Gone Feral: Tracking My Dad Through the Wild (6 page)

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As we cruised through Orofino, I remembered that my dad’s birthday had been in mid-June, and I hadn’t sent him a card or even an e-mail. He had turned seventy-four. I tried to envision what would happen when we were reunited. Would he be glad to see me? Or would he make an excuse not to spend time with me, like he had with my sister? If I was honest with myself, I was filled with dread at seeing him—and simultaneously I was filled with dread at being rejected by him.

In Orofino the local IGA supermarket is like the zocalo in Mexican towns. It’s where everyone gathers, it’s the place to be seen. Bill and I made our way there instinctively. There used to be a mechanical pony outside the IGA. My sister and I would sit on it while my parents bought supplies. When someone walked by, we’d ask, “Can we have a quarter?” Rarely would people oblige us—two raggedly dressed towheads—but when they did, the cold steel would be called into action, lightly jostling us for a few minutes of bliss.

The pony was gone and the whole building looked kind of snazzy, like it had been updated in the 1990s. I went inside. I didn’t have my dad’s phone number—I had forgotten to save the number the police department had given me in October. I went to the photo department to ask for a phonebook.

“There’s one somewhere around here,” the clerk said and bent down to open a cabinet door. I heard rustling. I stared at the magazine racks, which were so differently stocked than those in the Bay Area.
Hunting and Fishing
,
Guns and Ammo
,
Deerkiller
.

“I got one that’s ten years old,” the mustachioed clerk reported. He slapped a tiny booklet the size of a
Reader’s Digest
on the counter. “But nothing changes here anyway.”

I raised an eyebrow—that couldn’t be right. But I thumbed through the tiny phone book to Carpenter, found George, dialed the number on my cell phone, and then we were talking.

“Hey, Dad,” I said, “I’m at the IGA.”

“Well, I’ll be goddamned!” he yelled. He sounded genuinely surprised, like we hadn’t been planning this for months. “I’ll be right there,” he said. “I live sixteen miles from town.”

I went back outside to reorganize our mangled car. Before we left, Rosie the car had been packed in an orderly way. Prepared for outdoor adventures with my dad, I had packed sleeping bags, hiking boots, a water filter, a backpack, and—a last-minute purchase from REI—a tent. After only a few days on the road, the neatly packed car was a shit storm of banana peels, unstuffed sleeping bags, and empty gallon jugs of water. Typical. Bill and I have driven across the United States four times, and taken innumerable longer side trips to places like Baja and Canada, and entropy always gets the best of us.

Then Bill and I sat outside and leaned up against the concrete wall of the store, near the Blue Rhino propane tanks. It was hot and dry. I noticed a water spigot next to where we were sitting and idly turned it on. Water gushed out. I don’t know why it surprised me that water came out except that in Oakland these spigots wouldn’t work—they were locked to keep strangers from stealing water. I grabbed one of our empty jugs of water and refilled it. I tasted the water—it was crisp, sweet Idaho water. I filled all three of our empty jugs.

Then I saw an old guy over on the other side of the building doing the same thing. As he filled the containers, he was scanning the parking lot.

It was my dad.

“Dad,” I called. My heart was beating hard and I felt a little nauseous. He didn’t hear me. I walked toward him, suddenly self-conscious. My hair was short and punky, standing up on all ends as it does after a few days of driving. I was wearing my black cowboy boots and Levi’s—standard dress code for me—but it suddenly seemed too masculine.

I hadn’t seen my dad since our fly-fishing trip four years before. He was wearing black jeans with cowboy boots and a tucked-in, dark blue polo shirt. A baseball hat. He looked even skinnier than last time. He was rummaging in the back of his truck as I approached, then he saw me. “Kiddo!!” He let out a whistle and we hugged.

“You’ve gotten taller or I’ve gotten shorter,” he said. We were the same height—five eight—but I know he had been taller, at least five eleven. Age shrinks you. But his arms were muscular. Bill stood behind me. “Hey, guy,” Dad said and they shook hands.

“Are you hungry?” he asked us and we shook our heads no.

“OK, well, let me get some more water and then we’ll go up to my place.”

He reached into the back of the truck and pulled out the rest of his empty water bottles. The plastic jugs were so old they had long ago lost their labels and had turned a yellowish color. There were twelve or more so it took a while. I noticed that he tossed them carelessly into the truck bed, so the water jugs went sailing into the air and landed on chunks of wood bark, near a big orange chainsaw.

“I don’t have water at my place,” he explained. I wasn’t surprised—I had imagined that his cabin was off the grid. While using this term does sound cool, the reality of it means
filling water jugs at IGA. While he filled jugs, I expected someone to come out and yell at us but no one did.

“Follow my truck?” Dad said.

“Bill, you follow, I’m going to ride with Dad,” I said.

I climbed into the truck. The cab was scattered with candy bar wrappers and two shotguns, haphazardly arranged. It reminded me of the trashed car I drove during my summer reporting in Idaho Falls. With that car, you had to open the door with a screwdriver. The passenger seat was always cluttered with water bottles and apple cores.

I kicked a gun out of the way and sat down on the cratered truck seat that was missing a whole section of foam. My butt dipped in at an awkward angle, but I felt right at home in this discomfort. Like father, like daughter.

Mountain man: Dad tanning a deer hide on the ranch, hounds looking on. The town of Orofino in the distance below, 1973.

Six

D
ad pulled his truck out of the IGA parking lot and cruised past Main Street to give me the “ten-cent tour.” Downtown Orofino looked like the old western town that it was. There was a real estate office housed in an old brick building, the Ponderosa Café, the neon sign for the Clearwater Club Bar. “I play pool there,” Dad said, pointing at the bar.
Ah, yes, in the morning
, I remembered the cop describing his daily routine.

Then we drove out of town, winding through a road dotted with houses and trees. After passing an old railroad trestle, it became sparsely populated, thick with trees. Dad whistled while he drove. I rolled down the window and tried not to think about whether the guns next to me were loaded. After ten miles or so, Dad pointed at a sign on the road. “Grangemont Road,” he said. Later I found out locals called the area “Strangemont.” Then we turned onto Rudo Road, which I recognized from the police report. Making sure he
was following, I looked back at Bill driving Rosie and waved. He waved back. Rudo Road was narrow, dense with trees along both sides. After a few miles of this forested road, we pulled into Dad’s steep gravel driveway.

The air was cold for August. Must have been the forest, which soared around us, smelling piney. Bill pulled up behind us, the wheels crunching in the gravel. From the outside, Dad’s cabin looked rustic. It was a wooden structure covered with cedar shakes. A drying shed off to the side of the driveway was filled with stacks of firewood. I surveyed the place, greedy for every detail, but I felt a little queasy too. There was a pelt of some animal hanging from a post on the drying shed. A beaver? A small bear? I couldn’t tell.

“How many cords do you think are in there?” my dad asked me when we got out of the truck. He pointed at the stacks of wood.

“Um . . .” I started. I knew a cord was a unit of measurement. “Five?” I hazarded.

“No, no: eighteen!” he said. “Sold nine of ’em already.” He was in great shape, I noticed. Chopping wood for a living.

Then I walked into my dad’s house for the first time ever, Dad leading the way, Bill following me. The front stairs into the cabin were a genuine hazard. They slouched to the left and were battered, collapsed, decomposing. In a strange hall-like room were enormous slabs of wood that I would later learn my dad was hoarding to make guitars. There was a terrible smell there in the corridor, so bad even Bill, man immune to noxious odors, covered up his nose. It was as if a skunk had gone into the slabs of wood to die and then slowly oozed out one last stink bomb.

At the sliding door that led into Dad’s cabin proper, my
heart sank. We stepped into a dark and shabby living room. Along one wall was a ratty couch with a sleeping bag rolled out on it. In the corner of the room was a woodstove, the chimney askew. His guitar was sitting out near some sheet music next to a frayed chair near the window. Weight lifting barbells lay on the scruffy particleboard floor. Dad was asking about our drive, and I made small talk, but I was taking it all in. The kitchen, off to the left, was narrow like a ship’s galley. It was a disaster. Bottles of pills lined the sink, jugs of water were wedged into the sink. Boxes of store-bought cookies lay open on the counter. There were cupboards, but nothing was put away, so the counters were lined with dishes and cups, cans of this and that. On the refrigerator I noticed my name and e-mail address under an “In Case of Emergency” note. Behind the kitchen was a back room. It seemed to be devoted to plastic bags, which were clustered on the floor, hundreds of them, making a giant plastic bag nest. There was no real bathroom—the outhouse was off to the side of the house. I later visited it. It was a bad scene, full to the brim.

“Who built this cabin?” Bill asked.

“Some cowboys,” Dad said, but didn’t elaborate. “Otto said there would be water,” Dad said, talking about the guy who he bought the cabin from thirteen years ago. “But he never did it.” That explained why he had to get water at the spigot from IGA.

My eyes scanned the walls. They weren’t covered with trophy animals or meaningful pieces of nature like
Pan
but with newspaper clippings and a couple paper printout photos of me and my sister. The clippings were an odd assortment—a photo of a high school girl with an elk she killed with a crossbow, a wedding announcement for a local
couple. Tacked on the wall, I noticed a card I had sent to my dad from college; I wanted to read it but was afraid to touch his things.

From the family lore I had been collecting and from my experiences with him fly-fishing that one summer, I expected his cabin to exude rustic charm. Maybe he would have a taxidermied bear in a growling stance next to the fireplace? Crossbows lining the walls. Feathers and bird wings. This was not anything like Glahn’s cabin, the cabin I had been imagining him living in for all these years. He had bought this cabin thirteen years ago yet it looked like he just moved in. It wasn’t a home so much as it was a den.

There was a flight of stairs in the cabin that led to two upstairs bedrooms, but my dad confessed that he never went up there. The local wildlife—opossums, raccoons, squirrels, bats—had taken over these rooms. After seeing the cabin, Bill and I insisted that we would be very—very—comfortable sleeping in our tent outside.

Dad helped us set up our tent underneath a giant tree. I couldn’t find the tent poles and stakes anywhere in the back of our car. “Here ya go,” he said when he saw the problem, and, taking a line of rope, strung it through the tent’s pole openings until it was tenuously set up. Tying the sides of the tent to nearby tree branches opened up the floor of the tent. Then Dad ran off to the wood-drying area to hone some wooden stakes that he pounded into the ground with a rock. Set up in this fashion, our tent looked like a hobo satellite of my dad’s dilapidated cabin. Bill and I threw our sleeping pads and bags into the tent, then joined Dad for dinner.

After our initial catching up, Dad went on a monologue about his life, retelling stories about his time in France, the episode in Spain when he and Mom had bought the van. All
territory that we had covered in previous encounters. Bill, bored, yawned and retired to our tent. It was getting late. Then the conversation steered toward the bizarre.

“Now, I’ve been taught how to kill—how to kill with my bare hands,” he started. My ears perked up—is this where we start talking about stalking wildlife? And make plans for going fishing?

“One time these two cops pulled me over,” Dad said. “Really, just harassing me. And as I stood there”—he sprang up from the hard chair he was sitting on; I was sitting on the couch where he set up his sleeping bag—“and I thought, OK, how’m I going to kill this one who was standing there—” He pointed across the room. “I could’ve done a judo chop but then his partner would’ve shot me.” The other time, he told me, was in San Mateo, CA. . . .

As he spoke, animated, and clearly glad to have a pair of attentive ears, I got a horrible sinking feeling. Dad was crazy. He went on a twenty-minute rant about how the police were always bothering him. He looked at me in the middle of the rant, and realizing it was me, his daughter, he customized the story. Washington State cops: They were why he never came to visit me and my sister. Why he missed our graduations and State tennis matches.

He seemed to be getting really agitated. I wanted to calm him, and didn’t want him to know that I thought he sounded insane.

“Hmmm. Yes. Cops. Hmmm,” I said, glancing at the door. Could I just bolt? “Well Pops, it’s been a long day. A long day.” And with that I stumbled off to find Bill.

He was in the tent munching on a banana and reading a book about a man with no legs who motorcycled around Siberia.

“How’s it going?” Bill asked.

I started to tell him that my dad was acting really weird but Bill has a hearing loss so I had to shout into his ear. I peeked out the tent door. The light was still on in my Dad’s cabin and I could see him moving around, still agitated. I felt a little scared. “Let’s go to the car,” I said. We crept into the car so our voices wouldn’t carry.

“Things are not going well,” I said, and sighed. “Look at this shit hole! But that’s not the problem.”

“What’s wrong?” Bill asked.

“I think my dad is crazy,” I said.

“Think?” Bill said, and laughed. “Why don’t we just leave tomorrow?” His voice broke a little.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, sitting straight up.

“Nothing,” he said.

“Oh, I thought you were going to cry,” I said.

“No, I was just burping.”

OK, I thought, only Dad is losing it. After the update, Bill and I wandered back out to our tent in the field to go to sleep. I still was holding out hope that Dad and I would go fishing together, and this would pull him out of crazy mode. Maybe it would take him a little time to adjust to having guests, and then we could re-create our time spent fly-fishing in Idaho Falls. Once we were both feeling relaxed, I could reveal to him my plan to get pregnant, find out a little more family history—to really connect.

•   •   •

At daybreak, I awoke and lay in my sleeping bag feeling sorry for myself. Then I heard the sound of a gun firing. I thought it might be my dad, getting ready to give me some shooting lessons. I hurriedly dressed, suddenly filled with hope again.

“Novella!” my dad called from the porch with a touch of hysteria to his voice, “Riana’s on the phone!” The shooter turned out to be a neighbor who’d set up a target range on his property and liked to begin his day with a practice session.

I trudged up the jankity stairs and my dad handed me the rotary phone to talk to my sister.

“How’s Idaho?” Riana asked.

“Beautiful.”

“Are you staying in the cabin—what’s it like?” she asked.

“Weird,” I whispered, watching Dad out on the porch. I’d have to wait and tell her the full story later. He got out his guitar and started playing a classical version of the Beatles’ song “Yesterday” on the porch. He was all atwitter with excitement but couldn’t seem to channel it toward us. It was the first time I had heard him play in years—the notes sounded clear and hopeful.

“Did you go up to the ranch?” Riana asked.

“Not yet,” I said. “Today.”

It would be my first time back at the ranch since Riana and I visited together in 1990. Riana had been in her second year of college then, and I was a high school senior. Riana had stopped smoking pot, and had become interested in physics and chemistry. I’d straightened up too; sports had distracted me from my tendency toward drinking and smoking. I was the captain of the tennis team. We drove Riana’s Datsun 510 back across Washington State and into Idaho, planning to meet up with Dad.

By then we had long forgotten the awkwardness of punishment summer, and despite the fact that he had missed my sister’s high school graduation, we were excited to see him. Riana was eager to tell him about her impressions of college; I wanted to show him that I was almost an adult. We both
hoped the visit would start a new phase of our relationship. But when we got closer to Orofino and called him, he canceled, telling us he was too sick to have visitors, even his daughters.

Disappointed, we decided we would go up to the ranch—we’re so close, why not? We hadn’t seen the place since 1984. By 1988, Dad’s girlfriend broke up with him and he lost the property with the house on it—again. It reverted back to Mom, who let Dad stay there until she could find a new buyer, which she did in 1990.

Back then, the road up to the ranch was as I remembered it—lined with thimbleberries, potholed, wild. We passed the duck pond and the trailer where we had lived and squealed in recognition. But something was wrong: the Rough House was not there, lumbering in the distance. We drove up to the site and saw a pile of burned beams, the golden grass scarred black. We heard the story of the fire later: The new owner had only lived in the house a few weeks before one night he fell asleep with a cigarette in his hand. The place had gone up like a tinderbox. The cedar shakes, the old gymnasium floor walls, all that work, destroyed.

My sister and I sifted around the rubble, looking for artifacts from our childhood, but came up with nothing. I was devastated. My mom portrayed our time on the ranch as our good years, when we had been an intact family—it was only later that I pieced together their hardship. The place was utterly gone. I felt like I had been robbed of a special childhood toy. I longed for Mom to be there with us, to witness the destruction, to buffer me against the harsh realities that later I would learn are part of being alive.

After sifting around the land for a while, we drove away from the ruins of the ranch and eased our pain by smoking
clove cigarettes and listening to the Cure’s
The Head on the Door
on the long drive back.

Back then I had blamed Dad for the destruction, that he had let that happen to the ranch. I felt disgusted. I started to keep score after seeing the destruction of the Rough House. A few months later, Dad failed to pay Riana’s tuition as he had promised, and so she had started taking out student loans and working full-time. Another promise broken.

•   •   •

After talking to Riana on Dad’s phone, I hung up and told Dad that I wanted to go out and see the old ranch property again. He handed me a coffee, ready to make a plan for the day. Bill wandered in and sat on the chair.

“Oh, babes,” Dad said, “I can’t go up there.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“That property is possessed,” he declared.

Bill and I looked at each other. Oh, no, I thought. I didn’t want to hear more, but Dad launched in on a winding narrative of how he had seen Satan up there. Satan resembled a giant chipmunk with slanty goat eyes, he told us. And this giant chipmunk lived up there, haunting the place, making it unlivable for anyone who dared. He listed all the people who had lived on the property—and been cursed with divorce, fire, and death.

In the end, he compromised by agreeing to go see old Max. Dad had gotten ninety acres of the ranch after the divorce. But what with it being haunted, he sold this half of the ranch to Max. Max had built a cabin, which lay right at the edge of the property line of the old ranch.

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