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, July 12, 2014


STEFFI MUSES as Little Bird whines around the curves. Much of this road will not abide fifth gear; she spends her time shifting between third and fourth. Lunch, a can of refries, rattles around in the five gallon bucket on the sissy bar. She'll eat at Central, get her marching orders and fill the bucket with provisions from the discount grocery.

What was that all about at Moss Creek last week? Jana had led the way to Ron's place with the two pots of mint. He wasn't in, and she'd settled down on the front steps to give little Aaron a feed.

"I think he's getting your ride for you. Our phone is on the other side of the river, in a shed just down the bank from the wide-out." She'd smiled tentatively.

Steffi had looked over beyond the rail fence, noting the black, muscular horse cropping grass there. The pasture had dried up for the summer, and the enormous creature was working the fence line, where shade had kept the good stuff going longer.

She'd suddenly envisioned having to feed the thing an apple to please her hosts, and had felt light-headed. The day had gone badly after that.

Distracted, she hits a sharp curve too fast, and is forced into the other lane. As luck would have it, here comes an old Oldsmobile, right at her. Steffi wrestles with Little Bird's handlebars, braking until she reaches gravel at the roadside, drops off the shoulder, and rattles to a frightened stop just short of a muddy slough, its embankment festooned with old-growth blackberries. She sits, gulping precious, miraculous air, steaming up her helmet's faceplate. Too close.

I live in the country. How can there be so much going on in my head that I can't hit a simple curve without killing myself?

She makes it in to Eugene before she discovers her lunch is gone -- bounced out, no doubt, when Little Bird left the road.

Walt, the bear-sized on-duty bidder at Central, spreads a Forest Circus map. He draws Steffi's attention to a penned circle in the lower left corner. "This is a creek in the Jones River watershed. We're building little dams there for the fazoos, to help the salmon. Salmon need pools with gravel for spawning, and to get pools like that you need blowdowns lying in the water, and the loggers cleaned all the logs out back in the Fifties."

"Uh huh."

"It's only about two weeks' work, doesn't pay a lot, and the walk-in is a steep two miles. But it's about all we have on offer right now. How's that arm?"

"It'll do. Is this my map?"

"No, but I'll photocopy this corner of it for you."

Hoedags from the local area -- The Magruders and a few others -- have hiked in to set up camp, while Carlo rode shotgun on a helicopter to drop supplies at the site.

"That was the most terrifying thing I've ever done. Our whole camp was slung on a wire rope underneath us, and the guy zips down the canyon, with old growth and rock faces on both sides. Our gear was just skimming over the creek, seems like. I. Thought. I. Was. Going. To. Die." Carlo's eyes are maximum wide, remembering.

"What do we do here?" asks Steffi, to distract him.

"Well, there are four of these dams, actually. We drop a tree at each flag hung by the fazoos, across the stream bed. Then we cut the ends off, about fifteen feet long, and drag them with Peaveys to the downstream side and mortise them in as braces. This one --" stepping onto it -- "is all done, you can see the drift pins we've hammered in at the mortises, and then we heaped stones and gravel on the upstream side, about three hundred buckets full. It's mostly about the buckets. How's that arm?"

"It'll do." Water pours evenly across the low point in the log dam, falling about eighteen inches with a pleasing tinkle. In winter, Steffi knows, this will be a raging torrent. With such extremes, it's anyone's guess whether these logs will actually be useful, but money is money. The feds want dams, they get dams. "Where do I start?"

For three weeks, Steffi hauls buckets of rocks. The first couple of days, it's easy. But she's mostly hauling one-handed, and sure enough she strains something and mopes in her rain-drummed dome tent for a day. Then, on reduced loads, she finds her own level. It's less rock per bucket than the guys are carrying, but they seem to appreciate her presence. She offers to dock herself ten percent of her take, but they turn her down. Fine, she'll do it at Central.

As time goes on, the crew has to range farther and farther upstream or down to get gravel. Steffi loves the canyon and the routine, feeling her way through the icy water between glistening, fern-draped rock faces, as the big crawdads back away from her into submarine shadows.

Fall is approaching. It rains a little, then a little more. Water is rising, and the crew puts in a couple of ten-hour days to finish the last dam. As Steffi pours out her final bucket of pebbles, muddying the water, the Magruders come down to water's edge.

"We're packing up," says one. "Everybody will take two loads up to the road, and that's it till the tree planting starts," says the other.

Steffi follows Carlo with a load. The straps of the pack frames cut into their shoulders, and they stop to make themselves tumplines -- polycords that extend from the tops of the packs to their foreheads, with padding. With these on, as they lean forward, some of the strain will be taken off their backs.

Carlo points ahead into the gloomy underbrush. "We'll take the right fork up ahead. It goes straight up the fire trail on the side of the old clear cut but gets us to the landing with plenty of daylight."

Steffi adjusts the bandanna she's using for a tump pad. "It seems dark already."

"That's because it's a north slope. You can see from the sunlight on the firs on the opposite side, there's plenty of daylight for this one trip, and a little bit of margin for error."

The climb is one of those that will either build your heart or stop it cold. Steffi counts steps. Every twenty, she has to stop and blow. What's in this load? Oh, yah -- one Husky chainsaw, a pry bar, five drift pins, and a come-along, all arranged around a (mercifully empty) jerry can. Couldn't we have just stashed the bloody drift pins? It's a cool afternoon in the shade, but sweat works out from under the rolled-up bandanna and seeps around her eyebrows, stinging both eyes. She wrings them out with her thumbs.

"One more pitch," says Carlo encouragingly.

They reach the landing after an hour and half of straight-up torture, and there is Carlo's old pickup truck, warm and inviting in the late afternoon sun.

"It's too late for the last load, which is mostly your bag and tent anyway," says Carlo. "We should head for Greenwood and I'll come back for it if you like. You really look done in." He scans around the landing. "How did you get here, anyway?"

"I'm on my bike. Stashed in the brush." Steffi draws a ragged breath, leans back against the truck body, and shrugs herself out from under the pack frame. "What I want to do, I think, is go back down and spend the night. Bring my stuff out in the morning."

"I dunno, Stef. You'd be the only person for thirty miles each way."

She grins. "Carlo, you know that's what I like best."

Back in what's left of camp, which is mostly Steffi's little pop tent, her sleeping bag, and a bread bag half full of trail mix, she achingly pulls off her boots and damp socks, rolls up the cuffs of her jeans, eases down to the creek bank and puts her feet into the nearby pool. A red crawdad backs away, barely visible in the fading light. There are already stars.

Movement, perhaps the edge of a shadow on the water, prompts her to look up. A great horned owl has sailed across the stars and is disappearing among the black firs. Impulsively, she raises her arm to salute the giant bird's silent passage, and something -- a something soft, like a furball -- strikes her hand. There's a splash in the water.

Steffi's first thought is that she has somehow hit a bat.

A memory floods in behind her eyes, of neighborhood children beneath a street light, amusing themselves by swatting with a broom at tiny bats flitting into the lamplight for fire-addled bugs. So far as she can remember, no one ever managed to hit one. So what has happened here?

There's a stir in the water. A small bird, so diminutive it takes her breath away, surfaces, hops on a rock, shakes itself thoroughly, and inspects its wings sullenly. It seems to Steffi the creature looks her over briefly, as if suspecting her of swatting it from the air on purpose. Then, with an indignant-sounding squeak, it flits away.

Steffi finds herself alone with her thoughts.

Jana had been moderately disgusted. "What's with you all of a sudden?" she'd asked. "You're running away, without even staying for lunch."

She really couldn't say.