Gone Feral: Tracking My Dad Through the Wild (12 page)

BOOK: Gone Feral: Tracking My Dad Through the Wild
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There was an open book on his table entitled
How to Write Screenplays
. A closet door, opened, revealed a few shotguns, rain gear, and tools. Then, when I was just starting to feel almost nauseous with panic that I was violating my dad’s privacy, I found the gold: a notebook on the end table by the couch. Feeling sick, I stood by the window and read it, gulping down every detail like a starving dog. The phone number for a man who wanted wood, a message in Spanish that he had sent to me while I was in Idaho Falls, his social security number, John Garrick’s address, and personal thoughts and revelations that he had had. One was a question: “What are you after you’ve lost everything you loved?” And another, almost a haiku, about my mom: “Pat: a terribly wonderful mother; a wonderfully terrible wife.”

These last two entries were written on the last pages of the notebook. Written recently, I wondered if my visit had released these troubling thoughts.

Before I left the cabin, I sat in his hard chair and felt dreadful. His lonely life enveloped me. “This is how it feels to be my dad,” I muttered. I took a deep breath. The view from the front window was trees and overgrown bracken. The floor beneath me felt rough, uneven. This was the life he had carved out of the woods. He hadn’t compromised—but this is what he had left, a lonely, cold cabin.

And even this cabin, this almost-unlivable structure, would not be passed on to me. Inside the notebook I also found a letter. It was written to Dad on embossed paper, from
the University of California, San Francisco. Dad had, in the early eighties, gone back to college to earn his degree. He only had a few semesters left, and so he moved to San Francisco and reenrolled into the UC system. The letter was some paperwork for granting his estate to the university once he died. Dad hadn’t filled it out, but it was clear: this cabin, the one semi-valuable thing he had left, would be going to UCSF, not to me or my sister. For a beat I was appalled and hurt. Then I started chuckling, imagining the UCSF endowment agent visiting this shack.

I stood up and walked out the sliding door. At the front door, shards of two-by-four hung from the doorway. This was going to be tough to explain, I thought. Maybe he would think a bear tried to break in? I jammed the door closed as best I could.

I paused as I walked by the small vegetable patch. Things were still growing nicely, despite the cold. There were some peas, and the tomatoes were still bearing some red fruit. I picked a few tomatoes and a pair of acorn squashes to take back to Lowell’s. The zucchini plant was still blooming. During our visit, whenever Dad had passed by the zucchini plant, its orange flowers yawning open, he would shout, “Goddamn, that is a beautiful!” with an extreme and heartfelt zeal. It came from the same place as his repulsion for clear-cuts, the one that made him fall to his knees and cry, “This is a desecration!” He felt things—good and bad—so intensely.

•   •   •

I didn’t know it then, but someone had been watching me, shotgun aimed at my head, while they waited for the police to come. As I backed the car out of my dad’s driveway, the acorn
squash rolling around on the passenger seat, I saw a police car drive up, followed by a big SUV with lights mounted on top. I paused in my backing up to let them pass until I realized they had come for me.

For a moment, I considered running. I could make it into the dense forest in just a few seconds. Instead, I took a deep breath and rolled down my window, car still idling, looking confused at the tall woman police officer. Can’t a daughter break into her dad’s cabin? Apparently no. I had forgotten where I was—not in a city where I was used to being anonymous. In the woods, the hills have eyes.

“Ma’am, is this your car?” she asked.

“Um, no, it’s a friend’s,” I answered. I got out of the car, realizing I might be in big trouble. I felt the same sensation of dread when I had been caught trying to burn down the apartment building when I was twelve. I was conscious of how I looked—wearing a wool sweater and a dirty down vest, hair wild. My heart was sick from what I had done and what I had seen. Instead of doing a judo chop, or running away into the woods, which is what I desperately wanted to do, I handed the police my driver’s license.

Then I noticed a man, my dad’s neighbor, leaning against his gun, watching the whole thing unfold. He was lanky with curly gray hair; the gun was made of blond wood.

“So why are you here?” the female cop asked. “Does your dad know you are here?”

“Yeah, he knows I’m in Orofino. I just thought he might still be here. I wanted to check on him.” I started to choke up. “I’m worried about him. I think he might not be doing well. You know, he’s old,” I started rambling.

“I think I talked to you last year,” the woman cop said.
She turned out to be the young officer, the one I talked to when my dad went missing.

Thank god, this cop and I practically knew each other! I’m not sure what I was worried about—that I’d be arrested for breaking and entering? That they’d tell my dad?

One of the guy cops, a mustached man in a baseball cap, walked down to the cabin to check out the door. He whispered something to her when he came back.

“I’ve been meaning to talk to you guys,” I said, sniffling. “I wanted to find out why you thought he was missing.”

The neighbor with the gun, who was waiting in the wings, watching the whole thing go down, approached. “He left his guitar on the couch,” the neighbor said, “so I called the police.” The pesky neighbor suddenly seemed kind of sweet.

“Well, we knew he had his secret spots to go find logs, so we had to go everywhere looking for him,” the mustached officer said.

“You were on the manhunt?” I asked.

“Yep, your dad has a lot of secret places,” he said, with obvious pride at my seventy-four-year-old woodsman father. I grinned.

After they ran my driver’s license and I checked out without a record, the cops shook my hand. “Nice to meet you!” I said to them, relieved. I would have been busted if I hadn’t been his daughter. Of course, I wouldn’t have been there if I hadn’t been his daughter.

The police vehicles backed up and left. I felt almost giddy, like I had gotten away with something. In Native American tradition, there is the idea of counting coup—of touching the enemy to let them know you could have done damage but were peaceful. I had just counted coup on my dad.

•   •   •

A few hours after breaking into Dad’s cabin, Lowell and I sat in his kitchen, eating chips and drinking beer. He had an amazing collection of beer cozies.

“So was your dad there?” Lowell asked.

“No,” I answered.

I told Lowell about breaking in, getting caught, and then the strange encounter I had with the neighbor—after the cops left, the neighbor invited me into his house for tea.

The neighbor and his wife sat and talked with me about my dad, who had been living across the road from them for the past thirteen years. Their house was beautiful. It was hand built—the beams were made of whole logs, the wooden floors gleamed golden. His wife was frosting a cake when we came in.

“This is George Carpenter’s daughter,” he told her.

“Oh—George,” she said, smiling. “We watch out for him.”

“Thank you,” I said, then immediately broke into tears.

We sat down for tea, and they told me what they knew. He had been on a routine for years. At 7:30 a.m. he leaves for town, where he goes to the post office, then plays a few games of pool, then goes to the library.

“But something’s been up,” the neighbor said. “He’s been acting weird the last year or so.” Like leaving so early for Arizona. “He usually goes late October, November.”

I said it was my fault, that I had been hounding him.

He told me that in 2001, things with my dad had gotten really bad. He started acting really weird and antisocial—he even threatened to kill their dog. Then, that summer, he disappeared for a few months.

“I think he got some medical help,” she said.

“Listen, kid, your dad’s a survivor. He’s barely holding on—he doesn’t have anything to give you,” the neighbor said, rocking in his chair. I nodded.

While I told Lowell the story, I felt a yearning sensation, I guess sympathy, for my dad. He was empty, a shell of a man. Maybe if I had made an effort to connect with him sooner, things would have been different. I realized that our last time together—our last real time—was spent on the banks of Ririe; me learning how to cast, him trying to connect. But I’d lost him, I had arrived too late.

After dinner with Lowell, I headed back to my cabin, exhausted. The mist came down as I walked the dark road. I stoked the fire in the stove and pulled out my journal. I was almost thirty-eight, and for the first time I felt like an adult. I wrote in my journal that night, “It’s so strange, I came here to find my dad but I’m finding myself instead.”

Before I went to sleep, I checked my e-mail, which had been coming in sporadically in Idaho. There was a message from my dad, sent that afternoon:

Hi sweets, returning to Idaho to regroup; saw John Garrick on my way back; keep me posted. Love papa.

I went numb in the legs with fear. He’s back from Arizona so soon? I’ll actually see him? There was no chance he wouldn’t notice the door I had kicked in, and now I wouldn’t be able to blame a bear or a marauding teenager like I had hoped. And his neighbor would no doubt tell him what I did. This was getting really fucked up.

I called Bill in a panic and told him the whole story.

“Whoa,” he said.

“And now how do I explain the break-in?”

Bill, ever the pragmatist, said, “Just tell him you needed to take a nap.”

•   •   •

The next day I awoke to the dark cabin. I had moved downstairs in the middle of the night in order to sleep next to the warm stove. It was raining outside and the cabin was freezing.

I drove into town, ate at the Ponderosa Café. A man sat at the counter with a nickel and a bunch of lottery tickets. “Oh, we do this every day,” he explained. Scratch cards. “Someday we’re going to win!” the waitress said. “One time we won one hundred and fifty dollars. Course we spent that on more tickets.” When I walked out of the café I worried that Dad might be at the pool hall down the street, and he would see me. I scurried toward my car.

“Hello?” a woman’s voice called. I looked up to see my dad’s neighbor’s wife on the sidewalk. “That was fun yesterday,” she said, and waved. I waved back and nodded. This town was becoming like a group therapy session.

I decided that on my last day in Orofino, I had to go up to the ranch, my childhood home. Though the house was gone, the land still held some spell over me.

It was with a mixture of fear and curiosity that I drove out there, remembering the bends in the road, the wild apple trees swaying with red fruit. Thimbleberries and ponderosa pines. I felt uneasy. I drove past Max’s house, around the pasture that he hoped to turn into a peach orchard, and onto the back one hundred acres where the Rough House had been. As I drove, I was surprised to see that street signs had sprung up. In a spot that I remembered as deep forest where we would pick sprays of Indian paintbrush in the spring, there was an
official-looking blue-and-white sign and a house at the end of a paved driveway. There were power lines. Not quite the suburbs, but the land felt more populated than it had once been.

At the straightaway where the road ended, where the trailer used to be, was a rustic-looking cabin. The car rumbled over the cattle guard as I drove toward the site where the Rough House used to sit. At the gate hung a
FOR SALE
sign. Where the apple orchard had been, there was a new house with a large porch and a steeply pitched roof. Greenhouses and garages sat near where the Rough House had been.

The view off toward Orofino was the same—desolate rolling hills, small craggy mountains, and pine trees. I got out of the car and walked up to the new house. The woman who answered the door was doing laundry and wore a robe. “I used to live here,” I told her. “Well, I mean, not here, but on this land.” She raised her eyebrows, pulled the robe tighter around her body, and crossed her arms.

“Call the number on the sign,” she said and shut the door. So much for rural friendliness. Maybe she had discovered the evil spirits on this land. I wrote down the number for the real estate agent, looked around one more time, and drove off in a puff of dust.

I wanted to somehow hold on to the place, to take some of it with me, but I didn’t know how to do it.

Back at the entrance to the property, just past Max’s house, I pulled over to a glade created where a few back roads converged. One road led back to town, another was an old logging road that was a shortcut to the highway to Lewiston. I dialed the real estate agent and left a message about the house. I said I was a Californian looking to acquire a ranch in Idaho. I was clinging to anything. I wanted someone to
talk to. My phone rang. It was my sister, Riana. It’s uncanny: she always knows when to call me, when I’m feeling sad or in trouble.

“Hey, Riana, guess where I am?” I asked.

“Idaho?”

“Yeah, I’m at the gate to the ranch!” I got out of the car and sat on the hood. I gave her a report about what I saw and how different the ranch looked. While I talked, I noticed the glade was full of Woods’ roses. The bushes had bloomed in May and were now bursting with orange rosehips. I fished an old plastic water bottle out of the back of the car and I started picking.

“I broke into Dad’s cabin,” I confessed.

“No way!”

I told her the whole sordid story, about what I had found there, about the cops, and the neighbor.

“Dad’s going to be pissed,” I said, and told her that he was back in Orofino. I had so violated his privacy. As I talked to her, I saw an old guy in a blue truck drive by and pull over. Distracted, I figured he was the property owner of this glade, and didn’t want me to pick the rose hips.

“Just a minute, Riana,” I said, walking toward the truck. “I think this guy wants to tell me something.”

The guy hung his head out of the truck window. He had a funny look on his face. I realized: It was Dad.

BOOK: Gone Feral: Tracking My Dad Through the Wild
13.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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