In 1975, Steffi Smith, twenty-five, journeys from Georgia to Oregon in search of a new life. There, a friend tells her about a unique way for her to make a living: joining a forestry services co-operative, whose members live a gypsy existence amid the mountains and rivers of the great Northwest. The rest follows.

Monday, January 9, 2012

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."
    Oh.