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 19, 2014


EVERYBODY'S PACKING camp yet again.

Steffi's snow vacation has convinced her she needs a little more space -- crew food, for example, is okay up to a point, but twice the bucket brought down into the bottom of a unit has contained nothing but onion sandwiches, and while communism is all well in its place, she'd like to have her own fire to sit by some evenings. A step-van, or maybe even a school bus. She did well enough in the Olympics to afford something for herself.

The Magruder brothers know just the thing. "Talk to Murray. He has a friend on the Stones crew, wants to get out of the woods, has a nice rig."

Murray, thin-faced, mustachioed, and intellectual, is half out of the woods himself -- wants to go back to school after this season and be a professor of music or something. Afraid the planting will dull the talents in his brain and hands. He lays aside his guitar as Steffi comes up to him in the yurt, listens a bit, and rubs his chin.

"Cat Man has a rig, yeah, but he wants fifteen hundred for it. A little steep, maybe. How about my truck?"

Murray's truck has a taller camper than Steffi's, and with a stove and stovepipe, too, but it looks like an outhouse, is even darker than Rocinante inside, and stinks of dogs and cigarettes. She winces, but he's not offended. "I'll give yuh th' number. Y'get to Eugene, try Cat Man."

Cat Man is a little guy, about two-thirds Steffi's height, shaggy-maned and a bit of a showman.

"Here she is, ain't she lovely?" He extends his arm in a sweep that's like the raising of a theater curtain.

It's a two-ton flatbed truck with dual wheels on the back, very tall. On the truck bed there's a house.

A real house! Cat Man shows off his carpentry: maple flooring, cedar interior, skylight, double doors with divided lights, windows ditto, cedar shake exterior. Airtight stove with pipe flashed through the ceiling. A set of six steps, made from two-by-eights, provides access. One entire side wall folds out to make a stage; he'd kept an upright piano inside at one time and had entertained notions of traveling with a band, medicine-show style.

The front end of the house is a deep blue blunt-nosed cab with much of the engine underneath the floorboards. The cab's height is a bit intimidating for Steffi at first. Cat Man shows her how to stand on the running board, grasp the chromed grab bar, and swing herself up onto the seat. The steering wheel, which is huge, nestles right up against her rib cage almost. There's no seat belt.

"Your windshield wipers are vacuum-powered; they go slower at low revs and faster at high revs. There's five forwards and, get this, three reverse. She can't go very fast but the gas tank is huge; you can run her all day without stopping."

"What ... what year is this thing?"

"Nineteen Forty-seven Chevy, but the engine is newer and has just been rebuilt. Here's all the receipts."

Steffi likes it, but at fifteen hundred? She smells mechanic work in her future "What do you drive?"

"Nothing right now; I need to downsize. Believe it or not, this has been my sole source of transport, along with a motor scooter."

"Well ... what about we look at my pickup?"

Steffi'd looked about inside. She'd need a little more stuff. In here she'd be rattling around and she's not quite used to it. She's never actually owned a home other than Rocinante's homemade canopy. Cat Man had not provided for shelves and cabinetry.

They'd dickered only briefly, then swapped titles on the vehicles. Steffi's new house cost five hundred dollars and Rocinante.

It had felt like a betrayal. The faithful yellow pickup had tugged at Steffi's heartstrings the whole time she was unloading.

The foam mattress, queen size, had fit perfectly into her new bedroom, an extension of the house built over the cab of the ancient truck. On the mattress she'd piled not only her sleeping bag, blanket and pillow but also very nearly all her possessions, then closed and padlocked the glass doors, swung herself into the cab, and rolled tentatively away with a hoot of the quaint horn and a wave.

First stop, Goodwill. She finds a wall bracket for her kerosene lamp, a copper bottomed pot, a Cold Handle skillet that looks like it should just fit the eye on the Airtight, three bowls, a replacement tablespoon, a tea kettle, three mugs, and six nice brass coat hooks.

Also from the book section, an acceptable Three Pillars of Zen with only one corner of the cover chewed off. She's hoping it will help her survive this move toward the middle class.

After the coat hooks are installed, and Steffi's chore coat and rain gear and autoharp hung, she starts building "window seat" cabinets and a desk. Her skills are in the "good enough" category; the corners are crooked, but everything is stoutly hinged and stuff can be stored away.

At the desk, by lamplight, she will write in her journal at night and read, on good days, Paul Reps, Gary Snyder and D.T. Suzuki, there being a shortage of Zen nuns getting published.

On bad days, Plath.

Herr Lucifer, Herr God ...

Steffi finds a scrap of one-by-six and carves on it: Ritz Hotel. This she nails up over the back door.

She pats the housetruck on on its fanny. "Let's go."

With the Olympics done, and the weather changing, crews are spreading out to cover contracts in the Rocky Mountains, a phenomenon known as the Spring Tour.

Face Crew is off to Idaho. Steffi stops at the "almost wholesale" grocery and picks up five boxes of canned this-n'-that and a fifty-pound sack of rice. With rice, dandelions, chickweed, miner's lettuce, and the like, she knows she can go a long time without having to come in to town. The contract, she's heard, is a day's drive from anywhere. She climbs into the blue-and-chrome cab of the Ritz and heads up the Columbia Gorge.

Wind is coming downstream today; the Ritz's big blunt nose is an easy target for a headwind and, heavy as it is, the housetruck sways a little, bucking its way east. Steffi would like to be thrilled at the scenery -- Rooster Rock, Multnomah Falls, the giant dams, the rimrock -- but she feels she's hanging on for dear life. And fifth gear seems to top out, here, at forty miles an hour. A hill appears in the distance and it hangs there on her horizon for what seems like ages. A seagull passes, making better time than the chugging engine.

Steffi misses her tape player. A little bit of Blue or The Low Spark of High-heeled Boys would help her pass the miles. She sings to herself, bits about Carey getting out his cane and she'll put on some silver.

Night falls as the Ritz drones on; a town's lights creep over the horizon and just hang there, seemingly unable to come closer.. Steffi checks the gas gauge; it's leaning on empty. Damn! She'd meant to get jerry cans at the army surplus, but it was a stop she hadn't managed to make. Ease off on the throttle; lower revs. Climb the grade. As soon as you top the grade, take out of gear and freewheel, idling. As you bottom out, slip back into fifth, listen for the sweet spot in the revs, take it down to fourth, repeat.

The town's lights reappear, still no closer by the look of them. An eighteen wheeler groans past with a red VW "bug" drafting in its tailwind.

The engine coughs.

Coughs again. Starts dying.

O-o-o-kay, that's it. Steffi takes it out of gear and drifts into the emergency lane on a faint downgrade, nursing a few hundred more feet out of the big truck's inertia.

What to do? She doesn't want to hitch to the town at night. Or walk. Much of what's going going by is pickup trucks with a couple of cowboy hats driving; too much to handle if it's the wrong color hat.

She remembers the warm springs. Oh, yeah! Sawgas! It can get her closer to town, maybe a safer walk by the light of the mercury vapor lamps on the rampway.

She climbs in the back door, pulls the bolt pillow off the tool locker, lifts the lid, and picks up the bleach bottle in which she mixes and keeps the stuff.

Aww, empty.

Oh, hey, the saw! She hefts out the old McCullough, climbs down and runs around to the big square gas tank.

Oops, can't reach with the saw; the leading edge of the house is in the way.


Back to the house, grab hard hat from locker.

It's a blue plastic one, cap style. Steffi doesn't like it much, prefers her Sou'wester rain hat, but has it along for any saw work, such as 'falling' small snags to get dry firewood for the yurt. Looks like it'll do.

She runs the hat round to the fuel tank, empties the saw into the hat, empties the hat into the gas tank.

Puts her house in order, jumps on the running board, lifts herself into the cab by the grab bar, turns over the engine. It catches. She checks the big driver-side rear view mirror, stays in the emergency lane, ascends through the gears, babies the throttle, thirty five miles an hour all the way to the ramp, gears down, climbs the ramp, crosses the highway to the station, and runs out of gas right at the pump.

She's definitely gonna buy a couple of long-necked gas cans here, price no object.

Gas station attendant eyes her up and down. "Where's your guy?"


"Big rig like this."

Jerk doesn't know a Hoedag when he sees one. Maybe she'll buy the cans at the next place.

Idaho! The Rockies! The mountains, the trees, the smells through the open window are different. The yellow soil, full of mica and pyrites, glitters. The firs are dusty, and in place of the ubiquitous cedars of the Cascades and Olympics, there are light green conifers, all putting out new needles, which Steffi learns later are called "larches."

She pulls into Pierce and it's night again. All the cars in town are at the only two-story building, which is covered with Christmas lights and a big sign, "Grand Re-opening."

Hungry. Might be a meal to buy in there.

The front door has those swinging shutter-like thingies like in the movies. Steffi can't believe it. She climbs down and crosses the street with a little trepidation, images from "High Noon" going through her head. What's it gonna be, a brass rail, spittoons, and poker?

Steffi looks in. No, it's about a hundred people, all ages, and there's a huge buffet, long tables laid end to end. The room is exuding immense affection. An older guy, all paunch and walrus mustache, notices her. "Gonna stay out there all night? S'okay, all on th' house for th' grand openin'."

No kidding? Steffi comes in and gains three pounds.

The road from Pierce to camp is only ninety miles long, but requires almost as much driving time as from Portland to Pierce. It's purely a jeep track.

Ritzy doesn't like it. She's fourteen feet tall and ten wide, and leans out alarmingly on the curves. Something has come loose in the back and is rolling around seasick. Steffi tries second, tries third, tries second, tries third again. No gear is happy. Glittering dust rises in the rear and is pulled forward by a tailwind, covering everything inside and out. Steffi can feel the grit between her teeth when they're rattled by the washboarding on the grades.

Here's a corner so tight someone's hung up a polished hubcap or something so drivers can see if anyone's coming around from the other side. Ritzy has to jocky back and forth five times to negotiate it.

Steffi finds a wide-out a little farther along, gives the truck a needed break and steps over to the drop-off. River's about two hundred feet below. In the middle of the current, there's a little raft using fifty-five gallon drums for flotation, with a tiny cabin on one end and a mess of chuffing machinery on the other. Two guys are running some kind of bucket chain from the river bottom into a gadget that rocks back and forth.

One of the guys grins up at her. He has only one leg. Maybe he's dredging for a new one. The pursuit of happiness in the Land of the Free.

One unit is most of this contract. Camp is squeezed onto the landing; its a high place, and there are snowdrifts.

At sunset, Ritzy shoulders her way, barely breathing, past the yurt. Juneen and the Magruders come out to help block Ritzy up level.

Steffi's home again.

She drags the steps out of the back doors with Juneen and bolts them to the doorstep. "What have we got?"

"Three hundred twenty acres. It's a short job; we have to make twenty acres a day and there's only going to be thirteen of us."

"We can do an acre and a half average, can't we?"

"Some places we can, but these trees are jelly-rolls."

"What's that?"

"See that canvas shade-house behind the yurt? The suspectors put a slurry of vermiculite and water in the barrels, dip the trees, spread them out on burlap and then roll up the burlap and pin it with a nail, like a diaper. Those rolls are heavy and it means more bag-ups. Slows us down."

"What's it for?"

"I know you won't believe it, 'cuz there's all this snow, but it's not like the Olympics. It will get hot out there at midday. This will cool the trees till they're in the ground."

"Well, live trees beat dead trees."

"Yeah, but th' slurry hurts yer back. Worst part is, th' suspectors get grumpy rolling th' trees, 'n they're apt t'take it out on us."

"Oh. Oh well, we're here. Seeya in the morning?"

"You bet."

Steffi climbs in through the double doors and checks out the damage. Not too bad. Mostly cans and potatoes rolling around, books dumped. She steps up on the window seat nearest the bedroom, digs her lamp chimney out from under her pillow, and brings it over to the lamp. Crank wick up, light with match, install chimney, roll wick down to the sweet spot.

Yellow light floods the room. It's a little chilly; she loads up the Airtight with a few splits from a cedar shake and some newspaper, gets them burning merrily, and adds a couple of chunks of fir that hitched with her all the way from western Washington.

As Steffi is sweeping the glittery dust out the back door, Yoder squeezes past the yurt in his widebody step-van.

Steffi's at his door before he has rolled to a stop. "Gonna put up that tent?"

He leans wearily out the window. "Where?"

A Magruder arrives from the yurt. "It's pretty tight here; and we have to leave room for the suspectors to park, too."

"Maybe I'll just sleep in the van."

"Hang on and we'll level you up right there."

"You will?"

"'Course we will. Still kind of a newbie, are ya?"