Adolescence, hookers and booze in the American West
So I’m 12, and I’m sitting by myself in the passenger seat of a pick-up truck, outside of a brothel in Ely, Nevada, waiting for my dad. It’s not like you’re thinking — he’s at the bar. This brothel is maybe also the only bar in this small mining town. After a short time, he comes out and offers me a prostitute. We’re here on a hunting trip.
My dad died when I was 14. Unexpectedly, early in his life and mine. That hunting trip was the last time I spent any real amount of time with him.
My parents split when I was young. Camping, fishing and hunting were ways he tried to bond with my brother and I in the weekends and summer weeks we’d spend with him. His attempt to get us off the couch and share his passion with us. And I hated those trips. Partly because I was a lazy kid who preferred the couch and video games, but mostly because he was a dick. Critical, sharp, miserable to be around. We cast our lines wrong. Stared at the ground too much. Were pussies about baiting worms.
But I was looking forward to this trip. We’d only ever fished or hunted birds, and those aren’t real animals. Deer and elk are different. It’s not quite a bear, but it’s a mammal. Killing mammals is more manly.
It’s a two day road trip from Vegas where we lived to Ely in northern Nevada. Those drives were always early morning starts, sleeping on the bench of the truck, listening to The Eagles and Willie Nelson. Driving through ghost towns and mining outposts.
This one was a nice drive. Full of good vibes and an overnight stay in Pioche, Nevada. It’s a single main street and some general stores. It’s nothing exciting, but it was a place he was fond of and we visited it many times. We’d get a hat or some kind of memento at the western-wear shop, and a burger and ice cream at the restaurant on the corner.
We pull into Ely late the second afternoon, we’ll be setting up camp somewhere fifteen to twenty minutes outside of town.
My dad pulls his truck up to a bar in town, also a brothel I later realize, and leaves me in the cab. Tells me he’ll be right back.
Fifteen to twenty minutes later, he walks out a little looser, with a woman. She’s not glamorous, she’s older and weathered. They get to the passenger window, and without introduction, he makes a comment about her making me a man. Probably out of self preservation, I take it as a joke, laugh it off, and look away. She says how cute I am. He laughs and they go back inside. Another twenty or thirty minutes later, he walks out a lot looser, and we set off to the campsite.
That afternoon and evening go well. If you’ve never set up a tent, know it’s only slightly less infuriating than putting together a dresser from IKEA. Especially tents in 1992. But he sets up camp without any outbursts, and it feels like a different kind of trip. I’m relieved, and relaxed.
Hunting the next morning goes even better. We don’t see any deer or take any shots, but it’s not my fault. I wasn’t too loud. I didn’t stare at the ground too much. We talked and bonded. It was a really good time.
That afternoon we drive into town and park at the brothel bar. I stay in the car. After what feels like an hour, he comes out very loose and we drive back to the camp site. At some point we pull over, he gets out, and he pees next to the passenger side of the truck, in full view of my side mirror. This devastates 12-year-old Steve’s confidence. We go back to camp.
The next morning’s hunting trip also goes well. We walk along a dry riverbed next to the brush line and there are some desert flowers. He doesn’t notice me looking at those and not for deer. We finally spot some smaller deer, and I’m excited, but he informs me that they’re not what we’re licensed to hunt. He goes off on a funny tirade about the government. We don’t take any shots that morning, but spirits are high. We pledge to definitely get the right deer the next morning, our final chance before heading home.
We head back to town that afternoon. Again I’m waiting in the truck for him to come out of the bar. Hours pass. The sun’s setting and I’m anxious and angry and I head inside. Expecting something very different from a brothel, I find essentially a dive bar. A handful of locals… miners?… and my dad at the bar. He greets me warmly, and introduces me to the other patrons. It’s clear from everyone’s reactions to him that he’s wearing their patience thin, but they are all very kind and welcoming to me. The bartender and others suggest that maybe he take me home. Things escalate pretty quickly, and we’re leaving in a hurry.
The drive back to camp is terrifying. It’s now dark and the truck is approaching 90 on the stretch of highway back to camp. I beg him to slow down, and he does for a little bit, but then speeds up again aggressively.
I know how to drive, he says. He doesn’t snap that response at me, it has a jokey, playful tone to it.
We take a few curves too sharply and I’m death-gripping the passenger door and armrest. I beg him again to slow down, this time also letting him know I think he’s drunk and that maybe it’s not a good idea to go so fast.
I feel a sharp slam into my cheek as he punches me.
I’m not drunk, he says. Still not really in an angry way.
I keep quiet the rest of the drive. Somehow we make it back to camp, and I retreat to my cot. I don’t sleep much that night. I hear him talking to himself off and on.
I’m not drunk, he mumbles. And he pukes into my shoe at the base of my cot. He passes out. I fall asleep.
We don’t wake up early the next morning to hunt. We don’t really talk at all. I wash out my shoe. We pack up our campsite and get on the road home.
I feel alone and afraid, and we spend another night together in a hotel on the way home. He sleeps like a baby. I don’t sleep.
We get back into Vegas the next day, and he drops me off at my mom’s house. I don’t tell anyone about the details of the week, but I can tell my mom knows something. We don’t talk about it. And I see him a handful of brief times in the two years before he dies.
This story has been really clawing at me lately. I’ve been trying to find the purpose of revisiting it and ultimately sharing it. Hashing through it and picking it apart has been tough, but I have clarity on some new things.
Those two mornings hunting were some of the best times I shared with my dad. And they are the only glimpse I have into the alternate universe where I share a beer with him, or a hunting trip, as a man.
And I understand now why those afternoons were hard on him. Why he retreated to that bar. I have a little girl now, and I’ve felt first-hand the crushing guilt from a smile and tender moment after I’ve been too impatient with her about something small, or shown her an exposed nerve and anger about something that has nothing to do with her. My dad had old hurts and emotional pain that was reflected in the way he treated us. And he let the guilt of that behaviour compound over years.
It’s a natural defense mechanism to bury painful moments deep in your brain, forgetting they happened or letting substance dull your emotions around them. I’ve done a lot of both. The problem is that they’re still there, poisoning you, the pain leaking out in interactions with the ones you love, the ones that try desperately to love you.
His final phone call to me, a week or so before he died, was to ask if we were coming to see him for Christmas and to tell me that he had stopped drinking. He spoke to my brother, and then my mom separately. They had a rare positive exchange, my mom’s voice had a tenderness to it. The weight on my chest lifted and I felt a profound amount of relief at the time. I now know what this gesture meant for him, and I hope it gave him a little bit of relief as well.
So what am I left with now that this draft of the story is done? I have some good memories of hunting with my dad that were buried under a lot of hurt. And I have some more insight into the man my father was, as another man. I believe this new perspective on these events will ease some amount of pain that I let leak onto the ones I love.
Maybe I’ll be able to do right by them in the long run after all.