“What’s a pretty girl like you doing hiking alone?”
The guide at the cash register asks this when I step up to pay for my maps. It’s early October, 2006, and the thermometer reads 41°F. I’m standing at the counter at River One Outfitters in Stanley, Idaho, a tiny town at the base of the Sawtooths. Two months earlier, a congressman’s kid had gone missing on a solo hike. A search was mounted: helicopters, volunteer ground crews, and rangers all picking and flossing the granite teeth. There’d been no sign of him until a couple of days ago, when a corpse dog got onto—and then lost—a scent. This afternoon, I will hike eight miles into the Sawtooths.
“I’m prepared and conservative,” I tell the man as he rings up the maps. But it’s only a brave front. Two days ago, I flew to Boise, rented a car, and started driving east. On the freeway, the early October sun seemed too bright. But as I wound through Lowman, big stands of trees diffused the light, until the air took on a golden hue that I associate only with southern Idaho.
I didn’t plan to be driving down this road, concealing an open beer, listening to Zeppelin on the radio. I have a husband and two kids at home. It’s coming on three decades since my dad put his hands down my pants in the family trailer at Redfish Lake. I’ve been to therapy—years of it—and energy workers, astrologists, and priests. I’ve even been back to the Sawtooths, including once with my parents and kids. I thought it would be romantic to show the boys my favorite childhood place. They were babies, and they dug in the sand near the dock. We took off their diapers and let them wade among tiny flickering minnows that flashed like silver paperclips between their chubby legs.
Yesterday, I drove out of Sun Valley and pulled off the road at Russian John hot spring. I walked to the small, steaming pool where my family used to soak, and stood there imagining us naked under the stars. I didn’t get in. After an hour, I walked back to the car and drove toward Redfish Lake. I stopped at our favorite campsite near Fishhook Creek. And I found the spot where my dad and I once balanced on a log in the early autumn light.
Some people say you can heal yourself just by returning to the scene of a crime. They do that at the World Trade Center: put roses on the approximate spot a husband or sister landed after jumping out a window 100 stories up. I sat on the bank of Fishhook Creek for maybe half a day, thinking about the sandpaper, the cigarette in the water, and the chance my dad had to fess up.
He could have done it, told the truth right then and there, and avoided this whole damned mess. But he chose to pretend I was out of my head, a little girl confused by a scary dream. I can’t remember if he tried to hug me after we talked, but I know I instantly stopped trusting him.
Sometimes, I take out a picture of myself from the early days at Redfish Lake. I am pigtailed and pink-cheeked, holding a Dixie Cup with a tadpole inside. I am beaming into the camera, proud of the new life I cradle in my hands.
I became a sad kid after that picture was taken. I’ve been a sad kid ever since.
I pack up my things and head toward the Sawtooths, where I hope to hike some happiness back into myself.