In his poetic coming-of-age tale, Down from the Mountaintop (University of Iowa Press, 2014), Joshua Doležal recounts what it was like growing up on a homestead in rural, northwestern Montana. The remote location allowed Doležal to find the faith he had trouble seeing in the Pentecostal teachings surrounding him, in nature. In this excerpt from “Dogwood,” the author is transplanted back to Montana and evangelical parents at a time before he’d realized that all roads lead home.
The semester winds down, and I survive my first finals week, cramming late into the night until my eyes slam shut and I fall forward into my notebook, waking with my cheek pressed to the page. I try a few caffeine pills, but they make me so jangly and strung out the next day that I decide to allow myself at least a few hours of sleep each night. The room feels empty without Jackson’s pile of laundry, but I like the quiet and shut myself away to study, shrugging off the warm cloak of sleep as I try to recall all the dates and names and events of western civilization, my thoughts swimming with history.
Then exams are done, and my room feels empty as I pack for the holiday. I sleep all the way to Atlanta and snooze on the flight to Salt Lake, waking to see the snowy peaks of the Wasatch Mountains rising over the city and the great lake beyond. As the plane banks in from the south for the landing, I’m pressed to the window, lit up by the open space of the salt flats and the rim of ridgelines and peaks. I know there is much I can’t go home to anymore, much that has fallen away in five short months, but there is no forgetting this western landscape. And when the little commuter plane eases down into the Flathead Valley, nestled beneath the Rocky Mountain chain stretching up into Canada, I feel a wild stab of joy.
My parents meet me at the gate with my sister and my little brother, who has grown considerably since I left, nearly a year old now. I put down my guitar and hug them all. We are shy with each other on the drive home, my mother and sister drifting to sleep while I watch the dark forest flashing along the highway, the river buried in snow and ice. When we’re quiet like this I can let most of the changes drop away and feel like a boy again, dreaming in the back seat, soaking up the rise and fall of the road.
But as soon as we unload the car and I carry my things to my room and we sit down at the table, joining hands for a prayer and watching the steam rising from the mashed potatoes and elk steak and mushroom gravy as my father drones through a Bible chapter, I feel my new selves crowding into my throat. My parents listen, brows knitted, as I talk about my New Testament class. This is what they were afraid of, I can see it in their eyes. Brainwashed, they’re thinking. Our boy is slipping away. So I ask them how they explain the discrepancies between the Gospels or how they know which parts of the Bible are still true and which were meant for a certain time and place. Should we still stone disobedient children? I ask, carving my steak. Should we kill those who work on the Sabbath? I don’t know why I’m so angry, why I’m taking it out on them. My father mutters something about the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. My mother busies herself with my baby brother in his highchair.
I want them to acknowledge that I’m still their son, even though I no longer pretend to follow along. I want to bang the table and shout, I don’t know who I am yet, but I’m trying to find out, I’m searching. I want them to say they’ll love me no matter what, and deep down I know that is true. But all I can feel now is their fear of who I’ve become, so I hush and bend again to the cold potatoes and the mushroom gravy congealing on my plate. And when the holiday ends, when I pack for the spring term and hug my family goodbye again at the gate, I am ready to go.
I don’t know it yet, but this is the beginning of more than a decade of running away from my past while stubbornly holding onto it, never going anywhere to stay, always uprooting myself. It’s a curious mixture of sorrow and relief as I board the plane to face my second college term, heavy with the knowledge that my family and I can only diverge from this point forth. Yet the farther I wander in the wide world beyond these alpine lakes and talus slopes and great cedar trees, the tighter the pull of the place on my heart grows, even as every time I try to come home I must face what drove me away from the start.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Down from the Mountaintop: From Belief to Belonging by Joshua Doležal and published by University of Iowa Press, 2014.