Dreaming of La Sal

A serial novel by Michelle Curry Wright

Backstory 12

How to start reconciling the past with the present (and vice versa)

I think there’s a happy place somewhere in the space-time continuum, a place of equilibrium between reading journals and old writings and going “Oh my god burn every shred of it, please” and saving it all for pressing into the paper-thin leaves of eternity. The goal for me would be to have a certain equanimity in one’s view of oneself, to enjoy but not over-enjoy, to accept, to forgive, to learn, to move on.

Meanwhile, I still read parts of old journals with that tired old judgmental reactivity: “You wrote this? What did it mean? Why did you use so many big words; and beyond that, how did all these big words work for you in college when you were writing all the papers you still have — and p.s. why do you still have them? Why do you still have high school English essays and your kindergarten notebooks? (They did it differently in Europe in the 60s and the elementary school handwriting is beyond belief. Truly. Just saying.)

In this novel that I wrote in the 80s, I was writing about a main character who was a version of the man I was with, who became my husband, who 26 years later died of melanoma. This fictionalized version of him was no better — or worse — than Gary, no more inventive than he actually was in many ways, just a version of him in a parallel universe, one of the many universes that lie deep in the brain folds of all us writers — and readers — of fiction. Imagine for a moment the millions of acres of mysterious synapse-laden unfolded grey-matter laid out like a sea, undulating, shimmering, spewing out sparks.
Gary, who also had dreams of writing a novel (and kept notes for years on the evolving plot), had mixed views about my writing. He indulged the first attempt, but then when I kept going for it and a friend in NYC found me an agent, he was mostly disbelieving and then not so supportive. Jealous, perhaps, because I was working at night and writing during the day and he was working really really hard during the day and played out at night AND watching our child while I went to work.
He was uncomfortable with the publication of my first novel and then my second. I got it. He didn’t want to be painting houses the rest of his life but had sort of carved out a moneymaking system that worked with his lifestyle, with being completely in charge and taking time off in the winter to ski; and he didn’t want to risk any of that, especially with a family.
I was selfish; even though I told him I was willing to take risks so that he could quit and find something else or start over, I probably knew it would be too scary for him. How could he justify it? Where would we go and what would he do? What if he failed? His training had been in journalism; but journalism in Telluride (we’d met as journalists there) was a lot more challenging than painting houses, and a lot less of a sure thing.
About five years after he died (three years ago now), my daughter and I started unpacking all the stuff we’d stuffed, all the grieving we’d averted, all the life we’d lived since. In many ways, my return to La Sal Junction and the world I inhabited in my mind at the time is part of my personal unpack-job, my laying out the of all the different items in a suitcase that got so full I had to sit on it to close it. This has been a delicate operation for me, one in which I continue to sense my own clumsiness. I remarried several years after Gary died, which precipitated shoving a lot more into that suitcase, including the judgment of all those who felt it was utterly inappropriate. I had to lie on top of the suitcase at this point to give it the appearance of being closed.
I can’t say I ever did any of this right. I’m a late bloomer in the important ways, and the blooming is slow. But healing moments come unexpectedly!
La Sal Junction, a place we’d pass through on our way to the desert in the old days, captivated me every time we drove by, for reasons I’ve written about. I remember once heading past it on our way to the desert (and possibly taking that picture I use as the header on this website). We were on our way to Indian Creek, at the time an unfrequented crack-climbing location in Canyonlands.
Instead of my trying to prove myself by climbing with him on easy stuff, he went off with another partner for a long multi-pitch thing. It was super windy and dusty in April, and I spent most of the day in our small blue Toyota pick-up truck reading hundreds of pages of Lonesome Dove, happy as a clam.
Gary, who had grown up climbing in the Shawangunks with sneakers and spare rope, had it in his blood; he’d arrived in Colorado in 1978 ready to climb and even setting routes in Ophir, a big wall not far from Telluride.
In sharply remembering this moment in the 80s in Canyonlands, I feel a couple of things. I love how he was taking care of his needs and I was taking care of mine –but that we were still together. I love the conflation of McMurtry’s fiction and the reality of Utah and how each landscape was so big in my brain it practically conveyor- belted new folds in the grey matter. I love how we each returned to Telluride feeling full.
That feeling-full feeling feeds us so elementally as individuals – but it also feeds us as couples. There’s a place where the two come together and have to come together in order for a relationship to survive. Sometimes it is as simple as sitting in the front seat of a pick-up, feeling full, and heading on down the road, faces pointed in the same direction and a wake of dust behind.