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December 2007

The Source of All Things

Recently released as a full-length memoir, The Source of All Things was first published as a feature article in BACKPACKER in December 2007. This is the full-text of that article.

I’m afraid. My dad and I sit at the picnic table on the far side of Redfish Lake. The boat has left, and so have the worried Texans, who didn’t offer to help with our packs but waved as they motored away.

Today, we will hike through the yarrow and sage, stopping every 10 minutes for my dad to catch his breath. When we get to the slippery rocks in the river, I’ll take off my boots and slide 50 feet into the emerald pool. And when we pass the giant face under the Elephant’s Perch, I’ll realize that this is going to take more out of us than I had expected.

After the Lexapro, and the vision, and the truncated solo that ended with a sleepless night, I called my dad and asked, “Will you come to the Sawtooths with me?” I was in the loft, at home, and felt overheated, confused, and slightly brave. He said, “Yes. Of course. I think so. Let me think about it.”

Now we are heading into a mountain range that looks imposing and mean. When I called my dad months ago, this trip seemed noble, necessary, and in a twisted way, fun. This will be the first and last time we go on a multiday backpacking trip, just the two of us, in the place we love most on earth.

I’m scared because when I am with my dad I am 8 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?

And why?

Two hours later, we are inching our way up the dusty switchbacks through spruce trees and lodgepole pine. My dad drags his legs. A week ago, at a party in Utah, he tried dangling from a rope swing that hung out of a tree. When he caught the edge of his shoe on a root, he held on and scraped himself over some rocks, rubbing the flesh off of his knees. Now the scabs are deep, dark red, and crack open when he walks.

We continue like this until we reach the sign for Alpine Lake, where we’ll spend our first night. We’ve hiked five miles and gained just 1,000 feet, but our campsite is still a mile away and another 800 feet higher. My dad looks weary, like he could lie down right here with his pack on and sleep until morning. I make him eat a Clif Bar and we load up, the trail becoming steeper with every step.

At the fifth switchback, my dad has fallen 10 minutes behind. I consider waiting, then clip along at my own pace. I know my dad is getting older and is out of shape, and that in his condition he could be back there somewhere having a heart attack. I keep walking until I reach Alpine Lake.

That night, after dinner, I change my clothes and worm into my sleeping bag. My dad heads to the lake and casts for rainbows. 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 Cabela’s sleeping bag. He let me brush and blow-dry his hair. And I don’t know how many hours I watched him load shotgun shells in the basement of our house.

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