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, November 29, 2011

Chapter Nine


- 9 -

STEFFI NEEDS a place to park Ritzy over the summer, and Dan knows just the spot.
    "Downstream from here, about five miles, there's an abandoned quarry. It was licensed for gravel, but the rock is rotten -- weathers into sand too fast -- and they gave up on it; nobody goes there, not even the BLM, which owns it. Right on a bend in Greenwood Creek, next to the apple orchard. You can get in from either upstream or down, and there's even room to turn that thing around in there. Just drive right in over the baby alders in the driveway, and they'll spring back and it's like you were never there."
    She tries it, and it's all good. Parking at the south end of the landing, at the end of the old dump-truck turn-around, she's got plenty of shade for hot weather. The prevailing wind draws smoke from her chimney up and over the ridge, so she's not likely to attract undue attention. Time and space to read Three Pillars, watch sunsets, and think.
    But there's not enough groceries for the summer. Steffi hikes out, thumbs her way to Omega Farm, and pulls weeds with Dan for a bit. She's got a little money from the Idaho job; enough to expand her horizons a bit.
    "Does anyone have a motorbike for sale around here? Not an Electro-Glide or anything like Little Butch has. I'm afraid I'd drop it just trying to go over a curb or something."
    'Well up at White Star they have one, I think; something Japanese. Clunky. But we have a good mechanic here. Could maybe get you on the road cheap."
    Steffi checks this out and within a week she's the proud owner of a moderately unattractive  orange-and-black Yamaha three-fifty with high pipes and a rusted sissy bar, complete with helmet, a greasy cloth bag of Volkswagen tools, and spare tubing for the gas line. It's been awhile since she's driven a bike, which was a Honda ninety in Enterprise, Alabama, all of once, and the Yamaha looks like a lot of bike to her.
    Dan trains her on it. Shifter, throttle, brake, lights, gauges. How to watch for traffic, potholes, dogs, and railroad tracks.
    Licensing? Insurance? Hey, she's young and foolish. She calls the bike Little Bird, hops on and putts off to the quarry.
    Every two weeks Steffi puts on her jacket, gloves, and helmet and cranks up Little Bird to  head for Eugene, eighty miles from the quarry. She has a five-gallon bucket strapped to the sissy bar, and that's where the potatoes, rice and canned goods will ride. The curves are tight along the river canyon, the highway is narrow and bumpy, and the traffic unforgiving. It's a good education.
    One of these trips is made late in the evening. On the way back out of town she spots a drive-in theater with a movie running. It's been awhile since Steffi has seen a movie, so she pulls into a suburban side street with a view, parks between two cars, sets the bucket down beside the bike and leans back into the sissy bar with her feet up on the handlebars.
    She can't make heads or tails of the flick. Not just because, for her, there's no sound track. It seems to be about a plump subteen who's in some kind of row with her family, and there's a priest who keeps waving a hand-held crucifix at her and she throws up an awful lot. Pretty soon the kid's head is spinning on her shoulders. Ugh.
    Whatever the world is up to, outside of Greenwood Creek and the Hoedags, Steffi decidesshe's not up for it. After awhile she puts the groceries back on the sissy bars and motors off into the night.
 
:::

A walk along the creek in the morning convinces Steffi there are possibilities for supplementing the potatoes and rice. What are called "creeks" here would be serious rivers anywhere else, and the driftwood piled high in trees on the bends serves as a testimony to what can happen when the whole Pacific Ocean rains on your parade.
    Among the pools and riffles there are what look, to her, like dwarf lobsters, crawling every which way. Steffi is not much into shellfish, but she's thinking that where these are, there may be trout.
    Back at the Ritz, she digs out an old and heavy baitcasting rig she'd pilfered from her dad. It's rigged for "bream," very lightweight line, small hook, one split shot. She's not too sure of the antique lures in the kit that came with the rod and reel, and it hasn't rained in months, so she's not likely to find worms.
    Oh, hey! The lobsters! But they have those big claws. Folks around here must know how to catch them, but Steffi has no one to ask at the moment, so she grabs the log tongs from underneath the Airtight and heads down to the creek.
    There's one of the little dickenses right there. After snapping at him fruitlessly for two or three minutes, staggering around on the smooth stones in the riffle, Steffi corners the little guy -- girl? -- by a willow root and picks him up. He spreads his claws and plays castanets, which throws Streffi for a moment and she goes over backwards into the water.
    Cold.
    Where Steffi grew up, water is warm at this time of the year. This stuff takes one's breath away. Might as well be in a winter flood in the Olympics.
    The tongs are empty now, so Steffi stands up, water draining from her hair, shirt, and jeans, shivering. She looks for a sunny spot to stand in, pulls herself together, and repeats the hunt.
    Got one! She dismantles it, draws a section of fresh crawdad onto the hook, flings the bait into the pool downstream from the riffle, and in seconds is playing a tiny trout over to the bank.
    Gonna have protein all summer.

:::

Fish and potatoes every morning will last until the rains come. But a little more money before fall would not be a bad thing to have; a cushion. In case Ritzy ends up needing a third engine, say.
    Steffi places a call to Hoedag Central.
    She catches someone in, which is lucky in August. "Yeah," the guy says, "not much goin' on right now. There is some precommercial thinning. Near Alderton, too, and they're short-handed. Not much money in it, they never pay good out your way. But that's what there is. Got a saw?"
    Steffi shows up on the landing riding Little Bird, in her blue hard hat and caulks, with saw, gas, oil, lunch, and water in the bucket.
    The crew leader, a tall, humorless but gentle man called, appropriately enough, Slim, shakes his head. "No scrench? No round file? No laundry soap bottles to hang yer liquids on yer belt? An' that McYellow there is worse than no saw; it will shake yuh to death. But yer a Hoedag already and I've heard nothin' bad about yuh; we'll see what we got in th' crummy."
    Slim outfits Steffi and they walk, slide, and skid for half an hour through jungle into the bottom of the unit. Steffi falls, head over heels, twice, scattering tools and sandwiches in the brush. Slim shakes his head again.
    Thinning is done from the bottom of the mountain up. A tiny creek is trickling past through a thicket of salmonberry. Slim trains Steffi as best he can. The work is more complicated than she'd thought.
    "Work sidehill," Slim is saying. "Meet somebody, bump up fourteen feet, work back, repeat." He draws the diagram in the dirt at their feet, then stands up and points.
    "See, right here is a good tree. S'Doug fir, eight foot tall, an' all 'round it is some ocean spray, alders, bracken. No need to cut bracken, or grasses 'n forbs, but if it's woody 'n within fourteen foot o' yer good tree, cut it off within six inches of th' ground. Take out smaller or poorly shaped Doug firs or hemlocks or cedar, and anything broadleaf -- alder, maple, 'shittim,' willow, cherry, viney maple, ocean spray, thimbleberry, salmonberry. Y'cn leave these Oregon grapes alone. Sword ferns, huckleberries, they're okay. Yuh don't have a good fir, pick a hemlock or a cedar. Yuh don't have any conifer, skip ahead to yer next good tree. You get into old-growth alder an' there's any conifer in th' understory, I'll show yuh how t'ring th' alders."
    Slim puts in his earplugs, holds his gray and red saw by the wraparound handle, yanks once at the cord with his other gloved hand, and gives a demonstration. In seconds, things are falling toward the creek one after another, as he walks along.
    Steffi kneels atop her saw housing, sets the choke, yanks about fifteen times, and eventually cranks up and slashes at her surroundings for a few minutes. There's a tap on her shoulder.
    "Yer way too dull an' runnin' too rich. Siddown a minnit."
    For what seems like hours, Slim files away at each tooth on Steffi's saw bar, then files at the rakers, which she hadn't even realized had a function, explaining as he goes.
    "Shine each tooth evenly, an' always file to the bevel. Y'wanna smooth edge here an' a minimum of resin buildup. Use th' same number of strokes on each tooth or it will cut on a curve. All our wood here, 'cept for madrone, is soft, so take your rakers down like this t' throw a bigger chip. 'K? Now yer chain's too loose, yer gonna throw it. Yer scrench at this end will loosen these two half-inch nuts, then yer tighten th' screw here; not overtight. See that daylight when I pull on it? 'N now yer carburetor, take yer scrench an' take both of these screws back t' zero, then this one out one turn, 'n this one a turn an-a-half."
    Steffi's head hurts. Might as well be studying calculus. But when she cranks the saw again, it starts right up. And she can't believe how fast the chain goes through the little alders. Saplings bounce off her hard hat, slide down her shoulders, and roll downhill behind her like the wake behind a boat. it would be fun if it weren't so hard.
    The buzzing saw chain is out of her sight half the time and the saw bucks around among the smallwood as she imagines a bronco might buck. This is not at all like firewooding. No wonder Slim talked so much about knowing where my legs are at all times.
    Steffi does not remember ever having worked this hard. When her first tank of gas runs out, she falls over on her back in the slash, dizzy, her eyes full of salt. Her arms are covered with scratches even beneath her heavy hickory shirt. When she crosses her eyes, she can see blood drying at the end of her nose.
    She drags out a red bandanna and wipes her face. A hummingbird appears from nowhere and hovers for a long moment not six inches above Steffi's eyes; it's checking out the bandanna. There are saw noises everywhere but here; mostly upslope somewhere. She's falling behind; better gas up and go.
    After her four tanks of gas have run out, it takes Steffi a long time, say about fifty years, to make it back to the landing. The jackstrawed slash left behind by the guys easily defeats her efforts to gain altitude.
    When she arrives at the landing, the others are having a heated discussion. Steffi feels hostility in the air. The men, all but Slim, climb into their crummy as she starts unloading her gear into Little Bird's bucket.
    Slim comes over.
    "There's been a, uh, a crew meetin' an' th' guys are feelin' like you will cost us too much money. They're hopin' you'll wait for tree plantin' to start up again."
    Steffi feels tears welling up behind her safety glasses. "It's -- well, I need money too. Maybe I could work at half rate till I get the hang of it?"
    "I like it that you thought of that, but it wouldn't be legal really." He thinks a minute.
    "Tell ya what. I'll bring it up to th' others that we'll  put yuh on yer own subcontract, right across th'draw. Yuh do that piece, y'get paid for that piece. It probably won't make yuh minimum wage but it'd be something. I'll check on yuh once a day."
    "Wow. Thanks, Slim."
    "It's about fifteen acres, I'll ask the fazoos t' tell us exactly. You'll need to be done by th' first of October, an' if ya meet inspection, you'll make, after fifteen percent to Central, about six hundred dollars."
    That seems like a lot to Steffi. She's almost grateful. But then Slim's talking again.
    "But y'gotta dump that McYellow. No shocks, no chain brake, bad piston ring. So half of yer six, we'll get Central to front it to ya an ya go buy a Stihl."
    "Steel?"
    "Stihl. German saw. Model oh-thirty-one, sixteen inch bar."
    So, for her summer's work, Steffi's going to make three hundred dollars, less saw, sawgas, oil, and tools. If she doesn't shorten a leg.
    Oh, well.
    With any luck, she'll make it through to  planting season a little stronger and wiser.
    Maybe.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Chapter Eight


- 8 -

THE NEXT couple of weeks are like a dream to Steffi; the jelly rolls are so heavy, and the days so hot, that she has little sense of living in a camp in general, or in her house in particular. As she's putting in a tree, she must find a rock or stick, as required by the contract, to put next to the south side of its little trunk. This will give it a spot of summer shade later in the year. She wonders if she remembered to water her little jade tree that she bought for her 'kitchen' windowsill, or to close the doors behind her as she trudged, in the gray dawn, to the shade house to bag up.
    She unbuckles her web belt, slides out of the punishing tree bag and places it in the shade of a tall stump, then digs out a shallow hole in front of the bag to sit in and dangle her feet downslope; an impromptu chaise lounge.
    Burt is planting through along her line. Yoder, not carrying a dag and bag, is following along watching Burt and asking questions. He spots Steffi and comes over to sit with her.
    "What are you up to?" asks Steffi.
    "I'm trying to learn how he does it. He's putting in a thousand trees a day, and I'm only at, like, three hundred. Even you, you do six sometimes."
    "So, did he show you anything new?"
    "Well, he has no wasted motion. Makes every step count. And doesn't seem to stop for lunch." After a moment of silence, Yoder looks at Steffi imploringly. "I try to do those things. It doesn't seem all that complicated. But I feel like I'm just stumbling around out here."
    "Burt grew up on a ranch, Yodie. You're from, I think I heard, Newark?"
    "Yeah."
    "And you're how old?"
    "Seventeen."
    "Bet ya've never been anywhere but school till you got that van."
    "Uhhh, yeah. Well, I've sailed a boat some, on the Chesapeake."
    "Well, then, nothing time won't cure. From what I've seen, tree planting is just like being on the water. Any sailor has to get his sea legs on the first voyage. Burt has hill legs. We all do."
    "It's your first year, too, Stef, how come you caught onto it so fast?"
    "Lots I don't know yet. But I'm a country girl from the red hills of Georgia ... and ... "
    "And?"
    "I'm an 'only.' And my dad really, really wanted a boy."
    "Oh. I think I know what you mean."
    "Well, put it this way; if you've shot squirrels and cleaned them for Brunswick stew, you can adapt to a lot of things."
    "I'm a vegetarian."

:::

The inspectors are difficult at first. They keep wanting to look in everyone's bag to see if anyone's unrolled their trees and hidden the burlap somewhere. But, while nobody's perfect, the Hoedags, as putative self-employed persons who want to take pride in their work, and who think of themselves as environmentalists to some extent, want their trees to live. They look for stumps and logs to plant a tree to the north of, nestled between roots and stones, with all-day shade on the all-important root collar. They argue for a looser interpretation of the specs in order to wide-out or tighten down the spacing to find such spots. The CO, who putt-putts round the unit on a green ATV, gets it and relents. With morale improved on the hill, the crew, which had fallen behind, begins to make up ground.
    But there's still an issue; it erupts at a camp meeting.
    Amy leads off. "There are some people here, you know who you are, plant a lot of trees all the time and make really good money because it's by the piece. But some of us feel like it should be by the hour because, even though we're slower, we help the crew meet quota every day. If there were just you six or eight fast ones, you couldn't work. So we're vital. But we get penalized for it for not being built like football players."
    "Is this a girl-guy thing?" asks Murray. 'Cuz Stef makes good money and she's a girl."
    "I'm only average," puts in Steffi. "When you make eighty bucks, I make sixty-five, and I'm okay with that, s'all."
    "But," says Amy, "I've been here like forever and I put up the yurt 'n take it down 'n make town runs 'n split kindling and make a lot of the breakfasts ... "
    "Which are always eggs 'n broccoli," someone shoots back, "'n I hate eggs 'n broccoli."
    "Don't interrupt, I have the floor. But I'm only making, like, thirty dollars a day, and I gotta ask, am I digging myself a hole just to be here?"
    "Look, if it's by the hour it's not worth it for me to be here," replies Burt. "Why should I make, like, fifty a day when I can be on a crew where I'd make eighty or a hundred?"
    Jerry-up has been listening quietly. He raises his hand.
    Like Steffi, he's not a huge producer, but has been making out okay. He's in it for some aspects of the lifestyle, she thinks. And she's learned to pay attention to what he has to say. Almost thinks of him as her Guru from Brooklyn.
    He gets the floor and stands up from the hay bale where he's been sitting. He spreads his hands. God, the guy really does look like those old paintings of Jesus. "Hey! I hear where everybody's comin' from." He gestures around the room. "Each of us is a body in the crummy, like Amy says. And we help out around camp and keep it from becomin' a nightmare, even though that doesn't pay nothin.' On the other hand, without at least half the crew putting out eight hundred to a thousand trees each, we'd fall so far behind the Forest Circus would shut us down. So high production is high value too, but it's gotta have an incentive. Burt's got a little place out near Greenwood an' so do the Magruders; they're gonna run cows some day. Crew loyalty is not gonna buy those cows all by itself. They could be doing other work, like Burt says."
    "You got a motion?" asks Chuck.
    "Sure. Have the treasurer take the total payment for each unit and divide it in half. Pay out one half by the hour and one half by the tree."
    "Huh?" asks Burt, who sees dollars signs being flushed away. "How th' hell's that an incentive?"
    "It's called being a cooperative. Look ... you pay your  low-rollers something to be in the crummy. Keeps the contract open. Your low-rollers pay the high-rollers to stuff the hillside with trees. Also keeps the contract open. It's better than by the piece for Amy, but better than by the hour for you."
    "I dunno." Burt is trying to work out how much he'd lose by being here.
    "Was there a motion in all that?" asks Chuck.
    Juneen, who's secretary, chants from her scribbled notes. "Have treasurer take total payment for each unit and divide it in half. Pay out half by the hour, half by the tree."
    "Is that right?" Chuck asks Jerry-up.
    "Uhh, yeah."
    "Discussion to the motion?" Chuck asks the circle of dirty faces round the interior of the yurt.
    Jerry-down, a bigger and slower-thinking guy than Jerry-up, rises in place and is recognized. "Umm ... every unit is diff'rent. So, y'know, like ... we get to th' landing, look it over 'n vote right there. Lots of slash and non-plantin' spots? By th' hour. Kinda average? Half-'n' half. All gravy? By th' piece."
    "That an amendment?" asks Chuck.
    "Uhhh. Sure, why not."
    Chuck looks at Juneen.
    "I make that pay out each unit by vote of crew on the landing, hour, half-and-half, or piece."
    "Wow, good job, Junie. That about right, Jerry?"
    'Yeah. Umm, yeah."
    "Discussion to th' amendment?"
    "I like it," says Isaiah. "Gravy units will help th' Magruders buy cows. Slash units will help Amy get paid to crawl through slash, which is a thing she does, like, a lot, without fussing. It's equitable." Anything Isaiah says tends to wrap up a discussion. People can feel consensus building. "And ... I call the question."
    "On the motion with the amendment?"
    "That is cor-r-r-rect."
    The motion, as amended, passes. The treasurer is going to have a lot to keep track of, but Steffi thinks it will be worth it. Well, she hopes it will. She was elected crew treasurer only a week ago, and math is not her strong point.
 
:::

The sun angles down among the larches on the western ridges, lengthening the shadows. There's an evening star.
    "What are you gathering up all that orange stuff for?" Steffi asks Willard. Willard, a quiet guy who's at every contract but has little to say and has apparently no legal address, is dragging a bunch of "orange stuff" off a stump into his empty tree bag.
    "It's, it's called 'calf's brains' -- it's a - a - a mushroom. Almost. Almost as good as morels and, and it's, it's all over the place here, fuh-fuh-free.. Try it, you'll ... you'll like it."
    Willard's recommendation carries some weight. He's always returning to camp from somewhere with a grouse or a trout in his tree bag. He seldom seems to need to make a town run. A peculiarity of the guy is that he forages, hunts and fishes in this rugged region year round.
    Barefoot.
    Plants trees barefoot, too. Some people give him a wide berth but Steffi likes him. Something about him reminds her of her own childhood, especially the part where she ran away from home and lived in her own handmade wigwam in the dead of winter.
    Steffi finds her own orange-crowned stump and rakes the fungi toward herself with her dag. She's got a plastic bag left over from lunch and dumps the goods into it, tying the end off. She's got fifty trees to go and doesn't want to get the mushrooms all gritty.
    In the evening, Steffi builds up the fire from the morning's coals in the Airtight and puts on her Cold-Handle skillet with the usual sliced potatoes in olive oil with Italian seasoning. Then she brings over the baggie from her tree bag, snips the calf's brains into the skillet with scissors, and stirs it all with a chopstick, listening to the sizzle.
    When dinner's done, she brings the skillet, with a fork, over to her desk, where she has a book open on a kind of easel. The book is by Ed Abbey, and she's got it open to the page where he climbs to a spot in the desert, atop an almost totally unclimbable pinnacle, that he's sure no one has ever reached before, only to find a clearly delineated arrow, made of small stones, pointing to absolutely nowhere.
    This, she thinks, savoring the calf's brains, is the life.

:::

The crew wants to finish the contract in the next two days. They offer to split into two groups, if the CO will allow them to work that way. He will; what's more, his people need to go to a fire training and they are willing to drop off the trees in the shade at the units and let the Hoedags finish the job without "supervision." They'll be inspected later, after they've already long gone. The last two units are very far apart; one is eleven acres and the other is twenty. The low rollers will go to the eleven and the high rollers will go to the twenty, and both groups will camp primitively on site, staying till the unit's done, then rolling back to the crew camp to pack up and go away.
    Steffi's not a high roller by any stretch, but she's encouraged to go to the twenty with them, so in the afternoon she puts together some stuff in her Kelty backpack, rolls up her sleeping bag and a tarp, bungies them onto the frame, and throws her load in the back of the crummy with everyone else's. The other crew will use Juneen's Ford six-pack, which is practically a crummy in its own right.
    The twenty-acre crew hop in and drive for about two hours to reach their job, and find it pancake-flat. As promised, there's a tarp over a snowbank with thousands of jelly-rolled trees, mostly baby lodgepole pines, waiting for them.
    "Shall we do this one by the piece? Buy some cows and retire to our mini-ranchettes?" grins Burt. Heads nod.
    Camp is made right out in the open clear-cut, with a small fire. Sleeping bags radiate from the fire, cowpoke fashion. Steffi thinks of the crackling-cold night under the frozen stars in Arizona. A lot has happened since then.
    Not long before dawn, she's awakened by a cold nose. No, wait, it's somebody else's nose! right against hers. Mildly disgusted, she wriggles her arm up out of the bag to shove the interloper away.
    Hairy. Tiny hands grip her finger and the cold nose shifts to sniff her hand.
    Okay, now she's awake.
    It's a raccoon.
    "Go. Git!"
    The animal nibbles at the heel of her palm.
    "No, seriously, bug out or I'm gonna bean ya." She digs out her flashlight and tries shining the creature away. It just grins in its bandit mask and sits up, waving its paws in the light like someone making a shadow play.
    "What's  up, Stef?" asks Chuck sleepily.
    "Fracking coon won't leave me alone. Gahh! Now it's in my hair!"
    Chuck and one of the Magruders rise up and prod the raccoon off into the dawn with sticks.
    "Wow," says Chuck. "It's light enough to work. What say we hit it now and see if we can do the whole thing today?"
    "With six people?" asks Burt, sitting up.
    "Why not? On this ground you can do one to two hundred trees an hour, even with th' shade blocks."
    "You can. I dunno about me," doubts Steffi.
    "Aw, let's at least have a go. We can be back in camp tonight, all the comforts of home."
    With a groan, Chuck's companions lift themselves into the chill air. The raccoon anxiously watches from a safe distance as the now alarmingly tall animals mill about, eat, drink stale coffee made the night before, wander off to the bushes one by one, then drag their dags and bags from the roof rack of the crummy and head over to the jellyrolls.
    "Oh, these are a hundred to the roll!" someone says.
    "Yeah, with pines you can do that."
    The roots cling to a pencil-straight taproot. Definitely made for fast planting. Steffi loads herself with four rolls, a quart of water and a tin of sardines. She can use twigs as chopsticks to eat brunch, then bury the can underneath one of her trees.  This should see her through to lunch time.
    Step, step, step, step, swing, draw tree, poke it into the hole, tamp, shade block with a stick or stone, repeat.
    The sun rises over a far ridge and begins shortening stump shadows all around her. Birds are singing. With her gloved right hand holding lightly onto the end of her hoe handle, Steffi reaches for a tree from the left pocket of her bag. Whoa, empty. She moves the right-pocket bundle, chilly to the touch and heavy, into her left pocket. Wow, a hundred trees already. She looks along the line; the guys are way ahead of her, planting like machines, grinning.
    She can feel it in her bones. This is going to be her highest production day. As in, never again a day like this. It will be all downhill from here.
    That's fine. Nobody lives forever.




Friday, November 18, 2011

Chapter Seven



- 7 -

EVERYBODY'S PACKING camp yet again.
    Steffi's snow vacation has convinced her she needs a little more space -- crew food, for example, is okay up to a point, but twice the bucket brought down into the bottom of a unit has contained nothing but onion sandwiches, and while communism is all well in its place, she'd like to have her own fire to sit by some evenings. A step-van, or maybe even a school bus. She's done well enough in the Olympics to afford something.
    The Magruder brothers know just the thing. "Talk to Murray. He has a friend on the Stones crew, wants to get out of the woods, has a nice rig."
   Murray, thin-faced, mustachioed, and intellectual, is half out of the woods himself -- wants to go back to school after this season and be a professor of music or something. Afraid the planting will dull the talents in his brain and hands. He lays aside his guitar as Steffi comes up to him in the yurt, listens a bit, and rubs his chin.
    "Cat Man has a rig, yeah, but he wants fifteen hundred for it. A little steep, maybe. How about my truck?"
    Murray's truck has a taller camper than Steffi's, and with a stove and stovepipe, too, but it looks like an outhouse, is even darker than Rocinante inside, and stinks of dogs and cigarettes. She winces, but he's not offended. "I'll give yuh th' number. Y'get to Eugene, try him."

:::

Cat Man is a little guy, about two-thirds Steffi's height, shaggy-maned and a bit of a showman.
    "Here she is, ain't she lovely?" He extends his arm in a sweep that's like the raising of a theater curtain.
    It's a two-ton flatbed truck with dual wheels on the back, very tall. On the truck bed there's a house.
    A real house! Cat Man shows off his carpentry: maple flooring, cedar interior, skylight, double doors with divided lights, windows ditto, cedar shake exterior. Airtight stove with pipe flashed through the ceiling. A set of six steps, made from two-by-eights, provides access. One entire side wall folds out to make a stage; he'd kept an upright piano inside at one time and had entertained notions of traveling with a band, medicine-show style.
    The business end of the rig is a deep blue blunt-nosed cab with much of the engine underneath the floorboards. The cab's height is a bit intimidating for Steffi at first. Cat Man shows her how to stand on the running board, grasp the chromed grab bar, and swing herself up onto the seat. The steering wheel, which is huge, nestles right up against her rib cage almost. There's no seat belt.
    "Your windshield wipers are vacuum-powered; they go slower at low revs and faster at high revs. There's five forwards and, get this, three reverse. She can't go very fast but the gas tank is huge; you can run her all day without stopping."
    "What ... what year is this thing?"
    "Nineteen Forty-seven Chevy, but the engine is newer and has just been rebuilt. Here's all the receipts."
    Steffi likes it, but at fifteen hundred? She smells mechanic work in her future "What do you drive?"
    "Nothing right now; I need to downsize. Believe it or not, this has been my sole source of transport, along with a motor scooter."
    "Well ... what about we look at my pickup?"

:::

Steffi looks about. She's gonna need a little more stuff. In here she's rattling around and she's not quite used to it. She's never actually owned a home other than Rocinante's homemade canopy.
 Cat Man was not much for shelves and cabinetry, even though he's obviously a much better carpenter than she.
    They'd dickered only briefly, then swapped titles on the vehicles. Steffi's new house cost five hundred dollars and Rocinante.
    It had felt like a betrayal. The faithful yellow pickup had tugged at Steffi's heartstrings the whole time she was unloading.
    The foam mattress, queen size, had fit perfectly into her new bedroom, an extension of the house built over the cab of the ancient truck. On the mattress she'd piled not only her sleeping bag, blanket and pillow but also very nearly all her possessions, then closed and padlocked the glass doors, swung herself into the cab, and rolled tentatively away with a hoot of the quaint horn and a wave.
    First stop, Goodwill. She finds a wall bracket for her kerosene lamp, a copper bottomed pot, a Cold Handle skillet that looks like it should just fit the eye on the Airtight, three bowls, a replacement tablespoon, a tea kettle, three mugs, and six nice brass coat hooks.
    Also from the book section, an acceptable Three Pillars of Zen with only one corner of the cover chewed off. She's hoping it will help her survive this move toward the middle class.

:::

After the coat hooks are installed, and Steffi's chore coat and rain gear and dulcimer hung, she starts building "window seat" cabinets and a desk. The corners are crooked, but everything is stoutly hinged and stuff can be stored away.
    At the desk, by lamplight, she will write in her journal and read, on good days, Paul Reps, Gary Snyder and D.T. Suzuki, there being a shortage of Zen nuns getting published.
     On bad days, Plath.
    Herr Lucifer, Herr God.

:::



Steffi finds a scrap of one-by-six and carves on it: Ritz Hotel. This she nails up over the back door.
She pats the housetruck on its fanny. "Let's go."

:::

With the Olympics done, and the weather changing, crews are spreading out to contracts in the Rocky Mountains, a phenomenon known as the Spring Tour.
    Face Crew is off to Idaho. Steffi stops at the "almost wholesale" grocery and picks up five boxes of canned this-n'-that and a fifty-pound sack of rice. With rice, dandelions, chickweed, miner's lettuce, and the like, she knows she can go a long time without having to come in to town. The contract, she's heard, is a day's drive from anywhere. She climbs into the blue-and-chrome cab of the Ritz and heads up the Columbia Gorge.
    Wind is coming downstream today; the Ritz's big blunt nose is an easy target for a headwind and, heavy as it is, the housetruck sways a little, bucking its way east. Steffi would like to be thrilled at the scenery -- Rooster Rock, Multnomah Falls, the giant dams, the rimrock -- but she feels she's hanging on for dear life. And fifth gear seems to top out, here, at forty miles an hour. A hill appears in the distance and it hangs there on her horizon for what seems like ages. A seagull passes, making better time than the chugging engine.
    Steffi misses her tape player. A little bit of Blue or The Low Spark of High-heeled Boys would help her pass the miles. She sings to herself, bits about Carey getting out his cane and she'll put on some silver.
    Night falls as the Ritz drones on; a town's lights creep over the horizon and just hang there, seemingly unable to come closer . Steffi checks the gas gauge; it's leaning on empty. Damn! She'd meant to get jerry cans at the army surplus, but it was a stop she hadn't manage to make. Ease off on the throttle; lower revs. Climb the grade. As soon as you top the grade, take out of gear and freewheel, idling. As you bottom out, slip back into fifth, listen for the sweet spot in the revs, take it down to fourth, repeat.
    The town's lights reappear, still no closer by the look of them. An eighteen wheeler groans past with a red VW "bug" drafting in its tailwind.
    The engine coughs.
    Coughs again. Starts dying.
    O-o-o-kay, that's it. Steffi takes it out of gear and drifts into the emergency lane on a faint downgrade, nursing a few hundred more feet out of the big truck's inertia.
    What to do? She doesn't want to hitch to the town at night. Or walk. Much of what's going going by is pickup trucks with a couple of cowboy hats driving; too much to handle if it's the wrong color hat.
    She remembers the warm springs. Oh, yeah! Sawgas! It can get her closer to town, maybe a safer walk by the light of the mercury vapor lamps on the rampway.
    She climbs in the back, pulls the bolt pillow off the tool locker, lifts the lid, and picks up the bleach bottle in which she mixes and keeps the stuff.
    Aww, empty.
    Oh, hey, the saw! She hefts out the old McCullough, climbs down and runs around to the big square gas tank.
    Oops, can't reach with the saw; the leading edge of the house is in the way.
 Hmm.
    Back to the house, grab hard hat from locker.
    It's a blue plastic one, cap style. Steffi doesn't like it much, prefers her Sou'wester rain hat, but has it along for any saw work, such as 'falling' small snags to get dry firewood for the yurt. Looks like it'll do.
    She runs the hat round to the fuel tank, empties the saw into the hat, empties the hat into the gas tank.
    Puts her house in order, jumps on the running board, lifts herself into the cab by the grab bar, turns over the engine. It catches. She checks the big driver's side rearview mirror, stays in the emergency lane, ascends through the gears, babies the throttle, thirty five miles an hour all the way to the ramp, gears down, climbs the ramp, crosses the highway to the station, and runs out of gas right at the pump.
    She's definitely gonna buy a couple of long-necked gas cans here, price no object.
    Gas station attendant eyes her up and down. "Where's your guy?"
    "Guy?"
    "Big rig like this, had to have a guy drivin.' Did he go in th' back?"
    Jerk doesn't know a Hoedag when he sees one. Maybe she'll buy the cans at the next place.

:::

Idaho! The Rockies! The mountains, the trees, the smells through the open window are different. The soil, full of mica and pyrites, glitters. The firs are dusty, and in place of the ubiquitous cedars of the Cascades and Olympics, there are light green conifers,all putting out new needles, which Steffi learns later are called "larches."
    She pulls into Pierce and it's night again. All the cars in town are at the only two-story building, which is covered with Christmas lights and a big sign, "Grand Re-opening."
     Hungry. Might be a meal to buy in there.
    The front door has those swinging shutter-like thingies like in the movies. Steffi can't believe it. She climbs down and crosses the street with a little trepidation, images from "High Noon" going through her head. What's it gonna be, a brass rail, spittoons, and poker?
    Steffi looks in. No, it's about a hundred people, all ages, and there's a huge buffet, long tables laid end to end. The room is exuding immense affection. An older guy, all paunch and walrus mustache, notices her. "Gonna stay out there all night? S'okay, all on th' house for th' grand openin'."
    No kidding? Steffi comes in and gains three pounds.

:::

The road from Pierce to camp is only ninety miles long, but requires almost as much driving time as from Portland to Pierce. It's purely a jeep track.
    Ritzy doesn't like it. She's fourteen feet tall and ten wide, and leans out alarmingly on the curves. Something has come loose in the back and is rolling around seasick. Steffi tries second, tries third, tries second, tries third again. No gear is happy. Dust, glittering with mica, rises in the rear and is pulled forward by a tailwind, covering everything inside and out. Steffi can feel the grit between her teeth when they're rattled by the washboarding on the grades.
    Here's a corner so tight someone's hung up a polished hubcap or something so drivers can see if anyone's coming around from the other side. Ritzy has to jocky back and forth five times to negotiate it.
    Steffi finds a wide-out a little farther along, gives the truck a needed break and steps over to the drop-off. River's about two hundred feet below. In the middle of the current, there's a little raft using fifty-five gallon drums for flotation, with a tiny cabin on one end and a mess of chuffing machinery on the other. Two guys are running some kind of bucket chain from the river bottom into a gadget that rocks back and forth.
    One of the guys grins up at her. He has only one leg. Maybe he's dredging for a new one. The pursuit of happiness in the Land of the Free.

:::

 One unit is most of this contract. Camp is squeezed onto the landing; its a high place, and there are snowdrifts.
    At sunset, Ritzy shoulders her way, barely breathing, past the yurt. Juneen and the Magruders come out to help block Ritzy up level. Steffi's home again.
    She drags the steps out of the back doors with Juneen and bolts them to the doorstep. "What have we got?"
    "Three hundred twenty acres. It's a short job; we have to make twenty acres a day and there's only going to be thirteen of us."
    "We can do an acre and a half average, can't we?"
    "Some places we can, but these trees are jelly-rolls."
    "What's that?"
    "See that canvas shade-house behind the yurt? The suspectors put a slurry of vermiculite and water in the barrels, dip the trees, spread them out on burlap and then roll up the burlap and pin it with a nail, like a diaper. Those rolls are heavy and it means more bag-ups. Slows us down."
    "What's it for?"
    "I know you won't believe it, 'cuz there's all this snow, but it's not like the Olympics. It will get hot out there at midday. This will cool the trees till they're in the ground."
    "Well, live trees beat dead trees."
    "Yeah, but th' slurry hurts yer back. Worst part is, th' suspectors get grumpy rolling th' trees, 'n they're apt t'take it out on us."
    "Oh. Oh well, we're here. Seeya in the morning?"
    "You bet."
    Steffi climbs in through the double doors and checks out the damage. Not too bad. Mostly cans and potatoes rolling around, books dumped. She steps up on the window seat nearest the bedroom, digs her lamp chimney out from under her pillow, and brings it over to the lamp. Crank wick up, light with match, install chimney, roll wick down to the sweet spot.
    Yellow light floods the room. It's a little chilly; she loads up the Airtight with a few splits from a cedar shake and some newspaper, gets them burning merrily, and adds a couple of chunks of fir that hitched with her all the way from western Washington.
    As Steffi is sweeping the glittery dust out the back door, Yoder squeezes past the yurt in his widebody step-van.
    Steffi's at his door before he has rolled to a stop. "Gonna put up that tent?"
    He leans wearily out the window, surveying the scene glumly. "Where?"
    A Magruder arrives from the yurt. "It's pretty tight here; and we have to leave room for the suspectors to park, too."
    "Maybe I'll just sleep in the van."
     "Hang on and we'll level you up right there."
    "You will?"
    "'Course we will. Still kind of a newbie, are ya?"

Monday, November 14, 2011

Chapter Six


- 6 -

THE CONTRACT is plagued by snow.
    This is a good thing, as it makes the inspectors sympathetic to the Hoedags, who show up morning after morning, stinking of camp life and weed smoke but ready to work in the cold and wet.
    On the other hand, snow can shut the job down. If it's more than two inches deep, the inspectors will call it a day, as snow can ball up and fall into your hole with the tree roots, then melt later on and leave an air pocket which will kill the tree.
    If it keeps snowing, you're out of a job till the next thaw.
    Face Crew is all over the hill. Steffi is in the middle of the line. Above her she can see Murray and Bill, and two more people blurred by the weather. Below her is Israel, and she knows Juneen and Chuck are around the corner somewhere catching up the back. They're about a fifth of the way down the mountain from a landing at the top; she can hear the storm winds moaning as they comb the hair of the fir trees beyond the landing. The trees are waving at her, or rather bowing to her, bending at the waist; it's more than a little alarming.
    The inspector, a paunchy guy named Mike, is atop a stump, leaning on his shovel, turned away from the wind. There's enough wind to rattle the fifty-foot tape measure hanging at his waist, and just enough snow on the wind to turn the back of his orange vest white. He's yammering away at anyone within hearing.
    "See, there was this little river, an' it was just over th' line. Th' VC used it to run their guns 'n ammo an' shit, an' we could see 'em all th' time, but couldn't shoot at 'em 'cuz of th' fuggin rules of engagement. 'N we wuz up there 'n along come this lon-n-n-n-g boat piled high with mortar-round boxes, 'N I radioed in to th' colonel 'n reported it 'n asked for authorization to hit 'em, 'n he sez, Mike they are in a no-fire zone, 'n I sez, but colonel, 'n he sez, Mike, listen carefully: no fire zone -- 'n a light come on in my head, an' I sez, Rob, set us down over here by that big rock 'n we loaded up that rock and flew over there 'n dropped it right in th' middle of that boat 'n down she went."
    Israel unbends himself, tree in hand, and looks up the hill through his sunglasses at Mike.     "Well, Mike, that's all well 'n good but that was then and this is now, right?"
    Mike seems kind of crushed by this and sits down on the stump. Steffi's right in front of him, sliding a snowy little tree into the its hole between two huge roots. She packs the tree with her boot and looks up.
    The inspector has tears in his eyes. "God, I wish I coulda fought in a popular war."
    "Sorry, sir." Thinking of nothing else to say, she moves on to the next spot.
    Several spots later, she realizes she's outplanting Bill, making a bow in the line. She can see his round head above a snow-crusted log -- no hard hat -- bowl-cut blond hair -- and his round shoulders. If she bumps back, it will make matters worse; she needs to pick up her dag and walk up between Bill and Murray. But it's steep; this part of the hill is more rock face than anything else.
    Above the log, Bill has found pay dirt. He swings his dag and pulls back on the handle.
    His elbow touches the log.
    It turns and starts walking sideways down the hill.
    Whatever comes down the mountain in an uncontrolled fall, be it boulder, tree trunk, or planter, the universal warning is "rock", screamed at the top of one's lungs. Bill is screaming it, Mike is screaming it, and Steffi, running sidehill, is screaming it. The log collects her and down the mountain they go, Steffi over backwards on top of a lot of sliding scree, the log on top of Steffi.
    It's not a huge log, maybe twelve feet long and two in diameter. But it's waterlogged and making good time. If ever Steffi should be terrified, it should be now. But there's no time for that. The sky goes by for what seems hours, in slow motion, then she drops into a hollow, the log goes on alone and tears itself up on a stump with a bang like a movie explosion.
    Steffi's young enough, up to this point in her life, to still believe she's immortal. Gee, maybe not? Was this it?
    There's total silence. No, her ears are ringing. She's watching blue spots circling in front of her eyes. Or, no, maybe that's just the snow.
    How peaceful. How beautiful. If I have to go, this not at all a bad way.
    Bill's face hovers over hers. Jerry-up's does, too, which she would not have expected; he'd been planting nearly a quarter of a mile away on the other side of the draw. Her fall was that interesting?
    Steffi's brain starts working again. She focuses on Jerry-up's classic Brooklyn face, which to her looks like some of the better paintings of Jesus.
    Jerry-up's lips are moving. She can just make out his accent. "Don't move, Stef. We'll getchuh the stretchuh!"
    "Uhh. I don't think I'm broken, really. Just sit me up?"
    "You're kidding, Stef, that thing rode you a hundred feet!"
    "Well, its end was on the ground, I dunno."
    Against their better judgment, Bill and Jerry-up shift Steffi to sit up against a large rock.     Fifteen people are standing round her in a circle, sympatico-eyed.
    "Stef, no hard feelin's?" asks Bill.
    "I got up under you, Bill, my fault."
    Chuck comes down-slope and goes on one knee to look Steffi over; he gently lifts her eyelids and looks into her eyes. "Not dilated. But I think we ought to at least put ya in th' crummy."
    "Chuck, this unit is good money. I don't want to go up there and get all stiff. How about we switch places, and I be the non-planting foreperson?"
    He's grinning. Steffi takes this as a good sign.

:::

The unit's done by a late lunchtime and the crew drives around the mountain to another one, eating in their seats. Steffi's a little sore now. No, she's a lot sore. Back, arm and leg. She pulls off her left boot; it's bugging her. The others climb out for a look-see.
    Steffi watches through the dirty window. The sun is out. They're strategizing, laughing, patting one another on the back, then come back for their dags and bags. Juneen pops into the front of the crummy for her hard hat.
    "What's up?" asks Steffi.
    "Unit's half rock face, half gravy, no slash. Hundred dollar afternoon for sure."
    "We made that much this morning. It's after two now."
    "This one's twice as good. It's twenty-two acres but we can get it all done before dark!   Y'comin'?"
    "I dunno. I'm stiffening up."
    "I don't wonder. Hell of a fall. We all thought you were killed."
    She looks like she's gonna stay and talk. "I'm okay," says Steffi. "Go break the bank."
    "Yeah." Juneen grins, pops her steel hat on and disappears.
    For awhile Steffi's okay with just sitting. But then she thinks a little sunshine'd be nice for that foot. She hops toward the front of the crummy, holding onto the backs of the seats.
    Once outside, curiosity gets the better of her. What's the unit like, really? Grabbing a planting shovel for a crutch, she hobbles over to the edge of the road.
    People are scattered out far below, with Mike standing on a stump above them maybe two hundred feet from the road. About a sixty percent slope. There's a lot of trees in the ground already; as Juneen said, it's all gravy. Suddenly there are dollar signs in Steffi's eyes.
    In a wink she's back in the crummy and trying to get her boot on. No way. Her foot's now two or more sizes too big. She like roomy boots and layered socks but her feet are big to begin with. She rummages around and finds one of Burt's tennis shoes. Size eleven, men's. Perfect fit.
    Back in the sunlight, she takes her tree bag, hopping with the shovel, over to the inspector's green truck, opens the camper shell, drags a paper tree sack over and lifts out four damp bundles of trees. Two hundred. Should be just enough for the amount of ground that's left down there. This unit will pay thirty cents a tree easily; sixty bucks if she hustles.
    Diving off the landing will be the easy part; in all that soft dirt she can just schluss on down to the line. She aims for Mike, who hasn't moved.
    "Hey."
    "My god, girl, I thought you was hurt!"
    "Not so much; may I use a shovel?"
    "Well, there's no grass to scalp here; I don't see why not."
    "Where's the action?"
    "Everybody went left and they'll come back here 'n go right. You get under the cliff here, you can work for hours and save 'em a climb out."
    "Thank you, sir."
    Steffi slides and slips down the edge of the bulging rock face, planting trees as she goes, and gets into her very own acre at the bottom of the clear-cut. She crutches from spot to spot, ten-by on a nine-by, driving the shovel deep with her hands, blade facing backwards the tree-planter's way.
    The sun sinks west. Steffi's bag gets lighter with each hobble.
    There's movement overhead. She looks up, up, and up, and there's Mike at the top of the cliff. He gets out his clipboard and looks down. He waves his pen at the acre. "So, what's it like down there?" His pen hovers over the clipboard.
    He doesn't want to climb down here. I'm throwing my own plot!
    "Umm, eleven for ten and one loose tree."
    Mike scribbles in the clipboard, closes the aluminum cover, then grins. Steffi can see the   grin all the way from here, even in the shade of his hard hat.
    "All right," he says. "Not too bad, but watch it with them loose trees!"
    A bit later, the piece is done and her bag is empty. She'd better start climbing. It's gonna be slow.
    Casting a long shadow, Steffi works her way round to the right and up. Before long, she hooks up with Burt. He's throwing his dag ahead of him into the dirt and pulling himself up by the handle; it's that steep.
    "Is that my shoe you're wearing?" he asks, eyebrows raised.
    "Mmm-hmm, I'll wash and dry it tonight."
    "How come it fits yuh?"
    "Reasons of state."
    Around a big stump comes Bill. He clambers up on the stump and points to the sky with his hoe handle. "Lookie."
    They turn and squint. Out of the low sun comes a bald eagle.
    Then another.
    Then another.
    In a few moments, there are all of seven bald eagles, turning and turning in the pink light.
    From around the corner, Lon's hoarse voice rings out.

    Oh, say, can you see
    By th' dawn's early light ...

    "It ain't dawn, Lonnie!" That would be Chuck.
    "Don't matter," replies Lon. "Been a helluva day, huh?" He picks up where he left off.  
    Others join in, including Mike, the government man.
    Steffi takes another agonizing hop upwards. Yes. A helluva day.

:::

Steffi awakes and, uh-oh, no can move. Oh yeah, run over and half killed by a log yesterday.
She drags over the stick that holds Rocinante's back door open and props it up. The light coming in is unreal, upside down or something and bright. How long has she been asleep?
There are camp-breaking noises all around her. Amy sticks her head in over the tailgate.
    "Hey you."
    "Hey. What's up?"
    "Snowed out. There's four inches here. Gang's gonna head for town and stay in a hotel. Ygonna come?"
    Steffi doesn't want to admit she's immobilized. "Uhh, tell ya what, I could stay here and watch the camp? Y'think?"
    "Loner."
    "So I'm weird; I don't have a corner on that."
    "True. Y'got all you need?"
    "I think. Well, there's plenty in the yurt, right?"
    "We packed it all up in case of bears. All the kitchen goodies are in Yoder's van. Help yourself."
    Amy's head disappears replaced by Lon's. Whiskey and hint of Prince Albert. Whiskey at seven in the morning?
    "Ya good?"
    "Oh, sure."
    "I c'n bring ya some coffee, there's still some from breakfast."
    "Umm, yeah."
    Lon disappears. Steffi tries to sit up, but she's totaled.
    In a bit she thinks Lon's back, but it's Chuck's hand puts the mug on her camper shelf along with a can of beef chili. He seems to know she can't sit up. "Listen, we could be gone a week with this snow. More comin'."
    "I'd like that, it'd be like a vacation. I don't much go for town, you know."
    "Yeah. Uhh, listen, Stef, while we're gone, be thinkin' how if we hadna snowed out, we'd be short one hand. In th' Hoedags, it's not just about our own totals. Right?"
    Steffi feels her face burning. "Umm. Right."
    "Be careful, now."
    Thank you for the coffee and chili."
    "Yeah."
    Presently the crummy goes through its litany of moisture-laden engine coughs, then chugs out of camp.
    An absolute silence falls.
    Steffi pulls the stick and Rocinante's back door shuts with a bang, cold light coming in  through its window.
    She pulls the top of her sleeping bag over her head.

:::

It's another morning before Steffi feels ready to venture forth. She tests her body by shifting her hips, one side and then the other. Not too bad. Bladder, though, oh, lord!
    Her nose is pretty cold. The light coming in her window is blazing. She rearranges her Princess pillow and hunches up in bed. Hungry. Can opener, chili. Spoon, spoon. Where's the big spoon? Ah. She digs at the chili fiercely. The spoon hits the chili with a clunk and bends almost double.
    Whoa! how cold was it last night?
    She's going to need fire. This is out of Rocinante's class. Besides, got to make that yellow snow!
    Wrestling her way out of the sleeping bag, she scrabbles for her boots and then lifts the camper door.
    The scene that awaits her is a shock, even though she has to squint to see it.
    The sky is an impossible shade of blue. Beneath that the fir trees are not at all as she remembers them; everything is bent down with thick pillows of white.
    The yurt is suffering from the load of snow. Wading knee deep, Steffi cuts a willow wand for a walking stick, and a longer willow, branches on, for a broom, and clears the roof as best she can. Then she hobbles in, sits on an aluminum veggie-oil can, and builds a fire in the Airtight. Not till the yurt's warmed does she raid the step-van for bacon and potatoes.

:::

Walk time. Steffi grabs her walking stick and makes her way painfully up from the entrance of the gravel pit to a little knob above the road. From here she can see, to the east, the river that was in flood, cows and all, only a week ago, and to the north, the ouch-white Olympics, just peeping over the shoulder of a tall, calendar-perfect ridge. West and south is a wide valley full of fir trees, alders, willows, and maples, all outlined in white. She can see a few small animal tracks nearby, but nothing's moving. In camp, there are more than a dozen humps that are the crew vehicles, and the brushed-off yurt, with its central chimney emitting the only smoke in the valley. The smoke drifts down toward the river, turns, and follows it toward the Hood  Canal, and, somewhere over there, Mount Rainier. A full moon is rising.
    Steffi smiles. 

Monday, November 7, 2011

Chapter Five


- 5 -

THE CONVOY mumbles and coughs its way up the Seattle freeway all day at forty-eight miles an hour, passed by irritated tractor-trailers and thousands of recent-model sedans filled with small bouncing children and exasperated parents.
    All the traffic gives the crummy an especially wide berth with its stuffing of boxes of canned goods, sacks of grain, firewood, stove and stove pipe, and its roof groaning with racked hoedads and shovels, the long lodgepoles, and the yurt -- door, walls, roof, and ring folded to the extent possible and tied down tight with a variety of ropes.
    Steffi is fifth in line with Rocinante, sipping at a carton of chocolate milk and listening to Tubular Bells on her eight-track. One of the crew dogs is riding shotgun but sleeping on the job. A rich odor of wet fur permeates the cab. Steffi cracks the window.
    In front of her is one of the crew trucks, with a tall plywood camper on its back. Next to the camper door a straight-backed chair with a wicker bottom is tied onto the bumper. The door opens and Burt climbs out, settles himself on the chair and lights up a smoke. Steffi finds this a little nerve-wracking; should the truck hit any kind of a bump, Burt is liable to fly right under Rocinante's wheels.
    Steffi shakes her head almost imperceptibly. Burt smiles.

:::

The line of trucks pulls into the parking lot of the Ranger station in a driving rainstorm -- real drops for once, coming down big at a steep angle and stinging those who climb out of the cabs, stiff, and run to the station entrance. Steffi stays put, watching rivers of water pour down her windshield. The dog whines. She leans over and lets him out. His business is done in less than a minute, and he's whining to be let back in. Rain comes in with him, and the cab stinks worse than ever.
    Someone comes running from the station. Steffi rolls down the fogged window and is pleased to see Israel, the black drummer , whom she hasn't seen since the party. Water is pouring from his dreads. "What the hey, Izz," she tells him, "come around and hop in." 
    He does so. There's a commotion as he gently evicts the dog, who crawls under Rocinante, whining.
    "Whoo! Wet, wet, wet. How ya doin'? Oh, waitaminnit, we met yet?" He grins.
    Dark glasses on a dark day. But Steffi can feel his kindly eyes through the lenses. "At Slough Creek, you and the guy with the sax were doing the music."
    "Ohhhhh, yeah! Brownies!"
    "I'll never live that down."
    "Sure ya will. So, an-n-n-n-yway, been here since yesterday, got a campsite, meetin' with th' CO is happenin', I'm gonna get us lined up an' outta here so's we can set up camp before dark. Who's drivin' th' crummy?"
    "Chuck or Juneen, I think."
    "Gotcha. Don't run away, we'll pull out in ten or so."
    He hops back out into the rain, remembers to put the dog back in the cab, and is off in the mists.
    Steffi picks up a rag from the floor, mops the inside of her windshield, flicks the key in the ignition to cycle the windshield wipers, and looks out.
    The mountains here are big. As in, way, way big. She leans over the steering wheel and looks up, putting a crick in her neck. Clouds, speeding, drag their ghostly hands through tiny trees that she knows are giants. She's sure nothing previous has been touched by those clouds since Japan.
    Or maybe Mongolia, who knows?

:::

The designated campsite is right on the river, an actual gated campground that the "forest circus" has unlocked for the crew. Everyone heads for a chosen driveway; some prefer near the one-holers, some near the main entrance so as to be last to crummy up. Steffi picks the spot nearest the river.
    Mostly the crew has been camping in gravel pits or sometimes among trees along a logging road. Such places are seldom level and settling in often consists of driving two wheels onto a couple of small piles of rocks. Here, she just parks and she's done. What a treat!
    Letting the dog out to go find its real owner and a meal, Steffi shrugs into a rain coat and rain hat, stretches and walks over to the water.
    Woo. This river is high. As in high. And fast. And muddy. Rivers in the mountains, she knows by now, should not be muddy. She starts to climb down the bank for a better look in the gathering twilight, but thinks better of it. One slip here and they'd never find me. And is that a tree going by?
    It is, and furthermore, there's a bobcat riding the broad trunk, looking bedraggled and scared. Not something you see every day. On a hunch, Steffi focuses on a small rock by the water line and watches it, counting toward fifty. The water climbs over the rock and submerges it at twenty-three. This is a flood.
    She goes looking for people. They're already setting up the yurt; the lattice is in its circle and turnbuckles are being turned on cables. She's always hated interrupting anyone, but if she's going to start, now might be the time."Uh-h-h, people ... "
    "Steffi, ya wanta grab that there pliers?"
    "Hang on, we have to look at the river, I think it's going to jump its banks."
    "No."
    "Mmm, yeah, I kinda think yes."
    Burt goes over with her.
    Steffi points. "Watch that little broken root there and count to thirty."
    He does that. "Uh, oh," he says.
    They run to the others and explain. Work on the yurt halts, then is reversed. As they work, they cast anxious glances toward the river bank. One trickle begins running between two stones onto the asphalt, then another.
    A young man Steffi has barely met, named Yoder, has a huge Army surplus wall tent already set up, massive poles, ropes, tent stakes, camp bed and all. She pitches in with him dismantling it. Yoder is staggering around under his assorted burdens, shoulder-length blond hair dripping. By the time they have the canvas down, they're ankle deep in flood. The canvas fills with water and it takes eight people to load it in the kid's step-van. The river is up to the van's running board.
    As everyone runs toward their assorted rigs to head out of the park, someone shouts out. "Jerry-up's bus is floating. And it's locked!"
    Burt shouts back, across running water. "Where is he?"
    "At that meeting with the CO's!"
    "K, everybody go to the bus!" Burt runs to the crummy and draws two lodgepoles from the loosely tied bundle on its roof. Carrying these to the yellow Volkswagen van, he hands off one, then shoves the other underneath the bobbing vehicle's body. Soon there are eight people on the two poles, with others, Steffi among them, assisting as best they can, some holding the van upright, others dragging it along by its bumpers and door handles. It's hauled up to the access road by brute strength.
    "If the river gets this high," remarks Burt, "Jerry-up will just have to find himself a new home."    He turns to look at the river, which now seems a quarter-mile across. The flood has enveloped the entire campground, and brown water is now moving across the campsites at river speed. "Hey, check this out!" He points.
    Three waterlogged cows, legs in the air, float by, making pretty good time.

:::

Someone has scouted out a higher spot -- a gravel pit, of course -- and the caravan inches up the mountainside in the dark. None of the crew has ever had to assemble the yurt in darkness before, but the need to sit by a warm fire in stormy weather can be a great motivator. Burt has everyone park in a wide circle and shine their headlamps inwards. The lattice frame and doorway, as well as the lodgepoles, are assembled in record time. Steffi runs in with the last pole and humps the canvas roof over the pole frame as others drag the outer edges of the canvas around the building. The roof is spread, ready to be cabled onto the lattice.
    At this crucial moment, with no plastic sheeting on the lattice to block the wind, a major gust from the storm moans across the nearby firs and digs under the roof.
    The yurt lifts off, headed for the nearby canyon.
    "Hang on!" shouts Burt.
    Dozens of hands grasp the circular cable. Steffi, in the middle, gets to witness the entire Face crew dangling in midair from an impromptu parachute. Will they be drawn over the edge of the ravine with their house? The lattice starts dragging toward her. She drops the pole and exits the door under someone's armpit, and adds herself to the ring of human weights on the roofline.
    The gust subsides. Everyone, without needing to be told, walks the yurt back together and ties the roof to the lattice with whatever they can get their hands on -- baling twine, shoelaces -- by the light of the headlamps, with the rain pouring down.
    Juneen brings over the plastic. She and Steffi wrap the building from the doorway to the right and back again, while others tighten it down with Bungee cords. Chuck and Jerry-down, who are back from the CO meeting, with two other guys Steffi doesn't know, throw hay bales into the interior, cut the twine from the bales, and spread hay around the interior to make a floor.   Someone's already in there loading the stove with kindling and firewood. A kerosene lantern is carried in, lit, and hung from the rafters. Buckets and chairs are brought. The trucks' headlamps are extinguished, one by one.
    People in raingear, carrying flashlights, utensils, food, water jugs, and musical instruments drift in, grinning, and make themselves at home, with wet wagging dogs at their feet. Crowding round the Airtight stove, which is already glowing cherry red, they shuck rain gear and sock hats and sit, heads steaming.
    Once it's warm enough in the yurt for those so inclined to get up and move around, several do so and set up a card table and a propane stove. Hot oatmeal for dinner .
    The two guys Steffi doesn't know are lying down in the hay, just outside the steaming circle. One of them is weaving his hands in the air and muttering to himself. "Who are they?" she asks.
    "They're visitin' from Wildcat Mountain crew," says Chuck. He laughs wryly. "We made the mistake of letting them help rep the crew at th' meetin' not knowin' they'd dropped acid."
    "Ohhh, no!" says someone across the yurt. Groans rise from the circle. "Do we still have a job?"
    "Oh, yeah," says Chuck. "But it was a near thing. The fazoos got out the map, and Lon here -- " Chuck pokes the hand-weaver with the toe of his boot -- "says, 'waitaminnit' -- pokes at the map -- 'We need a contract adjustment.' "Whattayamean,' says th' head fazoo. "Swamps! Swamps all over this map! Alligators in them swamps!' sez Lon."
    He points at the other man, sleeping soundly. "Little Butch here got out his big camera, starts pointin' it around the room. He takes a picture of the floor tiles." Chuck shakes his head. "We barely got out of there alive."
    Jerry-up, a tall, thin, nervous man with long, black stringy hair, comes in from the night. "So, can anybody tell me how my bus went two hundred feet up the road from where I parked it?"

:::

Late in the evening, after drums, flute and guitar have done their thing mostly Dylan or Stones or Grateful Dead, Steffi, who is usually too shy to do group stuff, brings out her aotoharp and fingerpicks. Jerry-down, the guitarist, re-tunes to the harp and asks her for chords.
    "How about G, G7, D?"
    "Sure thing." They practice a little bit, six-eight time, a riff on Doc Watson's take of "Wreck of the Ninety-Seven."
    "You know the words?" asks Jerry-down.
    "Not too well."
    "Whatcha got?"
    "Not much. "Life is Like a Mountain Railroad, Careless Love, Old Smokey, Midnight Special. Red River Valley. You Are My Sunshine. Umm, Georgia Pines. And, uhh, I Never Will Marry."
    "Woo, old stuff. Do that last one, I'll follow you."
    "'K." Steffi is shaking like a leaf; she's never done this in public. But Face is a family in some ways, so it doesn't really count. Time to pack up her stage fright and mail it off to limbo. She lays the harp back against her breasts and reaches for the strings.

    As I was a goin'
    Down by the sea shore,
    The wind it did rattle
    The waters did roar.
    I spied a fair maiden,
    The water stood by.
    She wept by the ocean
    And thus did she cry:

    "I never will marry,
    I'll be no man's wife.
    I'm gonna be single
    all the days of my life."

    She thrust her fair body
    In the waters so deep,
    And closed her blue eyes
    In the waters to sleep.

    I never will marry,
    I"ll be no man's wife.
    I'm gonna be single,
    All the days of my life.
 
    The fish in deep water
    Swim over my head;
    The shells in the ocean
    Will be my death bed."

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