Before my toddler brain could fully conceive of a “mountain,” I knew I wanted to climb one. Dad made sure of that: At bedtime, he’d sit down on the edge of my mattress and unspool one of his backpacking yarns — about the canny marmot who chewed through his sweaty bandana overnight, turning it into fabric Swiss cheese; or the time he and his hiking buddies became separated during a storm, two with the tent canvas and the other two with the poles.
“Is that a true story?” I’d ask. He would just smile, letting the fantastic images take root and blossom in my imagination.
Like so many Californians, Dad had come west from somewhere colder and flatter, searching for his slice of the golden life. He settled in San Diego, blocks from the Pacific Ocean. But he felt most at home in the Sierra Nevada mountains, where he returned year after year to nourish and refresh his soul.
Before each of his trips, a flood of REI gear would overwhelm our driveway. But Dad had a system: Check the cookstove, water filter, first aid kit; check, check, check.
My sister, Emily, and I were still little things, dressed in denim overalls and Keds, but we watched with reverence. Dad let us slide our shoulders into the straps of his empty backpack, and I would imagine a carnival measuring stick: You must be THIS tall to ride. The metal frame dwarfed my kindergarten one, but I dreamed of the day when my own gear would clutter the concrete and I would set off into the backcountry, too.
Dad was also eager to have us join him, I learned later. He wasn’t much of a writer, but he chronicled his trips in small, spartan notebooks, scribbled with his distinctive all-caps handwriting. Ultimately, they contained three decades’ worth of adventures and misadventures on the trail.
On a solo trip to Half Dome in 1996, he marinated in loneliness. When a family with a 5-year-old girl set up camp nearby, he thought of his own daughters, six and four, at home.
“I’m realizing that the solitude is nice, but I think I would be enjoying this more if my family were here or vice versa,” he wrote in one entry. “Maybe my backpacking days are over.” He was never serious about retiring back then, and eventually it became a running joke. But if he had really tried to hang up his hiking boots, I wouldn’t have allowed it. Not before I got out on the trail with him.
When I was in the fifth grade, he finally agreed. In the lead-up to the trip, while my peers discussed Eminem and shopped for crop tops, I proudly wore a North Face T-shirt to school, emblazoned with the words “never stop exploring.”
That summer, we pulled into a diner in Oakhurst, Calif., and ate a big breakfast before sunrise, savoring our last bites before three days of campfire oatmeal and freeze-dried dinners.
We drove on, zipping through the trees, coaxing the park to uncloak itself. Then, emerging from Wawona Tunnel, Yosemite Valley appeared in one dazzling, dizzying instant — the face of El Capitan on one side, misty Bridalveil Fall on the other and between them, in the distance, the curve of Half Dome slicing the sky.
I rocketed up the Mist Trail that morning, past mossy Vernal Fall and its rockier sister, Nevada Fall. “I am one proud Daddy!” he wrote after that first day. And he was still proud on the second day when, three quarters of the way up a set of narrow granite steps, fear gripped me and ground us to a halt — the crest of Half Dome in view, but out of reach.
We would attempt the climb again five years later, on my first and only trip with both Dad and Emily. My confidence swelled until we faced the final leg: a steep ascent up the smooth rock of the dome itself, with the gaping mouth of Tenaya Canyon thousands of feet below.
I gripped the steel climbing cable with shaky palms, fixing my focus on the summit until, suddenly, we were there — taking in the limitless view, standing on the floor of the sky. It was one of “those very few, very special moments in a lifetime,” Dad wrote from the campsite that evening. A “dream come true.”
The next year, it was just the two of us again, trekking through a quieter corner of the park from Tuolumne Meadows to Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp. By now I was a teenager, with a boyfriend and a car, but none of that seemed to matter in the backcountry, where time is measured in geologic eras. One night, we dragged our sleeping bags outside of the tent, and I dozed off watching satellites and shooting stars, feeling completely at peace. I didn’t think it would be my last trip with Dad.
I went off to college, and I believed the wilderness would wait. But time erodes people faster than granite, and soon Dad was thinking about retiring for good. In the years since my first trip, he had “exposed us to the wonders of the backcountry,” he wrote. “What better gift is there?”
Washington, D.C., was quietly beautiful in late autumn 2012, with bare trees and a cold sky, as I ushered my family around my new hometown. We walked a gentle footpath along the Potomac River, making our way to the next monument. But Dad fell behind, coughing and breathing hard. I was worried, but also annoyed. My father scaled mountains. Who was this stranger?
He was dying, we would come to learn. The same lungs that had once worked just fine at nearly 10,000 feet were beginning to fail him at sea level. Six months later, we would bury him in his hiking boots.
We’re taught to “leave no trace” on the trail: to keep the wilderness as we found it, adding and subtracting nothing. Dad hewed religiously to that rule, except as a parent. All the time he was leaving fragments of himself with my sister and me, burying acorns in the dirt for some future winter.
I’m still uncovering them now.
Thousands of miles from the jagged peaks of the Sierra, my hiking boots sit in the closet for most of the year. But on the third Sunday in June, I go looking for a trail — a mountain to climb, a wilderness to explore. Hoping to find a trace of Dad there, now that he’s gone.