North of Evanston, not far from Freedom Arms, my Grandfather Butler would have descended, as we now are, towards the last long stretch of the trail. Today, the road west—actually southwest—is calm, the drifts seemingly stilled by the persistence of the late-morning sun. This is the segment of the great American migration west where my ancestors on both sides made a departure from the Oregon and California Trails to the Great Basin anchored by a salt lake. It was the less desirable location to settle—dry, desert-like and isolated. But it was the place that the leadership wanted, a place this “peculiar people,” still in the early grip of polygamy, could call their own and be left undisturbed. And that is how the last day of our journey across the country began to end at the start of the second decade of the new millennium. The sky is big, the way is clear and the wagons in my mind roll along a path that is hardly a hewn trail, but more of a rock-strewn mirage of a path worn down by trappers, Indians and deer. The Donnor Party which became entrapped in the early snows of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to a devastating end were the only settlers to come this way before the Mormons. And the way was filled with mountain fever, dying cattle and the ennui of wagon travel.
Derek is headed back to school in a couple of days. And C. and I are back to work tomorrow. With the end in sight, am I feeling relief or nostalgia? The very things I have been internally railing at for the past five days—my country, my people, my family—is suddenly in my mind at rest even as we speed down Echo Canyon towards Coalville. At one’s home one must find sanctuary, no matter the cost. And so it is here for me. “This is the day thou gavest,” goes the old hymn, and this is the place we call the terminus of our travels though we may dream of California gold as another pioneer grand father of mine did before leaving his clan and heading further west. But it’s not just evening, the close of this “day” that “thou gavest.” The hymn says to me that you get what God gives you, whatever it is. And you can either be resentful of it and stymied or somehow grateful and move on.
Grateful as was my prodigal ancestor who reportedly returned penniless two years after he left the city of saints for the gold fields. He had in fact struck it rich in California, but on the way home he had been robbed of everything except a pony so small his feet dragged the ground, and his hat, it was said, was crownless. They took him back in, this grandfather of mine, twenty-something at the time, home being the place you go and they have to take you in.
Currently, home for us is a neighborhood in Salt Lake City near the cross streets of 9th East and 9th South and the sort of place that, after seven years in Brooklyn, seemed like the only possible home C. and I could endure as we returned to the reddest-of-the reds, what the Denver Post once tagged with the enduring moniker, “The Church State.” Our heavily-treed enclave sports urban Liberty Park, walkable streets and a left-leaning, mixed student, family, gay-friendly population. It is home to the art film house, The Tower, where the Sundance Film Festival takes up residency every January. It is also home to the tres gay Cahoots’ Gift Shop, along with the swankiest bicycle shop in the city (bicycles being very big) and The Children’s Hour—definitely harking back to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, not Lillian Hellman—with its insanely high-priced cutesy clothes for kids.
Since our return from New York to Utah in 2003 gentrification at 9th and 9th has spiked, and even during the current economic down-turn, home prices have stayed relatively high. But we are lagging, C. and I. We can hardly keep up with the taxes on the little house we dance in. The salad days of the airline have receded through a Doppler blue in our minds. Even with the flight benefits I maintain on furlough, we don’t have the means to do anything once we arrive somewhere. Then there are the complications of Derek. Traveling “non-rev” with three is a challenge, and he can’t be left at home alone. The trip East for Christmas has proven all of that—splitting up to get on separate flights to Maine—two of us through Detroit, one of us through Atlanta and LaGuardia. An extra night stay in Bangor. And now this. A five-night/six-day road trip west that has turned our first extended vacation with our live-in grandson into our financial undoing.
Maybe I can go back to teaching a class or two, to make ends meet. Return to the infamous Trail—that bone-crunching stream of immigrant grunts behind yoked oxen–as Grandpa Butler did five years after he settled in Utah with his multiple wives. It seems the crops didn’t come in sufficiently those first few years in Spanish Fork. Grasshoppers ate everything one too many times. So he left his first wife Caroline and oldest son in charge and dusted off the blacksmithing tools of his original trade that back east had made him so valuable to the people he called his own. Two summers in a row John Lowe Butler returned to The Trail that was both his escape and his terror, his hope and his sorrow to repair wagons before ferrying them across the Green River so they could continue on to the Continental Divide and South Pass. He did it. Why shouldn’t I have to scramble as well for a living in the promised land? Return to the trade. Go back East, temporarily?
Back in New York, it is 1975. The Beatles have long ago broken up. John and Yoko are ensconced in the seven-story Dakota on the upper-west side. And after two miscarriages, Yoko has delivered Sean. Lennon has moved from being just a rock star to presumptive leader of world enlightenment. But characteristically, Lennon is clueless as to what any of it means and it’s all reflected in his song “Imagine” which Elton John once parodied in a concert with,
Imagine six apartments
It isn’t hard to do
One is full of fur coats
The other’s full of shoes
Despite being, arguably, an insipid string of bromides, over one hundred artists have recorded “Imagine,” including David Archuleta as part of his American Idol outing two years ago. I guess you can’t really argue with success.
So it is after Lennon’s primal scream therapy songs and the global Rorschach test release of “Imagine,” that Lennon’s paean to his five-year-old son Sean, “Beautiful Boy” appears. And it seems to cut through the songwriter’s fog of heroin, the residuals of his tortured try at open marriage (“Whoopee!…But it was god-awful,”) and, though well-meaning in that now-that-we-have-a-platform-let’s-show-‘em-we-care way of faux activism often shouldered by celebrities, fundraisers. The song actually seems real, heartfelt. Something I can relate to as we descend out of the high Wyoming plain and into the Great Basin. In 1980, the year Lennon left us he said
The joy is still there when I see Sean. He didn’t come out of my belly but, by God, I made his bones, because I’ve attended to every meal, and to how he sleeps, and to the fact that he swims like a fish. That’s because I took him to the ‘Y’. I took him to the ocean. I’m so proud of those things. He is my biggest pride, you see.
And in the music video of the song, Sean, with his Dutch boy haircut is orbiting in and out of a cluster of adults, which include his parents. Then, in juxtaposition, the video melds to the final, pensive iteration of the scene, emptied of human life, the garden chairs and table sitting like sculpture.
I don’t know why Derek loves John Lennon, why he wants to read about every aspect of his life in an 800-page biography that he isn’t likely to ever finish. But I know why Lennon matters to me now. It’s because he loved a child in that hankering, drifty way that makes one exult in the repetition of
Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful
And if, as the songwriter sings, “life is what happens to you/While you’re busy making other plans” then I am in trouble as a father to Derek. While I have been taking out whole life insurance policies for him, tracking him through the Salt Lake Arts Academy and East High, running after him down the sidewalk behind his tottering bicycle…all with some giant planning wheel spinning in the sky of my mind, Excel spreadsheets numbered and pulsing with what needs to happen to raise this boy to manhood–while all of this has been going on, Derek’s life has been taking place largely unbeknownst to me. Both C. and I have attempted to manufacture memorable experiences, including this trip back East for Christmas, to off-set the horrors and traumas before he came to live with us. And we have gone into debt, the consequence of which I am holding at bay somewhere south of my sternum. But quality time, in the parlance of family scientists (a contradiction in terms), isn’t something you can schedule. Because as with life in general, both on the micro and macro level—at the hearth and in the White House—plans are what we make to keep us from the realization that the world is an arbitrary and terrifying place. Beyond our control.
My brother-in-law Pete is right. America is not beyond a revolution—rocks being thrown in the street. Guns a-blazing. Dirty bombs. Some of our population already knows this. They live with some version of it virtually every day. But white middle class folk like me living in the Mountain West? Not a chance. We still feel as though we are immune from what the gears of a world that grinds on without knowing that it is grinding at all. It’s a regional expression of the poet’s “View with a Grain of Sand,” the grain that “calls itself neither grain nor sand/It does just fine without a name….” The world being outside from what we call it:
Time has passed like a courier with urgent news
but that’s just our simile.
The character is invented, his haste is make believe,
His news inhuman.
As with Lennon’s joy over his son, “the joy is still there” when I see Derek, even now in the rear-view mirror, the three of us hurtling home. And that joy is there only because I understand more today than ever before, here at the start of the second decade of the new millennium, just how aimless we are in a place that has never obeyed our naming of it.
Lennon frequently asked his Aunt Mimi, the woman who had raised him in Mendips, Liverpool, to come to New York for a visit. “I’m not going to a land where there’s guns, John” she said. On December 8, 1980, Lennon was shot dead by a deranged fan outside the Dakota in New York and “Imagine” and “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” both took on new resonance to a population on both sides of the Atlantic that could not seem to get over it for days, weeks…decades. The terminus for Lennon was outside his apartment on a winter day not so unlike today.
Manhattan and the Salt River Valley of Wyoming couldn’t be more different from each other, especially in terms of the goddamned, God-given right to bear arms. Pot-smoking John Lennon with the wire rims next to crew-cut, fierce “constitutionalist” Wayne Baker, armed and ready—it’s hard to think how both of them could have found a home in America without destroying each other. Maybe they did destroy each other. Maybe they still are–destroying each other and the country they both claim(ed) to love at the same time. “Give Peace a Chance” and “Guns, God and Guts”—two mantras that one could argue have always animated, however circuitously, the experiment that is America.