Caitlin Hill is an essayist and columnist living in Spearfish, South Dakota. She will begin her MFA candidacy in creative nonfiction in the fall of 2016 at the University of Idaho. Her writing has appeared next to recipes for rhubarb cake in small town newspapers, and is also forthcoming in Silk Road Review.
The Broken Road
I didn’t know who Nicholas Bazemore was until he was dead. I didn’t realize I had met him until he was four days gone. We didn’t meet in the typical sense, but the kind of meeting similar to two cars going opposite directions on a deserted highway. Those meetings when we wave one finger at one another—just a quick flick of the index off the steering wheel—and then each driver forgets about the other the moment the exchange is finished. And we continue on.
That is, until we’re forced to remember. In those heart-dropping moments when we have to draw our thoughts back to recall something we passively registered as mundane, we realize we may have witnessed the final moments of a vehicle found turned over in a ditch on that highway. Gleaned from the wreckage of the aftermath we think, maybe I did see that red sedan at some point on that stretch of road, and the driver could have been jerking and swerving a little bit; he may have seemed distracted. And maybe he didn't actually waggle his finger at me—maybe it's just what I assumed I saw. Maybe he was actually headed for disaster.
So when I met Nick at the front door of our residence hall at our university, him leaving and I entering, I held the door open for him to hobble through with his crutches and walking boot. He may have mumbled a “thank you,” I may have responded with a “you bet.” I didn’t think about the details until I was standing in a coffee line weeks later after a sleepless night, hearing his name whispered through the building so constantly it felt like a pulse. Until the aftermath, I didn’t see the eyes I should have recognized as hopelessness hidden behind irises.
I am where I am today because of U.S. Route 85. The highway makes its way through the entire United States, from the Canadian border at North Dakota to the Mexican border at Texas, covering 1,479 miles. But to me, the small fraction that laces through the deepest part of the Black Hills of South Dakota, running through historic Deadwood, covers the greatest distance.
As a life-long resident of eastern South Dakota, visits to the Black Hills weren’t rare, but my childhood vacations to the area occurred more often than the typical Dakotan family. We traveled west across the state on the same week in February since I was old enough to make memories. Each time we turned onto that familiar road so close to our destination I peered out from the back seat, hypnotized by the deep concaves and warming colors of the hills that were so close. I felt in those moments that I could have simply reached out my window, touched them, and somehow become a part of them.
But rather, over the years I spent visiting them, they gradually become a part of me. I felt displaced 51 weeks out of the year, and whole for the one I spent in Deadwood. In the hills, the land surrounded me like a family calling me home, and on the visit just months after my 16th birthday, my attention was gripped by one particular hill that towered high into the clean western air across the road from our hotel. I had seen it every year, but something about it this day made me freeze. That day, out of the hundreds I’d spent in that spot, that hill forced my eyes to dance up its jagged edges all the way from its tree-filled base to its white rock peak. Everything else was gone—the traffic, the noise, the dread of returning to a home that had never really been home. All that existed was me and a hill and an unspoken secret that somehow connected us.
I turned to look at my parents, who were restlessly waiting for me to get in the car for our long return trip to the opposite side of the Missouri River, where I would count the days until I returned.
“I need to live here,” I told them.
After I finished high school, moving across the state to the Black Hills was my only option. Black Hills State University, nestled within three peaks of the northern Black Hills and a stone’s throw away from the town that drew me here, was the only school I applied to; there was no backup plan. Transitioning to life there was as simple and relieving as taking a deep breath. So far away from my hometown that there were few past classmates swimming with me in my new fishbowl, I stepped into a person I always thought I’d be if I hadn’t been tampered with. No one knew my past, and, for once, I could see a future.
But that all changed on a late October Sunday night—a night I chose to spend with my Resident Assistant on duty in the main lobby. Residents were watching Sunday night football on the big screen, a few were dragging their laundry to the machines down the hall, and others were trickling in the front door, returning back from visiting home for the weekend. Megan and I ignored all of them. So enthralled in my disregarding, I didn’t notice what was invading the lobby until she mentioned it.
“What’s that horrible smell?” she asked, sniffing the near-empty trashcan.
I smelt the air, suddenly realizing with a burst of nausea the stench coating the air.
“Guys,” I answered, shrugging. We did live in Wenona Cook Hall, after all. Odd smells weren’t unordinary in the jock-infested building.
“I’ll grab an air freshener from my room during my round,” she said, standing up. “Want to tag along?”
I let the smell be forgotten and accompanied her up and down the first floor hallway, checking the fire extinguisher and running a sweep through the bathroom for sick or drunken residents. But as we finished and climbed to the second floor, we were reminded of the odor with a sickening ferocity.
“Oh, my God,” we moaned together, lifting our shirt collars to cover our faces. Although our noses were plugged, it seemed to seep in through our pores, consuming us.
We were in such a hurry to leave that we couldn’t allow our brains a second to think. His locked door with his name tacked across the front stood still and unnoticed as we rushed away with jokes that the men needed to bathe more. She dropped me off at my room the next floor up and I shut my door behind me, blocking out the smell.
When the clock hit ten, I heard an empty click echo in the hallway. I looked at roommate, who was watching our door. Quiet hours were just starting, and Megan should have followed that click with an announcement reminding us to shut our doors, turn down our electronics, and be respectful. But the click was followed by nothing.
“She forget how to use the intercom?” I joked, turning back to my computer.
I heard a short knock on our door and a familiar head slowly peered in—a girl who lived three doors down. “What’s up?” I asked her, pausing abruptly when I noticed her face.
“Cops are here,” she said.
My roommate and I looked at each other, both of us suddenly on edge.
“Why?” we asked together, the true answer not even attempting to cross our minds.
“I’ve been hearing things from a drug bust to two people being dead,” she said.
I didn’t even listen to her second option, thinking this was all some practical joke. If anything, it was the drug bust. But moving past her into the hallway, I saw a group clustered near the bathroom whispering to each other.
Then I heard that week’s first cry.
We slowly walked toward them, not wanting to let go of our last few moments of ignorance. But before we reached the crowd, I noticed someone staring out at me through her doorway, and I paused while the rest walked on.
“No one should ever have to know what this smell is,” she mumbled.
We were left to piece together the information police and administration gave us. They told us a student had passed away and no foul play was suspected—universal code for suicide. The last anyone had heard from Nick was on Wednesday. He didn’t have a roommate, and the first time anyone thought to check on him was an hour after I left Megan, when his neighbor alerted her that the smell made him realize he hadn’t seen Nick in a while.
His suicide went unnoticed for four days. This is the fact that stuck in my mind during our all-hall gathering the next night. People spilled into the hallways and onto the stairway. Administration members were thrown into the silent mix, and aside from the counselors that were camped in the building all day, I didn’t recognize any of them. I wondered how many had to attend such a gathering before—how experienced any of them were in trying to create reason out of the baffling.
Someone stepped up, and silent thoughts became spoken words. The strangers stared at us with eyes full of pity while they took turns speaking. But I looked past them to one of the couches, seeing Megan’s pale, expressionless face. When my eyes landed on her, her eyes staring into nothing and arms firmly wrapped around her legs, I swallowed the bowling ball caught in the gutter of my throat. We hadn’t spoken since she dropped me off at my room, and I didn’t have to to know what she was thinking.
“We called him Bazemore,” suddenly broke through my muted ears. Looking up, I saw who had just spoken—a student leaning against the doorframe.
As I glanced around the lobby, I noticed I was the only one with my head up. Everyone was staring at their hands or the floor, eyes directed anywhere other than at those around them. We were known for being the rowdiest residents, but the room was so quiet I could hear the mere rubbing of coat fabric from across the room. This gathering of people, whom I had come to know over the past months, suddenly appeared foreign to one another. If one of us could be hiding something so huge, what could be buried in the rest of us?
Speeches and prayers and discussions of where we go from here were playing around me, but I wasn’t listening—my thoughts were somewhere else. Nick wasn’t the first, and he definitely won’t be the last. In the months that followed, several South Dakota universities and high schools would all feel the same pain. Our state was breaking.
But somehow my breaking felt different. It wasn’t a snap or an ache, a pinch or a sting. As I stared at the crowded room around me, what I felt was a stab to the gut. In the din of voices talking about this apparent suicide epidemic, I didn’t feel a part of this crowd. I was watching and listening, but could never volunteer my own face or my own voice. I was thrown into a room with a two-way mirror with the exit locked and the key thrown away. And as hard as I tried, I could not figure out how I could feel this way, while at the same time never even knowing that Nick was referred to by his last name. I didn’t know him, yet I couldn’t shake him.
Many students wanted to go home that week, and so did I. All of us wished to find peace in the place that felt most familiar, so I got in my car and drove the section of Route 85 that connects Spearfish to Deadwood. I let the tall walls of rock and timber swallow me as I navigated the curves as if I’d done so every day of my life. Dozens of the state “THINK” signs littered the ditches on either side of me, memorializing those lost to these winding roads. As I took the final bend, the hill I came here to see appeared before me, watching over Deadwood beneath it.
I parked at the foot of my hill, craning my neck to the sky when I stepped out onto the concrete. In my state of confused displacement, I thought first of this place to find calm and answers. I hoped to remember some of what brought me here, particularly the memories of genuine happiness that live within this gulch. I dropped my gaze and began walking through town, taking several deep breaths with the desperate hope of erasing the lingering memory of the scent that will continue to haunt me until the day I die.
But within the heart of Deadwood, what I expected to see and feel wasn’t what I saw or felt. The magic of the town was gone, replaced with a staggering normalcy. With the veil of wonder lifted, I experienced a version of the town I had never before witnessed. A shopkeeper robotically swept off his section of sidewalk. A bored employee took his fifth smoking break of the afternoon on the back porch of a casino. A man balanced on a shaky ladder, stringing holiday lights on the side of his building. In my memorialized idea of Deadwood, the shopkeeper is an enthusiastic doorman, eager to allow me entrance into the casino that held my family’s favorite buffet. The streets beneath my feet—stories etched into the cobblestone—were filled with more than myself. The air was different, lighter. In my memories, this town is stacked with people having the time of their lives, forgetting that there is a world outside of Deadwood.
My hill was still there when I returned, waiting for me with my car. For the first time in this spot, I felt unsettled as I looked up at the hill. Staring at this mount, I thought of what I had buried there piece-by-piece every February of my youth. I understood these burdens were no longer buried the very moment that girl in my hallway realized what the smell of death was; coming to Deadwood had just confirmed it. The truth that no one else in that building knew was that Nick and I were very much the same, separated only by the decisions we had made. He had chosen to leave, and I had chosen to tuck away each thought of leaving this earth within the earth—in the happiest place I had, where it was easiest.
But burying isn’t confronting or overcoming. It’s just pushing out of sight.
Once we crossed the Missouri River on my childhood trips to Deadwood, rolling grasslands and divots of the west half of the state replaced the patchwork crop landscape of the east. I couldn’t read even the most engrossing of books once we hit the river, as the brilliant scenes they painted couldn’t grab my attention any firmer than the ones running beside me. All I could do was lay my forehead against the cool window and stare miles ahead, holding everything in my view for as long as possible. And when the sun would set and the land became dark, I reconstructed it all from the stockpile of memories I had.
Throughout the rest of that school year at Black Hills State, I was just as drawn to my surroundings as I was in my family’s Caravan. I watched those around me as if they were hills and canyons, etching them into my memory. For the first several days, I heard students call home asking why me. Amongst the whispered conversations that floated toward me, I heard: “I’m sure not coming back after this.” “This just shows me this school is so bad that someone had to do this to get away from it.” “I don’t remember having signed up for this as part of the college experience.” Wenona Cook residents became a hot commodity—scouted out for our stories of what happened that night. Did we evacuate? Did we know him? How did he do it?
But every time I felt the humanity was lost in all of this, I saw the pieces that were holding on. I walked past the football table in the cafeteria, for once completely silent. I met the other residents who briskly turned away from the interrogations. I made eye contact with a small few, and in that short glance would be an affirmation that we were thinking the same thing—why are we avoiding the real problem? Why are we forgetting that for nearly four days, no one cared enough to ask where he was?
There was a candlelight vigil, stickers with Nick’s initials were placed on all of the players’ helmets for the rest of the season, and his room remained unoccupied for the rest of the year. Nick Bazemore was everywhere that year, whether in memorial, conversation, or thoughts. And I paid attention.
My RA became my closest friend. After my roommate never returned in the spring, Megan and I jumped between each other’s rooms, playing card games or watching late night TV or sitting together in silence. During one of our nightly congregations, I caught myself staring at the funeral program, letting my eyes roll over his name and photograph as I had done nearly every day since she hung it up after the service four months earlier.
It was two in the morning, and we were talking as we always did—about everything, but saying nothing. I had never brought up that night in our conversations between then and now, and though I had never caught her looking at the program, I knew she always saw it.
“I just always catch myself thinking about what I was doing during those four days,” she said suddenly. I didn’t need to ask what she was talking about.
“I was worried about my speech. I was worried about my program,” she continued, staring at her hands. “All this stupid stuff, while at the same time…”
In the short time that I had known her, the days following the discovery were the only instances I had seen her break her usually emotionless exterior. And as the weeks eventually grew on and she fell back into normalcy in her everyday life, a piece of her never had. If Nick was mentioned in conversation, she stared into a world we could not see. If suicide was thrown into discussion in any form, she flinched.
I grew accustomed to watching her closest that year. Her hard shell sealed up again, but her actions shone through the casing. I could tell he was in the back of her mind with everything she did. She watched over all 180 of us with particular care, making us feel like a large family while at the same time coaxing each of us to feel like we were her only resident.
Loss has a way of exposing people. The energy used to maintain appearances, costumes, and walls is seized by grief, leaving the person beneath it all. We can see the worst in a person through death. But we can also see the best.
“I just don’t understand how someone could say they are suicidal,” Megan continued. “Especially after what they have experienced in this dorm. It’s selfish.”
I shifted my eyes to the window and stared at the moonlit outline of Lookout Mountain, refusing to meet her eyes as I carefully chose my words. “It’s something you can’t understand the thought process of unless you’ve experienced it. It’s a disease—it affects your brain. You don’t think about all of the people you leave behind or hurt because you don’t think they care. Or that they’re even there. You just want out.”
Megan may never know how her response to Nick’s suicide affected me, and how she was the one who gave me a face to see to counteract the chemical imbalances that often make my brain lie to me. And it would be fine if she didn’t. Because her natural, unswayed reactions, standing out like a beam from a lighthouse, made me confront the threatening fallacy of my life that I had attempted to bury—that no one would care if I was gone.
I felt Megan looking at me, catching the potential words in between the lines of what I had just said.
“I would guess,” I tacked on.
Route 85 is not one seamless, obvious string of undisturbed road. In parts of New Mexico in particular, the route only exists on paper to maintain continuity with sections in Colorado and Texas; otherwise, it’s completely removed from the Department of Transportation route logs. The piece of 85 that runs through the state is almost entirely synchronized with interstates, even being designed in segments and renamed as New Mexico state roads. Roads in Texas, Colorado, Wyoming, and South and North Dakota overlap parts of Route 85 in segments as well, and accurate signing is often unpredictable throughout the nationwide highway.
One could potentially drive on the route for miles and never truly know what road he or she is actually taking. Route 85 can have sections renamed and overlapped until the road virtually disappears—split into so many different pieces, dispersed amongst so many other roads, rather than holding on to the one solid pathway that it was birthed to be.
The thing about roads is they’re meant to be traveled. And in order to make it through this one broken road, I had to commit myself to the passenger seat. Rather than only focusing on the road and obstacles ahead, a passenger has the freedom to watch and to see more. From this perspective, a person can observe what is left in the rearview mirror for more than a fleeting moment passing by, how the driver’s motions affect the drivers we share the road with, or a red sedan that seems to be on the verge of swerving off the road.
Although many pieces of Route 85 are disjointed, invisible, and broken, it is still whole—whole, and laced with some of the most magnificent sights in the country. From the passenger seat I saw more in the world around me than I ever had. I saw caring in a cafeteria, pain in a residence hall lobby, distress on a lumpy futon, and love on a candlelit football field. The “I did not sign up for this” turned into a memorial on the door of Wenona Cook on the anniversary of Nick’s death that showed me that people remember—that people care when one of their own is gone.
These hills are what spoke to me years ago, what speak to me still, and what had once saved me. They encouraged me to lift my head and look to find what would get me to hold on. This push to observe showed me that I needed to live here not because it was beautiful, not because it was where I was comfortable, but because it was where I finally looked up and found myself—the person free of the monster that was trying to crush me with tunnel vision, who will always have headlights to find my way through whenever the sun sets beneath the rolling hills.