I do know that any self-respecting woman would demand her own space. And yet my weakness isn’t just a longing for simpler times. As I have learned about my dad’s abuse, I’ve begun to see him in a different light. Once, after a bluegrass show 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. I hold those early memories carefully, like pressed wildflowers that, if jostled, would crumble to dust.
Still, the tent is an uncomfortable place, and so this too becomes a crime. One of backpacking’s greatest virtues is that it makes instant bedfellows out of strangers and friends. When else do we lie under a star-filled sky separated by a few cubic inches of down? In the tents of my past, I have fallen in love and whispered my greatest longings and dreams. My tentmates and I have laughed until we peed our pants, knowing that in the morning, we will have created a shared history at 10,000 feet. Herein lies one of backpacking’s true beauties, beyond the stunning vistas and close encounters with wildlife: It creates an intimacy that transcends normal friendship and even eludes some of the best marriages.
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 pack up, eat breakfast, and head back down the switchbacks, which murder our knees. As we walk, my dad fills the silence I create. He reminisces about bird hunting with his friend Gary Mitchell and fishing for the eight-pound trout that used to feed on freshwater shrimp in Richfield Canal.
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. Then this:
“I was 16 the first time I killed a deer,” he says. A 4-point buck “that would have been an 8-point by Eastern standards” walked into the crosshairs of his gun. When he pulled the trigger, he got so excited he started shaking uncontrollably. It was buck fever, and he had it bad.
“You can hardly grab your breath,” he says, grinning mischievously. “Just knowing that you can actually kill something, it’s the height of excitement. It makes you weak in the knees.”
My dad scans the trees, inhales deeply, and smiles. I realize 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 camper and packed my dad’s shot-loading equipment in a box. One summer a few years later, he came to visit while I was living in Jackson, Wyoming. He said he’d bring his fly rod and camping stuff. When he arrived, he was under-dressed in a light wind shell and braced himself against the cold. We went to the Snake River and he sat down in a heap.
“Break out your rod, Dad,” I said. But he couldn’t. He’d forgotten to pack it.
My dad looks up the trail. “I got away from shooting does,” he says, “after I killed one with a fawn.” The fawn’s cries echoed through the South Hills, and he couldn’t stand the sound. So he put a bullet in its head.