 8′ tall. That was an interesting night. You were lucky to have gotten a raven!
    How did this experience alter your perspective in the dynamic changes that you were facing?

    • Great question, Michael. Mor than altering my perspective, I think it allowed the emotional and spiritual space for me to make the transition from what I knew to what I didn’t. In preparing for my vocational change, I had read a little book by William Bridges titled, “Transitions – Making Sense of Life’s Changes”. In the book he suggests that our culture does not do well with transitions. We jump from one thing to the next, so we don’t do the necessary work of ending one thing well, before we begin the next. There is, what he calls, a “neutral zone” that, if we attend to it, we can make transitions more effectively. My trip to the Tetons was my attempt to honor that neutral zone – to set aside the one vocation, before starting out with the new one. And it really did make a difference. I had time to think about what I was leaving behind, and what I wanted to bring forward with me into my new career. When I got to work on that Monday morning, I was ready to engage fully in what I was doing.

      The trip didn’t help me so much with the family piece. I wasn’t ready to let go of my marriage at that point. Actually, when I read your question again, it did alter my perspective of my marriage, or more importantly, of me in my marriage. I found myself, apart from my wife, and realized that I was a whole person apart from her. We had married very young and we did not do a very good job of differentiating ourselves from each other. In the vast expanses of Wyoming I found a perspective that would allow me to be a whole person in my marriage. Unfortunately, it was a discovery made too late for that marriage.

      Thanks for your question.

  2. Roger- this beautiful piece of writing is matched perfectly to the vast grandeur depicted in the photo above. I, too, ran away beginning at age 14 and would hitchhike over a thousand miles away…just trying to escape that which I could neither fix nor live with. Your journey didn’t sound like a running away, but rather like it was a pilgrimage back to yourself, ultimately. Reminded me a lot of Tom M’s photo-essay about going to Africa. What’s such a treat in these pieces is that they are armchair vacations, visceral reminders of the wider (and wilder!) worlds out there when we can wrench ourselves away from our computer screens.
    Thank you for the felt-sense of open space, humility and wonderment you articulated so beautifully.
    Did this trip broaden your perspective about the change in your family life when you returned?

    • Thanks Lili – as I said to Michael above, the trip broadened my sense of self, prepared me to re-engage as a whole person, rather than a half of a whole. In the end, it did not change the innevitable path we were on. But it changed me. My world got bigger. My spirit grew stronger. And my determination to be a good father to my sons was reinforced.

      Thanks for the question.

  3. Tom Matlack says:

    Roger:

    Like you, I have found respite in the wide open spaces of the American west: colorado, Idaho, and most recently Montana. I’ve gone every summer now for 5 years running for a couple of weeks to ride horses, hike, fish, and just stare at a universe that is so big that it makes me feel a lot less significant than when I am trying to run the show back home. I find great comfort, as you did, in seeing nature in a raw and powerful form. It takes the pressure off in some profound way. Since I was a boy my dad taught me about Thoreau and Walden and I think I have absorbed that by osmosis despite trying to fight it. “I went to to the woods to live deliberately.” I am still trying to do that, even for just a couple weeks a year.

    • Tom, it was my mom who taught me to respect the universe. About 13 years ago, when she was 75, she came over to watch one of the Comet Hale-Bopp that was passing through for the last time in her lifetime. She and I and my sons were on a blanket in the front yard, on our backs , watching the stars and looking for the comet. She was teaching us about constellations – but more importantly – about the vastness of the universe. I hadn’t realized it before, but she shaped my worldview in significant ways – and that was just one more chapter.

  4. Profound or profund?

  5. Marcus Williams says:

    That sounds like an amazing trip, Roger. I’ve never really had an immersive camping experience like that, but I’ve immersed in the other direction with scuba diving. I haven’t dived recently, but many times I’ve been awed by the life down there. On a day-to-day basis, the ocean is just something with a surface we see, and a depth we don’t really think about out or visualize as being busy with life. Swimming around with stuff down there and thinking about how that life is constantly teeming even when out of sight is kind of mind-blowing.

    One of my favorite diving tricks (not officially recommended) is to recline back about 40 feet down, pop my regulator out, and blow bubble rings. When they’re done just right, they start as small rings but get bigger and bigger until finally a bubble ring several feet across reaches the surface and disappears. That’s not really a life-related thing, but something about that never fails to delight and amaze me. The need to return the regulator to my mouth reminds me I’m just a humble air-breather.

    • It was an amazing trip – in so many ways. And I have always been fascinated by scuba diving, but have never been. So, I’d say, when we meet for that beer, it needs to be after a visit to the world beneath the surface of the sea.

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