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.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Chapter Seventeen

- 17 - 

 THE FIRE crew is offered some trailing work between fires. Before you can light off a unit, you've got to cut a line down to mineral soil all the way round it. Nice work if you can make it pay.
     The Greenwooders do it this way: first, there's the cutter, with an old saw chain with the rakers taken off flat and teeth sharpened with a triangle or flat file. Next, the "swamper" spots trail for the cutter, throws fresh slash to left and right of the trail, brings gas and oil and water and tools on demand. Then, depending on terrain difficulty, come six to ten men and women with shovels, Pulaskis, and big heavy "hazel" hoes.
     Steffi has become One With Her Saw and often works point, waving the spinning steel at brush, logs, and the occasional snag.
     Ron, a guy she hasn't really met before, half Yankee and half devil, with a sardonic beard and a grin to match, is her swamper. What he lacks in height he more than makes up in smarts and a wiry physicality she admires. When the Stihl is thirsty or feeling dull, he's always right there; leading quietly from behind, he makes sure the crew does moderately well. Even at the going rate, which is not big money.
     It's a tough unit, part rock face, above a precipice that's all rock face, with a tiny highway and a smidgen of red roof -- Rosie's restaurant -- far below.
     Steffi leans into her work. After about an hour of hazel brush and sword ferns, punctuated by tree roots that have to be dug out and cut, she comes to a sizeable log. She only has her eighteen inch bar; it will take four cuts to get through it, and her chain's already dull.
     "Break!" She yells to Ron. He passes it back along the line, and the crew sits down in the shade, puffing and blowing.
     Ron passes the triangle file to Steffi and she parks the saw on the log and hews steel.
     "Where'd you learn to do that?" he asks.
     "Hoedags. Thinning on the Face crew."
     "How long have you been there?"
     "Three years. Same as here."
     "I know; you live up in the quarry." He smiles.
     What does that smile mean? The guy's mysterious, always a step ahead, never shows all his cards. She's irritated but doesn't want to show it. "Where .. umm ... so where do you live?"
    "Stone Creek; you know where that is, half of the original Face crew lives there. I built a little house and I run a string of horses."
     "Pack horses? No kidding!"
     "Sure; this isn't Alaska, but it's still kind of wild around here. Now and then somebody needs my services."
     "Wow." Steffi is not fond of horses; in fact, she afraid of them. In a recurring dream she's this guy, an Indiana volunteer that gets shot in the Cornfield, then moves to the Illinois plains, builds a sod hut for a wife and two kids, and then gets killed by the panicked plow team when a lightning storm passes over. Being cut in half by an iron moldboard plow will wake you up, sweating, every time.
    She knows it wasn't their fault, but she breaks out in hives around horses anyway. She realizes she's struggling to forgive Ron for liking the damned things.
     The saw is ready. Steffi hands back the file and cranks up.
     The first cuts are made from below, angled outward at the bottom. Then the second pair of cuts will be made from above, narrowed at the top, so that the section of log, four feet long, can drop out, which it won't do with parallel cuts.
     She's almost done with the cuts from below, when half of the section, which had split beneath the bark without telling anybody, falls off on her.
     It's about a hundred and fifty pounds of wood, and it pins her arm against the Stihl's muffler.
    Steffi screams.
    Antietam looms behind her eyes. She's just fired her first and last shot of the war and knelt behind the rail fence to ram in another MiniĆ© ball; from nowhere a Texan in brown wool pops up, scowls, and aims his musket in her general direction. His shot goes high and shatters her arm forever.
     Ron springs into action, heaving up the chunk by one end and sending it flying over Steffi's head and down the mountain.
     Steffi shuts off the saw and sits there, stunned.
     "Let's have a look at that," says Ron. He unbuttons her steaming flannel sleeve, rolls it up, and there on her forearm is a perfect mirror impression of a chainsaw muffler, cooked into place.
     Carlo, who has come down with the others, hops up on the log and surveys the damage. "Cheeses, Steffi."
     "We should get you down to the clinic," says Ron.
     "I'm all right," says Steffi.
     "You think so now, but that's gonna be at least second degree and maybe some third."
     But she insists. She greases the burn with some Bag Balm she carries in a little film can -- her entire medical kit -- and ties a bandanna around her arm. She stands up on shaking legs, tentatively picks up the saw, then yanks the crank rope, her streaming face turned away from the others.
     Ron's body language shows he does not approve, but he returns to swamping for her.
     The next time Steffi runs out of gas, she's been furiously sawing well ahead of Ron's efforts, and it takes him a couple of minutes to catch up at her call.
     "I hate to tell you this," he says, handing her the bleach bottle of sawgas, "But you've just cut your way through half an acre of poison oak." He sits down on a handy stump.
     Steffi looks down at the saw chips clinging to her chaps, clothing, and bandage. Takes off a glove and shakes out some.
     "Oh, well, huh." 
    "You know this is by the hour, right?"
     "What's with you, anyway? Always on, you never let up on yourself."
     Steffi thinks this over. One Life To Live? Go For The Gusto? Many other Hoedags are the same way. The Greenwooders, like Ron, are no slouches, they do savor adventure, but they kick back more. Lots more; it's a talent. Must be the landowner thing.
     "My dad, I think."
     "Ooh, psych one-oh-one. Love that stuff."
     "Knock it off. He, I think, I mean I know, he, he, wanted a boy. And they got just me, and I was 'just' a girl. File, please."
     He hands it over and puts his bearded chin in his hands. "I'm all ears."
     "Well -- they were always on my case. And any little thing, crit, crit, crit. Pain, especially."
     Steffi pushes the chain four links forward with the file and rasps down the teeth and rakers. "Y'know, one time I ran away -- kinda -- into a swamp less than half a mile from home. Middle of winter. Left a note saying I was fine, not far away, would be back on Saturday. And I built myself a wigwam and covered it with leaves, and sat by a fire for five days. Had to melt ice from the creek to get water. Loved it."
     "And you came home on Saturday."
     "Mm-hmm. And, y'know, for once they didn't have a single bad thing to say to me. Just, like, 'good morning, want some pancakes?'"
     "You'd outstripped their standards somehow."
     "Yeah. Like, if I out-guyed that guy in their heads, they'd quit bugging the girl in front of 'em."
     "But now you're here, three thousand miles away. You could maybe give that script a rest."
     "Oh, she says." 
    There's that sardonic smile again. But she's sure now it's not disapproval -- not of the deep things.
     Her arm is really throbbing now. "Umm, this -- " she points at the bandanna -- "I think I'd better go sit in the crummy."
     "Ah-h-h, you're learning. I like this idea a lot. How about you give Carlito your saw and chaps and we'll finish up here for you?"
     "Yeah -- umm, yeah."


Arm in a sling, Steffi goes to a lunar eclipse party at Stone Creek. She's not up to steering Little Bird, so she catches a ride with the Omega farmers. Stone Creek is up a tiny canyon, with rock faces on either side, sheer. It's a wild-looking sort of place, and access across Greenwood Creek is via a sort of homemade cable car.
    People are milling around on a landing in the twilight, and a bearded gent is instructing them, in groups of four, how to get into and sit in the galvanized steel tub; they'll be shoved down the wire rope about sixty feet, or halfway across the rapids, then haul themselves the rest of the way by hand on the overhead cable.
    "Everybody grab the cable and pull twelve inches over and over; that's all. The brake will keep you from rolling back. You go trying to shove yourselves two feet at a time, the last person in the car will lose a finger; got it?"
     Heads nod in semi-comprehension.
    Steffi, being walking wounded, is handed into the car, with a guy in front of her and another, a red-bearded fellow in a hand-knit wool cap, behind her. The host shoves them out over the river, pulley wheels squealing. At the low point in the cable, they're stopped by gravity and swing sickeningly side-to-side. Suddenly the water seems a long way down, and there's a chill on the river air. The guys start doing that hand-over-hand thing, and of course there's a ping behind Steffi and the guy in the back starts cursing. Eventually another Stony Creek resident appears from the gloom on the opposite landing with a long stick like a shepherd's crook, who hooks the car into its cradle and latches it in place, smiling.
    "Welcome to Stony Creek. You in the back, how are ya?"
    "Hurt," says Red Beard.
    "Takes practice. Everybody hop out; go on up to the house in the first clearing; they'll take care of you. Stick to the trail; it gets dark between here and there."
    He's not kidding. Fortunately, the trail, a narrow one that has never known a car or truck, has been worn deep by boots and horseshoes for a number of years. Steffi finds her way by feel; if there's a slope under either foot she's too far left or right. Doesn't anybody around here have a flashlight?
    The house, a cedar-shake affair that reminds Steffi of White Star, is lit, but with a dim orange glow that says "kerosene" to her. So this side of the river, there's no power, no cars, no phones either, most likely. Night is falling, but Steffi can see that there are several "roads" leading away from the clearing. The thresholds of these are like hobbit-holes; a circle of green leads to a tunnel through the alders, with a single brown track for a roadbed. The thought strikes her that this must be what it was like in the Middle Ages.
    Inside the house, there's a lamp on every table, and by the light of the lamp, people are having their hands bandaged. It's like a war zone, and the worst case, the guy that had sat behind Steffi, is getting the web of his left hand stitched by a striking, slim woman in long black hair. He's got a handkerchief, rolled up, clamped between his jaws. Raven Hair smiles at him; he relaxes a little, and she deftly puts in a last loop, pulls it tight, and snips with a tiny pair of nail scissors. Wounded Hand flexes his fingers a bit, winces, and smiles wanly at his hostess.
    The man who'd addressed the crowd across Greenwood Creek steps in, surveys the scene, and shakes his head. "You all told me you got it, and look at you."
    Heads hang in shame around the room.
    "Oh, well ... party time!" He hefts a six-pack of Rainier. "Eclipse at eleven-thirty. Bonfire's being lit now."
    A mild cheer rises from the crowd. Booted feet shuffle across the rough-hewn floor.
    Steffi is offered a brownie. "Uhh, thanks but no thanks."
    The woman making the offer turns out to be She Who Fixed Mr. Red Beard. "Oh, Hi, I'm Jana. I used to plant with Face Crew, up to '74, so we haven't met. I think I heard something about brownies ... "
    "I'll never live that down."
    "You shouldn't worry; people who don't have good stories about them are the ones who should worry."
    "You have stories?"
    "Yeah ... lots." Jana smiles, pats Steffi on the shoulder and moves off, working the room.
    Steffi's next offered a small aluminum tumbler poured from a bottle with a bearded gent in a heavy fur coat on the label. "Uhh, thanks but no thanks." She's learned where her minefields are.
    Someone opens a Rainier and hands it to her. "Thanks." Steffi wanders outside, sipping at the weak beer, to see that flames are rising from a heap of brushwood in the near distance. She joins the crowd.
    There are a lot of Star crew members here, though she doesn't see Dan or Carlo. Ron pops up by her side. "How's the arm?"
    "Oh ... hi. Umm, it's better than it looks. Doctor said give it a rest though. So I, I didn't have to pinch a finger coming across."
    "Smart move."
    "Funning you." He sips at his own beer, an Olympia, then looks at the can and purses his lips. "Cheapskates. So, how's the poison oak?"
    "Some around my neck, some around my wrists. Not much; this stuff is wimpy compared to what we had back East."
    "I remember it. Did you know, the wounded lay in hot sun for days after Gettysburg, in the lushest poison ivy anyone had ever seen?"
    Steffi hides behind her beer can. "Ack, please! No Civil War just now."
    "Oh ... sure." He creases his forehead.
    An impromptu band has formed, four guitars and a tambourine. Voices are roaring out "Midnight Special." Steffi taps her foot on the gravel. She'd join in, but she doesn't know if this man sings, and doesn't want him to feel excluded.
    One of the Stars is circulating through the crowd, a tall guy with a Van Dyke beard and recessed eyes. "It's starting, folks -- look at the moon!"
    The song tapers off. Sure enough, the silver is fading from the long, trampled grass round the fire, and most illumination that remains is from the bonfire's embers and glow of half a dozen cigarettes and joints.
    "The Red Dragon is eating the moon!" cries Jana.
    "Nahh, it's the Sacred Dog," says Red Beard, waving a glowing roach with his bandaged hand.
    "Huh," says the tall Star crewmember. He crouches, puts his long hands on his knees, tips back his head, and ululates. His shadow is haloed in deep red.
    Forty-seven voices lift in a long, exuberant howl of greeting to the wounded moon.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Chapter Sixteen

- 16 - 

 FIRE SEASON returns, and Steffi's on the landing with a dozen Greenwooders. Everyone has napped, passed around books, had lunch, passed around joints, gone over to the edge to watch the burn, and napped.
     It's four in the afternoon before the white hats think the fire has died down enough to put out. Steffi's amazed at how dark it is; the column of smoke is over a mile high and blots out the sun. There are vermillion highlights on the undersides of the smoke billows -- reflections of the flames down on the unit.
     Steffi grabs her inch hose and brass nozzles and runs down the fire trail fifty feet past Carlo, who hooks her into the inch-and-a half with a wye and signals her that water's coming. The canvas hose fills and she starts knocking down flames that have jumped the trail into some brush and an old duff stump. The stump doesn't want to go out. She stays with it, tearing away rotten wood with the high-pressure spray, till the truck runs out of water somewhere above.
     Time to sit down and rest, till the truck comes back.
     Carlo comes down the trail and hunkers down near her.
     "They said next truck will be in twenty minutes. Hope so, 'cuz a lot of fire is still on the left of us and coming our way. Y'wanna, when the water comes, beat that down instead of excavating your stump any more."
     Carlo takes off his sweat-beaded glasses, wipes them with a bandanna. "Hot stuff." He puts them on, smiles, runs back uphill. He's out of sight before he's gone thirty feet.
     The smoke is getting heavy; Steffi bellies down looking for better air. It's some better but not a lot. She looks left. Flames. She looks right. More flames; the stump is at it again and so are its surroundings. Right on the trail she seems safe enough; the fuel in the area has already burned up pretty well. But the smoke is unreal!
     There's some fairly loose bark duff nearby. Instinctively she takes off her hard hat, digs a small pit in it and buries her face. Ahh.
     From time to time she pops up, checks to see if the fire is getting close enough to send her packing, to see if the smoke cloud has shifted, to see if water's coming down. The fourth try, she finds her hose distended and cool to the touch -- time to go to work, if there's enough air. She pulls her bandanna up over her nose, sets a wide spray and leaps up to attack the blaze reaching out for her from the unit.
     Nope. Way too hot. So's she. She turns the nozzle on herself for a quick cool down. And then the water quits, way too soon.
    "Stef!" Carlo is shouting from somewhere above. "The fire's burned through your hose! Grab your nozzle and come up out of there!"
     Sounds like a good idea.


After sunset, one of the white hats wants Steffi to check out a smoke on the opposite hillside. In the same valley as their last fire, this unit is across from the same old growth forest as before, and the trees there are if anything even bigger than those she'd seen before. And not owned by Timberlands. So it behooves Timberlands not to burn them up.
     The white hat drives around the mountain road in a pickup, with Steffi as shotgun. He hands her an oblong metal box wrapped in a leather holster. "Run straight down the hill here about three hundred feet and circle round till you find it. Radio up when you do, and we'll bring a hose down to put it out."
     "Yessir." She works her way down among the forest giants, some of which are lying down and have to be clambered over. She misses her caulk boots; the logs are slick.
    It's cool here, with lots of sword ferns and viney maple: a north slope. With so much delicious dampness, she's surprised a spot fire got going.
     Come to think of it, there doesn't seem to be one. Steffi has surely gone three hundred feet. She ranges sidehill and back both ways, sniffing and looking. Nothing! Has the guy even dropped her off in the right place?
     Something big hisses down from the dark canopy and buries its point, like a spear, in the soft soil not twenty feet away. It's a burning tree branch! Not small, either.
     Steffi looks up -- and up -- and up. Oh, my.
    She unsnaps the holster at her waist and holds the radio to her head, button down and hard hat askew.
     "Sir, you might want to come see."
     "What d'ya mean?"
     "It's a tree on fire -- maybe about a hundred feet from the ground."
     "Not that high."
     "Old growth, sir."
     "All right, damn. Damn, all right. Comin'."
     Presently his white hat gleams in the gloom, and the paunch bobbles over a log and puffs to a halt beside her. He looks at the smoldering branch, then looks up. "Godalmighty, what a tree." He reaches for the radio.
     "Gimme the saw crew with their longest bar, an' a water truck. Run a inch-an'-a-half line straight down from by my truck, with a inch tee and six sections of inch hose." He listens a moment to what sounds to Steffi like so much static, then looks at her. "You got your nozzle?"
     "Yes, sir."
     He stares off into space again, talking into the mouthpiece. "No, bring just one more." He looks at his watch. "While we're at it, ever'body comes down get headlamps and two extra for me an' th' girl. And send somebody to Rosie's for about fifteen sandwiches and thirty sodas."
     By the time the sawyers show up, dragging and carrying hose as well as their own gear, it's already time for headlamps. From the way they fling down the hoses, Steffi can feel their disdain for fire work in general and hippie fire crews in particular. She's suddenly glad the fire boss has stayed with her.
     He hands her a lamp. "Leave yours turned off till you need it -- we could be here awhile."
     The sawyers surround the tree and strategize over it. The thing is perfectly enormous, with a great bell shape at the roots and bark like fish scales.
     "Spruce," says the white hat. "They're gonna have to go way up to make their cut."
     After some gesticulating, a young cutter cranks up the big Stihl. It has a forty-eight inch bar, less than half the distance through the tree. Steffi is just cutter enough to know there will be a number of cuts -- they will indeed be here awhile.
     The young man cuts vertically into a massive root, then horizontally. When the cuts are almost done, an older man steps forward, places an orange plastic wedge into the vertical cut, swings a reversed single-bitted axe at it a few times, and knocks a fifty-pound chunk of the root away. It rolls down the mountain out of sight.
     "They'll do the same over on the other side. These'll be the platforms they'll work from."
     As this is going on, Steffi notices a shrunken, hunched old man with the others. He's been watching the canopy for more falling branches -- "widow-makers." As soon as both platforms are cut, he's helped onto one of them and the youngest man hands him the saw, still running. The middle-aged man positions himself behind the old man and grips him by his belt as he leans forward, slams the sharp dogs of the saw into the bark, and begins the cut.
     Eventually the saw head is far enough around the downhill side of the tree that the old man's helper is holding the old man's right hand while he runs the saw with his left -- otherwise he'd fall off the tree and roll down the mountain. When this cut is done, the performance is repeated with another cut to meet the first one in the classic "vee" -- to take a notch out of the tree and aim its fall downhill.
     Now the two cuts must be made from the other side of the tree, and these two cuts must match the first two, a neat trick if you can do it blind, sprawled around the corner from your work. The old man, easily their most accurate faller, manages to line up the cuts passably, but now he's used up and the youngest man is anchored around the tree trunk by the middle-aged man, twice -- to deepen all four cuts into a tree more than twice the diameter of their saw's reach.
     After about an hour they're happy enough with their notch to set the saw down and go to work hammering wedges -- one faller on one platform and one on the other, swinging axes.
     The sound of the axes echoes back from the other side of the valley. Steffi looks out through a gap in the trees. It's a dark night, but the unit still has many spot fires in it, and the effect takes her breath away.
     There are stars out, and the spot fires look enough like stars that it's disorienting -- there's no horizon. Steffi has recently seen a new movie, Star Wars, so she knows just exactly where she is.
     The sandwiches and pop turn up, brought by Mervin in a canvas haversack. Steffi takes two turkey salads on wheat and two Dr. Peppers. She's done with them before Mervin has made the rounds and comes back to sit with her.
     He turns off his lamp. "How are they doing?" he asks, still trying to catch his breath.
     "They're taking out the wedge from the notch; then they'll make the back cuts."
     "I had no idea one tree could go so slow."
     White Hat joins in. "The tree is two feet wider than the saw. They're having to beaver around in the cuts to get a workable hinge."
     Mervin looks up; Steffi follows suit. The tree is darker than the night. "Is there even a fire up there?" he asks her.
     "Well, it threw a burning stick at me."
     The wedge of tree trunk finally snaps loose, slides out of the notch and crashes down the mountain.
     "That thing weighs about as much as a car," says White Hat to no one in particular.
     The sawyers take turns eating their dinner and sharpening saw chain, then regroup and tackle the back cuts.
     Another hour goes by, its theme music the roar and whine of the saw.
     At last the fallers set the hot beast down, apply wedges to the back cut, and the night rings with the axes and their echoes for the third time.
     "Got your hoses laid and hooked up?" asks White Hat.
     Mervin stands up and snaps on his lamp. "I'll get 'em." He moves off upslope into the darkness.
     After a few minutes, there's a thump. Steffi turns on her lamp and locates the hose end, nozzle in hand.
     The axes fall silent and the fallers' lamps turn and shine up towards the fire crew.
     Steffi half expects to hear the ancient and romantic cry of "timber!" -- but hears only frenetic shouts of "there we go!" and "left, left! Get out of there!"
     The night lights up. It's the top of the giant tree, swinging down through the night -- its hidden flames flaring up in a dozen places as it gathers speed.
     Mature trees are swept from the path of the falling behemoth, shedding massive branches as they go. The old-growth Roman candle is clearing half an acre of mountainside in its death throes.
     Mervin arrives at Steffi's side with his own hose and nozzle. She glances over at him; the toppling, torching spruce reflects back to her from his glasses like a glimpse into hell.
     "Cheeses cripes all forking mighty," says Mervin softly. Or something like that.
     The ground leaps beneath them as the spruce finds the creek bed far below and shudders to a halt.
     White Hat checks his watch. "Two-thirty in the morning. 'K, kids, put yah fire out."
     As Steffi passes the big stump, she sees that the old sawyer is kind of dancing on it, measuring his handiwork with a steel tape.
     He sings out. "Nine and a half feet from bark to bark."

Chapter Fifteen

- 15 - 

AFTER SIX Rivers, weather moderates across the Northwest and Steffi finds herself motoring up the Columbia again in her cedar-shake fashion statement, thankfully alone. Her boarder had not turned out as badly as she'd anticipated; in fact, she'd gained weight. But he had waved goodbye to everyone at the end of the job, cheerily opining he'd find happier work in restaurants.
    Steffi's better at gauging distances this time, and doesn't run out of gas. The contract is in a different district, but based on the same city, so she feels very much at home as she pulls up to the hotel in Pierce. Some of the crew's personal rigs are in town as well, and she finds their owners in the bar, with their feet up on the brass rail.
     "Hey hey hey, it's Stef!" Lon salutes her with his glass. Little Butch raises his camera to record the moment, but the bartender points to the camera and wags his finger. No, no.
     Steffi is asked what she'll have, and she's feeling a little adventurous. "Maybe a shot glass of the guy in the fur coat?" She points to a bottle of Canadian on the shelf.
     Moving to a booth, Steffi nurses the little drink along for almost half an hour, trying to ration herself. It's not working. Someone has re-filled her glass when she wasn't looking; someone else has chatted her up and tossed back a few, leading her to sip along like an audience trying to sing along with Mitch. The room is starting to do things -- things she remembers with unease from Brownie Night.
     "Hey, Stef -- shoot some pool?" asks Lon.
     "Umm, not sure I know how." As a small child, in small town Georgia, she and her friends had fooled around with enormous sticks and enormous porcelain balls on an enormous green table in the next door neighbor's basement. That would hardly count.
     "Nothin' to it, here's yer cue." She's handed a much smaller stick than she remembers. The voice goes on. It's a local guy, and he sounds amused. "This game is eight-ball; you get th' odd ones and I'll shoot for th' even ones."
     Steffi is given a quick tutorial in how to approach the cue ball; many of the ideas presented are familiar from her softball days -- and from reading Zen and the Art of Archery.
     "Where do I start?"
     "Well, th' cue ball is over here and th' nine's over there by th' side pocket, a pretty easy shot. So I'd 'call' it -- say 'nine ball in th' side pocket' so's we can all hear it, then shoot. I'd try t' hit it right here -- " points with his cue -- "Otherwise th'cue will follow it inta th' pocket an' y' lose y' turn. See, if y' drop th' ball y' called, y' get to shoot at another of y' balls. But don't drop mine, that'll lose y' a turn too. Ready?"
     Steffi is feeling slightly ill. "Mm. Hm. N-nine ball, side ... side pocket?"
     "Yep, exactly right. Now shoot."
     She does. The nine goes in and the cue ball skitters away. She's as surprised as the guys that she has another shot.
     She calls another ball and sinks it. Then another. A shy person with, normally, performance anxiety, Steffi should have scratched the first shot. Instead, she runs the whole table and then drops the eight ball. She turns to the astonished local guy. "That's it?" she asks.
     Local guy rounds on Lon. "You people are havin' us on! She's a shark!"
     No, Steffi thinks, as the room tilts. The Sharks are another crew.
     Lon shakes his head. "Don't think so. Gotta be a fluke. Known her for years, never seen her shoot pool."
     Steffi nods vigorously. "It was, was, the guy in the fur coat. His fault." She's amazed at how slurred her voice is. With a shaky finger she points at the Canadian fellow leering from a bottle on the bartender's shelf.
     "An' anyway," says Lon, "It's not like we had real money on it." 
     Real money?
     Murray, at the bar, steps down from the rail and addresses the room, weaving. "We're th' Hoedags. We're. A. Legend. In. Our. Own. Time." He gestures wildly and bows from the waist.
     "In our own minds, he means," smiles Little Butch to a knot of Local Guys, who are bunching up and looking a little gruff.
     "We. Can. Take. On ... " begins Murray, who is trying to make a fist.
     Burt, who is late to the party but has heard enough to gauge the situation, intervenes. "Let's go, Murray. You too, Stef."
     They're bundled out to the street side by side, and tumble to their knees on a remnant of winter -- dirty, cold, white stuff piled up by snowplows.
     Murray loses his dinner. At the sound, Steffi feels green all over. She loses her dinner, too.
     "Oh. Man," offers Murray to her companionably. "Don't. You. Just. Hate. It. When. This. Happens."
     Well, now that she knows a little bit more about it ... yeah.


 The contract is unlike any other Steffi's seen. The area was burned over in a cataclysmic forest fire in 1910, and so few trees survived within the fire's boundaries that forest regeneration simply hadn't occurred. Instead, ninety thousand acres of deep brush grew up, creating less than ideal conditions for any conifer seeds that might sprout.
     The rangers have concocted a novel approach to the problem. With D-9 Cats bearing twelve-foot blades, they've terraced miles of hillside. The treeplanters' job will be to walk along in teams of two, inserting plugs -- seedlings sprouted in plastic tubes, from which each tree, potting soil and all, will be drawn just before planting -- in the berms of the meandering roads. Actual "units" consist of no more than a couple of blue pin flags marking the terminus of such walks.
     Yoder and Steffi pair off. Except for the weight of the plugs, which treeplanters dislike, it's an unusually easy job, and Yoder wants to talk philosophy.
     He questions Steffi on Buddhism and liberal Quakerism, both of which she's marginally involved in, and expands his inquiry to areas she knows less about: Native American belief in particular and shamanism generally -- and what does she think about the Greek philosophers -- and how do they compare with Thomas Aquinas?
     Steffi is not as well read as Yoder thinks, but she's flattered he wants a woman's opinion, and when the talk wanders into areas she knows less about than she should, she makes up stuff.
     "See, Plato was from kind of a poor family, and so he wanted everything to be all connected so it would belong to folks like him and not just to the rich; Aristotle on the other hand was from money and so he wanted everything to be just be itself and itself alone, so folks like him could lay claim to it and the Platonists would just be left out in the cold."
     "No kiddin'?" says Yoder, highly interested, and he pops a tiny grand fir from its container and into the hole he's opened. He thinks about the discrete reality of the tree and how it nevertheless may become part of a mysterious internconnected entity called "the forest." A National Forest, no less. Woo, Plato, deep stuff.
     The inspector, an affable young man, ambles around the curve behind them and taps a rock with his shovel to get there attention. "Do you two know you're planting about a quarter of a mile out of the unit?"
     "Oh! Sorry, Bill, we'll plant right back to it."
     Bill looks a little pained at their insouciance but plays along, setting out pin flags at their turnaround point.

 They're about halfway back to the crummy when an apparition appears to them. The brush just ahead of them rattles and wags, and from it emerges a pudgy, sweating man weighed down with an enormous panoply of outfitter's paraphernalia -- orange vest and hat, binoculars, rangefinder, sheathed Bowie knife, and a big scoped .308 that looks like it has never been fired. Steffi half expects price tags to still be hanging off all the items. And how has he kept those boots so clean?
     "Where am I?" asks the apparition. He's weaving like Murray at the bar, but he's just overheated.
     "About two miles from the Forest Circus road," they tell him.
     "Oh. Well ... seen any elk?"
     Nope. Not a one. But they're both eternally grateful he didn't halfway spot them from a ways off.


When the job's over, everyone melts away to work on other contracts. Yoder proposes that he and Steffi detour to do vision quests -- he on his mountaintop, she on hers. "There's nothing doing for at least a week. So we could go over into the Seven Sisters, do our thing, then caravan to Wyoming in time for the contract opener."
     Steffi's a bit too much of a loner to care for that much coordination, but, hey, she gets her own mountaintop.
     So, like, they do that.
     It so happens Steffi has thought of doing this before. She's sewn some 'sleigh" bells onto two leather strips with trailing thongs, suitable for tying around her ankles for dancing in what she thinks is might be an appropriate cultural appropriation. These she packs up with her sleeping bag (ain't gonna sleep naked, magic circle or no magic circle) in a rucksack.
     Steffi plans to bring no food. Ritzy is out of drinking water -- one of Steffi's many oversights -- and she's feeling too lazy to get down into the canyon across the road to stock up. She's got her cup and canteen, though, and is good at finding clean water -- what can go wrong? Leaving Ritzy locked down in the trailhead parking lot, she makes for the nearest mountain top.
     It's a cold-ish sort of day, after all, and the clouds are looking snow-ish. Nevertheless, a sure thing about mountain climbing, even on a graded trail, is that it makes you thirsty. And it's slowly dawning on Steffi as she sweats her way round the switchbacks, that her Sierra Club cup is not, by itself, going to find her something to drink. She'd thought she would be crossing draws, but the trail is that kind of steeply ascending thing built in the days of pack mules -- it's avoiding the available draws entirely.
     Three hours into her hike, she's not having fun any more. Just as she thinks she'd better abandon the trip and try to get out of there barely alive, she rounds a bend and here's a sight to gladden any dessicated tummy -- at trailside, by a cliff, there's a fifty-five gallon drum full of water, with moss growing on its rim, into which a steady trickle of the life-giving elixer drips, globule by shining globule, from a pipe driven into the hillside.
     For mules, no doubt. Steffi feels like braying in celebration. She fills the canteen with a prayer of thanksgiving for old-timers.
     This particular mountain tops out with two knobs at about six thousand feet elevation. The trail is heading for one peak, so Steffi picks the other as being private enough for her needs. She bushwhacks her way out of the saddle and approaches her holy ground -- a nondescript sort of place, just alpine enough to offer a panoramic view, with low shrubs and forbs all over.
     It's already after sunset, so she figures on dancing tomorrow. She drags her left foot around and makes a circle, spreads her sleeping bag in the middle, sets her pack, boots and ankle bells in a row beside the bag, and vaguely prays in the six directions, feeling very self-conscious.
     Not a very good start, she's thinking. This is nothing like Seven Arrows.
     In the morning, she climbs out of a dew-heavy sleeping bag to discover that her leather anklets are gone. There's nothing but the bells, lying hither and yon.
     Mice, dammit.
     Also, a big storm is making up over the Sisters and headed her way.
     Maybe the place is unhappy with her? Telling her to skedaddle?
     Teeth chattering, she packs up and skedaddles.


 Yoder thinks the story is absolutely hilarious, but eventually he catches his breath and says, "You know, maybe you did find them."
    "Find what?"
    "Your guides."
    Steffi's feeling particularly dense. "Who?"
    They're in a bar in Grangeville. Yoder, who's all of seventeen, raises his glass of fizzy water. "Remember Little Jumping Mouse? So, the mice got started with you right away, and made you leave before the storm could get you. Pretty generous, really."

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Chapter Fourteen

- 14 -

"I DUNNO, Stef, might wanta sit this one out," Amy is saying. "They sprayed it heavy with 2,4-D."
    "What's that?" asks Steffi.
    Amy does a double take. "Girl, you are somewhat wise in the ways of the woods but naive as to the ways of the wood products industry."
    Chuck beckons to Steffi. She and Amy follow him to the edge of the landing. He points at the nearest alder trees outside the burn area, which are dying, but don't look scorched. "See the tips of these twigs, they go all curly like a pig's tail."
    It does look a little odd. "Mmm, yeah. What's up with that?"
    "2,4-D kind of mimics growth hormones. It's making the cells that divide the most -- the one's in the growing tips of the branches -- expand erratically, shoving the twig around on its own axis in a spiral." He points at the trunks. "Soon these trees will die, turn punky, shatter and collapse, because most of their cambium cell walls will have burst. We're hearing from the Farmworkers Union in California that this stuff affects people, too."
    "So I'm, like, not going down there," concludes Amy, with a palm upturned. "Might wanna have a baby some day."
    Juneen walks over. "Me neither. Last time I worked in this stuff, my period was two weeks off."
    "Well, nobody's going to make you," says Chuck, taking off his hard hat and raking his hair with a grubby hand. "But we do have a contract, and if only the guys go, we're one short today and the fazoos will call it off and ding us for non-compliance."
    Steffi's funds have been depleted by her down time and repair work; she's anxious not to just haunt camp, which is particularly muddy and miserable this week. "I'll go."
    Amy kind of looks daggers at her, but doesn't comment.
    It's a strange place to work. The rangers claim the chemicals were all burnt up in the unit burn, but the air smells faintly diesel-ish and Steffi keeps trying to not breathe. She stops and dampens a bandanna and ties it round her face, as she's been known to do on fires at Timberland, but she still feels light-headed. She wonders if it's a placebo effect.
    Too, there's nothing to grab on to. All the slash that survived the burn is so brittle she can't haul herself around the steep hillside by it as she's used to doing. Steffi can see other treeplanters having the same trouble. A Magruder loses his balance, grabs a branch to stop his fall; it disintegrates and over he goes. A few moments later, Lon repeats the performance. As he tumbles into a draw, Little Butch snaps his picture, while barely keeping his own footing.
    Steffi finds a puddle and spots a thin sheen on the water. She looks closely. The sheen can be one of two things -- broken-up fractals of color, almost crystalline, which would be bacteria, or spirals and curves of color, which would be oil. It's definitely spirals and curves.
    "Hey, inspector, what's with the oily puddles?"
    The white hat, leaning on his shovel, grins. "S'just bacteria."
    S'just bacteria, hippie. Suck it up and dig.


In Steffi's Technicolor dreams that night, a young man stands by her bed. He looks a lot like her, except he has a black beard.
    "How's it going?" she asks him.
    "Not too good. I'm 'developmentally delayed.'"
    "What's that?"
    He goes over, taps a dark glass window in a cinder-block wall. "Ask the guy with the notepad; he's in there listening to us. Writing down my future. 'Special ed', no driving, won't be able to work. I can't even read clocks."
    "I -- I'm sorry." Who is this guy?
    "Could be worse. At least I'm getting them back by taking all the SSI."
    Steffi wakes up in a cold sweat. Belatedly protective, she covers her belly with her hands.


While she's lying there, staring at what's left of the dream, she notices the ceiling close above her head has taken on a rosy glow. There's noise, too: pops and snaps like someone dancing on that fragile slash, or like a really big bonfire.
    The glow flickers. Okay, bonfire. She scrabbles over to the edge of the loft, looks down through the window. Yoder runs past it with a five-gallon bucket. He's glowing too.
    There's shouting.
    Fire! In camp. She doesn't believe it.
    Chuck throws open her back door. "Fire!"
    She believes it.
    In her finest long johns, Steffi adds Little Bird's white bucket to the brigade. What's burning is a small travel trailer. Flames are coming out all the windows and, before long, as camp is not near running water, the roof as well.
    The main worry is the propane tanks, which are mounted on the trailer's tongue. Their valves have been cranked shut by a gloved hand, but where they are it's already too hot to try and dismount them.
    All the extinguishers have been emptied. Burt has been pumping water from the camp's fifty-five gallon barrel, but it's taking awhile to fill each bucket. Several puddles in the beat-up gravel road have already been bailed onto the flames, mud and all.
    They're out of things they can try, and backing away from the mess. Steffi turns around and finds Yoder gaping at the rapidly diminishing trailer.
    "Sometimes ya gotta punt," Chuck says to them.
    "Whose is that anyway?" asks Steffi. "I haven't seen it before."
    "Belonged to the Magruders," says Yoder. "But the new guy rented it from them. 'Don't let him use the propane heater, they said."
    "New guy?"
    Yoder points out a young man standing not too far away. Nobody's standing with him. He's medium height, just a little portly (tree planting will take that off if he sticks with it, she thinks), black curly hair, a thin mustache. Steffi's thinking he doesn't look contrite enough for the trailer.
    Chuck calls him over. "Dale; Yoder, Stef."
    Dale offers his hand. Sweaty palm; maybe he is contrite.
    Chuck catches Steffi's eye. "Seeing as we don't have the yurt on this job, Stef, y'think y'could put Dale up for awhile?"
    She's not r-e-e-e-al into it, but nods.
    Dale has saved his backpack full of to-be-laundered but not much else. By the fading firelight, Steffi leads him through the stinking pall of smoke to the housetruck's stoop. Huh, Ritz Hotel after all.
    "You can have the blanket; anywhere down here. I'm up there."
    "Up there looks comfy," he says hopefully.
    "You can have the blanket; anywhere down here. I'm up there."
    "O-o-kay, I gotcha."
    "Sure, 'night." He settles on the locker across from the Airtight and fishes in his breast pocket.
    "Oh, and there are house rules. No smoking indoors."
    Dale stops fishing. She half expects some grumbling but there's none forthcoming.
    Home sweet sleeping bag. After Steffi closes her eyes, Dale gets chatty.
    "Anybody rents ya a trailer, they oughta at least fix the heater first, y'd think."
    Steffi's not sure she has anything to say to this.
    Dale drags some soiled clothing from his pack and wads it up for a pillow. "Where ya from?"
    Where is she from? Steffi does have an Oregon driver's license; for three years now. It bears the address of an apartment in Eugene where she crashed awhile; she's not sure she even remembers whose it was.
    "No kiddin'? But I mean, before that."
    "Oh. Georgia."
    "Oh, wow. Me, I'm a native."
    He says it in lowercase, and Steffi understands him. She's heard people use the term a lot. It means born in Oregon. Capital "Native" is something else. "So, Eugene?"
    "Naah, Klamath Falls I think."
    "You ... think?"
    "I'm adopted."
    "Um. Sleep now?"
    "Oh, uh, sure. Sorry, I talk a lot."
    Well, at least he recognizes it.


In the early going, Steffi finds Dale a less than ideal roommate, and frequently has to re-establish boundaries and ownership, but, she reasons, there's an extra body in the crummy at a time when two crews are having trouble making up a day's one-crew roster. Dale gets up, sort of ready and sort of willing, day after day. That, even his hostess has to acknowledge, counts for a lot.
    Some people take to tree planting naturally; some do not. The crew watches Dale's lessons and, discreetly, shake their heads. He has trouble finding the line or getting his trees "right-side-up" as the old saw goes. He blurts out things to the suspectors they shouldn't hear, and his contributions at crew meetings are less than edifying.
    But he's a good cook. That, his fellow crew members admit, also counts for a lot.
    On the fourth night, Dale fixes dinner for the landlady. She's impressed. The crew authorizes him to make a town run with the "sixpack" to buy supplies, and soon he has everyone looking forward to supper every night.
    The work is slow, many of the units are a long crummy ride from camp, and the suppers are often prepared by lamplight.
    Comes a day, the crew is so tired no one wants to even try to leave the crummy.
    They all sit there, some still in wet caulks. Dale rolls a big one, lights it, passes it around. Steffi, as usual, waves it off with thanks. She thinks maybe she'd like a little air. With an effort she heaves herself up, staggers to the front door, cranks it open, and steps down to the wet sun-burnished grass. Pretty. Takes three steps toward Ritzy, and sinks down to rest against a stump.
    The sky has cleared at last, and there's a pre-sunset cloud show in progress: shades of rose, pink, mauve. Other planters drag themselves out, discover the cloud show, and settle into an ever-growing heap around the stump. Dale is the last out, carrying what's left of the damp roach gripped in a long pair of tweezers. He's watching his own cloud show, by the look of him, and he drifts off to Ritzy and falls into his own bed, a pallet of foam rubber and blankets he's acquired since Fire Night. Steffi can see his boots sticking out of his nest, by the open back door. Looks like he is asleep already.
    Some of those around her are napping also. Steffi just watches the sky.
    She's admiring purple and crimson streaks, in layers above the nearby ridge tops, when she spots Dale coming down Ritzy's steps with his boots, hard hat, and lunch box. These he thumps down, with a flourish, on a step; bodies stir all around Steffi.
    "So, y'all want pancakes?" Dale folds his arms and surveys the crew, beaming good nature.
    Eyes meet eyes round the circle. Heads nod imperceptibly.
    "Oh, uh, yeah, Dale, we want pancakes, you betcha," the crew choruses. "You betcha."
    "Comin' right up." Dale marches back into the Ritz; presently smoke issues from the chimney, and soon the heavenly smell of buttermilk pancakes draws the full attention of everyone present.
    It's a good dinner, served outdoors. No one goes lacking for butter or syrup, and there's enough jam for the jam fanciers. Dale pops in to the kitchen to fulfill a last request, then goes over to his boots, hard hat and lunch box, and heads over to the crummy.
    Halfway there, it dawns on him that it's getting darker, not lighter. Slowly he turns and looks at the sky. A star has come out. His gaze drops to the onlookers, all still sitting around the stump with their plates on their laps and their forks poised in the air.
    "It's not morning, is it?" he asks.
    Everyone cracks up. The Magruders, who have been a bit formal with Dale up to this point, are laughing the hardest. Both of them stretch themselves out on the ground and pound it with their fists, wheezing themselves breathless.
    It takes him a few moments, but Dale pulls himself together and cracks a lopsided grin. "Well, okay, y'all hadda good dinner, anyhows."