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MY PARENTS DIVORCED when I was three. I stood to the side while my dad tried to figure out how to adjust the pleats of my school uniform. “I’ve never ironed a skirt before,” he said. In a row of girls wearing black leather shoes and lace socks, I wore hiking boots and wool. Neither one of us had ever heard of starching a skirt.
With divorce came dating, then step-parents and an ever-changing mix of families. Only our father-daughter trips remained the same.
In the passenger seat of a beat-up Pathfinder, I tapped my feet against the floorboards and listened as he told stories. He always did the accents. We spent hours driving across state lines, exploring wide expanses of public land.
He took me to the woods before I learned to walk. Sitting on weather-beaten picnic benches, we watched the Pacific roll into the rocks and then slide back again. We read Mark Twain and Thoreau, stared at the stars, followed one another’s bobbing headlamps into the damp corridors of underground caves, stretching out afterwards on warm rocks, watching the lazy flight patterns of turkey vultures.
In Colorado, riding along a dusty horizon with the scent of burned cattle hair clinging to our clothes, he commented on the weather, the scenery, the horses, the food. I kept my thoughts to myself. The more people pushed, the more I retreated. My dad learned to wait.
On the shores of Yellowstone Lake, trying to reel in anything that would bite, I asked if I could take a kayak out alone.
He tightened the straps of my life vest and stood on the shore as the red kayak cut through the eddy and out toward the lake. The wind swept the water into white-capped peaks, pushing me farther from shore. I panicked, unable to paddle against the current or the wind, screaming for help. After he had rescued me, after we had tied up the kayaks and put away the fishing tackle, he said, “I’m proud of you, kiddo.”
I threw a rock into the lake. “I couldn’t do it.”
He flicked the brim of my baseball hat, pushing it up and away from my eyes. “You were brave enough to try.”
We didn’t catch any trout that night. I poked a stick into the campfire, watching the embers sputter and then smoke.
In college, halfway through a biology degree I didn’t want, frustrated with my introverted nature and my ever-present fear of failure, I called my dad.
I wanted to ask if he remembered our trip to Yellowstone. And I wanted the mountains. I drove the six hours home. Immersed in the scent of the Sierra Nevada, tapping my boots against the leaves, I tried to explain how I felt sheltered in the mountains, how I wanted to trust people, how it takes time. How when you feel too much, you learn to pretend you feel nothing at all. How when it’s impossible to become impervious, you learn to become elusive.
I was eleven again, throwing rocks into the lake, mired in my own disappointment and unable to see the merit of having tried. He reminded me. With only the trees, the smallest birds flitting from one branch to another, I felt bigger than myself. I hinted at dreams. I wanted to say thank you. I never did. It’s not too late, but I couldn’t find the words.
I don’t know much about child development, about the impact of divorce or of incessant uprooting. But I know that in a constant flux of moving and change, of people entering and exiting, those father-daughter trips gave me a pathway to myself. I know that under his guidance, within the boundaries of North America’s public lands, the courage to try became the mantra of my heartbeat, the open road became a kind of therapy.
Because in spite of my fears and all my hesitation, I have failed spectacularly, turned it into a sort of art. I have fallen hard, skidding into mistakes, wheels spinning, emerging bleeding and broken from clouds of dust. And I have never learned to give up. Because there is a version of me standing on the shores of Yellowstone Lake with bruised knuckles and bluish lips. She remembers. She has faith in her father’s words; she fights hard to go her own way.
And he won’t take credit for it. But he should. Because while he stood helplessly in the feminine care aisle, wondering how to teach her all the things she might need to know about being a woman, he overlooked that the most important thing he’d ever give her is the courage to be herself.
From the passenger seat of a beat-up Pathfinder, under desert skies, along dusty trails, from the bow of an old red kayak, she learned to live, to travel, to cling stubbornly to her own ideals, to take wrong turns and hard falls, to find solace in the mountains, to never learn to starch a skirt, to stay within her head because she likes it there. And when she is thousands of miles off-course, feeling homesick and alone, she will always know where to go. There will always be Yosemite, there will always be Yellowstone, there will always be a place outside with a wide blue sky and her father’s voice saying, “Be brave enough to try.”