- 2012 -
We stopped for gas only two hours short of Lamar, having driven without rest from our show in St. Louis the night before. The landscape outside became more and more like my hometown the further across Kansas we drove, until we reached its western border. And then every glance outside made me smile; the breath in my lungs swelled the way it often does upon seeing an old friend.
There was only one small gas station in the nameless town we filled up in. A sign hung in the front window. On it, a clumsy hand had scrawled with magic marker: “This station is guarded by a shotgun three nights of the week. You can guess which ones.”
The guys loved that. One of the great things about going on tour with them was that they never missed an opportunity to laugh.
While they piled inside the strange convenience store, a freight train roared by the grain elevator across the road and shook the few houses nearby. This was it. The things my new friends marveled at –– the flat ground, the unpopulated space, the noisy train, the dust flying in the wind, the sign in the window –– they were all the very things that announced to the land and confirmed to me my homecoming.
As I stood outside on top of those familiar plains, stretching my eyesight to the clouds above (which, I swear, float higher up), a strange phenomenon caught hold of me for the first time in my life. I studied the subtle changes in the blue of the atmosphere or the shape of the clouds, and was taken back not only of my childhood in Lamar, but to a beach I’d visited once before. Or maybe to an adventure I’d dreamed up once and wrote down on paper. The sky above was not only the same sky that watched me grow up, but also the sky that blanketed the far-off lands of my imagination.
As if to test this new sensation, I slipped my sandals off and stood still in the sand. Sure enough, it seemed I not only felt the dry heat of Colorado deserts, but what I’d always dreamed the Sahara might feel like. I’d spent all my childhood in Lamar imagining worlds near and far, and was now experiencing glimpses of those worlds again.
That’s when I realized: so many of my strings were tied back there. To return to Colorado was to return to everywhere else. I wonder if maybe that’s a little bit what going to Heaven is like.
We made it into town that night just in time to play our second annual show at The Hott Spott in Lamar –– an old skate park converted into a bar and owned by a family friend of ours. Our schedule of events while in town was almost identical to the previous years’. The next day, of course, we had to stop at my favorite fast food restaurant for some burgers before getting back to work.
After that, we headed south of town, en route to a music festival. We passed by the land where my grandparents’ ranch lay, where Ashleigh and I had exchanged vows nearly three years before. Again, I couldn’t shake that welling feeling in my chest. I watched each mile of the prairies pass with a sort of reverence. And then finally I caught sight of what I’d been looking for all along: that great keeper of the grasslands.
“There’s Little Mountain,” Jared said. He pointed out the window. Everyone looked.
Right there, right in the middle of some of the flattest acres anyone could imagine, rose one single anomaly: Two Buttes Mountain. A mountain in the middle of the plains. It stood proud upon the earth hundreds of miles from the Rockies, its dual peaks high and rounded like two eyes strained towards heaven. And the downward arch between –– a smile. It was welcoming us back.
I nodded, lost in memory.
My family had long ago climbed those steeps together. We’d more often go fishing in the reservoir nearby while it towered over us. Also, one of the first trips I took after joining youth group was a camping trip to the mountain. And even before that, Clay and I had once raced each other up and up to the highest butte. We wrote our names on the topmost rock in paint marker, one right next to the other, and thought we were becoming immortal.
Those rocks had certainly watched me grow.
Again in 2011, on Yours Truly’s very first tour together, we took a detour to that sacred monument. We embarked upon those ancient slopes like ants on an anthill, bent on adventure. That day the wind streaked across the landscape the way it always did there, threatening to blow us right off into the atmosphere, over endless fields of wheat and alfalfa to places only God goes. But we held on. We threw our weight into the gusts and pretended to fly instead.
We explored all the cracks and caves and rocks; and even though the wind couldn’t master us up there, when I looked for the signatures Clay and I had written, I found that the weather had carried them off long ago.
Later, on the road back to Nashville, I’d tell the guys that those moments in the wind, looking out over my homeland, were the ones I prized most from the trip. They were a pinnacle of sorts –– a climax, a tipping point.
Of course, I had no way of knowing then that within a month after getting back from the road, my marriage would be crumbling — that the wind would indeed carry my wife far away to some unreachable place. And all the while I’d only struggle to hang on myself, letting the flurries beat up against my skin and tear at my clothes.
I had no way of knowing then, on that mountain during our first tour, that the following months would be the most difficult and confusing months of my life, and that I would end up doing things I’d sworn never to do, hurt people I’d hoped would never know pain, and contemplate leaving all of it behind.
But the mountain, while holding onto me, was also shaking things away. It was making preparations.
Years before, just after coming to Nashville for college, I’d written a song about it. I called it “Little Mountain.” The song ended with the third verse:
So I guess he made his home here,
Or maybe he just got the wrong address,
Or maybe he got kicked out of the ranges,
All I know is he stands tall without the rest.
Throughout the history of my life, I’m usually close to my worst when I begin to think that I might be more or less like that mountain — rooted either by fate or accident to some barren place with no company, where only on clear days could I make out the ranges in the distance, and then think to myself that I wasn’t made to be loved.
And the really nasty parts of me –– the devious Hydes –– come out when I decide that isolation is the place where I belong. I hide my shortcomings and uniquenesses from others because I figure I couldn’t measure up anyway, and I’m scared to death of disappointing them.
But after visiting that mountain last year, the deeper groanings of the earth rose up in me, speaking truth against it all: that’s not at all how things should be! We were made to walk together. Mountains were made for the ranges.
It wasn’t until I let people see my wounds that I stopped being alone. I had to come close enough to let them really examine all of me. Those cracks and caves the light never used to touch, those wind-swept stones of my heart, once carved with marks of friendship and now left bare –– those things and all their hurt had to be raised to the surface.
I had to begin to move the mountain. I had to reunite with the ranges. And no matter how little or how big they stood, mountain-moving is always messy business. And it’s impossible to do alone.
After leaving Lamar, just before our camping trip in Lubbock, we stopped at a Wal-Mart for supplies. I sat in the van with a couple of other guys while everyone else went inside. Darkness weighed heavy on me; I laid down and tried not to think or feel.
But a couple of other guys were talking somewhere above me, and their conversation quickly caught my attention.
“…I went through a rough place in high school once.”
“Yeah, struggled bad with depression.”
At the last word, I slowly sat up.
“It was really hard for a while,” he continued. “Probably a year. Started taking medication, though, and that really helped.”
I tried not to let my distaste show on my face. Having witnessed so many people abuse prescription drugs, and seen so many doctors prescribe them for a little extra cash in their pockets, I’d developed a strong resistance to the idea over the years. We’d survived for years without depression meds, right? Maybe we’d just forgotten as a society how to deal with our problems properly, without drugs.
“Were you ever addicted?” I asked. I’m sure the skepticism came through now.
He shook his head. “No. I’ll take one every once and a while when I feel it coming on.”
“Did it change your personality?”
“And you don’t get depressed anymore? How do you know when to take the meds?”
“I know the difference between when I’m just having a bad day, and when I’m chemically imbalanced,” he replied.
I nodded. As much as I wanted to resist, I knew exactly what he was talking about. The other guys continued their conversation as I laid back down and closed my eyes, trying not to think, trying not to feel. Trying.