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