Gone Feral: Tracking My Dad Through the Wild (8 page)

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Now he had no one to listen to his playing except the trees and the squirrels. Hoping to get him out of his crazy mode, I asked him to play for me like he had played for the hippies, like he had played into my tape recorder in Idaho Falls. But he shook his head and held up his hands.

“It’s hard to be a woodsman and keep my hands in good condition to play,” Dad explained and showed me his calluses from chopping wood. He couldn’t play now—he would wait until he got to Arizona. His hands represented perfectly his crippling duality—lover of music must work in the woods in order to survive and make music but can’t because the woods are hard on his hands.

He opened up a guitar case and fished out a half-finished guitar. “I am a student of Bouchet,” he explained, and showed me how he shaped the guitar’s body and attached the neck. The guitar was exquisite, golden, with a carefully inlaid pattern up the neck. It was shockingly beautiful, especially in the squalor of his cabin, as if he had pulled out a diamond necklace from a stinky hobo satchel.

“Do you want this when I’m finished building it?” he asked.

“No,” I said, gazing at the beautiful instrument. I couldn’t believe someone’s hands could make such a thing. I felt bad, ungrateful for rejecting his guitar. “I mean, I don’t play, so it will be wasted,” I explained.

When I was nineteen I had actually taken guitar classes for a few months. My dad sent me letters with cash in them, encouraging me to take lessons. I found a place just off University Avenue in Seattle and attended a one-on-one class with a bespectacled classical guitar teacher. My maestro would give me assignments from a basic classical guitar book—an adagio perhaps—with the idea that I would practice at home and then could play the piece at the next lesson. I wouldn’t study and arrived unprepared, clumsily working my fingers on the strings.

“Your money,” the teacher would say. But actually it was my dad’s money. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was cash
extracted from the forest, hard-won, sweat-covered. Unfortunately, both nature and nurture conspired against me. My father’s musical and linguistic abilities had not passed on to me and I had no dedication. Feeling bitter—sure that I could have been a guitar player if Dad had actually been around and taught me how to play—I stopped going to lessons and admitted defeat.

“I gave Mother a guitar,” he said proudly. “God almighty it was gorgeous. I think it was the only time she was proud of me,” he said. He went broody, thinking of his failed mother.

I met Grandmother Jeanne only a few times—my mom made it a point that we would at least know our grandmother. But she was a cold woman who chain-smoked Pall Malls and seemed indifferent to me and my sister. Her house felt like a mausoleum—lifeless and sterile, the exact opposite of Dad. She slept with the radio blaring call-in talk shows. And the only story I remember her telling was the time when she saw a UFO outside of the grocery store. It was purple, with lots of lights. When she was dying from emphysema my sister and I went to her bedside in the hospital. When she saw us her eyes lit up and she scribbled out a note and handed it to me. The note didn’t read “I love you” or “I’m at peace,” like it’s supposed to in the movies. It said, “Oxygen!” and she underlined the word. Dad never reconciled with her, and didn’t attend her funeral.

I’ve been told that I have Grandmother Jeanne’s eyes and eyebrows. Deep set, with thick, caterpillaring eyebrows. I wondered if it was odd for him to look at me: his estranged daughter with his estranged mother’s eyes.

I awoke the next morning with a feeling of dread. My father and I were just repeating the mistakes of the past. I couldn’t see a way out of the cycle. I had come here to tell him
about my plans to have children. To resolve the issues I had with him before moving on to become a mother. But he wasn’t willing—or able. So perhaps it was with a touch of frustration that I picked a fight with my dad that morning, making it the first brawl in the history of our relationship at ages seventy-four and thirty-seven.

Somehow we got onto the topic of my mom.

“I would come home from a ten- to twelve-hour day,” he said, “and I’d come home to her hatred. No dinner. No praise. Just criticism,” Dad said, detailing why my mom didn’t work out as a good wife for him. I sat in the only chair in the house, by the window; Bill was outside, still asleep.

It was as if their split had happened just days before, his anger was so raw. It set me on edge, flutters of fear rippled down my stomach.

“So, you weren’t really interested in being a dad?” I asked. It was only after the words came out of my mouth that I felt a choking, blinding anger welling up in me—stored so long, now unleashed.

Suddenly Dad felt the need to sweep his particleboard floor. “Then she would call Rick, and say she wanted to learn how to cut down trees,” he said, ignoring my question. “She was so competitive.” He kept sweeping. “All she had to do was be a wife, raise you guys, make food, sew, whatever. She could do whatever she wanted, but she had to be competitive.”

From my mom’s account of life on the ranch, she hadn’t exactly been living a life of leisure. She chopped wood, kept the woodstove burning, milked the cow, fed the ducks and chickens, breast-fed us, and cleaned the house. That she wanted to help my dad log the land—no doubt for some much needed cash—seemed like a rather generous offer. But I was starting to notice that my dad, wild man that he
projected himself as—was just a traditionalist when it came to gender roles. He wanted my mom barefoot, pregnant, and subservient.

“Then she brought that cretin into our bed,” he snarled. The day of the big fight with the lemonade. My hazy memory of the fight was later explained to me—first by Dad when I was in my twenties. According to Dad, on a fall day in 1975 he had returned to the Rough House after a long absence. He did this often, just disappearing for weeks on end. Duward the carpenter was there and Dad flew into a rage. He and the woodworker had a face-off: Dad pulled a gun, Duward had just a two-by-four. The two men stood, almost touching chests. Finally Dad muttered, “It’s not worth it,” and lowered his gun. Duward turned and ran.

Then Dad came into the kitchen and Riana and I warded him away from Mom.

Mom met Duward when she started selling fresh cow milk to the neighbors—she had excess milk and wanted the money to buy building supplies so they could finish the house. Duward was one of her milk customers, and eventually became her boyfriend.

“You guys were home, and she brought that cretin into our bed,” he shrieked. “I was going to burn the house down,” he said. “Burn everything.”

Including us. I felt another wave of fear. The neighbor started firing his guns. Loud ricocheting bullet sounds added to our discussion.

My fear morphed into a red-hot rage. “Why are you blaming me for something between my mom and you?” I yelled. I wondered if Bill, sleeping in the tent, would hear our argument.

My dad started crying. A deep shuddering cry. He leaned
against his broom. “We just need to forgive each other,” he said.

My hackles rose. Wait a minute, this man had abandoned me, and I should be asking for forgiveness?

“I don’t think you have anything to forgive me for,” I yelled and stood up. “I haven’t done anything wrong.” Then I thought about Bill and our future children and blurted out, “I know that if I had a kid, I wouldn’t fucking abandon it like you did to us. And neither would Bill!” Even as I said it, I wasn’t sure I believed it.

I went into the kitchen and started throwing stuff around, grabbed our kitchen supplies, and threw them into the camping box. There were two identical cast iron pans on the stove. One was coated with egg from last night’s dinner. I grabbed the clean one.

I walked outside with our stuff, fuming. Bill was just emerging from the tent, hair tousled. I tossed the camping box of food into the backseat of the car. “We’re leaving!” I yelled to Bill. My dad stood on the porch, watching. I stuffed my sleeping bag and grabbed the Therm-a-Rests from under Bill and carried them to the car.

Bill slowly started to break down the tent, but he wasn’t moving fast enough for me. I bumped him out of the way. “Go start the car,” I huffed. I pulled the tent down and, not bothering to fold it, threw the whole thing into the backseat.

The Benz roared to life with a puff of smoke, and we were backing up out of George Carpenter’s driveway.

After a few miles of driving, Bill cleared his throat. “Things didn’t go well?”

We were at a four-way stop, about to turn onto the main road. Back on the road, mission oh so unsuccessful.

“My dad’s a fucking asshole,” I spit. “He’s a nut job. What the hell is wrong with him?”

“He did seem really out there,” Bill said, trying to calm me down. He eased the car forward, and we heard a terrible clunking noise.

The car stalled in the middle of the intersection.

“Oh, shit,” Bill muttered.

“What? What?” I said. Were we breaking down? I leaped out of the car and we pushed it onto the side of the road. Bill started the engine but the car couldn’t go forward. He crawled under the car to take a look and instructed me to shift the gears.

“It’s the rear tail shaft,” he said grimly, scooting out.

We sat in the car. He knew because he had just worked on a customer’s vehicle that needed a new tail shaft in the transmission and he recognized the sound. We could tow it into town, but the part is rare—a 1976 Mercedes Benz rear tail shaft?

“The funny thing is,” Bill said, “I have two at our house.” He had brought a spare alternator, headlights, and an extra battery, but didn’t think we’d need a rear tail shaft.

Then I saw a truck pull up behind us. My heart sank—Dad.

He jumped out of his truck and went into hero mode. Without a word, he grabbed a big chain out of the back of his truck, hitched it to our car, then pulled his truck around and connected it.

“I know a guy in town,” he said. I knew that Dad would have done this for anyone with car trouble, it wasn’t just because I was his daughter. It’s part of Idaho life: If you see someone who needs help, you help. On the day I was born, Mom was driving herself to the hospital when the rear axle
fell off the Jeep. A kindly Idaho stranger stopped to save the day.

Dad towed us fourteen miles to Village Auto, a little shop by the Clearwater River. He went in to talk to Dan, the owner of the shop. Dan agreed Bill could use his garage to fix the car for a small sum. My dad unchained the truck, then tipped his hat, Clint Eastwood style, and drove away.

We were stuck in Orofino.

Retracing my parents’ footsteps, Novella and Bill in Mexico, 1998.

Seven

B
ill and I drank some jasmine tea and dipped our feet in the Clearwater River. We were at a campground just outside of Orofino called the Pink House Hole, which, to me, sounded vaguely vaginal. The hole had been a favorite fishing spot for locals before they tore down the eponymous pink house and turned it into an official recreation site. Fourteen bucks a night. I wasn’t going to go back to my dad’s house—and I doubt I would be invited back. Bill figured it would be two days before our part arrived.

“Want to go for a walk?” Bill asked.

“Sure,” I said.

We found ourselves along some railroad tracks. Picking blackberries. “We could’ve slept here,” Bill said, pointing to a nest of brambles. Bill has always wanted to be a hobo. His aesthetic—ripped clothes, dirty T-shirts—is pure bum.

His scruffiness was one of the first things I liked about him when he got on an elevator with me in Seattle in 1998. I
was twenty-five, working on the UW campus for Classroom Support Services. After seven on and off years of college, I had finally graduated and had lingered around campus working as an AV tech, paid small sums of money to push
PLAY
on VCRs for classes. In the elevator, Bill, a new employee, recently arrived from Florida, was wearing a too-small blue sweatshirt and a red mohair hat that slumped over his lush dark hair. I sported a peeling turquoise pleather jacket and horn-rimmed glasses. He seemed nervous, which I liked. Later he sent me an e-mail that said I was intriguing and he asked me out. Our first date involved meeting in a back alley to eat sardines balanced on saltine crackers we had filched from the student cafeteria. We moved in together after the second date.

Channeling my parents, our first winter together Bill and I traveled to Mexico. After some time in Oaxaca, on my insistence, we headed to San Miguel de Allende. Bill and I arrived by a Semi-Directo bus.
So this is where my parents met?
I thought, filled with emotion when the bus pulled into the ancient town, the giant cathedral curlicuing up to the blue Mexican sky.
This is where it all started.

Overcome with the weight of the past and its implications, I missed the last step off the bus and tumbled—a twenty-five-year-old gringa, giant yellow backpack strapped on like a beetle’s carapace, spinning through the air, trying to regain my footing. I landed with a thud on the cobblestones. The bus driver laughed, he couldn’t help himself. Bill tried not to do the same, and carried me to the youth hostel. I was distraught, and sat with my foot up in the hostel’s common room, immobilized. Bill went out to explore, and when he came back he said there were lots of Americans living there. It was no longer the undiscovered oasis of my parents’ youth.

We left a few days later. I limped onto the bus and we headed to the coast where I could heal up. Propped up at the beach, I felt like a failure. Not just because I hadn’t gotten to explore the town where my parents first met but because my future seemed so dingy and uninspiring compared to my parents’ younger years.

•   •   •

It was in that winter, 1998, just after our failed San Miguel de Allende trip, that Bill met my dad for the first time.

We were in Bill’s VW, driving through the Southwest. I had unfolded a map of Arizona, a cup of coffee between my legs; Bill was smoking a hand-rolled Drum cigarette. “Hey, we’re near Wickenburg!” I said.

“So?” Bill answered. The cactus-filled landscape seemed to go on forever.

“I think my dad’s there,” I said, remembering that he sent me a postcard mentioning that he was staying at the Purple Hills Apartments. I was learning to be a writer then, and his life seemed a proper one for an artist. I heavily romanticized his decision to never join mainstream America. I had been bragging to Bill about my cool dad, playing down the fact that we were estranged. I hadn’t seen him for more than an hour since 1984. “Let’s go see him!” Bill said. I smiled. Bill was writing poetry then, he was thin as a rail.

We pulled into the dusty parking lot of the Purple Hills Apartments. I stared at the buildings. One of the “apartments” was a teepee staked in the backyard. I figured the teepee had to be my dad’s. I climbed out of the bus and stood near the entrance, trying to determine how to knock on the door of a teepee.

Before I could make an attempt, he came out of
apartment number 3 in his socks, perplexed about the wheezing VW bus in his parking lot.

He hadn’t changed that much since the last time I had seen him, almost a decade before. He still had dark hair and a mustache. He was thin and bandy, his face angular and haggard. He wore a down vest—it was chilly, even in Arizona, during the winter.

“Dad, it’s Novella,” I called, wondering if he would recognize me. I’d sent him photos, of course, but I wasn’t sure he would make the connection. He let out a whistle and I walked over to give him a hug.

In my dad’s apartment we drank some screw-top Gallo wine that my dad pulled out of the mini-fridge. After catching up on things, we got on the topic of the existence of aliens. Dad had gotten into listening to a radio show hosted by Art Bell, who often talked about paranormal activities and pseudoscience. When Dad went to the bathroom, I snuck a peek into his bedroom. He had lined the windows with aluminum foil and had a spartan bed covered with an old sleeping bag. There was a shortwave radio for entertainment, but other than that, it seemed a monkish existence.

Bill and I were just getting together, and I had taken it as a good sign that he had wanted to meet my dad. It wasn’t the usual dad-meets-beau scenario, all uncomfortable in the living room with the father finally asking, “What are your intentions with my daughter, son?” No, it was aliens and bad wine. Bill and I stayed only a few hours—we had more adventures ahead of us that we were eager to get to.

As we pulled away, waving, I asked Bill: “What did you think of him?” I was actually wondering what I thought of him myself. At the time I harbored no hard feelings about his
absence from my life—I was twenty-five, resilient, haphazard, self-absorbed.

“He’s weird but cool,” Bill said in his raspy voice. I nodded in agreement. Later, I would make a photo album of Bill and my trip, and my dad makes an appearance in it. Under a shot of him I scrawled, “This is George Elliott Carpenter. He uses an old sock for an oven mitt and a stove rack for an antennae for his radio.”

Back then, I saw Dad as an example of living simply, in voluntary poverty. He was still part of the sixties counterculture that I had grown up admiring. The hippie movement, celebrated in PBS specials and in my mom’s stories, seemed heroic to me. My generation—Gen X? Slackers? The MTV generation?—didn’t even have a name that stuck. We listened to indie rock and went to rallies to ban plastic water bottles. But these actions piddled out, never blossomed into a full-fledged student uprising like they had in the sixties. Maybe there just weren’t enough of us. Born in the shadow of that era, I always felt like my formative years were a collection of little side projects that didn’t add up to a fully realized movement that could match up to my mom’s glory days in Berkeley, or Mom and Dad’s foreign adventures.

•   •   •

While Bill and I walked along the tracks in Orofino, stuck now for who knows how long, I thought about how we had been inspired by how Dad was living back then. His shabby room at the Purple Hills struck me as artistic, heroic to me as a young person. The way he was balancing his life as a mountain man in Idaho with his time in Arizona struck me as particularly genius. Since then, he hadn’t changed much—but I had.

My phone rang. A 208 area code, an Idaho number.

“Hello?” I answered, worried it might be my dad.

“Hey, it’s Lowell. Are you on the railroad tracks?” Lowell, from Farm Out, said in his deep rumbly voice. Someone—my mom?—had gotten word to him that we were in town and had given him my phone number.

“Yeah,” I said.

“I’m in the truck right behind you.”

I laughed and looked over and saw a grizzled old guy sitting behind the wheel of a big white pickup truck. I hadn’t seen Lowell in years.

“We’re broken down,” I told him when we got to his truck. Lowell looked like how I remembered him from the Farm Out days, healthy and fit. His eyes, which are almost Asian in shape, still twinkled mischievously, he just had some more wrinkles around the edges. The beard was gone, as were the flowing long blond locks. He was wearing a baseball cap. I remembered how, at Farm Out, he and Tom used to take off their shirts and wrestle. They also bopped bellies. Running toward each other, they would jump into the air, belly flesh bumping into belly flesh, followed by roars of laughter. My sister and I, sheltered on the ranch as we were, watched them in awe. I had never seen men act like that, playing, having fun, like children.

“Wanna come up and see my place?” he asked.

We said sure and before long we were driving along the windy road up to Farm Out. As we drove, Lowell pointed out attractions along the mullein-lined road. There was the massive Dworshak Dam and a bar called The Woodlot. Lowell, unlike many of the hippies, had really got to know the Orofino locals. He would ask them for planting advice, livestock tips.
He was the only Farm Out hippie left—maybe because he had made those connections.

It took twenty minutes of concentrated driving—dodging potholes, taking sharp hairpin turns—before we got up to the gravel road of the Farm Out property. “I must’ve done this drive ten thousand times,” Lowell said.

“You still having those solstice parties?” I asked. Thinking of the fires and the naked people, the belly-bopping.

“Oh, no,” he grumbled. “They got too big. The whole damn town would show up, and my new wife put an end to that.”

“That was the first house we all lived in,” he said, pointing to a two-story clapboard house. When the commune first started, Lowell, Marcia, Phil, and Tom all lived together in the main house. It was painted red and looked homey. Acres of grass spilled out behind it. There were a few outbuildings and homemade-looking structures that were built when the happy hippies realized they needed more space, especially as the commune grew and stragglers showed up.

“I ended up selling it after our divorce,” he said. Lowell and Marcia, his first wife, had split around the same time as my mom and my dad.

“Now it’s some survivalist types living there. They came for Y2K, then when nothing happened, they just stayed.” Some dogs came by and chased the tires of the truck at a flat stretch along the road.

“Where did you guys keep the goats?” I asked. The place didn’t look exactly as I had remembered it.

“Over there in that field,” Lowell pointed to a shrubby golden field.

On the left, underneath a stand of ponderosa pine, was a
rustic-looking shack. It was more in keeping with what I thought my dad’s place would be like, how Glahn’s cabin would look.

“What’s that?” Bill asked.

“That’s Phil’s cabin,” Lowell said and smiled. “We were all living in that house, and you know, after a while we all realized we needed some privacy so we could have sex or do whatever, so Phil built that cabin.” Phil’s a college professor now—English, at the University of Idaho. He comes to Orofino regularly, though, to hang out with Lowell.

Phil, like Tom, Marcia, and the other happy hippies, had realized in their own ways that they couldn’t last on this remote piece of land. Winters were especially brutal up there. Sometimes they had to snowshoe into town for supplies, and no one had four-by-four trucks back in that time. The only airline out of town, Cascade Airlines, was in Lewiston but had been dubbed Crashcades. There was no way out for the duration of the winter, which was long in Idaho. For some reason Lowell stayed. He worked in the woods, lumberjacking, then started a construction business. To supplement his income, he drove a school bus. During the summer he helped lead whitewater rafting trips on the Clearwater and other nearby tributaries. He wasn’t rich, but he had found a way to live off the land and pay the bills.

We continued down the gravel road until Lowell said, “And that is my house.”

He parked the truck outside of a beautiful, three-story log cabin. We went inside. It had huge blond beams and picture windows with views of the mountains. We went up to the top floor, into a big open kitchen. It was like being in a giant tree house. Over the years Lowell had devoted himself to building this enormous homestead. Spread out below was the rest of
his farm—the horse stalls and other outbuildings, several pigs and chickens, hutches for his daughter’s pet rabbits, and a giant vegetable garden. Surveying it all, I suddenly felt a wave of sadness: this was what the Rough House was supposed to have been.

“This is Maya and Jasmen,” Lowell said when two curly-haired teenagers came upstairs. They went to Orofino High. The Maniacs, their high school mascot, they explained when I brought it up, had nothing to do with the insane asylum next door. I nodded; maybe I had gotten that story wrong.

Lowell had always been adamant about not wanting to have children during his Farm Out days. He even had a vasectomy when he was with Marcia. But then, in his fifties, he met a younger woman who wanted children. He reversed the vasectomy and against the odds, sired two daughters. Maya had his twinkly eyes.

“So what brings you to Orofino?” Lowell asked.

I told him about my disastrous visit with my dad.

“I see your dad around town sometimes,” Lowell said. “He’s always been cordial. But then again, I don’t know if he recognizes me. He is a real character,” Lowell said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Right. He could have found work, and led a normal life—but he never did.”

“Never compromised,” I sighed. “For what that’s worth.”

“I think for him,” Lowell said, “that’s worth a lot.”

After lunch we took a walk around the farm. We saw the bricks where the kiln had been, the area where the fire pit had burned for the solstice parties. It all seemed vaguely familiar.

“Where are the bees?” I asked. I remembered Lowell’s hives dotting the Farm Out property, and that he often smelled like honey and wax after a day of tending to his hives.
His father had been a commercial beekeeper in upstate New York, and he carried the skill with him to Idaho.

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