As a little girl, I stared down at their rotting bodies, the wild look in their bulging eyes, and the long, hooked jawlines dotted with razor-sharp teeth. Though I couldn’t have articulated it then, I wondered what demon drove them to travel so far inland—without food or rest, for weeks—to decompose and die at Redfish Lake.
It’s early June, dusk, and the whole family is naked. We’ve stopped off at Russian John hot spring on our way to Redfish Lake.
Our clothes—my mom’s silk bra next to my size 6 flowered panties, big jeans and little jeans in a heap, a kid’s down vest, and a grown man’s hunting cap—are piled near the steaming pool that’s just past the ranger station on Highway 75. One by one, we slip into water that smells less like sulphur and more like infused sage. My parents slide down the algae-covered rock and laugh—at the urgency, the cold air, and the slight, acceptable indiscretion we are committing, uphill and just out of range of the car beams passing below.
We soak until the last rays of sun paint the mountains pink. We all scan the hillsides for deer. Spot one, and you earn a dollar: my new dad’s rule. A star—my new dad points it out—burns itself into view. “Wish on it,” he says, and we all do. When we begin to prune, we get out, tug on underwear and shirts, and rush back to the Jeep, where our black lab, Jigger, awaits.
When I think back to those early moments, I see a family, newly formed and on the front end of a great adventure. I see the four of us, back on the road after soaking in the springs. We are dried off and warming up, the blast of the heater drowning out Lynyrd Skynyrd on the radio. It’s dark now, and I have moved into the front seat. My dad and I are calling truckers on the CB using our handles, Pinky Tuscadero and Coyote. Outside the window, the Sawtooths rise into the night.
In my last, best memory of 1979, autumn light reflects off a golden Redfish Lake. Decaying aspen leaves smell good, in a sad, slowed-down way. Though I am only 8, these trips to the mountains have already become a foundation upon which I will build my identity. I’m telling my dad how I want to go into the Sawtooths, next summer maybe, on a real backpacking trip. He stomps out a cigarette and puts it in his pocket, then smiles tenderly. Because I don’t know what’s coming, I think this is how it will always be.
He takes my hand and leads me back to the trailer, where my mom and brother are fixing dinner. We crunch hard-shell tacos and guzzle cups of milk. Later, at the foldout table, we play cards—Spoons or Go Fish. My dad drinks beer and my brother begs for a sip. When I go to bed, my mom does, too, on the foldout couch directly below my foldout bunk. She reads for a while, then drifts off. I listen to my dad and brother. “Pair of jacks,” says my dad. And I fall asleep.