In 1975, Steffi Smith, twenty-five, journeys from Georgia to Oregon in search of a new life. There, a friend tells her about a unique way for her to make a living: joining a forestry services co-operative, whose members live a gypsy existence amid the mountains and rivers of the great Northwest. The rest follows.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

20


STEFFI STUMBLES into dim dawn, goes potty, splashes some creek on her eyes, and comes back to her rumpled campsite to struggle into her boots. Her feet always swell at night, especially the left one where the log got her, and her back always hurts these days, so boots are one of her bugaboos. Not getting younger. She packs up her camp. Tent, sleeping bag, candle, matches, a wrinkled copy of Desert Solitaire, water bottle, and the bag of trail mix, which is leaking oats at one corner where mice have gotten in. Laces it all on the pack frame. It's lighter than yesterday's load, so she leaves off the tumpline. Hup, hup, up, up before the sun hits the northern treetops. Once she's loaded up, she throws her poly poncho over the whole rig, popping her head through the hood. Things are damp this morning.

She's on the trail, slapping through wet thimbleberry, watching her step in the mud. There's bear poop every hundred feet or so -- big pies, brown at the edges, purple in the middle -- berry season. One of them has a dragonfly sipping at its essence. My, this stuff looks fresh.

Round the next bend, a commotion commences in the thimbleberries, enough to make Steffi's heart leap. Brush jumbles around upslope from the trail, and she sees just a bit of a black, furry rump disappearing amid hazels and vine maples almost overhead.

"Whatever," she says. "You gotta know, you scared me too."

As she passes the spot where the animal has left the trail, she admires the damage that's been done to the thimbleberry bushes. Nothing subtle about bears.

At the following bend of the trail, Steffi comes to a fork. To the right is the fire trail that goes straight up to the landing -- a wearying, leg-killing hike, and her feet and back are still bugging her. To the left the way stays with the creek a while longer, then ascends the ridge more gently, with switchbacks. It comes out on the road half a mile out of the way, but at least the hike back to her hidden motorcycle will be flat.

Okay, let's do it.

In ten minutes she comes to the beaver pond. It's black, still, and loaded up with slick logs, but she likes it here. The biggest log is covered with slabs of bark -- good traction -- and there's even a trail along it, consisting of a patina of mud and sand pocked with caulk holes. All around stand water-killed trees that have so much character she thinks of them as Ents, from Tolkien.

She's halfway across when the huge log, which she would have sworn was tucked into the mud, does the impossible -- it rolls. She'd dance with it, to stay on top, but the pack frame is adding a fillip of clumsiness. One foot -- the left one, of course -- slips into the water, and then the log settles into its new preferred resting spot, with Steffi's foot caught -- not crushed, thank goodness, but absolutely immobilized -- somewhere beneath. She sits down heavily.

How's the right foot? She's straddling the log, but on the other side there's a log nestled firmly against the big one; her boot heel rests on the crack comfortably. Nothing feels strained or sprained in either leg. Tailbone hurts from sitting down hard, that's about it.

She tries rocking the log back and forth. Nope. It's happy right where it is. Can she reach the boot and unlace it? Nope. Can't feel the foot any more, either, in the cool water that's seeped into the boot.

She shucks her poncho, shrugs out of the pack straps, drags the pack frame around to her side, and looks it over. Not much here to work with. Some water. The bottle won't fit in the crack to get more, once it runs out. Worry about that when she gets thirsty. Some food. Oh -- that'll make her thirstier. Oh well. That heavy pry bar that went up yesterday would be nice to have right now! Or at least a good whistle. But no one's close enough to hear a whistle. She can feel it.

It's not a sunny day, but she's out in the open and will slowly burn, sitting here long enough. She pulls the poncho back over herself for shade and sits, staring at the trail where it picks up beyond the pond.

Ho, ho, ho, that way lies madness. Steffi, you're in trouble. Correction. Whoever you might have been, you're in trouble. When your leg is locked up like this with no one expected back to find you, you don't have a name anymore.

After a few minutes, she digs out Ed Abbey and reads awhile. At first, it makes matters worse. He's always getting into exactly such scrapes and then finding a way out of them -- but he's not in a leghold trap. His attitude, though, is helpful. Undoubtedly he would chew through his leg if he had to -- or the rocks, presumably. Is there a way to chew this wood?

Steffi looks at the pack frame. Why is she here without her knife for once?

She reaches for the gorp bag and gnaws at some peanuts, oats and chocolate drops. She guzzles a bit from the water bottle. Whoa! Not so fast. She looks at the pack frame speculatively. It was once her first backpack, aluminum frame and canvas straps with an orange canvas packbag. Not great, but for fifteen dollars it made a good companion for ten amazing days on the Appalachian Trail. Nothing left of it now but the straps and frame, but still putting in a good day's work.

Steffi separates the frame from the tent and sleeping bag and hefts it. Aluminum, dubious. But it's all the leverage she's got. She jams it between the left-leg logs and pulls. Nothing. Pulls again. Nothing. Pulls again, really leaning into it.

The frame bends.

Sigh.

One of the cross pieces has pulled loose from one of the uprights. She tugs and twists at it till it comes free. She turns the soft metal tube in her hands. Not much of an edge, but -- something. Almost idly, she pokes at the wood in both logs with the open end of the tube, decides the far log is the punkiest, and starts digging.

It's not an easy angle, and almost right away she can feel discomfort in the burnt arm. Aggh, okay, in stages. Hack wood, rest, read, hack wood, rest, read, eat, drink, hack wood. Her day's work is set. Like, how much worse is this than tree planting, really?

Hack, rest, hack, rest, eat, drink, hmm out of water, hack, rest, hmm, thirsty. And, oh, it's getting dark. By now she has a decent pile of wood chips in front of her, some of which seem fairly dry. She gets out the Bic lighter and candle and drips some wax on the chips and starts a small fire right on top of the log. You never know, somebody might smell smoke down the canyon and come upstream to investigate. It hasn't been a really cold day, so there will be a sinking air mass, which means a downstream breeze.

Hack, rest, hack. The hole between the logs hasn't grown much. Steffi looks up. The sky has cleared, there's a slim moon that was full not so many days back.

The eclipse party seems like years, decades, lifetimes, centuries ago. She'd been so sure they were gonna try to get her to say hi to the damned horse, she'd made a bit of an ass of herself.

Nothing we can do about that right now.

She stretches out with her pack frame and drags a rat's nest of beavered cottonwood branches and a chunk of fir bark over to her fire.

The thin moonlight is mesmerizing. All the shadows round the pond are deep blue, and they move slowly, like daytime shadows do. Of course they would, she's just never noticed.

The night air is getting colder, especially behind her, where the fire's warmth can't reach. Steffi wraps the sleeping bag round behind her and drapes her tent over herself. She must be a sight. Still thirsty, though.

Hmm.

The tent has a rain fly. Steffi gropes around, finds it, twists it skinny, and stuffs it down the left-leg hole, by one of its shock cords. When the cord feels heavy, she fishes out the wet rain fly and wrings it out into her mouth.

Yeah, that'll do. Let's chop log some more. See if we can get our name back.

Judging by the moon, it must be close to midnight. Still not enough wood gouged out to pull up that numbed foot. What's cold on her chest? Oh, it's the Buddha.

Steffi fishes him out on his steel chain. It's a little metal Buddha pendant, not iron, probably pewter, but hey. A reminder of all the iron Buddhas she's met in the past three years. She smiles.

Buddha doesn't seem to notice. He's doing his thing, looking a bit like the Mona Lisa. Steffi closes her hand round the pendant and leans back to rest a little bit.

After awhile, a beat-up yellow crummy rolls up, across the pond.

"Hi, I'm Chuck. This is Willard, Amy, Juneen, Bill, Mike, Murray, Jerry-Up, Jerry-Down, Burt, and Marie. We're gonna pick up Dale and the Magruders and go on up the hill."

"Uh, hi, I'm Steffi Smith."

"Throw your stuff in the back and climb in."

She does so, and as she settles into the right front seat, turns around and waves. Everyone waves back.

She spots Marie. "Marie, I'm sorry I ... "

"Shh, it's okay, Stef. Watch the road."

After the Magruders' place, the road ascends steeply. It's murky out, with a golden light suffusing the fog from above. Chuck eases round the curves, avoiding the cliffs on the left and hugging the cut-banks on the right. They come to a driveway, and here are Israel, Lon and Little Butch waiting with their dags, bags, caulks, lunch boxes, rain gear and hard hats. They climb in, laughing and joshing one another. Steffi rises, thinking to move toward the back, but Israel pats her on the shoulder. "Hey, kid, glad to see ya. Jus' stay right there, we got plenty room in th' back."

Really? Seemed like a full crummy a few minutes ago. She cranes her neck to see back down the aisle, and sure enough, they're stuffing their gear into the overheads and piling into empty seats, looking like pewter Buddhas. Chuck pulls the door handle, releases the air brake, and dodges back onto the narrow mountain road.

The light is brightening. They come to a wideout and pick up Yoder, who has parked his ponderous van next to a Forest Circus "Interpretive" sign, the kind sprinkled around the woods for the benefit of tourists. Steffi gathers up her stuff and sticks it in overhead, then pats the seat on her right. "What's the sign say?" she asks Yoder.

Yoder settles right in, no longer the tentative newbie. "I got my spirit guide."

"No, I mean the fazoo thingy."

"Yeah, that's what I'm talking about. The sign says my guide is you." He's wearing that idiotic pewter face, like everyone else.

"Ask a silly question ..."

"Just watch the road, Stef, in case Chuck misses a stop."

She does so. Just as it seems like the sunlight, the brightest sunlight ever, will break through the fog, they come abruptly to a halt, and there are Carlo, Dan, Jana, and Mervin, who climb aboard with hazel hoes and Pulaskis. Dan pats her on the shoulder as he goes by.

"Hey, Stef," says Mervin. "D'ja bring your saw?"

"Umm, don't think so. Didn't know this job was a fire."

Mervin's foot kicks against something as he passes. Steffi looks down; it's her Stihl, in everyone's way in the aisle. She drags it under the seat, feeling her face flush with embarrassment at her thoughtlessness. She sits up and looks over her shoulder again.

Damn, this is one big crummy.

The bus rolls forward again, and finally pierces the clouds. Dawn awaits them, the sun shining on the fog bank. Steffi squints. It could be a million suns lamping a primordial sea.

The bus stops again, and Ron climbs aboard, pants legs wet to his knees, carrying a hefty, freshly cut sapling. All business, he jams one end of it in the gap and puts his shoulder to the other end.

"What are you doing?" she asks him, startled.

"Getting you out of this trap," he answers. "Same as you'd do for anybody."

Steffi tries to sit up, but she's too stiff. Throwing an arm up against the rising sun, she sees that Ron is leaning into the sapling, prying apart two logs. "How did you find me?" Her voice is a croak.

Ron stops long enough to give her a sip from a water bottle.


"Carlo noticed you didn't show up at Central and called me. So I went to the Ritz and you hadn't been there. So I came straight here. Carlo, Dan and Mervin will be right behind me, and we're going to litter you out of here." He drops the pole and gently fishes her foot from the dark pond, holding it out of the way while the great logs drift back together. "So let's see if this is broken." He unlaces the boot and sets it aside.

"It's not, I can tell."

He pokes gently at the foot and ankle anyway, watching her expression. "Can, huh?"

"Actually, yeah, it never got squeezed up. But, I dunno, it feels frozen."

"Let's get the sock off and thaw you out, then. If anything hurts, holler. Would you like some breakfast?"

"Got some gorp, still, I think." She rummages.

Ron's looking a little exasperated at that. "You never ... no, that's no way for me to talk. Look, it's an egg salad sandwich, take it or leave it."

"Yes. I'm ... I'm sorry. I ran away from lunch that day, after you fixed it up nice and all."

"Nah, I was being maybe ... heavy handed, huh?" He grins, then makes his serious face. "Sometime, maybe

now is not the time, we gotta talk abo ut how you're not only one that's scared here."

A small silence falls between them and gets longer and longer. Ron turns abruptly and unwraps the sandwich. "We'll just get you fixed up and back to your truck in no time."

Steffi studies his face. "Or, if it's okay, maybe not to my truck yet. Invite me to lunch. 'Kay?"

Ron sits back and tilts his head, studying her in return. He's almost ready to smile.

A crow swoops down the canyon, cawing twice as it passes over their heads.






--End--

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Saturday, July 12, 2014

19


STEFFI MUSES as Little Bird whines around the curves. Much of this road will not abide fifth gear; she spends her time shifting between third and fourth. Lunch, a can of refries, rattles around in the five gallon bucket on the sissy bar. She'll eat at Central, get her marching orders and fill the bucket with provisions from the discount grocery.

What was that all about at Moss Creek last week? Jana had led the way to Ron's place with the two pots of mint. He wasn't in, and she'd settled down on the front steps to give little Aaron a feed.

"I think he's getting your ride for you. Our phone is on the other side of the river, in a shed just down the bank from the wide-out." She'd smiled tentatively.

Steffi had looked over beyond the rail fence, noting the black, muscular horse cropping grass there. The pasture had dried up for the summer, and the enormous creature was working the fence line, where shade had kept the good stuff going longer.

She'd suddenly envisioned having to feed the thing an apple to please her hosts, and had felt light-headed. The day had gone badly after that.

Distracted, she hits a sharp curve too fast, and is forced into the other lane. As luck would have it, here comes an old Oldsmobile, right at her. Steffi wrestles with Little Bird's handlebars, braking until she reaches gravel at the roadside, drops off the shoulder, and rattles to a frightened stop just short of a muddy slough, its embankment festooned with old-growth blackberries. She sits, gulping precious, miraculous air, steaming up her helmet's faceplate. Too close.

I live in the country. How can there be so much going on in my head that I can't hit a simple curve without killing myself?

She makes it in to Eugene before she discovers her lunch is gone -- bounced out, no doubt, when Little Bird left the road.


Walt, the bear-sized on-duty bidder at Central, spreads a Forest Circus map. He draws Steffi's attention to a penned circle in the lower left corner. "This is a creek in the Jones River watershed. We're building little dams there for the fazoos, to help the salmon. Salmon need pools with gravel for spawning, and to get pools like that you need blowdowns lying in the water, and the loggers cleaned all the logs out back in the Fifties."

"Uh huh."

"It's only about two weeks' work, doesn't pay a lot, and the walk-in is a steep two miles. But it's about all we have on offer right now. How's that arm?"

"It'll do. Is this my map?"

"No, but I'll photocopy this corner of it for you."


Hoedags from the local area -- The Magruders and a few others -- have hiked in to set up camp, while Carlo rode shotgun on a helicopter to drop supplies at the site.

"That was the most terrifying thing I've ever done. Our whole camp was slung on a wire rope underneath us, and the guy zips down the canyon, with old growth and rock faces on both sides. Our gear was just skimming over the creek, seems like. I. Thought. I. Was. Going. To. Die." Carlo's eyes are maximum wide, remembering.

"What do we do here?" asks Steffi, to distract him.

"Well, there are four of these dams, actually. We drop a tree at each flag hung by the fazoos, across the stream bed. Then we cut the ends off, about fifteen feet long, and drag them with Peaveys to the downstream side and mortise them in as braces. This one --" stepping onto it -- "is all done, you can see the drift pins we've hammered in at the mortises, and then we heaped stones and gravel on the upstream side, about three hundred buckets full. It's mostly about the buckets. How's that arm?"

"It'll do." Water pours evenly across the low point in the log dam, falling about eighteen inches with a pleasing tinkle. In winter, Steffi knows, this will be a raging torrent. With such extremes, it's anyone's guess whether these logs will actually be useful, but money is money. The feds want dams, they get dams. "Where do I start?"


For three weeks, Steffi hauls buckets of rocks. The first couple of days, it's easy. But she's mostly hauling one-handed, and sure enough she strains something and mopes in her rain-drummed dome tent for a day. Then, on reduced loads, she finds her own level. It's less rock per bucket than the guys are carrying, but they seem to appreciate her presence. She offers to dock herself ten percent of her take, but they turn her down. Fine, she'll do it at Central.

As time goes on, the crew has to range farther and farther upstream or down to get gravel. Steffi loves the canyon and the routine, feeling her way through the icy water between glistening, fern-draped rock faces, as the big crawdads back away from her into submarine shadows.

Fall is approaching. It rains a little, then a little more. Water is rising, and the crew puts in a couple of ten-hour days to finish the last dam. As Steffi pours out her final bucket of pebbles, muddying the water, the Magruders come down to water's edge.

"We're packing up," says one. "Everybody will take two loads up to the road, and that's it till the tree planting starts," says the other.


Steffi follows Carlo with a load. The straps of the pack frames cut into their shoulders, and they stop to make themselves tumplines -- polycords that extend from the tops of the packs to their foreheads, with padding. With these on, as they lean forward, some of the strain will be taken off their backs.

Carlo points ahead into the gloomy underbrush. "We'll take the right fork up ahead. It goes straight up the fire trail on the side of the old clear cut but gets us to the landing with plenty of daylight."

Steffi adjusts the bandanna she's using for a tump pad. "It seems dark already."

"That's because it's a north slope. You can see from the sunlight on the firs on the opposite side, there's plenty of daylight for this one trip, and a little bit of margin for error."

The climb is one of those that will either build your heart or stop it cold. Steffi counts steps. Every twenty, she has to stop and blow. What's in this load? Oh, yah -- one Husky chainsaw, a pry bar, five drift pins, and a come-along, all arranged around a (mercifully empty) jerry can. Couldn't we have just stashed the bloody drift pins? It's a cool afternoon in the shade, but sweat works out from under the rolled-up bandanna and seeps around her eyebrows, stinging both eyes. She wrings them out with her thumbs.

"One more pitch," says Carlo encouragingly.

They reach the landing after an hour and half of straight-up torture, and there is Carlo's old pickup truck, warm and inviting in the late afternoon sun.

"It's too late for the last load, which is mostly your bag and tent anyway," says Carlo. "We should head for Greenwood and I'll come back for it if you like. You really look done in." He scans around the landing. "How did you get here, anyway?"

"I'm on my bike. Stashed in the brush." Steffi draws a ragged breath, leans back against the truck body, and shrugs herself out from under the pack frame. "What I want to do, I think, is go back down and spend the night. Bring my stuff out in the morning."

"I dunno, Stef. You'd be the only person for thirty miles each way."

She grins. "Carlo, you know that's what I like best."


Back in what's left of camp, which is mostly Steffi's little pop tent, her sleeping bag, and a bread bag half full of trail mix, she achingly pulls off her boots and damp socks, rolls up the cuffs of her jeans, eases down to the creek bank and puts her feet into the nearby pool. A red crawdad backs away, barely visible in the fading light. There are already stars.

Movement, perhaps the edge of a shadow on the water, prompts her to look up. A great horned owl has sailed across the stars and is disappearing among the black firs. Impulsively, she raises her arm to salute the giant bird's silent passage, and something -- a something soft, like a furball -- strikes her hand. There's a splash in the water.

Steffi's first thought is that she has somehow hit a bat.

A memory floods in behind her eyes, of neighborhood children beneath a street light, amusing themselves by swatting with a broom at tiny bats flitting into the lamplight for fire-addled bugs. So far as she can remember, no one ever managed to hit one. So what has happened here?

There's a stir in the water. A small bird, so diminutive it takes her breath away, surfaces, hops on a rock, shakes itself thoroughly, and inspects its wings sullenly. It seems to Steffi the creature looks her over briefly, as if suspecting her of swatting it from the air on purpose. Then, with an indignant-sounding squeak, it flits away.

Steffi finds herself alone with her thoughts.

Jana had been moderately disgusted. "What's with you all of a sudden?" she'd asked. "You're running away, without even staying for lunch."

She really couldn't say.