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, December 26, 2011

Chapter Thirteen

- 13 -

AFTER THE "runaway crew member" contract, Steffi takes a little time off to get Ritzy and Little Bird up and running. She's not a great mechanic, but with the aid of tools from the crummy and manuals from the Public Library, she makes a little headway on the starter motor. Ritzy is parked at Central, by the tracks. This doesn't seem to disturb anyone, maybe because it's close to the jail, which is next door to Central, and folks just don't hang around outside those sad, brightly illuminated walls.
    By day, Steffi tinkers with the starter motor under the skylight in Ritzy's "living" room; by night she reads, tucked into her sleeping bag, gloves on: it's a cold winter and the police are okay until you start building fires in your stove. For a reading lamp, she has the jail's sodium vapor lamps.
    Once Ritzy's got a new starter motor throw-out spring in place and the motor re-installed and tested, Steffi turns to Little Bird's problems. A new headlamp is easy; the forks less so. She learns disassembly, puzzles over the forks awhile, then grabs them and a hydraulic jack and heads for the smallest gap she can find between two concrete-walled buildings.
    It's late when she gets back to the Ritz. Little Bird's gonna be okay, but assembly should wait until morning. Or maybe even later; Face crew and the Wildcats are glomming in Six Rivers and she's running a week behind. She'll drive straight there tomorrow.
    Packs herself into the sleeping bag in the "bedroom" above the tall blue truck cab.
    Close above her head is the ceiling; cedar one-by-fours. It's a little like sleeping in a tent. She reaches up to touch the ceiling. "Roads go ever on and on ... "


The road she's remembering came down from the hot Georgia Piedmont into the flats and curved along the lake shore to a small boathouse. This building was just big enough to hold a retired gentleman and a cash box; outside stood a soft drink machine, a pay phone, and a mercury-vapor lamp.
    Thousands of white moths lay, slaughtered, beneath the lamp.
    Alongside the building, at water's edge, stood a long-legged shed, under which lay about fifteen wooden "jon" boats in assorted shades of deep green, with hand-painted yellow numbers. A sign on the shed read:

$2 A DAY.

    Stephanie pulled up beside the heap of dead moths. The old gentleman, of impressive girth and gruff appearance, tended to intimidate newcomers but was kind to his regulars. He huffed up from his chair, took one and a half steps, and tilted himself against the doorjamb.
    Stephanie leaned out the window of her dad's station wagon. "Hey, Mr. Johnson. How have you been, sir?"
    "Oh, hey, Little Bit. Ye've growed up! Where's your old man? He arright?"
    "Yessir, he's well. I'm here on my lonesome, sir." Steffi didn't want to dwell on her newness in this adult world, but the gent sensed both her reticence and her pride: a first-timer away from the parental eye. An important occasion, to be marked by not commenting.
    "You here f'r'a boat?"
    "Yessir, and may I ask, I'd like to take Number Eleven, here, over to the point, camp out there for a few days?"
    He looked across the water. "Y'dad knows you're here, right?"
    "Yessir, and here's our phone number, sir."
    "Okay, child, you'c'n do that. Things are slow, that's a fact. Y'kin leave y'car here. There's this fire ring over there, use that, n'a good flat spot, but don't wander off. Bad swamp back there. Check in w'me inna mornins'."
    "Six bucks."
    "Oars or paddle?"
    "Paddle, thank you, sir."
    Number Eleven was a high-sided three-seater, sixteen feet long, square on each end, with a chunk of cinder block for an anchor. It was not much favored by the fishermen, because it tended to catch too much wind; but Stephanie liked it for that; she could get onto the lee end of the lake and sail downwind, putting the paddle in the water behind her to "scull" by.
    She rowed over to the point, on the east end of the lake, good for camping because it was to windward and would not have a lot of mosquitoes, and good for her purpose because there was no road access.
    She could put up the tent, stretch out, nap, eat, read, go off and paddle around, eat some more, sleep, build a fire, stare into the fire, hum, chase snakes. Read, sleep. Thoroughly explore the forbidden swamp. Alone.
    Her own schedule. For, hmm, only the second time in her life. And this time with permission. She lay in the sun, a turtle on a log, soaking up the future.
    Come the last night, she left her kerosene lantern on the landing, so as to find her way back, and rowed out to the middle of the lake under a stunningly red sky. Blankets, dinner. Prepared to stay as long as the stars wanted company. Dropped anchor in thirty-three feet of dark green water.
    Stephanie ate her beans, read till it was dark, which was quite late out away from the trees, looked about, made her bed in the bottom of Number Eleven, put her feet up on the seat, and watched stars and things come out.
    Vega overhead. Jupiter to the south there. Bats flying low over the water, a moment of wings thrumming by in search of whatever moths had been missed by the mercury vapor lamp.
    Along about two in the morning, she came to. Felt distinctly Not Alone. She lay still, wondering if maybe a cottonmouth had got in with her, but those have a distinctive smell, a bit like watermelon. And rattlesnakes waft a bit of cucumber. There was a smell, all right, but it was like a wet rug.
    Mammal, then.
    Stephanie eased up in the dark and peered over the gunnel.
    A beaver, looking for all the world as long as the boat, lay on the still surface, eyes closed. Shiny in the starlight. Dead? She reached out a finger. Poked the wet fur.
    Water geysered up and descended on Number Eleven, the blankets, and Stephanie, as the startled beaver slapped tail and sounded. She screamed. Maybe twice, for good measure. Her heart raced for a good while, and she was fairly cold from the drenching by the time she got round to raising the anchor.
    Could the beaver have been sleeping out there, hundreds of yards from the shore? Never heard of a beaver doing that. Then again, the beaver had never heard of a girl doing that, either. They had both had a pretty rough moment there. She set to with the paddle.
    In the morning, she packed up, paddled around for three more hours, then pulled into the boathouse. Mr. Johnson took possession of Number Eleven. "So, d'ja catch anything?"
    With her Baptist upbringing Stephanie felt compelled not to lie outright. "There ... there was a really big one, but it got away."


Steffi must have dozed off, remembering the lake. It's late night or pre-dawn, she's not sure. She's suddenly uneasy. Did she remember to lock the door?
    And what's woken her up?
    She crunches up on her elbows and looks in the direction of the back doors. They're wide open, and there's a man in silhouette, with the lid of one of the lockers open, rummaging in the interior.
    Not a good thing to have happening; that's the locker with, among other things, an axe and a machete in it. She'd better act fast.
    Shrugging her shoulders and arms out of the sleeping bag, she reaches under her pillow for her .38. Taking the grips in both hands, with her trigger finger indexed along the frame, she aims it at the shadow. "Get out of there."
    The man jumps and the lid bangs shut. He turns and steps toward Steffi.
    "Heh," he says. "You wouldn't." What a voice! Smokes too much.
She locks back the hammer with her left thumb and puts her finger on the trigger. "I do flinch. But I don't miss the ten ring very often."
    Apparently he's thinking it over. After a long moment, the guy shrugs and turns away, his rumpled trench coat rustling. He eases himself down to the ground through the open doors, and saunters away.
    Some poor homeless guy, sure. But there's a line not to be crossed.
    Steffi's shaking now, badly, but she's got things to do. She eases the hammer down, puts her beloved Model Ten in its holster, gets up, locks the doors, slides into her pants and house shoes, unlocks the doors, climbs down, locks the doors again from the outside, runs round to the cab, fires up Ritzy, and drives to another part of town. There she parks, runs back round to the 'house,' secures every loose thing for a bumpier drive, runs back to the cab, then heads for the hills.
    Not until she reaches open country does she start crying.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Chapter Twelve

- 12 -

WITH THE fall rains comes Steffi's third season in the woods. Ritzy's starter motor isn't feeling well, and Little Bird's forks were bent by a borrower, so Steffi hitches. The contract camp's only about an hour away from the quarry, if she can find a ride that will take her right to camp (hah!) or at least to the end of the Forest Circus road (more likely). She packs up a change of clothes,  some possibles and a copy of D.T. Suzuki, puts on her hard hat, grabs her dag, drapes her caulks, laced together, over its handle, and puts her thumb out by the margin of the highway.
    Today it's not a long wait; the third vehicle to come by is a green Volkswagen bug, driven by a huge head of hair. Steffi's thinking Frank Zappa's twin, or second cousin at least.
    "How ya doin', great day huh, how far ya gotta go, can't go too far outta my way, hey ya got any grub on ya?"
    "Not really." She needs her gorp for the slick, tiring hillsides.
    "Ahh, too bad, I'm from California, gonna be Seattle by tomorrer, th' fuzz in San Jose's jus' too nosy, know-whadda-mean, look inna back seat, ain't that purdy, you tell me that's purdy now."
    Steffi looks in the back. The floor and the seat are covered with greenish-gray bricks, each wrapped in its own thin, shiny layer of clingy plastic. She has no idea what they are.
    "Look at you, making innocent, yer a hippie, I'm a hippie, here, I gotta smoke somma that shit." He opens the dashtray, then swears. "No-o-o-o! Dayum! Left my pipe inna rest stop, diz-asss-tah. Look, you gotta pipe, any chance, sistah?"
    "A pipe, for fuggin cryin' out loud, you gotta have a pipe!"
    Better humor him. "Well ... there is one on me, yeah."
    "So hand it over, yuh gonna have th' experience uvvah lifetime!"
    Steffi fishes out the little Dr. Grabow
    "Cheezis, what's that innit?"
    "Cheeziz, yer one crazy chick. Where'n-ell yer frum, West Virginia?"
    "Umm, Georgia."
    "Well, that explains a lot right there. Clean th' damn thing out, clean it good, clean it good."
    Steffi goes at it with her little Swiss Army, wondering if she should maybe just dive out the door on one of the turns.
    Big Hair takes the pipe, knocks it against the dashtray three times for good measure, then produces a tiny lump of green coal and drops it in the pipe. "Here. light that, light that, light that up n' pass it over."
    Steffi obliges, making an effort not to inhale.
    "Cheezis gahd, girl, you -- are -- wasteful, gimme that." He inhales and holds, rounding a curve erratically.
    Fortunately there doesn't seem to be much traffic; Sunday in the Coast Range.
    "Cheeziz gahd, now is that not the good shit, the better shit, the best shit you ever hit, so help you gahd?" he grins, passing the pipe back.
    Steffi mimes lipping at the pipe, then hands it back. She rolls down the window a crack. "Here's my turn-off, sir."
    "Hey, I got time, take ya where ya goin', sure."
    "Oh, there's no need. My, uh, my ride will come for me."
    "Nahhhhh, door to fa-riggin door service s'me."
    The curves are getting tighter as the road rises into the mist-covered mountains. Steffi's host paws at a box full of tapes between the seats, picks one, and jams it into a boom box behind his seat. Jethro Tull fills the tiny car. Big Hair sings along a bit, and he's not bad.
    "Look," he says. "I'm gettin' inspired, Reach back there, gotta flute case, right on toppa th' hash."
    Steffi scrabbles around, doesn't locate it at first, turns around in the seat on her knees, fishes, finds it; it has fallen down behind her seat next to the immense pile of green bricks.
    "That's two hundred thousand Seattle dollars back there, that is, that is, that is," says Big Hair. "Put th' flute case in my lap, take th' wheel."
    Big Hair snaps the flute together and starts playing. He's with Jethro Tull note for note, astonishingly good. Steffi watches the road and steers, stunned, tries to stay focused on the curves. In spite of her efforts there is a buzzing in her ears, like the night she ate the brownies. The road keeps speeding up or slowing down; she's not sure which. Or is Big Hair's foot beating time on the accelerator?
    They're approaching the rear of an empty log truck, hauling its trailer piggyback up the valley. It's a straight stretch and the other lane is empty. Without missing a note, Big Hair tromps on the throttle, and Steffi, having no alternative, steers into the other lane.
    The trucker is either going faster than Big Hair thought, or is irritated at the glimpse of hippie-car in his rear-view and has picked up speed. Either way, Steffi's stuck steering down the road in the left-hand lane with a curve coming, and Mad Flute is still not missing a note in the driver's seat, holding down the gas pedal to the floor. The pistons in the four tiny little cylinders in the air-cooled engine flail away, but can't quite get round the logger.
    A loaded log truck appears from around the corner. It's several seconds before the truck's driver believes what he seeing and sets the croaking jake brake.
    There's not going to be enough room. Both truckers are applying the brakes and the trucks are screaming at the vee-dubya with their air horns. Steffi glances over with her life in her eyes. Big Hair's flute is still going. Foot still on accelerator, which is flat against the floor. Steffi keeps steering.
    Too bad. Would have liked to have lived a little longer.
    At absolutely the last second, there's daylight and Steffi snatches the wheel over, missing two log trucks' front bumpers in the same instant. She glances back. Both trucks, the loaded one and the empty, are rolling off the highway onto the shoulders and are tootling curses from their horns.
    Mad Flute drops the silvery mouthpiece from his lips for a moment. "What's their problem? I thought we handled that pretty well."
    Steffi is still watching the curve. "Um."


Marie is sitting in the crummy next morning -- Steffi hasn't seen her since her first contract, two years ago. The only open seat is beside her. After a few moments of intense silence, Steffi remembers that intense silences were what Marie had been about, usually followed, at some point in the day, by an effort to monpolize someone's attention for an hour or so, monologuing. The crew'd had little clue what to do with her, but in the Hoedags one does not, as a rule, simply shed a crew member for low production and some social instability.
    The unit's a top-down job, laid out from ridge top to creek bank, in the shadow of an unused steel fire tower. It's a tough work site, filled with gnarly logging slash and transected by deep ravines populated by hideously thorny stuff known as "devil's club." Steffi finds she has to concentrate to make headway across the bristling draw and stay with the line. She's sure she's going to need a lot of duct tape for all the new holes in her rain gear.
    It's at this point that Marie appears before her, sitting on a stump and weeping.
    "What's up?" Steffi hopes not too much; she's got half a bag of trees to plant out yet, and a long climb-out looks likely.
    "I ... I need ..."
    Oh, lord, no, here it comes. Steffi decides she's not up for it.
    "Tell you what we both need, which is to get these trees planted." She sinks her dag into the black earth at the feet of the stump, yanks open the hole, drops the sliver of life into it green-side-up, tamps impatiently with blade and heel, and moves on. She fails to look back.
    Fifty trees later, she's hung up in yet more devil's club when Isaiah appears on a rock face above her. "Seen Marie?"
    "Umm, while ago, going into one of her funks on a stump."
    "Well, she's not on the hill."
    Oh, crap. "I, uh, shined her on; think maybe it's my bad."
    "I dunno, Stef, maybe we all shined her on. I'm gonna go up to the crummy and look for her; y'wanna rep to 'th fazoos for me?"
    "No, I think I want to go up with you."
    Willard pops out of the slash. "G-g-give me y-your trees, Stef, I'll NPF 'n hand 'em t-t-to somebody."
    Isaiah and Steffi climb out of the unit, looking behind stumps, logs and snags along the way. Weather is coming over the next ridge, and the day is getting on when they reach the crummy and the government truck.
    Isaiah looks in the crummy and, for good measure, Steffi look in the cab of the fazoo-mobile, then in the back, but no joy. They look along the service road a ways, but there's no sign of people tracks, just truck tracks.
    Isaiah looks up at the fire tower. "Maybe can see somethin' from up there?"
    "Is it even open? I thought they do all that with airplanes now."
    "Well, there's the stairs, anyway."
    They both go. The first couple of landings are not too bad, but it gets scarier for Steffi after each flight of steel treads. There is wind moaning in the framework and the clouds are closing in at ground level. The railing shudders under her hand. Two more landings. Their caulk boots scrabble on the stair treads and the steel mesh landings. It's like walking on ice.
    There's a last landing. They stand there, looking up at the trap door beneath the fire lookout -- sure enough, padlocked -- and it takes a moment for Steffi to turn around and see Marie's rain gear, pants, shirt, kerchief, and underthings all neatly folded, with her rubber boots, tree bag, and dag all lined up beside them in a row.
    Steffi taps Isaiah's shoulder and points. They both look up at the padlock again, then run over to the railing and look out, north, west, south, and east.
    Nope, no ... body.
    And now here are the clouds and the two searchers are shivering cold and can't see squat. Steffi turns around and starts stuffing clothes in the tree bag.

"She must have dropped all that stuff up there and then run off into the woods," says Jerry-down at the quick meeting on the landing.
    "And it's gonna be cold tonight," adds a MaGruder.
    "We've hollered all around the unit but no answer," says Burt.
    "My partner is on the radio right now to the search-and-rescue," says the inspector.
    Willard holds his arm out toward the poor excuse for a sunset, curls his hand around and counts fingers. "Th-th-three hours, s-su-sunset."
    "Search-and-rescue can only do so much at night, liable to not start till morning," says the government.
    "We oughta start right now," observes Jerry-up.
    "Do that," says the government. "We''ll stay here. She shows up, we'll honk the horn three times."
    Dags and bags into the crummy. Fresh water. What food they can find. Couple of flashlights for thirteen people.
    Everyone, increasingly under the direction of the barefoot-and-crazy-but-woods-wise Willard, spreads out along the ridge to the right of the unit and dives into the darkness under the firs. Steffi snaps off a hazel shoot for a walking stick. Here she is in the slash again, and it's already been a nine hour day.
    It's getting dark when the sweep hits the bottom of the valley. There's a light on beyond a nettle-fringed pasture across the creek.
    Short discussion. Up the gnarly mountain with thick rain clouds and a new moon? Or go say hi to the light?
    Farmer opens his door and finds himself inviting in a troop of tree planters, pants rolled up and boots in hand. Offers tea and some lovely, if moderately stale, crumpets.
    "Where are you from?" asks Steffi.
    "Everybody wants to know," replies the farmer. It's the 'accent.' If you think about it, I'm the only one here with no accent. I'm from London."
    "London, England?"
    "That's the second thing everyone says. What other London would it be, asks I?"
    "Umm, you have a point."
    "And you are from?"
    "Oh, right around the corner from Ukraine, then." He snorts.
    "Yes, sir. Could we, umm, make a phone call?"


On the second day of the search, Willard decides the twelve tree planters, fifteen federals, and twenty-six Search and Rescue citizens are slowing him down, and pads off alone on a hunch. He hoots a few times, Marie hoots in reply, and the emergency is over.
    Steffi comes in with a search team and finds the entire camp huddled around Marie, who's sitting wide eyed by the campfire, wrapped in a blanket. Junie is standing there with the clothes, proffering them to Marie, but Marie is shaking her head. Which is close-cropped. How did she cut her hair if she was running around naked in the woods? Mysteries abound.
    One of the state troopers sidles up to Steffi. "Ma'am, we think you all should see about getting this young lady to the hospital. You, know, a physical and maybe a rest." He almost winks.
     Next thing Steffi knows, she's the ambulance driver, hauling a blanket-shrouded and silent Marie, in the back seat of the crew six-pack, to the Johnson unit in town. 
    She tells Marie she's sorry, but she's not sure if Marie is listening.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Chapter Eleven

- 11-

"S'GONNA BE a long, hot summer," announces Dan.
    Steffi's not really listening. Dan has procured a quart of fresh cream from Omega Farm's cow for Steffi's birthday, and she's trying to dispose of it in one sitting. There are no cows in the quarry where she's parked, no refrigerators either, and she's nuts about cream.
    Dan goes on. "Some of us are thinking about putting together a fire crew; make a little money for the Valley. You want in?"
    Oh. Work! Money. Pay attention. "Umm, sure."
    "Have you done any bidding?"
    "A little. But that's all acreage and spacing; how do you bid fires?"
     "By the hour, I'd imagine. We're going to talk to Timberlands tomorrow and see what they want. Play it by ear."


Next day, Steffi finds herself sandwiched on a pickup's seat between Dan and a long, lanky, soft-spoken dude with John Lennon glasses and a nice Roman nose.
    "Carlo." he offers his hand. "Star crew, same as Dan."
    "But this job is not Hoedags," explains Dan. "We're looking for mostly summer work for us farmers, so it'll just be a small company and bid work that's close to home. Call it Greenwood Workers Co-op."
    "'Workers'," muses Steffi.
    "Lot of old Wobblies up in here," offers Carlo.
    They roll through Alderton and take the third mill entrance on the left.
    The meeting room is just like the one in the Ranger station, which Steffi has seen before. There are windows with blinds along one wall, gray-painted steel filing cabinets along the opposite wall, and a blackboard on the end wall. A handful of paunchy men in white shirts, sleeves rolled up, amble in. Steffi wonders if she's seen this many paunches and hairy arms in once place, ever.
    "What we have in mind," say the paunches, "is we make one call, you can supply eight to fourteen bodies within two hours. We'll train. Hourly rate per body, time and a half, double time. We'll try not to have any days longer than sixteen hours."
    "Is this shovels and MacLeods mostly?" asks Carlo, who has been on fires before. Steffi hears "M'Clouds." She has no idea what that is.
    "Well, it's good if you have those, and Pulaskis and a couple of saws. But it's mostly hose work from pumper trucks, mopping up after unit burns."
    "Sounds good," says Dan. "But why us all of a sudden?"
    "Well, we usually use crews made up of loggers -- out-of-work choker setters an' chasers -- but they tend to run off to Alaska fishing or whatever, and can't get reliable numbers on the ground when the chopper's ready to drip."
    One of the paunches looks at Steffi a bit sourly.
    Uh hunh, another one thinks a girl can't work.
    She pipes up. "Can we recess a few minutes, go out the parking lot, come back to you with a pre-bid? Subject to approval by our crew."
    Eyebrows go up all over the room. "Uhh, sure. Be our guests in the next room if you like."
    Coffee there, too," says another.
    The Greenwooders step through the door. Ugh, Styrofoam. And the coffee looks like it was brewed all night.
    "Did I do that right?" asks Steffi. "I needed to look real to those guys."
    "No, that was fine," says Dan. "Yes, we'll be able to interest people in anything we can get here."
    Carlo takes a sip, makes a face, and puts his cup down. "Hose work is pretty easy. We can bond the company with my place and recapitalize at, say twenty-five percent. So, if we want, like, eight dollars an hour, tell Timberlands twelve."
    "Can we guarantee the bodies in the crummy?" asks Steffi.
    Dan answers. "Yes. Greenwood is used to using phone trees. What about we keep the crummy at your place, Carlo, because you're way upstream. They call me, I call the next name on the chart, and the eighth or tenth person or however many they want, less one, calls you?"
    "I can do that," Carlo nods.
    "I don't have a phone," Steffi points out, suddenly alarmed.
    "We can just assume you're going, Right? Seeing as you're not a farmer."
    No, but I kinda wish I was. "Cool. We tell, 'em what, then, twelve? And about saws, they cost. Sawyers with their own saws a better rate? We could pay out twelve for saw time? And what about drive time?"
    "Sure, you tell 'em." Dan smiles.
    They file back in.
    The paunches look at Carlo, then Dan.
    "We believe our people will do it for twelve an hour per head, plus saws at sixteen, plus miles at twelve," says Steffi. "Have to ratify that at a meeting in Greenwood, though."
    There's a moment of surprised silence. Then a subtle shift in expression, as Timberlands meets the future head-on.
    "Deal," says the head paunch, cautiously extending a hairy arm. "Hope to hear from ya by, say, Friday noon?"  
    Steffi shakes on her first contract.


Training day, the thermometer decides to zip up to a hundred and five degrees.
    Just to add a little, you know, realism. Those who, for example, aren't carrying enough water on them learn a little bit about that.
    There are eighteen trainees, a third of them from Omega Farm. Not everyone is experienced in woods work, but even those who aren't at least know which end of an axe is which, and all are willing to follow instructions. Unlike tree planting, at a fire you can't always wait to get a vote on what must be decided, so Carlos is elected crew leader from the start. He's working with the paunchy guy that leads the training. First lesson: when it's this hot out, protect yourself. Work slowly, drink a lot, and from time to time spray yourself with your hose.
    Steffi learns the tools of her new trade. The drip torch is carried along and pours a kerosene-scented flame on dry brush, good for setting slash burns or backfires. The hazel hoe has a curved three-foot handle like the hoedag, only stouter, and a heavy hoe blade for gouging at duff and dirt. The Pulaski is a combined axe and mattock, especially useful around tree roots.  The MacLeod is a rake with a tall, wide blade, straight-edged on one side and toothed on the other, good for raking through coals and duff. The one-and-a-half-inch hose runs down from the truck to the  brass wye, which is coupled to a couple of one-inch hoses, each ending in brass nozzle.
    She learns to bring Vibram-soled boots instead of caulks -- caulks transfer heat to the soles of one's feet. She'll get a wide-brimmed aluminum hard hat instead of the cap-style plastic one she's been using. She'll wear a bandanna in case the wind changes and she needs an impromptu mask. There will be two water canteens and an extra canteen cover stuffed with lunch suspended from her web belt.
    A small portion of the unit they're on has been lit off with drip torches for the training. After the flames die down, the crew spreads out with hoses, wyes and nozzles and learns to trace burning roots with the water pressure from their nozzles.
    It's like playing with mud pies. Everyone loves it.


Ritzy is nestled under the firs at the south end of the quarry again. During fire season, Steffi keeps half an ear cocked, in the mornings, for the crummy. It's a used eighteen-passenger yellow Weyerhaueser bus with an air brake, and the yelp it makes, coming to a stop by her "driveway," is the sound of dollar signs. Steffi's saw, boots, helmet and canteens are already stuffed into the tool locker; all she has to do is grab lunch and run down in the pre-dawn light to the half-asleep crew. Sometimes Carlo, at the wheel, is half asleep too, his day having started an hour earlier, so Steffi takes the wheel, releases the brake, and heads out, getting her directions from Dan as she goes.
    Today, they're going through Florence to Reedsport, then up into the Smith River watershed.
    Much of this area is covered with a uniform green blanket of young fir trees, having suffered a massive forest fire a couple of decades earlier. Steffi remembers a book by a local housewife, all about the author's family's adventures daffodil farming on the Umpqua; the author had witnessed the huge fire and her description of it topping the ridge and threatening her small town had impressed the young reader deeply.
    The unit is a clear-cut in a a rare patch of old growth. Across the creek in the drainage is the rest of the old growth, trees so big they run five or ten to the acre, with branches the size of most trees. In the darkness beneath that forest, Steffi can see mature big-leaf maples, dwarfed by the old-growth firs. The big-leafs are the undergrowth.
    The helicopter is late, so everyone gets to lounge around. It's by the hour, a novelty to many Greenwooders after years of piece work, and they're reveling in it.
    Steffi's brought with her a text on koans, so she pulls it out to read awhile in the shade.
    Mervin, a farmer from Greenwood, settles nearby. For awhile, his mustache flutters in the breeze from his snores, but as the sun reaches his legs and starts to bake them, he sits up, rubs his eyes and looks over at Steffi.
    "What's that?"
    "A book of koans."
    "You're a collector? My dad was all about stamps. Crazy."
    "No, koans. Zen Buddhist stuff. The teachers used to say illogical things to fry their students' habits of thought and get them going in new directions."
    "Oh. 'One hand'!"
    "Yes, that sort of thing."
    "Well, that's crazy too. What one are ya on right now?"
    "A monk gets permission to go live in the canyon. He's down there a couple of years, and then one of the cooks goes to see if he's okay."
    "That's it?"
    "No, it's a long one. He asks the hermit how it's going, and the hermit says, 'because the ravine is deep, I have a long handle for my water dipper.'"
    "That is deep, Stef." But Mervin is chuckling. His own area of interest is the restoration of Farmall Cubs.
    The air throbs with the thump of helicopter blades.
    Everyone drops whatever they're doing or not doing and drifts over to the edge of the landing.
    There it is, looming over the young firs two ridges away, coming their way. Its paint job is orange and tan, vaguely like that of Little Bird. It heads for the oppositelanding, half a mile away across the clear-cut, and alights there, straddling a long silvery tank that's been offloaded from a flatbed.
    "That's the drip torch," says a paunchy white hat nearby. "Not kerosene and diesel, like a hand torch, though. It's Lum-i-gel."
    "Lummy-what?" asks someone.
    "Napalm, basically. With aluminum powder in it. Makes a nice, fast burn all across the unit. He's running so late, though, we might be here all night."
     The Greenwood crew, having with them only lunch, furrow their brows at this.
    "Oh, not to worry, we'll getcha sandwiches and soda for dinner an' bring 'em to ya if it comes to that."
    Presently, the chopper seems satisfied with the disposition of its burden and it takes off, torch smoking. Like a massive hummingbird it darts this way and that, pausing from time to time, not to sip nectar but to release bright orange globules of flame that splatter on stumps and spall amidst the piled and dried detritus of last year's logging show.
    Flames run together and leap, first unbelievably high, then unbelievably higher. A tree that, for whatever reason, had been been left behind on a point of rock, sways in the winds created by the heat, then erupts like a Roman candle.
    "Cheezus," says a farmer.
    There's not much else to say. The cloud of smoke and steam that forms, superheated from within, rises through the early afternoon into cooler air, where it spreads into the mushroom shape familiar to Steffi from sixteen-millimeter films, shown in her childhood's classrooms, concerning "her friend, the atom."
    She remembers a poem she's read about Hiroshima -- a father tells his son about his mother, how happy she was in the morning light, reaching for a blooming cherry branch...
    ...and you were never born.
    "What?" asks Mervin.
    "Said that out loud?"
    "Uhh, yeah."
    "It's complicated."
    The crew is sent down to the unit's right-hand fire trail to prevent flames spreading into the woods there. Steffi grabs her favorite nozzle and a section of one-inch and runs down along the trail, hopping over logs that, for whatever reason, had not been taken by the loggers or cleared by the trail crew. She stops and looks back as Mervin comes behind her, fifty feet away. He has a one-inch looped in rolls over his shoulder and is dragging the inch-and-a-half. He sets the layout, threading a wye onto the end of the inch-and-a-half, throwing down his one-inch, coupling Steffi's line to the wye and then his, and moving off to his left toward the fire.
    They're waiting for water.
    The thump of the helicopter's blades is returning to the unit. Surprised, the crew looks up. It's slowing down as it nears them, with the guttering torch clearly visible, swinging underneath.
    Gee, that's awfully close. No, right overhead.
    What's he doing?
    Orange globules appear, falling directly toward Steffi!
    She drops the nozzle and runs along a log right through the nearby flames toward a fallen giant fir and its smoldering, uplifted root wad. Nothing, so far as she can tell, has hit her. Surely, with the aluminum powder in full combustion, made tacky by the jellied gasoline, she'd not only know, but it might be one of the last things she would know. Pausing in the shelter of the root wad, Steffi looks up -- okay, the chopper is not directly overhead now. It's still spilling fire. The flaming goop is landing in a line right up the hill, much like a string of machine gun bullets hitting water.
    Mervin has taken shelter underneath a large log suspended across two stumps. The fiery gel actually hits the log right above him, setting the bark aflame.
    Crew members have scattered all over the hill, cursing.
    "What was that about?" asks Steffi.
    Mervin scrambles away from his burning shelter, checking his clothing for burns as he goes. "I dunno, but I'm gonna go find out. When the water comes down, go over the layout for leaks."
    "O-okay." Steffi's knees are beginning to shake. She checks over the line, finds that none of it has burned in the drop, and begins pursuing hot spots in the slash.


A long, hot and dry hour later, Mervin returns and picks up his nozzle.
    Steffi wanders over. "Well?"
    "I got there just as they were putting the torch on the trailer. I asked the pilot why he came back, he said he thought the edge wasn't burning hot enough and he'd hit it one more time."
    "I take it they failed to tell him we were already down there."
    "I guess. Anyway, I told him, and he said, and I quote, 'well, one hippie more or less, big deal.'"

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Chapter Ten

- 10 -

"WHERE TO now?" Steffi asks Burt over the phone.
    "Down th' Umpqua an' head south to th' Bay. BLM. Nobody likes BLM, but it's what's open this year; too much snow at elevations. We'll have two crews in camp, Face and Wildcats. Stop by Central and get a map."
    Steffi is running late. She's got to hit Central before five, get her groceries, drive half the night, and find camp in the dark, maybe around midnight, in the mountains of the southern coast.
    She turns to Dan. "Can I get a couple of y'all Omegas to help me get Little Bird into th' back of the Ritz?"


It's a long way down the mighty Umpqua at night. The droning of Ritzy's engine nearly knocks Steffi out, which she would purely hate to have happen, as drowning is not her preferred way to go down.
    Shifting gears in sleepy Reedsport, she hangs left and follows the white line, around curves, past mysterious black lakes, and, briefly, along the dark Pacific.
    Uh-oh, blue lights.
    "What's the matter, officer?"
    "Interesting rig you have there. I hate to bother you, Miss, but there's a taillight out."
    "Oh-h-h, thanks, I would have never known."
    He's got his little book out, writing a ticket in the light from his headlamps, when his car radio comes to life. It's for him.
    "Oops, gotta go. But you stop first place you can, get that light fixed."
    "Yessir." Steffi mounts up, heads south again. A close one; on her present budget she's not sure she can get a light bulb for Ritzy, let alone sustain a ticket. All the money in her world is tied up in a motorcycle and a fancy chainsaw. Any more money is waiting somewhere in the darkness ahead.
    Ah, here we are, a left, a left, a right onto dirt, ten miles, and a right.
    She doesn't see a second right. Ritzy is lugging a little; shift down. Still lugging, shift down. Shift down again. This is a really beat-up road; log trucks are clearly running a 'show' somewhere up ahead, when there's daylight. Camp is on a dead-end road with no logging; she's missed her turn.
    Steffi pulls onto a wide-out and climbs down from the cab. Oh, finally a little bit of moon. Not that it helps much in the heavy cloud cover. A little light rain softens her eyebrows as she looks down over the precipice.
    Oh, that's gotta be camp. Kerosene glow in a small creek valley. She's gone up the mountain by mistake. Ah, well. Hop in, find the logging show, turn around on the landing. Steffi fires up the engine, pulls back into the road ...
    ... and the engine dies.
    Right away she knows, and sets the emergency brake, cursing.
    Gas! She's forgotten to fill up the truck and the spare cans in Eugene again. And out of saw-gas too, this time. Stupid, stupid, stupid!
    Could drag out Little Bird and go get a can filled. But Little Bird is heavy and the road is steep. Could walk out with a can, borrow a gallon and come back. But it might be a ten mile round trip or more; the loggers are going to want this road in about five hours. She can't be sure of getting back in time, even if she can rouse somebody for a lift.
    And loggers hate hippie house trucks, especially the ones with jade trees in those windows with the little yellow checkered curtains.
    Steffi swings open the driver-side door and climbs down onto the wide running board. She reaches for the grab bar on the side of the cab and sticks one leg experimentally into the cab. Foot on brake.
    Steffi climbs down onto the gravel, crunches round to the back doors, lets herself in -- an athletic achievement in itself -- retrieves a flashlight, tapes it to the side of the steel girder supporting the house, and switches it on. Not much of a "head" lamp but she can see the road, sort of, and the drop-off, sort of, and the cut bank, sort of.
    At one mile an hour, foot on brake, other foot on running board, eyes straining back along the cedar shakes of the house, Steffi backs down the mountain, steering round the curves heart in mouth the whole way.
    It's not until she makes it all the way down into the swamplands and, by golly, finds the turnoff to camp that she remembers.
    Gas-line tubing. She could have siphoned off Little Bird's gas tank and been on her merry way.
    It's almost dawn as Ritzy pulls into a suitable campsite, right next to Little Butch's big black Harley.
    Part of Steffi wants to go to the yurt, wake everybody up and tell them her amazing adventure.
    Better not.
    Aside from they need their sleep, they could all tell even more amazing adventures of their own.
    That's the way of it in the Hoedags. Better she should just fire up the Airtight and, later, see if they want some breakfast.


The BLM suspectors are more difficult and distant that Steffi's used to from the 'Circus' and seem to go out of their way to add to the unpleasantness of the local climate and dangerous terrain. Day after day in the glutinous rain, morale falls.
    Chuck watches the dispirited crew thunking away at the soggy duff with their tools, seemingly unable to earn any other inspection rating than eighty-nine percent, no matter how many extra 'insurance' trees they put in. He watches the inspection plots closely and argues every tree. He worries himself hoarse and is driven to his bed in the back of his pickup.
    Burt takes over, but burns out within days. Juneen would give it a go, but the crew feeling is that an alpha male is the only crew rep the BLM will halfway respect.
    Isaiah, a family man, is not in camp this month, so options appear limited.
    Little Butch volunteers.
    "You're, pardon us, not what they'd see as an alpha male," responds Amy.
    "Ouch," grins Little Butch. "But I'm, y'know, devious. Might be good for something." He's twirling and polishing a brass cup -- a craft he'd  picked up somewhere.
    Next day, he's standing on a stump in his underwear, with his camera in his hands. His dreadlocks are ruffling in the stiff morning breeze.
    The suspectors roll their eyes but they get on with their work of finding enough wrong with the quality of the crew's efforts to bring down the contract price ten percent.
    One of them's digging a hole next to a tree, in preparation for tracing out the position of its roots with a pencil.
    There's some annoying clicking going on.
    He turns to find Little Butch right behind him with the big camera.
    "What are you doing?"
    "I'm making a documentary. It's for the American Geographic."
    "Wait, wait, you can't take pictures of me."
    "Too bad, you'd look great in the article, just the kind of man we want representing the United States Government. But don't worry, I haven't shot you, just your hands and that pencil."
    "Get out of here."
    "Sorry, can't, I'm the crew rep, page two, second paragraph."
    After a few hours of documentation by the half-naked madman, the suspectors retreat to their white pickup and make frantic radio calls.
    Higher-ups show up. They visit the site and talk with with Little Butch.
    A call is placed to the American Geographic. Turns out, unbeknownst even to the crew, Little Butch is legit. He has some kind of deal with them, very recently negotiated.
    Things loosen up a little bit.


Despite the improved relationship with the district, the work is still difficult. The biggest unit of the the contract, a mere sixty-two acres, seems to go on forever. There's no access to part of it except down a vertical sandstone rock face with a little waterfall. Chuck, who's recovered, reconnoiters and recommends the whole section be planted in one day, by having volunteers climb in via the chimney, then bag up from tree sacks brought down  from above. The idea is unanimously adopted.
    Steffi is not a great climber but ends up on the delivery crew. She's wedged in by her knees, with the little waterfall pouring down the back of her rain jacket and soaking into her boots, reaching up for one proffered tree sack after another and easing them down to Murray, who is right beneath her.
    There are four workers in the chimney. As Steffi releases the last sack into Murray's hands, she hears the dreaded warning cry from somewhere above: "rock!"
    Steffi tilts back her head in an effort to see what, if anything, might be coming their way. Those above her crowd themselves back into the chimney, spraying runoff into the air.
    The rock has been rolling, relatively slowly, down the ravine above and has pinballed itself into the chimney before anyone can try to stop it. Water is in Steffi's eyes, but the rock looks sufficiently large to her to be a threat -- maybe even volleyball-sized. If it misses the two crewmembers above, it may hit her. If it misses her, it will certainly hit Murray, and by that time it will have taken up enough gravity to hit like a cannonball.
    It's going to pass by her.
    Really, really close.
    Without any conscious thought, Steffi reaches up, palms the rock with both hands, collapses her elbows to her side, and shoves the missile somehow. It tumbles past Murray and crashes into piled slash fifty feet below him.
    Everyone has frozen, a tableau of stacked treeplanters. They're told later they looked just like a bug-eyed totem pole.
    That night, Steffi pulls off her shirt and tee and discovers a bruise from bra strap to bra strap, right across below her collarbones.


The "sixty-two"  continues to bedevil the crew. Another section can only be approached -- dry-shod -- by means of a debarked and green-slimed log thrown across a winter -swollen creek, some ten feet above the water.  The loggers' choker setters had apparently used this route, as they have left a rusted cable strung across from tree to tree, as a kind of hand rail for the log.
    Steffi is not much into high-wire acts, but everyone else seems unconcerned. They troop across, do a morning's work, troop back, eat lunch, bag up again, and troop across, disappearing into the heavy slash with aplomb. To cover for her trepidation, Steffi is the slowest at bagging up her trees, so that she can inch across the log alone. With the caulk boots, it would seem to be no big deal -- they provide excellent traction on slick wood, and on the slopes Steffi is, like the others, half monkey. But a ten-foot drop seems to put things in a different light for her.
    After the day's done, she walks back to the bridge alone, puts on her caulks, and practices. Back and forth, back and forth, with and without holding on to the cable.
    This isn't so bad. Maybe I'm getting over it.
    She turns around to go back. The caulks strip out of the log, Steffi bounces once, and plops into the icy pool.
    Okay, it's that bad.


    The next day, the crew bags up, crosses the log, and goes to work. Steffi dallies yet again with her bag-up and starts inching across yet again.
    Something in the water catches her eye.
    She's not really anxious to look down, but she tugs the cable toward her and leans out a bit, which stops the cable's wobble enough for her to feel secure. She investigates.
    Really big fish. Lots of them.
    Steffi has not seen spawning salmon before. She's amazed, mystified and humbled by this display, and almost forgets to go to work.
    Others have seen the fish too. Conversations all across the slopes are about size, numbers, colors, and the wonders of migration. By day's end, almost all the men have buck fever.
    It's the end of the dreaded sixty-two and good riddance. The suspectors have relented and it will pay one hundred percent. Face Crew feels like celebrating. They count their leftover trees into a tree sack, help the suspectors load it into their truck, wave goodbye to them, stand around a bit in case the suspectors forgot anything and come back.
    Coast clear.
    The men, as one, slip out of their caulks, roll up their stagged-off jeans, wade into the pool beneath the log bridge and stand there with dozens of giant fish milling around their feet.
    "Whaddya think?" asks one.
    "Hard to get hold of," says another.
    "We oughta at least try," says another.
    Murray leaps on a salmon, which splashes away upstream beyond the riffle.
    Amy, standing on the bank with Steffi, cheers the fish on.
    "Whose side are ya on?" asks Burt, who has just repeated Murray's performance.
    "Well, y'know, those salmon have come a long way. Maybe we ought to not bug them."
    Willard comes down the bank, trousers rolled, hoedag in hand. "That one was-was-was too fresh, M-Murray. Yours t-t-too, Burt. Ya wanta, wanta get one with, with white s-s-spots, p-p-patches, all s-s-spawned out."
    "You know so much, pick one and get 'im," says Murray.
    Little Butch, also on the bank, snaps Murray's picture. Murray makes an obscene gesture.
    Willard watches the water and the thrashing men awhile, then suddenly leaps into the riffle as a white-shouldered salmon struggles by. He raises the dag. Just as he does so, Murray arrives behind him, chasing the fish. There's an audible thump and as the dag comes around and down onto the hapless salmon, Murray drops to his knees, hands on his head.
    Blood can be seen running down the riffle toward the pool, and not all of it belongs to the fish. All the witnesses fall silent.
    Murray is the first to speak. "Ohh. Ohh-h-h. Ohh! Did ya get 'im?"
    Willard, who doesn't even know yet of Murray's mishap, bounds up the creek bank with a flopping salmon by the gills in one hand and his hoedag in the other. Either one is about as long. "C-Coho," he says, proudly.
    Little Butch snaps its picture. In the creek, men are making their way to Murray to help him up.
    Amy has turned her head; she's looking down the road. "Truck comin'."
    Everyone springs into action. The remaining crew members in the creek seemingly levitate onto the roadside. Burt takes the fish from Willard and stuffs it, almost doubled, into Steffi's tree bag, which she's still wearing. He turns her to face toward the road. He and Chuck line up to her right; Willard and Amy do the same on her left.
    The truck arrives, slows down, and stops. Sure enough, it's the Fish and Game.
    Window rolls down. Gray beard juts out."Hey, kids. Been tree planting, huh?"
    "You bet," replies Burt.
    The fish seems to come awake in Steffi's tree bag, and starts flapping frantically. Chuck has a coughing fit.
    The Fish and Game's shotgun is turning over pages in a Tatum clipboard. "We're surveying the anadromous fish runs. Seen any fish in this creek?"
    "Oh, y-yeah!" says Willard. "They're running!"
    The fish lunges, throwing Steffi a little off balance. Amy bumps shoulders with her to keep her upright.
    "You didn't by any chance see what kind they were?"
    "Oh, th-they're c-cohos 'n s-s-steelheads, maybe about thirty of each in th' pool here. Some are, are already spawned out."
    Flap-flap-flap. Chuck's coughing again. Little Butch takes the Fish and Game truck's picture.
    "Gee, thanks! This is good to hear. Well, good luck with your job!"
    "You bet; you too," waves Burt.
    Fish and Game drives off.
    There's a collective sigh of relief.
    Murray, who is holding his scalp together with his tree hand, looks into Steffi's bag. The fish has finally agreed to expire.
    "Salmon steaks tonight!" announces Murray.