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.

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.
    Hmm.
    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.
    Possible.
    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.
    Sigh.
    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.
    Fish.
    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.