If we’d thought about it, back when I was a kid and my dad first joined the family, we might have nominated him for an award. Idaho Dad of the Year. Or the Elks Club Father’s Day prize. In the mid-’70s, after he married my mom and before the trouble set in, he built us an Idaho dream.
We had a RoadRunner camper, and every Friday between Memorial Day and the end of hunting season, my dad would leave his job at Van England’s store in Twin Falls, change into his camping clothes, and load his new family into his bright yellow Jeep Cherokee. While we sipped root beers and adjusted our things, he’d grease the ball on the tail of the Jeep, pull up the trailer steps, and ease us back until the hitch on the RoadRunner took hold. By the time the other dads on Richmond Drive were cracking their first weekend beers, we’d be chugging across the Perrine Bridge, past the lava flats with their searing heat, and approaching the cool, clean air of the Stanley Basin, where the Sawtooth Mountains top out at 10,800 feet.
If my dad loved being outside—hunting, hiking, and fishing Idaho’s pristine mountains and streams—he quickly taught me to love it, too. I was 4 and my brother was 8 the year my parents married, following a blistering whole-family courtship that included picnics at Shoshone Falls, ski trips to Soldier Mountain, and drive-in movies watched from bean bags in the back of my future dad’s 1949 Willys Jeep.
My real dad, a U.S. Navy man who held a kegger outside my mom’s hospital window the day I was born, died when I was 7 months old after an aneurysm exploded in his brain. My brother and I were too young to feel the gut-punch of his death—the disorienting, life-sucking loss that shook my mom so violently the doctors sedated her. But when lanky, bell-bottomed Donnie Lee walked through the door of our military-pension house, it was as if we remembered to miss something we’d never known. By the time my parents were married, the family honeymoon was already in full swing.
My new dad’s pride and joy—after his new family—was the RoadRunner he bought in 1976. On Thursdays, and sometimes as early as Wednesdays, he’d start loading it with supplies: bags of chips, Tang mixed with tea, and 12-packs of mini-cereals for my brother and me. One spring, he painted a yellow swoosh on the side to match his Cherokee. It came out looking like a streak of mucous, but we all told him we liked it anyway.
During the winter, when the roads were too snowy to pull the trailer, we feasted on elk steaks and venison stew made from the bucks my dad had harvested near Rock Creek and Porcupine Springs. But come mid-June, we were in full summer-camping mode.
In the long shadows of the Sawtooths, we built castles in the freshwater sand and swam out to a giant rock a few hundred feet from shore. Sometimes, other families came with us, and all the kids would hike together, searching for bird nests along wooden walkways that stretched over primordial wetlands, or climbing on top of beaver lodges before taking off our clothes and jumping into the murky ponds. At the time, the streams pouring out of Redfish Lake teemed with sockeye salmon on their way home from the mouth of the Pacific Ocean, 900 miles away.