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.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Twenty


-- 20 --

STEFFI stumbles into dim dawn, goes potty, splashes some creek on her eyes, and comes back to her rumpled campsite to struggle into her boots. Her feet always swell at night, especially the left one where the log got her, and her back always hurts these days, so boots are one of her bugaboos. Not getting younger. She packs up her camp. Tent, sleeping bag, candle, matches, a wrinkled copy of Desert Solitaire, water bottle, and the bag of trail mix, which is leaking oats at one corner where mice have gotten in. Laces it all on the pack frame. It's lighter than yesterday's load, so she leaves off the tumpline. Hup, hup, up, up before the sun hits the northern treetops. Once she's loaded up, she throws her poly poncho over the whole rig, popping her head through the hood. Things are damp this morning.
    She's on the trail, slapping through wet thimbleberry, watching her step in the mud. There's bear poop every hundred feet or so -- big pies, brown at the edges, purple in the middle -- berry season. One of them has a dragonfly sipping at its essence. My, this stuff looks fresh.
    Round the next bend, a commotion commences in the thimbleberries, enough to make Steffi's heart leap. Brush jumbles around upslope from the trail, and she sees just a bit of black, furry rump disappearing amid hazels and vine maples almost overhead.
    "Whatever," she says. "You gotta know, you scared me too."
    As she passes the spot where the animal has left the trail, she admires the damage that's been done to the thimbleberry bushes. Nothing subtle about bears.
    At the following bend of the trail, Steffi comes to a fork. To the right is the fire trail that goes straight up to the landing -- a wearying, leg-killing hike, and her feet and back are still bugging her. To the left the way stays with the creek a while longer, then ascends the ridge more gently, with switchbacks. It comes out on the road half a mile out of the way, but at least the hike back to her hidden motorcycle will be flat.
    Okay, let's do it.
    In ten minutes she comes to the beaver pond. It's black, still, and loaded up with slick logs, but she likes it here. The biggest log is covered with slabs of bark -- good traction -- and there's even a trail along it, consisting of a patina of mud and sand pocked with caulk holes. All around stand water-killed trees that have so much character she thinks of them as Ents, from Tolkien.
    She's halfway across when the huge log, which she would have sworn was tucked into the mud, does the impossible -- it rolls. She'd dance with it, to stay on top, but the pack frame is adding a fillip of clumsiness. One foot -- the left one, of course -- slips into the water, and then the log settles into its new preferred resting spot, with Steffi's foot caught -- not crushed, thank goodness, but absolutely immobilized -- somewhere beneath. She sits down heavily.
     How's the other foot? She's straddling the log, but on the other side there's a log nestled firmly against the big one; her boot heel rests on the crack comfortably. Nothing feels strained or sprained in either leg. Tailbone hurts from sitting down hard, that's about it.
    She tries rocking the log back and forth. Nope. It's happy right where it is. Can she reach the boot and unlace it? Nope. Can't feel the foot any more, either, in the cool water that's seeped into the boot.
    She shucks her poncho, shrugs out of the pack straps, drags the pack frame around to her side, and looks it over. Not much here to work with. Some water. The bottle won't fit in the crack to get more, once it runs out. Worry about that when she gets thirsty. Some food. Oh-- that'll make her thirstier. Oh well. That heavy pry bar that went up yesterday would be nice to have right now! Or at least a good whistle. But no one's close enough to hear a whistle. She can feel it.
    It's not a sunny day, but she's out in the open and will slowly burn, sitting here long enough. She pulls the poncho back over herself for shade and sits, staring at the trail where it picks up beyond the pond.
    Ho, ho, ho, that way lies madness. Steffi, you're in trouble. Correction. Whoever you might have been, you're in trouble.  When your leg is locked up like this with no one expected back to find you, you don't have a name anymore.
    After a few minutes, she digs out Ed Abbey and reads awhile. At first, it makes matters worse. He's always getting into exactly such scrapes and then finding a way out of them -- but he's not in a leghold trap. His attitude, though, is helpful. Undoubtedly he would chew through his leg if he had to -- or the rocks, presumably. Is there a way to chew this wood?
    Steffi looks at the pack frame. Why is she here without her knife for once?
    She reaches for the gorp bag and gnaws at some peanuts, oats and chocolate drops. She guzzles a bit from the water bottle. Whoa! Not so fast. She looks at the pack frame speculatively. It was once her first backpack, aluminum frame and canvas straps with an orange canvas packbag. Not great, but for fifteen dollars it made a good companion for ten amazing days on the Appalachian Trail. Nothing left of it now but the straps and frame, but still putting in a good day's work.
    Steffi separates the frame from the tent and sleeping bag and hefts it. Aluminum, dubious. But it's all the leverage she's got. She jams it between the left-leg logs and pulls. Nothing. Pulls again. Nothing. Pulls again, really leaning into it.
    The frame bends.
    Sigh.
    One of the cross pieces has pulled loose from one of the uprights. She tugs and twists at it till it comes loose. She turns the soft metal tube in her hands. Not much of an edge, but -- something. Almost idly, she pokes at the wood in both logs with the open end of the tube, decides the far log is the punkiest, and starts digging.
    It's not an easy angle, and almost right away she can feel a sharp pain in the lower back. Aggh, okay, in stages. Hack wood, rest, read, hack wood, rest, read, eat, drink, hack wood. Her day's work is set. Like, how much worse is this than tree planting, really?
    Hack, rest, hack, rest, eat, drink, hmm out of water, hack, rest, hmm, thirsty. And, oh, it's getting dark. By now she has a decent pile of wood chips in front of her, some of which seem fairly dry. She gets out the Bic lighter and candle and drips some wax on the chips and starts a small fire right on top of the log. You never know, somebody might smell smoke down the canyon and come upstream to investigate. It hasn't been a really cold day, so there will be a sinking air mass, which means a downstream breeze.
    Hack, rest, hack. The hole between the logs hasn't grown much. Steffi looks up. The sky has cleared, there's a moon that was full only two days back.
    The eclipse party seems like years, decades, lifetimes, centuries ago. She'd been so sure they were gonna try to get her to say hi to the damned horse, she'd made a bit of an ass of herself.
    Nothing we can do about that right now.
    She stretches out with her pack frame and drags a rat's nest of beavered cottonwood branches and a chunk of fir bark over to her fire.
    The moonlight is mesmerizing. All the shadows round the pond are deep blue, and they move slowly, like daytime shadows do. Of course they would, she's just never noticed.
    The night air is getting colder, especially behind her, where the fire's warmth can't reach. Steffi wraps the sleeping bag round behind her and drapes her tent over herself. She must be a sight. Still thirsty, though.
    Hmm.
    The tent has a rain fly. Steffi gropes around, finds it, twists it skinny, and stuffs it down the left-leg hole, by one of its shock cords. When the cord feels heavy, she fishes out the wet rain fly and wrings it out into her mouth.
    Yeah, that'll do. Let's chop log some more. See if we can get our name back.

:::

Judging by the moon, it must be close to midnight. Still not enough wood gouged out to pull up that numbed foot. What's cold on her chest? Oh, it's the Buddha.
    Steffi fishes him out on his steel chain. It's a little metal Buddha pendant, not iron, probably pewter, but hey. A reminder of all the iron Buddhas she's met in the past three years. She smiles.
     Buddha smiles back, looking a bit like the Mona Lisa. Steffi wraps her hand round the pendant and leans back to rest a little bit.
    After awhile, a beat-up yellow crummy rolls up across the pond.
     "Hi, I'm Chuck. This is Willard, Amy, Juneen, Bill, Mike, Murray, Jerry-Up, Jerry-Down, Burt, and Marie. We're gonna pick up Dale and the MaGruders and go on up the hill."
    "Uh, hi, I'm Steffi Smith."
   "Throw your stuff in the back and climb in."
    She does so, and as she settles into the shotgun seat, turns around and waves. Everyone waves back.
    She spots Marie. "Marie, I'm sorry I ... "
    "Shh, it's okay, Stef. Watch the road."
    After the Magruders' place, the road ascends steeply. It's murky out, with a golden light suffusing the fog from above. Chuck eases round the curves, avoiding the cliffs on the left and hugging the cut-banks on the right. They come to a driveway, and here are Israel, Lon and Little Butch waiting with their dags, bags, caulks, lunch boxes, rain gear and hard hats. They climb in, laughing and joshing one another. Steffi rises, thinking to move toward the back, but Israel pats her on the shoulder. "Hey, kid, glad to see ya. Jus' stay right there, we got plenty room in th' back."
    Really? Seemed like a full crummy a few minutes ago. She cranes her neck to see back down the aisle, and sure enough, they're stuffing their gear into the overheads and piling into empty seats, smiling like pewter Buddhas. Chuck pulls the door handle, releases the air brake, and dodges back onto the narrow mountain road.
    The light is brightening. They come to a wideout and pick up Yoder, who has parked his ponderous van next to some kind of Forest Circus "Interpretive" sign, the kind sprinkled around the woods for the benefit of tourists. Steffi gathers up her stuff and sticks it in the front of the overhead, then pats the seat on her right. "What's the sign say?" she asks Yoder.
    Yoder settles right in, no longer the tentative newbie. "I got my spirit guide."
    "No, I mean the fazoo thingy."
    "Yeah, that's what I'm talking about about. The sign says my guide is you." He's wearing that idiotic pewter grin, like everyone else.
    "Ask a silly question ..."
    "Just watch the road, Stef, in case Chuck misses a stop."
    She does so. Just as it seems like the sunlight, the brightest sunlight ever, will break through the fog, they come abruptly to a halt, and there are Carlo, Dan, Jana, and Mervyn, who climb aboard with hazel hoes and Pulaskis.
    "Hey, Stef," says Mervyn. "D'ja bring your saw?"
    "Umm, don't think so. Didn't know this was a fire."
    Mervyn's foot kicks against something as he goes by. Steffi looks down; it's her chainsaw, in everyone's way in the aisle. She drags it under the seat, feeling her face flush with embarrassment at her thoughtlessness. She sits up and looks over her shoulder again.
    Damn, this is one big crummy.
    The bus rolls forward again, and finally pierces the clouds. Dawn awaits them, the sun shining on the fog bank; Steffi squints. It could be a million suns lamping a primordial sea.
    The bus stops again, and Rod climbs aboard, pants legs wet to his knees, carrying a long freshly cut sapling. All business, he jams the end of it under her seat and puts his shoulder to the other end. "What are you doing?" she asks him, startled.
    "Getting you out of this trap," he answers. "same as you'd do for me."
    Well, that was a diplomatic way to put it -- typical of the guy.  
    Steffi tries to sit up, but she's too stiff. Throwing an arm up against the sun, she sees that Rod is leaning into the sapling, prying apart two logs. "How did you find me?" Her voice is a croak.
    Rod stops long enough to give her a sip from a water bottle.
    "Carlo noticed you didn't show up at Central and called me. So I went to the Ritz and you hadn't been there. So I came straight here. Carlo, Dan and Mervyn will be right behind me, and we're going to litter you out of here." He drops the pole and gently fishes her foot from the dark pond, holding it out of the way while the great logs drift back together. "Would you like some breakfast?"
    "Yes. I'm ... I'm sorry I ran away from lunch, after you fixed it up so nice and all."
    "Nah, that was my fault. I shouldn't have put Mandolin Wind on the record player ... well, we'll just get you fixed up and back to your truck in no time."
    Steffi studies his face. "Or, if it's okay, maybe instead to your place. You, know, for ... for lunch."
    Rod sits back and tilts his head, studying her in return. Some kind of tension flows away from his shoulders. "Yeah? That'd be nice."
    Behind him, above the tall black firs, a raven floats across the canyon, casually dodging a smaller blackbird that's harassing it.
    Steffi would have preferred something more like an omen -- an eagle, maybe. Oh, well. Nothing's perfect. But some things are pretty damn good.

    The Buddha smiles.

.:.:.:.

End of Iron Buddhas. Risa will be working from this draft for an epub 
and print edition, which should come out in June 
(fingers crossed).