In a stack of old papers in my parents’ house is a photograph of 5-year-old Amanda standing at the edge of Sulphur Ridge in Canada’s Jasper National Park. I’m on a pile of rocks 6,000 feet in the air with a red Pebbles ponytail springing out of the top of my head and my scrawny arms raised in the international symbol of triumph. I look like I climbed there, but really my mom hauled me up in a big red hiker’s backpack fitted with two little holes for a child’s legs. My brother, old enough to be freed from the confines of a kiddy backpack, had arranged an every-other-switchback piggyback system with my father to get them both to the summit. Right before they snapped the photo, my parents slipped the backpack onto my shoulders to make it look as if I had been the one carrying the weight.
This is how it was for as long as I can remember: always a few steps behind, impatient to catch up. Mike was born two and a half years before me, and as soon as I was capable of rudimentary declarations of free will, I demanded to go wherever he went. Our sibling rivalries were typically sparked by Mike ambushing me in the yard, holding my arms to the ground, and threatening to drool on my face; they were ultimately resolved when he climbed to the highest tree branch while I clawed ineffectually at the trunk.
When I was 3, my parents tried to plop me into a ski resort day care so the three of them could explore the mountain, but apparently I refused to sit around rearranging blocks with those other babies. My mom tried unsuccessfully to position me between her legs and launch me onto my own skis, pulling me up again and again as I plunked my butt onto the snow instead of attempting a turn. After an exhausting hour, she escaped with my brother while my dad and I languished on the bunny hill, trying to advance me past the snowplow. Dad would ski backwards in front of me, holding my tiny skis into a V-shape, until, finally, I managed to put my skis side by side and pivot on the snow. When my dad tells this story, he throws his arms in the air and launches into my tiny kid voice: “Daddy! I can ski!”
A few years later, I was accompanying him on black diamond runs with moguls as tall as me. When goggled adults riding high above us on the chairlift pointed at me in awe (or else at my father in disgust), I got a rush that sustained me until the bottom of the hill, where my dad would remove my mittens and breathe warmth into them before fitting them back on my pink hands. I didn’t know to feel lucky to be a little girl with a father who took her along on all of his adventures. I just liked that I could keep up with my dad.
I couldn’t, always. At a Canadian campground, my parents instructed 8-year-old me to follow my brother down the 500-yard path to the lake, but I lost sight of him and ended up tracing the campground’s circular tracts for what seemed like hours, the lone kayak paddle I’d been tasked with carrying slowly turning my arms to jelly. Midway down the slope on a frigid day at Mission Ridge, I biffed into the snow. Instead of getting back up, I threw off my gloves and unlatched my skis, chucked them all down the hill, planted on my stomach, and pounded the snow to execute my full-blown temper tantrum. (“I could have had a dog,” my dad reminded me as I set to work on my boot buckles.) Once, after a few hours exploring the trails of Mount Spokane on cross-country skis, my dad left me to defrost in a woodfire-heated lodge while he went back to the snow. I sat alone eating a packed peanut butter sandwich when an older man spied me from across the room, angrily approached, and asked: “Where is your father?” These incidents stand out in my memory like a spike on a heart monitor. One minute I’m sailing over a blanket of white snow, and the next I’m a red-faced little kid who’s in way over her head.
My dad listened more than he talked, but I absorbed every throwaway detail I picked up about his childhood in small-town Wisconsin. He had a friend named Gunner who blew up a shed with dynamite. He took a semester off from college to do … something in Jamaica. It wasn’t until later that my mom began sketching in the more complicated details. My father’s father had died of his fourth heart attack when my dad was 9 and my grandmother was one-month pregnant with their fifth child. She became everything to those kids—breadwinner, caretaker, Catholic school gym teacher. One Christmas, when I was 1½, my mother was holding me in her lap at my dad’s childhood kitchen table when my grandmother emerged with a shoebox full of obituary clippings, all for men in the family whose hearts had failed at 40.
Back at home, my mom pushed my 35-year-old father to head to the doctor and undergo a battery of tests. His cholesterol was through the roof. Mom left town to attend her grandfather’s funeral, and returned five days later to find Mike and me tearing through the house as my dad lay flat on his back, 10 pounds lighter than when she’d left him, his new drug regimen pummeling his liver. By the time I was 5, mom was gone for long summer stretches, studying at a Cleveland graduate program she hoped would stabilize her career in case our other source of income suddenly disappeared. But to me, my father was invincible. Once, he lost control of his skis, crashed into a tree trunk, and flopped backwards under a pile of snow. My brother and I stood around bored, waiting for him to pop back up and race us down the hill.
By the time I finished elementary school, I had reached my terminal height of 5’4”, and in that brief period where girls transform before boys do, I was as tall as my brother. I didn’t like it. The clarity I used to find while hiking got clouded with embarrassment at the folds of my arms over a tank top strap and the feel of my thighs rubbing together. I started hauling a giant sparkling blue makeup box with me on family camping trips, where I’d disappear into a tent and unfold its vanity mirror to check my clumsy makeup job. My dad stared at the box like it was a ticking time bomb.
* * *
Down was supposed to be the easy part. This was eighth grade, Arizona, where my mom had moved for a better job, and my brother and I had followed a year later. (My parents stayed together, but, now both college professors, they never managed to find work in the same place.) I hated everything here. Trees didn’t grow and it never snowed. All the girls had platinum highlights. I was hard on my mom, who was tasked with rousing me out of bed every morning and reasoning with me through slammed doors. My dad visited on weekends and school breaks, and I’d sulkingly agree to accompany him on the excursions that I’d once demanded to be included on. He’d drive me out past the empty strip malls to some desert trail where we squeezed through 30-foot boulders as lizards scattered around our feet. But today, we were descending into the Grand Canyon, where he’d planned out a 23-mile march down to the Colorado River and back up to the opposite rim. Signposts warned hikers not to try to reach the river and return in one day, but signs were written for other people.