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.”