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, April 12, 2014

6


THE CONTRACT is plagued by snow.

This is a good thing, as it makes the inspectors sympathetic to the Hoedags, who show up morning after morning, stinking of camp life and weed smoke but ready to work in the cold and wet.

On the other hand, snow can shut the job down. If it's more than two inches deep, the inspectors will call it a day, as snow can ball up and fall into your hole with the tree roots, then melt later on and leave an air pocket which will kill the tree.

If it keeps snowing, you're out of a job till the next thaw.

Face Crew is all over the hill. Steffi is in the middle of the line. Above her she can see Murray and Bill, and two more people blurred by the weather. Below her is Israel, and she knows Juneen and Chuck are around the corner somewhere catching up the back. They're about a fifth of the way down the mountain from a landing at the top; she can hear the storm winds moaning as they comb the hair of the fir trees beyond the landing. The trees are waving at her, or rather bowing to her, bending at the waist; it's more than a little alarming.

The inspector, a paunchy guy named Mike, is atop a stump, leaning on his shovel, turned away from the wind. There's enough wind to rattle the fifty-foot tape measure hanging at his waist, and just enough snow on the wind to turn the back of his orange vest white. He's yammering away at anyone within hearing.

"See, there was this little river, an' it was just over th' line. Th' veecee used it to run their guns 'n ammo an' shit, an' we could see 'em all th' time, but couldn't shoot at 'em 'cuz of th' frackin' rules of engagement. 'N we wuz up there 'n along come this lon-n-n-n-g boat piled high with mortar-round boxes, 'N I radioed in to th' colonel 'n reported it 'n asked for authorization to hit 'em, 'n he sez, Mike they are in a no-fire zone, 'n I sez, but colonel, 'n he sez, Mike, listen carefully: no fire zone -- 'n a light come on in my head, an' I sez, Rob, set us down over here by that big rock 'n we loaded up that rock and flew over there 'n dropped it right in th' middle of that boat 'n down she went."

Israel unbends himself, tree in hand, and looks up the hill at Mike. "Well, Mike, that's all well 'n good but that was then and this is now, right?"

Mike seems kind of crushed by this and sits down on the stump. Steffi's right in front of him, sliding a snowy little tree into its hole between two huge roots. She packs the tree with her boot and looks up.

The inspector has tears in his eyes. "God, I wish I coulda fought in a popular war."

"Sorry, sir." Thinking of nothing else to say, she moves on to the next spot.

Several spots later, she realizes she's outplanting Bill, making a bow in the line. She can see his head above a snow-crusted log -- no hard hat -- bowl-cut blond hair -- and his round shoulders. If she bumps back, it will make matters worse; she needs to pick up her dag and walk up between Bill and Murray. But it's steep; this part of the hill is more rock face than anything else.

Above the log, Bill has found pay dirt. He swings his dag and pulls back on the handle.

His elbow touches the log.

It turns and starts walking sideways down the hill.

Whatever comes down the mountain in an uncontrolled fall, be it boulder, tree trunk, or tree planter, the universal warning is "rock", screamed at the top of one's lungs. Bill is screaming it, Mike is screaming it, and Steffi, running sidehill, is screaming it. The log collects her and down the mountain they go, Steffi over backwards on top of a lot of sliding scree, the log on top of Steffi.

It's not a huge log, maybe twelve feet long and two in diameter. But it's waterlogged and making good time. If ever Steffi should be terrified, it should be now. But there's no time for that. The sky goes by for what seems hours, in slow motion, then she drops into a hollow, the log goes on alone and tears itself up on a stump with a bang like a movie explosion.

Steffi's young enough, up to this point in her life, to still believe she's immortal. Gee, maybe not? Was this it?

There's total silence. No, her ears are ringing. She's watching blue spots circling in front of her eyes. Or, no, maybe that's just the snow.

How peaceful. How beautiful. If I have to go, this is not at all a bad way.

Bill's face hovers over hers. Jerry-up's does, too, which she would not have expected to see; he'd been planting nearly a quarter of a mile away on the other side of the draw. Her fall was that interesting?

Steffi's brain starts working again. She focuses on Jerry-up's classic Brooklyn face, which to her looks like some of the better paintings of Jesus.

Jerry-up's lips are moving. She can just make out his accent. "Don't move, Stef. We'll getchuh the stretchuh!"

"Uhh. I don't think I'm broken, really. Just sit me up?"

"You're kidding, Stef, that thing rode you a hundred feet!"

"Well, its end was on the ground, I dunno."

Against their better judgment, Bill and Jerry-up shift Steffi to sit up against a large rock. Fifteen people are standing round her in a circle, sympatico-eyed.

"Stef, no hard feelin's?" asks Bill.

"I got up under you, Bill; my fault."

Chuck comes down-slope and goes on one knee to look Steffi over; he gently lifts her eyelids and looks into her eyes. "Not dilated. But I think we oughta at least put ya in th' crummy."

"Chuck, this unit is good money. I don't want to go up there and get all stiff. How about we switch places, and I be the non-planting foreperson?"

He's not saying no. Steffi takes this as a good sign.


The unit's done by a late lunchtime and the crew drives around the mountain to another one, eating in their seats. Steffi's a little sore now. No, she's a lot sore. Back, arm and leg. She pulls off her left boot; it's bugging her. The others climb out for a look-see.

Steffi watches through the dirty window. The sun is out. They're strategizing, laughing, patting one another on the back, then come back for their dags and bags. Juneen pops into the front of the crummy for her hard hat.

"What's up?" asks Steffi.

"Unit's half rock face, half gravy, no slash. Hundred dollar afternoon for sure."

"We made that much this morning. It's after two now."

"This one's twice as good. It's twenty-two acres but we can get it all done before dark! Y'comin'?"

"I dunno. I'm stiffening up."

"I don't wonder. Hell of a fall. We all thought you were killed." She pats Steffi's shoulder.

She looks like she's gonna stay and talk. "I'm okay," says Steffi. "Go break the bank."

"Yeah." Juneen grins, pops her steel hat on and disappears.

For awhile Steffi's okay just sitting. But then she thinks a little sunshine'd be nice for that foot. She hops toward the front of the crummy, holding onto the backs of the seats.

Once outside, curiosity gets the better of her. What's the unit like, really? Grabbing a planting shovel for a crutch, she hobbles over to the edge of the road.

People are scattered out far below, with Mike standing on a stump above them maybe two hundred feet down from the road. About a sixty percent slope. There's a lot of trees in the ground already; as Juneen said, it's all gravy. Suddenly there are dollar signs in Steffi's eyes.

In a wink she's back in the crummy and trying to get her boot on. No way. Her foot's now two or more sizes too big. She like roomy boots and layered socks but her feet are big to begin with. She rummages around and finds one of Burt's tennis shoes. Size eleven, men's.

Perfect fit.

Back out in the sunlight, she takes her tree bag, hopping with the shovel, over to the inspector's green truck, opens the camper shell, drags a paper tree sack over and lifts out four damp bundles of trees. Two hundred. Should be just enough for the amount of ground that's left down there. This unit will pay thirty cents a tree easily; sixty bucks in one afternoon if she hustles.

Diving off the landing will be the easy part; in all that soft dirt she can just schluss on down to the line. She aims for Mike, who hasn't moved.

"Hey."

"My god, girl, I thought you was hurt!"

"Not so much; may I use a shovel?"

"Well, there's no grass here; I don't see why not."

"Where's the action?"

"Everybody went left and they'll come back here 'n go right. You get under the cliff here, you can work for hours and save 'em a climb out."

"Thank you, sir."

Steffi slides and slips down the edge of the bulging rock face, planting trees as she goes, and gets into her very own acre at the bottom of the clear-cut. She crutches from spot to spot, ten-by on a nine-by, driving the shovel deep with her hands, blade facing backwards the tree-planter's way.

The sun sinks west. Steffi's bag gets lighter with each hobble.

There's movement overhead. She looks up, up, and up, and there's Mike at the top of the cliff. He gets out his clipboard and looks down. He waves his pen at the acre. "So, what's it like down there?" His pen hovers over the clipboard.

He doesn't want to climb down here. I'm throwing my own plot!

"Umm, eleven for ten and one loose tree."

Mike scribbles in the clipboard, closes the aluminum cover, then grins. Steffi can see the grin all the way from here, even in the shade of his hard hat.

"All right," he says. "Not too bad, but watch it with them loose trees!"

A bit later, the piece is done and her bag is empty. She'd better start climbing. It's gonna be slow.

Casting a long shadow, Steffi works her way round to the right and up. Before long, she hooks up with Burt. He's throwing his dag ahead of him into the dirt and pulling himself up by the handle; it's that steep. Little Butch, right behind him, is taking a picture with that big camera. How does he keep his dreads out of the frame?

"Is that my shoe you're wearing?" asks Burt, eyebrows raised.

"Mmm-hmm, I'll wash and dry it tonight." Little Butch snaps Steffi's picture. She glowers at him.

"How come it fits yuh?"

"Reasons of state."

Around a big stump comes Bill. He clambers up on the stump and points to the sky with his hoe handle. "Lookie."

They turn and squint. Out of the low sun comes a bald eagle.

Then another.

Then another.

In a few moments, there are all of seven bald eagles, turning and turning in the pink light.

Little Butch takes their picture.

From around the corner, Lon's hoarse voice rings out.
Oh, say, can you see
By th' dawn's early light ...
"It ain't dawn, Lonnie!" That would be Chuck.

"Don't matter," replies Lon. "Been a helluva day, huh?" He picks up where he left off. Others join in, including Mike, the government man.

Steffi takes another agonizing hop upwards. Yes. A helluva day.


Steffi awakes and, uh-oh, no can move. Oh yeah, run over and half killed by a log yesterday.

She drags over the stick that holds Rocinante's back door open and props up the door. The light coming in is surreal, upside down or something and bright. How long has she been asleep?

There are camp-breaking noises all around her. Amy sticks her head in over the tailgate.

"Hey you."

"Hey. What's up?"

"Snowed out. There's four inches here. Gang's gonna head for town and stay in a hotel. Ygonna come?"

Steffi doesn't want to admit she's immobilized. "Uhh, tell ya what, I could stay here and watch the camp? Y'think?"

"Loner."

"So I'm weird; I don't have a corner on that."

"True. Y'got all you need?"

"I think. Well, there's plenty in the yurt, right?"

"We packed it all up in case of bears. All the kitchen goodies are in Yoder's van. Help yourself."

Amy's head disappears, replaced by Lon's. Whiskey and hint of Prince Albert. Whiskey at seven in the morning?

"Ya good?"

"Oh, sure."

"I c'n bring ya some coffee, there's still some from breakfast."

"Umm, yeah."

Lon disappears. Steffi tries to sit up, but she's totaled.

In a bit she thinks Lon is back, but it's Chuck's hand putting the mug on the end of her camper shelf along with a can of beef chili. He seems to know she can't sit up. "Listen, we could be gone a week with this snow. More comin'."

"I'd like that, it'd be like a vacation. I don't much go for town, you know."

"Yeah. Uhh, listen, Stef, while we're gone, be thinkin' how if we hadna snowed out, we'd be short one hand -- they'd shut us down. In th' Hoedags, it's not just about our own totals. Right?"

Steffi feels her face burning. "Umm. Right."

"Be careful, now."

Thank you for the coffee and chili."

"Yeah."

Presently the crummy goes through its litany of moisture-laden engine coughs, then chugs out of camp.

An absolute silence falls.

Steffi pulls the stick and Rocinante's back door shuts with a bang, cold light coming in through its window.

She pulls the top of her sleeping bag over her head.


It's another morning before Steffi feels ready to venture forth. She tests her body by shifting her hips, one side and then the other. Not too bad. Bladder, though, oh, lord!

Her nose is pretty cold. The light coming in her window is blazing. She rearranges her Princess pillow and hunches up in bed. Hungry. Can opener, chili. Spoon, spoon. Where's the big spoon? Ah. She digs at the chili fiercely. The spoon hits the chili with a clunk and bends almost double.

Whoa! how cold was it last night?

She's going to need fire. This is out of Rocinante's class. Besides, got to make some yellow snow!

Wrestling her way out of the sleeping bag, she scrabbles for her boots and then lifts the camper door.

The scene that awaits her is a shock, even though she has to squint to see it.

The sky is an impossible shade of blue. Beneath that the fir trees are not at all as she remembers them; everything is bent down with thick pillows of white.

The yurt is suffering from the load of snow. Wading knee deep, Steffi cuts a willow wand for a walking stick, and a longer willow, branches on, for a broom, and clears the roof as best she can. Then she hobbles in, sits on an aluminum veggie-oil can, and builds a fire in the Airtight. Not till the yurt's warmed does she raid the step-van for bacon and potatoes.


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