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, May 3, 2014

9


STEFFI NEEDS a place to park Ritzy over the summer, and Dan knows just the spot.

"Downstream from here, about five miles, there's an abandoned quarry. It was licensed for gravel, but the rock is rotten -- weathers into sand too fast -- and they gave up on it; nobody goes there, not even the BLM, which owns it. Right on a bend in Greenwood Creek, next to the apple orchard. You can get in from either upstream or down, and there's even room to turn that thing around in there. Just drive right in over the baby alders in the driveway, and they'll spring back and it's like you were never there."

She tries it, and it's all good. Parking at the south end of the landing, at the end of the old dump-truck turn-around, she's got plenty of shade for hot weather. The prevailing wind draws smoke from her chimney up and over the ridge, so she's not likely to attract undue attention. Time and space to read Three Pillars, watch sunsets, and think.

But there's not enough groceries for the summer. Steffi hikes out, thumbs her way to Omega Farm, and pulls weeds with Dan for a bit. She's got a little money from the Idaho job; enough to expand her horizons a bit.

"Does anyone have a motorbike for sale around here? Not an Electro-Glide or anything like Little Butch has. I'm afraid I'd drop it just trying to go over a curb or something."

'Well up at White Star they have one, I think; something Japanese. Clunky. But we have a good mechanic here. Could maybe get you on the road cheap."

Steffi checks this out and within a week she's the proud owner of a moderately unattractive orange-and- black Yamaha three-fifty with high pipes and a rusted sissy bar, complete with helmet, a greasy cloth bag of Volkswagen tools, and spare tubing for the gas line. It's been awhile since she's driven a bike, which was a Honda Ninety in Enterprise, Alabama, all of once, and the Yamaha looks like a lot of bike to her.

Dan trains her on it. Shifter, throttle, brake, lights, gauges. How to watch for traffic, potholes, dogs, and railroad tracks.

Licensing? Insurance? Hey, she's young and foolish.

Every two weeks Steffi puts on her jacket, gloves, and helmet and cranks up Little Bird to head for Eugene, eighty miles from the quarry. She has a five-gallon bucket strapped to the sissy bar, and that's where the potatoes, rice and canned goods will ride. The curves are tight along the river canyon, the highway is narrow and bumpy, and the traffic unforgiving. It's a good education.

One of these trips is made late in the evening. On the way back out of town she spots a drive-in theater with a movie running. When was the last time she saw a movie? So she pulls into a suburban side street with a view, parks between two cars, sets the bucket down beside the bike and leans back into the sissy bar with her feet up on the handlebars.

She can't make heads or tails of the flick. Not just because, for her, there's no sound track. It seems to be about a plump subteen who's in some kind of row with her family, and there's a priest who keeps waving a crucifix at her and she throws up an awful lot. Pretty soon the kid's head is spinning on her shoulders. Ugh.

Whatever the world is up to, outside of Greenwood Creek and the Hoedags, Steffi's thinking she's not up for it. After awhile she puts the groceries back on the sissy bars and motors off into the night.


A walk along the creek in the morning convinces Steffi there are possibilities for supplementing the potatoes and rice. What are called "creeks" here would be serious rivers anywhere else, and the driftwood piled high in trees on the bends serves as a testimony to what can happen when the whole Pacific Ocean decides to dump itself in your lap.

Among the pools and riffles there are what look, to her, like dwarf lobsters, crawling every which way. Steffi is not much into shellfish, but she's thinking that where these are, there may be trout.

Back at the Ritz, she digs out an old and heavy baitcasting rig she'd pilfered from her dad, with which he had fished for many years for bass and bream. It's rigged for bream, very lightweight line, small hook, one split shot. She's not too sure of the antique lures in her kit that came with the rod and reel, and it hasn't rained in months, so she's not likely to find worms.

Oh, hey! The lobsters! But they have those big claws. Folks around here must know how to catch them, but Steffi has no one to ask at the moment, so she grabs the log tongs from underneath the Airtight and heads down to the creek.

There's one of the little dickenses right there. After snapping at him fruitlessly for two or three minutes, staggering around on the smooth stones in the riffle, Steffi corners the little guy -- gal? -- both? -- by a willow root and picks him up. He spreads his claws and plays castanets, which throws Streffi for a moment and she goes over backwards into the water.

Cold.

Where Steffi grew up, water is warm at this time of the year. This stuff takes one's breath away. Might as well be in a flood in the Olympics.

The tongs are empty now, so Steffi stands up, water draining from her hair, shirt, and jeans, shivering. She looks for a sunny spot to stand in, pulls herself together, and repeats the hunt.

Got one! She dismantles it, draws a section of fresh crawdad onto the hook, flings the hook and split shot into the pool downstream from the riffle, and in seconds is playing a tiny trout over to the bank.

Gonna have protein all summer.


Fish and potatoes every morning will last until the rains come. But a little more money before fall would not be a bad thing to have; a cushion. In case Ritzy ends up needing another engine replacement, say.

Steffi places a call to Hoedag Central.

She catches someone in, which is lucky in August. "Yeah," the guy says, "not much goin' on right now. There is some precommercial thinning. Near Alderton, too, and they're short-handed. Not much money in it, they never pay good out your way. But that's what there is. Got a saw?"


Steffi shows up on the landing riding Little Bird, in her blue hard hat and caulks, with saw, gas, oil, lunch, and water in the sissy-bar bucket.

The crew leader, a tall, humorless but gentle man called, appropriately enough, Slim, shakes his head. "No scrench? No round file? No laundry soap bottles to hang yer liquids on yer belt? An' that McYellow there is worse than no saw; it will shake yuh to death. But yer a Hoedag already and I've heard nothin' bad about yuh; we'll see what we got in th' crummy."

Slim outfits Steffi and they walk, slide, and skid for half an hour through jungle into the bottom of the unit. Steffi falls head over heels twice, scattering tools and sandwiches in the brush. Slim shakes his head again.

Thinning is done from the bottom up. A tiny creek is squeezing through a thicket of salmonberry. At the bottom edge of the unit, which had been tree-planted a decade before, Slim trains Steffi as best he can. The work is more complicated than she'd thought.

"Work sidehill," Slim is saying. "Meet somebody, bump up fourteen feet, work back, repeat." He draws the diagram in the dirt at their feet, then stands up and points.

"See, right here is a good tree. S'Doug fir, eight foot tall, an' all 'round it is some ocean spray, alders, bracken. No need to cut bracken, or grasses 'n forbs, but if it's woody 'n within fourteen foot o' yer good tree, cut it off within six inches of th' ground. Take out smaller or poorly shaped Doug firs or hemlocks or cedar, and anything broadleaf -- alder, maple, 'shittim,' willow, cherry, viney maple, ocean spray, thimbleberry, salmonberry. Y'cn leave these Oregon grapes alone. Sword ferns, huckleberries, they're okay. Yuh don't have a good fir, pick a hemlock or a cedar. Yuh don't have any conifer, skip ahead to yer next good tree. You get into old-growth alder an' there's any conifir in th' understory, I'll show yuh how t'ring th' alders."

Slim puts in his earplugs, lifts his gray and red saw by the wraparound handle, yanks once at the cord with his other gloved hand, and gives a demonstration. In seconds, things are falling toward the creek one after another, as he walks along.

Steffi kneels atop her saw housing, sets the choke, yanks about fifteen times, and eventually cranks up and slashes at her surroundings for a few minutes. There's a tap on her shoulder.

"Yer way too dull an' runnin' too rich. Siddown a minnit."

For what seems like hours, Slim files away at each tooth on Steffi's saw chain, then files at the rakers, which she hadn't even realized had a function, explaining as he goes.

"Shine each tooth evenly, an' always file to the outside of your cut. Y'wanna smooth bevel here an' a minimum of resin buildup. Use th' same number of strokes on each tooth or it will cut on a curve. All our wood here, 'cept for madrone, is soft, so take your rakers down like this t' throw a bigger chip. 'K? Now yer chain's too loose, yer gonna throw it. Yer scrench at this end will loosen these two half-inch nuts, then yer tighten th' screw here; not overtight. See that daylight when I pull on it? 'N now yer carburetor, take yer scrench an' take both of these screws back t' zero, then this one out one turn, 'n this one a turn an-a-half."

Steffi's head hurts. Might as well be studying calculus. But when she cranks the saw again, it starts right up. And she can't believe how fast the chain goes through the little alders. Saplings bounce off her hard hat, slide down her shoulders, and roll downhill behind her like the wake behind a boat. This would be fun if it weren't so hard.

The buzzing saw chain is out of her sight half the time and the saw bucks around among the smallwood as she imagines a bronco might buck. This is not at all like firewooding. No wonder Slim talked so much about knowing where my legs are at all times.

Steffi does not remember ever having worked at anything so exhausting. When her first tank of gas runs out, she falls over on her back in the slash, dizzy, her eyes full of salt. Her arms are covered with scratches even beneath the heavy drill of her hickory shirt. When she crosses her eyes, she can see blood drying at the end of her nose.

She drags out a red bandanna and wipes her face. A hummingbird appears from nowhere and hovers for a long moment not six inches above Steffi's eyes. Oh! It's checking out the bandanna.

There are saw noises everywhere but here; mostly upslope somewhere. She's falling behind; better gas up and go.

After her four tanks of gas have run out, it takes Steffi a long time, say about fifty years, to make it back to the landing. Other crew members have worked through the area she'd come in by and it's all changed. The jackstrawed slash easily defeats her efforts to gain altitude.

When she arrives at the landing, the others are having a heated discussion. Steffi feels hostility in the air. The men, all but Slim, climb into their crummy as she starts unloading her gear into Little Bird's bucket.

Slim comes over.

"There's been a, uh, a crew meetin' an' th' guys are feelin' like you will cost us too much money. They're hopin' you'll wait for tree plantin' to start up again."

Steffi feels tears welling up behind her safety glasses. "It's -- well, I need money too. Maybe I could work at half rate till I get the hang of it?"

"I like it that you thought of that, but it wouldn't be legal really." He thinks a minute.

"Tell ya what. I'll bring it up to th' others that we'll put yuh on yer own subcontract, right across th'draw. Yuh do that piece, y'get paid for that piece. It probably won't make yuh minimum wage but it'd be something. I'll check on yuh once a day."

"Wow. Thanks, Slim."

"It's about fifteen acres, I'll ask the fazoos t' tell us exactly. You'll need to be done by th' first of October, an' if ya meet inspection, you'll make, after fifteen percent to Central, about six hundred dollars."

That seems like a lot to Steffi. She's almost grateful. But then Slim's talking again.

"But y'gotta dump that McYellow. No shocks, no chain brake, bad piston ring. So half of yer six, we'll get Central to front it to ya an ya go buy a Stihl."

"Steel?"

"Stihl. German saw. Model oh-thirty-one, sixteen inch bar."

So, for her summer's work, Steffi's going to make three hundred dollars, less saw, sawgas, oil, and tools. If she doesn't shorten a leg.

Oh, well. With any luck, she'll make it through to planting season a little stronger and wiser.

Maybe.