After waiting a full five minutes for the lodge’s hot water to kick on in the shower, I wash my hair twice with 2-in-1 Shampoo and Conditioner. Autumn sits on the shower floor, folding and unfolding a damp washcloth. We are on a girl’s trip to track down Dad, who lives off-grid in Northern California.
Sometimes I don’t know if my writing frees or pains me, if it liberates me or holds me captive. We tried watching TV but turned it down to hear the creek outside–Patrick Creek–a tributary to the Smith. Now I bounce Autumn on my foot, trying to soothe her toddler boredom, and somehow keep my pen to paper, too. I’d say she can’t sit still, but the same would have to be true for me as well. (Proof: I couldn’t stay put on the farm this weekend. I simply woke with the urge to ramble home.)
I told myself it was justified to see Dad. Steve gave me his blessing, and then tried to suggest routes and game-plans. But I already had it mapped out in my mind; we’d get a hotel room closest to home. Hiouchi Motel or Patrick Creek Lodge.
The rooms at Patrick Creek Lodge have mission-style furniture and vaulted redwood ceilings. In the past I would have camped in the van or a tent or on my best friend’s couch in Crescent City. But the pandemic has changed everything. You know that.
Driving south on the I-5, the words “Do whatever you have to do to feel alive” came to mind. So maybe that’s what this is really about, more than seeing Dad.
I’d forgotten how when we travel, it upsets Autumn’s natural rhythm. She gets antsy and angsty and now she sits across from me indian-style on the white 70s-style bedspread. “Let’s talk,” she says so we talk about what’s outside the window: bushes, trees, lights, leaves. There are no other cars in the parking lot and I am uncertain if there is an overnight watch person or not. The friendly fellow who checked us in said he was “locking up and heading home for the night.”
A couple and a lady stumbled out of the bar around 7:30 p.m., piled into a full-sized pickup and drove south toward Gasquet (gas-gee). Other than that, crickets (metaphorically of course, because it’s winter in these woods). The temperature registered at 34 degrees but it was sunny and t-shirt weather all day. Of course we only got out at a rest stop somewhere near Riddle, Oregon.
Pacific madrone and redwoods, that’s what I came for. Other than to connect with Dad, the man who raised me. Pacific madrone with its smooth chopstick bark, the redwood groves already shooting up toward the sky, just seven or ten miles into California.
When the sun set we decided it would be best to surprise Dad first thing in the morning, rather than an hour or two after dusk. Dad, like me, is better in the morning. Freshest and sharpest and most optimistic. We both like to have our coffee, too.
As a girl, Dad took me to this very lodge once for breakfast. The waitress seated us by a window where we could watch Patrick Creek flow by. A small porcelain ramekin held strawberry and grape jelly packets. I chose grape jelly to smear on my sourdough toast, not because I liked grape best, but because there were just two choices: grape or strawberry. I knew that a better family, one that would come in next, would have a little girl or boy who would prefer strawberry, and that kids from better families always got what they wanted because of people like us. I knew that my going without kept everything in balance.
The grape jelly kind of tasted like the liquid cough syrup Dad sometimes had to force down my throat. He’d either pin me down on the cabin floor, knees holding down my kid-arms, or convince me that if I plugged my nose I couldn’t taste it, so then I’d just drink it myself. I hoped that kid enjoyed his strawberry jam, whoever he was. I was in heaven just with the butter alone and the creek flowing by.
Dad sometimes liked to elbow his way in to a class above our own–the ski lodge at Mt. Bachelor in Oregon, riding elevators in the business district in San Francisco, the fine dining restaurant in The Wharf where we just ordered appetizers, then sheepishly paid and left. Dad has a penchant for experiences he can’t quite afford, and if I am being honest, so do I. But at least it’s a penchant for experiences, not a penchant for things.
“What are we going to do tomorrow, mama?”
“Well, we are going to get up…”
“Use the restroom?”
“Yes, use the restroom.”
“And then what?”
“And then we are going to make mama some coffee and Autumn some breakfast.”
“Yep. And then we’re going to take a walk down to the creek. Patrick Creek.”
In my minds eye I can see the dirt path leading from the lodge, then along Patrick Creek, and under a bridge to where the creek forms a confluence with the middle fork of the Smith River. In a past life, before Autumn, I would make a pit stop here. The middle fork of the river meanders southeast through mossy canyon walls until it intersects with the south fork of the river. You head up the south fork, and that’s where I’m from. I was raised in a single-room cabin that burned down in a fire in the year 2010. Now Dad lives in a fifth-wheel his ex-girlfriend gave him.
“And then?” Autumn asks.
“And then, after our walk, we are going to see Grandpa Rob!”
“See Grandpa Rob?” Autumn repeats, in her high-pitched voice. It’s as if the higher pitched her voice, the more likely she will get an answer she’s satisfied with.
We haven’t seen Grandpa Rob since Father’s Day–five months ago–when we met up with him halfway between his home and ours and ate salmon bagel sandwiches on the bank of the Umpqua River. He didn’t eat much that day, and it worried me. But I am always worried about Dad: worried about him driving distracted, worried about him choosing nutritious over junk food, worried about the steel parts collecting on his property, worried about his future. But mainly, I’m worried that he’s sad, and that I had something to do with that sadness.
Autumn is snoring now. She is laying on her back, mouth slightly open, arms and legs splayed, sleeping off the day. Today was a big day. She said the word “California” and dealt with her mother’s impulsive need to “connect with her roots,” enduring what turned into a 4-hour drive. She kept asking for “Nana” and “Grandpa Norm,” her father’s folks who she is more acquainted with than Grandpa Rob. Dodging fallen granite from rock slides in the road, and manuevering corners I haven’t seen since Aunt Dort’s memorial in March of 2018, I tried to explain, “No, honey, this is mama’s family. Mama has family too.”
“No, I wan’ see Nana.”
I don’t know what to expect in the morning. That’s the thing about mama’s family. It’s the reason we pulled back at dusk, instead of gunning it forward. In the past, I slept on riverbanks or friends couches, desperate to connect with my dad but not willing to endure his lifestyle off-the-grid, which due to his disability and a variety of factors, has degraded some through the years.
But my soft place to land has always been these hills, fog hanging in the treetops like ghosts, white fingers wrapped around the branches of the evergreens. This place hasn’t moved an inch since I left home. Oh, but it has. I’ll be lucky if I can still recognize myself in the mirrored reflection on the water.
I close my journal, place my writing pen beside it on the nightstand, and open up a new Sun Magazine. Barbara Kingsolver’s essay “The Only Real Story” jumps off the page:
“A world is looking over my shoulder as I write these words; my censors are bobcats and mountains. I have a place from which to tell my stories. So do you, I expect. We sing the song of our home because we are animals, and an animal is no better or wiser or safer than its habitat. Among the greatest of all gifts is to know our place.”
I didn’t know what to expect in the morning. I didn’t know that we would arrive just in time for coffee, and that Dad would pour me two steaming cups, before hitting the trails just outside the doorframe.
I didn’t know that Dad would be fine, not sad at all.
I didn’t know that we would hike the land of my youth until noon, with Autumn on his shoulders.
I didn’t know that we would crouch by the rivers and streams and say blessings.
I didn’t know that I would harvest bay laurel and Dad would locate a field of matsutake mushrooms.
I don’t know that when no one was looking I would press my forehead into the earth, addicted to the feeling of the damp soil crushing into my third eye.
I don’t know that Dad would go on and on about God, as he always does, and I would just gesture at the nature all around us as if to say, “Yeah, but…this.”
I didn’t know that it would all be intact: the land and the dad, just as I’d left them.