Story by Elizabeth Smith
Photograph by Chris Buck
Tracy Ross hikes up the knee-high steps of a winding trail toward the top of Mount Sanitas in the foothills of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. She aims her gaze at the ground ahead of her feet. Muscle memory takes control, making the split second decisions that navigate her feet through the rocks and narrow crevices.
At the summit, she plops down to take in the view of the city of Boulder 1,255 feet below. Tufts of auburn hair peak out from underneath her black knit beanie and whip against her cheeks in the wind. Looking west, she can see the snowcaps of the Continental Divide severing the Rocky Mountains from the Great Plains. Since 2004, she’s lived on the mountainside, up at 8,000 feet where the air thins. She feels as much at home here as a mountain goat. She knows this trail well. For years, Tracy would flee her desk to scale the mountain once or twice a week during lunch breaks at Skiing magazine.
It’s what she does when she faces a challenge: head up the mountain, hike into the wilderness, find harmony in nature, heal. Today, she has more on her mind than the usual splendor of the view. Her memoir, The Source of All Things, just hit stores. Tracy needs to prepare for her first-ever book reading, where she will share a 30-year-old family secret: the sexual abuse she experienced from age 8 until 14 at the hands of her stepfather.
The Source of All Things tells how Tracy healed by embracing a gift from her abuser: a love of the wilderness. Her stepfather introduced her to the outdoors, taking the family camping and hiking. She drew her strength to forgive him in the wilderness, too, finding peace amid powdered snow and trees that never lose their color. To face the abuse and deal with the source of her underlying depression, she first wrote about her experience in 2007 for Backpacker, the award-winning outdoor publication where Tracy now works as a contributing editor.
Tracy’s essay won a National Magazine Award in 2009, helping Backpacker earn three Ellies that year. The essay also landed her in two compendiums of the nation’s best writers – The Best American Sports Writing and The Best American Magazine Writing – along with writers from Rolling Stone and The Atlantic. Since then, Tracy has followed trappers searching for wolves in Alaska, hit the Appalachian trails with green evangelists and discovered the secrets of the ski culture in Iran. That story for Skiing magazine, “Our Country Comes Skiing in Peace,” earned her a notable mention in The Best American Travel Writing collection.
In the male-dominated world of outdoor sports, Tracy’s become the “it” girl of extreme sports writing, an adventurer with all the heart and none of the attitude. A wife and mother, she chases stories all over the world, living in the awe of nature and writing about people who are in awe of it as well. Her almost-religious connection to the wild has helped her confront the horrors of her childhood and, more recently, helped to resuscitate her marriage.
Hike finished, Tracy descends Mount Sanitas and drives nine miles up a canyon to the home she shares with husband Shawn and their sons, Scout and Hatcher. The 800-square-foot house, built in the 1970s, looks more like a ski bum’s retreat. It sits on two acres near Roosevelt National Forest. Though it’s long past sunrise, a feisty rooster from the chicken coop behind their house caws. Tracy retreats to her 8-by-8-foot studio nestled between the trees just out of sight of the house. It’s her nook for reading, writing and solitude. A postcard tucked in the windowsill reads, “Your soul needs the wild. Luke 5:16.” She hunches over a hardback copy of her book, fussing over which passages to read and which to summarize. “This is harder than I thought it would be,” she says to herself. How can she tell her life’s story in 45 minutes?
With only a handful of features to her credit, Tracy sees herself as a newcomer to writing. She first started in 1997 when she was living in the tiny, isolated town of Talkeetna near Alaska’s Mount McKinley. She was newly married to her first husband, whom she describes as a “toothless, Scottish dog musher.” To escape his growing temper, she began spending time with neighbor Krista Maciolek, a petite librarian whose boyfriend was dying of cancer. Krista channeled her emotional trauma by training a dog sledding team for the Iditarod, a 1,161-mile race in temperatures reaching 40 below zero.
After a couple of months of tending to the dogs and watching Krista’s tears freeze on her face, Tracy stayed up through the night to write Krista’s story on the back of a paper grocery bag – the only blank piece of paper she had. The next morning, she read it over the air on a local radio station, then the Alaska Public Radio Network picked it up to air before the Iditarod. Few people I knew had been to places as dark as I had. I figured my journey to hell had made me better able to empathize with others’ suffering, Tracy writes in her book. I recognized that, like me, she was pushing herself to the physical extreme in order to process her anguish.
With Krista’s story, Tracy had found a niche – writing about the wilderness and redemption – but it would take her a decade to write about her abuse. Her magazine editors at Backpacker sent her to the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho three times so she could revisit the place of her childhood abuse for her award-winning magazine piece. Once she went by herself, once with her husband – and one last time with her abuser, her stepfather.
Tracy spent a year writing in her studio where she could hear the melody of the babbling brook that runs behind her house. Despite the tranquil surroundings, writing about the cruel reality of her abuse left her depressed. Some nights, she awoke at 3 a.m., sealed herself off in their tiny bathroom and wrote until she had vanquished enough disturbing thoughts to sleep. “I looked at myself as a character instead of as ‘me.’ I tried to keep some distance and just wrote the story,” says Tracy. Rather than dwell on her anger, she says she was able to feel compassion for “that person.”
“The Source of All Things is a story about my stepfather and me and a mistake that he made that has taken 30 years, several countries, much wandering, two kids and millions of acres of raw wilderness to reconcile,” she says to the crowd. Tracy greets a full house at Boulder Book Store. Friends, fellow writers in Boulder’s robust magazine industry, book enthusiasts and interested readers fill every seat in the upstairs ballroom and spill behind the low bookshelves that flank the stage.
“It’s so much more than an abuse book,” Tracy says to the audience. “To me, it’s a story about redemption, forgiveness and what we’re capable of overcoming. It’s a search for truth and a story about how much we can take and still forgive those who harm us.” The redness in her face lessens as she explains the book’s premise. In real life as in her stories, Tracy knows when to throw in some comic relief to preface a serious topic. “I probably chose too much to read, so if it starts to go long, if somebody could just …” She sticks her finger in her throat to feign a gag, eliciting laughs from the crowd.
She begins the reading at the height of her story, literally and figuratively. She is leading her stepfather on a hike up 9,000 feet through Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains – 30 years after he began abusing her. The plan is to confront him when they reach the top.
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, Tracy reads from the book. [H]e has no idea the questions are coming. But I have them loaded, hot and explosive, like shells in a .30-30. When they reach the summit, Tracy pulls out her voice recorder, holds it to his mouth, and asks curtly, “Okay, Dad. I’m ready. Tell me. How did it begin?”
Tracy’s real father, a naval officer, died of a brain aneurism he suffered on a hiking trip when she was less than a year old. Tracy grew up south of the Sawtooth Mountains in Twin Falls, Idaho, with her widowed mother, Doris, and an older brother. When she was 4, her mother met Donnie Lee. Tracy was mesmerized with his feathered blond hair, bell-bottoms and rumbling Jeep. The marriage quelled Doris’ depression and the happy family settled right in with the new man in their lives. Donnie bonded with Tracy and introduced her to camping, hiking, swimming, hunting, fishing and cooking fresh venison over the fire. Tracy’s love of the outdoors first developed during these trips with Donnie. The irony is not lost on her. When she was 8, the family went camping in the Sawtooth Mountains. One night, Tracy awoke from her bed in the top bunk of their tiny RoadRunner camper and felt someone on top of her.
She reads from her mother’s reaction the morning after when Tracy told her what happened. Donnie convinced his wife it had all been a bad dream, and Tracy almost believed it, too. But when Tracy hit puberty, the abuse started again and escalated until she turned 14. Fearing she would be raped if she stayed, she fled home in the middle of the night and confessed to friends and police. Tracy was shuffled from a friend’s house to a state shelter to a temporary foster parent. After a few weeks, Donnie “decided to do the right thing” and formally admitted his guilt to the Health and Welfare Department. In exchange for his confession and eight weeks of court-appointed group therapy, Donnie would avoid prison and could return home after 10 months of separation from Tracy. Doris believed him when he claimed the confession was only lip service to bring Tracy home sooner.
Donnie moved out of the house and Tracy moved back in with her mother, but Tracy’s resentment toward her mother was too explosive for that arrangement to last. The court sent her to live with an aunt in Oregon. That only lasted for four months before, missing her parents and longing for a normal relationship, she moved back home to Idaho. For years after that, she managed to stay in touch, oscillating between anger and resentment and love and sympathy for the only father she ever knew.
A turning point came at 16 when Tracy used money inherited from her real father to send herself to a pricey boarding school halfway across the country in northern Michigan. At Interlochen Center for the Arts, Tracy busied herself with new friends and gained confidence in theater classes. The school bordered a state park, where Tracy would take off on weekends. There she rediscovered the wilderness she fell in love with as a child. For the first time, she felt its healing powers mentally and physically. “Once I was out there, I remember having this moment of: I know this. I know these trees. I know snow. I know these shadows. And I found that I was home again in nature. And from that point on, all I did, my whole life, focused on being in awesome places,” Tracy says.
In the book, Tracy writes of the healing she found in the wilderness: I found my way back to trees and rocks and snow, the absolutes of the world, which I had once relied on and cherished. ... I skied loops and loops through the forest, burning through the pain in my chest. It was for a lost father, followed by a bad father, followed by all the people who refused to help. But the trees never wavered.
The memories of her stepfather’s abuse didn’t fade, however. After graduation from Interlochen, Tracy’s wanderlust began. She helped lead a group of unruly teenagers on a counseling trip of sorts through 130 miles of southern Utah’s Escalante Desert. She explored the Teton Mountains in Wyoming and drifted in and out of college in Seattle and Santa Fe, joined a search-and-rescue team and worked as a student conservationist for a summer at Yellowstone. When she returned for a second year of college in New Mexico, she didn’t stay for long. I knew that, for me, wilderness could provide the perfect meditation, analgesic, escape. I knew any relationship with my parents would plunge me back into the darkness, Tracy writes.
She headed to “the ultimate drift” of Alaska in the summer, hiked glaciers and traipsed through woods. When the summer ended, Tracy needed a ride back to Seattle. She called her mother, who – seeing herself as a peacemaker – handed the phone over to her stepfather, as she often did in efforts to encourage reconciliation. For the 1,400 miles of road through Canada’s Alcan Highway, Tracy and Donnie took turns behind the wheel, driving in an awkward silence, except to marvel at the mountains and wildlife.
Looking up from her book, Tracy eyes the clock at the back of the room, knowing her reading time is over. She reads one more passage. In the end, Dad and I never found the words to say what we were feeling. Not on that whole drive from Alaska to Seattle, Tracy reads. I knew the day would come when I’d be strong – and hard-hearted – enough to finally force him to fess up to every last one of his abuses.
Forgiveness came in doses. Right before her wedding ceremony to Shawn, Tracy forgave her stepfather but only half-heartedly. After having her own children, she needed Donnie to confess what he did to her. On their trip to the Sawtooths, Tracy asked the questions that had plagued her for decades. She asked her stepfather about that day on the camping trip.
When did it start? asked Tracy.
On a camping trip up here at Redfish. I had been drinking. I lied. I was tucking you in. My hands went to a spot, which surprised me, and I kept them there. ...
But I was eight. Couldn’t you see what that did to me and say, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, I did that. That was a mistake?’
A person who does what I did ... you make things up. You don’t think of the other person. You just need that closeness. If I had ever known how it would have affected you, I probably would have done something completely different.”
In that conversation, Tracy got more than she bargained for. She learned that the abuse was much worse – and more frequent. What she remembered as about a dozen incidences of abuse were actually between 25 and 50. (Later she learned he slipped her sleeping pills.) She ran back down the mountains writhing in anger.
Could I still forgive him? I moved past forgiveness into an acid understanding etched in pain. I had explored the perimeters of love, however warped, and saw that love could retain some value while wreaking destruction at the same time, Tracy writes. Love cuts with a serrated blade, and there are shreds of my feelings that form an unbreakable bond to my parents.
In the end, she came to forgive her stepfather. Forgiving her mother has been more difficult. Tracy hopes her book, with its complex story and oscillating emotions, can help other victims heal from abuse and the depression that often follows it. “It’s OK as a victim to have whatever experience you want, from forgiveness to complete cutoff,” Tracy says. “It’s OK that I forgive my dad. There’s no shame in that.”
Now 68, Donnie is seeking absolution by admitting the abuse and helping Tracy publicize her book. He’s done TV and magazine interviews, including one in March for People magazine. Millions watched in April when ABC’s Nightline and CNN’s Dr. Drew show aired interviews with the family. “My dad has been very forthcoming about this whole thing, and the second he agreed to go on that walk [in the Sawtooth Mountains], he knew that we were going back to figure it out,” says Tracy. His honesty could change his life for the worse, she realizes. “That means that everyone is his neighborhood is going to know. His dentist is going to know. All these people and they could totally vilify him, and he’s still in it saying yes.”
The gift he gave her – the love of the wilderness – keeps giving back. Whenever she has a problem, she hits the trail, then she writes about it. What distinguishes her writing is its raw honesty. In an essay for Outside, “You Don’t Bring Me Clif Bars Anymore,” Tracy drags her reluctant husband on a weeklong hiking trip into Colorado’s Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area to work out the kinks in their 11-year marriage. Since settling down and having children, they have less time to spend hiking, skiing, biking and seeking out the extreme sports that first brought them together. Between investigating beaver dams and sleeping in valleys with bugling elk in the distance, they rediscovered a connection they could only find in the rocky peaks of Colorado.
At home now, she’s clearly happy. At 7:30 a.m., the morning after the reading, her sons Scout and Hatcher plop down at the kitchen table for breakfast before catching a carpool to school. Tracy grabs toast from the toaster oven, their only source for cooking. They were going to replace the broken stove but bought a raft instead. Shawn is planning an addition to the house, but the extra rooms are for the kids and the new baby due in August. Tracy’s not letting her pregnancy stop her from hiking, skiing and rafting to research more stories for Backpacker. In her first pregnancy with her oldest son Scout, she’d foregone Lamaze classes for ski runs. Hanging out in nature is second nature now. Given her childhood, Tracy might have equated the wilderness with hell. Instead it’s her haven, her healing place – and the source of some amazing stories.
Editor’s note: That’s Tracy with husband Shawn in the opening photograph, shot for Outside magazine. The goat is fake. Check out its feet.