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Fall 2003, Volume 21.1

Essay

 

Ana Maria SpagnaPhoto of Ana Maria Spagna.

Children of the Woods


Ana Maria Spagna (M.A., Northern Arizona University) lives in the North Cascades of Washington state where she works full-time on a trail crew, teaches part-time in a one room school, and writes. Her essays have recently appeared in Orion, Utne Reader, Open Spaces, Backpacker, Oregon Quarterly and Best Essays NW. "Children of the Woods" is part of a book entitled Now Go Home: Wilderness, Belonging, and the Crosscut Saw, which will be published Spring 2004. Other work by Ana Maria Spagna  published in Weber Studies can be seen at: Vol. 22.3.

 

7:15 a.m. and it's raining to beat hell as we climb into the battered Forest Service Suburban. Jeremy, Justin, and I have only been able to forestall departure by fifteen minutes, which means we have a particularly piss poor mood to look forward to—Kevin, our foreman's. The rig reeks of saw gas and spilled pop cans of yesterday's tobacco spit—Jeremy and Justin's. Kevin switches on the radio, spins the dial to NPR. Jeremy and Justin shift in their seats, but remain silent. We have been through this before, and we have a strict radio truce: NPR in the morning, classic rock in the afternoon. The reception is sketchy. Something about Yasir Arafat.

"Yes, Sir, you are fat," Jeremy sniggers under his breath.

"Scattered showers near the mountains," the DJ predicts.

We all groan. That's us.

We pull in behind JV's Texaco Deli Mart at the only four way intersection in Darrington, and because we have been warned repeatedly by our supervisors not to stop here during work hours (It does not look good to the locals, they argue.), Kevin leaves the rig idling for a quick getaway. Kevin and I fill plastic thermamugs of coffee. Jeremy and Justin buy an order of fried chicken gizzards and a Big Gulp each. Then, instead of returning to the Suburban lickety-split like he's supposed to, Kevin disappears. I figure he's at the pay phone, so I mill around a little longer and grab a couple of dusty bottles of three dollar André champagne from behind the malt liquors.

"What's with him?" Justin grumbles.

I shrug, not wanting to explain. Kevin has been trying for weeks to secure a ski instructing job for the winter, and there have been a few offers, but he is choosy. Ruggedly handsome and maniacally fit, Kevin belongs in a Patagonia catalog. He belongs on the summit of a Himalayan peak, at the oars of a Colorado river raft, on the sheer face of Half Dome. This time of year, he belongs on skis, and he feels it. He's weary of the rain, of being the only one left in a bunkhouse built for twenty, of this late season hikeless trail work. Mostly he's sick of Jeremy and Justin.

"Any luck?" I ask when Kevin returns.

"None," he says.

"Well, that sucks," Justin offers.

Kevin steadies his foot on the accelerator.

After twenty more minutes of news from the Middle East, we turn off the gravel highway and lose radio reception. From here, the weavy logging road is badly washboarded from a fall of heavy use by deer hunters, so I crack a window to prevent myself from getting carsick. Jeremy zips his jacket to his throat. He shifts in his seat and begins to kick Justin out of boredom. It's the usual routine. Jeremy is skinny, blond, and incurably hyperactive. When he is standing, he has the continuous distracting habit of hefting his crotch with one hand while he gestures with the other. Justin is as strong as he is fat, as kind and imperturbable as he is lazy. He probably weighed 240 when he was sixteen, and he's well beyond that now at twenty-two; he takes up two-thirds of the backseat. Jeremy kicks. Justin ignores him. As we approach the worksite, 35 miles out and 3,000 feet above town, rain solidifies into thick silvery threads of sleet, and Justin begins to snore.

In one seamless motion, Kevin cuts the motor and hops out. Before the rest of us have moved an inch, he's lugging a gas generator out onto the bridge. Jeremy and Justin and I hover behind the Suburban, pulling on raingear, slurping the last of our coffee, Mountain Dew, Dr. Pepper. We pick through the mangled jackstraw pile of tools—chainsaws and levels, axes and socket sets, a circular saw, electric drills—without enthusiasm.

Our fall project has been to replace a perfectly good drive-across bridge with a steel beam horse-and-hiker-only bridge. The road used to continue three miles beyond here and dead-end in a clearcut, but logging completed (depleted, actually), the Forest Service has taken to rehabbing these old roads to make amends for past sins, and, of course, to keep itself and us busy. So a Forest Service backhoe went up the road and tore out culverts and built up massive waterbars. Three weeks ago, the backhoe was the last vehicle to cross the drive-across bridge before a rented excavator yanked it out and put the I-beams for this one in place.

The four of us have been left with the plans and supplies to complete the project: cedar decking, handrails, lag screws, washers. We are unaccustomed to this sort of work. Normally we would be deeper in the woods on a real trail, not a road-turned-to-trail, and we would find our own materials, make our own design. Our egos are bruised here, and without a morning walk to temper our tempers, we are all running on short fuses.

But work is work. We asked for work, begged actually, to stay on until Thanksgiving. Never mind the clouds, rain, sleet, spilled tobacco, blueprints from hell. I guess I ought to admit that Kevin is not the only one in a piss poor mood.

 

When I lived in Darrington, I didn't know a single local except Jeremy and Justin. I slept in the women's bunkhouse, a doublewide trailer partitioned with old office dividers, and littered with the junk of six of us who'd spend a week in the woods and then a couple of days driving "down below" to Everett or Seattle to go to movies and bookstores, to visit friends and family, to buy produce. Sometimes, when I couldn't face city traffic, or over time as the things that mattered to me migrated gradually closer, I shopped in Darrington, though the clerks at the IGA did not approve of my shopping habits. They would hold ginger root, say, or cilantro at arm's length. "What'd you say this was?" They'd frown on the grubby boyish fistfuls of cash I kept stuffed in my jeans pockets. They'd wait impatiently while I shoved thirty pounds of groceries into a daypack rather than use grocery sacks. I apologized awkwardly, or I took the paper bags without complaint. When in Rome, I figured. But if the clerks didn't say it, their scowls did: I didn't belong.

Jeremy and Justin belonged. They were from Darrington most recently and originally from the bigger town, Arlington. "Drive north on I-5," Jeremy directed someone to his hometown, "till you smell cowshit, then take a right." That would be Arlington: rivers braiding through farmland on the homestretch toward Puget Sound. Forty swervy miles farther the same direction, in dense timber beneath steep glaciated peaks, sits Darrington, a depressed logging town settled by former North Carolinians who were willing to risk life and limb cutting down gargantuan trees. Another Darrington boy, a co-worker on a later crew, told me every man in his family had died either in a war or in a logging accident. Justin's mother, probably hoping to cut her losses, picked up seasonal Forest Service jobs for Justin and his best friend Jeremy when they were teenagers.

By the time I met them, Jeremy and Justin were no longer teenagers. They were young men who loved to drink.

Once, another crew member, a ski instructor and a mountain bike racer at thirty-five, tried to warn the boys.

"Man," he said, "I worry about your livers."

"Drinking's bad for your liver?" Jeremy asked.

"Yeah, it is," Eric said. Jeremy had boasted plenty of times that he'd drunk at least a six-pack a day since he was sixteen. If anything, we considered this a conservative estimate. "At the rate you're going, it'll be shot by the time you're thirty-five."

"Oh, if I got that long, then, no problem," Jeremy said with a grin.

With seven of us, the crew was large enough to break into two groups: one that backpacked miles into Glacier Peak Wilderness for regular trail maintenance and another that took on frontcountry construction projects—a new raft launch here, a wheelchair-accessible trail there. Backcountry projects offered spectacular scenery, solitude, enough physical activity to make you nauseous. Frontcountry projects offered every night at home, hot meals, hot showers, and close proximity to enough alcohol to make you really nauseous.

It wasn't that Jeremy and Justin were incapable of doing backcountry work. If anyone on the crew could carry a heavy pack, it was Justin. Since we had neither horses nor mules, he did it pretty often. On top of the inexplicable super-sized bags of corn chips and fist-sized alarm clocks Jeremy and Justin carried, Justin would, with a little coaxing, shoulder a sledge hammer, a rock bar, a box of ten-inch spikes, some cable, a few explosives.

If anyone could use a crosscut saw, it was Jeremy. When a six-foot diameter cedar fell across a major trail, suspended high above the tread (but still indisputably within the clearing limits for a horse trail), the rest of us lugged step ladders into the woods like loyal caddies. Jeremy carried the saw. The log had wedged itself so firmly between four or five standing trees that the resulting tension made it too dangerous for a second sawyer to perch on a ladder on the opposite side, so Jeremy single-bucked the whole thing. He gripped the saw handle in his right hand and cupped two fingers of his left hand between the sharp beveled teeth and the wide splayed rakers for control, then he sawed, smoothly, deftly, heaving his crotch each time he took a breather. He finished in just short of three hours. He'd been stoned the entire time.

At times, especially after work, Jeremy and Justin seemed to enjoy the backcountry. They drank and smoked around the campfire with a tiny pair of Walkman speakers scratching out barely decipherable AC/DC or Black Sabbath. They cooked communal meals enthusiastically with quantity in mind: massive portions of dried Uncle Ben potatoes and gravy, multiple envelopes of Lipton instant soups. Out from under Kevin's watchful eye, they killed grouse with rocks in alpine meadows and roasted them for dinner.

"Children of the woods," they liked to holler for no reason. "We're children of the woods."

Even so, if they had a choice, as they did every Wednesday when the crew divided for the week, they'd stay in town.

Maybe I would've too, but since I had the least seniority, I had no choice. While Jeremy and Justin and the boys drank, Kevin, Bridget, and I ("The girls' crew," Jeremy and Justin sniggered.) marched. We covered more than 100 miles each week, clearing blowdowns, repairing tread, brushing, brushing, brushing. I wore a Walkman for sanity. Between the headphones, I could lose myself in the rhythm, the repetition, and sink into a happily unthinking state, a Zen-like labor buzz, as I sawed and hacked through hemlock and silver fir, vine maple, slide alder, berry brambles and ferns, then dug into the duffy mat of decomposing leaves, cones, needles, god knows what, three feet deep or six, I didn't care, working toward mineral soil to the sounds of the Dave Matthews Band. Over time, I grew stronger and more skilled, more discerning, and I felt some satisfaction in the ache and sweat and, at the end of the day, the exhaustion.

Bridget and Kevin worked past quitting time as a rule. Ten hours of trail work was, for them, not enough. They prided themselves on miles walked, logs cut, shovelfuls of dirt moved. On their nights to prepare dinners, they presented lavish, extravagant meals: walnut and gorgonzola pizza, Thai roast beef salad. After dinner, they invited me to join them on extra off-trail hikes. "Get a view," they'd say. Going to bed, I'd say, "Have fun." There was something about their enthusiasm that felt, to me, half-greedy and half-guilty. I didn't want to earn the right to be in the woods by seeing as much as I could, or by proving how much extra work I could do, by carrying as much weight as I could, by cooking as elaborately as I could. I just wanted to be there. I wanted it to be that simple.

 

On the new bridge, sleet begins to gob into runny spurts of snow, coating the bridge, the rig, the tools, our rain gear. We work faster, in pairs, and it's been the same pairs since early October when the rest of the crew was laid off: Jeremy and Justin, me and Kevin. With Kevin, the name of the game is speed, and since I am still not as strong physically as he is, I earn my keep by staying one step ahead of him mentally.

"Do you have the 3/8 socket?"

"Right here."

"We're going to need more…?"

"Washers. Here."

I want to impress Kevin. I can't help it. He's that kind of guy. Besides, at this point, there is tangible reward for working faster: we will be done. And I can hardly contain my excitement, though the truth is I have less of a winter plan than Kevin. I will be staying in a tiny cedar cabin north of town. Every now and then Kevin asks about what road trips I have planned, which ski areas I will hit. He acts jealous of my freedom in that sense, mostly because he is unfailingly polite. I don't dare tell him that after only five years of this seasonal life, half the number he's lived, I am starved for staying put.

While I ponder and drill and refill the chainsaw with gas, Kevin notices that Jeremy and Justin have completed their handrail. As in completely done. Season over. They moved faster than we did, despite the fact that they are well-aware that if we were to spend all day in the Suburban memorizing early season NBA scores, we'd get paid the same, and more, we'd keep our jobs for another month, which wouldn't hurt them a bit. They've never been on skis. Not likely ever to be. In the off-season, they will collect unemployment and play in the weekly darts contest at the Red Top tavern for steaks—twenty frozen sirloins for the winner, ten for second place, five for third. Justin will win a freezer full of steaks; he will gain weight. Jeremy will lose weight, growing evidence that alcohol is not his drug of choice.

For now, Jeremy and Justin perform a victory dance, sprinting toward each other, over and over, from either end of the bridge then skidding through the slop into a high five in the center. I go after the gas drill to finish the last three holes. Despite the heavy wet globs of snow, Kevin has taken off his gloves to ratchet even faster. I finish the drilling and stand back to watch this, the grand finale. One, lag screw tight. Two, Jeremy and Justin reload the Suburban with tools while Kevin ratchets for his life, red-eared. He is tightening the last one when, predictably, he drops the socket wrench into the creek below.

"I could put on the hip waders," I offer lamely, "and go after it."

Silence.

"Or we could drive back and get another one," Justin says.

Finally, Kevin looks up at us and grins. "Forget it," he says. "Just forget it."

I have snapshots of that noon in a shoebox that I pull out every now and then. We are in plastic armor, muddy green and yellow rain suits, ill-fitting hardhats. In one, Kevin is waving the bottle of champagne in the air. There are a couple obligatory shots of Jeremy and Justin showering each other World Series style, and there is one of Jeremy and Justin each holding one of my feet on their knees like a cheerleaders' pyramid, the three of us framed by a cedar handrail. There's a hint of yearbook drama in it all. Friends forever. Have a happy winter. We're outta here! But it's genuine enough. For once it didn't matter where we were from or where we were going, only that we'd finished the bridge, that we'd survived, that the snowy season had arrived in earnest, and who wouldn't be excited, skier or not, by the change? No longer the interminably drawn-out ending, but now a beginning. The pictures are blurred by the slush, and my memories, too, of that day and the rest, have blurred and reshaped themselves into tall tales in which Jeremy and Justin star as goofy superheroes. What my stories neglect to mention, as I repeat them regularly, is that I always envied them, their ease and their exuberance—their unquestioned sense of belonging—and that perhaps, absurdly, I feel I owe them a debt.

 

Up the road from the Darrington Ranger Station, at the confluence of the Suiattle and Sauk rivers, sat another government compound, cleared entirely of trees and speckled with boxy paint-faded houses in surreal arrangement: within spitting distance of the rivers, the houses faced inward, toward each other, cul de sac style. I never stopped there because I never had reason to until one day when I picked up a hitchhiker in a rainstorm.

The hitchhiker was silent and more than a little menacing. When I asked where he was headed, he turned away from me to display streams of blood pouring from a gash above his right eye. He cradled a soaked cotton sweatshirt on his lap, in which I decided—not too unreasonably from the sense of things—he may have been hiding a weapon. Eventually he announced: "Here." We are right beside the strange compound and its small sign that reads, "Sauk/Suiattle Indian Reservation."

That Native Americans lived in Darrington did not surprise me. That they lived poorly did not surprise me either, though it's hard to look that fact in the bleeding face without feeling deep nauseating grief for the past and an urgent need to overlook (to ignore? to forget? to forgive?) the gun-in-his-lap details of the present. He got out and slammed the door.

The timber industry was flailing, booming and busting in the post-Spotted Owl shakedown. Bedroom communities were seeping upriver. Change was encroaching, and it felt to me a little like those of us working seasonally for the Forest Service might be the first wave. We didn't really need to assimilate since we could live safely, insularly, on a compound. We could drive down below for culture. We could behave any way we pleased because, ugly truth be told, over time, in terms of benefits received from listening hours, NPR would win, hands down, over twenty-five-year-old glam rock, and probably, unless nutritionists took another one eighty, whole grains would outlive fried chicken gizzards. Over there in the mossy, loamy woods, in that landscape overblessed with water, where for a time I felt more content than anywhere I'd ever lived, it was that complex labeled sadness—who displaces who—that set my head spinning.

It's easy, a hundred years after chasing them off, to sympathize with Native Americans. We were terribly wrong, and try as we might, we can't think of a thing to do to make it right. In the bargain, perhaps rightly, Native Americans get rewritten as heroes. Even though it's hard to imagine red-suspendered loggers ever redrawn in saintly garb, I never could shake my discomfort about displacing them. After all, loggers didn't decide to decimate the forests. We bought the lumber, all of us; we buy it still, and we buy stock in the international corporations that run the whole beastly show, and even if those arguments are old as the hills, even if it's apples and oranges—the Indians were here for thousands of years; the Tarheels only a couple hundred—I'm still bothered. I'm not making a moral argument. I'm not saying that it's wrong, in general, for city folks to drive property taxes out of reach of working folks or even, say, to take their jobs on trail crews. I'm just saying that, in the particular, it was awfully sad.

 

On the ride home, I stare out the window, happily buzzed. The radio is louder than usual. Kevin is driving fast. Def Leppard. Van Halen. Fishtailing over the slip-and-slide washboard. Jeremy playing air guitar in his lap. Justin snoring again. Past clearcuts piled with sopping slash. Past a small hand-carved sign with a direction arrow: "Big Cedar." But which direction? There is only one left. Onto the gravel highway, snow giving way to rain as we descend through thicker, tighter doghair forests, second growth, then third, then alder, alder, alder. Beer cans—Schmidt's, always Schmidt's—lining the ditch. Over a snow swollen creek, salmon the size of my leg fighting their way upstream, undulating in the froth like so many flexing fingers. As we hit the pavement, twenty minutes to go, "Bohemian Rhapsody" comes on the radio. Jeremy and Justin know these lyrics, though the song is older than they are, from Wayne's World in which they failed to recognize Wayne and Garth as fairly accurate caricatures of themselves. Justin unslouches to join Jeremy in a full volume sing along.

"Carry on. Carry on. Nothing really matters."

I laugh. I know the lyrics, too, and I'm dying to sing along. I've been on the girls' crew all summer, with oversized calves and a somewhat healthier liver to prove it, and I've sided firmly with NPR all fall, but I've damned well had it.

Justin: "I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all."

Jeremy: "Carry on. Carry on."

Wet pavement splatters from the front tires obscure my back window view of mildewed doublewides, shiny new American trucks parked out front, bumper stickers reading, "Hug a logger. You'll never go back to trees," snarling dogs testing the limits of their chains. I want to sing, but decide against it, and I'm glad. Jeremy and Justin have rehearsed their parts, and they put on an impressive show, alternating between soaring falsettos and deep croaky pretend baritones.

I applaud when they finish. Kevin seethes silently instead. He is not about to encourage Jeremy and Justin one iota more. He's tired and frustrated, single-minded, headed down the road back to the bunkhouse, and in a week or less, to the ski area and the better life. Eventually, in not too many years, Kevin will settle in as a telemark ski guide out of Aspen and as a trail crew leader in Glacier National Park, just as Bridget and I will be promoted to permanent status as foremen of our own respective crews. Trails wind and switchback; seasons pile one upon the next, and though we were never children of the woods—suburban refugees all three of us—when we crouch in yet another autumn rainstorm making shavings with a pocketknife to start the evening fire, we will have become, well, grownups of the woods.

Jeremy and Justin, it turns out, are headed down a different road. The muddied details filtered in over the course of the winter ahead. Jeremy stole Justin's paycheck and forged Justin's signature, a federal crime. Then Jeremy claimed that Justin had either a) told him he could, or b) owed him the money anyway. Neither alibi looked likely to shelter Jeremy from federal criminal proceedings, until, eventually, Justin refused to participate. Jeremy avoided jail time and only lost his job on trail crew. He foundered away from the woods: worked construction, collected unemployment, worked construction again, got drunk, got high. It's all hearsay and myth now. I never saw him again, and it's not a story I like to repeat because it's not mine and, mostly, because what starts out all Wayne and Garth and goofy cartoonish fun ends all wrong.

It was winter, the season of drizzle and nothing-to-do, when Jeremy and Justin drove up a logging road and passed a Jeep stuck in the mud. As is backroads protocol, Jeremy and Justin hooked a chain to the Jeep and hauled the folks, a young couple, out. Thanks and see ya. On their way back down, they passed the couple again. Stuck again. Pulled them out a second time. No problem. Here the story breaks down logistically. Whichever way they were driving, Jeremy and Justin somehow passed the couple a third time, stuck a third time, and this time refused to help. The stuck guy got a little panicky, a little embarrassed, maybe, in front of his girlfriend, and eventually, very, very angry. I can picture how it happened: Jeremy heaving his crotch, picking his forehead, throwing his head back and laughing too loudly. The guy pulled a gun. Then Jeremy, whose coordination, as I recall, always peaked with inebriation, pulled a baseball bat. It could not have been pretty.

Jeremy did a little time, I think. Justin got off, but lost his trails job too. He hung on with the Forest Service as a firefighter until shortly before his thirtieth birthday, when he could no longer pass the fitness test required. The failure, his supervisor explained to me with a shrug, had been a long time coming.

 

After we've parked the Suburban on the compound and wrestled the tools from the back end, dried them with rags, drained their gas, and locked them up until spring, I say my goodbyes, hugging a little long, but refusing the invitation to the Red Top all the same. I will have left Darrington by the next year, as it turns out, moved on to a job in a national park where crews are more blandly homogenous: university-bred and often vegetarian. Before I leave in the early spring I will return to tighten the final lag screw on the new bridge, still unused at that point, because of the time of year, yes, but also because it is too in-between: the road too rough for horse trailers to navigate, the trail too road-like for backpackers who seek true wilderness, places untrodden. By summer, I know, fireweed and ferns will shoot upwards in the unobstructed sun, then over time, alder, then maple, fir, hemlock, even cedar eventually, and
hikers will arrive content, unable to detect the scars. Succession happens.

Meanwhile I head north on the highway, driving too fast because I am so happy to be finished. When I cross the bridge over the Sauk River, I watch a bald eagle below, flapping his wings with a salmon captured in its talons, still fighting, and I am so excited to have seen such a thing that I drive even faster. I squeal around one corner, then the next, and I turn up the radio to sing along to any song I please, any song at all. I am thinking about changes, the ones behind me, the ones to come, and how easy they can be: natural and inevitable, shocking and horrifying as the deer that launches like a cliché into the highway in front of me, not five miles from my cedar cabin. I race around a blind curve and hit the deer, just barely, the side of the station wagon glancing the side of the animal, injuring it perhaps, before I even know what's happened. I pull over to see what harm I've done, to see what, if anything, I might do to make it right. I search awhile in the darkening woods, then give up and continue towards home.

 

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