All my life, from my earliest memories, I’ve known of a semimythic place called the Tetons. Until I was a grown-up, I never quite knew where it was. In my mind, it exists solely in the past, as a state of being. It is inextricably linked to my family, back in those hazy, long-ago golden early days when we were a family: a mother, a father and three sisters.
I remember jagged, snow-peaked mountains and a clear stream rushing over rounded rocks; the soft flannel lining of my sleeping bag, and the roof of my mouth burned by charred hot dogs and roasted marshmallows. I remember my two little sisters playing in the shade, our laughing, beautiful young mother gazing at the view, and our father, who taught us songs and made us laugh and let us ride on his shoulders. At home, he could erupt into sudden violence or disappear into cold abstraction, but on camping trips, he was warm, charming, fun.
We lived in Berkeley in those days. “Going to the Tetons” – which are, in fact, in western Wyoming – meant a very, very long drive. I remember sleeping with my little sisters in the way-back of our 1955 Chevy station wagon, the Green Queen. I can hear fragments of the songs we sang together as we drove: In Dublin’s fair city, roses love sunshine, oh my darling Clementine.
The Tetons meant waking up to my parents drinking cowboy coffee from tin camping mugs, shadows of pine boughs on the canvas tent wall, the fresh breeze blowing through the screen mesh window. It meant sitting by the campfire at night on stumps, singing, telling stories, watching fiery sparks soar up to the stars. The Tetons meant my parents were still together, my family still intact, with none of the future violent ruptures and rifts among the five of us from which no one would be exempt and no bond unbroken.
Going there ended in 1970, when we moved with our mother to Arizona and left our father behind in the Bay Area. We had more adventures, but they were different. Our father was always far away, and then he was simply gone from our lives. “Remember the Tetons?” I’d say to my sisters, or they’d say to me. It was shorthand: What we meant was, “Remember our romantic, Edenic early childhood?”
When I was 25, in 1987, my then-boyfriend and I drove cross-country together with a tent and sleeping bags and camping equipment. He wanted to see friends in Jackson Hole, so we decided to camp at the national park for a couple of nights. “The Tetons,” I said to him. “I know them well.”
We arrived, pulled into our campsite, set up our tent. We built a campfire, roasted hot dogs, sang songs. We awoke to the shadows of pine boughs on the nylon wall. Drinking my tin camping mug of cowboy coffee, I gazed at the same view my mother had loved all those years ago: snowy jagged peaks, big sky. “The Tetons,” I said to myself, waiting to feel that same old magic again.
The mountains shot up thousands of feet from the peaceful green valley with its shining river. The abrupt power of the mountains shocked me, a sudden, gigantic violence of sheer rock, without any undulating cushions of foothills to soften the rupture.
Instead of happy nostalgia, I found a hard, bracing truth – born, perhaps, in a new apprehension of beauty. My boyfriend didn’t love me nearly enough to make up for the loss of my father, and I didn’t love him enough to fill the gaping melancholy I felt the whole time we stayed there.
Although I didn’t know it then, my adult life had just begun.
Kate Christensen is the author of “The Great Man” and “Blue Plate Special.”