Gone Feral: Tracking My Dad Through the Wild (7 page)

Dad, Bill, and I drove up the Gilbert Grade and followed the road to the ranch. Max was waiting for us. He turned out
to be a sweet man of eighty-four. He tottered outside his hand-hewn cabin built onto a bluff overlooking the field my dad used to plant with alfalfa for the cattle back in his ranching days.

“George,” he called out warmly, as we walked up the hill to his house.

“This is my daughter, Novella,” Dad said proudly. Max and I shook hands.

Max was withered and slender but he was spry. He had an enormous vegetable garden, which was spilling over with red raspberries, carrots, strawberries.

“You tilled the alfalfa field,” my dad said, pointing.

I could tell Dad was having a hard time being there. He seemed uneasy, a little out of breath. Later he told me Max might have some special powers that thwarted the evil spirits that he knew lived on the ranch. I had known my dad was eccentric, but not this kind of eccentric.

“Yep,” Max drawled. “Gonna plant me a peach orchard out there.” Peaches. My mom had thought she would grow peaches on the ranch too. But according to her it was too cold; the peach trees she planted had died. Forty years later, what with global climate change, maybe those peaches would be possible. The field is a two-acre, circular expanse, and would hold about two hundred trees. I marveled at Max’s optimism. If he was very lucky, he’d harvest his first real crop at the age of ninety-two.

Max beckoned us to walk up the ridge with him. We wandered farther up a bluff that was filled with pine trees.

“Wow, this field is growing back,” Dad gasped. There were quite a few large-sized pine trees. He had logged this property twenty years ago. My mom had complained that he had cut down most of the trees on the ranch.

“Yep, and a dead one,” Max said and pointed at one that had gone red in the needles. I was out of breath from the steep climb up the hill and marveled that old Max had made it at all. In fact, he seemed unfazed. Maybe he did have special powers.

“Want me to take care of that for ya?” my dad asked.

“Oh, sure,” Max said.

And then Dad flashed into action. He ran down the rocky hill, jumped in his truck, and spun wheels getting up to where we were. He pulled the orange chainsaw out of the truck bed, strapped on a pair of earmuffs, and stepped toward the dead tree. The chainsaw gunned to life and the faint smell of gasoline drifted toward us. For a few minutes he worked on one side of the tree, wood chips flying, then he made some cuts on the back. The tree, maybe twenty feet tall, crashed and splintered to the ground. It was dry and landed with a soft hushing, not a thud like I had expected. Then my dad jumped on top of the fallen tree like it was a balance beam. Crouched down, he lightly touched the bottom branches of the tree with the chainsaw, then moved up to the next branches and the next until they were all removed. Then he cut the trunk into big chunks, starting at the top, and making five incisions. The tree lay there, dissected.

When he finished felling Max’s tree, Dad clambered back toward us and onto the road, dusting chips of wood off his shirt. I was glad to get a glimpse of him doing his work—a mini take-your-daughter-to-work day. Watching him work had reminded me of a story my mom’s Farm Out friend Phil told me about my dad. It was the early eighties and Phil had wandered into the local dive bar, the Clearwater Club, where he saw my dad seated at the bar, bleeding profusely from a giant cut in his leg.

“‘George, you ought to have someone look at that,’” Phil remarked after ordering a beer.

“‘Nope, gotta finish this job—I’m way behind and if I don’t come in on time, I don’t get paid,’” Dad told him. Phil offered to help. The next day they drove out to the site together. It was a hot summer that year, even in the thick of the forest. The task was to mitigate forest fire by clearing out brush and lumber left over from a big logging company’s recent clear-cut. Dad set to work clearing brush, and working at a speed that Phil, a seasoned logger himself, found alarming. “He was like a force of nature,” Phil told me, “branches were flying everywhere, his chainsaw moved so fast it was scary. He was like a man possessed. And that was on an injured leg.” Phil refused to help the next day—too dangerous—but my dad did manage to get the job done in time and got paid.

Now that I had seen him in action, it dawned on me how dangerous the work he did actually was. Maybe that was why the Orofino police had staged a manhunt, thinking he was dead or injured from his work in the woods. Even felling this small tree on Max’s property took an enormous amount of skill and care, and some level of recklessness too.

I looked at the trees around us. I usually look at trees like a goat would—scanning for low, edible branches. But now I could see how Dad saw them. How many cords of firewood a tree would make, how it was leaning, which way it’d fall if you took a chainsaw to it. I wanted to learn something from my dad, to make up for our lost years. I wondered if he would teach me how to fell a tree.

“Well, thank you George, that was real kind of you,” Max said. Dad shrugged and threw the chainsaw into the truck
bed. It landed with a thud. He promised Max that he would come back for the wood in a few days. We left shortly after, never venturing any farther into the ranch property. I longingly looked down the road that led to the former Rough House—it was dappled with shade and thimbleberry brambles grew thickly along the edges.

Sitting next to me in the truck, Dad smelled like the forest. I felt proud of him, but also pity. Clearly this was the work he wanted to do, but the number of years he could do this work were waning. He was seventy-four years old. Old age was like that bloody gash he had had—it would slow him down, make everything more dangerous. I wondered what would happen when one day he no longer had a place in the forest.

•   •   •

That night I got an earful about Satan again and another example about how the woods up on the ranch were possessed.

“I was clearing trees out there with my girlfriend,” he told me. I was seated on the couch/bed again. Not his high school sweetheart, another girlfriend who was Native American. My dad claimed she could sense when a herd of elk was moving through an area. She and Dad didn’t last either: Dad, like my mom, never remarried. “And I was finishing one of the trees on an uphill incline and my girlfriend yelled, ‘George! Look out!’” He paused for effect. “Goddamn tree was flying straight
the hill, coming right for me! I did a forward somersault, and barely got out of the way in time. Whoever heard of a tree flying
a hill?”

Exhausted from listening, and still feeling no connection to my dad, I kissed his forehead goodnight.

“I love you, babes,” my dad said.

“I love you too,” I recited. But saying “I love you” felt fake. I didn’t even know him.

I wandered out to my tent. I saw Dad turn off his light, settle into the sleeping bag on the couch to sleep. I wanted to share stories with my dad, not listen to a monologue. Bill was in the tent, wearing a headlamp, reading his book.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey,” I answered. Bill was so calm, so grounded compared to my dad—and me. My mind was racing. Our idea had been to stay with my dad for a week, then drive to West Virginia. At the family reunion I was planning on checking out Bill’s genetic lines. But now that I had seen my dad, I was seriously starting to question my own genes.

“Are we still going to have a kid?” Bill asked, as if he read my mind.

I sighed. “I wonder if we can even get pregnant,” I said.

I had come all this way to my dad’s house hoping that we would have made a connection. I had hoped that I would find the perfect moment to tell him that Bill and I were going to become parents, and that even though he hadn’t been part of my life, I wanted him to be a good grandfather. But I hadn’t gotten closer to him; in fact, I felt repulsed. Still, I clung to the idea that we could connect by going fly-fishing.

The next day I reminded him about the time we went fly-fishing in Idaho Falls. He didn’t seem keen on the concept, and only halfheartedly rooted around the house looking for hooks and flies. We went out to the wood-drying shed to look for his fishing rod. I asked about the furry pelt hanging from the shed door.

There’s a classic photo of Dad tanning an elk hide on the ranch, the hunting dogs watching him. I figured he was up to
some hide tanning at his cabin. “Is that a beaver?” I asked, pointing to the fur. He looked surprised, and looked at the pelt. “What? Oh, I don’t remember. Someone put it there.”

Then he resumed rustling around, searching through an odd assortment of books and supplies. Finally, he turned to me and fessed up: “I don’t have my fishing license anymore.”

He had turned in his Idaho driver’s license in exchange for an Arizona one. Out-of-state fishing licenses were expensive, so he hadn’t bought a new one. It was then that I remembered the rod and reel from our fishing expedition in Idaho Falls years earlier. Had that been his one and only rod? I hadn’t brought it with me. I hadn’t even considered that he might need it back.

Instead of going fishing, we resolved to visit the Clearwater River. My dad tossed a green plastic contraption into the back of the truck, then a pair of orange swim trunks, and we loaded into his truck.

The Clearwater is the river of my childhood. It is the marker by which I judge every river I encounter. It is green and cold, and tastes vegetal, like willow water. It is also filled with fish, and as a child I landed my first (and last, as it happens) rainbow trout on its white sandy shores. Out of the white sand grows a species of willow from which we would, as children, harvest branches with pupating caterpillars attached. At home we would put the branches in jars and watch chrysalises form over a series of agonizing days for us. “When will it hatch?” my sister and I would ask my mom over and over again. Eventually, it would, and out would flap a brilliant orange butterfly—a monarch. We would release it from the porch of the Rough House, and the butterfly would have a long journey back to the river.

We drove toward Zan’s, a public swimming area along
the Clearwater with a wide sandy beach. As we approached, there were dozens of cars parked along the side of the road and at the impromptu parking lot.

“Too crowded, babes,” my dad said and flipped a U-turn.

I looked back at the beach with longing. It wasn’t that crowded. Instead we went to the other side of town, to a flat spot along the railroad tracks. Disgruntled, I waded out into the river. It turned out that the green plastic thing my dad had brought along was for panning for gold. The town, Orofino, is named for the flakes of gold in the Clearwater River. But most of it is just fool’s gold.

Dad gave Bill a demonstration, and Bill unenthusiastically panned for a while. Nothing. Dad seemed nervous and just watched us; he didn’t go in the water at all. He paced around by the road we parked next to. Eventually he came back with a frown-faced woman who told us we were on private property. We packed into the truck and went home, skunked, again. I was starting to see a pattern—every attempt to engage with my dad was leading to a discouraging dead end.

Back at the cabin, Dad and I took a walk. He showed me the almost-ripe huckleberries and we ate a few. We rounded a corner and came across a logging road, which we wandered down. Before long, we encountered the mangled scene of a modern logging operation. There was a pile of dead wood stacked up tall, strips of bark unfurling off the stack. Clods of clay clung to everything. It was like a big monster had come in and devastated this piece of forest.

My dad fell to his knees at this sight, though he must have seen this clear-cut before. “This is a desecration!” he shouted. I looked at the destruction. It was fearsome. Whole trees were stacked on top of each other, creating a twisted, ten-foot wall of gnarled roots and branches. The rest of the area was
completely void of vegetation, just reddish brown soil, rippled with bulldozer tracks.

“What happens when you cut like this is the sun bakes the ground,” Dad said. He paced in front of the clear-cut like he had the night talking about the cops. He was breathing hard and seemed shaken.

“They’ll come in and burn this,” he said, pointing at the tree shrapnel. “The ground bakes solid as a rock down two feet.” He grabbed his head in his hands. I looked at him, framed in front of the destroyed trees. He took everything so personally. I wondered what had happened to him, what had gone wrong.

“What a waste,” he said. Then he showed me how he would go in to salvage some of the logs from the pile before they burned it. So this was where he got the wood to sell by the cord—from scrounging after a logging company’s clear-cut.

He wasn’t an apex predator, I thought, looking at his stricken face. My dad was a bottom-feeder. He hated this clear-cut yet he made a living from it. He couldn’t live in normal society, and so he had to salvage what he could. For my whole life I had imagined him soaring like a hawk, living as one with nature, tall and proud. He was living with nature, but it wasn’t proud and romantic. It was messy and sad.

•   •   •

Bill made eggs and potatoes for dinner that night, and I arranged the last of our dried fruit and my homemade cheese on a plate. Hot, in the tiny kitchen, I was wearing a tank top. My dad came in humming to snatch a piece of cheese from the plate. “Oh, that’s good,” he whistled, and kissed my cheek. I smiled with pride. Then he spotted something on my
shoulder, a mole I was born with. He mistook it for a piece of something and picked at it with his thumb and index finger. “It’s a mole,” I told him, my sympathy for him turning to anger. If he had been around, he would have known my moles, I fumed.

Instead of letting him talk about Satan, I steered Dad toward music, and the guitars he had been building. The big blocks of wood by the door were for making guitars, he explained. While we talked he compulsively cut his fingernails with a pair of clippers down to the quick. Some of them bled.

I remembered another story that Phil, one of the happy hippies at Farm Out, related to me. There had been a winter party at my parents’ ranch. My mom had organized it, trying to keep the Idaho winter blues at bay. One by one the hippies arrived, forging through the snow, bringing jugs of wine and dishes of food to share. A few, like Phil and a guitar player, John, brought their instruments. After a feast and a few joints, Phil and John got out their instruments and strummed a few folk songs, noodled a little blue grass while the dishes were being washed. They saw my dad’s guitars and asked him to join in. My dad, normally shy, picked up his guitar, a deep golden one, and tuned up. There was a crackling fire, and it had grown dark. He played slowly, quietly, at first—Phil remembered it was a Spanish guitar piece. Soon the entire room was vibrating with the warmth of the guitar, its haunting crescendos and small yelps from my dad guiding the song—being guided by the guitar. “He just blew us away,” Phil told me. “We couldn’t believe we knew anyone that good.”

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