As he camped with his children at the eastern foot of Oregon’s Cascade Range, Don Kaput heard the sounds of an Eden far from his frenzied world ” the wind whistling through his ears, the zinging of the fly-fishing lines in the nearby Deschutes River, the gurgling of nearby streams, his children shrieking as trout leaped in the water.
But it was what Don Kaput didn’t experience ” the incessant ringing in his ears, erratic thumping of his heart and bouts of night vomiting ” that liberated his soul on that vacation in 2000.
Among the tall evergreens and rushing waters, away from cell phones, the Internet and cramped highways, the symptoms of his mysterious illness had vanished.
Soon, he would trade his old life in suburban Seattle for one in a rugged, tree-lined Sierra Nevada canyon near Downieville. There, Don Kaput would find his escape from electrical sensitivity, a potent allergy to most forms of electricity.
Some might see his large family’s abrupt move off the grid as self-inflicted isolation. But in fact, his family has survived and thrived away from two-way pagers, microwave meals and must-see TV while living on a hidden patch of wilderness that was once home to a cattle ranch and hardy gold miners.
“We have everything we really need,” said Don’s eldest daughter, 15-year-old Samantha Kaput, who also has shown symptoms of her father’s rare ailment.
‘We didn’t know what was killing him’
Don Kaput, his wife and seven children live removed from most of civilization in an effort to quell the symptoms of a syndrome that has no known cure and more than its share of skeptics.
There are those who believe electrical sensitivity to be nothing more than a hypochondriac’s myth.
But to the family that deals with it every day it is real, and it almost cost Don his life, or so he thought back in the summer of 2000.
“I was writing out these big-ticket checks because we thought he was going to die,” said Don’s wife, Melissa Kaput.
At one point nearly four years ago, the Kaput family began drawing up Don’s will.
“We didn’t know what was killing him, but he was close to death,” said Melissa Kaput, who married Don 18 years ago.
For more than a year, Don Kaput had battled the symptoms of a mysterious disorder as some of the most basic aspects of the 21st century seemed to be making him ill.
By 2001, some of the most mundane tasks ” calling his wife on a cell phone to remind her to pick up a gallon of milk, watching the Seattle Mariners on TV or shopping at the mall ” often sent Don retreating to his darkened room, where he’d spend hours trying to quell the dizziness, nausea and throbbing inside.
Don Kaput and his wife had been to doctors and specialists, and they found themselves considering acupuncture to determine just what was making him sick.
At one point, Don Kaput made an appeal to a higher power, asking God for an explanation.
“I was praying the whole time, ‘Just give me an answer,'” Don said, his dark eyes darting around the kitchen of his Downieville home on a brisk fall morning.
The answer began to appear when he traveled with his family out into nature. For the first time in quite a while, he heard no voices, low hums or clicks. When he returned home, the sounds and symptoms did, too.
Don and his family believe those symptoms of electrical sensitivity most likely appeared years before his wilderness odyssey began, after he developed an aversion to oil-based thinners and solvents used in their painting-contracting business.
The fumes often made him nauseous, and later on his knees and joints swelled, making it hard for him to walk. He developed a skin rash and headaches and would often feel disoriented.
The progression of his chemical sensitivity led to a tinnitus-like sensation in his ears whenever he’d go indoors near electrical components.
“I said to the wife, ‘I feel like (my) ears are clogged all the time,’ that they were dirty,” Don Kaput said. “It got to the point where I thought, ‘I’m going to have headaches for the rest of my life.'”
The headaches, swelling and ringing soon developed into a syndrome, Don and his family believe, brought on by modern conveniences ” such as his 17 years of sleeping on a waterbed heated with electrical currents, which Don said made him vomit during the night.
A family who once couldn’t live without cell phones soon discovered the devices’ low-level radiation could be killing them.
Three years ago, Melissa Kaput fought the construction of a Sprint PCS cellular tower adjacent to their Woodinville home outside of Seattle and said she has found research suggesting the phone towers contributed to her husband’s illness. Her aversion to the towers was so strong that she unsuccessfully pushed for a moratorium on cell phone towers in King County, Wash.
Her proof of the towers’ destructive effect on her husband is a large cardboard box stuffed with copies of affidavits, court files, texts and articles reprinted from the Internet about electrical sensitivity.
Don said he survives now because the mountain they live on blocks signals from the nearest microwave tower near Downieville School. It could be years before cell phone service comes to Lavezzola Ranch, the rugged patch of rolling hills and grassy meadows where the family’s hand-milled house stands today.
Melissa Kaput, a small, bespectacled woman originally from the San Francisco Bay area who serves on the nearby Sierra-Plumas Joint Unified School District board, is convinced such towers and a bombardment of exposure to electrical devices made her husband sick.
“It can be nothing else but that,” she said. “Once we found that out, we didn’t need to validate it to anybody.”
The skies above the Lavezzola Ranch are threatening rain in mid-November 2003 as the seven Kaput children and their three dogs sprint down a steep mountainside, dodging thistles and gopher holes on their way to Lavezzola Creek. Little Jaimeson, all of 2 years old, ambles haltingly, his hands clutching a half-eaten bag of potato chips.
Guests to the ranch often cling to a makeshift harness of ropes tied to metal plumbing pipes in an effort to keep from slipping down the sharp descent.
Melissa Kaput brings up the rear, staying behind just long enough to place a chocolate cake in the family’s antique-style wood stove. The hulking oven is heated by large cedar chunks chopped from the trees around the home, which sits at the crest of a hill.
In minutes, the Kaput children ” Samantha, 15; Danielle, 14; Ryan, 13; Emily, 12; Benjamin, 8; Tessa, 6; and Jaimeson ” have scampered from the home and descended to the banks of the creek, begging Dad to bring their fishing poles.
The ranch itself is a Sierra anomaly at 4,000 feet. Towering cedars and evergreens surround a giant swath of golden carpet once used as a cattle ranch. In the 1930s, the land was worked by Tony Lavezzola, said Cindy McCreary, whose family has owned the Sierra Hardware store in downtown Downieville for more than 50 years. Tony Lavezzola was Cindy McCreary’s grandfather.
Remnants of the past are all over the ranch, including boarded-up cabins, some with stoves and cooking utensils still locked inside.
Down by the creek, Don Kaput hears nothing but crunching leaves underfoot and the rushing creek below.
In Washington, Don and his family lived within two miles of two large department stores. Shopping trips to the mall were commonplace.
“To be a block away from everything was our life,” Melissa said.
Now, they have to travel a quarter of a mile just to knock on a neighbor’s door. The nearest paved road is over a half-hour away. Their perishable food must be eaten quickly, since their propane-powered refrigerator can only be turned on a few hours each day.
Don spends his days home-schooling the couple’s children, rarely venturing off the family compound. Melissa divides time between the couple’s wallpaper-hanging business, ferrying her brood to classes for aikido and performance dance, caring for her husband, and devoting herself to finding answers to her husband’s strange syndrome.
They have lived for almost two years at the top of a hill on 40 acres they found on the Internet and bought with the family’s life savings.
Their house was milled from cedars and Douglas fir felled on the property. The dwelling has no phone and is off the electrical grid. For baths, water heated on the stove is poured into a tub. The Kaput family lives here willingly in an effort to keep its patriarch alive.
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