This is an excerpt from Mating in Captivity, my memoir of five years in a cult called Zendik Farm. In this scene, I’m on an “out,” which I’m hoping will fix what I see as my lack of commitment to Zendik.
The first thing I noticed about the woman who pulled over for me, about an hour south of Kelowna, was her bonnet. The second thing I noticed was that she had five scrawny kids packed into the back seat of her station wagon. Two of the bigger ones held two of the smaller ones on their laps. All of them seemed restive, but disinclined to speak. I wondered if they were scared of strangers. If so, no big deal—their mother was friendly enough. I climbed into the passenger seat and stowed my backpack and sleeping bag at my feet.
“So you’re going to Kelowna?” I asked.
“Yes,” said the woman. “Past that. We’re headed for Prince George.”
I swallowed. That was good news and bad news. On the one hand, the farther, the better—my goal was Anchorage, and I still had all of the Yukon to cover, plus most of British Columbia. On the other hand, I was already a little creeped out. What was it about her? For one thing, her face was unnaturally narrow, her teeth painfully crooked. I guessed that as an infant she’d been undernourished. For another, she reminded me of someone—who was it?—who gave me the willies.
Outside, the pine forest flew past us. Inside, the kids squirmed. I was pretty sure, judging from the sharp gasps I was hearing, that one of them was getting pinched. Nothing I could do about that. I turned to the woman and asked, “Where are you coming from?”
“Bountiful,” she said. “That’s where most of my family lives. But I also have folks up north.” She paused. “My name’s Mavis, by the way. What’s yours?”
“Helen,” I said.
“Oh!” she exclaimed. “I have a sister-w—a sister named Helen.”
She smiled. “And where are you coming from, Helen?”
“North Carolina. That’s where my family is.” I didn’t bother to distinguish the Zendiks—my adopted tribe—from my blood relatives. It felt good to pretend that the threads binding me to Zendik were unbreakable. Familial.
Mavis nodded. “And what brings you out here?”
I teared up, as I always did when people asked such things. “Well,” I said, “I wasn’t doing so great. Wasn’t living up to my standards. Or theirs. So I thought I’d better leave for a bit—get some perspective.”
She glanced my way, with a sympathetic grimace. “Yeah, I get it. Sometimes you just know that a place is more polluted with you in it than without you.”
I started at the word “polluted.” I didn’t object. But it was strange that she’d used it.
“You know,” she continued, “you’d be more than welcome to stay with us at my uncle’s place in Prince George. It’s pretty big. Plenty of room. And we could always use more help with the kids. I’m sure he’d be happy to have you.”
I sensed something off about her offer, but also I was curious. I’d been on the road for nearly a month by then, and nothing sounded better than multiple nights in a row in the same bed.
“Huh,” I said. “I mean, maybe I could. I’m not so good with kids, though.”
A muffled shriek erupted from the back seat.
Mavis glared at the offender in the rearview mirror. “Do you want me to drop you off right here?” she asked.
The kid—it sounded like one of the girls—squawked, by way of an answer.
Redirecting her attention to me, Mavis shook her head. “Oh, don’t worry about that. It’s not like you need a degree in psychology. Really it’s all we can do to keep them clothed and fed and not running into the road, there are so many of them.”
“How many?” I asked.
Now it was my turn to gasp. “Forty-five? Are they all your uncle’s?”
“Yes, um, well, you might as well know. He has a number of wives. And one just died. He could use a replacement.”
Suddenly, I knew who Mavis reminded me of: Warren Jeffs, newly minted leader of the branch of the Mormon church that still practiced polygamy.
“I think you’d better just drop me off in Kelowna,” I said.
April Fools! I did hitchhike to Alaska in 2002, but I never got a ride from a Mormon named Mavis.