Idaho – November 1979

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Far, far below: a patchwork quilt of green and dull brown. In my ears, the muted roar of jet engines. My parents, Grant, and I are on our way to Idaho for my cowgirl aunt’s wedding. My grandparents bought me a ticket, because it was time that I took an airplane.

The stewardesses push the drink cart towards our seat. My father’s eyes light up. He orders a gin and tonic. When the stewardesses move on, he snickers and slips the tiny glass bottle into my mother’s purse. You’re not supposed to take them off the airplane. A few minutes later he flags down a stewardess and orders another one. She gives him a dirty look as she hands him the bottle. I’ll give them to my friends at work, he whispers to my mother. It’s his first time on an airplane, too. He hasn’t drunk any alcohol in years, except for wine at church. That doesn’t count, because it’s the blood of Christ.

Grant babbles and hums in his deep musical voice as he bounces up and down on my mother’s lap. Recounting a tale only he can understand. The other passengers laugh. He is nine months old now. He has so much to say, but no words to say it yet.

I lean my forehead against the cold glass window and watch the fabric of the Earth turn to ripples of white and gray. The Rocky Mountains. My heart flutters. Most of my aunts and uncles moved out West right after they graduated from high school. Their faces are blurred in my mind. My mother’s address book is filled with their current and former addresses. They move around so much. Newport Beach. Santa Ana. Costa Mesa. Bend. Hailey. Sometimes they come back at Christmas, but never at the same time. They call instead, and the phone is passed around to those few who stayed behind. Every year their voices become more distant and unfamiliar. One summer, I wrote letters to them. A couple of them wrote me back once, and then I never heard from them again.

We are the last to arrive in Ketchum. Hugs and laughter. Loud, excited talk. They are all together again after so many years. Those who now live in the these parts say howdy instead of hello. They wear cowboy hats, cowboy boots, and flannel shirts.

Howdy! I reply.

In the hours before the wedding, my mother, Grant, and I hang out in my California aunt’s hotel room along with the other women. My cowgirl aunt and her best friend sit behind me on the bed, while another aunt writes out place settings in calligraphy. A hand reaches out and snaps my bra. The room goes silent. I look behind me. My cowgirl aunt and her friend giggle. My mother shakes her head at them. I blush and look down at my hands, too ashamed to cry. I know that I don’t need one, even though I am eleven. My mother only bought it for me, because all the other girls in my class are wearing bras. She hopes it will make them tease me less. My cowgirl aunt has always been beautiful and popular. She doesn’t know what it’s like to be a dork with no friends.

For the wedding, I wear a red empire waist dress and brown clogs. My mother says that this type of dress is good for thin girls. She rubs some rouge into my cheeks to give my pale face a little color. The church has a large glass window that looks out to the mountains. Most of the pews are empty, because the gathering is only close family and friends. The photographer is a friend of my cowgirl aunt and new uncle. His postcards of Idaho scenery are for sale in gift shops around Sun Valley. He has thick blonde hair and a weird name. A cowboy name. His movements are slow and careless, but there’s a crafty glint in his eyes. He puts his arm around people when he talks to them, even if they’ve only just met.

The reception is at a famous hotel. Just before we enter the building, the photographer takes my hand and leads me to a tall pine tree. He places my hands on the branches. I should feel happy that he wants to take my photo, because I’m ugly. But I don’t like him. My parents stand behind him and smile. My mother looks sad. My father looks proud. The photographer gives my father a dirty look and steps in front of him. Smile, pretty girl.

I lift the corners of my mouth, pressing my lips together to hide my crooked teeth.

Inside the hotel, the photographer takes my photo again next to a metal sun. He moves closer to me, blocking my parents out of sight, and aims the camera at my head. One eye behind the camera. The other eye staring deep into mine. Cold determination. My stomach churns.

I sit across from my parents for dinner. Every few minutes, someone taps a fork on a glass. Everyone joins in, whooping and cheering until my new uncle grabs my cowgirl aunt and gives her a kiss. For dessert there is something called cherries jubilee, which has alcohol in it. The waitresses light the glasses on fire. This burns up the alcohol, I am told, but I can still taste it. Sharp, bitter. People must only like it because it makes them feel good.

A man from my new uncle’s family tells a story about a horseshoe nail. When he sits back down, the photographer calls me over to him. Everyone will be mad if I’m rude to such a fun and nice guy, so I walk over to him. The photographer puts his arm around my shoulders and draws me close. This is what we’re going to do. I’m going to tap my fork on the glass and then I’m going to steal a kiss from you. His grip on my arm tightens.

I look over at my parents. Like everyone else, my mother is looking at my cowgirl aunt and new uncle and cheering. My father is staring straight ahead with that strange empty look in his eyes. His lips are moving. He’s talking to himself again, but no one notices. No one ever notices anything.

The photographer puts his hand on my face and forces my cheek to his lips. A white-hot wave moves through me. I tear myself away and storm back to my chair as the cheers die down.

What’s she pouting about now?

Always needs to be the center of attention.

I grit my teeth and choke back tears. I don’t want him to touch me. Just because they all like him doesn’t mean I have to. I don’t look at the photographer again for the rest of the dinner.

We stay until the restaurant staff tells us that we have to leave, because they are closing. The photographer inches towards me, sliding between people, hand outstretched. I move close to my father and look away. My father smiles down at me and puts his warm hand on my head. He sees me now. I am safe. The photographer makes the rounds, hugging some people, shaking hands with others. He then strolls away, down the darkened path between the tall pine trees. He turns once to look at me and wave.

What a neat guy he is!

So easy-going!

A real character!

The party is moved to my Idaho uncle’s hotel room. He takes out a Mason jar that’s filled with clear liquid. Corn whiskey. Moonshine! He takes a swig and coughs. It’s time to get Grant from the babysitter, so my parents say goodnight. As we walk out the door, the uncles push the beds against the wall so people can dance. My parents walk ahead of me. My mother’s head hangs low. Her shoulders slump forward.

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The next morning after breakfast, we pile into vans and rental cars. I load a fresh roll of film into my camera, a Keystone Everflash 10. It’s a hand-me-down from my grandfather. It has a built-in flash and something called an electric eye. Someone gives me a road map to look at. I watch the road signs and chart our progress to Stanley. There is much talk of a hot springs, but when we get there I’m disappointed to see that it’s just a tiny, stinky pool of water by the roadside. I had imagined a waterfall, or something. Everyone lines up next to it for a family photo. Laughter and shouts of amazement. They are always so enthusiastic about everything. At other lookout points, I take photos of the snow-capped Sawtooth Mountains.

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When we get to Galena Summit, the uncle who moved to California to become a millionaire says, Hey, Julie! I’m going to go look up at the sign like I’m surprised and then you take a picture!

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Then we turn around and drive back to my uncle’s house in Hailey.

Suitcases are loaded. Goodbyes are said. Cars drive away. A silence creeps into my uncle’s place. He paces back and forth for a while, and then he loads some shotguns into his pickup truck. My grandmother and I squeeze into the truck with him and a couple of his friends. We are going to a canyon to shoot off the guns. The mountains that rise above this canyon are a dingy brown. Not as pretty as the Sawtooths. But they are mountains, and I stare up at them.

Can I climb up there?

Go ahead. But go up this side, because we’re shooting the other way. We’ll honk the horn when we’re ready to leave.

My wedge heel fashion boots slip on the loose rock. A stone gouges a small hole in the fake leather. I keep an eye out for rattlesnakes, even though it’s November. The peak is just up ahead already. But when I get there, another peak appears just beyond. The gunshots and cowboy whoops echo off the canyon walls. I am climbing a mountain in Idaho! No other kid I know has ever done that. And I’m doing it all by myself. Higher and higher I climb, but the real peak keeps slipping out of reach. Soon I hear nothing but the wind and my pounding heart. I turn and stare down at the canyon. The dirt road is just a thin line. A gust of wind blows, carrying the faint sound of a horn and someone calling my name. I look once more at the top, and then start back down.

You really climbed up high, young lady!

I thought I was almost at the top a few times, but then it was just another small hill on the way up.

My uncle looks at me from under the brim of his cowboy hat. His eyes twinkle like my grandfather’s. That’s called a ridge. It takes a long time to climb to the top of a mountain. But you did a really good job. He ruffles my hair as I climb into the truck. My grandmother puts her arm around me and squeezes. That’s my tough girl. My face flushes with joy. My mother will probably get mad about the hole in my favorite boots, but I don’t even care. Every time I look at it I will remember.

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*This is an excerpt from my memoir, Wish I Were Here. These are the very same photos that I took during the trip, except for the last one of myself with my younger cousin standing near the hot springs, which was (obviously) taken by someone else. I still remember the smell of film fresh from the envelope. A smell like things kept forever.

56 thoughts on “Idaho – November 1979

  1. Quite an account. I could truly sense the emotions you were going through, only to be happy when alone, climbing the ridge.
    “We do not remember days, we remember moments.” -Cesare Pavese.

    • Many thanks. It’s a challenge to recreate scenes from fragmented and blurred memories while keeping it honest.

      Thanks for letting me know about the typo. No matter how many times I check for errors, some manage to escape.

  2. Hello Julie. Thank you for sharing the lovely memory and treasure that a mountain climb can be. I am so glad you did it even with your favourite boots getting damaged.
    I wasn’t able to ‘walk away from your story’ until the end of it.
    A gripping story it is ❀
    All the best,
    Hanna

  3. Remarkable recall, Julie – the painful progress of growing up sticks firm and the joy of escape. I googled the Keystone Everflash 10 – what a fantastic looking device – there are loads on eBay, I am almost tempted.

    • Thank you, Robin. This is one part of childhood that I clearly remember. The photos and Grandma’s Super 8s were very helpful in verifying my memories. I might still have that camera in a box at my mother’s house, but I fear it might have gone to a Goodwill shop as a result of my pre-expatriation purge. It was a simple, but very sturdy device, and so totally cool to look at. πŸ™‚ I always wondered what the electric eye did. I could never figure it out.

  4. You are a brilliant storyteller, Julie. We were right there with you…the first flight, the distant family, the creepy photographer, the insecure 11 year old that we all were. Amazing clarity on those old photos. I won my first camera, Kodak Instamatic, in a 7th grade spelling bee and used it for many years. Those old photos didn’t hold up as well as yours. But, oh, that smell of the envelope of processed film…I remember. ❀️ Your memoir…amazing.

    • Thank you, Van. 🌸I smoothed out the first (large) photo using software and I purposely posted smaller sizes of the other photos, because they are fuzzy at the larger size. They have held up surprisingly well over time – no yellowing.

  5. Wonderful Julie. Your patient re-telling of ordinary moments in time convey the magic of childhood, which is never ordinary when closely examined.

    I can see that even at 11 years old you had an artist’s eye for composition in your photographs.

    What is the status of publishing your memoir?

    • Thank you. πŸ™‚ I’m finding that the little moments tell so much. Still a while until I can start to look for an agent/publisher, but it’s more finished than unfinished. The childhood sections need the most work.

  6. Another of your exciting stories with very good pictures of that time. I wonder, whether you were more afraid of the photographer or the mountain, but I think of the first mentioned! Thank you ,Julie, for this beautifully narrated story.πŸ˜€ Very best regards Martina

  7. I never traveled to Idaho with my childhood Kodak camera, but there’s something about the color and composition of those photos that evokes my own early attempts to capture mountains and woods on film. Likewise, your story is not my own, but it could be in so many small ways – the faraway relatives, the first airplane flight, the wedding festivities lost on a pre-teen, the need to wander off alone into nature, even the awkward bra encounter! Ha. I love your posts; they are beautifully written and so vividly bring back a time that seems very familiar to me.

    • From a very young age, I’ve had a strong instinct about people. When I’ve ignored it, I’ve suffered consequences. Looking back, it’s clear that the photographer was showing the grooming behavior of a pedophile. It’s amazing to me how oblivious people continue to be. Even with all of the advances in psychology that we’ve had since then, and how much more acceptable it is to talk about it, people still avert their eyes. No one wants to see the “fun, neat guy” as a psychopath.

      • I also have the same instincts. I suffered the attentions of a couple of teachers at school, and purposely went out of my way to behave in ways that put them against me. I had no idea about things like pedophilia; I just sensed their motives were questionable.

  8. Julie, this is a wonderful tale of your life. At the beginning you where so distant but at least your brave climb integrated you in your family and in the events. Thank you for sharing.
    Have a good time,
    Ulli

  9. The smell of fresh film? Is that your Proust’s madeleine? πŸ™‚
    I think I almost remember. Almost. But not the “canned” 35mm, the red one I had to get inside a closet to put in my brownie…
    Thank you for the story, Julie.
    Happy Easter.

  10. Julie, you write beautifully. I was with you every step of the way. My heart was in my mouth every time that creepy photographer came close. You have a great gift. Patsy

  11. a great mountain climbing story, after all…but there’s so much more in this post, Julie. I was impressed by your memory, you were really young after all…such memories are not easy to keep in time. You connected them beautifully. Cris

  12. Such a strong memory – I was right there with you. I was genuinely stressed about the photographer. I’m so glad he didn’t get to you! I’m still inside your story I guess…

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