Gone Feral: Tracking My Dad Through the Wild (2 page)

Years later, after I had become an idealistic environmentalist, toting a metal coffee mug at all times, living in big group houses, and not shaving my legs (somehow, I thought, this behavior might help old-growth forests and save the northern spotted owl), I devoured
. Hamsun had captured the beauty of nature, and of man’s struggle to keep wilderness alive, even as society encroached. I didn’t want to live in the woods, but I was proud that my dad had made that choice. I’ve moved many times over the years, deserting most of my possessions, save for my journals and a handful of precious books,
being key among them.

The night I found out Dad had gone missing, I read
for the first time in years. I stopped every so often to check my e-mail, knowing that nothing would come from Dad
unless he had somehow stumbled across a twenty-four-hour library with Internet access.
tells the story of a woodsman hunter named Lieutenant Glahn. Glahn is more wild animal than man. He shoots birds for a living, wears simple leather clothes, and is socially awkward and unpredictable.

“I did not go hunting just to be able to shoot things but to enable me to live in the forest,” Glahn narrates. “It suited me there; I lay on the ground for my meals and did not have to sit bolt upright on a chair. . . . In the forest I did as I liked.” I couldn’t help but notice how much Glahn resembled my dad—or at least what I thought my dad was like. He lived in the forest, solitary, doing what he wanted. Around three in the morning, as I turned the last pages, I suddenly remembered how the book ends: Glahn dead, shot, in the woods.

•   •   •

The next morning I called my goat up for morning milking. As I leaned into her warm flanks, drawing out the milk, I wondered if I would be going to Idaho to clean out my dead dad’s cabin. Would that be my chance to finally stitch together who he was—and what he had been doing—for all these missing years? The thought chilled me.

I poured the goat milk through a filter and stashed the jars in the fridge. Then I checked my e-mail. A message had come:

hi sweets, all well on the western front, i’m here in wickenburg, az; thanks for your concern . . . guitar #10—the benji-ri—is getting my love daily—sorry to have caused any upset; reading hemingway my dream visitor

love you always,

Papa. That old goat!

I forwarded his e-mail to my sister and Mom. Of course he was OK. He always bragged that he had nine lives, just like a cat.

Gnawing in the back of my brain, though, was a little rodent of doubt. He has been missing most of my life, and now he was getting older. Though he had emerged unscathed, what about the next time? What happened when he ran out of lives?

Dad on the Clearwater River, where my parents camped, just before buying the 180-acre ranch in Orofino, 1971.


ill was asleep when I went into our bedroom to tell him the good news that my dad had resurfaced in Wickenburg, probably shacked up at the Purple Hills Apartments again. Our room was dark, womb-like. I had painted it midnight blue when we first moved in, back in 2003. We had left Seattle that year, fleeing the rain and looking for jobs. We picked Oakland because we liked its wild west vibe, and settled in a scruffy neighborhood the locals called Ghost Town.

A plain mattress lay on the floor. On the milk crate that serves as our night table, an apple core and several Q-tips lay fanned out.

“Monk,” I whispered.
, or
, I’m embarrassed to admit, is our nickname for each other. Monkey number 1 and 2. That and
. I yanked on the comforter Bill had cocooned himself in.

“Time is it?” he mumbled. His breath smelled like dead flowers.

“Ten,” I said. Practically dawn for Bill—he loves to sleep in and stay up late at night. He peered out from under the covers. His hair was crumpled on one side and stood on end on the other, Medusa-like.

“Dad’s OK,” I said. “In Arizona.”

“That’s nice,” he muttered.

I gave Bill a kiss and left him to sleep a few hours longer. I bundled up in a garish floral scarf and a fake-fur hat. Tucking a pair of Felco pruners in my back pocket, I swung my leg across an old blue mountain bike and rode north. It had rained the day before, so it was a perfect time to go on a collecting mission to find branches to feed the goats. The wind was cold and bracing. As I rode, I felt a vague sense of unease.

I should have been happy. Bill loved me. We had lots of friends. My family was fine, even Dad. Our farm was thriving. Just a few weeks before Dad had gone missing, Bill and I had begun trying to get pregnant, and now I was a few days late. I might be pregnant.

A fine mist in the air speckled my glasses. I dodged Oakland’s broken glass and potholes until I rode into Berkeley, turning down a street lined with liquidambar trees. The chill of October had turned the leaves of the trees a deep red. I pulled my bike over to a tree with a broken branch, grabbed the end of it, and yanked it down. I cut up the limb into smaller branches and secured them to my bike basket with a bit of baling twine, and rode home, the leaves rustling. At my house I parked my bike and called to my caprine family.

The herd (Nigerian Dwarf goats, a mini-breed ideal for backyard farms) clattered down the stairs. I threw the branches into a manger I had made by lashing together a pair of metal window bars that had once been installed inside our apartment to protect against burglars. Having bars both outside
seemed extreme, even in our somewhat sketchy neighborhood.

While the goats ate, I sat on the stairs. I breathed in the mild scent of wet wood chips, the light low and gray. A golden kid with blue eyes that I had named Milky Way leaped into my lap and curled down for a nap. I sniffed her head, which smelled like chèvre. I pulled the goatling in close, toward my stomach, which felt twitchy and weird. I hadn’t told Mom about my new breeding plan. I definitely hadn’t told Dad. Would he even care? I wasn’t sure, but I knew that before I tried to start a family of my own, I needed to try to make things right with Dad.

•   •   •

The last time I had seen him was in Idaho, in 2006. I had taken a summer-long newspaper reporting gig in the Gem State. I was thirty-two; Bill and I had been living in Oakland for a few years by then. Somehow I had gotten into graduate school at UC Berkeley. I was studying journalism, but was still trying to figure out what to do with my life.

I chose the internship in Idaho because of Dad. He lived only a few hours from where I would be stationed at the
Post Register
in Idaho Falls. I hadn’t seen him since 2001, when we had one of our usual brief and unsatisfying one-hour-long reunions, which usually involved an awkward lunch, followed by hugs and empty I-Love-Yous. By coming to Idaho, I was hoping to draw him out for some substantial contact. If I appeared on his turf, I figured he wouldn’t be able to resist seeing me.

With that idea, I packed a few things into our rusty 1976 Mercedes Benz and headed north. It was June. Bill stayed behind in Oakland to take care of our apartment and the farm
we had built together. On the farmlette, in addition to vegetables and fruit trees, we raised egg-laying chickens, honeybees, turkeys, ducks, rabbits, and even pigs once, though that nearly killed us. As I drove away from our little urban farm, the Bay Area fell away to the hot Sacramento Delta, then into the verdant Willamette Valley. I followed the Columbia River because the car couldn’t make it over any major mountain passes.

Driving my beater car into Idaho had been like a homecoming. I still thought of it as my home state even though I hadn’t lived there in decades. I cruised past wild forests that seemed to go on forever, then stopped in a funky roadside diner for eggs and coffee. Back on the road, a man wearing goggles and a leather flight cap passed by me in a convertible he had obviously built himself out of scrap parts, with custom mufflers and Idaho plates. Funky, wild, hacked—this is Idaho.

Idaho Falls, the town I was assigned, didn’t quite have the scruffy feel of where I was raised, up in northern Idaho. Idaho Falls had lots of American flags waving from porches of well-kept homes. A river ran through the village, making a lazy progression to the falls where an enormous Mormon Temple sprouted up, looking like a wedding cake decoration. Exploring the tidy little town, I walked by a bar that harbored the old Idaho spirit that I had remembered—next to the neon Budweiser sign in the window, a handwritten note had been posted:
If you have been 86’ed here, you are still 86’ed.

Not far from the bar, I found a cheap apartment. It had orange shag carpet and a Murphy bed. I unpacked my suitcase, found a coffee shop, and settled in. I sent word to Dad that I was in state and waited for a response. Like anyone working for a podunk newspaper in the middle of Idaho, I
read Norman Maclean’s
A River Runs Through It
, and heavily romanticized my new job—and fly-fishing.

I covered the police beat and spent most of my days trolling the cop shop for stories. I listened to the police radio night and day like my hero, crime reporter Edna Buchanan. I was hoping for a juicy story. Sometimes there were: a nurse caught selling oxytocin, a man accused of attempted strangulation. But most days were slow, and I found myself covering events like the hot-air balloon festival or the Fourth of July parade. As the summer progressed, I was accepted into the newsroom as a decent reporter. Not a peep from Dad, though.

•   •   •

One day my editor, a lanky guy named Dean, gathered me and a few other reporters into his car and took us out to a farmer’s field. He opened up the hatchback of his Subaru and yanked off a camo blanket to display a gleaming arsenal of guns. Shotguns and old-timey revolvers, Glocks and rifles. Dean thought I should know about firearms if I was going to cover crime. He jogged into the hills with paper targets shaped like men and set them up at different distances. I clamped on some ear protection and began blowing away the paper targets. It was really fun. I had used firearms before—my dad had showed me how to use a shotgun when I was so young the kickback of the rifle sent me onto my ass. Later, in rural Washington State, I had attended a middle school that had target practice as an elective. Still, I had never fired a 9 millimeter before, and I couldn’t believe how much power one small weapon could contain. The editor’s wife came along for shooting practice and told me women have better aim than men. She once shot and field dressed an elk by herself, lugged
the meat to her truck, and a few weeks later gave birth to their third child.

As I stood there, heart pounding from the raw power of the gleaming Glock, I thought about my friend who had gotten an internship at the
New York Times
. He was probably seated in a conference room with a view of the Manhattan skyline, surrounded by seasoned
reporters. My friend was making connections, reporting on real crime, setting up his future career. Meanwhile, here I was in a field in Idaho, blowing away targets, waiting to hear from my estranged dad.

He didn’t show, and it turned out to be a lonely summer. It felt like I was marooned in Idaho Falls. I missed Billy, and cried when one night his voice cracked on the phone when he said “I love you too.” I also, idiotically, missed my rice cooker.

I decided that if I wasn’t going to see my dad, I could at least get close to him by proxy: by going camping and enjoying the outdoors. When I was just a kid he used to point out edible wild plants to me and my sister. One time, when Riana was five and I was three, Dad showed us a flush of morel mushrooms erupting under a grove of wild apple trees on the ranch where we grew up. They were wrinkled, penis-like, and smelled like meaty forest.

When I was much older he gave me a copy Euell Gibbons’s
Stalking the Wild Asparagus
. First published in 1962, the book had become a cult classic for the back-to-nature crowd of my parents’ generation. When he gave me the book he told me that he and Mom had used it as a guide to prepare wild food on their ranch. They made flour out of cattails that grew in the duck pond, and steeped a tea of pine boughs to keep warm in the winter.

Remembering these stories, I had thrown
in the trunk of my car and took it with me to Idaho Falls. There,
after work most nights, I followed the book’s directions to forage things like crab apples and wild mustard greens. I hunted young milkweed pods in an abandoned field. I steamed them with butter, and they tasted better than any domesticated vegetable I had ever eaten.

Dad gave me
Stalking the Wild Asparagus
with one caveat, though. Euell had eventually become a spokesman for a breakfast cereal company. “Goddamn Grape Nuts,” Dad moaned. A warning to never sell out.

On one of my few weekends off from the
Post Register
, I embarked on my first solo backpacking trip. Even though I consider myself an environmentalist, I always thought the best way to save the wild was to leave it alone. I packed a gallon of water, some sardines, and a loaf of rye bread, and tried to channel my father by hiking ten miles up a mountain. Dad, I imagined, would have easily hiked up the steep trail, and probably would have trapped a small mammal to spit roast on an open fire.

I, on the other hand, became immediately breathless and sweaty once I started hiking. Halfway up the trail, I was completely spent and couldn’t make it to the campsite. Instead, I slept under a ponderosa pine. Gazing up at the cloudy night sky, I felt peaceful, proud of myself even, but also so lonely. In the middle of the night a storm rolled in, so I built a little shelter out of branches to block the rain.

The next morning I woke up with a sticky resin glommed to the side of my face and pieces of bark snagged in my hair. My entire body ached. The hike down was thrillingly beautiful, though: the blue lupine flowers were pebbled with moisture, and Queen Anne’s lace majestically rose up along the trail, sending out a carroty, bitter smell. It was August, and the beauty all around me did lift my heart. As I hiked, I sang songs
to myself to stave off the loneliness and the terrible feeling of the summer being over and sensing it was a time for change, but not knowing what the hell I was doing with my life.

I returned to my Idaho Falls apartment and my job. Then, finally, I got an e-mail from Dad. He wrote that he was coming and would be there the next day. And he was bringing his fly-fishing gear.

“Novella, you have a visitor,” Peggy, the front desk lady, called to tell me over the phone, though the office was small enough that I could hear her without amplification. I was working on an important story about the city’s new dog-poop ordinance.

I came out from my cubicle and there he was. He was lean and wore a dirty beige cowboy hat, a worn pair of Levi’s, and a Pendleton wool shirt I had sent him for Christmas ten years before.

“Hey, sweets!” he yelled. He gave me a hug and a kiss. He had an elfin expression on his face, brown eyes shining, pointy chin pointing. He looked fit as a fiddle.

“This is quite a place,” he said, surveying my ratty office. “This is big time! I’ll be damned.” I guessed that he hadn’t been to many offices before. I wasn’t sure what he was impressed by—the flimsy press board desks? The ancient computers? He let out a hoot and gave me another hug.

That night we went to Fred Meyer and bought fishing licenses, then split the prime rib special meal at a restaurant called Fish and Steak. I told him about my summer, what I liked about Idaho, how the farm in Oakland was progressing. I felt a little uneasy being with him. I hadn’t seen him in five years, since the quick, hour-long visit when I was living in Seattle and he had come to town for some reason. I was glad we had an activity—fly-fishing—to focus on.

Though I had a perfectly good couch, when we got back to my apartment that night he settled into my closet to sleep. There he made a nest of couch pillows and a sleeping bag. In the middle of the night, I woke up to the sound of some rustling: it was Dad getting up to go to the bathroom. I heard him quietly muttering, “Jesus, Jesus,” as he peed. The next morning, when I woke up, his sleeping bag was still in the closet, but he was nowhere to be found.

“Dad?” I called and looked in the kitchen. Nobody in there. I prepared myself for the inevitable—he had left, it had been too intense seeing me, and, as usual, he’d bailed.

Then I heard it: music, slightly muffled. I looked out the window of my apartment, through the vibrant green leaves of the plane trees. I saw Dad sitting in the passenger seat of his dingy blue Geo Metro. The door was ajar. One cowboy-boot-clad foot rested on the curb. He was playing his guitar.

Seeing him there made me think, suddenly, of my first memory of him. I must have been about three. I woke up next to my sister in the low bed we shared upstairs in the half-finished, wholly unpermitted house my parents had been building for years on their ranch in Idaho. An enormous half-circle window of the sort that was popular in certain hippie circles in the 1970s let in the dawn light. I reached for my copy of Dr. Seuss’s
The Foot Book.
Someone had left the book in the root cellar one winter, and the pages were spotted with mold. I couldn’t read yet, but I had memorized it, and was starting to see a pattern with the words. “Wet foot/Dry foot,” I said to myself.

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