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, April 12, 2014

6


THE CONTRACT is plagued by snow.

This is a good thing, as it makes the inspectors sympathetic to the Hoedags, who show up morning after morning, stinking of camp life and weed smoke but ready to work in the cold and wet.

On the other hand, snow can shut the job down. If it's more than two inches deep, the inspectors will call it a day, as snow can ball up and fall into your hole with the tree roots, then melt later on and leave an air pocket which will kill the tree.

If it keeps snowing, you're out of a job till the next thaw.

Face Crew is all over the hill. Steffi is in the middle of the line. Above her she can see Murray and Bill, and two more people blurred by the weather. Below her is Israel, and she knows Juneen and Chuck are around the corner somewhere catching up the back. They're about a fifth of the way down the mountain from a landing at the top; she can hear the storm winds moaning as they comb the hair of the fir trees beyond the landing. The trees are waving at her, or rather bowing to her, bending at the waist; it's more than a little alarming.

The inspector, a paunchy guy named Mike, is atop a stump, leaning on his shovel, turned away from the wind. There's enough wind to rattle the fifty-foot tape measure hanging at his waist, and just enough snow on the wind to turn the back of his orange vest white. He's yammering away at anyone within hearing.

"See, there was this little river, an' it was just over th' line. Th' veecee used it to run their guns 'n ammo an' shit, an' we could see 'em all th' time, but couldn't shoot at 'em 'cuz of th' frackin' rules of engagement. 'N we wuz up there 'n along come this lon-n-n-n-g boat piled high with mortar-round boxes, 'N I radioed in to th' colonel 'n reported it 'n asked for authorization to hit 'em, 'n he sez, Mike they are in a no-fire zone, 'n I sez, but colonel, 'n he sez, Mike, listen carefully: no fire zone -- 'n a light come on in my head, an' I sez, Rob, set us down over here by that big rock 'n we loaded up that rock and flew over there 'n dropped it right in th' middle of that boat 'n down she went."

Israel unbends himself, tree in hand, and looks up the hill at Mike. "Well, Mike, that's all well 'n good but that was then and this is now, right?"

Mike seems kind of crushed by this and sits down on the stump. Steffi's right in front of him, sliding a snowy little tree into its hole between two huge roots. She packs the tree with her boot and looks up.

The inspector has tears in his eyes. "God, I wish I coulda fought in a popular war."

"Sorry, sir." Thinking of nothing else to say, she moves on to the next spot.

Several spots later, she realizes she's outplanting Bill, making a bow in the line. She can see his head above a snow-crusted log -- no hard hat -- bowl-cut blond hair -- and his round shoulders. If she bumps back, it will make matters worse; she needs to pick up her dag and walk up between Bill and Murray. But it's steep; this part of the hill is more rock face than anything else.

Above the log, Bill has found pay dirt. He swings his dag and pulls back on the handle.

His elbow touches the log.

It turns and starts walking sideways down the hill.

Whatever comes down the mountain in an uncontrolled fall, be it boulder, tree trunk, or tree planter, the universal warning is "rock", screamed at the top of one's lungs. Bill is screaming it, Mike is screaming it, and Steffi, running sidehill, is screaming it. The log collects her and down the mountain they go, Steffi over backwards on top of a lot of sliding scree, the log on top of Steffi.

It's not a huge log, maybe twelve feet long and two in diameter. But it's waterlogged and making good time. If ever Steffi should be terrified, it should be now. But there's no time for that. The sky goes by for what seems hours, in slow motion, then she drops into a hollow, the log goes on alone and tears itself up on a stump with a bang like a movie explosion.

Steffi's young enough, up to this point in her life, to still believe she's immortal. Gee, maybe not? Was this it?

There's total silence. No, her ears are ringing. She's watching blue spots circling in front of her eyes. Or, no, maybe that's just the snow.

How peaceful. How beautiful. If I have to go, this is not at all a bad way.

Bill's face hovers over hers. Jerry-up's does, too, which she would not have expected to see; he'd been planting nearly a quarter of a mile away on the other side of the draw. Her fall was that interesting?

Steffi's brain starts working again. She focuses on Jerry-up's classic Brooklyn face, which to her looks like some of the better paintings of Jesus.

Jerry-up's lips are moving. She can just make out his accent. "Don't move, Stef. We'll getchuh the stretchuh!"

"Uhh. I don't think I'm broken, really. Just sit me up?"

"You're kidding, Stef, that thing rode you a hundred feet!"

"Well, its end was on the ground, I dunno."

Against their better judgment, Bill and Jerry-up shift Steffi to sit up against a large rock. Fifteen people are standing round her in a circle, sympatico-eyed.

"Stef, no hard feelin's?" asks Bill.

"I got up under you, Bill; my fault."

Chuck comes down-slope and goes on one knee to look Steffi over; he gently lifts her eyelids and looks into her eyes. "Not dilated. But I think we oughta at least put ya in th' crummy."

"Chuck, this unit is good money. I don't want to go up there and get all stiff. How about we switch places, and I be the non-planting foreperson?"

He's not saying no. Steffi takes this as a good sign.


The unit's done by a late lunchtime and the crew drives around the mountain to another one, eating in their seats. Steffi's a little sore now. No, she's a lot sore. Back, arm and leg. She pulls off her left boot; it's bugging her. The others climb out for a look-see.

Steffi watches through the dirty window. The sun is out. They're strategizing, laughing, patting one another on the back, then come back for their dags and bags. Juneen pops into the front of the crummy for her hard hat.

"What's up?" asks Steffi.

"Unit's half rock face, half gravy, no slash. Hundred dollar afternoon for sure."

"We made that much this morning. It's after two now."

"This one's twice as good. It's twenty-two acres but we can get it all done before dark! Y'comin'?"

"I dunno. I'm stiffening up."

"I don't wonder. Hell of a fall. We all thought you were killed." She pats Steffi's shoulder.

She looks like she's gonna stay and talk. "I'm okay," says Steffi. "Go break the bank."

"Yeah." Juneen grins, pops her steel hat on and disappears.

For awhile Steffi's okay just sitting. But then she thinks a little sunshine'd be nice for that foot. She hops toward the front of the crummy, holding onto the backs of the seats.

Once outside, curiosity gets the better of her. What's the unit like, really? Grabbing a planting shovel for a crutch, she hobbles over to the edge of the road.

People are scattered out far below, with Mike standing on a stump above them maybe two hundred feet down from the road. About a sixty percent slope. There's a lot of trees in the ground already; as Juneen said, it's all gravy. Suddenly there are dollar signs in Steffi's eyes.

In a wink she's back in the crummy and trying to get her boot on. No way. Her foot's now two or more sizes too big. She like roomy boots and layered socks but her feet are big to begin with. She rummages around and finds one of Burt's tennis shoes. Size eleven, men's.

Perfect fit.

Back out in the sunlight, she takes her tree bag, hopping with the shovel, over to the inspector's green truck, opens the camper shell, drags a paper tree sack over and lifts out four damp bundles of trees. Two hundred. Should be just enough for the amount of ground that's left down there. This unit will pay thirty cents a tree easily; sixty bucks in one afternoon if she hustles.

Diving off the landing will be the easy part; in all that soft dirt she can just schluss on down to the line. She aims for Mike, who hasn't moved.

"Hey."

"My god, girl, I thought you was hurt!"

"Not so much; may I use a shovel?"

"Well, there's no grass here; I don't see why not."

"Where's the action?"

"Everybody went left and they'll come back here 'n go right. You get under the cliff here, you can work for hours and save 'em a climb out."

"Thank you, sir."

Steffi slides and slips down the edge of the bulging rock face, planting trees as she goes, and gets into her very own acre at the bottom of the clear-cut. She crutches from spot to spot, ten-by on a nine-by, driving the shovel deep with her hands, blade facing backwards the tree-planter's way.

The sun sinks west. Steffi's bag gets lighter with each hobble.

There's movement overhead. She looks up, up, and up, and there's Mike at the top of the cliff. He gets out his clipboard and looks down. He waves his pen at the acre. "So, what's it like down there?" His pen hovers over the clipboard.

He doesn't want to climb down here. I'm throwing my own plot!

"Umm, eleven for ten and one loose tree."

Mike scribbles in the clipboard, closes the aluminum cover, then grins. Steffi can see the grin all the way from here, even in the shade of his hard hat.

"All right," he says. "Not too bad, but watch it with them loose trees!"

A bit later, the piece is done and her bag is empty. She'd better start climbing. It's gonna be slow.

Casting a long shadow, Steffi works her way round to the right and up. Before long, she hooks up with Burt. He's throwing his dag ahead of him into the dirt and pulling himself up by the handle; it's that steep. Little Butch, right behind him, is taking a picture with that big camera. How does he keep his dreads out of the frame?

"Is that my shoe you're wearing?" asks Burt, eyebrows raised.

"Mmm-hmm, I'll wash and dry it tonight." Little Butch snaps Steffi's picture. She glowers at him.

"How come it fits yuh?"

"Reasons of state."

Around a big stump comes Bill. He clambers up on the stump and points to the sky with his hoe handle. "Lookie."

They turn and squint. Out of the low sun comes a bald eagle.

Then another.

Then another.

In a few moments, there are all of seven bald eagles, turning and turning in the pink light.

Little Butch takes their picture.

From around the corner, Lon's hoarse voice rings out.
Oh, say, can you see
By th' dawn's early light ...
"It ain't dawn, Lonnie!" That would be Chuck.

"Don't matter," replies Lon. "Been a helluva day, huh?" He picks up where he left off. Others join in, including Mike, the government man.

Steffi takes another agonizing hop upwards. Yes. A helluva day.


Steffi awakes and, uh-oh, no can move. Oh yeah, run over and half killed by a log yesterday.

She drags over the stick that holds Rocinante's back door open and props up the door. The light coming in is surreal, upside down or something and bright. How long has she been asleep?

There are camp-breaking noises all around her. Amy sticks her head in over the tailgate.

"Hey you."

"Hey. What's up?"

"Snowed out. There's four inches here. Gang's gonna head for town and stay in a hotel. Ygonna come?"

Steffi doesn't want to admit she's immobilized. "Uhh, tell ya what, I could stay here and watch the camp? Y'think?"

"Loner."

"So I'm weird; I don't have a corner on that."

"True. Y'got all you need?"

"I think. Well, there's plenty in the yurt, right?"

"We packed it all up in case of bears. All the kitchen goodies are in Yoder's van. Help yourself."

Amy's head disappears, replaced by Lon's. Whiskey and hint of Prince Albert. Whiskey at seven in the morning?

"Ya good?"

"Oh, sure."

"I c'n bring ya some coffee, there's still some from breakfast."

"Umm, yeah."

Lon disappears. Steffi tries to sit up, but she's totaled.

In a bit she thinks Lon is back, but it's Chuck's hand putting the mug on the end of her camper shelf along with a can of beef chili. He seems to know she can't sit up. "Listen, we could be gone a week with this snow. More comin'."

"I'd like that, it'd be like a vacation. I don't much go for town, you know."

"Yeah. Uhh, listen, Stef, while we're gone, be thinkin' how if we hadna snowed out, we'd be short one hand -- they'd shut us down. In th' Hoedags, it's not just about our own totals. Right?"

Steffi feels her face burning. "Umm. Right."

"Be careful, now."

Thank you for the coffee and chili."

"Yeah."

Presently the crummy goes through its litany of moisture-laden engine coughs, then chugs out of camp.

An absolute silence falls.

Steffi pulls the stick and Rocinante's back door shuts with a bang, cold light coming in through its window.

She pulls the top of her sleeping bag over her head.


It's another morning before Steffi feels ready to venture forth. She tests her body by shifting her hips, one side and then the other. Not too bad. Bladder, though, oh, lord!

Her nose is pretty cold. The light coming in her window is blazing. She rearranges her Princess pillow and hunches up in bed. Hungry. Can opener, chili. Spoon, spoon. Where's the big spoon? Ah. She digs at the chili fiercely. The spoon hits the chili with a clunk and bends almost double.

Whoa! how cold was it last night?

She's going to need fire. This is out of Rocinante's class. Besides, got to make some yellow snow!

Wrestling her way out of the sleeping bag, she scrabbles for her boots and then lifts the camper door.

The scene that awaits her is a shock, even though she has to squint to see it.

The sky is an impossible shade of blue. Beneath that the fir trees are not at all as she remembers them; everything is bent down with thick pillows of white.

The yurt is suffering from the load of snow. Wading knee deep, Steffi cuts a willow wand for a walking stick, and a longer willow, branches on, for a broom, and clears the roof as best she can. Then she hobbles in, sits on an aluminum veggie-oil can, and builds a fire in the Airtight. Not till the yurt's warmed does she raid the step-van for bacon and potatoes.


Walk time. Steffi grabs her walking stick and makes her way painfully up from the entrance of the gravel pit to a little knob above the road. From here she can see, to the east, the river that was in flood, cows and all, only a week ago, and to the north, the ouch-white Olympics, just peeping over the shoulder of a tall, calendar-perfect ridge. West and south is a wide valley full of fir trees, alders, willows, and maples, all outlined in white. She can see a few small animal tracks nearby, but nothing's moving. In camp, there are more than a dozen humps that are the crew vehicles, and the brushed-off yurt, with its central chimney emitting the only smoke in the valley. The smoke drifts down toward the river, turns, and follows it toward the Hood Canal, and, somewhere over there, Mount Rainier. A full moon is rising.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

5


THE CONVOY mumbles and coughs its way up the Seattle freeway all day at forty-eight miles an hour, passed by irritated tractor-trailers and thousands of recent-model sedans filled with small bouncing children and exasperated parents.

All the traffic gives the crummy an especially wide berth with its stuffing of boxes of canned goods, sacks of grain, firewood, stove and stove pipe, and its roof groaning with racked hoedads and shovels, the long lodgepoles, and the yurt -- door, walls, roof, and ring folded to the extent possible and tied down tight with a variety of ropes.

Steffi is fifth in line with Rocinante, sipping at a carton of chocolate milk and listening to Tubular Bells on her eight-track. Somebody's dog is riding shotgun with her but sleeping on the job. A rich odor of wet fur and doggie breakfast permeates the cab. Steffi cracks the window.

In front of her is one of the crew trucks, with a tall plywood camper on its back. Next to the camper door a straight-backed chair with a wicker bottom is tied onto the bumper. The door opens and Burt climbs out, settles himself on the chair and lights up a smoke. Steffi finds this a little nerve-racking; should the truck hit any kind of a bump, Burt is liable to fly right under Rocinante's wheels.

Steffi shakes her head almost imperceptibly. Burt smiles.


The line of trucks pulls into the parking lot of the Ranger station in a driving rainstorm -- real drops for once, coming down big at a steep angle and stinging those who climb out of the cabs, stiff, and run to the station entrance. Steffi stays put, watching rivers of water pour down her windshield. The dog whines. She leans over and lets him out. His business is done in less than a minute, and he's whining to be let back in. Rain comes in with him, and the cab stinks worse than ever.

Someone comes running from the station. Steffi rolls down the fogged window and is pleased to see Israel, the black drummer , whom she hasn't seen since the party. Water is pouring from his dreads. "What the hey, Izz," she tells him, "come around and hop in." He does so. There's a commotion as he gently evicts the dog, who crawls under Rocinante, whining.

"Whoo! Wet, wet, wet. How ya doin'? Oh, waitaminnit, we met yet?" He grins.

Dark glasses on a dark day. But Steffi can feel his kindly eyes through the lenses. "At Slough Creek, you and the guy with the sax were doing the music."

"Ohhhhh, yeah! Brownies!"

"I'll never live that down."

"Sure ya will. So, an-n-n-n-yway, been here since yesterday, got a campsite, meetin' with th' CO is happenin', I'm gonna get us lined up an' outta here so's we can set up camp before dark. Who's drivin' th' crummy?"

"Chuck or Juneen, I think."

"Gotcha. Don't run away, we'll pull out in ten or so."

He hops back out into the rain, remembers to put the dog back in the cab, and is off in the mists.

Steffi picks up a rag from the floor, mops the inside of her windshield, flicks the key in the ignition to cycle the windshield wipers, and looks out.

The mountains here are big. As in, way, way big. She leans over the steering wheel and looks up, putting a crick in her neck. Clouds, speeding, drag their ghostly hands through tiny trees that she knows are giants. She's sure nothing previous has been touched by those clouds since Japan.

Or maybe Mongolia, who knows?


The designated campsite is right on the river, an actual gated campground that the "forest circus" has unlocked for the crew. Everyone heads for a chosen driveway; Steffi picks the spot nearest the river.

Mostly the crew has been camping in gravel pits or sometimes among trees along a logging road. Such places are seldom level and settling in often consists of driving two wheels onto a couple of small piles of rocks. Here, she just parks and she's done. What a treat!

Letting the dog out to go find its owner and a meal, Steffi shrugs into a rain coat and rain hat, stretches and walks over to the water.

Woo. This river is high. As in high. And fast. And muddy. Rivers in the mountains, she knows by now, should not be muddy. She starts to climb down the bank for a better look in the gathering twilight, but thinks better of it. One slip here and they'd never find me. And is that a tree going by?

It is, and furthermore, there's a bobcat riding the broad trunk, looking bedraggled and scared. Not something you see every day. On a hunch, Steffi focuses on a small rock by the water line and watches it, counting toward fifty. The water climbs over the rock and submerges it at twenty-three.

This is a flood.

She goes looking for people. They're already setting up the yurt; the lattice is in its circle and turnbuckles are being turned on cables. She's always hated interrupting anyone, but if she's going to start, now might be the time."Uh-h-h, people ... "

"Steffi, ya wanta grab that there pliers?"

"Hang on, we have to look at the river, I think it's going to jump its banks."

"No."

"Mmm, yeah, I kinda think yes."

Burt goes over with her.

"Watch that little broken root there and count to thirty."

He does that. "Uh, oh," he says.

They run to the others and explain. Work on the yurt halts, then is reversed. As they work, they cast anxious glances toward the river bank. One trickle begins running between two stones onto the asphalt, then another.

A young man Steffi has barely met, named Yoder, has a huge Army surplus wall tent already set up, massive poles, ropes, tent stakes, camp bed and all. She pitches in with him dismantling it. Yoder is staggering around under his assorted burdens, shoulder-length blond hair dripping. By the time they have the canvas down, they're ankle deep in flood. The canvas fills with water and it takes eight people to load it in the kid's step-van. The river is up to the van's running board.

As everyone runs toward their assorted rigs to head out of the park, someone shouts out. "Jerry-up's bus is floating. And it's locked!"

Burt shouts back, across running water. "Where is he?"

"At that meeting with the CO's!"

"K, everybody go to the bus!" Burt runs to the crummy and draws two lodgepoles from the loosely tied bundle on its roof. Carrying these to the yellow Volkswagen van, he hands off one, then shoves the other underneath the bobbing vehicle's body. Soon there are eight people on the two poles, while others, Steffi among them, assist as best they can, some holding the van upright, others dragging it along by its bumpers and door handles. It's hauled up to the access road by brute strength.

"If the river gets this high," remarks Burt, "Jerry-up will just have to find himself a new home." He turns to look at the river, which now seems a quarter-mile across. The flood has enveloped the entire campground, and brown water is now moving across the campsites at river speed. "Hey, check this out!" He points.

Three waterlogged cows, legs in the air, float by, making pretty good time.


Someone has scouted out a higher spot -- a gravel pit, of course -- and the caravan inches up the mountainside in the dark. None of the crew has ever had to assemble the yurt in darkness before, but the need to sit by a warm fire in stormy weather can be a great motivator. Burt has everyone park in a wide circle and shine their headlamps inwards. The lattice frame and doorway, as well as the lodgepoles, are assembled in record time. Steffi runs in with the last pole and humps the canvas roof over the pole frame as others drag the outer edges of the canvas across the building. The roof is spread, ready to be cabled onto the lattice.

At this crucial moment, with no plastic sheeting on the lattice to block the wind, a major gust from the storm moans across the nearby firs and digs under the roof.

The yurt lifts off, headed for the nearby canyon.

"Hang on!" shouts Burt.

Dozens of hands grasp the circular cable. Steffi, in the middle, gets to witness the entire Face crew dangling in midair from an impromptu parachute. Will they be drawn over the edge of the ravine with their house? The lattice starts dragging toward her. She drops the pole and exits the door under someone's armpit, and adds herself to the ring of human weights on the roofline.

The gust subsides. Everyone, without needing to be told, walks the yurt back together and ties the roof to the lattice with whatever they can get their hands on -- baling twine, shoelaces -- by the light of the headlamps, with the rain pouring down.

Juneen brings over the plastic. She and Steffi wrap the building from the doorway to the right and back again, while others tighten it down with Bungee cords. Chuck and Jerry-down, who are back from the CO meeting, with two other guys Steffi doesn't know, throw hay bales into the interior, cut the twine from the bales, and spread hay around the interior to make a floor. Someone's already in there loading the stove with kindling and firewood. A kerosene lantern is carried in, lit, and hung from the rafters. Buckets and chairs are brought. The trucks' headlamps are extinguished, one by one.

People in raingear, carrying flashlights, utensils, food, water jugs, and musical instruments drift in, grinning, and make themselves at home, with wet wagging dogs at their feet. Crowding round the Airtight stove, which is already glowing cherry red, they shuck rain gear and sock hats and sit, heads steaming.

Once it's warm enough in the yurt for those so inclined to get up and move around, several do so and set up a card table and a propane stove. Hot oatmeal for dinner .

The two guys Steffi doesn't know are lying down in the hay, just outside the steaming circle. One of them is weaving his hands in the air and muttering to himself. "Who are they?" she asks.

"They're visitin' from Wildcat crew," says Chuck. He laughs wryly. "We made the mistake of lettin' 'em help rep the crew at th' meetin', not knowin' they'd dropped acid."

"Ohhh, no!" says someone across the yurt. Groans rise from the circle. "Do we still have a job?"

"Oh, yeah," says Chuck. "But it was a near thing. The fazoos got out the map, and Lon here -- " Chuck pokes the hand-weaver with the toe of his boot -- "says, 'waitaminnit' -- pokes at the map -- 'We need a contract adjustment.' "Whattayamean,' says th' head fazoo. "Swamps! Swamps all over this map! Alligators in them swamps!' says Lon."

He points at the other man, sleeping soundly. "Little Butch here gets out his big camera, starts pointin' it around the room. He takes a picture of the floor tiles." Chuck shakes his head. "We barely got out of there alive."

Jerry-up, a tall, thin, nervous man with long, black stringy hair, comes in from the night. "So, can anybody tell me how my bus went two hundred feet up the road from where I parked it?"


Late in the evening, after drums, flute and guitar have done their thing, mostly Dylan or Stones or Grateful Dead, Steffi, who is usually too shy to do group stuff, brings out her autoharp and fingerpicks. Jerry-down, the guitarist, re-tunes to the harp and asks her for chords.

"How about G, G7, D?"

"Sure thing." They practice a little bit, six-eight time, a riff on "Wreck of the Ninety-Seven."

"You know the words?" asks Jerry-down.

"Not too well."

"Whatcha got?"

"Not much. "Life is Like a Mountain Railroad, Careless Love, Old Smokey, Midnight Special. Red River Valley. You Are My Sunshine. Umm, Georgia Pines. And, uhh, I Never Will Marry."

"Woo, old stuff. Do that last one, I'll follow you."

"'K." Steffi is shaking like a leaf; she's never done this in public. But Face is a family in some ways, so it doesn't really count. Time to pack up her stage fright and mail it off to limbo. She lays the harp back against her breasts and reaches for the strings.
As I was a goin'
Down by the sea shore,
The wind it did rattle
The waters did roar.
I spied a fair maiden,
The water stood by.
She wept by the ocean
And thus did she cry:

"I never will marry,
I'll be no man's wife.
I'm gonna be single
all the days of my life."
She thrust her fair body
In the waters so deep,
And closed her blue eyes
In the waters to sleep.

"I never will marry,
I"ll be no man's wife.
I'm gonna be single,
All the days of my life."

The fish in deep water
Swim over my head;
The shells on the sea floor
Will be my death bed."
As the song ends, big, gray-bearded Lon sits up and stares at Steffi, bleary-eyed. "My frackin' god, girl, that's hair-raisin' stuff. Uhh, you married?"

She puts the harp down in her lap. "Was."