Gone Feral: Tracking My Dad Through the Wild (16 page)

Novella and Dad, the old ranch property in the background, 2010.


t has been over four years since my dad went missing. He told me in an e-mail recently that he’s stopped chopping wood. It’s too hard on my body, he explained. He’s become less and less lucid—sending several e-mails sometimes with basically the same message, as if he didn’t remember writing them. The e-mails say that he tries to leave Idaho because the winters get so cold but when he gets on the road, he has a mental breakdown, and has to abort the trip.

On the rare occasions when we talk on the phone, he often repeats himself over and over again. I worry he is getting Alzheimer’s or dementia. That one day, he will go completely feral, unable to take care of himself. For now, I’ve taken to sending him money—enough to shack up somewhere in town for the duration of the winter. When Riana hasn’t heard from Dad in a while, she starts to worry. Then she calls the library in Orofino. The librarians there are exceedingly kind, and are happy to give her the Dad report. Sending money,
getting updates from afar, it’s all we can do. I now recognize that it’s all he could do for us too.

•   •   •

On the way back from Idaho, the last time we saw Dad, my sister and I stopped off to see Mom. After a meal of Hood Canal shrimp and smoked salmon, Mom put us to work. We helped weed her garden, which she has been improving for over thirty years. Her work shows: She has a small orchard and berry patch, in addition to perennial beds of uncommon lushness and color.

Mom is still in touch with the Farm Out crowd, and friends from her days teaching school at Hood Canal. She has thrived, despite adversity, because of these friendships.

After garden chores, Riana and I scraped off the moss from the shingled roof. Then went up to the attic to clear it out. I was a hopeless hoarder and had stored stuff up there since I had left for college, and even after. Now I was forty years old, and it was time to finally purge the past.

Up in the attic, Riana and I laughed at our high school yearbooks and old notes from friends. Then I found a shoebox full of letters, mostly from Dad. Most of them dated from the 1990s, when I was in college. They are postmarked from Idaho, a few from his time in Alaska when he was working for the forest service there. As I read the old letters, they seem foreign and strange. They begin, “Hello Pumpkin,” and sign off, “I love you totally.” I don’t remember getting them, and they reference events I don’t remember. In one he described his bulldozer breaking down, another of pitching a tent on the ranch land and getting snowed on, another where he broke his arm. They are apologetic but proud, explaining that he had been a marginal dad but that I should give him space to be
human and make mistakes. They are really the last thing I have from him, artifacts from a time when he was struggling, but still together.

As I read his letters to me, I could finally admit that I was partially to blame for our broken relationship. For my whole life, I had been shaped not by his presence, but by my imagined version of him. There was a time when I could have made him real, sought him out. But to do that I would have had to destroy my own creation. He was more palatable as a mythical creature. And, I suppose, he created me, imagined me as well. I could be perfect in his mind.

The final letter I found was a card with a painting of wolves, a quote from John Muir inside: “In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world—the great fresh, unblighted, unredeemed wilderness.” The letter begins with “Dear Daughter,” and tells me he is glad that I read
. That it’s a book you can go back to every few years and see in a different light. Then, I’m surprised to read, he writes: “One disclaimer: I’m not Glahn but I value many of the things he does—forest smells, the innocence of the animals, the hoarfrost on a severe winter landscape, the smell of spring . . .”

Families are like ecosystems. They begin looking one way, but as the years tick by, the inhabitants change. Some grow and flourish, others are wounded. They might rebound, or die. Nests are built and young are raised, then the fledglings leave. When disaster hits, only the adaptable survive. In my family, there were constants that added a certain texture to our family’s ecosystem: love of language, of reading. A tendency toward living on the fringes. A hot rage that burns inside of us, and sometimes threatens ourselves and others. Sensitivity, a sense of the incredible power and beauty in the natural world. A love of the numinous so powerful that it
mesmerizes us and inspires us. We are craggy and hard; intense and uncompromising.

More and more I see my father when I see photos of myself. My lips, when they snarl, a certain look in my eye that I can only see as coming directly from Dad. If I hadn’t sought him out, these traits might be a mystery, like looking at a stranger. These days, I find the similarities between me and Dad vaguely comforting. I realize that every gesture that I do—how I put on a pair of socks, run my fingers through my hair, turn pages in a book—is a reflection of the people who created me. Every movement, every act, is a meditation on those who came before us.

As for Frannie, her personality comes out more and more each day. She has definitely inherited one thing from her granddad: a hooting laugh. When she first did the laugh, crinkling her nose just like he does, I recognized it as Dad’s and fell in love with her some more. The life we have created for her might be hard, I understand that, and maybe one day she will rage against me, asking why. But I think she is ready for anything, as long as she knows we will always love her.

All these years I had thought Dad had been faking—like I had been—real love. But now that I have a child myself, I understand the all-consuming love that a child gives you. I could never love him like he loves me. I’m grateful that at least I had time with him, as painful as it was. I’m proud that I walked with the wild man that is my father, and I finally came to see him as human.


Though people like to describe the book writing process as a birth, I came to see this project more like timber clearing. Choosing which trees stay, which ones go—it wasn’t easy, and I had to depend on others for perspective. The tenacious Lindsay Whalen, my editor and forewoman at Penguin, did just that, in addition to always keeping me on task when I flailed. My agent, Richard Morris, even fired up a chainsaw a couple of times. Phil Druker, builder of cabins and hiker of mountains, literally housed me in his past, shared stories, and even gave editing advice; his spirit will be missed. Thanks to the citizens of Orofino, who humbled me with their kindness, especially Tommy and Kathy. John Garrick, who tells me he is hunting again, with his grandson now, I thank you for sharing your words. Thanks to the rest of the gang at Farm Out and beyond: Tom, Lowell, Marcia, Barb, Fran, Mary, Nancy—you continue to inspire me.

Early reader Morgen van Vorst reviewed the plans and
gave sage advice. Zach Slobig, who at least cracked a beer with me on the worksite, kept me company when the clearing job got particularly ugly. Nate Johnson and Heather Smith, two fine writers, got in there and hacked away some unsightly shrubbery. Thanks to Rebecca Solnit, who in one phone conversation showed me a part of the forest I didn’t know existed. Friends like Dorrit Gershunt and Lisa Margonelli made me feel like I wasn’t alone in the woods. For the smell of fresh coffee and lots of laughs, thank you, my officemates. Also, Helen and Matthew, who inspired me to get serious about getting pregnant, I salute you.

My mom, who taught me the importance of stories, has been understanding and supportive no matter how gnarly things started to look: I love you. My sister, Riana, I literally could not have done this without you—thank you. Though Frannie won’t remember any of it, I did some of my best thinking while sitting on a yoga ball, bouncing her to sleep. My dear sweet Bill, my campmate in the wilderness, you are still my best editor, and best friend. Finally, for Dad who gave me that spark that made me believe that anything is possible, I do love you.

Image Credits

Chapter 1
. Pat Carpenter

Chapter 2
. Pat Carpenter

Chapter 3
. Pat Carpenter

Chapter 4
. Franklin Schultz

Chapter 5
. Pat Carpenter

Chapter 6
. Pat Carpenter

Chapter 7
. Novella Carpenter

Chapter 8
. Pat Carpenter

Chapter 9
. U.S. Army

Chapter 10
. Pat Carpenter

Chapter 11
. Novella Carpenter

Chapter 12
. Pat Carpenter

Chapter 13
. Pat Carpenter

Chapter 14
. Riana Lagarde

. Bill

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