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 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?"
    "What?"
    "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?"
    "Tobacco."
    "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?"
    "Georgia."
    "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.