Worst break up ever? In the late ’80s I lived in a basement apartment in San Francisco a block off Haight Street. I was in my twenties and casting about for some deeper purpose in life. The destruction of the environment concerned me. I liked to hang out with groups of environmentalists and wave signs at CEOs and pass out pamphlets.
At a political event I met Thomas, a full-blooded Native American sporting a thick black braid of hair down to his waist. He passed himself off as a person who knew the answers to life’s mysteries. He communed with the Great Spirit. He burned sage. He was a political activist. My gut told me, “Run, city girl,” but some other part of me was entranced. We began dating.
There were plenty of signs that Thomas had serious issues. First of all, he told me he had serious issues. The littlest thing would set him off on a paranoid rant. If I looked over my shoulder a certain way, I was drawing the attention of the police. If I asked his friends too many questions, I was flirting or possibly gathering information for the FBI. Thomas told me that the FBI followed him because of his political work. He’d participated in radical political groups in the late ’60s and ’70s, but as far as I could tell, he spent his days in my apartment (yeah, I gave him a key) reading spy novels, smoking pot, and cataloging my flaws. This is what I deduced from the indentation in my sofa cushions and the overflowing ashtray I saw when I came home from work. Asking him how he spent his days was proof that I was indeed an undercover FBI agent, so I quit asking.
Thomas and I hadn’t been getting along when he invited me to go camping for a weekend of protests in an old-growth forest. Being a suburban/city girl with no car, my experience with the great outdoors was limited. The only times I’d been camping was as an eight-year-old Bluebird. Our troop slept in cabins, and we melted marshmallows on wire hangers around the campfire. Getting out of the city sounded like an adventure. Maybe Thomas would become less insane while in nature.
One of Thomas’s friends, a Navajo cabdriver, and the guy’s blonde, I’m-proud-to-be-Greek waitress girlfriend asked to join us for the ride. Thomas admired the Navajo because they grew up speaking their own language. Thomas’s tribe’s language was dying, being spoken fluently by only a handful of elders. English, the only language I could claim, was the language of the oppressors. The waitress claimed to speak Greek, but I had my doubts.
Thomas’s friends arrived two hours late. Then Thomas spent another hour fussing with his hair and trying to decide which ribbon shirt to wear. By the time we got to the protest site, the prime camping spots were taken. Say what you will about Western culture, but there’s something to be said for following a schedule and sleeping in a bed. We pitched our tent on a rocky slope.
Being a novice camper, I couldn’t do anything correctly — I put the tent poles upside down, got the tarp muddy, and didn’t close the flaps the right way. The list of my offenses grew. It rained on and off Saturday and Sunday. Thomas was wet, grouchy, and mean. After 20 hours of muddy misery, eating slop off paper plates, and not getting along with Thomas in a damp tent, I was done pretending to be a lover of nature. I wanted to take a shower and sleep in my own bed. I wanted to be as far away from Thomas as possible.
As we dragged his camping gear to his truck, Thomas ran into an old friend — an emaciated, grizzled hippie. They exchanged pleasantries and lamented the loss of the forest, and then the gray-bearded hippie said, “You should visit sometime.” Thomas said, “Okay. We’ll follow you.” I thought he was kidding. Nope. I protested — I had to go to work Monday morning. Thomas, Mr. Hippie, the Navajo, and the waitress (who was a camping genius) stared at me like I was pressing a chainsaw to the trunk of an ancient redwood. Thomas agreed to stop at a shuttered gas station so I could call in sick to work from a lonely pay phone.
Feeling like a hostage, I left a message for my boss that I’d be in on Tuesday or Wednesday. I figured we’d sleep on the floor of this guy’s house in our damp sleeping bags for one night and then we’d head back to San Francisco. How bad could it be?
My memory of the drive to our second night of camping was that we drove for at least an hour on unmarked, winding dirt roads through the forest. Not only were there no street signs, there were no streets and no houses. From the hill where we parked I could see a dilapidated two-story house surrounded by tall trees and undergrowth. We got out of the truck and hiked behind Mr. Hippie in the opposite direction. We passed a vegetable garden enclosed by a chain-link fence. A large gray tent was perched on a ridge over a noisy creek. Next to the tent was a raised platform. I would later discover that the seat on the open platform was the community toilet. The creek was the family’s water source. Inside the tent, Mr. Hippie’s very pregnant wife and a speechless snuffling toddler greeted us.
If I sucked at camping, I was even less skilled at survival living. The pregnant wife was a nutty white woman who claimed to be one-sixteenth Blackfoot Indian. She made beautiful beaded jewelry from “ancestral memory.” Her child was sick and left wet snot stains on her homemade maternity dress. The tent, or wickiup, was cluttered with junk. It smelled of mildew and damp earth.
I was expected to pitch in and help make dinner, since it’s rude to go to a pregnant lady’s dwelling in the forest with no plumbing and no electricity and expect to be waited on — unless you have a penis. Thomas, the Navajo, and Mr. Hippie told stories about hunting deer with rifles and bow and arrow, smoked pot, and inspected the mystery crop growing in the dilapidated house/greenhouse near where the trucks were parked. Thomas warned me to stay away from the house (as if I couldn’t figure out what was growing inside). The pregnant lady, the waitress, and I cut vegetables with dull knives and threw everything into a greasy, dented pot in silence; I couldn’t think of anything nice to say. So, how’s the crop this year? Who made the decision to let your marijuana plants live in the house and the baby live in a wet tent? I bet laundry is a barrel of fun out here! Nice of your husband to invite guests and then sit on his ass while you do all the work. After a dismal dinner, the waitress played with the silent snotty-nosed child and talked about how much she loved babies. I’m not a fan.