Solstice 2011 (Part 2)
The sun rose above the horizon at 5:50 on Big Creek Summit along Warm Lake Road on the Solstice. Fifteen minutes and a short drive along the South Fork road, 27 of us were up with our boots tied on, water in our hip bags, lunch stashed in a mule’s packsaddle, and we went off hiking, huffing and puffing, with 40 pounds of saplings to the top of the goddammed world.
After a mile walking along a grown-over skid road, our numbers had stretched out until the hikers in front couldn’t be seen around the next bend and people behind couldn’t be heard talking or tramping. I was in the middle of the group and content to be breathing hard and deep. In a couple of miles we came to a big burn where most of the lodgepole pines were blackened and singed into curlicues. The rest were burned to the roots and the soil was white and powdery and puffed up with each step. It burned hot a few years ago, but the turf remained devoid of anything but dry ash. Little rivulets ran down this parched slope and soil gathered downhill: a reminder of the character of this batholitic geology. I crossed an unnamed creek, headed uphill seemingly alone. A man who appeared beside me out of nowhere hooted for his compadres. They hooted ahead and behind as we continued uphill on the next push.
A great gray owl flew out of the woods in a patch of green trees, as silently as the man had, and disappeared. “Hey, did you see that? A great grey owl!” Jessie nodded and smiled broadly as we headed on to the top of the mountain. “Wow, look at that!” I said. But there was no one there beside me. A forest service employee 50 yards away said, “They’ve gone down the hill, planting.”
“Ain’t that purty,” I said. The ridge of the Needles rose on the northwest after sunrise with snow in their teeth.
“Yep. It’s nice to get paid to hike, eh?” I nodded, catching my breath, and headed down to plant among the workers before me. I found my place in the line fifteen feet from each man working down the slope, slashing at the ground with my sharp blade, clearing a 2’ by 2’ swatch (well, ok it might have been 1’X 1’ but if anyone asked it was 2’X 2’), making a manly swing of the pick to put a gash in the land to place a tree, putting a sapling into the hole, and covering the roots with a stiff kick of the ground. I moved fifteen feet downhill to the next place. The pouches we carried were full of sapling pines and by the time we travelled 1,000 feet downhill, the 300 saplings that each worker carried were nearly empty. Mine were nearly full and the man next to me said: “Line.”
“Line!” he said again. It sounded like an order and it sounded despairing. The man on the other side called “Line!” I looked both ways and there were 50 feet on either side before another man was stationed. “Yu follo line!”
“Sorry, sorry,” I said. They had each covered for my inattention by planting a couple of trees apiece on my line. Then I lost the line in a big way as it broke in two: three men headed down the mountain and two headed up. I really didn’t know which way to go so I followed the three headed down. I called “Hey, over here!” but no one listened to my English.
Senior Heffe came upon my mistake and took all of my remaining trees and sent me up the mountain to follow three men who were also going up. “This couldn’t be a good sign,” I told one man who just replied “No say.” I climbed up the mountain to where a mule team had deposited another series of boxes of saplings. I watched the two men unload the 50 pound box of trees into their pouches and then they lifted an additional box onto their shoulders.
”You’re kidding!” I said, completely flabbergasted. One man looked at me, shrugged, and headed down the mountain with the box over his shoulders. A third man picked up another box and gestured me to lift it on his shoulders. I laughed and indicated that I wouldn’t do that. He smiled and we headed down each with fifty pounds on our hips. That seemed quite enough on the steep mountainside and we unloaded the saplings when we got down to where the others were working. And we got back to it.
After a short lunch, (we climbed back up the same 600’ for lunch that the four of us had gone to get the additional saplings), we each loaded up our pouches and went back out to plant trees. I was followed by the Forest Service official who checked out our work and by my supervisor to make sure that I was planting the trees properly. Mostly I wasn’t. “Make a wider slash!” “Put the roots in the ground straight!” “Keep moving,” “Stay on the line,” was what I gathered I was being told. Suddenly we were finished and we trudged out about five miles along a ridge to the truck.
I dragged going downhill and felt the blisters on my feet, which had grown into hot coals since last week. That slowed me down substantially.
I was the last man out to the van and felt lucky to get away from the nagging boss. As I hiked, I had stopped to fill my canteen with the rushing creek water that tasted gritty and roily in my mouth; it was like nectar from the heavens. When I got down we filled the van with our ripe smelling bodies and after one groggy, head bouncing hour, each person piled out into the gas and goodies station on the roadside in Cascade, bought a pint of water, beer or, Gatoraide and had half a chicken to feed himself.
I sat on the curb at the gas station and felt the sunshine on my soot-charred face on this solstice day. It was the ninth day of my employment, nearly two work weeks. I ached. I limped. I groaned. And when we got to the motel, I slept.
At nine o’clock I was down on the floor for the night on this longest day of the year. My fortune was that the next day was a day off. I’d decided that two weeks was two weeks longer than most of the gringos had lasted doing this crazyassed work, I had made $1,000, and that was enough money to carry me for awhile to find another job. My lament was that on the solstice, I couldn’t stay awake long enough to see the sun set.
Regardless, I had seen the roadless Needles and felt every inch of the rugged mountains on my favorite South Fork of the Salmon River; I’d seen deer, several bears, grouse, eagles, elk, and a great gray owl; had tasted the creek water as a much needed gift in the heat of day; and found the friendship of the men as a great generosity. However, I was done with this job, absolutely, freaking finished, but I was a bit richer and a bit wiser about how this work got done.