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I don’t know where my dad is anymore. I did for awhile, but now he’s off-grid again. And this bothers me. Despite the fact that he left my family with no warning when I was 7, despite the fact that I didn’t find him again until I was 30, despite the fact that when I did find him, when I did go spend a week with him, I had to remind him every morning that I was his daughter – despite all that, it bothers me, now, as my birthday is a matter of hours away and Christmas is around the corner, it bothers me that I don’t know where he is. Again.

So, here’s the story: After what seemed like a fairytale childhood, my dad just disappeared. My mom didn’t know why. The neighbor whose wife my father left with didn’t know why. My brother didn’t know why. I didn’t know why. (And none of us could explain it to my baby sister.) One day he was there, laughing and smiling in the clean desert sunshine, the next he was gone and it was winter.

Two letters came over the course of the next 23 years. Both were rambling, written edge to edge on the kind of paper we used in school. Neither explained a damn thing. The letters talked about how he wasn’t with that neighbor’s wife anymore. They mentioned he was living on the streets, had been in jail, had tried to die. The letters didn’t ask about us, about me. They didn’t say where he was. And though they were signed with my dad’s name, the words didn’t sound like him.

My mom made some efforts to find him for the divorce. My sister tried to find him for stability. My brother never spoke his name. I pretended not to care.

But watching Oprah one day I learned that the Salvation Army will look for people for $25. I filled out a form and turned it in. Less than a week later I got a call. They’d found him. Just like that. Found him at the first place they looked – his brother’s house in Florida.

My dad and his brother and the brother’s wife tried to explain what they could about my dad’s condition. My dad said it was like a record skipping, only he didn’t know from day to day what part of the record would be skipped. My uncle said it was from the drugs and alcohol, that my dad had trouble forming short term memories. My new-found aunt told me that my dad was a kind man but that he was a challenge.

Since then I’ve met with a neuropsychologist to try to learn about my dad’s condition. Werenke Korsokov’s syndrome. Also known as Korsakoff’s psychosis, amnesic-confabulatory syndrome. It’s complicated. It’s due to drinking. It causes tiny hemorrhages in the Thalamus of the brain, like stroke, but not. It hits the part of the brain new memories are formed. Some people get better. If they stop drinking.

Since this is supposed to be a quick blog post, let’s fast-forward through the phone calls, the reunion, the confusion. Fast-forward through my spending time with him and learning that his memory of his life before he left my family was clear as a bell. Fast-forward through Florida and seeing post-it notes reminding him to eat, to sleep in his bed rather than under the trees, to bathe in the bathtub rather than the river. Fast-forward through fireflies and a broken moon and a world as far from the desert as I was from the girl-child he remembered. Fast-forward through him meeting my son and husband and forgetting us all the next day.

Fast-forward through my getting to know family on the other side of the country, building a relationship with the aunt and uncle who’d taken care of him for so many years and tried to make up for what he couldn’t give me. Fast-forward through deep breaths, deep-sleep nights, and his name and address in my address book.

Fast-forward through eleven years of sending father’s day cards, birthday cards, Christmas presents. Eleven years of occasional letters and photos from Florida. Eleven years of letting my brother and sister and mother know anything I learned. Eleven years of e-mail between my aunt and I about my dad’s past, present, future.

But things fell apart. There was only so much my aunt and uncle could do. They took away my dad’s booze. They took away his car. They talked to liquor store clerks everywhere my dad could possibly bike to. And when it all worked and my dad couldn’t get alcohol anymore, he moved on — first to a VA place he hated, then to a friend’s place that he seemed to like. And from there? I don’t know.

I didn’t send a card on father’s day. I knew where he was, so I was just going to call. I wanted to hear his voice and the accent he hadn’t had when I was a child. I wanted to laugh at him saying y’all and honey. The day before father’s day, I got a call from Florida. But I’d already mentally prepared myself for the next day, so I let it go to voicemail. It was my dad, wishing my husband a happy father’s day, followed by my aunt trying to explain the new situation. Turned out my dad had been by and she got him to call in case they didn’t see him for awhile. Turned out he had been on his own for many months and they didn’t know how to contact him. Turned out I wouldn’t be able to call him or write him or send him a present for his birthday.

So I’m thinking about him lately. As I try to find the perfect gift for my aunt and uncle, a little thank you for them keeping my dad safe until I could find him, just like I have for so many years, I see things that would be a nice gift for my dad. A waterproof lighter. A holder for his papers and tobacco. A sturdy pen. A notebook. A peace sign on a leather strap. A book about the birds and animals of Florida.

I know I could buy these things and send them to the last address he had, the address of his friend’s place. I could send them off just like last year and get no reply. I could tell myself he probably got my gifts but forgot to write or call. Just like I told myself all those years growing up that he probably thought about me, about us, but couldn’t bring himself to reach out after so much time had passed.

There’s plenty I could tell myself. But I won’t. What I will do? I’ll answer the phone next time caller ID shows Florida. And I’ll hope it’s him on the line.

My dad

My dad

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Me at Salt Wells Villa in 1999

Me at Salt Wells Villa in 1999

Salt Wells Villa was about 15 miles east of Fallon. It was a sad array of trailers and chain link at the edge of the Salt Wells Playa, a vast white emptiness ringed by stark mountains still bearing the high arid rings of ancient Lake Lahontan. Even today, during the week there is nothing for miles in any direction. But on weekends, thousands of off-roaders flock to wondrous Sand Mountain, just a few miles up the road, to play on sand rails, quads, four-wheel drives and motorcycles up, down and around the massive pile of sand that has accumulated since the retreat of the lake that once covered the state.

When I was a kid, RVs were rare, and Sand Mountain was too stark, forbidding and … well, dusty, for most people to camp near. So those of us who traveled between Reno and just about anywhere east of Reno drove through an empty Salt Wells Basin. But once a year, there was a motocross race that pitted motorcycles against the barren environment in a long-distance chase across the playa and back. My step-dad raced that race. My mom, my little sister, my big brother and I were his pit crew. When he came into sight, we darted around refilling his gas tank, giving him water, checking the chain for mud, and wiping his goggles clean of dust. For about five minutes, it was pretty exciting. But then there’d be hours of waiting for him to come back through on another lap. It got cold during these fall races, so mom would let us go in the brothel to pee and have Cokes.

If you were from Gabbs, you drove through the basin for groceries, medical care, or hunting as you traveled west to a town that had food or medicine. If you were my husband as a child, the guy who took you hunting also stopped at the brothel on the way home. The boys, usually four or five prepubescent neighborhood kids, would hang out in the gaudy lobby and have Cokes.

The “girls” at the whorehouse (“whores” an acquaintance once told me was the right term, and I deferred to her expertise since that was how she was paying her way through college, but it still doesn’t feel right) played Monopoly with us, petted our blonde hair, asked about the race, and gave us all the Cokes and Shirley Temples we could stomach. Strangely, I never saw a customer there.

But there’s this one time I remember when my brother, sister and I weren’t the only kids in the whorehouse. There was a little gaggle of boys, bedraggled, and uniformed in denim and plaid, looking colder than us. I don’t remember anything besides the shock of seeing them.

My husband and his friends from Gabbs went hunting with a family friend every year. The friend was a big bear of a guy with a singing voice that was a baritone plea to all that was good in the world. I met him a decade later when he gave us the best dog my husband and I ever had. I’ve heard this guy sing at weddings, watched him cry at the funeral of a child, and laugh with his wife. But it wasn’t until ten years ago that I heard the story of the annual post-hunting Salt Wells visit. My husband, Jason, told me about it as we were on our way out camping, practicing the ageless Nevada art of guessing how many cars would be at the whorehouse as we drove across the desert.

Every year, the little band of boy hunters stopped at Salt Wells, and the girls gave Jason and his friends Cokes and Shirley Temples. He remembers this one year when there were little blonde girls out at the whorehouse. Two of them — one his age, one a few years younger. Maybe there was a blonde boy, too, but he won’t swear to it. He doesn’t remember anything besides the shock of seeing the little girls.

A few months before our 20th wedding anniversary, Jason and I were driving with our then-six-year-old son with our big RV past Sand Mountain and on to Stewart Creek for a week of dust, quads and family drinking. We laughed at the idea that we may have actually met at a whorehouse. We love that story.

But as we neared the trailers and chain link, passing the love notes written in rocks on the playa, passing the pink water and white salty sand, we saw black, char, a sign gutted and sagging, to find the brothel had burned down. Nothing left but a chimney, a shed and the frame of a sign that had once proclaimed “Girls Girls Girls.” You couldn’t even tell it was anything more than another burnt out trailer park in the desert.

As we drove on, we both craned to see the empty parking lot and lapsed into a silence that lasted for miles.

I know we “officially” met on the bus on the first day of school at Traner Middle School. I know we met through Jason’s friend Charlie, who lived right by my friend Dolly. I know we’ve been friends ever since. But I still like the whorehouse story better.

July 18, 1987

July 18, 1987

... and they lived happily after.

Category: Stories  Tags: ,  8 Comments

The road to Gabbs

My Nevada is not Las Vegas. It is not the land of mega-hotels and dueling egos, silicone and stage shows. My Nevada is the land of ranches and mines, open range and barbed wire, the land of rabbitbrush and alkalai.

My Nevada is the place of solace my family fled to when my baby sister was allergic to Bay Area smog, when my father was looking for good pay and a lack of law enforcement, and when my mother was looking for the mountains she had sought out like most people seek out enlightenment. The vast warp and weft of non-Vegas Nevada is a tapestry of sky and mountains. It is a place where you can hear god if you listen and older deities if you listen closer. It defies its statistics. It belies first impressions. It is a place of profound reverence and venereal wonder not available to those who don’t bother to seek.

But it took me until adulthood to appreciate the hallowed desolation of a land whose beauty was defined by texture rather than color. A land more subtle and beautiful than those seeking groomed grass and over-developed stamens. It was a land I grew up in, but blind. A land that would never be sought out on Google, but rather discovered on the open road or the unmarked path.

It takes a discerning eye to see the beauty of this wasteland that stuns me at every turn of a washboard dirt road, that challenges me with the unexpected boulder and the seemingly random placement of a tree that proves the existence of god. This is a place of wonder not available to the casual eye. A place that converts the wanderer with the seduction of roots. A place where nothing comes easy, but what is found comes to define the profound.

Nevada is filled with transient beings made stable, where the ephemeral becomes enduring. This is the place where the misfits and lost find the voice of reason and maybe something more. Where everything makes sense beneath a big enough sky. This is the place where biology meets magic and the random meets the preordained. This is a place easy to travel past but hard to ignore. This is my Nevada.

Black Rock Playa

Category: Stories  Tags: ,  8 Comments
Cindie Geddes

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