Amy Butcher Finds Strength in Nature After an Abusive Relationship
Author of "Mothertrucker" finds healing in Delaware's Preservation Parks
It’s been seven years since the night I thought I might die in the desert.
It was July, Colorado. I was 27—a woman with an orange tent and a romanticized vision of desert camping.
I wanted to drive west that summer to see America’s deserts—more specifically, the petroglyphs of Mesa Verde, the early drawings of man and ram and bird, their lined aesthetic in orange rock so very different from the greens and yellows that dominate Ohio. Like so many women, I believed I all but secured my safety by inviting my partner along. We had been together for a year and were in love, and though sometimes his love seemed lined with anger, traveling alone seemed dangerous.
So together, we drove from Delaware, Ohio, to Indiana to Illinois to Iowa and then pushed on through Nebraska, then Colorado. We invented games along the way: Eat this thing from the convenience store. Drink this drink, or else. Somewhere in Nebraska, I tried my first 7-Eleven taquito, filled with jalapeño cream cheese. He tried a soda flavored with tamarind. We laughed at the sight of Kum & Go gas stations, their 100-ounce HuMUGous Mug retailing for a reasonable $14.99. He filled it with coffee, then Pepsi. I questioned his sanity, and also his bladder.
Our trip was fun. If we didn’t have fun, it all would’ve been easy. The point was, in fact, that everything about him and us was two ways. There was the fun, and then fun’s opposite, and it was this duality that made leaving so difficult.
That first night in our Colorado campsite, we roasted bratwursts over a fire. The bratwursts burst and oozed pink juices between perfect cubes of diced white fat. We sharpened desert sticks into pokers for the bag of marshmallows we would never open, and together we watched the sun descend slowly into a yellow-lit valley. I remember thinking how strange it looked, a landscape stripped of vegetation, and how the sky went distinctly purple before the stars came out and the evening went black. Then I remember our conversation, its escalation. In the months before this evening, my partner had criticized my values and poked holes in my beliefs. But his comments—while pointed—had never felt threatening.
And yet on this night, his tone became unreasonably angry; his words became sharp and accusatory. He told me that God had been speaking to him behind a dumpster, and he’d been listening. I remember thinking, A woman like me doesn’t end up with a guy who hears God behind a dumpster. And yet I could see that the facts of my reality didn’t line up with that self-perception.
He began to scream, and I began to cower. Where was I supposed to go? I had been afraid to camp in national parks alone, but now I was a woman in an isolated desert with a man consumed by rage. I didn’t know how to de-escalate; I didn’t know what to do with my body.
I feared for my life.
The only thing I could think to do was get him to fall asleep, to be quiet, to be still, so we climbed into our tent and into our separate sleeping bags. He placed his body between mine and the oblong flap of the tent’s exit and I waited for his silence. But his anger only intensified, and there was nothing for me to do but endure it.
Outside, the air still smelled of woodsmoke and charcoal. The campfire still smoldered beyond his screaming.
Seven years later, I pop my trunk in Gallant Woods, my favorite of Delaware’s Preservation Parks. I’m not alone—or, not entirely: three rescue dogs that I’ve acquired in my healing, wiry little beasts, take off before I can leash them. But I know their pursuit is short-lived and predictable: an Eastern gray squirrel, who scampers and chitters, climbing a thin tree that flanks the parking lot. The dogs bark once, twice, and return. Their leashes slip on easily.
This afternoon is soft yellow light, a cool, gentle breeze coming in from the south. Swallows dip between cattails and the smallest of my dogs—a border collie, the rescue told me, though she’s a long-haired and cuddly chihuahua—chomps aimlessly at a butterfly. She’s never caught one in her five years, but that doesn’t keep her from trying, jumping into the air, all four paws extending as if to clasp a gorgeous monarch.
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I’ve fallen in love with this state and its parks. What I like most are these cool, yellow woods. The green embankments that buffer the water. The birds and the air and the seasons, the abundance of goldenrod and butterweed. All summer, I packed picnics and paddled in my kayak to an island buffered by Hogback Preserve. I pitched a hammock for hours between twisting trees and watched as the dogs fished from their place underneath me. I had the feeling, those days, that Ohio was heaven, and it’s been good for me, more than good: to find heaven in a place, and not a person.
It’s important that I do this work alone, without the companionship of a friend or neighbor. I am trying to reclaim the wilderness and, with it, my sense of safety. As a girl, this trust and sense of safety came naturally—I was a child who made a home in the winding creek beds and empty woods and wild weeds that surrounded our Pennsylvania house. I moved confidently through rivers, plucked crayfish from beneath wet rocks. I felt most free—felt the safest—when I was alone in wilderness, and then that sense of freedom—that sense of safety—was very abruptly, at 27, taken from me.
For the past three years, I’ve been writing a book about a woman I met and befriended quickly: Joy “Mothertrucker” Wiebe, a 50-year-old Alaskan who made her living driving big rigs on the James W. Dalton Highway, known as the loneliest and deadliest road in America. We spent April of 2018 tracing 414 miles through some of the nation’s most desolate and breathtakingly beautiful Arctic landscapes—slick summits and gorgeous valleys and tundra torn beneath Arctic grass to reveal neon blue permafrost. When she dropped me off at the Fairbanks, Alaska, airport for my return flight home to Columbus, she promised we’d do the trip again soon. But a few months later, in August, her tanker overturned on a shallow stretch of sunken shoulder, and Joy died instantly.
My book was meant to be a profile of a daring woman, but it also became an exploration of female strength and America’s quiet epidemic of intimate partner violence. Because while Joy chose her career for the opportunities the work presented to be a woman alone in wilderness, she also chose it for the financial freedom it provided should she need to leave her abusive husband. To me, the truth of her life is summed up easily: She died on the deadliest road in America because it sometimes felt safer than her own home.
Joy “Mothertrucker” conquered an icy terrain two to three times weekly, but she also spent most of her life trying to conquer and overcome male violence. My life’s work now is in her name, and it’s largely to acquire the sort of stillness our time together taught me to love. To overcome a need that caused me to invite danger into my adventure rather than run from it. To remember how to trust my instincts before one bad night in an American desert turns into two turns into three more years I spent, terrified.
To trust, also, the eastern cottontail. The American goldfinch.
I trust—wholeheartedly—the whitetail deer. Each time I see one—there are several that reside in Char-Mar Preserve in Galena—I expect my dogs to pull, to bark, but they stand beside me in reverential silence. They’ve come to appreciate these creatures, too, and understand what I do about intimacy: If we like something, we shouldn’t meet it with violence.
For so long, I too bought the narrative that it was the outside world that was intent on hurting women. That the wilderness and our state and national parks were not safe for me to explore as a woman alone. “Be careful,” everyone still tells me when I set out. “Drop me a pin,” my friends say, or my mother.
But the biggest threat to our collective bodies comes almost always from the people we love, the people we date or dream of marrying. It’s the man who stood beside me in a Colorado parking lot, filling an Igloo cooler with ice to preserve our marshmallows, our chocolate bars. It’s the man who pitched the tent, and then pitched a fit and raged at me.
I’ve healed myself, hiking Ohio. Every step forward is a step more committed and closer to health. So I walk the rock-lined path. I dress the dogs in their argyle sweaters. I pack us up on the first snowy morning of the year, and you wouldn’t believe how special it is—to make the first imprint on a snow-covered trail. The dogs race forward and look back to me. I think we’re all wise to look back, occasionally.
But one step forward, all of us. And to be able to take it means so much.
This story is from the November 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.
Amy Butcher will discuss her new book, "Mothertrucker: Finding Joy On The Loneliest Road in America," Thursday, Nov. 18, at Gramercy Books in Bexley.