Seeing Sam’s World

My oldest son is on the autism spectrum and can often seem alone in his own mind. But on a trip out west, we were able to share the same beautiful experiences, together.

Two years ago, our middle son, Will, was preparing to head off to his first semester at Ohio State. All of the family conversations that summer seemed to revolve around this big change that was coming, for all of us. 

At first, Sam—Will’s older brother by a year and a half—said little. Not that he’s usually chatty: Sam, who is on the autism spectrum, talks mainly when we’re out of peanut butter or mac and cheese, or when there’s a movie or TV series that he wants to critique. 

Suddenly, however, Sam began to tell his mom—my wife, Monica—and me about his own plans, at least for the near future. He wanted to book a trip. By the time we first heard about it, he already had the whole thing mapped out in his head. It seemed pretty clear. If Will was headed off on an adventure, then Sam should have one, too. 

From our home north of Boston, we’d travel to Logan Airport and fly to Denver. We’d rent an SUV and drive over the Rocky Mountains to Moab, Utah. The centerpiece of the trip would be Arches National Park; Sam had become entranced by images of the park’s incredible sandstone formations. He’d also discovered the potash evaporation ponds. These man-made formations are found at a remote location west of Moab, where a mining company uses blue dye to help evaporate briny ponds of water and potassium chloride, or potash, which is eventually crystallized and used to make fertilizer. The process creates a fantastically vivid aerial view, like a pop art painting. And he wanted to visit Salt Lake City and Boise, Idaho, the latter of which would be our departure point for the return flight home. 

True to form for Sam, the trip would be meticulously planned, to avoid as many chance encounters as conceivably possible. Like others on the spectrum, Sam, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome around age 8, can become bewildered by unknowns of any kind. He’d always dreaded the social obstacle courses of school, and he stopped going at 15. Since completing his high school equivalency test, he has worked part-time jobs, often fantasizing about where he might live when he finds a suitable career. Japan is typically high on the list. Sam, who has always been visually and musically gifted, loves anime and noodle bowls.

The last time he’d planned a trip, his first thought was to go to Tokyo. Alone. He was 17 at the time. Didn’t have a driver’s license. Hadn’t left his room in our house much since he’d become a teenager. We gently but quickly dissuaded him from that idea—the distance! the language barrier!—and agreed to let him fly by himself to his second choice, Seattle, instead. 

Sam had become entranced by images of the park’s sandstone formations.

Sam called us more often during those few days than he ever had before. With some coaching over the phone, he located the micro-hotel where he’d booked a room. He figured out the bus system, visited the Space Needle, did a bit of hiking. As far as we could tell, he spent his last few days in Seattle holing up in his room, making his way to a nearby pizza joint and back for meals. All the mental taxation he had put himself through to prove he could make the trip had obviously caught up with him. Still, the simple act of going was a triumph. Now, a couple of years later, he was determined to go west again. 

Monica had just gone to Columbus, Ohio, with Will to see the campus. She was also packing for an upcoming trip to Paris with the women in her family, so she suggested I go with Sam. We’d recently taken a family trip back to San Francisco, where the kids were born, and he was especially animated there. He seemed to embrace the idea of road-tripping with his father. I cleared my desk and we flew out of Logan on a Saturday in September. 

After a pizza and a quick trip to the Denver Art Museum, we went to bed early and left before dawn. As we passed through the Rockies, we took a detour up Mount Evans to watch the sun come up. On the five-hour drive to Moab, we listened to the filmmaker David Lynch narrate his memoir, Room to Dream, which had just come out. Sam and I had spent a lot of time discussing which audiobook we’d use to bide the extensive driving time ahead of us; I’d successfully convinced him that the eccentric Lynch, who grew up in Boise, would be a mutually agreeable travel companion. 

As we neared Arches around midday, we took another brief diversion a few miles north of the highway onto an unpaved road. There, in the canyon, we found the ghost town Sam was looking for. A century ago, Sego was a tiny coal-mining community, but a poor water supply eventually led to the demise of the industry and the departure of the town’s remaining residents. We spent an hour or so wandering around the crumbling foundations of places where a few intrepid people once lived. 

Now, a couple of years later, he was determined to go west again.

With awareness about the nature of Asperger’s syndrome growing, much of the population now understands that people on the spectrum are confounded by social cues that come naturally to the rest of us. A few years ago, my wife and I saw the Broadway play based on Mark Haddon’s best-selling 2003 novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, about a teenage boy in England who struggles with the expectations of society. The show’s staging brilliantly conceptualized the intense chaos careening around inside the 15-year-old Christopher’s head, with an endless feed of mathematic equations and fragments of language streaming frantically across the black box of the theater. Pounding electronic music and hot white lights helped depict the boy’s inner turmoil, which, like Sam’s, is forever masked by a stony facial expression. 

In Utah, I began to see that Sam was giving me a gift. Sam, the kid who never answers when we ask which composer’s music he’s playing on his keyboard. Sam, the kid who often signs greeting cards with a single dot. Though he rarely ever smiles or laughs, his sense of humor—or, more accurately, his sense of the absurd—is acute. He gets David Lynch. When I told him recently that he needed to have a flu shot, he deadpanned, “What if I get autism?”

Adolescence was hard for him, but as he enters adulthood, he’s learning to be proud of the traits that make him unique. I think, for Sam, the barren terrain of Utah represented the nearest thing to a moonscape he could find on Earth. What would it be like to inhabit a distant satellite alone? I’m not sure I can imagine it, but I sure do believe Sam can. 

We spent a couple of days driving through Arches, hiking out to get a close look at Landscape Arch, the long, thin, bridge-like formation in the area known as Devils Garden. It took a bit of off-roading in our rented SUV, up several boulder-strewn switchbacks, to reach the potash evaporation pond, about 20 miles southwest of Arches. At one point, we left the car behind until it was a tiny speck in the distance, hoofing across a wide expanse of high desert and clambering up a huge slab of rock to get a view of the pond. There was no activity, no sign of life, behind the mining facility’s prohibitive fencing. Sam’s eyes were wide as he scanned the vast human emptiness of our surroundings. He lingered, taking plenty of photos.

Some days that week he talked a lot. About Lynch’s movies, about the fact that a bison is not a buffalo. There were other days when we drove for long stretches in silence. Our family learned long ago that if Sam is feeling overwhelmed, it’s best to just let him power down.    

Each night brought a new experience. I’d booked Airbnbs along the route, including a “glamping” tent with two full-size beds on the outskirts of Moab and, later in the week, a rustic cabin on a horse farm near Ketchum, Idaho. Sam is a creature of habit, but he is well aware that the time has come for him to challenge himself. His parents will not always be by his side when the world requires him to navigate it. As we pressed on, each day brought a new set of questions: Where will we eat? Where will we pee? Will we be expected to meet our Airbnb host?

At one point, we sat down for a late dinner on the patio of a hip little restaurant his mother would have loved. I brought along two pens and a notepad. While we waited for our orders to arrive, I asked Sam to try to write down as many of our stops as he could recall. I did it, too. When we were finished, he was thrilled to see that he’d remembered more than I had. Evidently, he’s a better reporter than his father.

By the time we reached Boise, where we were charmed by the tidy Craftsman-style bungalows, Sam was exhausted from our excursion. After touring the Old Idaho Penitentiary and stopping for some gourmet ice cream, I left Sam to rest in our cottage rental while I explored some more. At a supply store, I bought him a gift, a small figurine of a bison. Unsurprisingly, he hardly acknowledged it, and soon we returned home.

I used to change my cellphone screen saver often, but since our trip to Arches, I’ve kept the same image from our travels out West on my home screen. It’s a pristine clay outcropping under a cloudless azure sky.

Sam still lives at home, but he’s working to change that; he just completed a computer coding boot camp and is now applying for jobs in the industry. And each time I go into his room, my eyes are drawn to the little souvenir that has pride of place on his desk: a plastic bison.


James Sullivan is an author and journalist based in Amesbury, Massachusetts. Email him at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com.

Illustrations by Levi Hastings

Originally Published February 2020