The summer before 5th grade, my father took me on a week-long backpacking trip in Glacier National Park. We planned the trip over the spring on our every-other-weekend visits. My dad pinned a map to the wall in the living room of his one-bedroom apartment. Back then, the map shifted from grey to a deep green as you looked east across the page. In my child’s mind, I imagined an endless park stretching across the state. In thick black ink, he traced the route across Washington and Idaho. The line snaked through Kalispell and north to Hungry Horse. Montana sounded so exotic when I said it in my head- towns like Whitefish and Missoula and Great Falls. As he talked about his trips to Montana, I pictured this vast, untouched paradise of tall pines, jagged peaks and wild rivers. We were hiking in to the Hungry Horse Dam and fly fishing along the way. It was all I could think about that spring. He bought me some waffle stompers and a package of mole skin for the inevitable heal blisters. He said I had to break them in so that I wouldn’t get blisters on the trip. I loved the light brown suede that changed colors as I ran my fingers across the toe. On our practice hikes around the reservoir in Seattle, I carried my backpack. Each time he added some weight. I was so proud of that. It was a real backpack with a metal frame like his and a belt that hugged my hips. He showed me how to strap my sleeping bag beneath it. As I stomped along, the bag bounced on my rear end. I didn’t care. It was a small price to pay for a big adventure. At REI, we searched the aisles for containers for food and cooking equipment. We bought large tubes that reminded me of toothpaste containers. He showed me how you could fill them with peanut butter and clamp the end. He bought freeze dried beef stew in crinkly silver packets and paper boxes of hardtack. He picked up complicated tools and clamps and rubber balls. I couldn’t follow how these would be used in the wilderness, but he assured me that they would keep us warm and dry. On the weekends that I visited, I would lie in the living room on the leather psychiatrist couch (the coveted sleepover spot) underneath his down sleeping bag staring at the map and dreaming of the trip. I would will time to speed up and July to come quickly.
Though we left early in the morning, I was up, waffle stompers laced, before he was out of the shower. We drove all day, stopping only for necessities- donuts in North Bend at the bakery, gas and Sno Balls in Ellensburg and lunch in Spokane. I loved long road trips with my dad. It was easier to talk to him without the phone ringing or work looming. For hundreds of miles, we talked. He talked about his childhood and told me cautionary tales he featured heavily in. Somewhere on the Palouse, I got the courage to ask about my mom and their divorce. It somehow made me sad to know that they had once been in love. It was childish because of course I knew they had to have been. When there was silence, he turned the radio up and we listened to the country music stations fade in and out with each passing town. John Denver and Willie Nelson became a soundtrack for that trip. Once we hit Idaho, he pulled off the highway to an old quarry. He told me that he was going to show me how to shoot a gun because we would be in the wilderness and there could be bears or other wild animals. It wasn’t a surprise that he brought a gun. He was a hunter and I had seen his rifles. Though to this point, I was not allowed to touch them. In solemn tones, he showed me how the gun worked. It was a long- barreled revolver. He showed me how to release the cylinder and load the bullets. He helped me pull the hammer back and sight the gun. It took several shots to get used to the feel of the kick. When he felt sure I was comfortable, he took it back and emptied the cylinder. He reminded me that the gun was not a toy. I asked him if it would kill a bear. He said, “No. It will annoy a bear. Just shoot me. I don’t want to be eaten by a bear.” I stared at him agape. He put his hand on my head a shook my hair, “I’m kidding! Just shoot it in the air. The noise will scare animals away and alert other hikers.”
When we finally arrived at the trailhead, it was everything I imagined it would be. Heavy logs funneled hikers to the path. The forest was dense and dark. Light shined in ladders through the boughs. As we checked our gear, I watched a family unload and saddle their horses. They had a girl my age and I asked her if I could pet her horse. She told me her name was Cherry and her family was riding up to the dam. I couldn’t decide what was cooler, being named Cherry or riding a horse on a trail. The hike was long, but he let me take the lead and stopped when I got tired. The trail wound around and, as I looked across the ravines, I would see bears and deer behind us. My dad would point out that the bears were merely stumps. I would squint long and hard before I conceded. It was so peaceful in the woods. At the end of the trail, the Flathead River appeared before us bright and blue, and sparkling in the sun. We sat there just looking at it for the longest time. And then, for the longest time, I watched my dad fly fish. He was never more at peace than standing knee high in a river, whipping that bamboo rod back and forth, back and forth. The tip would dip toward the water. The line would follow slapping the fly across the surface. There we stayed, on the banks of the river, fishing and hiking. We sat by the fire at night and ate freeze dried beef stew and hardtack. Somehow the food tasted so much better by a fire in the wilderness.
I dreaded the hike back, not because it was long, but because it was the beginning of the end of the trip. I wished I was back in the spring dreaming of the trip. I wanted the hike down and the drive back across three states to last forever. But I knew that it wouldn’t last forever. Nothing does. Except for memories.
I took this photograph last summer on the Icicle River where my daughter and I were lounging in the sun with our dear friends. Sitting in the sand with my feet in the icy water, talking with my friend and watching our girls – far from a cell tower. It reminded me of the trip my dad and I took to Montana and the memories that last a lifetime.
(1/500 sec., f/11, 55 mm, 400 ISO)