Out on the road and in the great outdoors my dad and I discovered we were more like each other than we believed.
I was terrified of volcanoes. Unfortunately, our family summer vacation was focused around one. Mount Saint Helens is legendary in Washington; it is the mountain that exploded and covered the world in ash. If you are raised in the Evergreen State, the volcano lives in the back of your mind as a warning that you cannot outrun nature. Growing up with the stories of the eruption, of blasts of hot rock that moved at lightning speeds, I, an elementary student, concluded the volcano could not be trusted.
My dad never had time for fearing nature. He found it inconvenient for adventure and was determined to rid me of my anxieties. As we arrived at the Johnston Ridge Observatory, I was almost shaking. Mount Saint Helens was so close now, too close for me. My mind flashed back to the stories about the eruption. What would happen if the volcano erupted again?
As we stood inside the observatory, gazing through the large windows that framed the mountain, Dad began to talk about how cool the volcano looked, noting what a great view we had. It was unlike any mountain I had seen, and while it frightened me, my father’s calmness eased my anxiety.
Our Mount Saint Helens trip was when I learned my dad had a fearlessness within him. Over the course of our visit, Dad pushed me toward exhibits about the volcano, teaching me to focus on education over fear. I followed after him as he wandered down paths, the volcano becoming background noise in my mind. It was on this trip that I realized nature was a powerful force, something that could give or take away life in seconds. However, my anxiety had weakened: I began to see the volcano as part of my state’s history, something I held a responsibility to remember and learn from.
Dad and I always had the outdoors. Even when we were at home, our time spent outside was where I was able to learn from him and connect with him.
On his days off from his intensive nursing shifts, I spent time following him around the yard, helping to plant flowers, trim trees, and build gardens. For us, the outdoors was a space of connection. It was where the man who solo-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail could teach his daughter about the beauty of sunflowers and show her the joy of eating grapes fresh from the vine. It was where my father felt the most secure.
With my parents’ deteriorating marriage, Dad sought the outside as a domain he could control. He could build gardens and plant trees without input or consideration of others. I traveled between the house and outdoors, moving between the worlds of my parents. It was there that Dad and I bonded, a precursor for our adventures in the wild.
I was a teenager when Dad and I stood on a hill as the sun set overlooking the geysers of Yellowstone. This time, I was not afraid of the supervolcano beneath my feet. I was mesmerized by it. There were a thousand words for the beauty, but I did not speak them. What did one say to a father who did not like chatting? What did an angsty teenager say? We both opted for silence.
By my teen years, our bonding happened on the outskirts of conversation, through enjoying the views of the world together. Dad and I would sit in our van, watching the land speed by. Dad seemed to lose years off his face as he drove through national parks. We stopped to watch bison cross in front of the van, silently passing a bag of chips between us, my early 2000s angsty-teen music blaring through the speakers. Occasionally, I would allow “old people music,” like “American Pie,” a song we both could sing along to. This was how we vibed, with junk food and silence. It was easier and, for both of us, happier this way.
Dad had moved out of our house years before, creating a distance between us. We rarely talked about the falling apart of our family unit. As a teenager, I blamed him for our fractured family. While my friends had both parents at home, I split my time between two households, balancing the frayed emotions of two parents. Through my teen years, this elephant in the room was a constant presence. The trips removed us from that space, literally: In the wilderness of the West, Dad and I did not have to discuss my parent’s tense relationship. We did not have daily reminders that our family was split. We focused on what we wanted to do together.
In this way, these trips were a sort of Switzerland, a neutral zone away from the exhaustion of our life in Walla Walla, Washington. At home, Dad was restrained by a job he did not enjoy, and I adhered to a life of religion and rules that slowly crushed my soul. It was these adventures through the West that made us both feel alive again. There were no patient charts for my father to file and no early morning church ceremonies for me to attend. There was only nature, silence, and the beauty of the West. It was in this that my father and I found peace. However, as we traveled through the West, we were reminded of an uncomfortable fact: To the outside world, we did not look related.
During a trip to the Grand Canyon, Dad and I stopped by a small roadside shop that was selling pottery with painted landscapes of the Arizona desert. After picking my favorite vase, I continued to converse with the merchant. Somehow, the conversation turned to the topic of my husband. I looked at the man, confused, and he gestured at my dad. My jaw dropped, a feeling of disgust rolling over me. This kind of mix-up never happened in my small hometown.
Throughout the rest of our trip, we were constantly asked how we knew each other, which made me uncomfortable. I had never seen other teenagers face the same questions; none of my friends had ever been mistaken for their father’s partner. However, a Black teenager with a white man? I found myself constantly explaining my family story: I was adopted and my parents were divorced. These were private details I felt pressured to share in order to explain the gap in melanin.
This invasiveness caused us to pull away from others. We walked down remote rocky paths around the canyon, marveling at the shades of red beauty. I slowly took in a geographic wonder that was unlike the world of eastern Washington. Dad told me stories about coming to the canyon when he was younger, and, on the edge of the divide, I learned more about my father’s history. The history of a man who adopted a Black child from Louisiana and then took her across the West, ignoring questions and suspicions.
It was these trips through the national parks and backlands of America that made me fearless and in many ways blind to the reality of traveling while Black. My journeys with my father across the West allowed me to experience America like a white child. Walking into places with him, my presence was never questioned. I wonder, now, how much my father’s whiteness allowed me to experience rural America without fear. How many sundown towns did Dad and I drive through? How many times did we go sightseeing in areas with white supremacist groups? I cannot say for certain. However, I can say that because of these trips, I became comfortable with the outdoors and rural America. It set the standard for my fearlessness toward traveling.
I moved away from home for college, and while my travels with my father became less frequent, my comfort with the unknown gave me the courage to travel independently as an adult. And I traveled far and wide, making trips to China, Nepal, Thailand, and Australia.
When Dad was diagnosed with glioblastoma (an aggressive brain cancer), I came home for one more adventure. We decided to take a road trip to Pullman, Washington, to spend the day at my alma mater. Dad and I had made this journey many times. During my college years, we would travel through the Palouse, with Dad dropping me off at college to become smarter. But now, it was different. This time, I drove the truck, moving us through the hills of eastern Washington. We sipped on coffee and listened to my 2010s adult music, a combination of Beyoncé, K-pop, and our old favorite: “American Pie.” I can’t remember the color of the landscape; I only remember Dad resting in the passenger seat.
“It’s a nice day,” my father said, gazing out the window at the land he called home.
After stopping for the restroom, my father began rambling inconsistently, as if his brain were stuck on one thought. I guided him back to our truck, where he sat as I called an ambulance. He gazed off into the distance, fixated on a tree. Around me, the spring winds blew gently as I stood outside the truck, watching him slip away from me to a different place. When the paramedics asked if he knew me, my dad simply stated, “No.” My drive back to Walla Walla, following the ambulance, was quiet. The truck that had been filled with my father’s presence now only held me. The adventures were over.
Dad died five days later.
In the months following his death, I felt a sort of anger that he had left me, that he had gone on to another adventure and left me behind. It was with this pain that I decided we would go on one more journey. One that he would make with me.
Carrying my father’s ashes in a small container, I scattered his remains among the trees and mountains of Olympic National Park. We walked together through the forests, among the flowers of summer. As I left the park, a pressure lifted off my shoulders. I could always return here to find him. Just as he wanted.
Dad is forever in the West; his spirit and ashes rest in these lands we traveled. As such, I now find peace in his parting, knowing that if I wish to be close to him, all I must do is wander through the West.
Nikki Brueggeman is a writer based in the Pacific Northwest. A child of the west coast, she writes about history, Blackness, with occasional wanderings into personal essays.