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, October 25, 2011

Chapter Three

- 3 -

"HI, I'M Chuck, this is Willard, Amy, Juneen, Bill, Mike, Murray, Jerry-Up, Jerry-Down, Burt, and Marie. We're gonna pick up the MaGruders and go on up the hill."
    "Uh, hi, I'm Steffi Smith." 
    "Pleased to meet ya. Kinda crawl on to the back there, put yer stuff under the seat, and take a nap if ya want, it's a dark commute."
    Steffi has never seen a set-up like this before. As it pulled up, one headlight bright, the other dim, it looked, in the dark, like some kind of over-extended station wagon, but it seats twelve, plus the driver. Five forwards, two reverse. An unholy aroma of abused bodies, mud, long-dead food, and of the ashes of some kind of burning weed. She settles in next to a large form hunkered in the darkness.
    "Hey, I'm Burt. Ya remember, ya puked on my porch."
    "Sorry about that."
    "Well, things happen. Sleep tight."
    "Uh, yeah."
    Burt shifts around a bit, winds up with his massive head on Steffi's shoulder.
    Steffi shifts away a bit, till Burt's chin finds a less obtrusive purchase, and watches the darkness through the vehicle's interior toward the front window. Occasionally the crummy passes one or two deer, their eyes shining briefly into the mystery of human passage. A lighter flares, and something glowing is handed from seat to seat. Steffi waves it off when a hand appears.
    Lots of country miles, like driving through a snake's guts, later, Chuck pulls the crummy off onto a wideout, just as some daylight has begun to seep over the horizon. Two bushy-beards with Lennon glasses throw their caulks, lunch sacks and hardhats in and climb into the last front seats. They're twins. Must be the MaGruders. The gears rattle and grind a bit, then the rig turns onto a gravel road and starts climbing, in second gear, then low, then low-low. Steffi's ears are popping. Then the noise stops.
    "Piss stop!" yells the driver.
    Moaning, the crew crawl over one another and line up alongside the road, the men standing in front of the crummy, the women squatting behind it. No one looks at anyone else. There's something in front of them worth seeing, anyway.
    At her feet Steffi sees the world drop away, a sea of stumps almost at right angles downwards, receding into a cloud bank that stretches to the horizon. The sun is rising over the clouds, setting all their faces on fire, bright orange with morning's promise. The air is already so clear, above the cloud banks, that Steffi can see individual fir trees on islands of mountaintop three ridges away. The horizon actually seems curved, like an ocean's rim. Steffi has seen a lot of beauty already, done some hiking, been above clouds before, been out of sight of land, has watched the Mississippi and the Rockies and stuff roll by Rocinante's windows, but somehow none of it has prepared her for this.
    Like, the sun comes up and that's your basic C major chord like in the movies, but then, on the clouds, there are all these pastels, modulating into one mysterious minor key after another. There's a worshiping silence, and then somebody whispers, "Holy Shit." As though they'd seen this maybe a hundred times, yet it gets to be new all over again every time, because it's that good. With all the city folks still in bed. And suddenly Steffi knows this is what she wants to do, be here with these people and do what they do, so she can be in places like this for as long as she can get away with it.
    When the crummy starts up again, things begin to happen all through its innards. Feet squeeze into tall caulk boots, coffee is poured, low conversations, coughs, noses blowing. The MaGruders are eating identical oatmeal from identical wooden bowls. Hard hats are fished out from under seats. A wisp of smoke drifts back from the front, and another small soggy hand-rolled cigarette travels from hand to hand. By the time it gets to Burt, it's small and even soggier. He produces a tiny surgical clamp, clips it onto the brown paper along what's left of one side, inhales from the smaller, non-smoldering end, and offers it to Steffi, saying, in a curiously high-pitched voice, "want a hit?"
    Steffi's thinking of the fits of coughing some where up front. "Uh, no, but thanks."
    "Suit yourself. This stuff helps keep the rain outta your bones." He sips at the remainder of the glowing coal, lips pursed.
    They're arriving at a Scene of Destruction: upended stumps, raw boulders, rusted jerry cans, a cleared flat gravel space big enough to turn around a tractor-trailer truck, oil-slicked puddles, sawdust, deep tire tracks. A green pickup is standing there tilted in the giant tire tracks, with a pile of brown paper sacks the size of trash bags in the truck bed. Two men in rain gear walk over to the crummy.
    "Hey, Chuck." 
    "Hey." 
    "Got a full crew?" 
    "Yeah, twelve an' a newbie."
    "'K, well this one's all slash down the right hand side, 'bout five acres, then a rockpile, good ground below the rockpile, steep but good coming up the left side, twelve acres overall."
    "Well, we could do it in a day if you'll let us wide it out a bit."
    "Well, I might woulda, it's northeast aspect and we think it'll survive good, but the C.O. says  stick to the contract, so we gotta hold you to the nine-by."
    Steffi suddenly realizes she's listening to Greek or Chinese or something. Arrh, every new trade, a new language.
    "Hey, Steffi!" Chuck's waving, in one hand, a large rubberized canvas bag sewn to a heavy web belt, and in the other a wicked-looking tool the size of a pickax.
    "This here's a dag and bag. Mostly we own our own here, this'n's a spare. Yuh want to stick about eight bundles of trees in here -- " He demonstrates with twist-tied handfuls of green-topped, brown-rooted seedlings -- "these are fifties, so that's four hundred, and keep track of yer totals. This job's 'by-the-tree.'" Now grab yer dag, follow me."
    The tool has an ash handle a bit over three feet long, curved like a single-bitted axe handle. Steffi sees that it has a long flat blade at the end, at right angles, for punching into the ground at the end of a swing. The other crew members have curved blades, and theirs look sharper, too. This spare must be an older model, the one no one else wants. 
    Par for the course.
    The trees are heavy around her waist. The unpadded belt is cutting off circulation, bruising something. With the unfamiliar caulk boots, rain gear, hard hat, gloves and tree bag, Steffi feels like a deep-sea diver. She's sweating already, and she's not even off the landing.      
    Everyone else is already gone.
    Chuck disappears into thorn-covered brush ahead of her. There are seedlings everywhere, protruding from freshly upturned earth, and from the fog below, Steffi can hear matter-of -fact conversations mixed with the thunk of the crew's hoedads into the ground.
Chuck leads the way, half crawling in mud and rotting vegetation, till they come out into open ground downslope from the brush.
    "We are on what's called a clear-cut. Fir trees don't like t' grow in th' shade, so the loggers take 'em all an' leave this field of stumps. We put in th' next crop of trees an' they all grow up together in th' light."
    He waves his arm across the vista expansively. "It's all black 'cuz they have burnt up th' branches 'n such -- slash -- helps us get at it t'plant, 'fertilizes it some. S'just slash-'n-burn agriculture, s'all."
    Chuck points to the nearest people, who are thunking holes in the earth, among the stumps, and whipping little dabs of green from their bags to the holes. They're spread across the hillside on a diagonal. "This here's the 'line,' see? Trees above yuh, no trees below yuh. On the other side of th' creek, it'll be just th' opposite. So yuh go nine feet -- that's three hoe handles till yuh get yer eye -- put a tree in, then nine feet to th' next one, like a checkerboard. 'Course, stumps and stuff will mess up yer grid, so yuh gotta adjust to it."
    "Th' 'suspectors' -- " he nods toward the green hats, who are standing on stumps, leaning on shovels, chatting -- "are not yer friends, and they are going to be inspecting tight here. Ninety per cent quality pays a hundred on contract price, eighty pays ninety, seventy pays eighty, sixty-nine pays not a gahdam thing." 
    He looks over at them again, to make sure his voice hasn't carried.
    "They're under pressure from above to pay ninety or less, so we gotta keep our numbers up. That means planting tight-by, go eight feet instead of ten, when the logs and stuff'll let yuh."
    One of the inspectors ambles over to watch the lesson.
    Chuck chops at the mountainside upslope from his boots, with a two-handed grip on his 
dag.. But the point of the blade doesn't enter the ground. He's turned the blade sideways, and is chopping out a foot-square section of turf. Then he throws his right arm behind him, letting the tool handle slide in his hand till it reaches the end, and brings the dag over his head in a wide arc, burying the point of the blade all the way to the handle's bracket in the soft earth.
    "Y'open the hole with the hoedad at the bottom by pulling up on the handle, see? Then the top by pulling down. Now yuh've got a hole twelve inches deep and four across all the way down. Right? Now take yer tree and dangle the roots down; give 'em a shake so they'll hang loose and won't get caught upside down, see? 'Cuz roots upside down don't work -- they'll die on yuh; if all the roots are upside down the whole tree'll die. They only work one way. When it's sunny, keep it in yer shade, too, and don't hold it out in the wind too long. All that sun and air'll kill yer tree. Now yuh pack the dirt around the tree with yer hoedad blade, once, twice, like this, so there's no air pocket -- that air will kill yer tree in the ground just like it will in yer hand. Now press down with yer foot, but not too close to the stem and not too hard. There's hair roots, yuh can't see 'em, on every root that yuh can see, and if yuh get rough you'll strip those off at the base, and they'll die, and there goes yer tree, 'k.? They are babies. You are their mummy. Yah? Now on to the next spot."

:::

Steffi spends the next half hour fumbling around with the awkwardly heavy tool, the dirt and the pencil-sized seedlings, trying not to fall off the mountain. Chuck sticks with her, correcting her moves, commenting. The inspector watches, amused. A bald eagle flies overhead, resplendent even in the rain, but no one's watching. The hillside rings with tools hitting stones and pebbles, with hard hats smacking into slashed limbs and boulders. Spiked boots chuff into slick logs and clatter on rocks. Across the hillside, in the mild, soporific rain, she hears a constant refrain of heavy breathing and muttered curses.
    It's hard, it's uncomfortable, it's cold, it's wet, it hurts to be here. But Steffi's feeling a rising excitement, like she's singing inside. This activity seems to have limitless potential of some kind, for measuring one's self against one's self, like track and field. She hefts the hoe over her shoulder and punches it deep into the earth.
    "That's th' spirit," says Chuck. "Y'gotta be hard out here, tough like iron, but aware of absolutely everythin' -- yer next spot, th' next person, th' suspector, th' tree total, th' specs, th' strategy, loose rocks n' logs. everythin'."
    "Like an iron Buddha."
    "Uhh, yeah, like that. "

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Chapter Two

- 2 -

ROCINANTE NOSES up the coast, stopping for a wine-tasting here and a view there, and hits the rains of Oregon in the middle of a socked-in, moonless night. Steffi nearly plows into a cliff on a mountain curve, which wakes her enough to find the turn-off, a right into a valley that has in it the smallest post office in Oregon, not much bigger than an outhouse, and about sixty houses, all scattered along about fourteen miles of noisy creek. 
    The road turns to gravel. The cut-banks, full of bedraggled last year's foxgloves, lean in to kiss the cab windows, and the dark turns almighty. Steffi realizes she's passed the last house and must have missed the commune she's heading for, so she begins a kay-turn on the road, jockeys back and forth about four times, and -- fa-doomp! -- sinks her rear wheels in the ditch. 
         Ah, well. Whaddya expect?
Can't just go to bed and deal with it in the ay em, we're athwart the road and a sign back there did say "Caution: Log Trucks" -- so this trip has gotta reorganize before dawn. Steffi digs out a flashlight and rain jacket, hikes back to where she saw the last window with light in it. 
    She gets her first whiff of wet Douglas fir, along with other smells she can't identify yet: western hemlock, western red cedar, red alder, bigleaf maple, sword fern, bracken, thimbleberry, and salal. She looks up into the canopy closing in far overhead of trees over a hundred and fifty feet tall, and on impulse switches off the light to let the rain fall on her face in silence, in darkness. 
    Delicious. Especially after Texas and its pavement of fried armadillo.
    The house she comes to is covered, roof and walls, with cedar shakes and sticks itself out at the woods at odd angles all over, as if it had been built by someone looking over their shoulder. Raw alder smoke, full of half-digested creosote, pours out the chimney and drifts down to the creek across the road. Steffi coughs, then knocks. She hears activity.
    "Whoa, hang on, somebody's out there."
    "Yeah, I bet they're in a ditch halfway to Six Rivers."
    The door opens, and Steffi looks up into the face of a really tall man, six-four or better, with long hair and a full beard and deep-set preacher's eyes.
    "Hi, I'm Steffi Smith, I'm looking for the commune."
    "Which one? This here's a commune, ma'am."
    "Uh, Omega Farm, friend of mine lives there, guy named Dan."
    "Oh, yeah, that's four miles down, you missed it. Four miles on the left."
    Big Guy waits, hoping to close the door.
    "Um, left my truck up the Forest Service road, it's uh, stuck, I'd leave it but...."
    "Told ya!" someone calls out.
    Big man chuckles. "Yeah, we'll help you out, actually we do that a lot, come on in."
Steffi enters the light from a kerosene lamp, which seems to her very bright after the mountain blackness. She knows lamps, and appreciates at once the skills of her hosts: no coloring dyes in the fuel, a clean chimney, trimmed wick. Real light, steady, easy on the eyes. 
    At once she takes in the interior scheme that she will see in all the homes of her friends for the next ten years: cedar paneling, a leaky skylight, spider plant in a macrame planter basket strategically hung to catch the drips from the skylight, shelves loaded with little brass incense burners and copies of Ram Dass's Be Here Now. An embossed iron stove sits on a brick pad in the midst, surrounded by six people and a yellow lab dog.
    Three small women, with the long straight hair, no makeup, long floral-print dresses, small noses and freckles of hippiedom, such as Steffi had known in Georgia in the Sixties, and three large men, patriarchs in beards and suspenders, with ruddy cheeks and rough hands, look back at her from deep within smoky-looking overstuffed chairs. Nice folks all, really -- but     Steffi feels she has interrupted something serious.
    The man who has answered the door takes it on: "We, ah, we're White Star, oldest commune in the valley, but, uh, we're breaking up. Yeah. Hmm, couldn't agree on how to divvy up, so, uh, we're going to have a coin toss."
    One of the young ladies looks up soulfully, tossing her blonde mane, and shows Steffi a  Walking Liberty silver dollar. "Me and Jeffrey -- " she nods at the giant who spoke before her -- "have called heads, and the others here have called tails, and title to the whole place will go to the winners." 
"We'll do that after I help Ms. Steffi here," says Jeffrey. "Lemme get my rain gear." 
    Jeffrey clumps out to the mudroom. Steffi stands steaming before the solemn contestants, wondering what one says on such an occasion.
The coin lady tosses her mane again, and wrinkles her freckles at the visitor. "Where 'bout did you come in from?"
    "Georgia." Steffi steps gingerly across to the stove, leaving little puddles as she goes, and spreads her hands to its warmth.
    "Oh, you're a friend of Dan's. Yeah. He's really nice, hard worker and smarts too ... how come you gave up on Georgia?" 
    A lot just got said right here. Coin-lady's eyes add, He's taken, you know
    And Steffi's eyes say, S'okay, we're just friends. 
    "Uh, well, I felt like I kinda wore out my welcome, thought I'd see what it's like out here." 
    "I know what you mean, nobody is from here. I'm from New Jersey myself"  
    She seems to need to explain further. "Too many cemeteries."  
    Yeah, that makes sense to Steffi. All over Atlanta, all over the great snorting East, cemeteries, including the one she'd seen so many times, with its big stone lion sleeping over the mass grave of Confederate dead. Huge smokestacks of  Cabbage Town's cotton mill for a backdrop. Generations sitting on top of each other, each doing things their forebears have already done, breathing used air, already know everybody they want to know, burying one another in long rows, right up to the stone walls along the sidewalks. Dilapidated gas station across the street, hollow-eyed old man leaning on the pump in the shade of a tin roof, sucking at a half-cold Nehi, too hot, too tired to curse a fate they 're only dimly aware of, outta there Steffi, Rocinante can go a pretty good ways in a straight line on a fill-up, look for a place to breathe. No wonder you turned up your face to the rain among those ancient fir trees. Even this room, with its friendly woodstove, seems too civilized for you right now.
    Jeffrey comes through, a heavy-duty tow chain draped over both shoulders. "Okay, let's go," he says.

:::

Omega Farm turns out to be a collection of some twenty-odd hippies of the anarcho-Catholic-Worker type that dates back to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. The men all look like Gurdjieff and the center of attention is a larger-than life woman, called the Duchess when she's out of earshot, who sort of resembles Madame Blavatsky in a threadbare burgundy sweater. Steffi likes the setting: big white-and-brown farmhouse, a retired dairy farm amidst densely forested hills, smell of damp alder-wood smoke drifting through the omnipresent Douglas firs.
    The meals are good, too: vegetarian fare, homemade bread, homemade tofu, fresh eggs, real cream. She half entertains the idea of joining this commune, but there's a commotion in the entryway. A new member has taken a notion to sweep the area, out of the goodness of her long-haired, willowy heart, and she's immediately surrounded by three or four of the regulars.
    "No, no, you mustn't sweep the mudroom!"
    "Why not? I feel like it..." Lower lip trembles.
    "You're not the one scheduled to do it," says the first one.
    "We each have our responsibilities, we had meetings, we gotta do it like we said in the meetings,"  adds the second one. 
    "There's a list. If it says on the list, sweep the mudroom, and your name is on it, you sweep the mudroom." This third one is tall and warrior like, and says it with arms crossed.
The joy goes out of Spontaneous Sweeper's face right there, and she slumps and surrenders the broom.
    Before the broom hits the wall in its corner, Steffi is already planning her getaway.
She catches up to her old Georgia friend, Dan, out pulling up yellow flowers in the pasture.
"Uh, Dan."
     "Yo, Steph'nie."
      Dan, lanky, sandy-bearded, always wearing a cowboy Stetson and always smiling, is quite a few years younger than Steffi but has already seen much more of the world, and, having seen it, has settled in as the farm's gardener, the way medieval types used to join the monastery.
    "Dan, I got to pull up stakes here and go to work somewheres."
    "Tree planting."
    "Um?"
     "Yep. Pull up some of these with me. Bend your knees, lock your arms, then straighten your legs. They'll come right out."
    The flowers are pretty, but Steffi notices she doesn't like the smell of her hands after pulling one. "What are they?"
    "Tansy ragwort. Makes the cow's milk bad, and if she eats enough of it, she dies."
    Steffi starts pulling. "Tree planting?"
    "Yeah. I did that when I was first out here."
    Dan begins weaving tales: how, when he first reached Oregon, needing work, he discovered a cooperative, the Hoedags, full of earnest hippies, that made bids on government reforestation contracts and moved, en masse, to the work sites to live in tents, buses, yurts, and pickup campers, sitting around campfires at night singing, then working like demons the next day. How the work is done, the terminology, the small-scale economics, a cross between migrant work and tribalism. How his crew took over an abandoned one-room schoolhouse and lived in it all winter, chopping wood, carrying water.
    Steffi loves hearing that about the wood and water.
    Yes, it brings up her favorite Zen story. The nun. She had worked so hard, carrying the water even by moonlight. The steps were uneven and mossy, but she was determined not to spill even a drop; this was her sign of mindfulness. And the bucket had simply, from old age, sprung apart and dumped the water. Big kenshu! So she wrote a poem:

    I tried, really I did.
    I held up the hoop, then the strakes.
    Nope! Busted! Wet feet.
    No more moon water.
    No more water pail!
     
    Something like that.
    "Best thing," continues Dan, "the crews take women. Nobody else hires women for tree planting." 
    "So, uh, Dan, how do the camp chores get divvied up?"
    "Pile up the tansies; if you leave 'em all over the ground like that, they get any wet weather, they'll re-root. Oh, pretty much like in any family, y'know, them that are into it do it, and if they get tired of it, they stop, then if everybody else gets cold they'll get the hint and go pick up an ax, whatever."
    "Well, yeah, but ... "
    He knows what she's getting at. "The men do their share. And they're respectful."
    "Sounds good. Where do I go to join?"
    "Um, well, Lemmee see." Dan straightens up, grunts, puts his hands on his lower back, and swivels. "There are different crews in the co-op, about ten of 'em, and what you do is join a crew. I was in the Star Crew; most of the people from around here that are in this thing are on the Face Crew. I'll see if I can find out if there's a crew meeting any time soon."
    "Face?"
    "I dunno, that's what they called it. How about you pick up that pile over there, I'll pick up    this one, and we'll dump it over the pasture fence."

:::

Steffi gets to the meeting of Face crew at Slough Creek late on a Monday night. It doesn't look like a meeting, it looks like a party. People are handing around plates of big brownies, and one guy in John Lennon glasses with bushy grey hair and beard and a black felt crusher hat is belting out melodies on a gleaming soprano saxophone. His backup is a short, immensely muscular black man in a multicolored shirt and dreadlocks, working the head of a handmade conga drum. Steffi doesn't even know what that is, but it sounds good to her after a long diet of pages from a Baptist hymnal. 
    A bronzed greek-goddess type offers Steffi a brownie.
    "Have a little milk to wash it down. But not too much." She smiles conspiratorially.
    Steffi likes food, and especially likes chocolate, so she's back to the brownie plate at regular intervals, between snatches of conversation in which she apparently joins the crew and is introduced to various craggy, bearded men and broad-shouldered, weather-blonded women.  
Suddenly she's thirsty, and heads for the kitchen looking for a tumbler and tap water. The sink balloons up under her eyes, and she realizes she doesn't remember how to get water from a tap. Very alien thing, this silvery, snaking device extending from the kitchen counter.
Steffi navigates slowly through a tilting living room, filled with undulating people who all sound as though they are talking under water in a faraway place, and falls, in slow motion, like a leaf or a bit of goose down, into an overstuffed chair that seems to be vibrating and shimmying though the colors of the rainbow. She eyes her hands. She can feel that they're holding still, yet they look as if they're rotating at the wrists.
    "Cheezuz," says someone nearby. "The new girl ate six brownies."
    "Didn't she know what was in them?"  
    No, what?
   A bushy black beard, flecked with silver and gold lights, looms nearby. "You better stay put for awhile there, gal."
   "Help," says Steffi, weakly.
   "No, just stay there. Breathe deep and real slow." A blanket, woven of a thousand glittering stars, appears across her lap.
    Steffi feels her eyes widening and growing around to the sides of her head. She can see for miles, everything in focus: each tree, every leaf of salal and salmonberry, every fiddlehead glistening with the recent rains, every mouse scurrying along windthrown hemlock logs. 
    Uttering a croak of delight, she spreads her black wings and swoops from her favored perch, a dead branch near the top of a lightning-shattered old Douglas fir, seeking beetles, flying ants, or maybe an unsuspecting earwig. Beneath her, the shadows of small grey clouds, fresh from the Pacific, skitter across a patchwork landscape of old growth and clearcuts, yarder landings, gravel quarries, and beaver ponds. Slowly the light around her fades, as though she has flown gently into one of the small clouds.

:::

Next thing she knows, she's sitting in a cafe in a town she's never seen before. An empty cup is sitting before her on the counter, and her friend Dan is pouring, apparently, a second cup of coffee for her.
    "Uh, where am I?"
    "This is the Alderton Cafe, Omega Farm owns it. Today's my duty day. You were saying?" Dan's wearing some kind of long white apron with little stains of avocado on it. His farmer's fingernails are clean.
    "I guess I forget."
    "Something about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and how you understand it now."
    Dan looks her in the eye appraisingly. "It seemed really important to you."
    "What day is it?"
    "Thursday."
    What?
    A guy, all bushy-beardy, comes in the front door. Steffi thinks she hasn't seen him before. Comes right over to the counter. Puts his finger almost in Steffi's face.
    "Her! That's the one! Barfed all over my front steps and just drove off without cleaning up after herself!"
    Dan interposes himself between them.
    "What did you expect? I heard there was acid in those brownies, not just hash, and you expect a new girl, looking for work, is gonna know that? Did anybody bother to tell her? You start in on her and I will personally put you out on the sidewalk." Dan's not a big fella, but suddenly he looks like a pro wrestler. 
    "Well," says the dude, "whatever, I mean ya can't always look out for everybody, they gotta have some smarts on their own."
    Dan glowers some more. "And ya know, that wasn't completely safe."
    Lots of meaningful looks go all around. Steffi wants to say, "Well, hey, nobody would ... " but she doesn't say it because she doesn't know. She's led an unusual life but she's always patrolled her borders. Until the brownies.
    The dude's sorry. He knows the crew is honorable in that way, but he gets it that Steffi might not yet know that. Not that she's given it a thought until this moment! He sees that too, but he's still contrite and apologizes like a gentleman. Twice.
    "One thing at a time. So, has she joined your crew?" Dan picks up a glass and starts cleaning it with a dishrag, as a sign that The Crisis Is Over.
    "I think so, yeah. And we need bodies, even a greenhorn." The big bear rubs his chin though the deep beard, turns to Steffi. "You got gear?"
    "I've got my truck, clothes, food."
    "Hard hat? Rain gear? Caulk boots?"
    "What are 'cork' boots?"
    Dan leans across the counter, smiling. "We have some at the farm that will fit her." He doesn't mention they are his boots -- but he knows her feet are as big as his.
    The tall guy looks back and forth between them, settles his light blue eyes on Steffi. "Ok, meet the crummy at the Greenwood Creek bridge at four-thirty tomorrow morning. Bring your own lunch and water. We'll give yuh a dag and bag till the end of the contract. What do we call yuh?"
    "Steffi."
    "Right, I'm Burt." Shakes hands with a rough, supercalloused palm.
    Four-thirty?  
    And what's a "crummy?"

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Chapter One

- 1 -

IT'S WINTER in Georgia, nineteen-seventy-five, and Steffi, who is twenty-four and a little lonesome and sad, builds herself a kind of a Conestoga wagon deal on the back of her pickup truck.
    She bends conduit on a jig made of stakes in the ground in a semicircle, bolts three sheets of plywood on, overlapping. Paints the plywood. Now she's got a round white camper shell, with "Oregon or Bust" in black lettering over the door.
    The truck's a yellow '70 Chevy and she paints "Rocinante" across the front of the hood, also in black lettering. From the rear-view mirror she hangs an ojo de dios made of two twigs and some rainbow-dyed yarn.
    She builds a low bed frame inside the truck bed, wall to wall, with nine inches of storage space underneath. There she tucks her books, canned goods, bags of beans and rice, water, canteens, backpack, extra pants and shirts and sock hats and gloves and rain gear and boots, all of one dress, an axe, a shovel, a propane stove, a cranky yellow chain saw, a child-size twenty-two single shot rifle that she got when she was all of nine, fishing gear, compass, space blanket, firestarters, shoe grease, knife sharpener, first aid stuff.
    On top of the platform she lays out a foam rubber pad, a Hudson Bay blanket, a sleeping bag, a little pillow she's had for years with "Princess" stitched on it in needlepoint, a four-string Appalachian dulcimer, and an eighteen-chord Autoharp with finger picks. A small broom with its handle sawed off short will do for the the housework. Bolted to the wall she has a homemade lamp bracket holding a family heirloom kerosene lamp.
    In the cab, she's got food and water, maps, an eight-track player, a flashlight and a revolver. Also some cash. Not a lot. No credit cards.
   The truck's insured, for the time being. She's not. She's also unemployed. Does she care? She tosses her hair, puts her hands on her hips and looks west.
:::

She's halfway across the pines of Alabama when a full size U-Haul truck passes her doing what seems like about eighty miles an hour
    State trooper's right behind it. 
    Trooper, blue lights bawling, peels out to get around in front of the truck, and the trucker whips left, kicks the patrol car into the median. Car fishtails all over the deep South for a moment or two, then settles in for the chase, whooping. Out of sight they run. Then, one-two-three troopers and one-two county mounties, zoop-zoop-zoop, zoop-zoop and over the horizon. Get 'em, fellas!
    But what Steffi had seen as the truck went by was a guy grinning at her and her little prairie schooner.
    Having a good time.
    Bless you, sister. Bless you, too brother.

:::

Rocinante takes the wide wastes of Texas in stride with three pilgrims in her cab. Steffi's passengers, who are buying the gas, are a young-old lady with new-age self-assurance, freckles and huge hoop earrings, with a brand-new husband, a handsome Guatemalan she has met on a commune south of the border. They're hitching to Seattle so that Miguel, who knows almost no English and has never traveled, can meet his in-laws
    Hoop-ears teaches language and culture in the cab day and night, as freeway America rolls by underneath the wheels, concrete ribbon, gas station, concrete ribbon. Steffi enjoys the lectures at first, and so does Miguel, but by Arizona, they're both schooled out, and each begins to examine with morose attention the road-killed recaps and armadillos passing by.
    "Now, Miguel. This is a backpack, b-a-c-k-p-a-c-k, also called a ruck sack, it's not what backpackers call a backpack, 'cuz it hasn't got a frame. This is a zipper, z-i-p-p-e-r, like you have there on your jeans, and in here is a pocket, like a jeans pocket."
    Miguel asks her something in Spanish, she rattles off something back at him, they go on a while like that, but faster. Then Miguel summons immense dignity, jams his hands in his -- jeans pockets, pants pockets, whatever -- and enunciates, slowly and emphatically: "You know ... always ... everything." A tear forms in the corner of his eye, and he turns away to regard the sunset on the passing, wasted hills. Stranger in a strange land.
    Rocinante pulls up onto a bit of unfenced desert. The pilgrims gather dry mesquite branches and sit around a fire, close, under a wheel of stars turning earth-slow, brilliant as only desert stars can be when the night plans to drop to zero.
    Steffi has never known zero but as it doesn't seem to worry her passengers, she's game. She brings her sleeping bag to the fire.

:::

Steffi tells about Georgia nights. It's what she knows Hoop-ears translates for Miguel from time to time.
    "My great-great grandfather, the one who married a Cherokee lady, raised cotton on top of Dugdown Mountain. Everything he did is gone now -- it's all red oaks, a hundred years' worth. The road along the ridge was through country without a single house, so it could get dark, I mean really dark. My mama told me this story as I'm telling it now.
    "Grandpa was coming home on the buggy, coming along with a lantern, he was just in this pool of yellow light, oh about twenty foot across. And the horse, which was a good horse, not one you would think of to get scared a lot, just pulled up short and wouldn't get, gee, nor haw. So Grandpa, who was real tired and not thinking to stay out all night, gets down to go around front and talk sense into the horse, when right then the horse up and hauls off the buggy toward home and Grandpa is in the road in pitch black.
    "Well, he can see just one thing and that's the light in the window of his house, across the cotton fields way around the ridge. It's two miles by the road and about a mile straight down and up through the fields. He's standing there thinking what in the hell has got into that horse and then he thinks maybe he hears something. Or, no, he thinks maybe he feels something, like there's eyes looking through his back. He turns, and he doesn't see nothin' but he feels like the front of his face sees something, you know what I mean? Like there's a kind of living headlights out there, and he's caught in the beam, and he is food.
    "So Grandpa, he starts running down the road, and he sorta hears something soft and heavy trotting in the dust of the wagon ruts behind him. So he throws off his hat to give that thing something to sniff at and jumps down into the cotton field and cuts across the rows toward that light in his kitchen window. Well, something thumps and swishes into the cotton behind him, and so he throws off his shirt and runs on down by the pond. He's running about as hard as he can go, goes by the pond, and through the willows, and right behind him something's rustling willow twigs. So he quick somehow shucks his pants and runs in nothing but his shoes up through the cotton on the other side of the draw to where he's about at the end of the farm yard. 
    "He can see Grandma is working at the table by the window, rolling dough with her big arms, and hollers: "Ma, open that door!" She runs over and pops the door with her floured hand and he comes through on the jump, slams it behind him and whap! something hits that door so hard it bends the hinges.
    
"Next day they see where there was deep scratches all over that door, had to plane it down like it was new-sawn. The tracks they found in the farm yard was cougar tracks. He said he could put both his fists side by side like this" -- Steffi demonstrates -- "and stick them down in a track with room to spare."
    Miguel know the same story, only it's about a jaguar.
    Looks like they have made up. Hoop-ears snuggles down deep in her sleeping bag, tucked under his arm, and Miguel gets out a long wooden flute.
    He plays, something startlingly complex, something Central American and etherial, entirely suited to night in a wild place. If there were any breeze he couldn't do it; the night is the coldest one each of them has known. But the air is still as a black sea of glass, and his notes rise like owls to the mountainside close by.
:::

Rocinante carries Steffi and her passengers into Los Angeles, and she's not happy with the place. She's staying at some ashram full of people in turbans, which is cool, but the streets outside are unremittingly mean, full of men in long black coats and black glasses that walk into places and everybody gets quiet. Y'know?
    So she goes out to the curb to see if Rocinante is still there or has she got her tires slashed or anything, and there's goo all over the windshields. "What is this stuff?" she asks, sliming her thumb. "That's smog," says one of the turbans. If so, I'm gone from here, thinks Steffi, and says goodbye to her cross-country passengers. She goes about ten blocks toward Oregon, but something keeps catching her attention.
    There are all these little shops, with signs on them like House of Oral Love, in neon. Each has a storefront window with one or two bored-looking women in it. One of them waves to her.
    Business must be painfully slow. She pulls over to the curb. Two of the ladies lean out of a doorway framed in high-gloss enamel. One has a kind of Sixties page-boy hairdo, a string of fake pearls and those pointy-framed black glasses that women wear in sitcoms when you're not supposed to think they're pretty. But she is. The other has long, long hair and a fresh face, someone who gets enough sleep. Steffi can see the book she's been reading, upended on the broken-backed chair behind her. It's a college sociology textbook.
    So, is she doing her research here? No, just earning tuition. Work-study, ha-ha-hah. If she were less shy, Steffi'd like to sit and talk with them awhile, learn something about them, and about stereotyping, which she realizes she's been doing.
    Steffi, who's been raised really sheltered, is suffering cognitive dissonance.
    These are people.
    Just like, y'know anybody.
    "Y'want work? You're not bad lookin."
    Me? "Wow, thanks, but I'm off to Oregon."
    "Oh, gee, lucky you. I'd love to go there. Good luck, honey."

:::

In an hour Steffi rounds a bend, pulls off the pavement through a gap between two guardrails, bumps along to a stop on a high cliff, and steps out of the truck's cab to hear the waves collapsing among the rocks of the California coast. She's experiencing her first sunset on the Pacific Ocean; the smell of the strange nameless wind-sculpted vegetation all around brings her for the first time some awareness of just how far she is from Warren County, Georgia, or pretty much anywhere she's ever been.
    On the beach below, small energetic birds are running, running, running, matched by their reflections on the wet beach, running down to the restless water, running back with it as boils up the darkening strand. So much movement in these birds startles Steffi.
    She's only seen them in books.