All my dad has to do is answer the questions.
Just four simple questions. Only they aren’t that easy, because questions like this never are. We’re almost to The Temple, three days into the craggy maw of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, and he has no idea they’re coming. But I have them loaded, hot and explosive, like shells in a 30-30.
It’s July, and hotter than hell on the sage-covered slopes, where wildfires will char more than 130,000 acres by summer’s end. But we’re up high, climbing to 9,000 feet, and my dad thinks this heat feels cooler than the heat in Las Vegas, where he lives. Four days ago, he met me in Twin Falls, a town 140 miles south of here where I grew up, after driving north across Nevada, past other fires, including one on the Idaho border. The air is thin, the terrain rugged, and his body—64 years old, bowlegged, and 15 pounds overweight—seems tired and heavy to me. He struggled the last half-mile, stopping every few feet to catch his breath, adjust his pack, and tug on the big, wet circles that have formed under the armpits of his shirt, which reads Toot My Horn.
At sunrise this morning, we slid out of our bags, washed up, made breakfast, and caught a few fish. When we finally starting hiking, we climbed out of one basin and into another, inching up switchbacks sticky with lichen and loose with scree. When we came to the edge of one overlook, we saw smoke rising on the horizon from a fire that was crowning in the trees. And when we arrived at the lake with the dozen black frogs, we called it Holy Water Lake, because it was Sunday and we did feel a bit closer to God.
I know my dad is hurting, because I’m hurting, too—and not just my legs and lungs, or the blisters on the bottoms of my feet. We have barely spoken since we left the dock at Redfish Lake three days ago, left the boat and the worried Texans who looked at our 40-pound packs and said, “You’re going where?” I’m sure we seemed an odd pair: an old man and his—what was she? Daughter? Lover? Friend? When we stepped off the boat, I wanted to turn back. But The Temple was out here somewhere, and, besides, I still hadn’t decided if I was going to kill him outright or just walk him to death.
We continue climbing above Holy Water Lake until, a few hundred feet from a pass, we turn off the trail. In front of us is a cirque of smooth granite towers, sharp and fluted, like the turrets on the Mormon Tabernacle. The Temple shoots out of a giant boulder field. Loose rocks slide down vertical shafts and clatter to the ground. Quickly but carefully, my dad and I crab-walk across the jumbled blocks, insinuating ourselves into tight slots and willing our bodies to become lighter, so the boulders won’t shift beneath us and break our legs.
When we get to the wide, flat rock that looks like an altar, we stop. He slumps over, sips water, and chokes down a few bites of food. His eyes, the color of chocolate, begin to melt, and the corners of his mouth tremble, like he’s fighting off a frown.
Hunching next to him on the granite slab, I squint into his red-brown, sixteenth-Cherokee face. I dig into my pack and take out my tape recorder.
That’s when the questioning begins.