During previous travels I was fortunate enough to meet some great people. In Connecticut after the first winter storm blanketed the Appalachian Trail in knee-deep snow I met Maria. She gave us a soft bed, a hot breakfast and then told us the story of how a young orphan from Italy escaped her war torn country, fell in love with an American soldier and became a surrogate mother to countless AT hikers. On the coast of Croatia I met Mario who unintentionally demonstrated how you should treat a stranger and those less fortunate than yourself by just being Mario. To meet and learn from these and other kind souls is the main reason I travel. But on this trip across America, in Casper Wyoming, I found a lost treasure.
A mother can be a bastion of love, understanding and support – but not my mother. I was twelve when my father died and that left me with a mother too self-absorbed and alcohol dependent to take care of a cat. It was not an environment a child should be raised in but it did provide a wonderful window into mental illness. Suffice it to say if she were a patient her diagnoses would fill pages and at the conclusion of the interview I would be legally obliged to contact social services for the safety of the children.
In contrast, my stepbrother, who was eleven years older than me, did everything in his power to make our life better. He bought us food, clothing, toys and even gave my mother cash despite knowing some would find its way to the local liquor store. Often on birthdays he would take us out on shopping sprees and even provided respite from our dysfunctional home by taking us on road trips.
But there was a bright side to my mothers’ parental neglect; it gave me a great deal of freedom. It allowed me to travel rural Indiana as well as the country by bicycle unrestricted. At fourteen years old I was doing solo overnight bicycle trips within a hundred miles of my home, at fifteen I increased that to a 1000 miles and by sixteen I had bicycled across America from coast to coast. Of course I earned the money and paid for all expenses associated with the trip myself. My mother was so proud that a week after I left on my first cross-country ride she published an article about my adventure in the local newspaper. It was a detailed write-up describing my start on the California coast, crossing the desert, bicycling over the Rocky Mountains, etc. However the story she wrote had nothing to do with my trip; I started in Oregon, not California.
Consistent with her pathology by the time I finished high school my mother had severed contact with all her immediate family. A few weeks later she severed contact with my big brother, sister-in-law and her grandchildren. As a child it was impossible to say anything nice about someone my mother disowned and despite not having seen him or her for years she could always drum up a new story illustrating their wretchedness and reinforcing why you should never speak to them again. A few years later my mother disowned me and went on to drink herself into a lonely world barren of family and friends but rich in bitterness.
As we turned north off the interstate heading toward Casper the puffy white clouds drifted apart and the sun popped out as if an omen for better things ahead. Casper Wyoming is known as the center of America’s pronghorn antelope population and the crossroads of the great pioneer trails, i.e. Oregon Trail, Mormon Trail, Pony Express, etc. The drive into Casper from the southwest takes you through a beautiful flat green valley filled with pronghorns, bordered by mountains and dotted with lakes. The road takes you past many historic sights including Independence Rock. The rock marked the point westbound travelers should have reached by July fourth if they wanted the best chance of crossing the mountains before winter set in. Etched into the rock by the pioneers’ own hands are their names and the dates they passed by.
Casper Wyoming is also the home of my big brother and his sweet wife. After decades and miles of separation our paths finally crossed again. It was our first chance to speak openly and honestly as adults about our mother and the strange world we grew up in. Amazingly the big brother that was abruptly cut off from all his siblings expressed no bitterness, he was just happy we were together again.
Seeing and hearing the world for yourself, with your own eyes and ears typically gives you the clearest, most honest perspective. Over the years, following my heart and listening to my instincts has guided me through some rough waters and introduced me to some amazing people and places. Today my heart and instincts led me to a lost treasure, my big brother.