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.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Chapter Five

- 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. One of the crew dogs is riding shotgun but sleeping on the job. A rich odor of wet fur 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-wracking; 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; some prefer near the one-holers, some near the main entrance so as to be last to crummy up. 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 real 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."
    "Mmm, yeah, I kinda think yes."
    Burt goes over with her.
    Steffi points. "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, with others, Steffi among them, assisting 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 around 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 Mountain crew," says Chuck. He laughs wryly. "We made the mistake of letting them 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!' sez Lon."
    He points at the other man, sleeping soundly. "Little Butch here got 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 aotoharp 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 Doc Watson's take of "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 in the ocean
    Will be my death bed."

    As the song ends, big, gray-bearded Lon sits up and stares at Steffi, bleary-eyed. "My fuggin' god, girl, that's hair-raisin stuff. Uhh, you married?"
    She puts the harp down her lap. "Was. Umm, once."