Source of all things: Writer Tracy Ross hikes back into the wilderness to confront her stepfather about the sex abuse that began on a camping trip
Tracy Ross owes her passion for the great outdoors to her stepfather. But it was in the very mountain idyll they both loved that he began a cycle of sexual abuse that was to last for years. Three decades later, the writer returned to Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains to confront him among the lakes and trees where he destroyed her childhood
Sunday, 16 August 2009
All my dad has to do is answer the questions. Just four simple questions. Only they aren't that easy, because questions like this never are. We're almost at the feature called The Temple, three days into the craggy maw of Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains, and he has no idea they're coming. But I have them loaded, hot and explosive, like shells in a .30-30.
It's July, and hotter than hell on the sage-covered slopes. But we're up high, climbing to 9,000ft. Four days ago, he met me in Twin Falls, after driving north across Nevada. The air is thin, the terrain rugged, and his body – 64 years old, bowlegged, and 15 pounds overweight – seems tired and heavy to me. He struggled the last half-mile, stopping every few feet to catch his breath, adjust his pack, and tug on the big, wet circles that have formed under the armpits of his shirt, which reads "Toot My Horn".
We have barely spoken since we left the dock at Redfish Lake three days ago, leaving the boat and the worried Texans who looked at our 40-pound packs and said, "You're going where?" I'm sure we seemed an odd pair: an old man and his – what was she? Daughter? Lover? Friend? When we stepped off the boat, I wanted to turn back. But The Temple was out here somewhere, and, besides, I still hadn't decided if I was going to kill him outright or just walk him to death.
We continue climbing above Holy Water Lake until, a few hundred feet from a pass, we turn off the trail. In front of us is a cirque of smooth granite towers, sharp and fluted. The Temple shoots out of a giant boulder field.
When we get to the wide, flat rock that looks like an altar, we stop. His eyes, the colour of chocolate, begin to melt, and the corners of his mouth tremble, like he's fighting off a frown. I dig into my pack and take out my tape recorder.
That's when the questioning begins.
If we'd thought about it, back when I was a kid and my dad first joined the family, we might have nominated him for an award: Idaho Dad of the Year. In the mid-1970s, after he married my mom and before the trouble set in, he built us an Idaho dream. We had a RoadRunner caravan, and every Friday between Memorial Day and the end of the hunting season, my dad would leave his job at Van England's store in Twin Falls, change into his camping clothes, and load his new family into his bright-yellow Jeep Cherokee. By the time the other dads on Richmond Drive were cracking their first weekend beers, we'd be chugging past the lava flats with their searing heat, and approaching the cool, clean air of the Stanley Basin, where the Sawtooth Mountains top out at 10,800ft.
If my dad loved being outside – hunting, hiking and fishing Idaho's pristine mountains and streams – he quickly taught me to love it, too. I was four and my brother was eight the year my parents married, following a blistering whole-family courtship that included picnics at Shoshone Falls, ski trips to Soldier Mountain, and drive-in movies watched from beanbags in the back of my future dad's 1949 Willys Jeep.
My real dad, a US Navy man, died when I was seven months old after an aneurysm exploded in his brain. My brother and I were too young to feel the gut-punch of his death – the disorienting, life-sucking loss that shook my mom so violently the doctors sedated her. But when lanky, bell- bottomed Donnie Lee walked through the door of our military-pension house, it was as if we remembered to miss something we'd never known. By the time my parents were married, the family honeymoon was already in full swing.
My new dad's pride and joy – after his new family – was the RoadRunner he bought in 1976. Come mid-June we were in full summer-camping mode, and most Thursdays he'd start loading it with supplies. In the long shadows of the Sawtooths, we built castles in the freshwater sand and swam out to a giant rock a few hundred feet from shore. Sometimes, other families came with us, and the kids would hike together, climbing on beaver lodges and jumping in murky ponds. At the time, the streams pouring out of Redfish Lake teemed with sockeye salmon on their way home from the mouth of the Pacific Ocean, 900 miles away.
As a little girl, I stared down at their rotting bodies, the wild look in their bulging eyes. I wondered what demon drove them to travel so far inland – without food or rest, for weeks – to decompose and die at Redfish Lake.
It's early June, dusk, and the whole family is naked. We've stopped off at Russian John hot spring on our way to Redfish Lake. Our clothes are piled near the steaming pool that's just past the ranger station on Highway 75. One by one, we slip into water that smells less like sulphur and more like infused sage. We soak until the last rays of sun paint the mountains pink. We all scan the hillsides for deer. Spot one, and you earn a dollar: my new dad's rule. A star – my new dad points it out – burns itself into view. "Wish on it," he ' says, and we all do. When we begin to prune, we get out, tug on underwear and shirts, and rush back to the Jeep, where our black lab, Jigger, awaits.
I see the four of us, back on the road and warming up, the blast of the heater drowning out Lynyrd Skynyrd on the radio. It's dark now and I have moved into the front seat, my dad and I calling truckers on the CB radio. In my last, best memory of 1979, autumn light reflects off a golden Redfish Lake. Decaying aspen leaves smell good, in a sad, slowed-down way. Though I am only eight, these trips to the mountains have already become a foundation upon which I will build my identity. I'm telling my dad how I want to go into the Sawtooths, next summer maybe, on a real backpacking trip. He stomps out a cigarette and puts it in his pocket, then smiles tenderly. Because I don't know what's coming, I think this is how it will always be.
He takes my hand and leads me back to the trailer, where my mom and brother are fixing dinner. Later, at the foldout table, we play cards. My dad drinks beer and my brother begs for a sip. When I go to bed, my mom does, too, on the foldout couch directly below my foldout bunk. I listen to my dad and brother. "Pair of jacks," says my dad.
And I fall asleep.
When I wake up, sandpaper is crawling on my skin. At least that's what I think it is, until I feel hot breath against my cheek.
The bunk bed where I am sleeping is two feet from the camper ceiling, and it's coffin-dark. I can't sit up, so I lay perfectly still, while my eight-year-old mind tries to understand sandpaper and beer-soaked breath. At first, I think someone has broken into the trailer. I must be alone, or my mom would jump up and scream. My dad would grab his rifle and start shooting.
The sandpaper keeps moving, five round pieces the size of dimes. It scrapes my stomach, sliding along the top of my pyjama pants, where it hesitates, then dips down. Completely disoriented, I try to scream, but no sound comes out. Holding my breath, I force myself to buck away from the beer and abrasion, into the tightest ball I can make. The sandpaper stops moving. The breath grunts away from my face.
I'm swimming in tar. I will suffocate. I lay awake listening to the wind beat the trailer for hours.
The next morning, my dad and I walk to Fishhook Creek. I lead, he follows. I find a log, whitewashed and slippery, and inch across it to the centre. My dad scoots behind me, lights a Camel, and sits down so that the soles of his black work boots just skim the ripples, which are metallic and bright. I feet itchy and sick to my stomach, like I've been sunburned from the inside out. My dad puffs on his cigarette.
"I know what you're thinking," he says. "I know what you think that was."
I consider asking him what he thinks I'm thinking, because what I am really wondering is how the salmon, struggling against the current below my feet, breathe in the murky eddies that disappear under the grassy bank. I am imagining, in some abstract and childish way, that I will dive in the river and let it flush me downstream. I hold my breath and let my dad continue. He puffs on his cigarette, then throws the butt into the creek.
"I mean it, Tracy," he says."I was only tucking you in."
It's early October 2006, and the thermometer reads 41°F. I'm standing at the counter at River One Outfitters in Stanley, Idaho, a tiny town at the base of the Sawtooths. Two days ago, I flew to Boise, rented a car, and started driving east. I didn't plan to be driving down this road, concealing an open beer, listening to Zeppelin on the radio. I have a husband and two kids at home. It's coming on three decades since my dad put his hands down my pants in the family caravan at Redfish Lake. I've been to therapy – years of it – and energy workers, astrologists, and priests. I've even been back to the Sawtooths, including once with my parents and kids. I thought it would be romantic to show the boys my favourite childhood place.
Yesterday, I drove out of Sun Valley and I stopped at our favourite campsite near Fishhook Creek. And I found the spot where my dad and I once balanced on a log in the early autumn light. Some people say you can heal yourself just by returning to the scene of a crime. I sat on the bank of Fishhook Creek for maybe half a day, thinking about the sandpaper, the cigarette in the water, and the chance my dad had to fess up. He could have done it, told the truth right then and there, and avoided this whole damned mess. But he chose to pretend I was out of my head, a little girl confused by a scary dream. I can't remember if he tried to hug me after he talked, but I know I instantly stopped trusting him.
Sometimes, I take out a picture of myself from the early days at Redfish Lake. I am pigtailed and pink-cheeked, holding a cup with a tadpole inside. I am beaming into the camera, proud of the new life I cradle in my hands.
I became a sad kid after that picture was taken. I've been a sad kid ever since.
I pack up my things and head toward the Sawtooths, where I hope to hike some happiness back into myself.
For a long time after we stood on the log across Fishhook Creek, he didn't touch me. But at age 12, as I began to climb the wave of puberty, he came back. At first, he really was tucking me in – just thoroughly. But later, he let his hands wander. Sometimes, he watched me undress through the blinds he half-opened after dinner, when he went outside to smoke. When I sensed him in the backyard pretending to rake the grass, I would crouch and freeze, like a deer that tries to become invisible in broad daylight. Night after night, he ranged across my body, exploring this place and that. And sometimes he sat in a corner shining his flashlight on my exposed abdomen and thighs. The effect was so bewildering, I stopped knowing what to think.
As my dad frequented my bedroom, a creeping disintegration set in. It attacked my self-image, then spread, disease-like, to my sense of morality, ambition, and trust. I now think my entire family felt ill, though no one acknowledged why. We stopped camping, drew the curtains, and hardly ventured outside. Any connection I may have felt – to the mountains, my own potential, the world – began to erode.
I started contemplating suicide on a regular basis when I was 14, as it dawned on me that no one was going to help, no matter what I said or did. My grandmother listened to my reports at her kitchen table while she prepared elaborate duck or pheasant dinners for her hunting friends. But she never confronted my dad. And my mom, who'd already lost one husband, wore her denial like a heavy coat.
I can still remember the look on her face when I handed her a poem I'd written, one morning after my dad had been in my room. She read half of it – I can't remember what it said – then folded the paper over. My dad was standing close enough in the kitchen to intercept, but he didn't see it. My mom's eyes burned their own message back. "Please, please stop telling me this," they said.
And so, one night in the middle of August 1985, I ran away.
It's late, and I'm lying on the living-room floor in a faded-yellow Tweety Bird nightgown. I'm pretending to sleep as the wind screams across the lava flats, rattling the windows of our house. My dad, in a terrycloth robe and reeking of Old Spice, hovers a couple of inches above me, so that I can feel the heat coming off his chest. I squirm, and he backs off. I roll over; he inches on. I jerk my head and lurch my body – still pretending to sleep, but showing him that I know what he's doing and that it's making me sick. My dad and I twist around like this until he decides I'm too restless to lay on top of tonight.
He gets up and stares at me, then goes outside for a smoke. When he comes in, he turns out the lights and heads to bed. I listen. Teeth brushed. Covers back. A little moan. Asleep.
When I hear him snoring, I put on my pink-and-black Vans and slip out the front door, careful not to let the wind slam it shut. I run to the end of our driveway and turn north, toward the Perrine Bridge. This is the night, I think, that everyone will remember, but no one will understand. I am running to the bridge, which stretches across the Snake River, nearly 500ft in the air. When I get there, I will walk to the very centre. I will climb on top of the railing. And I will jump.
Lying in my sleeping bag a half-mile below Sawtooth Lake, I can't get the bridge, the Tweety Bird nightgown, or my desperate 14-year-old face out of my head. It's 3am, and I'm staring at the roof of my tent. Yesterday, I'd left the trailhead near Stanley and headed north, out of the showering aspen leaves and past the hillsides covered in scree. Even if I couldn't find answers at Redfish Lake, I thought, I would still hike into my favourite mountains to clear my head. When I reached the lake surrounded by snow-capped peaks, I'd tried to pitch my tent, but it was slushy and muddy and I started to cry. Around 6pm, I packed up my things and turned down the trail.
The summer of 1985, I stood in the middle of the Perrine Bridge for a long time, and didn't jump. Then I turned around and walked to the house of a friend whose mother was dating a cop. The next day, the police knocked on my parents' door and asked them for my things. When I later testified against my dad, I learnt he had denied everything, then refused to take a lie-detector test. I was moved into a foster home and became a ward of the state. My dad, who continued proclaiming his innocence, was sentenced to a year of abstinence – from me.
Somehow, in those darkest days, my parents thought they could jump-start our family and forcibly undo the damage that had been done. My dad granted me a sparse admission over the phone – something like, "I did it. I'm sorry." But it felt half-hearted, and I knew he was holding out. For the next year, I unleashed my hatred upon him, daring him to touch me so I could have him locked up. A year after we reunited, when I was 16, I used my military pension to pay for boarding-school in Michigan, planning never to return.
It almost worked. In following years, I extricated myself from my family by disappearing for months. I went to places that didn't have phones, such as the Utah desert. I enrolled in college several times – and dropped out when the urge to disappear became stronger than the need to fit in. But through it all, I continued to fragment.
Some people fall into the snakepit of their lives and reach their arms, like a baby, toward God. Others discover long-distance running or opium on a back-street in Bali. When I realised that there was no escaping my pain, I turned my compass north and followed it until I reached a place where it was light all day.
Alaska. I went there after a friend told me that people in the 49th state partied till dawn in the endless gloaming of the Arctic summer. The town I was headed to, McCarthy, didn't have a phone service and was accessible during the winter only by plane. It was a place where nobody knew you or cared if your story was true.
I took to Alaska like I'd been born there. By December 1994 I was living in a 12ft by 16ft cabin, eight hours northeast of Anchorage near the Canada border, with 10m acres of wilderness at the front door. I was 24 years old. Even if they'd known where to look, my parents couldn't have found me.
In the morning, I wake up, stoke the barrel stove, and haul water from a pond after chopping a foot-thick hole in the ice. I ski giant loops through stands of birch and black spruce. The miles rack up: 15, 30, 100. When I ski, some of the rage and sorrow seeps out of me.
Solstices and equinoxes pass. By June 1996, I'm living in Talkeetna, on the southern edge of Denali National Park. One day, a neighbour asks me to help with her dogs as she trains for the Iditarod, an 1,150-mile cross-country sled race. She, too, is brave and afraid; her boyfriend is dying of cancer. When I meet her at the start of another long race, she is crying, but she pushes 150 miles to the Kuskoquim River, then turns around and brings her dogs across the finish line. When I get home, I write a story about her on the back of a grocery bag, then take it to the local radio station and read it over the air. Weeks later, on the eve of the Iditarod, my story is broadcast on radio stations across the state, and months later wins an award. A light goes on in my head.
When I look back on the years I spent in Alaska, I see a more perfect version of myself emerging. I am stronger, more trusting, and kind. In 1997, I score a job as a back- country ranger in Denali. Maybe it's just the hazy mellowing of distance and time. But by September, when I leave Alaska for mainland America, I am ready to embrace the world – and perhaps even my father for showing me how wilderness can shape and define.
For a long time, through my late twenties and into my thirties, my dad and I airbrushed the abuse out of our family photo. We got so good at pretending, we almost convinced ourselves that we had moved on. Truth is, my dad and I got on well together – in part because he tried hard to be good and normal again. He once flew to Anchorage (Alaska's largest city), when I needed a partner to drive with down the Alcan Highway, too scared of the frost heaves and endless stretches of road between gas stations to do it alone. Over the years, he has given me cash and co-signed on cars. He has picked up the phone when I called to talk about my loneliness – or the weather – at 3am. And it is he, not my mother, who has saved all of my stories, in big, black binders at home.
In 2000, he came to see the ultrasound of my first baby. Indeed, my children Scout and Hatcher have become the brightest spot in his diminished life, and they love him acutely.
This easing of relations was good for my dad, and easy for me. But I still didn't trust him – not completely.
After Alaska, I moved to Winter Park, Colorado, and skied five days a week. I kept writing, too, and landed a position at a big magazine. I live on two wooded acres at 8,500ft on the outskirts of Boulder. My family hikes out the front door. On summer nights, we sit on our deck and watch satellites cross the sky, and in the winter, with snow blanketing the ground, we listen to a quiet so vast it creates its own sound. Yet the weight had crept back, so heavy I felt it would crush me.
It started in spring 2007, after an exhausting stretch of work-related travel. A physician's assistant prescribed the antidepressant Lexapro, and I took it even though I wasn't depressed. Instead of making me feel better, the pills made me groggy, irritable, and profoundly morose. I kept saying, "My life is a million times better than it should have been." And then I thought about my dad, and my head began to hurt.
In recent years, his apologies had become more frequent, though he still talked euphemistically about "hurting me". He suffered openly when I refused to let him give me away at my wedding. But he never truly came clean – to me or anyone else in the family – about the extent of my abuse. And I began to worry about what he could do to my kids. In the haze of my antidepressant detox, I decided I had to go back to the Sawtooths. I believed I could find answers there, at the scene of the crime. It didn't work.
I lay in my sleeping bag at Sawtooth Lake. By the time the sun spread over the peaks, I knew I couldn't reconstruct the past by myself. I needed my dad to complete the story.
My dad was born on 12 March 1943 in Colorado. His mom was 17 and divorced her husband. A year later, my grandmother remarried. When he was five, my father was sodomised. It was an older cousin at a family gathering. My dad says the kids were just being kids. He doesn't think he was mentally scarred, but admits it formed his attitude toward sex. "It showed me sex wasn't something you should be afraid of," he told me once. "It was how you showed your love."
I'm afraid. My dad and I sit at the picnic table on the far side of Redfish Lake. I'm scared because when I am with my dad I am eight years old. We will walk for days up forested valleys. We will camp in places so lovely we'll want to weep. Fish will rise to the surface of a dozen glassy lakes. And he might try to lie on top of me when I fall asleep.
"I've made some rules for myself," he announces, then rattles them off. "I won't ask questions. I won't speak out of turn. I won't be vulgar or too descriptive. I won't get pissed off at you." I stare at him. You won't get pissed at me? What the hell is wrong with you? Then I check off the questions I will ask him when we get to The Temple, three days from here.
When did it start?
When did it end?
How many times did you do it?
Two hours later, we are inching our way up the dusty switchbacks through spruce trees and lodgepole pine. My dad drags his legs. We continue like this until we reach the sign for Alpine Lake, where we'll spend our first night.
After dinner, I change my clothes and worm into my sleeping bag. I scoot my sleeping pad as far from his as possible, until I'm lying in the corner of the tent. I know it's weird that we didn't bring two tents, but this is my dad, my father, who took up the job of caring for us voluntarily when he married my mom. Like most little girls, I worshipped my dad. ' We snuggled in my parents' double-wide sleeping bag. He let me brush his hair.
As I have learnt about my dad's abuse, I've begun to see him in a different light. Once, after a country music concert when he imbibed too much, he cried in the car and told me that he would give anything if he could go back and make things right. For better or worse, I believed him. And before all that – before everything – there were the years at Redfish Lake.
Still, the tent is an uncomfortable place. This is the first time my dad and I will lie shoulder-to-shoulder since I was a teenager in Twin Falls. I will wear all of my clothes and never really fall asleep.
The next morning, we head back down the switchbacks, which murder our knees. As we walk, my dad fills the silence I create. He sifts through his better memories, until we come to a big log on the side of the trail, where we break out our lunch. "I was 16 the first time I shot a deer," he says, grinning mischievously. "You can hardly grab your breath. Just knowing that you can actually kill something. It makes you weak in the knees."
I realise that I haven't seen him in this setting, surrounded by rivers and trees, in years. In 1990, my parents moved to Nevada. They sold the caravan and packed my dad's shot-loading equipment in a box. We chat, nibble on sausage, and dry our sweaty shirts in the breeze. Two hours later, we take off our boots and wade into a bottom-clear lake. The silence is back, bigger than it has been all week. Watching him, I rehearse different ways to interrogate.
So, Dad. When was the first time you… abused me? (Too clinical. This isn't an after-school special.) Touched me? (Too real-time.) Completely fucked up my bearings? Yes, that's it. That's how I'll start the conversation when we get to The Temple and he's so tired he can't defend himself.
My dad collapses the second we reach the altar. Sweat drenches his entire torso. His face looks punched and weak. I crouch down, slightly behind him, and dig in my pack.
This is the moment I've been waiting for: when the truth will shine down upon us and the heavens break open under the weight of a million dirty-white doves. I take out my Dictaphone, test the battery, and push record. The entire conversation will last 13 minutes.
The Truth (a one-act play)
[The lights come up on a rock in the middle of a boulder field. Don, an attractive man in his mid-sixties, sits slightly in front of his daughter, Tracy. She holds a reporter's tape recorder in front of his face]
Tracy [Fidgeting; tugging at her shorts] So this is going to be hard.
Don It's OK.
Tracy [Hands spread on the rock, absorbing its heat] All I have are four questions. And I don't want to know details. Because I know. I was there. And so what is important to me is to know your version of the truth.
Don [Nodding, looking down]
Tracy OK. When did it start?
Don [Clearing his throat, composed] On a camping trip up here at Redfish. I had been drinking. I lied. I was tucking you in. My hands went to a spot, which surprised me, and I kept them there. But the severity – it wasn't that often at that age. Just periodically.
Tracy [Agitated] But I was eight. Couldn't you see what that did to me and say, "Oh my God, oh my God, I did that. That was a mistake"?
Don [Calmly; choosing his words] A person who does what I did, you make things up. You don't think of the other person. You just need that closeness. If I had ever known how it would have affected you, I probably would have done something completely different.
Tracy [Still agitated] So that day on the log. I wasn't upset?
Don I don't think so. I don't remember. I was trying to cover things up. I had feelings for you. I thought of you as my fishing buddy. The only thing I could do was lie. I wasn't thinking of you.
Tracy Just so you know in case you were wondering, I was thinking about what would happen if I jumped in the river and died. [Starting to cry] I was eight. That's so fucked up.
Don [Tenderly] No, it isn't.
Tracy [Sadly] Yes, it is. When you're eight years old, you're a little kid. It wasn't a physical thing?
Don Not then, but later I was put in a position where you were going through puberty. This was your teen years, you were probably 12 or 13. Your mother stopped being intimate. I leaned to you for closeness.
Tracy [Putting her hands up as if to say " stop"] OK, OK. So mom wasn't interested in being intimate? Why didn't you go have an affair?
Don [Nodding] That's what I shoulda done. By all means.
[A break. Tracy takes a drink of water, shakes her head. Stands up, sits down. Don looks across the valley. A hawk skims the trees]
Tracy OK. [Sigh] Now, how many times did it happen? In various degrees of whatever it was. Coming into my room… whatever that was. Till it ended.
Don Between 25 and 50 times maybe. You know, I never kept track. [A long silence]
Tracy [Fighting tears] You must have felt like shit about that, right? I mean, I didn't want that, right? [Sitting down, hugging her legs to her chest] I wasn't a willing accomplice… right?
Don You weren't a willing accomplice. I didn't expect you to be willing. I really felt screwed up. Why would I jeopardise my family like that? And I'm not using this as an excuse, but I was abused when I was real young.
Tracy Did you do it to Chris?
Don No, no. It's never boys.
Tracy [Her eyes squeeze shut, her face registering fear] Who else, then?
Don I haven't had those feelings for anybody, ever since.
Tracy Since when?
Don Since you. It ended when you left, when you ran away. [They're both crying now. The wind has picked up]
Tracy So one day it was just… over?
Don No, it's never over. You have those feelings, but they're just like this tape. It replays but you learn how to stop it. You learn how.
Some people believe the truth will set you free. I think that's too easy. After 20 years, I finally had proof. But the victory wasn't entirely sweet. My dad's confession also horrified me. I'd always hated that he put his twisted desire before a small girl's suffering. Now that I had learnt how often it had happened – 50 nights lost, never to be regained – a new sadness gripped me. Yet, by confessing, my dad has given me something back: power, the anticipation of a fuller future, maybe eve