Passing Through

I found myself on the grassy series of knobs headed uphill into dark woods, the old stage coach route which picked out a somewhat more precarious path along the coastal bluffs than the present highway, which benefits from being more permanently engraved upon the landscape, reinforced with pavement and engineering. The stage route was never more than ruts on bare earth, and there must have been times when those ruts were slick and stubborn. Everything took longer then, when a trip up the coast usually involved spending nights in hotels located in remote clearings which appear as pristine forest today, on the surface. The stage probably averaged five or ten miles an hour on good ground, a little faster than walking speed, as long as they had fresh enough horses.

We had been talking about the day in the 1970s when our old man had broken his leg, somewhere roughly inland from where we stood looking down on the blue sea, the round hills, the passing birds. He was working alone, but within hailing distance of a landing where a crew was based. A log had gained a twist by lying on uneven ground, and he needed to buck it at a sensitive point. When the log parted, it smacked him in the leg hard enough to cause numerous fractures and render him helpless. From the unfortunate position he was left in, he would not have lasted long.

Years later, Bruce Jewett told me he was the one who heard the weakening cries coming from down the hill. He found the old man crumpled up, but conscious. After painful setting of the leg bones and long immobility, he recovered enough to get around and might have started logging again, but by the end of his rehabilitation he was elected Business Agent for the IWA local where he had been president during the early days of labor organization in Fort Bragg. The union became his full time job, but he was a logger first, of the old school.

His collection of logging tools, stored in the old garage, included machines that must have called for the utmost in concentration to use safely. Gigantic chainsaws suitable for use on old growth redwood, when horsepower required massive grunting motors, and a dragsaw that must have been a relic even in his day. He was still alive at the time but the accumulated pains inflicted years earlier by those antique saws made it difficult for him to get around.

When I heard we were going to take the Polaris I immediately recalled the old blue Dodge sled with 318 cubic inches of Mopar genius sweeping us up and down the coast, back in the super cool 1970s, Mom at the wheel. It was the car I learned to drive on, punching that powerful accelerator into my own life.

Nowadays a Polaris is four-wheeled buggy outfitted for ranching, being a naturalist, or whatever activity that might have in days of yore required riding a horse if not walking. Just at sunset we found ourselves high above the water, on the softly curved ridges crossed by simple ruts on the grass.

The weight of history swept in with the deliberate swell. The usual false horizon climbed gradually from the south into a mass of high cloudiness in the northwest, the lights winking above it were planets; anything below would have been a boat out there battling the elements.

It must have been challenging to negotiate the series of sharp ascents and drops of this landscape in a wood and steel craft pulled by horses. What priceless exhortations must have been uttered, keeping the draft animals moving, shocking the circuit judges and prospective schoolteachers under transport across those primal roads.

Working in the mill, when I ended up there, was always more sordid than glorious, but my brother logged for a few years, so he has grander memories of that period, when heroic deeds were still being done in the woods. He claimed that Roy Hayter once downed a six-pack during a crossing of the Ten Mile Bridge, witnessed by those immortal souls sharing the crummy with him after a day's labor in Usal.

Once, he was driving a log skidder which could not be re-started easily, but he had been told to help the dropper in a certain location. When the chopper made signs for him to cut the motor so they could confer, he did so. When Jughead came along in his company pickup a moment later, he demanded that my brother re-start the skidder to clear his way. Knowing he could easily have released the brake and allowed the skidder to roll out of the way, my brother instead forced the issue with Jughead, provoking a red-faced shouting assault which was a welcome diversion from the workaday routine in the logging show.

Our great-uncles, Pat and Sharky, a pair of bachelor loggers from homesteading times, kept a steel rain barrel under the eaves of the schoolhouse they lived in as retirees. The schoolhouse had a long, wide room which had been the classroom, and seemed like something out of a history book itself. The bachelors had updated the decor by hanging risque calendars in their sleeping quarter, the old anteroom where Mrs. Escola had once planned lessons and sought tranquility after her workdays. There was an aged ledger I had seen once with student's names from 1923 written out in longhand with a fountain pen, along with a diploma from the Northwestern School of Taxidermy, when the time came for us to go through what they had left behind.

During visits when the brothers were still alive, taking naps on a plank with a split madrone round for a pillow, eating salami and cheese, rolling their R's and slapping the cribbage board as they drank brandy and coffee from cheap little china cups, dropping cubes of C&H into the probably somewhat dubious percolated coffee they drank in those days, it was clear that our old man was in his element. He did not ordinarily speak with an accent, but would develop one as the brandy bottle emptied, and the old timers who were his true role models outlined their philosophy.

My brothers and I, meantime, had tried -- among other diversions, from climbing the neighbors watertank to discovering the spring to chopping down redwood suckers on the hillside below just to feel the axe bite live flesh -- to fill that rain barrel with pea gravel, one pebble at a time, enchanted by the plop plop sound, and the distorted view of pebbles tumbling into rainwater. There was also a rusted pump in the yard, which we cranked to no effect, but which no doubt had played a part in countless chores in the days when students hiked from mies around to spend days there.

Adults told us to "prime" that old iron contraption sitting on weathered planks without explaining, at least to me, what that meant, and I took it as encouragement to work the useless crank as if something would emerge through the force of will alone.

By the time I knew those old-timers they had ceased driving, but their '52 Plymouth stood rotting in the garage, home of wood rats and scorpions. My brother sat in the pilot's seat, tapping dead pedals. Later he would open the hood and examine the seized engine, openly predicting that he would one day fix and drive it.

Jughead had stormed off, going back the way he had come, and my brother had gone about his day.

They called us Ham-and-eggers to mean we were spoiled, and Hamburgers to mean we had no sense. Indeed the whole transition from our idyllic childhood to an adulthood of difficult labor did seem both futile and hopeless to me. Men carried saws with immense bars and lethal chains into the woods and conquered timber in its raw state, a job I could never possibly accomplish. I could see the results of that enterprise working up the truck road into town, a log or two filling the cradle of a truck big enough to invade Europe.

The time Bill Kinnunen caught us kicking hay out of the loft onto the tossing horns of a young steer, he launched into a stream of silken foreign oaths punctured by sharp raps against the barn wall with a stick he carried and would have, apparently, relished using to nip our ambitions. Though I could not understand a word after What the Hell, he was reaching deep into a cultural and linguistic legacy which was getting old even then.

On the plain below us, quickly darkening, generations of people lived and died in a town which has since dissolved entirely. I can never grasp that many stories at once. My own narrative seems overdense with tedium; imagine building a town on the bluff out of nothing, living there, then being buried on the knob. How many individual events from childhood to the long decades of chores and resolve, going away to fight wars, coming back to plant fences.

Earlier that day, on the water, we had come close to some whales who seemed to be feeding. At times, from the bluff at one point or another, I had seen blobs of whalespout rising like strange blossoms and falling back into the infinite. This sort of thing goes on and on. Cormorants jolt in dark plots up and down. I remember hearing that a woman lost a part of her farm along these headlands during an earthquake; it had slipped away, cows and all, to scatter and be diluted like so much foam.

The Polaris makes it easy to get up and down those hills. On foot, which I attempted once, it takes longer than you would think because of the slope, and the roughness of the ground, and the fact that it is farther than it looks, an illusion. The local natives had a path from the area which topped out and followed ridges toward the inland valley where they spent part of the year. It's not a place that can support large numbers of people. It's fragile. The sea crashes hard against it, digging away at the soft muck which supports the stone.

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