The Source of All Things: A Memoir
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The Source of All Things: A Memoir

3.8 17
by Tracy Ross

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Tracy Ross never knew her biological father, who died after a brain aneurysm when she was still an infant. So when her mother married Donnie, a gregarious man with an all-wheel-drive jeep and a love of hiking, four-year-old Tracy was ecstatic to have a father figure in her life. A loving and devoted step-father, Donnie introduced Tracy’s family to the…  See more details below


Tracy Ross never knew her biological father, who died after a brain aneurysm when she was still an infant. So when her mother married Donnie, a gregarious man with an all-wheel-drive jeep and a love of hiking, four-year-old Tracy was ecstatic to have a father figure in her life. A loving and devoted step-father, Donnie introduced Tracy’s family to the joys of fishing, deer hunting, camping, and hiking among the most pristine mountains of rural Idaho. Donnie was everything Tracy dreamed a dad would be—protective, brave, and kind. But when his dependence on his eight-year-old daughter’s companionship went too far, everything changed.

Once Donnie’s nighttime visits began, Tracy’s childhood became a confusing blend of normal little girl moments and the sickening, secret invasion of her safety. Tormented by this profound betrayal, Tracy struggled to reconcile deeply conflicting feelings about her stepfather: on the one hand, fear and loathing, on the other hand, the love any daughter would have for her father. It was not until she ran away from home as a teenager that her family was forced to confront the abuse—and it tore them apart.

At sixteen, realizing that she must take control of her own future, Tracy sent herself to boarding school and began the long slow process of recovery. There, in the woods of Northern Michigan, Tracy felt called back to the natural world she had loved as a child. Over the next twenty years, the mountains and rivers of North America provided Tracy with strength, confidence, comfort, and inspiration. From trekking through the glaciers of Alaska to guiding teenagers through the deserts of Utah, Tracy pushed herself to the physical limit on her way to becoming whole again. Yet, as she came into her own, found love, and even started a family, Tracy realized that in order to truly heal she had to confront her stepfather about the demons from the past haunting them both. The Source of All Things is a stunning, unforgettable story about a wounded daughter, her stepfather, and a mistake that has taken thirty years and thousands of miles of raw wilderness to reconcile. Only Tracy can know if Donnie is forgivable. But one thing is for certain: In no other story of abuse does a survivor have as much strength, compassion, bravery, and spirit as Tracy displays in The Source of All Things

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Editorial Reviews

Tracy Ross never knew another dad. Her biological father died when she was just seven months old, so the arrival of a stepfather four years later seemed to fill an empty spot in her life. For years, she thrived on his presence and the trips the family took in the unspoiled mountain wilderness of Idaho. All that changed suddenly when she was eight. As if awakening into a nightmare, she experienced the first of dozens of sexual attacks by the man she most trusted. This piercing memoir recalls those nighttime visits, but stretches far beyond those loathsome moments, recounting the emotional struggles that Tracy experienced even into her adult years. In a poignant section, she recreates the recent meeting in which she confronted her betrayer. An unforgettable memoir of a brave woman's recovery.

Publishers Weekly
Journalist and contributing Backpacker magazine editor Ross uses the outdoors to guide her powerful memoir detailing the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her stepfather. The germ of her story—which Ross first published in her magazine in 2009—recounts not only the abuse itself but also Ross's unusual resolution to forgive her stepfather, after confronting him (on tape) about the details of the molestation. It began during a family camping trip when Ross's stepfather, Donnie Lee, tucked her in and touched her for the first time when she was eight. Until she was 14 and reported the abuse to a friend who called the police, Lee would often come into Ross's room at night in their Twin Falls, Idaho, house, even though her mother was right down the hall. Though the abuse is a defining moment in her life, it is not the sole focus of her book. She details her love for the natural world—a passion first cultivated by Lee—with stints in New Mexico, Alaska, and Colorado. But it's the return to Redfish Lake with Lee, 30 years after the abuse began there, that is the soul of this compelling story. (Mar.)
Library Journal
Sexual abuse by her stepfather, an adolescence spent in foster homes, and a mother who neither prevented the abuse nor provide stability shaped Ross's childhood. As an adult, she decided to live her life-spent mainly in the outdoors-by seeking truth and strength. The literal and figurative steps she took to confront her stepfather about their past, in the wilderness setting where he first began his abuse of her, reveal steely self-reliance and a rare capacity for forgiveness.What I Am Telling My Friends Not in a million years would I have had the guts to do what Ross did, either in terms of her wilderness adventures or finding the truth and healing her past wounds. This is not always easy reading, but Ross's steady writing supports you til the very end. — "Memoir Short Takes," Booksmack! 1/20/11
From the Publisher
"Disturbing but beautifully written...[We've] heard stories like these before, but rarely in such clear, unsentimental prose." —O magazine

"Brave and heartbreaking...her courageous story will bring solace and inspiration to others drowning in fear and lacking a voice of their own." —Elle magazine

"[An] extraordinary journey of anguish and redemption..." -People magazine

The Source of All Things is a brave book. Sustained by her love of nature, Tracy Ross’s search for truth, clarity, and vindication involving her childhood abuse is told in an easygoing voice that allows us to readily digest her horrors. In a kind of ironic silver lining, the man who abused Tracy also cultivated her love of the wild, introducing her to its exhilarating applications and healing powers where she always found solace—perhaps it was his unconscious attempt at salvation?” – Norman Ollestad, author of Crazy for the Storm

“Tracy Ross is unflinchingly honest as she portrays a life scarred by dark secrets and deeply concealed wounds. But it is in her beloved wilderness that we exalt in her hard won triumphs of self discovery and the serenity of forgiveness. The Source of All Things is a mesmerizing memoir that lingers in your mind long after you close the book.” - Mary Alice Monroe, New York Times bestselling author of The Butterfly’s Daughter

Tracy Ross is fearless. She has faced the black stuff of her childhood and turned it into a memoir that will grip you, break your heart, and finally sing to you. Most of all, you will be glad she survived to write this funny, inspiring, beautiful book.” – Claire Dederer, author of Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses

"I loved this book. Part survivor memoir and part love letter to nature, I found The Source of All Things compulsively readable and intensely enthralling. " –Julia Scheeres, author of A Thousand Lives

“In this brave memoir Tracy Ross embodies the detachment necessary to function while the wound of childhood sexual trauma festers unseen, erupting in self-destructive, dangerous behaviors until Ross can finally learn the truth, and thus begin to heal. In speaking her truth, in making herself vulnerable, she will help heal others.”—Janine Latus, author of If I Am Missing or Dead: a sister’s story of love, murder and liberation

"Powerful...a compelling story." —PW

"Ross continually explores the boundaries of father-daughter intimacy, never demonizing her stepfather, but instead, humanizing him—a far more difficult task." —Kirkus Reviews

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Product Details

Free Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

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Redfish Lake, Idaho, July 2007

All my dad has to do is answer the questions.

That’s it. Just four simple questions. Only they aren’t that easy, because questions like these never are. We are almost to The Temple, three days deep in the craggy maw of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, and he has no idea the questions are 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, where wildfires will char more than 130,000 acres by summer’s end. But we’re up high, climbing to nine thousand feet, and my dad, who is really my stepdad, says that this heat feels cooler than the heat in Las Vegas, where he lives. Four days ago, he and my mother met me in Twin Falls, a town 140 miles south of here where I grew up. They’d driven north, across Nevada, past other fires, including one on the Idaho border. When I saw my mom, at a friend’s house where she’d wait while Dad and I backpacked, she’d seemed even tinier than her four-foot eleven-inch frame. Her sweatpants—plucked from the sale bin at a Las Vegas Abercrombie and Fitch store—drooped like month-old lettuce over her bum. In the creases of her mouth, a white paste had congealed, proof that she was taking antidepressants again. Officially, she’s said that she’s glad Dad and I are going back to the place our troubles began twenty-eight years ago, almost to the day. But as I kissed her goodbye, leaving her standing in our friend’s driveway, I wondered, which way is the wind now blowing?

It was late when we left Twin Falls that night—too late to reach the trailhead to The Temple. So Dad and I slept in a field of sagebrush above the town of Stanley. A gnawing in my stomach kept me from eating our black beans and tortillas, but the smell of the sage helped quiet the fear I felt welling beneath my ribcage. In the morning, Dad parked his red Ford pickup at the Redfish Lake Lodge and we took a boat across the water. On the far shore, we found the trailhead to our destination, which we started hiking toward and have been for the past three days.

At sunrise this morning we slid out of our bags, made breakfast, and caught a few fish. When we finally started hiking, we climbed out of one basin and into another, inching up switchbacks sticky with lichen and loose with scree. At the edge of one overlook, we saw smoke rising on the horizon from a fire that was crowning in the trees. And when we arrived at the lake with the dozen black frogs chirping across the water, we called it Holy Water Lake because it was Sunday and we did feel a bit closer to God.

Now the wilderness seems haunting and dark. The air is thin, the terrain rugged, and my dad’s body—sixty-four years old, bow-legged, and fifteen pounds overweight—seems tired and heavy to me. He’s been struggling 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 T-shirt, which reads Toot My Horn. Ignoring his choice of wardrobe, I try to remember the father who first led me into these mountains. That man was lean, with a light brown mustache and hair that fanned out from his cheekbones in beautiful blond wings. In a Woolrich shirt and hunting boots he charged up trails, coaxing me on to ridgelines with views of vast, green valleys. If I whined from heat or wilted with hunger, he’d lift me onto his shoulders so effortlessly it was as if my body were composed entirely of feathers.

I know my dad is hurting because I am hurting too—and not just my legs and lungs or the bottoms of my feet. We have barely spoken since we left the dock at Redfish Lake, left the boat and the worried Texans who said, “You’re going where?” I’m sure we seemed an odd pair: an old man and his—what was I? Daughter? Lover? Friend? When we stepped off the boat, I’d wanted to turn back, forget this whole sordid mess. But The Temple—a spot on the map I’d latched onto and couldn’t let go of—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’re here for reasons I don’t want to think about yet, so I train my mind on the sockeye salmon that used to migrate nine hundred miles from the Pacific Ocean to lay their eggs and die at Red-fish Lake. That was before the Army Corps of Engineers put in the dams that obstructed their journey. For decades, no fish have made it back to their ancestral spawning grounds at the base of the Sawtooth Mountains. But when I was young, sockeyes clogged the streams pouring out of the lake, creating waves of bright red color. Mesmerized, I knelt on the banks of Fishhook Creek and stretched my fingers toward their tinfoil-bright fins. My dad told me that the fish were rushing home to ensure the continuance of their species. He said they hadn’t eaten in months; were consuming the nutrients in their own bodies. Over the years I have thought of the fish with love and terror. I want to hover, as they did, over the origin of my own sorrow and draw from it a new, immaculate beginning.

Several times as we hike up the trail, I fantasize about finding the perfect, fist-size rock and smashing it against my dad’s skull. I picture him stumbling, falling onto the ground. I see myself crouching beside him, refusing to hold him as he bleeds. But even as I imagine it, I know I won’t do it, because I can’t afford to lose my dad—yet. For twenty-eight years he has held my memories hostage. Without him, I’ll never know what he did to me when I was a kid.

We climb for another hour until, a few hundred feet from the pass, we turn off the trail. In front of us is a circle of granite towers, sharp and fluted like the turrets on the Mormon Tabernacle. Loose rocks slide down vertical shafts and clatter to the ground. Quickly but carefully, my dad and I crabwalk across the jumbled blocks, insinuating ourselves into tight slots and willing our bodies to become lighter, so the boulders won’t shift beneath us and break our legs.

When we get to the wide, flat rock that looks like an altar, we stop. My dad slumps over, sips water, and chokes down a few bites of food. His eyes, the color of chocolate, begin to melt, and the corners of his mouth tremble, as if he’s fighting off a frown.

Hunching next to him on the granite slab, I squint into his red-brown, sixteenth-Cherokee face. I dig in my pack until I locate my handheld tape recorder. Holding it close to my father’s lips so the wind won’t obscure his answers, I begin the interrogation I’ve waited most of my life to conduct.

“Okay, Dad,” I say. “I’m ready. Tell me. How did it begin?”

© 2011 Tracy Ross

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Meet the Author

Tracy Ross is an award-winning journalist and contributing editor at Backpacker Magazine, an ASME award–winning outdoor publication with 1.2 million readers. She has been published in the U.S., England, South Africa, and Australia. Her essay “The Source of All Things” has won the National Magazine Award in 2009 and has been selected for inclusion in The Best American Sports Writing and The Best American Magazine Writing. Her Skiing magazine story “Our Country Comes Skiing in Peace” received a notable mention in Best American Travel Writing, and her work has also appeared in Outside and Women’s Sports Illustrated. Ross’s assignments have taken her to the wilds of Alaska, the ski slopes of Iran, and the most remote reaches of Ecuador. She writes about exotic places and intriguing people, but mainly about the wilderness and how it intersects with the most important issues in our lives. She lives with her family at 8,000 feet in the mountains above Boulder, Colorado.

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