Gone Feral: Tracking My Dad Through the Wild

A
LSO BY
N
OVELLA
C
ARPENTER

Farm City

The Essential Urban Farmer

with Willow Rosenthal

THE PENGUIN PRESS

Published by the Penguin Group

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First published by The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Novella Carpenter

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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA

Carpenter, Novella, 1972-

Gone feral : tracking my dad through the wild / Novella Carpenter.

p. cm.

ISBN 978-0-698-16378-2

1. Fathers and daughters—Idaho. 2. Interpersonal relations—Idaho. 3. Missing persons—Idaho. I. Title.

HQ755.85C3597 2014 2013039981

306.874'2—dc23

One of the names and identifying characteristics have been changed to protect the privacy of the individual involved.

Version_1

For my sister, Riana, who always seems to know

PART I

MISSING

Dad holding one-year-old baby Novella on the ranch in Idaho. The funky trailer in the background was home sweet home, 1973.

One

M
y dad officially went missing on October 17, 2009.

The morning I found out, I woke up to the hum of traffic from Interstate 980 harmonizing with the nickering of milk goats at my back stairs. I made a cup of Lapsang souchong tea and got ready for a morning of manure shoveling out in my Oakland farm. I threw on my jeans and a stained T-shirt worn the day before and sat down to put on a pair of cowgirl boots that I had bought years ago at a feed store in Texas. The salesgirl promised the boots would give me superior stirrup control. I bought them without mentioning that I was an urban cowgirl, and that the only horse I ever rode was a bicycle. As I pulled on the boots, I noticed my phone on the kitchen table, blinking with a message.

“Hi, Novella, this is your mom, and you’re probably on your way someplace,” she started, cautious. Her voice sounded flittery and nervous, not her usual upbeat tone. Listening, I could just see her, sitting in her favorite old leather chair, a
Guatemalan pillow propped behind her back, her long blond-gray hair pulled back in a side ponytail—a holdover from her hippie days.

“But I just—Barb just called me.” Barb, one of my mom’s friends from back in her Idaho homesteading years. “She said there was an article in the Orofino paper saying . . . ah . . . local man reported missing and”—there was a dramatic pause—“it’s your dad.”

My heart shrank as she went on. “It’s very peculiar, it said he was last seen on the seventeenth. Give me a call or e-mail. Weird, huh? OK, talk to you later.”

It was October 23. He had been missing for six days. I punched in my mom’s phone number. It rang once. Twice. Three times. Four. She has multiple sclerosis and walks with a cane, so it takes her awhile to get to the phone.

“Hello?” she answered finally.

“Hi, Mom, it’s Novella,” I said. “Dad’s missing?”

Her voice deepened conspiratorially. “So you haven’t heard from him?”

“No,” I answered. I felt sick.

“Well, Barb said she saw it in the paper,” she repeated.

“Maybe he went to France?” I ventured, remembering that Dad had recently sent my sister, Riana, who lives outside of Narbonne, a cryptic e-mail about a “farewell” trip to France. Suddenly the word
farewell
seemed kind of ominous.

“Well, he is getting older,” my mother started. An image came to me: The verdant woods of Idaho, a chilly morning with mist creeping through a dense thicket of trees. A lonely truck on the side of a gray-rock road. My dad, wearing cowboys boots and a pair of worn Levi’s, collapsed on the forest floor. Chainsaw in one hand, his eyes staring up into the sky, vacant.

A thought flitted by:
outliving Dad might be a bit of a triumph for Mom
.

They met in 1969. After some adventures in Europe, they bought a 180-acre ranch in Idaho. Raise their own food, make babies, and live the good life—that was their hope. But by 1976, only a few years in, the marriage was over, a shit storm of shattered ideals.

“We’re all getting older,” I snapped, suddenly annoyed. “He’s in better shape than me!” Unlike my mom, who moved to town and got a real job as a schoolteacher, my dad retreated farther into the woods. As far as I knew, he was still making a living off the land like some kind of mountain man. The last time I had seen him, more than three years ago, he had been hale and hearty as a wood sprite.

“OK, OK,” she said, sensing my panic. Mom said good-bye and promised to call if she heard anything. I fetched my tea and leaned against the kitchen counter and took a swig. Then I clomped into the living room. One wall was lined with a sagging shelf of vinyl records, the mantle above our defunct fireplace was cluttered with a pair of deer horns, a hummingbird nest, and an old, metal milk-ration ladle from World War II–era France. I fished out my laptop, buried under some newspapers and books, and looked up “Orofino newspaper.”

Orofino is a sleepy little town in the panhandle of Idaho. My birthplace. Only a few thousand people live there—I didn’t know Orofino even had
a newspaper. But there it was: the
Clearwater Tribune
, named after the Clearwater River that runs by the funky little burg. Sandwiched between notices about flu season and an announcement for the Orofino Community choir practice was the news report about my missing dad.

Missing man not seen since Oct. 17

George E. Carpenter, age 73, has not been seen since Saturday morning, Oct. 17. George is known to cut firewood in the area north of Rudo Road. George drives a 1996 Ford F-150 pickup with license plate 6C 17470. He is 5’10” tall, weighs 175 pounds, and has gray hair and brown eyes. If anyone has seen him or has knowledge of his whereabouts, please contact the Clearwater County Sheriff’s Office at (208) 476-4521.

Dad was seventy-three years old. I didn’t want to think about it any more than I wanted to recognize that I was now thirty-six, the same age as my dad when he first held me as a newborn on a snowy December night in Idaho. Thirty-six, an age when you start catching glimpses of mortality: gray hairs and crow’s feet; worries about ailing, aged parents.

Rudo Road—I had no idea where that was. The only road in Orofino that I knew by name was the Gilbert Grade, where my parents’ ranch had been. They divorced when I was four, and Dad mostly disappeared from my life. The
Clearwater Tribune
’s headline—
MISSING MAN
—simply made it official. To be missing, lost, out of sight: that was my dad’s natural state.

I had always accepted, or at least didn’t dwell on, his absence, but now that he had disappeared in such a dramatic, tangible way, I felt compelled to find him. I called the Clearwater County Sheriff’s office. Before long, I was talking to a police officer who sounded young enough to be in high school.

“I’m George Carpenter’s daughter,” I said into the phone. “I heard he’s missing.”

“Yes,” the officer said, immediately getting down to
business. “He usually plays pool with friends in the morning, and he hasn’t showed up in a few days.”

Pool in the morning? Only in Idaho.
“Did you find his truck?” I knew that he often drove to Arizona for the winter, to a small western town called Wickenburg, where he waited out the harsh Orofino winter. My mom thought this migration pattern was ironic: “Your dad used to say, ‘mountain man’s always planning for the winter,’” she would scoff. “Now he’s a snowbird!”

If the police had found his truck, he surely must be dead. I clenched my stomach while I waited for her response.

“No,” she said, and I felt a wave of relief. She continued, “But a neighbor called to say he saw George’s guitar inside his cabin and the door was wide open.” My heart plunged. He wouldn’t leave his guitar, which he had built with his own hands out of Idaho rosewood. The open door seemed sinister. Maybe, I thought, he had been diagnosed with some terminal illness? If so, would he end it with a shotgun, just like his hero, Hemingway?

The cop cleared her throat. “We’re on a manhunt for him now.”

“I should say that—ah—we’re kind of estranged,” I confessed, then picked up a broom and started sweeping the kitchen. “We don’t really talk.”

“How do you usually communicate?” she asked.

“E-mail,” I said, my voice catching at our pathetic form of communication.

“I have his phone number,” she said.

“Can I get it?” I asked, astonished that he had a phone. I didn’t think he even had electricity.

“Let me make sure—I don’t want to give it out if it’s unlisted.” She paused for a minute and I heard some shuffling
and clicking. Then she was back and said, “OK, it’s listed.” I put my broom down and picked up a pen. She gave me the number, which I wrote on the back of my hand, suddenly self-conscious that I didn’t have my own father’s phone number.

“Let us know if you hear from him,” she said. “He’s not in trouble, but we need to find him. We’ve already spent a hundred man hours looking.”

I hung up the phone and took a deep breath.

I dialed the phone number written on the back of my hand. I’d never been to my dad’s house, but I imagined a rustic cabin a la Walden, hand-built and simple, tucked under a grove of evergreens. The little chimney wasn’t puffing out smoke, though, the river rock fireplace must have been empty and cold. The telephone, which surely must be a rotary was dead too; a computerized woman’s voice came on, saying, “We’re sorry, but this number has been disconnected. We’re sorry, but this number has been disconnected.”

•   •   •

Later that evening, I found myself scanning the bookshelves, trying to find a book Dad sent me long ago, when my cell phone rang. It was my sister, Riana, calling from France, where it was very early in the morning. Mom had alerted her about Dad.

“I just got off the phone with the Orofino Sheriff’s office,” Riana said. She was almost breathless. She’s blond, willow thin, and tall. We have the same jutting chin and large, owl-like eyes. We are sometimes mistaken for twins, but unlike me with my crooked teeth and big honker nose, Riana has straight teeth and a pert, freckled nose.

“Did you talk to that young girl officer?” I asked.

“Yeah.” This continuity made me feel calm. The girl cop
is there, all day long, working on the case, following leads, goddammit.

We were both quiet for a minute. My sister is two years older than me, so she remembers more about Dad. She has also claimed to be clairvoyant. I waited for her analysis, holding my breath.

“My feeling is he’s in Arizona,” she said after a long pause.

I let out my breath, nodded. “Yeah.”

“But why would he leave his guitar?” I asked her. He was a devoted classical guitar player. His postcards always mentioned that he was collecting guitar wood to build instruments. If he was driving to Arizona, why not take the guitar with him?

“Maybe he
is
coming to France!?” she shouted.

Riana, her French husband, Benji, and their daughter, Amaya, live in an ancient stone farmhouse in the southwest of France. Like me, my sister grows vegetables, keeps chickens and goats. Dad had been promising to visit her, but so far he hadn’t arrived. The idea of our hermit dad taking a fourteen-hour airplane ride to France seemed unlikely, yet my sister and I were ready to believe that he could be on his way to her house right now. Perhaps, I thought, he had found a slow boat to France and would be hiking into my sister’s tiny village, Jean Valjean style. Hope, in the case of our father, springs eternal—despite all evidence to the contrary.

“Could be,” I said. “But does he even have enough money to get out of Idaho?”

“So true,” she said. He was always broke.

“I’m glad I at least got to see him,” Riana said. Last year, Riana and Benji had flown to Idaho to see Dad, and introduce him to Amaya, his granddaughter, who was one and a half years old back then.

The trip had been a bit of a disaster. Dad picked them up at the airport in Lewiston, then spent an hour driving around before dropping them off at a hotel in Orofino. The next day he was so dodgy he didn’t want to go to his house. Instead he took them out for hamburgers, then deposited them back at the hotel. Stunned, but trying to make the best of it, Riana and Benji entertained Amaya by wading in the Clearwater River. Riana picked through the rocks along the shore, hoping to find some arrowheads left by the local Indian tribe, the Nez Percé. They left for Montana the next day.

“At least Amaya got to meet her grandpa,” I said glumly.

My sister and I promised to call each other the moment we heard anything, and we hung up.

From the backyard, I heard the goats snort, followed by the sound of my boyfriend, Bill, riding his bike into the backyard, home after a day’s work at the garage. I went outside and peered over the railing. Our backyard is a bit of old Appalachia in Oakland. There’s a rickety goat shed, a wobbly clothesline, an outhouse constructed out of old signboards, and a falling-down flight of stairs that leads up to our apartment. I could see Bill locking his bike to a half-rotted fence post, our goats nibbling on the back of his T-shirt.

“Billy!” I yelled. He smiled up at me and started walking slowly up the back stairs. His thick dark hair stood on end; his face was covered with engine oil. He wore a thrashed pair of Carhartt work pants, and his black T-shirt was shredded so that you could see bits of his hairy belly peeking out. We’ve been together eleven years, since 1998, when we met in an elevator in Seattle. He has soulful brown-gold eyes and long eyelashes that he hides behind big glasses. He walks with a limp, and has chronic back pain from wrestling cars all day.

“My dad’s missing,” I said when he reached me.

“Shit,” he muttered, his voice tattered and grumbly from years of chain smoking. He gave me a hug and sniffed my hair. He smelled like brake cleaner and sweat from his bike ride. The goats followed him upstairs and milled between our legs on the back porch.

“They’re having a manhunt for him,” I reported. I wondered exactly what a manhunt in Orofino looked like. Did they have four-by-four vehicles going off-road, tracking him like a wild animal? Or was it more like driving around, chewing tobacco and shooting the shit? The police officer said one hundred man hours, but did that include stops for coffee and donuts?

We went inside to cook supper and brainstorm about what could have happened. Bill had a special fondness for my dad. He first met him in Arizona, at a fleabag apartment where my dad had holed up for the winter. Over the years, Bill has seen him again a few other times, during sporadic father-daughter visits. To Bill, my dad’s off-the-grid lifestyle felt fresh and unpredictable.

Bill’s hunch about the whereabouts of my dad: truck problems. I told him that the newspaper said Dad drove a 1996 Ford truck. “His truck is old, so . . .” Bill began. “Or he’s probably stuck in a ditch somewhere.” He shambled off to take a hot bath and read before bed. Car trouble, not dead in the woods. It was a reassuring thought.

•   •   •

After supper I went back into our guestroom and found the book I had been looking for. It was crammed in a corner of the shelf, between
Breaking Out of Beginner’s Spanish
and a
Chilton’s
guide:
Pan
, by Knut Hamsun. I pulled it off the shelf. The cover featured a red-horned goat-man. My dad sent it to
me years earlier, in 1991, during my first quarter at the University of Washington in Seattle. Back then I felt like I had finally escaped, had gotten away from the logging town where I grew up. I was eighteen and had discovered something called art-house movies, and, like everyone else in town, was excited about a local band called Nirvana. In the dorm mail room I opened up the package from my dad with trepidation. Before leaving for college, I had sent Dad a bitchy letter, upbraiding him for various things, but mostly for not helping me pay for tuition. In reaction, Dad—or Pops or Papa, as he liked to call himself—had sent me this item. Tucked inside the worn and reused packaging was the novel
Pan
. A note scribbled on the back of an envelope said, “This book sums up my philosophy of life!” I felt relieved there was no bitchy counter-letter, but annoyed there was no money in the envelope either. When I took the time to read
Pan
—a book about a hermit hunter who lives in a remote cabin—I just couldn’t, or didn’t want to, relate.

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