The Epic Road Trip…My daughter’s leaving home.

Shira, twelve years later with Vice-President Biden - From Idaho Wilds to Washington Wilds
Shira, twelve years later with Vice-President Biden – From Idaho Wilds to Washington Wilds

It’s hard to know how to tell this story. I feel like one of those old-fashioned burlap/canvas camping water bags. When you push on the cloth water leaks out. Any memory or thought of Shira will stimulate my tears and this particular water bag seems to have an endless source of more water. Yes, I know my daughter didn’t die. She just got a scholarship to Smith in Massachusetts and has moved across the country. I’ve just dropped her off in Idaho where she’ll be organic farming for the summer. I will see her again, around Thanksgiving. I’m not grieving a tragic ending. I am still missing her and mourning her lack of presence in my life. It is not a mild set of feelings.

So, I’m kind of a mess. People ask how was your trip or how are you and I say. “Don’t ask me how I’m doing.” This is clearly not a nice way to answer the aforementioned question. People end up feeling as if they stepped on a bee just by being polite to me. Very bad form on my part. On the other hand, why ask a woman in pain how she is doing, it’s obvious, she’s in pain and doing poorly. It isn’t a question you can answer and having to try takes you outside of your grieving process.

Welcome to my process.

The Epic Road Trip, or Bad Directions to remote Idaho and a way too long walk after 2 solid days of driving!

We left Arcata at 7:10 a.m., ten minutes later than I wanted to be on the road, but not bad. For a month prior Shira and I had been packing up her life, cleaning out the attic so I could fit stuff in it for storage. I was still also working my two jobs, managing Kevin Frank & Associates and being Office Manager at Temple Beth El, cooking dinner, caring for Ethan and Issac as well. Very intense time before she left, with the burlap bag leaking late at night with her husband in bed, so as not to disturb her children. I also hadn’t been sleeping much.

We’re on the road, this part of the trip I know pretty well. As we drive by the Pacific Ocean on our left I mention to Shira it will be the last time she sees it for awhile, a long while. I mention this five or six times, to her great annoyance. The repeat function has gone a little haywire in my brain as a result of my emotional reality. I’m not proud of my behavior, just attempting to be honest about it.

We’re driving along in my Volvo with “Practice Random Acts of Kindness,” “The Last Time we mixed Religion and Politics people got burned at the stake,” “Peace,” “Support our troops, bring em home alive,” “You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war” and other peacenicky, hippy, anti-racist bumperstickers. Along our drive, when not in Portland, I only saw one other bumper-sticker it said “Earthfirst, we’ll log the other planets later.”

As we drove across the California border I saw a sign that said “Get U.S. out of the UN, stop the Global Tax!” That was a few minutes after the “Welcome to Oregon” sign. Needless to say, I felt a little alien just being in the car I was driving. We got into Southern Oregon, and are greeted by these lovely signs. I immediately remember how constricted and conservative Oregon is. Not, the big cities, but most everything in between. We are driving the exact road, I-5 North that Mountain Grove is on. I am passing territory that is truly painful for me. Remembering the crazy family I spent time with while being pregnant with Issac and having a small two year old Shira in tow. I lived in a cabin there with no running water, an outhouse up the hill and a wood-stove. I had one working outlet thanks to my father installing a long wire between my cabin and the main house when we arrived. How many people drive their daughters back through their past in that close a proximity? Why do I have to revisit and rehash every painful, messed up thing I did, while mourning my daughter’s leaving home. Isn’t one of those enough?!

We’re making good time. Shira is sleeping, she’s been sick for the last week before we left, slowing her down and making it harder for all of us. I’m free to just remember and be on the road I’ve traveled before, the ugly, weird painful road. Fun, Fun! We get to Roseburg, Oregon and I’m wondering if I should try and contact Robyn, the grown daughter of the crazy family I used to live with and work for. The last time I heard from Robyn, I sent bail money to get her out of jail.

She has three kids of her own, one with chronic heart problems, in and out of the hospital. The Welfare to Work program has put Robyn in hotels cleaning toilets so her mother can watch her kids for her. The same mother who was powerless to stop Robyn from being brutally abused by her father. This makes so much sense. Robyn was in Adult School, trying to get her G.E.D. when the program pulled her out. Her kids were only with the mom two hours a day, not 8. I digress. I realized that it would be no gift to Shira and I to interact with Robyn and besides, for all I know she’s in jail again. With guilt as my companion I chose instead to stop for lunch and not try to contact Robyn. We drove into Kevin’s favorite Mexican restaurant Los Baez, (renamed to Gilberto’s so I can have a hard time finding it) for a late lunch it was about 1:30 p.m. at this point. Shira and I had a great lunch there.

I had Shira call my Goddaughter Sarah Milligan (one of the gaggle of kids I met connected to that crazy family). Sarah was never a foster child or adopted by this family. Sarah gave us excellent directions to her house since it looked like we’d actually have time to see her before heading to our friend Bel-Ami’s house for dinner and bed. Sarah’s mother died of breast cancer leaving 5 children behind. All of the kids were separated into different homes. Sarah was 15 at the time. Amma’s birthfather, Arjuna and his girlfriend kidnapped Amma. Sarah has spent the last 10 years searching for her. Arjuna took Amma and contacted Sarah two years ago and now Amma lives with Sarah and Gary (Sarah’s fiancé). Sarah has kept her family connected despite the trauma of their situation. She’s helped raise one brother who was in trouble, taking him back from the family home he was in. She did this while she was still in college and helped him get through High School. Now, she’s doing the same with her sister. Sarah has worked constantly since her mother died, educating herself, caring for her siblings and just being incredible. She’s now a RN at one of the Portland Hospitals. She’s an ER nurse. No one could do the job better. Her whole life has been an Emergency Room.

After Sarah’s we headed into an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Portland, where our friends live. Bel-Ami is a former opera singer, turned Jewish Orthodox mother and wife. She is fabulously beautiful; wears clothing that is made to fit her perfectly, sewn by a seamstress. She’s the best-dressed Orthodox woman you will ever meet. She’s also the best cook, period end of sentence.

Shira and I had a heavenly vegetarian dinner of Ratatouille, rice, salad with jalapeno, maple syrup covered walnuts in a lemon mustard mayonnaise sauce with outrageous corn soup and Challah. There was good wine too and Port after dinner. Bel’s house is immaculate, gorgeous, and classy. As she is. Bel and Shira were talking in the kitchen and Shira asked about what work Bel did besides caring for her home and children, or before she had kids. Bel shared about her past life, but also told Shira. “I was raised to be a professional, to do everything professionally. When I clean, parent or cook, I do it as a professional would.” This means she does everything with care, excellence and dedication. It shows. Being in her home around her beautiful children and enjoying her company was wonderful for both of us. Shira also needed to connect with a powerful feminist who lives with an Orthodox man in an Orthodox world. Shira is exploring her connection to Judaism more and more. She is hungry to find women who can dance both edges. As Bel does. It also vindicated something in Shira. Peers and others always ask Shira why she puts so much effort into everything she does. Bel’s answer about always doing things professionally resonated with Shira in a big way.

We were well fed and Shira was well rested. Sleep has been an infrequent visitor for me during this whole process. We left Portland early around 7:30, but actually managed to get out of the city by 8:00 a.m. The drive was beautiful at first, following the huge Columbia River. It is dammed about three or four times and Shira and I remarked on this.

As we got through Washington and moved into Idaho, my own fears about finding Don’s place increased. So far, we’d been on real roads, but as you’ll see from the directions I’m including with my story, that was not going to be the case for the end of our journey. For most of our drive the second day Shira was finishing her letter of resignation from the Women’s Foundation. It took her most of the day, so our conversation was minimal. She kept asking me for different ways to say words like axiomatic or inherent, and rejecting all my suggestions. Some things never change.

I managed to calculate roughly where we would need to start trying to locate our first turn away from a major road. Since we were coming from the North instead of the South, our directions had to be changed to accommodate this. Our directions read, approximately 28 miles north of Riggins take a left. Since we were coming down from Grangeville, I had to figure out the distance between Grangeville and Riggins then subtract 28 miles and start looking for a right hand turn. My math skills aren’t great and this turn was happening around 5:30 p.m. after 10 hours of driving. But, lo and behold I managed it.

So, we turned right and I immediately pulled over just to take a breath. The sign where we had turned said Hammer Creek Rec. Area 3 miles. The directions read, “just before the Rec. Area take the County road that switch backs its way up Pilgrim Ridge.” About 1 mile later we noticed a bridge and a road switch backing up a giant mountain, but the sign had said 3 miles, so I drove on by. We kept driving through a tiny rural Idaho area and into “White Bird” a small town. I wondered is this the home of some Aryan Rights group that I’m lost in? It wasn’t Black Bird or Jewish Bird I’d gotten lost in, it was “WHITE” Bird. Well, we decided to turn around since we were moving away from the Snake River and a Rec. Area should be on a River and the other road we’d seen looked like it “switchbacks” up a “ridge” (ridge being their word, epic mountain being mine).

We crossed the bridge and two roads present themselves as options, neither one labeled “Pilgrim Ridge County Road.” I took the right hand road, since it seemed to switch back more and at this point I’m trusting that some of my angels will be guiding my decisions since my brain and these directions were at cross purposes. So, we drove up this epic mountain/ridge several thousand feet. It took us 45-50 minutes to go 10 miles. By the way, in case you are wondering, County Road is a fancy way of saying dirt road. There were plenty of landmarks that could have made it onto our directions to help scared mothers feel at ease, but alas none made their way onto my sheet of directions. There were houses that we passed with numbers on them like 72 or 36, but there were no Mountain or Road names. But still if the directions had said you’ll pass a house with a red numbered 72 on your left after about 5 miles, that would have reassured me.

So, we start to get to the top of this beast and are told in our directions to “Stay left at the 3 way junction (Triangle)” Hmmm! Indeed we get to the top and I look out my window down to the ground and there is a kind of triangle in the road with 3 sort of roads making up part of this triangle. There is also a Yield sign facing away from us on the left-hand road. That Yield sign would have been a great thing to put in our directions, reaffirming for me that yes indeed I’d just spent the last 45 minutes destroying my engine inching up a mountain in remote Idaho for the right road. A yield sign is a verifiable marker of sorts, but our directions said “Stay left at the 3 way junction (Triangle)” not “turn onto the road with the Yield sign.”

Another thought on Yield signs in the middle of nowhere; yield to whom? the bears and coyotes, the snakes and birds? What other vehicle goes on these roads and who could go faster than a snail’s pace anyway causing any kind of traffic problem?

So, we went left, at the yield sign, which also happened to be the left junction of the (Triangle). Then we had another 10 miles to drive at a slightly faster pace since this road goes along the ridge not up it. I still didn’t know if I was even on Pilgrim Ridge, but I sure felt like a pilgrim. We were directed to “turn left up Christmas Tree Gulch. There is a small brown sign with this name on it. You may have to open the gate. Go steeply up hill ½ mile.” Well, I saw a road going left that was steep at about 10 miles, but I didn’t see any sign saying Christmas Tree Gulch. What’s a nice Jewish Girl doing trying to find Christmas Tree Gulch anyway?! So, we drove on. There was another road with a signpost missing a sign a little further on.

At this point, my trust in our directions was not so high and I thought it possible that the sign could be a figment of someone’s imagination and not a reality. The other road looked steeper though and since our directions said “steeply up hill” I turned around, being sure to avoid going over the edge of the road down a 3000-foot drop to the canyon below. The road was plenty wide enough, NOT! So, we get back to the steep road and I have Shira examine a small paper plate on the bottom of an open gate in case it says “Christmas Tree Gulch.” It doesn’t say anything she can legibly read. She decides to go up the road a bit and see if she can determine if this is indeed the right road. She’s gone about 100 feet when I see her hugging someone. I guess we’ve found the right place. It’s close to 7:15 p.m. now, I’ve been on the road for two days and it’s the end of 11 hours of solid driving (Shira did about 1.5 hours of the drive.)

I greet this news with relief and grief. We’ve finally arrived, we took all the right turns eventually and now I can get some dinner and spend a final evening with my daughter on this beautiful mountain.

If only it was that simple. Tad and Suzanna and her dog Oberon greet us enthusiastically. I assume they have come to help us carry the crate of bananas, oranges and other goodies Shira was asked to bring. Tad advises me that my car will only make it up another few hundred feet and then we’ll have to walk the rest of the way. Okay, I say. Thinking the rest of the way isn’t too far right? How long will that take I ask? “We’ll be there just after nightfall if we get going soon.” Just after nightfall???? That’s about 3 hours from now isn’t it? Where are we walking to? I am on the verge of hysteria at this point, but attempting to keep myself in check so as not to make a huge scene in front of my daughter and her earnest friends. Tad, Suzanna and Oberon get in my car and we drive a little further up the road. He says I can go as far as this one field and then he can sort of show me where we are going. It’s a gorgeous field on top of a beautiful mountain where my car alights five minutes later. We walk a little ways and they point down a canyon saying, “it’s a little ways around the bottom of that mountain.”

We’re at the top of a different mountain, and the down we have to go is the equivalent of the way we just spent the last hour and a half coming up in my car. I’m not feeling too happy at this point. We load up their packs with as much fruit as they can fit and determine that someone will come back tomorrow with me to get the rest. We begin our descent down into the valley. This walk is not on a gentle “switchbacking” road designed for cars. It’s a 4-wheel drive road made for the hale and hardy. I’m wishing for a hang-glider or wings. If you’ve ever had to walk straight down for 3 hours, you’ll be able to imagine how my knees and my toes felt. Now, add the 11 hours before driving and the 10 hours the day before to it and mix in the sheer panic at the thought of your 38 year old overweight body climbing back up this mountain the next day upon saying goodbye to your beloved daughter who you don’t want to say goodbye to.

This was an ordeal beyond my wildest nightmares. Tad, Suzanna and Shira took turns walking slowly with me and at one point I just told everyone to give me a little space. I then let my tears flow quietly for a while. I asked Tad and Suzanna how long it takes them to climb up this mountain to get back to their cars. They said about 2 hours. I remarked that it would probably take me three times that to get up the mountain. Going down is hard on the knees and the toes, but it isn’t aerobically strenuous in the same way that going up several thousand feet of sheer mountain is.

Tad mentioned that he might be able to ask Don (the owner of the land we were walking towards) to give me a lift in his 4-wheel drive pick-up the next day. I prayed that he would and sent out a serious plea to all the powers to not make me climb up this mountain the next day by foot. I noticed that Oberon had a leash and asked Suzanna why. She remarked that it was for when they encountered rattlesnakes. Oberon likes to attack snakes and Suzanna has to hold him back in those instances. “Rattle Snakes” I inquired? “I’ve lived in the woods before, what other creatures do you all have around here?” She seemed hesitant to answer, but I assured her I had no problem with wildlife. “Bears, wolves, mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, rats, mice, deer and this other kind of snake that isn’t poisonous that’s a kind of boa constrictor and is gray.”

“That’s nice.” AAAAGGGHHHH!!!!!!!! I don’t remember when I cried, but I think it was after the conversation about wild life on the mountain. It was getting steadily darker. The flowers were beautiful and numerous, too bad I was in agony and shock. They kept saying the road was about to get less steep. But by the fourth or fifth time the “around the bend was going to be flatter” statement held no sway. It didn’t get flatter until the last 10 minutes of our 3-hour walk. I have to give thanks for Tad and Suzanna who had walked up the mountain and waited several hours for us because we’d sent them a postcard saying what day we’d arrive. There would have been no way for Shira and I to find where we were eventually to land. Tad and Suzanna are both lovely young people, who I enjoy.

We eventually arrived at Don’s property and walked to the fire-pit. My feet were killing me and Tad filled up a pan of creek water for me to soak my feet in. There were four people around the fire when we arrived. Derek, Oren and Sarah (friends of Tad & Suzanna) and Don. They were all very lovely and friendly. They offered us popcorn, which they were popping on the fire. I sat on an old car seat by the fire, my feet in icy creek water eating salad and popcorn. Tad asked Don about the truck and it was ascertained that it was out of gas. Nothing to make a mother feel better than an emergency vehicle being out of gas at the bottom of a ridge it takes three hours to get down full of mountain lions and rattlesnakes. Don told Tad to ask Steve, their neighbor if we could borrow some gas the next day around 9:00 a.m.

Then we made our way to Tad and Suzanna’s sleeping spot. They decided to sleep in the tree house because the ladder going up a large tree was more than I could take in the dark. So, we started off in the direction Shira thought was where they had shown her they were camped. We didn’t get far because I felt sure I didn’t want to make any wrong turns at this point. Suzanna agreed to accompany us and we walked with her to their sleeping spot; a tarp covering hay where they slept. Shira spread out her silk travel sheet and we inflated her pad, which she gave to me. She slept on the hay. Tad told Shira it would be hot, so she didn’t bring a sleeping bag, just a thin blanket. I know from experience that even in hot climates, mountain nights can be cold, so I brought a sleeping bag, which we opened up and spread over us. Shira fell asleep. I couldn’t. My body was in agony, every part of me longing for a bath, a massage, a soft bed and different circumstances. Luckily Oberon couldn’t make it up the tree and he was our foot-warmer at the edge of the hay.

I kept hearing noises, of course. At one point I heard tiny pattering sounds and wondered what it was. Rain, silly. Our packs were outside the tarp, since space was limited. I got our stuff inside the tarp and went back to my restless attempts at sleep. A little while later Oberon started growling. Was it a bear, a mountain lion or a mouse? He stopped growling and eventually the dawn arrived. I got up and sat on the wet grass, desperate for a different position to have my body in and hopeful that being upright might be helpful. I tried stretching a little. Eventually Shira woke up and we decided to look at the garden which we hadn’t seen in the dark or our arrival. We also hoped to get down to the creek.

The garden was fabulous, full of flowers, plants and beauty. It brought some hope back to my heart about my daughter being in this place. It was a magic place. We couldn’t find any strawberries though and there had been mention of lots of strawberries. Obviously there was a second garden. We ventured on, with Oberon. We decided to head for the direction the water was coming from and were on the path when a naked Derek was spotted running towards the creek. Upon seeing us he turned around and headed back where he had come from. I yelled, “it’s okay, I’ve seen lots of naked bodies and I know you all will be running around naked.” He resumed his trek to the creek. I felt like an old woman, despite my youngness of spirit and heart. Everyone was so deferential and respectful of me. It was kind of nice while also being a little strange. I’m not used to being the “old” one. Shira and I made our way to the creek and waited for Derek to be done with his ablutions. The water was very cold and refreshing. I just got my face wet.

We emerged from the creek trail and walked a little further. We found the barn, and a fully dressed Derek and Sarah. They took us to the second garden, which was up a little ways. The sun was shining fully at this point and we arrived at another gorgeous garden full of tomato starts, eggplant and peppers, all freshly mulched. I lay down in the hay at the rim of the strawberries and began to eat. We were all breakfasting on strawberries, a glut of strawberries. Oren appeared and told me that Don had gone to get gas from Steve and would be back soon to take me back up the mountain. Hallelujah, my prayers had been heard and I wouldn’t be walking back up that lovely Pilgrim Ridge.

Don, Shira, Tad and I got in the truck. There was only room for Don and myself in the cab, so Shira and Tad bounced around in the back of the truck. The drive back up the ridge took about 20 minutes with lots of stops and starts to open various gates and engage differing degrees of 4-wheel driveness and adjust for the delicacies of Don’s truck. My car looked fine sitting there in the middle of nowhere at the top of a mountain. There is no easy way to say goodbye to your child. I think I’ve got the record now for the hardest way to say farewell to a child going to college.

So, we unloaded the rest of the bananas and oranges into Don’s truck. I checked all the fluids on my car. Tad and Don walked a little ways off and I gave Shira a hug and a shower of my fluids.

We all got in our respective vehicles and they drove back down towards Getta Creek and I headed back to civilization and a long 10-hour drive to Portland. I spent a lot of the time crying, but also had brought my first book on CD with me for the drive. I couldn’t have made the drive without those books. They kept my mind on something besides how tired my body was, how sad I was and how much further I had to drive. I did take one dip into the Columbia River at a “rec area/rest stop” off I-84 east. It was not too clean, but I wasn’t too clean myself. I just threw my dress back on over my wet bathing suit. My air conditioning wasn’t working, something I forgot to mention earlier, so it was pretty hot in my car. Being wet lasted about ½ an hour, but it was a nice ½ hour.

I got into the Portland area and called Kevin for directions to an Indian Restaurant. I figured I deserved a great meal. He gave me directions, but silly Kevin they were directions, which would be relevant coming from the other side of the freeway. Portland is a nightmare of one-way roads, bridges and river crossing areas. I finally managed to get on the freeway going the other way after attempting to find the streets Kevin had listed and getting all turned around. Once I went backwards, I got it right and eventually ended up at the India Grill. I had a great dinner and then spent another 45 minutes getting lost on my way back to Bel-Ami’s house. By the time I hit her house, I just jumped in a shower and got in bed. I did take a few moments to discuss Yield signs in the middle of nowhere, rattlesnakes and bad directions. Thank God for good friends.

The next day I just drove home. Now, I’m here and she’s not. It’s very hard. Ethan got a letter from her the other day full of strawberry stories and fields of flowers. I know she’s having a great time and an adventure. I miss her.

Directions Verbatim on last page, with a final note from Nicole as well. All italicized notes in directions are my additions.

Directions to Getta Creek

10 miles west of Boise Idaho on I84 take Hwy 55. At Eagle the road jogs to the East, then north again for a LONG way. It will be about 2 hours to McCall. 20 miles further at New Meadows take Hwy 95 North. Go through Riggins. (Nicole’s note, we opted to come down from Lewiston and were on 95 South headed towards Riggins, so this is where the directions become relevant to my story) 28 or so miles north take a left, west at the turn to Hammer Creek Rec. Area. Just before entering the Rec. Area, take the County road that switch backs its way up Pilgrim Ridge, 2000 feet above the Salmon River. After topping out, stay left at the 3-way junction (Triangle). Continue another 10 miles or so to a left turn going up Christmas Tree Gulch. There is a small brown sign with this name on it. (I did finally see this sign on my way home, small brown sign up real high on a large brown tree, in the middle of lots of other large brown trees, you know signs in camouflage, a novel concept!). You may have to open the gate. Go steeply up hill ½ mile. Continue straight down off the divide into Getta Creek Drive as far as you feel comfortable. The road has 15% grades in places but doesn’t require very high clearance. A mile off the divide is a good flat area to park 2-wheel drives if you are uncertain of how the car will handle the really steep part. (This is where I parked my car). 1500 feet off the divide (in other words straight down from here), the road forks at Getta Creek (2 miles). Go right, down stream. At the green gate ask Steve (the man with gas for our emergency vehicle which didn’t have gas) for permission to go through. If it’s not locked just go on through. Stay right where the road forks. The second right goes up to my green house.

~This Epic was written by Nicole Barchilon Frank and published over three weeks in the Arcata Eye in August and September of 2003. Every word is true.