“When we saw the mountains at last, we cried—all of us. But it wasn’t getting here that mattered, it was movement and westering. The westering was as big as God, and the slow steps that made the movement piled up and piled up until the continent was crossed.”
—John Steinbeck in The Red Pony
“Out west, it’s different,” the young man said. “Out west it’s big sky. Out west the air is dry and clean. And out west people talk—they just talk regular.”
He had come back east at the beginning of the month to see his family for the holidays. It was the first Christmas without his grandfather. The young man had lost his job—got laid off—and left his car at his apartment in Utah. “Go back,” his landlady had told him. “Go back east and figure things out. I’ll keep watch on your stuff here in the meantime. You come and collect it when you find yourself.”
His grandfather’s house stood empty. One of the uncles had moved away to a cottage on the lake up north. There was no one else to care for it now.
It needed some work—a new roof, maybe some structural shoring up; certainly a good cleaning. He had learned a few things about construction over the years. He knew he could do the work. It was just a question of getting the materials. Out west he had lived frugally. He wasn’t in debt, but he didn’t have a lot of money saved either.
When he drove up to the house and stepped inside, the memories hit with a rush. Slowly he walked through the rooms, surveying the home. It would take some work, but he could do it all right. The question was, should he?
“Out west I took up running,” he told me. “For a spell I trained with the Utah state marathon champion. He’s quiet, not condescending at all. He’s won a lot of marathons. He’s a great runner.”
“Have you done a marathon?”
“Not yet. I’ve done a half. Lately, I’ve been running about 25 to 30 miles a week. I’d like to do one some day. I feel so sluggish here back east. My legs are heavy; my form is off. I can’t explain it.”
“Maybe it’s the humidity.”
“I’ve thought about that. It’s dry out where I’ve been living. You can breathe easier, even though it’s 6,000 feet. I thought having trained at that elevation would be an advantage—more red blood cells, more oxygen affinity—but no, it hasn’t worked out.
“Then I thought it might be the light. Out west there’s big sky. It’s open, there’s more light. And the light is different somehow—I can’t explain it.”
“So, what will you do?”
“I’m scouting out a few jobs. I’ve got an interview this afternoon. Maybe I could coach. Maybe I could teach in a private school.” He paused. “Maybe I could swing down to Texas to look up a girl I used to date some years back.
“My parents want me to come home. My mom came out to Utah to visit me for a week. She didn’t understand what I see in the west, just didn’t understand it. They both want me to come back.”
He stopped talking and searched my silent face with his eyes.
“It’s hard to know what to do,” he finally said.