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.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

4


STEFFI'S LIFE has become a bruised but happy blur.

Mornings, she wakes easily; she's always been her own alarm clock. She picks a time and -- bim! -- her eyes pop open. The crew discovers this and they award her the role of bell ringer.

In the darkness her arm snakes forth from her sleeping bag and she feels assorted pants and shirts in a pile on Rocinante's truckbed floor for dampness. The least damp or mud-stiffened pants and shirt are nominated as today's dress code.

Staggering outside in unlaced tennis shoes, she picks up by feel a cold, rained-slick hammer from a stump and with her other hand she bats around at the air till she finds a seventeen-inch long forged-steel hoedad blade hanging from a tree on a strand of baling twine. This she pounds on for thirty seconds until lamps and flashlights pop on all over the still-benighted camp.

"Okay, okay, Stef! Cheeses frackin' cries arready!"

Someone stumbles over bodies in the entryway of the crew yurt, dodges pairs of sweating caulk boots hanging from the low rafters, lights the white-gas lantern and begins the invariable breakfast of eggs with broccoli.

Steffi likes ketchup on hers.

The sky rolls slowly over into an alloy of lead and silver as boots, dags, bags, rain gear, and lunches are stuffed into the crummy, followed by eleven groaning bodies.

The engine, feeling all of its two-hundred-twenty-seven thousand miles plus a night of near-freezing rain, mumbles and hiccups as water in the gas line is cleared away by sheer starter-motor power and ultimately catches. The headlights take a stab at the darkness; firs, cedars, alders, hemlocks, stumps and Forest Service road signs appear and disappear at regular intervals, punctuated by the occasional spooked deer or even bear, and after many turns on hairpin curves over black gulfs of wet wilderness, the crummy sighs onto the landing as the day turns to as much day as it's going to.

The wind shoves dead grasses around on the landing in the rain, but the clouds, rippling through like a fast freight, never part.

Shrug into wet rain gear, lace up caulk boots, slap on hard hat, bag up, discuss the unit strategy, step over the edge. Muscles still sore from yesterday complain at first, then oil themselves with their own internal residues and fall into the routine.

Lunch, standing up, shivering. It's whatever you bring. Steffi's is baked potatoes sliced in half, with strips of bacon as the filling. She needs all the calories she can get to just to be here.

She's also acquired a tiny pipe, a cheap Dr. Grabow of gnarled briar with a nickel band round the stem, which she fills with Flying Dutchman in the mornings, and smokes, bowl upside-down in the rain, crouched in the lee of the crummy, till lunch is over. It makes her spit a lot, but it helps. Seems to keep guys from hitting on her, too.

The days are long, almost dark-to-dark. She's carrying three or four hundred trees in the morning and the same in the afternoon. Her hips are permanently bruised. But a tree is a dime. She's making seventy to eighty dollars a day in the middle of a high-unemployment recession and she's proud of herself.

Crummy up, drive home. Headlights, deer eyes and glowing joints.


A sunny day after what seems like months of rain. The crew puts in an eleven-hour day to finish the contract on time. As the crummy reaches camp, it's still light. The rain has already soaked into the porous earth and the grass looks inviting.

Chuck parks the crummy, and for a moment no one moves. All eyes are on the transformed campsite. The setting sun, dropping down into a notch in the westward-trending canyon, illuminates the beaten trucks, cars, and buses, the sagging, bewildered tents, and the yurt with its rusting cap and chimney. Dogs run to the crummy, wagging almost cheerily.

Chuck opens the door and and simply slumps to the earth. Bill and Mike crawl out and lie down on top of Chuck. Willard, Burt, and Jerry-Down pile out of the passenger side, take three steps, kneel and collapse on top of Bill and Mike. Amy, Juneen, Murray, Steffi, and Jerry-Up simply add themselves to the pile-on. The heap of treeplanters lies there, like a colony of seals -- with the dogs' inquiring tongues on their faces -- for a good twenty minutes.

The Magruders, who have stayed home today, noticing that no one has come to dinner yet, leave the comfort of the yurt fire and amble out to inspect the dazed herd. They pull their red wool crushers low over their eyes and hook their thumbs in their suspenders.

"Uhhh, y'all want any macaroni and hamburger?" asks one. "Or doncha?" asks the other.

"Got coffee, too," they add. They turn around, as one, and stroll back to the yurt. The pile untangles, limb by groaning limb.


That night, the rains return with force. Rocinante's roof sounds like she's been parked under a waterfall.

Steffi digs deeper into her sleeping bag, with just her nose sticking out. She puzzles over the treeplanter heap -- that felt nice, there were no barriers and no one seemed to mind being napped on top of by everyone else -- and tries to figure out how much she's made this week, then reminds herself to sharpen the scalping blade on the back of her hoe.

With a sharp blade, you can quietly even up the dangly roots that run over ten inches on your seedling, prevent J-roots and loss of income to disgruntled inspection. Some let you trim, some don't. With the ones that don't, you might go to their superiors about the catch-22 of hoe-trimming versus J-roots and the boss tells them to bring scissors and do the pruning for you on request. So when you do that, they hate you and things just go from bad to worse. Better you just look around, and as soon as they are preoccupied with something or someone else, schwick! splop! -- it's pruned and planted.

There's an inspector standing by Steffi's bunk, which is strange because the roof is only three feet away.

"So, Stef!" he says, smiling wickedly. "I have to ding you or you won't pay any attention!"

"Uhh, 'Scuze me? Tryna sleep here?"

"I know you are; that's just the problem. Lookit your line!"

With a sweep of his arm, Tatum clipboard in hand, the inspector's gesture takes in the soggy, slash-befouled hillside. All along Steffi's line the meticulously mineral-soil-scalped planting spots contain baked potato-and-bacon sandwiches, planted up to their waists and properly tamped.

Steffi can't see what's wrong with her sandwiches, and turns to the inspector to say so. But the inspector is now standing, arms akimbo, with his mouth open impossibly wide. From it there comes the sound of branches slipping past other branches, slapping faster and faster through larger branches: crackings, smashings, roarings.

Steffi's suddenly wide awake, and somehow she knows what the sound is. A tree is coming down, a fir, huge, old-growth. It's going to hit the truck and obliterate her little life from the earth.

There's nowhere to go. No time to wriggle out of the sleeping bag. The forest hulk, shedding tons of moss, lichens, limbs, branches, twigs, and rudely wakened birds, brushing aside hemlocks and alders as it comes, is here -- here now -- surely here now, to crush the yellow truck and its sweat-bemired occupant, oh-too-young-to-die. Now it strikes, splintering millions of, five hundred years' worth of, fibers --

-- and, umm, has missed the truck. The impact actually causes Rocinante to leap, perhaps a quarter of an inch, rocking on her axle springs. But there is, in here, no death.

In the morning:

"D'ja, uhhh, hear anything last night?"

Amy, sleepy-eyed, regards the newbie, almost amused.

"Blowdown, somewhere, maybe."

Steffi's obsessed with the derailed freight train of broken timber that interrupted her strange dream. In two days is her day off. She reconnoiters upstream from camp, following the creek till the trail threads out, snaggling her way through viney maples and thimbleberry until she comes to it: a trunk seven feet thick, that has broken its neck among the boulders, leaving wracked hemlocks and cedars in a gap in the forest canopy just beneath the clouds.

It's more than a quarter of a mile from camp.


Burt and Chuck spend a good part of the next morning coaxing the crew-bus crummy to life. Chuck cranks the motor over while Burt fills a mayonnaise jar from the gas line, separates out the gas by slowly pouring it off the top of the water into a battered fuel can, then pouring the gas back into the truck's fuel tank. Then Burt sprays lighter fluid on the air filter, Chuck cranks the engine over again with the twelve-volt's last gasp, and the engine catches.

"Town. Gotta call in," says Burt to Steffi's raised eyebrow. Most of the crew, all the men anyway, pile in.

"Beer run!"

Oh, the joy.

Steffi's not that into beer. She spends the day wandering around the mountainside, poking her nose into boomer holes and tree hollows.

Amy and Juneen, also not very into beer, are packing the yurt's furnishings into a couple of galvanized trash cans.

Amy is twenty-three, pretty except for a broken front tooth, is round like a muscular apple, always wears overalls. She speculates a lot without saying much of it aloud. Juneen is nineteen, taller than Amy, not nearly as strong but so focused she outproduces her. Juneen is, or was, a few years back, a runaway; ordinarily she would have wound up living under a bridge in Portland and dying of dirtied needles, but lucked into hard work in the woods instead. They both love being here.

Amy spots a blue hole in the sky and brings all the caulk boots out to dry in the sun, arranged in semicircles on old growth fir stumps. She keeps pushing the boots apart and back together on the stump.

"What are you doing?" asks Juneen, in the yurt doorway with a dented aluminum pitcher in one hand.

"Porkypines." Amy dreamily rearranges the last pair, and chums it together with a gigantic pair of wet sneakers.

"Come again?"

"In th' winter th' porkypines got cold, see? So they, they got together and one of 'em said, 'Look, we're all freezin' our butts off out here, how about we circle up and we'll all be warm.'"

"I can see a problem with that."

"Hush, that's th' point of th' story. So they circled up and they went to stickin' each other, on accident, an', like, 'Ooh.' an' 'Owie.' an' such, so they they spread out some -- "

"In the snow?"

Amy looks crushed. "Sooo, y'know this one, huh?"

"Not really, but you tell it so I can really see it."

"Uh-huh, well, so there they was freezin' again, so they went back 'n forth till they got some body heat but not stickery. And that's called The Origin of Manners or somethin' like that."

"Wow."

"Yeah. This crew, it's like that, everybody gives a little 'n takes a little. Even the new girl. So -- I guess I like it here."

"The new girl is nuts."

"We're all nuts, Juneen; you think any girl with any sense would be happy in this much mud?"


Steffi, meanwhile, deep in the shade of some big-leaf maples on the hillside, has knelt among the sword ferns, remembering a way of playing that she had in her childhood. She breaks fallen twigs so that each one is about the size of a new pencil, and sticks then in the ground side by side, until she's made a little pioneer stockade, complete with cabins and furniture inside the cabins --

"Steff-f-f-f-f-f-f!"

Woops. How long has she been out here?


Juneen and Amy want help with the yurt poles.

To dismantle a crew yurt, first remove the polyethylene walls, with their rips and burn holes all covered with duct tape, and roll them up. Take the shortest rafter, a ten-foot-long debarked and sun-dried lodgepole sapling, the one with no eyebolt holding it tensioned against the upper cable, and worry it till it comes loose in the interior of the yurt in your hands. It becomes a tool. With it, you can push up on the canvas roof from beneath, then walk the roof off to one side, exposing all the other poles to daylight.

Fold the roof so that its steel cap, which is also the flashing for the woodstove pipe, rests on top. Remove the other poles from the top of the upper cable, all but the four that have the cable threaded through them. Stack the rafter poles on the roof rack of the crummy, hanging out beyond the headlights and the taillights.

Now loosen the turnbuckle on the upper cable, unthread it, take the remaining four poles that are still jammed in the plywood donut ring that held the cap and stovepipe, and walk them over to the side, dumping the donut ring on the ground.

Next you undo the bottom cable's turnbuckle, gather up both cables, unbolt the door frame from the wall lattice, walk the lattice up flat, and place the remaining rafters, the door and door frame, the rolled-up plastic, the lattice, and the folded canvas roof on the crummy's roof rack and tie down the load with scraps of rope. It's tempting to use the wall cables, but you don't want to kink the wire rope.

Sounds complicated, but once you've done it you can get it down to twenty minutes with three women and two dogs.

Now this sounds like a strikingly ugly vehicle, and it is, but this is the Seventies -- cops won't pull the crummy over unless it actually dumps something on the freeway. Live and let live, more or less -- that was then.

Y'all don't know what I'm talking about, do ya?


After the kitchen is packed away in and on and behind the crummy, the rain starts up again, and they gather all the boots that have been drying in the yurt and stash them under the owners' assorted vehicles.

"Hey," says Amy. "Y'know that warm spring we heard about? I found it on the district map."

"Yeah?" Juneen pushes her hair out of her eyes. She can feel it's stiff, gnarly, no shower for three weeks.

"Whaddya think? Stef, you got gas in your truck?"

Steffi's not sure.

Pay is by the job, and the jobs are three, six, eight weeks long. No one's been paid since the last time the crew went to Eugene, a hundred miles north. The next paycheck is probably a week away. Resources are slim. Gas for the trip to the next job will come into camp with Burt and Chuck in a fifty-five gallon drum.

Amy's feeling bright. "got some sawgas?"

"Maybe a half gallon."

"Cool! Wanna go hot tubbin'?"

Rocinante gets a drink of the darkened gasoline mixture and they're off.


Amy navigates, shining a flashlight on the map in the gathering gloom, in Rocinante's cab. She sits in the middle, even though she's wide, because her legs are shorter than Juneen's.

The headlights reflect, through the windshield wipers, from one forest service sign, then another. The signs indicate intersections; the roads are numbered rather than named. Two or four digits means, roughly, paved trunk roads. Three digits is a gravel spur road. They find the spur road they want.

"'Kay, Stef, slow down; we want to go one-and-a-half miles and there should be a wide spot and a trail off to the left."

"How are we gonna see that? It's almost pitch black now."

"Shhh! Look. There's a wideout on the left. See a trail?"

"Not much. Looks like a piss-stop trail if anything."

"That's gotta be it. Not a lot of people know this is here."

Steffi pulls over and shuts off the engine. They push through the viney maples and ocean-spray at the roadside, getting wet through and cold, and, sure enough, it's a trail. Amy knows woods.

A couple of hundred feet into the darkness, they come to a tiny clearing among second-growth firs. In the middle is a dark little hole, about five feet across, with water in it, surrounded by trampled grass.

Steffi has doubts. "This is a hot spring? It's not, umm, steaming or anything."

"It's just a warm spring, silly, just hot enough for a good bath without cooking us. Touch the water."

Steffi kneels down and, sure enough, just like a drawn bath. Warm, not scalding. In all this rain in the middle of nowhere.

The fever for a washing up hits all three of them at once. Shoes, pants, overalls, shirts, and bras fall in a heap. Steffi can feel the cold pressure of the grass stems on her fanny and the heat of the water on her tired, scabbed shins. In moments, she's up to her neck, prone in the shallow and muddy water, lying with the back of her head pillowed on the bank.

All any of them can think of is that their poor, long-suffering pores are opening to the heat of the water ... ah, paradise.

Juneen sits up, washes her hair, lies down again, drawing the surface of the warm springs over her like a blanket.

The rain falls on their closed eyelids. No one says anything for a very long time. They're so blissed out, they could die here and miss it completely.


Back at camp, which would be around midnight, they discover that Burt and Chuck, along with the rest of Face Crew, have returned. There's a quick crew meeting by the light of the crummys' headlamps.

"So," says Chuck. "Got word. We'll hit Eugene tomorrow, get groceries, and head up to the Olympics."

"In ... in Washington?" asks Steffi, as if it were a long way away.

Chuck looks at her in pity for a moment. Then he looks a bit closer, and at Juneen and Amy as well.

"How'd you all get so clean?"