The Source of All Things
Seen from the Sawtooth Valley, Idaho, USA
Photo courtesy Arcoterion under CC BY-SA 3.0
Emerson warned me.
Okay, strictly speaking, that’s not true.
Kay Kier, one of the best professors of American literature I ever encountered, warned me, and the rest of a sweltering summer class at Queens College, to not lightly dismiss the warnings of the man she referred to as Chairman Ralph.
Foremost among these was the admonition to not turn oneself into a prisoner of foolish consistency. The whole world–statesmen and divines according to the Chairman–certainly prefers consistency. Yet it seems to me that a foolish consistency supposes the existence of a wise one, as well as the existence of both wise and foolish inconsistencies.
So, maybe the most unfoolish thing we can do is accept all four. In that spirit, I’m going to unshackle myself from the self-imposed restriction to reflect mostly on long-form writing (which, due to my age, means primarily books) only after I’ve finished them. It’s not a rule I’ve always observed and, lately, it’s getting in my anthology-reading way. Here’s why.
The whole point of this space is for me to figure out my thinking about what I’ve read. The entire process is dialectical: there’s what I thought before I read title X. There’s what reading title X causes me to think. And then there’s what I think after I’ve put myself through the process of trying to string together a coherent 1100 words or so on the matter.
Chairman Ralph in 1857
Increasingly, I seem to reach points at which I stop dead. I’ll read something that dominates my thinking, at least for a while, and if it’s part of a larger whole and I wait to finish the book, I risk losing the opportunity to capture that impact.
That brings me to the rather remarkable story linked to above (and here, too), which I really urge you to read for yourself. I don’t know much more about Tracy Ross than what she lays out in this piece. Her regular beat is outdoor enthusiast magazines and while I’ve been known to enjoy my time en plein aire, I’m hardly the strap-on-a-pack-and-head-for-the-hills kind of guy. Long before there was glamping I was the leading advocate of executive camping.
So, I don’t really spend a lot of time with the outdoor buff books. Typically, I’ll encounter a story from a magazine such as Outside in a sportswriting anthology. And more often than not it’s a tale of limits pushed and unexpected, unwelcome results. It’s almost as if the game- and player-covering scribes hired to edit such volumes can’t conceive that sport might result in death or disability.
Ross’ story is harrowing in the extreme. But the harrowing part has little to do with the wilderness setting. That’s merely, as the title says, the source of all things and also the setting in which Ross enters her own personal hell and the one in which she ultimately begins to find redemption.
The locale for the trip at the heart of this tale is Idaho‘s Sawtooth Range, as raw a wilderness as you’ll find in the lower 48. I say that without the benefit of personal experience but having spent some time in the woods of Colorado. A typical Easterner operating on presumptions of scarcity and density, the ability of the American West to absorb large groups of people and still leave you feeling isolated has always overwhelmed me. It’s hard to wrap your head around just how alone one can be.
It’s not just me. One guide, curious if not worried, questions Ross on her hiking alone. “I’m prepared and I’m conservative,” is her answer, a code any Boy Scout will recognize. Ross is no mere Boy Scout. She grew up in Idaho, spending large amounts of time in the Sawtooths. Later, she spends years in Alaska, living remotely at times and ultimately working as a guide at Denali. She’s no tyro.
She’s returned to her childhood haunts, the place where she first experienced and fell in love with the glory of undisturbed nature, in the company of her father, now in his sixties. The man who raised her after the untimely death of her own dad, he’s not just her mother’s second husband, he’s the man who sexually molested Ross.
That abuse started on a camping trip at Redfsh Lake, a favorite destination in the Sawtooths. And when Ross entered puberty some years later it intensified. Like many teens in similar situations, she contemplated suicide. Unlike many others, she instead had her father arrested.
The story of her teen years–foster care, forced return home, wild abandon, self-destruction–is unfortunately not unique. The wilderness helps her find the road she eventually follows to the point we meet her. She and her dad will hike to a favored place and she’ll get the answers to the big questions she’s been carrying around her entire life.
Can such a scene ever go as planned? I gave up scripting conversations after learning the other player had no way of knowing their lines. You decide for yourself if Ross’ confrontation was satisfying. For me, the gut-punch, more powerful because it spoke to something familiar, came earlier in the tale, during Ross’s first visit to the range, the one on which she was questioned by the guide.
Litle Redfish Lake around 1950. It probably looks much the same today. Magnificent.
That trip lead to the one with her father because she couldn’t, alone, find what she sought. On that earlier trip, Ross, looks at a childhood photo of herself taken at Redfish Lake. As she describes it, it’s a typical picture of childhood innocence, the kind of smiling happy child snapshot that populates the photo albums of many families. “I became a sad kid after that picture was taken,” she writes. “I’ve been a sad kid ever since.”
It’s hard to conceive that the editor of a magazine titled Backpacker would publish such a tale. And it’s heartening to know that there’s at least one editor who not only knows a great and powerful story when it comes across his or her desk but who trusts the book’s readers to recognize it, too.
It’s almost enough to make me hang up my cynicism toward the publishing enterprise.