Mid-conversation, I flash to a moment my dad would have loved: soaking in the kettle ponds hidden in the muskeg below 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley. Maybe I think of him out of gratitude, for showing me how wilderness can shape and define. Maybe it’s just the hazy mellowing of distance and time. But by September, when I leave Alaska for the Lower 48, I am ready to embrace the world—and perhaps even my father.
It would be great if a few years in the wilderness could wipe away our pain. But of course it isn’t that easy. For a long time, through my late 20s and into my 30s, 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 flew to Anchorage once, 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 3 a.m. And it is he, not my mother, who has saved all of my stories, in big, black binders at home.
We have, as they say in psychotherapy circles, reconstructed our house of relationship. In 2000, he came to see the ultrasound of my first baby. When Scout was born, and 16 months later, Hatcher, my dad found a new reason to live. Indeed, my sons have become the brightest spot in his diminished life, and they love him acutely. He even babysits when my husband and I go skiing at Whistler for a week.
This easing of relations was good for my dad, and easy for me. But I still didn’t trust him—not completely.
“I can’t do this,” I tell my husband. “I can’t hold up the weight.” I am lying on a trail with my legs twisted in my mountain bike, and I can’t force myself to get up.
It’s Memorial Day, 2006. We are riding down Winiger Ridge when I miss a turn and grind into the dirt. The sun is shining on tight blue buds that will soon flower across hillsides covered in sage. The boys are at home with a babysitter. I am falling apart.
“What happened?” my husband asks. “You were flying back there. You looked good.”
Most things are looking good these days. 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 8,500 feet 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.
And yet the weight had crept back, so heavy I felt it would crush me.