Kids, Camping, and Abuse: A Q&A with Tracy Ross

Contributing editor Tracy Ross talks about the aftermath of publishing her abuse memoir, The Source of All Things, which originated as a BACKPACKER feature story and is now available in paperback.

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In the December 2007 issue of BACKPACKER, then-senior editor Tracy Ross published a searing account of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather, a man who also instilled in her a love of camping. The story (read it here) won a National Magazine Award (the publishing industry’s highest honor) the next year, and she followed with a full-length book by the same name, “The Source of All Things.” Editor-in-chief Jonathan Dorn recently caught up with Tracy for a look back on how her life has changed since. Among other developments, Tracy is the new mother of a young daughter. The paperback version of her book (Simon and Schuster, $15) hits stores next week.

Talk about public reaction to “The Source of All Things.” Any surprises? Great discoveries? Have outdoor enthusiasts reacted differently than “normal” people? Did you hear anything directly from BACKPACKER readers?

A) I guess the greatest discovery for me, and which I’m sure I knew going into it but wouldn’t accept, is that not everyone is going to like a book like The Source of All Things.” I’d even go so far as to say that the majority of people out there hear the word “abuse” and want to run in the opposite direction. As the writer, I know that the book is about so much more than abuse. In fact, actual “abuse” scenes make up about 1/100th of the narrative. What was interesting to me, and I’m not sure this comes across completely in the promotional copy, is how truly healing and transformative the wilderness can be. I know that sounds a bit earnest, maybe even cheesy. But I’ve seen it, time and again, both in myself and in others.

One surprise that came out of the book has been finding out how many people I know, directly and indirectly, who were also abused as kids. You listen and you think, “Damn, are there any good parents out there?” And then on top of that, maybe because of the world I live in — in outdoor journalism, in spending most of my time in the West, and in living in the mountains above Boulder — how many of those people found some kind of “place” of reconciliation or redemption in the outdoors. I even hear my own story echoed back to me quite often: a girl is abused as a kid, struggles with drugs, promiscuity and whatnot, and finds her way to Colorado, where skiing or backpacking becomes her antidote to pain and shame. I think this is a result of two things: 1. Hard physical work makes us physically stronger, and that (I believe) also makes us mentally stronger and more balanced; and 2. It’s just so damn fun doing things like skiing, hiking, mountain biking, boating, etc, outside, in the sun and other elements, with friends, that, at some moments, it become really hard to keep concentrating on the darkness of your past.

Q) How has the book affected your family, especially your relationship with your parents and brother?

A) It would take 10 pages of tiny type to answer this question in all of its complexity, but I would say, overall, that the book has been very good for all of us. It’s kind of weird, because we don’t talk about it that much. But there’s something to be said for the clear air, and to be in a place where everyone knows what happened and can take their own ownership of it. I wanted to write this book because I felt that my side of a story we’d collectively shoved under the carpet had never been heard, and that I had suffered for that gravely. Now my mom knows what my dad did to me, and my dad knows the lasting effects of his actions over me, and my brother has finally admitted that he conveniently ducked out when the worst of my abuse was happening.

Does that make what happened okay? Of course not. But there’s something cleansing about having it all out in the open, and, for me at least, to be free of the self-inflicted “responsibility” of carrying the story for my whole family.

I should also add that the book has taken a huge toll on my mom and dad, and that they’re now in both couples and individual therapy as they grapple with their own guilt as well as deciding if they want to stay together. I think my brother feels a huge sense of relief, and our relationship is closer than ever (which I’d agree with). It’s very hard any time my parents come to visit me now, because although the elephant has been acknowledged, it’s still standing there in my tiny living room. But I’d say overall things are better, though far from perfect.

Q) Your dad worked the talk shows with you, presenting a generally apologetic face. But there were some odd, uncomfortable moments where I couldn’t tell if he was for real. Was it genuine? Is he still working at it?

A) I definitely think it was genuine, although there were a couple of times when his defensiveness made me want to punch him. Then again, it’s easy for me to say all or nothing when it’s him and not me out there awaiting my crucifixion. But I can tell he’s genuine by the amount of space he gives me around my kids, and especially my new daughter, Hollis, and the respect he gives me any time we’re together. It’s hard to explain, but he seems to have a heightened awareness now that he didn’t have before. And a humility that must come from having all of your sins exposed to the world, although the world has been much kinder than I expected it to be to him.

Q) Has writing the book and having it out there changed the way you experience wilderness?

A) I don’t know if writing the book has, but completing the book definitely has! For one thing, few people talk about the 10 or so pounds many writers gain over the course of their book writing. I gained that plus some because I also had a baby. And I definitely felt the lack of wilderness in my life while I was writing, because I was on a deadline and it didn’t exactly go smoothly. There were weeks when I felt really blue because of writers block, or fear that I wasn’t “getting the story right,” or just sheer terror at telling the story. And then there were weeks during which I was totally on, writing like mad, and doing little else. During both of those periods, I’d barely venture beyond my writing studio and cabin above Boulder — which, in the end, had the effect of making me want nothing more than to be outside, in the woods, hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, and boating, once I was done, more than ever.

This winter, I’ve finally had a chance to do that, despite having a newborn infant. I’ve been skate skiing, a specialized kind of Nordic skiing, four or five times a week, and skiing powder when it snows more than a few inches. Every time I go out I feel like my old, pre-book self again. I’m shedding weight while tuning in to the things that made me who I was in the first place: sun, the elements, rivers, mountains.

This summer, my husband and I plan on being outside all the time, either hiking or boating or mountain biking with our kids. We already have plans to go to Newfoundland and Idaho, and I’m hoping to get up to Alaska at least once. I also just committed to hiking a portion of the PCT this summer with a friend. And I have a couple of writing workshops I’m leading that take place on the Salmon River, which is the geographical heart of “The Source of All Things.” (Check it out here under “specialty trips.”)

Q) Have you discovered any new pieces of information since publication? If you were going to write the book again, would you treat the drugging episode differently? [Ed note: Tracy discovered just weeks before finishing the book that her stepfather had been sedating her before many abuse episodes with sleeping pills taken from her mother’s stash.]

A) No new info, thank God. And yes, I think the drugging could have and probably should have been treated differently. I talk to all kinds of people who are like, WTF? That was a bombshell. But it would have been a different book if I’d done what I wanted to do and added another section to what I had. I toyed with the idea of creating another section called “If Only…” that would have taken readers from the hike through the writing of the magazine story and all the occurred afterward, including the time I went to my parents’ home and discovered that my dad had drugged me. My book editors and I chose not to do that. But with the way digitization and e-books are now, who knows? I might just have the opportunity to do that.

Q) Since “The Source” came out, you’ve had a daughter. I know there’s been trepidation for you, especially with how to handle your dad’s visits, but talk instead about how your experience with abuse and with the outdoors will influence the way you’ll raise her.

A) I think with Hollis I just want to give her the happiest, most empowered life imaginable, and in my world that means traveling with her, teaching her “Sacajawea” skills, exposing her to natural beauty, and guarding her against the evils that prevail out there. To that end, I don’t have a grand, step-by-step plan, but rather a philosophy that grows and changes almost daily. I’m definitely more cognizant of what she’s exposed to, who gets to hold her and love her, and the messages I may be sending her, even though she just turned six months old two days ago. I just want her to grow up strong and independent and aware of the evils out there without being overwhelmed by them. On top of that, she really has no choice but to be a tomboy.