Gone Feral: Tracking My Dad Through the Wild (5 page)

When Dad picked us up that summer, who knows what he made of us. Disgust, probably.

The first night back at the Rough House, we sat around the kitchen table eating a pot of Dad’s favorite—creamed corn from a can. Dad’s girlfriend had thick, wavy blond hair and birdlike features. She seemed annoyed with our presence. Riana and I retold the story of Tom from Farm Out who had cooked a bug on the wood burning stove to illustrate the point that many people in the world eat insects. But he picked a stink bug, and the entire house filled with a bomb of formic acid. Bringing up Tom—my mom’s boyfriend—was a bad idea. Dad frowned and got up from the table and threw his bowl into the sink.

“You two, I’m surprised,” Dad’s girlfriend said in her breathy, halting way that I later learned to associate with new age, crystal-charging people. “You have appalling table manners.” Riana and I looked at each other. Instead of using spoons, we had raised the bowls to our lips and were slurping up the creamed corn, dribbling it onto our shirt fronts. Our mom had taught us something she called “Princess Manners” that we were to use in straight society. But being back at the ranch, with just Dad and his girlfriend, we didn’t think we should have to use these manners, which we reserved for Thanksgiving and when we went to other people’s homes.

Apparently we were wrong: Dad’s girlfriend showed us the proper way to dip the spoon in—moving it away from our bodies, then up to our lips. We tried this method for a few bites, then put the spoons down with a clatter and resumed slurping. “Fuck her,” said Riana later, and I nodded. I loved the F-word.

Lucky for Dad’s girlfriend, she seemed to be getting a John Denver–like rocky mountain high living up on the ranch.She painted frescoes on the walls of the house. Balanced precariously on a ladder, she carefully penciled in sheaves of
wheat and grapes onto the upper walls, then painted them with natural colors. She also took long walks on the ranch, communing with nature.

At that time in our lives—I was twelve, Riana fourteen—we snickered at loving nature. We didn’t want to rediscover childhood hiding spots or the grove where we found the morel mushrooms. We preferred sitting upstairs, in our old bedroom, listening to a transistor radio and making prank phone calls. “Are you the bird that shit on my window?” we would ask a Bird dialed from the Orofino telephone book. When we got bored of that, we played poker. We used salted peanuts instead of money, which were actually high stakes because there wasn’t a lot of food at the Rough House that summer. There was nothing else to do: we were trapped in the middle of nowhere.

As the summer wore on, I missed Mickey’s Deli and its cornucopia of candy. Riana wrote long letters to her older boyfriend. We attempted to smoke hay, but it just wasn’t the same as my mom’s cigarette butts. My dad’s girlfriend, if she had a stash of marijuana, kept it well-hidden.

Dad was never there during the day; we never asked where he went. He appeared toward evening, and we were vaguely scared of him, of his intensity, when he asked what we had been doing. If Dad’s girlfriend didn’t cook a meal, he would fix us something strange like cucumber salad with mayonnaise, black pepper, and chunks of deer jerky. The gamey fat from the jerky coated the roof of my mouth and left a wild taste on my tongue.

I kept a journal that summer my sister and I were sent to Dad’s. My mom had given me a small green diary with a lock and key. About the ranch, I described a day when Dad had us help a neighbor bale hay as “sucking.” My arms grew welts
from touching the rough hay bales, and we were covered with dust by the end of the day. Afterward we went swimming at Zan’s Beach on the Clearwater. My dad went in naked as we changed into our suits in the cab of the truck, embarrassed about our changing bodies.

That summer I clandestinely read my sister’s journal. One entry haunted me; she wrote, “You hear that girls look for a man who is like their father. Since I don’t see my father or write to him that often, I don’t know what he ‘is like’ but I know how my mother is, she has been both parents to me.” I hadn’t heard this concept of girls looking for a man like their father. Maybe, I thought with horror, as I closed her diary, I will never have a boyfriend because of my missing dad.

When my sister and I returned home from Idaho, back to our mother, we rejoiced at her stable schedule and regular meals. If we misbehaved, she would threaten: “Do you want to go stay with your dad again?” We did not.

•   •   •

Twenty-five years had passed since punishment summer, and now I would be going back to Orofino. Of course I was an adult, now poised to become a parent myself, but the thought of returning to Orofino made me feel like a twelve-year-old again, filled with dread at the prospect of long days spent with a man I barely knew. As the months counted down, I started to feel a quiver of what can only be described as fear. Returning to Orofino was not going to be an easy journey.



John Garrick and Dad with an eight-point buck head mounted on the pickup.


n August, ten months after Dad had gone missing, Bill and I packed the least of our destroyed cars and prepared to drive north, to visit my dad in Orofino. Our steed for the trip was Rosie, a vegetable oil–powered diesel Mercedes, painted red. Someone had given Bill the car, and for some reason it always had a fine dusting of vegetable oil particles on the
of the windshield. But no matter, it ran tolerably well, even though when going up hills the tires sent out a horrible odor.

Before we left I lovingly watered our garden. It was lush with beds of multicolored lettuce and vining green beans. The tomatoes were just starting to blush red. We had been farming on the abandoned lot next to our apartment for years. We never asked permission, we just starting growing food and no one had stopped us. Now that I looked back on it, the whole farming enterprise might have been inspired by my mom and her green thumb. She always had a garden, even post–Rough
House. Though I was a grudging weeder during my youth and spent most of my twenties actively avoiding any kind of vegetable production, it must have trickled in, only to seep out later.

We left the farm under the care of a dependable sitter; it would have to continue without me for the next three weeks. Mostly I was worried about the farm animals. When I checked on the rabbits, a senior rabbit doe named Sasquatch was making plans to give birth. I put a nesting box in her cage and she feverishly began gathering straw and pulling out fur from her chest to make a nest for the new babies.

I walked out into the backyard to say good-bye to the goats. My favorite doe, Bebe, was thick with gestating goat kids. I had bred her to a little chamois named Beach Bum—his mother had a tremendous udder that I was hoping would get passed on to Bebe’s kids. She scrambled to her feet in order to give me a nuzzle. I scratched under her neck. “Bitch,” I whispered, jealous of her pregnant belly.

Goats made breeding seem so easy. Why weren’t my eggs getting fertilized? Nine months since we had started trying, Bill and I were still not pregnant. I had started tracking my temperature and monitoring mucous levels.

It was an odd position to be in, this desperation to get knocked up. Bill and I had always pledged we would never have children.
, we used to scoff when we spotted a stroller-pushing couple.
Another life ruined
, I would sigh when I saw a woman cradling a chubby baby.

Instead of breeding baby humans, Bill and I had bred other animals—rabbits and ducks and chickens. In 2008 we started raising Nigerian Dwarf goats. I started with a pregnant Bebe, who dropped two kids in February. By the summer I had weaned them and began milking her. I transformed the
surplus milk to make excellent yogurt and a variety of cheeses. These kids, I remember thinking as I watched their springy antics, were way better than human babies. No diapers, no sleepless nights. They slept in the shed in the backyard and didn’t cramp my social life.

But a year later, during the spring kidding season, my brain shifted. After helping Bebe deliver another one of her kids, I watched the new goatling suckle, milk gathering at the corner of its mouth. Bebe licked the kid’s bottom as it nursed. The new little goat filled me with love, as usual. But it also filled me with something new: longing. The birth had been intensely beautiful. A thought occurred to me:
could do that too

Once the baby-making idea was implanted, my brain would not let go. I started having a recurring dream where I caught a baby falling from the sky; that my breasts had turned into a goat’s udder. At book stores, while Bill perused the travel books, I slipped into the birth/pregnancy section to secretly devour books like
A Child Is Born
, marveling at the process of human gestation and birthing. In this book I saw an electron microscope image of women’s ovaries, arranged chronologically. The ovaries of a woman in her early twenties were soft and ripe, fertile; but as they aged, getting closer to my age, they hardened, cracked.
Are these my ovaries?
I wondered, looking at the wizened reproductive organs. Time was running out.

Feeling like I probably only had five viable eggs left, I revealed my horrible secret to Bill. After some negotiation, we jumped in the sack, and breeding a human became our goal. In my fever to reproduce, all my reasons for not wanting children—financial worries, loss of freedom—fell away.

As I kissed my goat Bebe good-bye, I remembered one
key thing I had learned from goat breeding: lines are everything. This nugget would also apply to Bill and my offspring, of course. Bill’s stock was West Virginia farm kids on his mom’s side, sturdy religious Midwesterners on his father’s side. My mom was all southern California wholesomeness. My dad, though, was a blank, uncharted. We climbed into the car, and I realized that, in a few days, I was about to enter that uncharted territory with new eyes, and new questions.

•   •   •

We drove up I-5, then forked east into Central Oregon, my dad’s old stomping grounds. In Oregon we took a pit stop in Crescent. I wanted to meet John Garrick, my dad’s hunting buddy from back in the day. When Dad and I had spent time together in Idaho Falls, my dad had told me about meeting John, and how he had changed his life.

In the spring of 1961, while still enrolled at Berkeley, Dad had written a letter to the Deschutes National Forest inquiring about a summer job. That part of Oregon held a fascination for him. It was vast, vacant, and still seemed wild, unlike the areas closer to the coast. The Forest Service wrote back: They had an opening for a young buck surveying timber. Hard work, low pay. Thrilled, once classes let out in June, he climbed onto his black motorcycle, pointed it north, and rode to Central Oregon. At a gas station in Crescent he stopped for fuel and struck up a conversation with the owner, Mr. Garrick. “I’m looking for a place to stay,” he told him. George’s skin was already dark tan, his hair was long, he wore a black leather motorcycle jacket.

“Mr. Garrick thought I was a beatnik,” my dad had said, and smiled. “He rented me a one-room cabin.” The next week, my dad reported for duty at the Forest Service. His job, he
was astonished to hear, was to walk through the forest all day and look for sick trees. “I couldn’t believe we were getting paid to do that,” he said. He walked fifteen miles a day, scrambling up hillsides. It was nothing to him. At night, he frequented the local café, the Mohawk. A man named Blacky owned the place, his wife was Belgian and spoke French, so Dad could practice his favorite language. Blacky and Helen loaned him $200 to buy his first chainsaw, and he learned how to fell a tree.

“That was the summer I met John Garrick,” he told me as we ate our beans and rice in my Idaho Falls apartment. John—the son of the gas station owner in Crescent. “God, what a wonderful man.” John was short, stocky, and quiet; he had been a hunter his whole life. Even though his summer job was up, Dad stuck around because he wanted to learn, from John, how to hunt for elk.

“One night, I spent the whole damn night crouched on a trail, waiting for a deer to walk by,” my dad said. “Had my bow and arrow stretched out. Read about that at the library.” John knew that wouldn’t work. He took my dad to the spots in the forest where he knew the elk frequented. He showed him how to track wildlife, how to be silent in the woods, to wait. John promised they would bag an elk together, and they did. That fall Dad went back to college, but after he dropped out he returned to Crescent to learn more about the forest from John.

“Heck of a guy, god almighty,” my dad had said.

John was almost like a mythological creature to me. I was anxious to meet an actual friend of my dad’s. John still lived in Crescent. We pulled off the highway there and saw that the Mohawk Café—where my dad hung out back in the early 1960s—was still there. It had an antique neon sign and a blue
tiled roof. It was dim inside, and the walls were lined with taxidermied animals, including twenty-one baby fawns, which are disturbingly embryonic looking. We settled into a back table and ordered eggs and hash browns. I noticed the chandelier—which looked like it was made out of rawhide—started swinging on the ceiling for no reason at all.

“Is Blacky here?” I asked the waitress as she filled my cup with ice water.

“Who, honey?” she said. I explained he maybe used to be the owner.

“I don’t know anything about that,” she said, and wandered off to fill up other customers’ coffees. I don’t know why I thought Blacky would still be around, but I looked longingly at the bar, imagining my father hunched over it, speaking French.

“OK, I’ll call John,” I said, getting out my cell phone, suddenly panicked that I wouldn’t get to see him.

His wife answered, and after I explained I was George Carpenter’s daughter, she invited us to come by. John lived a few blocks from the café.

When we drove up, John opened the door to his house with a grin. He was wearing thick glasses and a camo baseball hat; a pair of black suspenders held up his pants. I liked him immediately.

He had built his house, he explained as we settled on the couch. Including the giant river-rock fireplace that we sat by in the living room, rock by rock.

“So you’re looking for your dad?” He smiled.

I nodded. “We’re going to go fishing or hunting maybe,” I said.

“Your dad was a real honest-to-goodness mountain man,” John said. “I remember one time, your dad and I were
planning an elk hunting trip, and we weren’t sure if we were going to go north or south, along the lake or up in the mountains . . .” I settled back in the couch, soaking up his story. “We were getting ready to really rough it, to go way out. I drove up along that windy road to your parents’ property, and when I got there your dad was all flustered,” John said.

“He said, ‘you weren’t blowing an elk bugle were you?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘why?’ ‘Are you sure? You aren’t pulling my leg?’” John chuckled. And then he heard it: an elk bugling right there on the property of my parents. They only had to hike a mile or two into the woods on the ranch before they encountered, and shot, an eight-point buck. “We didn’t need to drive anywhere to go hunting—that buck was right there.”

“Do you still hunt?” I asked, hungry for more stories about hunting. In preparation to see Dad, I had attended a primitive skills camp where I learned to stalk wildlife and throw a Native American hunting tool called the atlatl. I was sure this was going to impress my dad, especially when we went out into the forest together.

“Nope,” John grinned. “Hon, get me my photos,” he told his wife.

She bustled into a back room and came back with some printouts. Blurry photos of deer and one of a bobcat. John explained: instead of hunting, he sets up cameras in the woods and takes photos of the wildlife.

“Have you seen my dad lately?” I asked, trying not to look disappointed that he was no longer the great hunter, the hero of my dad’s stories.

“It’s been five or six years,” John said. Maybe he sensed my disappointment. “There was a time once when I really made your dad angry,” John said gently.

“Yeah?” I said.

“We were out hunting, out at the swamp. And I was in the truck, getting something. Your dad had his rifle, and was standing in the road when who came by but an enormous elk,” John said.

“‘George,’ I whispered. And he saw it. He raised his rifle, and held it there. Just held it! The elk caught the scent of us a second later and was gone.” John smiled. “When he got back into the truck, I gave him a bunch of shit, made fun of his manhood, laughed at him,” John said. “And I tell you, he gave me this look, and didn’t say another word to me the rest of the day, and then I didn’t see him for a couple of years.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“I don’t know what passed with him,” John said. “But a few years later we saw each other and were friends again.”

“Now you don’t hunt,” I said.

“Yeah, and you might think I’m a big softie for that,” John said. “But I listen to my heart, and I know what’s right.”

John seemed mildly worried that so much time had passed since he’d last seen my dad—that seemed to be their pattern. Then he took us for a tour and showed us a canoe my dad had built in 1965. John still had it in his garage; it was broken and he was waiting for my dad to come back and fix it.

“How’s your mother?” John asked after a while.

“Good, good,” I said.

“My god, she was a good-looking woman,” he said. I smiled. “They lived in an A-frame just down the road,” John said and pointed. They had lived in Crescent while they saved up money before going to Europe, then returned when they were scouting out land to buy with my mom’s inheritance.

“Is it still there?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah. In fact, it’s for rent!” I smiled. “Your mom was a bit of a Gypsy,” John commented. “Like there was no
running water, no toilet, but she was fine with that. She went with the flow. I have no idea what she did all day in that A-frame.” Sewed baby clothes and read Dr. Spock, from what she told me.

Then there was nothing more to say. I felt awkward, but also needy. I stared at the broken canoe and wanted John to tell me something about my dad that I had never known. But I couldn’t think of any other questions, and we had a long drive ahead of us.

•   •   •

We arrived in Orofino the next afternoon. The hills above the green-blue river were gold and bright, marked with gray rock outcroppings and deep green trees. Memories of the river, the land, the little town I carry with me, everything set in amber light, flooded back to me.

The bridge that led from the highway to the village of Orofino had changed. When I was a kid it had been a rickety but ornate metal bridge lit up by a gaudy neon sign advertising the Konkolville Motel. Now it was just a plain slab of concrete. The neon sign had disappeared. Paranoid locals told me that they had moved the metal bridge to make it easier for the government to drive a tank across the river and into town.

After we crossed the river to the right was the public park where Marcia and Lowell from Farm Out used to sell their produce. I had remembered the park as massive, but now it looked scruffy and small, with only enough room for a couple of picnic tables and a baseball diamond. Driving through downtown, I was pleased to see that the Ponderosa Café, where we met up with Dad that last time, was still intact, all paneled walls and comfy booths. The town had a down-and-out feeling to it, chipped paint and overgrown lawns. One
house had a sign out front that read: “I need work, will do anything,” with a phone number. A drugstore had Orofino High School merchandise for sale—the Orofino Maniacs. The high school used to abut an insane asylum; hence the wild-haired, straitjacket-wearing mascot.

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