For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir.
I had ditched James and the car of 1,000 Quaaludes, hoping that they would both make it to Chicago safely, and made my own escape to my family in Colorado, a family that now included a stepfather and a dilapidated ski hostel.
The flight from Denver to Steamboat Springs was in the smallest plane I had ever seen. My memory is that directly behind the pilot were four folding chairs welded to the floor that had been jerry-rigged with seat belts. We landed on a runway in a field and were told to grab our luggage, which had traveled in the cabin with us. I followed the pilot down the stairs towards a small brick building, where I could see my mom waving, and I sunk up to my ankles in mud.
Early spring in Steamboat Springs is mud season. The tiny town was tucked in a valley at the base of the ski mountain. All the snow on the hills and all the ice in the Rocky Mountain rivers had melted, and every square inch of the town that was not paved was a quagmire — and there were a lot of unpaved roads in Steamboat. In a few weeks, flowers and grass and trees would be in full blossom and leafy green, but now the place was a study in grays and browns, although all under the bluest of skies. Snow-peaked mountains were etched across those skies, almost too blinding to admire.
Steamboat Springs was rough and rugged, the anti-Vail; there was no comfortable, enclosed gondola to whisk you to the top of the mountain. It was a place where you skied in jeans instead of fancy designer outfits. It stuck proudly to its roots as a cow town, despite a smattering of hippies living in communes, hippies who were detested by the ranchers and tolerated by the skiers, and who were known to swim naked in the hot springs.
My stepfather, Jerry, had bitten the bullet. He married my mom, sold his postage stamp ranch outside of Denver, and after casting about for new business ventures, bought the Haystack hostel, which he was trying to fix up all by himself in time for the next ski season. Once again, my younger sister Heidi had been uprooted, right after she had finally made her one and only friend at her hateful school. I knew my mom was furious with disappointment. She had imagined that as the second Mrs. Jerome she would be the hostess at an elegant restaurant like the Highland Supper Club Jerry had owned back in Duluth, not checking in unwashed young ski bums at a hostel. I thought I could read the whole tale from the three thick furrows in her brow.
Once I was mud-free and shoveling down a hot homemade meal, my mom sat down across from me and said, “Lani is missing.” My seventeen-year-old sister, a newlywed of less than a year, had run away from her husband Mitchell. “But I know where she is.”
A few weeks before, Mitchell called my mom to say that Lani was acting crazy, she was out of her mind. He didn’t know what to do, but since he had to go to work he had tied Lani to a chair for her own good. Then he hung up.
Mom said, “I thought, I have to go rescue her right away and I was frantic looking for my purse and car keys and the phone rang again.” This time it was Lani; she had freed herself from the ropes and called to say that she wasn’t crazy, she had told Mitchell she was leaving him. He had been routinely beating the crap out of her.
“Lani told me not to drive down. She was going right away, before Mitchell came home. And then she hung up and that was the last I heard from her.”
“And you couldn’t tell me this when I called?” I asked through a mouthful of mashed potatoes. I don’t know what I would have done differently, but I couldn’t believe she hadn’t told me any of this when I phoned her from Texas to let her know I was on my way.
“Well,” said my mom, “there is a second part to the story and I wasn’t sure if you would come here if you knew it. I’m driving to California to look for Lani.”
Over the Easter Break, mom had driven Heidi back to Colorado Springs to see her sorely missed friend from her old school. “I drove by that psychic, the one who helped grandma Nana find her Black Hills gold bracelet a few years ago.” (After glancing at my Nana’s humongous handbag, the astute psychic told her, “I can see it…you will find the bracelet in a purse.” And grandma did.)
“Something told me to go in and see the psychic and she held my hands for a minute and said Lani was living in Los Angeles.” My mother was going to track down her runaway daughter.
Not only that, when my mother revealed her plan to her own mother, grandma Nana instantly volunteered to join the search and was flying in the next day.
Less than 48 hours after I had arrived in Colorado I was off on another cross country car trip, sharing the driving with my mother while my sister Heidi stared glumly out the window and my grandmother read every passing road sign aloud: “Stuckley’s Pecans. Roy’s Big Boy. Bluebird Motel. House of Pancakes. Mystery Spot. Philip’s 66. Candy and Cones. Hole in the Rock. Cowboy Corral Steakhouse…”
For the long western miles where there were no road signs, my grandmother criticized the driving skills of whoever was behind the wheel, despite never having learned to drive herself. When she thought of it, which was several times a day, grandma Nana hollered, “Gay Lynn! Gay Lynn! How can you drive without your glasses!” refusing to believe in the effectiveness of contact lenses.
After a long signless stretch of road in Utah, we abandoned grandma at a gas station in Green River. We decided twenty minutes was long enough to teach her a lesson. When we returned there was grandma standing forlornly outside the ladies, quivering and clutching her enormous purse. There was no more back seat driving, but the out loud sign reading was unstoppable, and went on till California, where we unloaded grandma Nana on a second cousin living in Loma Linda.
The entire extent of my mother’s plan was that she would spot Lani somewhere and take her back home. All mom knew of Los Angeles was Knott’s Berry Farm and Disneyland; so we searched those places first, in between going on rides and eating boysenberry pie. Lani was not there or anywhere else we went in Los Angeles. After a few days of driving around the sprawling city, my mom sighed, told me to get out the road map, and we headed back to Colorado.
(Lani actually was in Los Angles when we were looking for her. After she freed herself from the chair and made that phone call to our mom, she grabbed a few things and hit the road, hitchhiking west. She found a job peddling office supplies over the phone and within a year was their top sales person.)
Once we were back in Steamboat Springs, I realized I couldn’t stay in that unhappy house, with nothing but mud outside and miserable people inside. My stepfather was dismayed by all the things that were wrong with his new property, most of which had not been pointed out by the seller. My sister Heidi hated her new school and pined for her friend back in Colorado Springs. My mom cycled through a sullen resentment towards her new husband for dragging them up to this muddy cow town, murderous rage at my sister’s abusive husband, and loony plans to drive four hours down the Rocky Mountains to see if the psychic could pin down Lani’s exact location in Los Angles. I made my goodbyes and flew off to Chicago and James.
It was a subdued James who picked me up at O’Hare and greeted me with a distracted peck. Wow, his portfolio must have really gone to hell, I thought, looking up at the departure board and thinking of new escape routes. James waited until we were in the Cadillac, where he could face the road and not me, and said, “I got a phone call from my daughter. She wants to meet me.”
I had managed to bury the fact that James had a daughter a year older than me so deep that it was like hearing it for the first time. Now she became very real, a third presence in the car.
“There’re a couple of guys in Winnipeg who knew I was in Chicago and Elena” —-now the daughter had a name—-“Elena called all the James Rodgers till she found me.”
All her life Elena had begged and begged her mother for information about her father. Her mother finally gave in, revealed to Elena the names of her father’s friends who might know where he was, and then died.
James looked as grim as death himself. I asked, “What are you going to do?”
“We’re driving to Winnipeg. We’re leaving tomorrow morning.”
I didn’t even bother to unpack my pink Samsonite suitcases, just wiped the mud from the Steamboat Springs airport runway off. The next morning was the start of my third road trip of the year, Chicago to Winnipeg, once again on the trail of a lost daughter.
After his escape from a shotgun wedding, James had never returned to Winnipeg, not even for his own parents’ funerals. He dismissed it as provincial, narrow-minded and boring; Winnipeg was everything James was not. I suspect he was also worried if he went back he could still be forced into marriage to the mother of his child. But now that woman was dead, and the daughter he had left behind twenty-two years ago wanted to meet her dad.
We headed north, driving and driving through the night, until the front right tire ran over something with a thump and startled James awake. “I think you hit a cat,” I said and took the wheel.
We found a hotel in Winnipeg and I collapsed into a now all-too-familiar post-driving exhaustion coma. I woke up to see the latest incarnation of James: quiet, unsure of himself, and far less attractive, staring at the phone. His hand hovered above it, then went through the motions of picking up the receiver and putting it down a few times before he cleared his throat, lit a cigarette, and called his daughter.
Elena wanted to come over to the hotel right away; James put her off, saying he wanted to take her out to a nice dinner. Elena was unable to come up with the name of Winnipeg’s finest restaurant. “No, not a Howard Johnson,” James told her, “I’ll find out and call you back.”
A few hours later, the three of us were at that nice restaurant, sitting in a big red booth, staring at each other. Elena had not expected her father to bring his young girlfriend to this momentous reunion. I almost wished I were still stuck in the mud in Steamboat Springs.
Elena, a year older than me, could have passed for fifteen. Her round, open face, at least the part that wasn’t hidden by her frowsy bangs, was unmarked by experience. She had inherited James’ dark coloring, with a sallower cast, but none of his handsome Mediterranean features. She was solid and stumpy, her hands were baby-like and dimpled, with fingers like Vienna sausages. I could tell James was horrified. It was coming off of him in waves, like stink.
It was a small tragedy played out over vodka drinks for James and me, root beer for Elena. She wanted to be hugged and fussed over. She expected deep apologies, tears, and promises of undying love from then on. What she got (besides the increasingly drunk girlfriend) was James in his car salesman persona: friendly, bursting with advice, and gone tomorrow. He kept up his patter, as Elena had no conversation.
Elena didn’t work, hadn’t been to college. She was as ignorant of the world outside of her hometown as I had been as a seventeen-year-old in Duluth. She had always lived with her mother, who had left her a little bit of money. She guessed that she would now get a job but had no idea doing what.
James was a snob and judgmental and the center of his own universe. He looked at his daughter and saw nothing of himself in her, and so she meant nothing to him. Maybe if she had been thin, or pretty, or smart, or even slightly inquisitive about the world outside Winnipeg, James could have found something to attach himself to. I was caught between this poor girl’s desperate longing for a father and James’s desperate desire to get the hell away from this person who claimed to be related to him.
The literal icing on the cake was when Elena ordered dessert, something James believed only fat people with no self-discipline did. When it arrived, James got up, announced that I was tired after our long drive, peeled off a couple of $100 bills and stuck them under the cake plate, and called for the check. “We’ll be in town a few more days,” he told Elena, her fork halfway to her mouth, her cow eyes downcast. We never saw her again.
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now