For nearly 50 miles, the road bends with the river—first the South Fork, then the Main Salmon. Cecilville Road was nothing but one lane with a few pullouts in 1991, so locals used CB radios to avoid collisions. I was nine then, and sandwiched between my mom, Evans Phelps, and my stepdad, Jerry Davidson, on the bench seat of Jerry's white Toyota pickup. "What's your handle?" Jerry asked, passing me the mike.
"This is Kayaker Nine," I announced. Jerry was teaching me trucker slang, and Mom laughed. "We're heading downstream on the South Fork at mile 11. Over and out."
"You've got a future in radio, kid," Jerry told me, cracking sunflower seeds in his teeth. He cranked up Tom Petty's "Learning to Fly" on a mix tape my mom had made, and we sang along. Jerry was tall and strong, wearing sunglasses attached to a cord around his neck. Mom's dark, wavy hair hung to her chin, and her legs were lean from cycling.
Somewhere up the road was our cabin on California's Salmon River, one of the very few undammed rivers in the state and a spot so remote—deep in the 1.7-million-acre Klamath National Forest—that electricity still doesn't reach it. The closest town, Forks of Salmon, consists of a post office, a tiny elementary school, a herd of wild ponies, and an oak-shaded picnic table that serves as the local pub. Fewer than 100 people lived out there then, and fewer now: gold miners, pot growers, Native Americans, hippies who come to stay at the nearby Black Bear Commune, and, thanks to the world-class whitewater, a handful of kayakers.
A couple of miles downstream from Forks, Jerry turned left at the wooden sign marking the entrance to Otter Bar Lodge, the whitewater kayak school where he had met my mom. The lodge shared a road with our cabin—a small, wood-framed loft with a gas stove and no walls, perched on a cliff overlooking a quiet bend in the Salmon.
That year, I took a boogie board down a mellow stretch of river, roasted marshmallows, and swam in the ponds while Mom and Jerry kayaked. It was one of the last times that things were really good.
On our first night at the cabin, Jerry and I carved our names into the picnic table out front. Jerry used his middle name, Raymond, which was also his trailer-park alter ego. When he and Mom—married for two years at that point—went on vacation, they used to make home videos pretending to be Marge and Raymond, a redneck couple out for a good time. Our Christmas card that year featured the whole family, including my 15-year-old brother, Miles, and 13-year-old sister, Erin, dressed in rags in front of a dilapidated shed. It read, "Merry Christmas. How was your year?"
It was all an act, of course, but the kind that softens the truth by exaggerating it. You see, Jerry had a violent side that came out when he drank. One minute he'd be playing fetch with our dog, the next he was shattering plates. I only remember snippets of the fights—of him smashing a dresser and hitting Mom in the face with a full Diet Coke can, blackening her eye. Once he got so mad at Miles that my brother ran out of the house and then moved back to Dad's place a few weeks later.