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The Source of All Things
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Tracy Ross never knew her biological father, who died after a brain aneurysm when she was still an infant. So when her mother married Donnie, a gregarious man with an all-wheel-drive jeep and a love of hiking, four-year-old Tracy was ecstatic to have a father figure in her life. A loving and devoted step-father, Donnie introduced Tracy’s family to the joys of fishing, deer hunting, camping, and hiking among the most pristine mountains of rural Idaho. Donnie was everything Tracy dreamed a dad would be—protective, brave, and kind. But when his dependence on his eight-year-old daughter’s companionship went too far, everything changed.

Once Donnie’s nighttime visits began, Tracy’s childhood became a confusing blend of normal little girl moments and the sickening, secret invasion of her safety. Tormented by this profound betrayal, Tracy struggled to reconcile deeply conflicting feelings about her stepfather: on the one hand, fear and loathing, on the other hand, the love any daughter would have for her father. It was not until she ran away from home as a teenager that her family was forced to confront the abuse—and it tore them apart.

At sixteen, realizing that she must take control of her own future, Tracy sent herself to boarding school and began the long slow process of recovery. There, in the woods of Northern Michigan, Tracy felt called back to the natural world she had loved as a child. Over the next twenty years, the mountains and rivers of North America provided Tracy with strength, confidence, comfort, and inspiration. From trekking through the glaciers of Alaska to guiding teenagers through the deserts of Utah, Tracy pushed herself to the physical limit on her way to becoming whole again. Yet, as she came into her own, found love, and even started a family, Tracy realized that in order to truly heal she had to confront her stepfather about the demons from the past haunting them both. The Source of All Things is a stunning, unforgettable story about a wounded daughter, her stepfather, and a mistake that has taken thirty years and thousands of miles of raw wilderness to reconcile. Only Tracy can know if Donnie is forgivable. But one thing is for certain: In no other story of abuse does a survivor have as much strength, compassion, bravery, and spirit as Tracy displays in The Source of All Things
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Tracy Ross never knew her biological father, who died after a brain aneurysm when she was still an infant. So when her mother married Donnie, a gregarious new man with a love of hiking, fishing, and camping, four-year-old Tracy was ecstatic to have a father figure in her life. Donnie was everything Tracy dreamed a dad would be—protective, brave, and kind. But when his dependence on her companionship went too far, everything changed.

Tracy’s childhood transformed overnight once the abuse began, becoming a confusing blend of normal little-girl moments and the sickening, secret invasion of her safety. At sixteen, realizing that she must take control of her own future, Tracy left home and began the long, slow process of recovery. Over the next twenty years, the mountains and rivers of North America provided Tracy with strength, confidence, comfort, and inspiration. From trekking through the glaciers of Alaska to guiding teenagers through the deserts of Utah, Tracy pushed herself to the physical limit on her way to becoming whole again.

The Source of All Things is a stunning, unforgettable story about a wounded daughter, her stepfather, and a mistake that has taken thirty years and thousands of miles of raw wilderness to reconcile. Only Tracy can know if Donnie is forgivable. But one thing is for certain. In no other story of abuse does a survivor have so much strength, compassion, bravery, and spirit as Tracy displays in The Source of All Things.

"Tracy Ross is unflinchingly honest as she portrays a life scarred by dark secrets and deeply concealed wounds. But it is in her beloved wilderness that we exult in her hard-won triumphs of self-discovery and the serenity of forgiveness. The Source of All Things is a mesmerizing memoir that lingers in your mind long after you close the book."

—Mary Alice Monroe, New York Times bestselling author of The Butterfly’s Daughter

Tracy Ross is an award-winning journalist and contributing editor at Backpacker magazine, an ASME award-winning outdoor publication with 1.2 million readers. Her work has been published in the United States, England, South Africa, and Australia. Her essay The Source of All Things won the National Magazine Award in 2009 and was selected for Best American Sports Writing and Best American Magazine Writing. Her assignments have taken her to the wilds of Alaska, the ski slopes of Iran, and into remote reaches of Ecuador. She writes about exotic places and intriguing people, but mostly about the wilderness and how it intersects with the most important issues of our time.

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THE SOURCE FOR READING GROUPS

COVER PHOTOGRAPH © RIVER NORTH PHOTOGRAPHY/VETTA/GETTY

Acclaim for

The Source of All Things by Tracy Ross

"I loved this book. Part survivor memoir and part love letter to nature, I found The Source of All Things compulsively readable and intensely enthralling."

—Julia Scheeres, New York Times bestselling author of Jesus Land: A Memoir

"Tracy Ross is unflinchingly honest as she portrays a life scarred by dark secrets and deeply concealed wounds. But it is in her beloved wilderness that we exalt in her hard-won triumphs of self-discovery and the serenity of forgiveness. The Source of All Things is a mesmerizing memoir that lingers in your mind long after you close the book."

—Mary Alice Monroe, New York Times bestselling author of The Butterfly’s Daughter

"The Source of All Things is a brave book. Sustained by her love of nature, Tracy Ross’s search for truth, clarity, and vindication involving her childhood abuse is told in an easygoing voice that allows us to readily digest her horrors. In a kind of ironic silver lining, the man who abused Tracy also cultivated her love of the wild, introducing her to its exhilarating applications and healing powers where she always found solace. Perhaps it was his unconscious attempt at salvation?"

—Norman Ollestad, author of Crazy for the Storm

In this brave memoir Tracy Ross embodies the detachment necessary to function while the wound of childhood sexual trauma festers unseen, erupting in self-destructive, dangerous behaviors until Ross can finally learn the truth, and thus begin to heal. In speaking her truth, in making herself vulnerable, she will help heal others.

—Janine Latus, author of If I Am Missing or Dead: A Sister’s Story of Love, Murder, and Liberation

This is a lovely book filled with great sadness and small triumphs. If there is a hero anywhere other than Tracy, it is the Natural World whose curative powers and facilitation offer insight and tolerance against seemingly impossible odds.

—John C. Read, President and CEO of Outward Bound USA

Tracy Ross is fearless. She has faced the black stuff of her childhood and turned it into a memoir that will grip you, break your heart, and finally sing to you. Most of all, you will be glad she survived to write this funny, inspiring, beautiful book.

—Claire Dederer, author of Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses

If Annie Oakley had married a saint, their firstborn would surely have been Tracy Ross. She can mush dogs, scale mountains, save herself from horrific abuse, and forgive those who have hurt her, all while building a beautiful life for herself and her family. Her courage is radical, the story of her redemption heart-stopping.

—Lisa Jones, author of Broken: A Love Story

Disturbing but beautifully written… [We’ve] heard stories like these before, but rarely in such clear, unsentimental prose.

O, The Oprah Magazine

Brave and heartbreaking… her courageous story will bring solace and inspiration to others drowning in fear and lacking a voice of their own.

Elle magazine

Gripping.

Whole Living

Raw, heartbreaking.

More magazine

Powerful… a compelling story.

Publishers Weekly

Ross continually explores the boundaries of father-daughter intimacy, never demonizing her stepfather, but instead, humanizing him—a far more difficult task.

Kirkus Reviews

The literal and figurative steps she took to confront her stepfather about their past, in the wilderness setting where he first began his abuse of her, reveal steely self-reliance and a rare capacity for forgiveness… This is not always easy reading, but Ross’s steady writing supports you ’til the very end.

Library Journal

Note to readers: Names and identifying details of some of the people portrayed in this book have been changed.

Free Press

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www.SimonandSchuster.com

Copyright © 2011 by Tracy Ross

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Free Press Subsidiary Rights Department, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.

First Free Press trade paperback edition February 2012

FREE PRESS and colophon are trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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The Library of Congress has cataloged the hardcover edition as follows:

Ross, Tracy.

The source of all things / by Tracy Ross.

p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

(alk. paper)

1. Ross, Tracy—Childhood and youth. 2. Abused children—United States—Biography. 3. Adult child abuse victims—United States—Biography. I. Title.

HV6626.52.R674 2011

362.76092—dc22

[B]      2010031245

ISBN 978-1-4391-7297-1

ISBN 978-1-4391-7298-8 (pbk)

ISBN 978-1-4391-7299-5 (ebook)

Contents

Dear Reader

Prologue

1 An Untimely Death

2 A Knight in Shining Bell-Bottoms

3 The Power of Love

4 My Pa

5 Love Interrupted

6 Agent of Change

7 Bull’s Eye

8 Run!

9 Fugitive

10 Girl, Interrogated

11 Where There’s Love, There’s a BMW with Heated Seats

12 New Roles, New Rules

13 Escape to Art School

14 The Hospital Blues

15 Search and Rescue

16 Disappearing Act

17 Father-Daughter Road Trip

18 Rebound Man

19 The Great Escape

20 Love, Actually

21 Shooting Stars (or Birth Stories)

22 PTSD

23 Crash and Burn

24 Return to Redfish Lake

Author’s Note

Acknowledgments

To Scout, Hatcher, Hollis, and all children, who must be seen, heard, and believed, no matter what.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,

there is a field. I will meet you there.

—Mowlana Jalaluddin Rumi

Dear Reader,

They say the truth hurts. It does. It hurts so much, in fact, that I’d like to tell whoever they are that such an understatement should be banned from the English language. The truth, when it’s the kind I discovered, crashes over you like a giant tsunami. Before I was a year old, my biological father died of an aneurysm that burst in his brain during a backpacking trip in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. And around the time I turned eight, my stepfather began sexually abusing me. It took me years to tell anybody about the abuse, and even longer to understand its impact on me. Throughout that time, my stepdad stayed in my life—still married to my mom, still someone I spoke to and saw. It wasn’t until after I became a mother that I confronted him about what had happened.

My stepfather taught me to love the outdoors, instilling in me the very passion for the wilderness that has helped me overcome the abuse. He was a devoted parent; he also betrayed my trust. He made my family whole again after my biological father died; he also tormented me in my home. To this day, our relationship remains fractured, because he is part of my best and worst memories. It would have been easier to sever him from my life completely, but he’s the only father I’ve ever known.

They also say the truth can set you free. I don’t know about that, either. When I finally confronted my dad, the details he provided were far worse than the story I’d been telling myself for a quarter century. It didn’t seem possible that my dad—who time and again during my adulthood had done everything in his power to protect me—could have mistreated me so badly when I was a child. Nor could I believe that I—a reporter who clung to images and scenes like religious doctrine—could have blocked so much of my abuse from my memory. I spent weeks lying in bed trying to comprehend what my dad had done to me. Then I began the long, arduous task of writing down my story.

Ask any sexual-abuse survivor and he or she will tell you that his or her life has been an exaggerated series of one tentative step forward and two enormous leaps back. In book-writing terms you can multiply that by a hundred thousand. Between 2009 and 2010 I sat in my studio writing The Source of All Things. Because I’d committed to telling the whole story, I had to go home—to my parents—and mine them for the gritty details. Bit by bit, they surrendered, yet I felt little victory. With each new revelation I would become physically ill remembering myself as a child, and then a teenager, struggling to remain happy while my dad exploited my innocence. Ask my husband, and he’ll tell you that at any given moment during that period I was hell to live with: a depressed insomniac who cried over everything from beer commercials to drowning polar bears. But I believe he’d also tell you that, based on how I’ve come out of it, my inquiry, and resulting depression, was worth it.

When you turn to face the thing that haunts you most, you immediately become the hero of your own story. I know this because I spent fourteen months staring down a past I didn’t want to acknowledge. The journey taxed me in ways I never imagined. But now that I’ve gotten through it, what I’ve won is joy. I’ve learned that I’m strong enough to face the thing I was most afraid of, and that I will not be destroyed by it. I’ve learned that talking about the source of my deepest fear and struggle makes me stronger and more accountable. Childhood sexual abuse is one of the worst things that can happen to a person. But it’s not the only thing.

Joy is what happens when you shine light into your own darkness. It’s what’s waiting when you lift the veil off your past. For a sexual-abuse survivor, the truth is the only thing separating us from believing we were culpable and knowing we were not. In truth there is power, creativity, and love. Having to face the difficult truth about my past makes me braver as I encounter the future; it allows me to take risks that I wouldn’t have taken otherwise, to have compassion that I might not have felt otherwise, to be empathetic when I might not have been able to be otherwise.

I’m telling you this because The Source of All Things was my process of lifting the veil of darkness and discovering the truth. And because I don’t want you to worry about me as you’re reading this story. Writing it was like shining a high-beam, heavy-duty flashlight into the remotest corners of my potential. I may never be completely free of my own history, but with so much room for creativity, I can’t wait to see what’s in store for me next. I wrote this book for myself, but also to show others that the past only defines us as long as we let it.

Tracy Ross

October 23, 2011

The Source of All Things

Prologue

Redfish Lake, Idaho, July 2007

All my dad has to do is answer the questions.

That’s it. Just four simple questions. Only they aren’t that easy, because questions like these never are. We are almost to The Temple, three days deep in the craggy maw of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, and he has no idea the questions are 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 nine thousand feet, and my dad, who is really my stepdad, says that this heat feels cooler than the heat in Las Vegas, where he lives. Four days ago, he and my mother met me in Twin Falls, a town 140 miles south of here where I grew up. They’d driven north, across Nevada, past other fires, including one on the Idaho border. When I saw my mom, at a friend’s house where she’d wait while Dad and I backpacked, she’d seemed even tinier than her four-foot eleven-inch frame. Her sweatpants—plucked from the sale bin at a Las Vegas Abercrombie and Fitch store—drooped like month-old lettuce over her bum. In the creases of her mouth, a white paste had congealed, proof that she was taking antidepressants again. Officially, she’s said that she’s glad Dad and I are going back to the place our troubles began twenty-eight years ago, almost to the day. But as I kissed her goodbye, leaving her standing in our friend’s driveway, I wondered, which way is the wind now blowing?

It was late when we left Twin Falls that night—too late to reach the trailhead to The Temple. So Dad and I slept in a field of sagebrush above the town of Stanley. A gnawing in my stomach kept me from eating our black beans and tortillas, but the smell of the sage helped quiet the fear I felt welling beneath my ribcage. In the morning, Dad parked his red Ford pickup at the Redfish Lake Lodge and we took a boat across the water. On the far shore, we found the trailhead to our destination, which we started hiking toward and have been for the past three days.

At sunrise this morning we slid out of our bags, made breakfast, and caught a few fish. When we finally started hiking, we climbed out of one basin and into another, inching up switchbacks sticky with lichen and loose with scree. At 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 chirping across the water, we called it Holy Water Lake because it was Sunday and we did feel a bit closer to God.

Now the wilderness seems haunting and dark. The air is thin, the terrain rugged, and my dad’s body—sixty-four years old, bowlegged, and fifteen pounds overweight—seems tired and heavy to me. He’s been struggling 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 T-shirt, which reads Toot My Horn. Ignoring his choice of wardrobe, I try to remember the father who first led me into these mountains. That man was lean, with a light brown mustache and hair that fanned out from his cheekbones in beautiful blond wings. In a Woolrich shirt and hunting boots he charged up trails, coaxing me on to ridgelines with views of vast, green valleys. If I whined from heat or wilted with hunger, he’d lift me onto his shoulders so effortlessly it was as if my body were composed entirely of feathers.

I know my dad is hurting because I am hurting too—and not just my legs and lungs or the bottoms of my feet. We have barely spoken since we left the dock at Redfish Lake, left the boat and the worried Texans who said, You’re going where? I’m sure we seemed an odd pair: an old man and his—what was I? Daughter? Lover? Friend? When we stepped off the boat, I’d wanted to turn back, forget this whole sordid mess. But The Temple—a spot on the map I’d latched onto and couldn’t let go of—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’re here for reasons I don’t want to think about yet, so I train my mind on the sockeye salmon that used to migrate nine hundred miles from the Pacific Ocean to lay their eggs and die at Redfish Lake. That was before the Army Corps of Engineers put in the dams that obstructed their journey. For decades, no fish have made it back to their ancestral spawning grounds at the base of the Sawtooth Mountains. But when I was young, sockeyes clogged the streams pouring out of the lake, creating waves of bright red color. Mesmerized, I knelt on the banks of Fishhook Creek and stretched my fingers toward their tinfoil-bright fins. My dad told me that the fish were rushing home to ensure the continuance of their species. He said they hadn’t eaten in months; were consuming the nutrients in their own bodies. Over the years I have thought of the fish with love and terror. I want to hover, as they did, over the origin of my own sorrow and draw from it a new, immaculate beginning.

Several times as we hike up the trail, I fantasize about finding the perfect, fist-size rock and smashing it against my dad’s skull. I picture him stumbling, falling onto the ground. I see myself crouching beside him, refusing to hold him as he bleeds. But even as I imagine it, I know I won’t do it, because I can’t afford to lose my dad—yet. For twenty-eight years he has held my memories hostage. Without him, I’ll never know what he did to me when I was a kid.

We climb for another hour until, a few hundred feet from the pass, we turn off the trail. In front of us is a circle of granite towers, sharp and fluted like the turrets on the Mormon Tabernacle. Loose rocks slide down vertical shafts and clatter to the ground. Quickly but carefully, my dad and I crabwalk 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. My dad 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, as if 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 in my pack until I locate my handheld tape recorder. Holding it close to my father’s lips so the wind won’t obscure his answers, I begin the interrogation I’ve waited most of my life to conduct.

Okay, Dad, I say. I’m ready. Tell me. How did it begin?

1

An Untimely Death

How long have I been searching for a father? Nearly as long as I have breathed air.

I was seven months old the day my real dad went backpacking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and an aneurysm exploded in his brain. He was leading a group of Boy Scouts, teaching them to track a black bear, hook a trout, and build a fire with one match. He collapsed in a scree field, cutting his cheeks on shards of million-year-old rocks. His friends carried him back to the trailhead, because the blood pouring out of his artery impaired his ability to see. They took him home and laid him on the sofa, where my mom found him shivering beneath a wool blanket, though the temperature was eighty degrees.

We lived on the Lemoore, California, Naval Station, where my dad worked as a weapons technician. He rode on the USS Kitty Hawk, making sure the bombs on the planes it carried didn’t accidentally detonate. When Mom opened the door of our military-issue tract house, she knew instantly that something was wrong. My dad’s boots, which he always placed at attention (whether he was standing in them or not) were slumped against the living-room wall. Hearing the story of his fall in the mountains, she dropped my four-year-old brother, Chris, and me off at a neighbor’s house, then raced our dad to sick bay, where she was told to come back the following Tuesday because it was Flag Day and all the good doctors were out playing golf.

My dad spent Sunday and Monday in bed. He complained that his head felt like a pressure cooker that couldn’t release steam. On Tuesday, he tried putting on his uniform, but he was staggering and sweating, and then he threw up. My mom took this to mean his condition was worsening. Throwing a pillow onto the driver’s seat of the family station wagon, she drove back to the tiny naval hospital, sobbing and steering, while holding me on her lap.

The doctors found blood in my dad’s spinal fluid and made plans to operate. But the night before his surgery, my parents both knew he was going to die. I’m afraid, he told her, though he couldn’t have wanted her to know such a thing. He was Peter Lewellyn Ross, twenty-nine, youngest chief in the Navy at the time. She was Doris Mary, a twenty-seven-year-old Canadian transplant, who, eight years after coming to America, still said srimp instead of shrimp. They clutched each other on his hospital bed while my mom kissed his bandages and pressed ice cubes on his lips.

We buried my father a few weeks later in a cemetery in Twin Falls, Idaho. But my mom swears he came back to us after the funeral. She and I were sleeping in his childhood bedroom at my Grandmother Ross’s house when he returned. It was cool outside, and the window was open, so my mom said he just climbed in. She remembers exactly what he was wearing: blue-and-black checkered golf pants and a baby blue polo shirt. He had a list in his hand, just like he always had when he’d been living. He gave her the bright, beautiful smile she says I inherited along with his sea-green colored eyes. He stood over my cradle, adjusted my blanket, and laid his hand across the soft spot on my head.

Seeing him, my mom sat up, a little girl in her cotton nightie.

How did you get here? she said.

Can I visit you? I miss you. I need you.

My dad sat down on the edge of her bed. Go back to sleep, Doris Wakeham, he told her. "I still have work to do. I’m