Musselshell

I learned early to wear only wool and cotton, because wool keeps you warm even when it’s wet, and cotton won’t melt to your skin when it burns.

I learned this from Bill Heckman, my boss on the brush crew when I started for the Forest Service in 1979, who hated polyester almost as much as he hated hippies. Our job was to cut and pile logging slash to make a fuel break around old timber sales. Most of us were new, absorbing what we could from the locals who had worked the crew before. We were part-timers, seasonals, working the months weather and budgets allowed, and in the 11 seasons I worked, I learned the names for trillium, fireweed, elephant heads. The locals gave us names for keliyhumps (mounds of earth pushed up by a bulldozer to block a road) and jillpokes (the top of a blowdown that sticks out into a road, named for what a lumberjack pokes his jill with).A tree with more than one top is called a schoolmarm, they said; a tree with a spike top is a widowmaker. The crew haul we rode in was a crummy. We learned the best way to pile slash: small end downhill, flashy fuels in the center so they’d stay dry until we came back to burn them in the fall, and we learned the rudiments of running and maintaining the cantankerous, feeble Homelite chainsaws the government insisted on buying.

Except for pulling up ribes plants on a blister rust crew a generation ago, piling slash is regarded as the worst job in the Forest Service. It is not especially physically demanding, and it is certainly not mentally challenging. It amounts to standing in an area that has been recently logged, picking up branches and limbs—slash—and arranging them in a pile about 4 feet by 4 feet by 6 feet. The job is boring.

Even the river of wind in the trees, the chipmunks, a jet throwing its shadow into the clouds ahead of it, the gray jays that fly in and watch from a few feet away, cannot change that fact. But we did it, no more than two of us working on a single pile, day after day all summer. Some people sawed the slash into manageable lengths, but the majority of the crew, sometimes as many as 10 or 15, piled. Maybe we’d tell ourselves we’d have a drink of water after every pile, or we’d ask Virgil how many seconds until lunch, but there was always more slash, and we moved from shady spot to shady spot as we worked. The shadows told when a pile had been made. Sometimes there were distractions. We’d find a patch of huckleberries or wild strawberries and gorge ourselves in a pre-break break. Or we’d uncover a yellow jacket nest and clear out until they settled down so Bill or a sawyer could sneak over and pour gas on the nest. Sometimes as we pulled the slash from the ground we dragged it through a patch of wild ginger, and the air suddenly smelled of lemon. We marveled at the pathfinder plants that turned their white undersides up when we walked on them. And when we finished, we left a fuel-free strip of land between the road and the unit, or between the unit and the neighboring, uncut land.

We got our revenge in the fall when we came back to burn the piles. Like children at Christmas, we scrambled too quickly from pile to pile, lighting them with propane torches or with a mixture of nitrogen fertilizer and diesel, a gelatinous mass the color of raw honey called blivit. Within a week we had burned what had taken months to build. We remembered each area by its story: Virgil found a hidden fawn; Peggy spotted a den of weasels; Vicki got stung; the ranger caught us on a long lunch. Our last job of the season was piling and burning. We built a fire and then tossed on all the slash around it for as far as we cared to walk. When we had cleaned up an area, we moved on and started over. By this time it was bitter cold in the mornings; the water that had condensed at the top of a jug of bar oil froze, making it impossible to pour. We had to start a fire just to warm it. We brought coffee and a pot and potatoes wrapped in foil, placed them in the ashes of the first pile, and started on the coffee as soon as it was ready; at lunch we ate the baked spuds and cooked hot dogs and s’mores.

No one remembers when Bill Heckman arrived in the Pierce District. He was on his way to Alaska, he said, when he stopped and applied for a job. He came from the Tule Lake area of southern Oregon, where he had worked for a timber protective association that eventually became the State Department of Lands. The closer he got to retirement, the more he groused about the Forest Service and the more fondly he remembered the association. I was 20 and wanted nothing more than a green shirt, a Lassie patch, a life in the woods doing good work, but I vowed early not to go out bitter like him. He called Virgil “the warwhoop” and told us gleefully of his collection of Penthouse and Oui, pronouncing the latter “ow-ee.” He believed, like many woodsmen of his day, that snags attracted lightning strikes and should be burned as soon as the weather made it safe. (In point of fact, green trees—with their high water content—attract most strikes.) Once the fall rains began in earnest, he spent his days coaxing pitch to flame, burning stobs and snags. He passed this practice on to many of us, myself included, but eventually I understood that the birds I loved to watch depended on the insects that lived in the snags Bill Heckman burned down.

His climbs out of the work site took longer and longer as the years went by. He climbed 25 or 30 yards and then stopped to huff and blow; he looked at the sky, the trees, and started off again. A few of us began surreptitiously to stay nearby, pretending we weren’t practicing CPR in our minds, always keeping him in view, and it seemed his cough worsened after he finally quit smoking. He started drinking as soon as he left work, and some mornings he stayed in the truck until noon. By afternoon, though, he re-tuned and re-filed the saws we used or walked around the job site checking on us. If he liked you, he’d invite you to sit down and have a cigarette. “Let the saw rest,” he’d say, and talk. If he didn’t like you, you got nothing more than the required breaks and the worst places to work, nothing but dry sticks and south-facing slopes.

But he knew his stuff, and it was during these breaks that I learned the most from him. He told us if we had to dig fireline along the top of a ridge, we should dig the line just on the other side of the ridge and in that way stay out of the smoke. Simple. Logical. But how long until we thought of it ourselves? He told us to always keep an extra pair or two of socks in our packs and maybe a couple of cans of food. That way, if we were to go on a fire without first stopping at camp, we would be in a little better shape. Don’t believe everything these “educated idiots”—meaning foresters—tell you, he said. Contrary to how Smokey Bear is drawn, never wear pant cuffs on a fire; it’s too easy to get a cuff full of embers and spread them around outside the fireline. Obviously, Smokey was created by some fool in the Washington office who didn’t know a thing about fire. Bill taught us the correct way to sharpen axes and pulaskis, filing in from the cutting edge toward the cheek so the edge didn’t become too thin and dull quickly. We learned from him to carry hand tools like firefighters, not farmers; we carried them at our sides, close up by the head and always on the downhill side of the terrain. Bill told us of a crew walking in on a fire who let their line spacing get sloppy and got bunched up as they climbed the slopes. One guy insisted on using his pulaski to help him—he’d stick the ax head in a stump and pull himself along. But then the firefighter in front of him stumbled and stuck his hand out on a stump to steady himself—just as the pulaski came down.

Yet these same breaks with Bill made me uncomfortable. I was learning to saw well enough, although I never gained the mastery of it that Steve Munson or Dave Johnson developed. My hands were so stiff from the saw’s vibration I could barely open them in the morning, and I almost screamed when I rolled over on them, clenched like claws, in my bunk. Eventually, I could keep a saw reasonably well-tuned and filed but nothing more than that. When Bill stopped to watch me work, I got nervous and made mistakes, cutting through a branch and into the ground, or pinching the bar of the saw when the cut closed around it—an almost sure way to cause the saw to kick back. And something about his appearance bothered me—his green eyes gone to rheum and the way he held my gaze until I had to look away, his black jeans and black hair faded gray as ash. He looked like death walking those woods.

We were free to do as we pleased once we got off work. Mus-selshell Work Center is 15 miles from either Pierce or Weippe, and some of the newcomers couldn’t adjust. (What would these people do at a remote duty station?) They had to go into the bars every night; they complained about how poorly they were paid or were treated; they complained the locals weren’t smart enough to talk to. They seldom lasted a season. Some of us thrived, though. After we cleaned up and ate dinner, there was time for walks—down to the gravel pit to look for fossils, around the meadow, up to Duckbutter Knob. Or if someone had a reliable rig, a drive up to Hemlock or Austin Lookout where we could see beyond the North Fork of the Clearwater or to the Selway Crags. Loco Foco played electric lead guitar but had to make do with an acoustic model in camp. Dave Porter and Tom Weunschel played banjo and guitar. One evening as I lay on my bunk, I heard what sounded like bagpipes. I stuck my head out the back door and sure enough, out there in the forest somewhere, someone was piping. I followed the sound through camp, past the women’s bunkhouse and up the road to the boneyard. There on a culvert sat a bearded, balding man playing the pudding bags. I had never seen him before. I listened for a few minutes and then went back to my room and thought about the green world I lived in.

My friend Gary Haynes lived on the Upper Salmon River with Sylvan Hart, a noted hermit and mechanical engineer. What was frustrating, Gary said, was how long it took him to learn the landscape. Sylvan would point out bighorns, and Gary wouldn’t see them. It was two years before he saw anything.

Knowing this, knowing I must apprentice myself to the land, did not make it any easier. Even after someone showed me the difference between grand and Douglas fir, I couldn’t make the distinction on my own. The slopes and ridges looked the same, a folded curtain of green broken by roads and clearcuts. And the other plants were nameless brush along the creeks, the undergrowth beneath the trees only a shintangle. Oh, I could spot deer beside the road easily enough, and the young cow moose that trotted long-legged through camp was hard to miss. But for several seasons I saw everything through the narrow margins of a camera’s viewfinder. I saw nothing of the periphery. I saw only what was before my eyes.

And then one season it all became clear. The trees looked different because they were; grand fir needles were flat and white underneath; Douglas fir needles were round and uniformly dark green. The reason for the stillness at night was because there were no crickets or other insects to make noise. Deer feeding on a hillside stood out because they don’t belong. Their shape and color are all wrong for the vegetation. Once, as I drove to town, I noticed two small, dark brown triangles sticking up above the tan, knee-high grass about 50 feet from the road. I stopped and watched, and, in a few seconds, a coyote popped his head up above the grass, glared at me, turned and trotted off. I saw the forest as it is: the old-growth cedars elephant-colored and mixed with ferns along the creeks, low-growing willows, the carpet of leaves beneath the narrow-leaf cottonwoods, whose smell of sandalwood and water returns to me every spring. From a distance, the forest’s mixed stands of trees separate by color: the dusty green cedar boughs; the light green larch, taller and older than the surrounding trees because they alone survived the last big fire; the blue-green of the few pines; the shiny green of the grand fir; and the deep green of the Douglas fir. Beneath this canopy lie downed and rotting logs, the dark, cool home of snails and salamanders; or bear grass and huckleberry; or the cut, open areas where we worked, where the sun tries to convert wood to dust, the air hot with resin and needles, where it seems only the breathed word “fire” would ignite the world. Dig down a few inches anywhere, and you will find the charcoal of old fires.

In spring, we had the Idaho drizzle for days on end, the sound of it constant on the tin roofs of the bunkhouses, and inside, the warm, moist mix of electric heat and drying clothes, the smell of boot grease and leather. A debate raged about which brand of boot was best and even what brand of boot grease worked best. Several of us would gather to argue in one of the bunkhouses painted a cheery institutional green. Some guys bought the top quality boots, Whites or Buffaloes, figuring the durability and comfort made up for the $180 to $250 price. Others, especially those on the fire crew, figured that since they would burn up a pair of boots in the course of a season, they might as well buy cheap ones. They had a point, too, because nothing destroys a boot faster than getting it wet and then drying it by standing in flames. And the ash mixed with water made lye, which didn’t help a boot either. It was a tricky business, because some mid-priced boots were actually poorer quality than the least expensive brands. I went through a couple of seasons on cheap boots, learned my lesson on a supposedly good brand, and then settled on Buffaloes. You could tell the people who were serious about their comfort: Every Friday afternoon, before they left for the weekend, they used a stiff brush to clean the dirt from their boots and stuffed them with newspaper to draw out the moisture.

We passed around the camp copy of “The Buckers’ and Fallers’ Handbook” and learned about plunge cuts, fan cuts and the dangerous barber chair, which occurs during the back cut when the wood holding up the tree splits vertically, causing the tree to fall forward and kick back at the same time. (In the film “Never Give an Inch,” Henry Fonda’s character is killed by a barber chair.) We studied the illustrations and flinched at the number of deaths that had been caused by stupidity or carelessness, sure we wouldn’t be so foolish. We learned that if we were bucking up a tree that had blown over and was still attached to the root ball, we should make the first cut at the butt to safely release the tension; if the first cut was made at the top, the tree could almost explode upward into us. Of course, we should always cut from the uphill side of the log—if it rolled, it wouldn’t crush us. We learned the importance of hinge wood to control a tree’s fall and to cut that hinge wider on one end than the other so the tree can be made to pull toward the wide end and avoid hanging up in another tree or landing on boulders or uneven ground that would shatter a valuable lumber tree and leave it worthless. But if that hinge wood is rotten, that wide hinge might pull the tree right off the stump and into our laps.

We learned that the snags we cut for firewood—and did our practicing on—were actually more dangerous than green trees because their tops might be rotten and the hinge wood more brittle. If you misjudged the tension in a log, the cut, the kerf, might close and pinch the saw bar, causing it to kick back into the sawyer.

I read all this, but I had to scare myself before I learned it. While cutting firewood alone, I felled a grand fir snag about 14 inches in diameter. The top stuck out in the road, so I began cutting there. I didn’t notice that the log lay a foot off the ground, suspended in a patch of grand fir regeneration. As I neared the butt, the kerf began to close on the bar. I didn’t think the log was pinching the bar all that much, though, and I was determined to finish the cut. Sven, patron saint of dumb Swedes, must have been watching over me, because as I finished the cut, the springy saplings on which the log lay launched a chunk of firewood chest-high away from me. It was pure luck that I was standing on one side of the log and not the other, or the wood and saw would have collided with my body and, certainly since I was alone, killed me. I was too young to appreciate what had happened; I didn’t soil myself or fall praying to the ground. I shuddered, smoked a cigarette, loaded my truck and went on cutting firewood alone.

A sawyer on a road crew didn’t get off as luckily. He was cutting through a log but having a tough time of it. His partner climbed up on one end of the log and began jumping up and down, hoping to force the kerf open. It had just the opposite effect. The cut closed around the saw before either man knew what happened, and the saw kicked back into the sawyer’s face, catching him just to the right of his nose, cutting into his lips and gums, and driving a tooth up into the nasal cavity below his eye. He was called Bullshit Jensen for his fishing stories, but after his accident we called him Zipperlip.

The land shone with wildflowers: the white star of queen’s cup, purple and yellow and red of shooting stars, the fragile yellow of glacier lilies, the pale pink of mountain heather, white-cupped ladyslip-per, the “v” of twinflower. The moose were in the pond constantly; we could hear them splashing from camp, 1 50 yards away. Snipe courted above the meadow, making a sound with their wings called winnowing, a descending “hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo” as they dove for the season and their lives.

But other flowers grew there, too. Musselshell had once been a community of sorts. A small sawmill and pond were built to convert the logs to lumber from the surrounding 3,000-acre clearcut. Loggers moved in; school bus routes commenced. A woman who became a dear friend lived there as a child while her father logged. Most signs of this village had vanished by the time I arrived. The red line shacks used for houses had been trucked off to another site or sold, and the dirt lanes had grown over. Yet if you walked around, you could see the change in vegetation that showed where a house once stood, the grasses stunted in the poor dirt, a few shards of a broken dish, and here and there in struggling clumps, paperwhite narcissus, planted by the wives. After I met my friend and her family, I had a face for the flowers; I imagined her mother setting the bulbs, hauling water by the bucket from Deer or Musselshell Creek in the withering August heat, pausing to shade her eyes as she watched her children, tanned now to the color of the meadow, running barefoot through the tall grass. Once I knew of the flowers, I began to see more of them. Scattered along the roadside out from town, wherever families had stopped and worked, grew humble patches of flowers—tulips, daffodils, narcissus. Planting them here was a gamble, but nothing like the gamble of logging.

Forest Service crews began opening roads as soon as the snow left. We drove to the district in the rain, the heater running high, resetting signs, cutting blowdowns out of the way, rolling them with cant hooks across the road and down over the side. The sap of the trees smelled like perfume, and even the saws I sharpened threw the green wood in chips. We also picked up as much trash as we could— cans, bottles, car parts, diapers—and over the years, I noticed a pattern forming: Of the beer cans, the overwhelming majority were Coors Light. I always wanted to write the company and inform them of this fact so they could include it in their demographics. We told ourselves we had to start following a better class of slob. As we worked the roads higher and higher in elevation, we found north-facing areas that still held snow, a little dip in the road where the sun had yet to reach, a whole curve still in winter, willow or alder thickets not yet budded out. It did not matter whether we bulled through in the truck or shoveled our way; we delighted in the snow, because by this time it might be mid-June, and our friends were a couple of thousand feet below and another season away, sweating in the sun. The ridges seemed magic places. The vegetation was not as thick; the trees were lodgepole pine, hemlock, subalpine fir. Up there out of the brush of the creek bottoms, I had a vista, a horizon. I could see out onto the Camas Prairie, see the weather headed our way. I could see into the neighboring districts, and our little hand-held radio picked up their traffic, their voices, which we wouldn’t otherwise hear. One fall night, driving home from a controlled burn, I thought the stars hung between the ridges. Alone in the truck, I drove toward Orion, toward camp, toward home. I fiddled with the AM radio and found a station in Las Vegas that played nothing but old radio shows. So I drove back to camp, my headlights reflecting off the white bark of the trees as I rounded the curves, out of sight of my friends ahead of and behind me, and I listened to “Fibber McGee and Molly” and “Dragnet” until the road left the ridge and I lost the station.

In late summer, the meadow around Musselshell smelled of tar-weed, like a mix of a woman’s sweat and earth. Columbian ground squirrels dug their colonies around the buildings, swallows nested under the eaves, and at night the great horned owls sat on the flagpole or in the trees around camp and called for their prey. Dust billowed up from beneath our feet, trailed endlessly behind our trucks, coating everything for 30 feet on either side of the road, and the bunkhouses didn’t cool down until almost 3 a.m. A few stray clouds came over in the evening, but nothing of consequence. Nothing disturbed the red curve of the sunsets, the alpenglow hitting the far ridge, the tops of the cumulus catching the last rays of light as the ground darkened, and in the morning, as we walked to the cookhouse, the grass was as dry as it had been the afternoon before.

Autumn came slowly. By mid-August the ground squirrels had gone into hibernation, and a few weeks later the swallows began to line up on the power lines beside the road in the mornings. They’d hold until our trucks got too close and then lift off one by one as we passed, hundreds of birds wheeling out blue and purple in the sun before settling again on the wires. The temperature was still in the 80s and 90s, but by 4 p.m. the sun had lost its punch, and the nights were cool enough for good sleeping. By September we woke to chilling frosts, but the days turned off nearly hot. This cycle of drawing moisture from the fuels in the form of frost and evaporating it in the sun left the forest as dry as it had been all summer. The Clearwater is not on a main flyway, yet we often saw skeins of Canada and snow geese, gray and black against the sky, white-black against the blue-green of the forest below us, and always their voices-the deep, resonant honk of the Canadas and the high, almost whistle of the snows. We yelled and whooped them on, heading south out of the mountains, as we would do soon. The moose that had been absent all summer came back to the pond, and we knew it would not be long until the otters that had also spent the summer in cooler water would return. Crews who worked late into November often told of seeing otters pop out of a hole in the ice, slide 30 feet on their bellies, and plop head-first down another hole. In October, the larch finally golden, the huckleberry brush red, the thimbleberry and willow yellow as a winter sunset, the osier dogwood along the creeks silver-red as salmon, we had our fall; it was a quiet change, sublime, as subtle as anything else in the West. On the last day of October 1981, Steve Munson and I drove over Beaver Dam Saddle to Lean-To Ridge to cut firewood. I had just been laid off, but Steve would work a few more weeks. We were headed for gravy, a stand of larch thinned to produce better seed trees, and the downed trees cut and hauled up to the road for whoever found it. Which was us. The morning was cool, the sky unbelievably blue, the larch everywhere filling the air and covering the road with gold. Steve pulled out a cassette deck and put in a tape of Strauss’ “Radetzky March.” We bowed deeply to each other, bowed to the wood, and began loading our trucks to the music. We looked like figures on an elaborate German cuckoo clock, turning, strutting, pirouetting piece after piece until the trucks were full, until we could not work for laughing.

Clyde Berdine and his wife Erline lived across the road from the pond in the few buildings left from the village and salvaged cedar logs from timber sales and split them by hand into fence rails and posts with the help of a half-wit whose name I never learned. They were from Arkansas, and Clyde’s advice to a seasonal he met once was, “Never marry a woman who dances.” Clyde was known to be smarter than he was, but the Forest Service never actually caught him stealing cedar trees; Clyde just said he couldn’t tell the difference between a sound sawlog and a salvage log with heart rot. He and Erline lived there for 20 years until she divorced him and moved to Weippe, leaving him with the hired man, their 10 dogs, and a long-suffering cat named Tom. Clyde died a few years later of a heart attack, and after his relatives had hauled off his trucks and equipment, most of the population ofWeippe and Pierce came out and destroyed his home, tearing out walls with a backhoe and digging up the yard looking for the money everyone knew he had hidden somewhere on the place. No one ever found anything, and after a few years, you couldn’t tell there’d ever been a house there, except for the tea roses that still grew and the humped, overgrown graves of his dogs.

Once Clyde Berdine died and his dogs were gone, the pond became a haven for birds. We had always seen Eastern kingbirds, yellow finches, belted kingfishers, brewer’s blackbirds, bronze-headed cowbirds, cedar waxwings and an occasional heron, but now came mallards, redheads, mergansers, wood ducks and the like that moved in and thrived. The pond became a refuge for migrating birds caught in storms; one morning as we left camp, we saw 15 or 20 American avocets—tall, thin shorebirds with long, upturned black bills, their ruddy pink plumage faded now for winter, feeding in the pond, gathering strength for the push on.

The pond was a refuge for many of us. After work, singly or in pairs, we leaned against the split cedar fence and watched the lives before us. Early in the season, I watched the moose or the otters. Or I watched a small gang of elk come out of the trees and feed cautiously on the far side of the meadow. I closed my eyes and heard the wind rush through the feathers of the birds as they passed.

The spring morning Mt. Saint Helens erupted, May 18, 1980, I was cutting firewood. I heard a sound, a sonic boom or an explosion, rumbling off in the distance and wondered if it was the volcano. I decided such a thing couldn’t happen and went back to work, but later, as I drove to camp, I saw a dark line on the horizon and smelled rain. Then, as I unloaded my wood, the world went strange: Chipmunks vanished, birds quit singing and a gray snow fell. Someone yelled from the bunkhouse that it was ash, but I already knew. We danced and rejoiced in what the news would later say was a danger to touch and gathered around the radio for the news.

Dave Johnson and I walked to the pond in the silence. We heard nothing, no cars or trucks, just the sizzle of gray falling to the ground. We could see well enough, yet the sky lacked a horizon. It was as though the world had ended, World War III had begun, and the fallout had reached us even here. We sat at the pond’s spillway talking low. An otter came up the creek hunting trout; he saw us and vanished. We started back to camp, the ash still falling. By pure chance, I walked on the hard-packed berm of gravel at the side of the road where my weight didn’t matter. We stopped and looked back, and Dave noticed only he was leaving tracks. He turned and eyed me suspiciously. “Now you know my secret,” I said. He shook his head. “Losses in the ozone again.” The ash stopped after a few hours; we got barely an inch on the district. It coated the trees and brush, blew up again and again at the slightest touch. After a few seasons it washed from the leaves and grass, leaving another line of history in the soil.

Winter comes, according to the locals, on Halloween. Frost is possible any time of year, and the snows often begin in September, but the first snow that sticks is usually near Halloween. The rain had been steady for weeks, our coats and boots always wet, and with the end of daylight savings time, the darkness came shortly after we got off work. Bill Heckman weather, when he’d put on his green rain gear and disappear with his pitch all day. Only the thin plumes of smoke marked his passage. He’d retired years ago, the District had a party for him only a few people attended, and we heard that with emphysema, his health failing, he’d moved back to Oregon, quit drinking and found religion, dismissing his life as a waste.

I’d been feeling dissatisfied with my life, my work, the last few seasons, but I could not yet admit it to myself. Besides, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I needed the job, and I needed the woods, two things I’d finally come to see as separate. But it would be many more seasons before I could contemplate leaving for good.

There was little to do now but eat and sleep. We were seasonals, and we knew it, and we were restless for change. Maybe some of the men would drive into town to watch football at the Headquarters Bar, and some of us would sit in Virgil’s room and listen to his stories. The loggers, too, would be quitting soon, to wait for the ground to freeze so they could move their equipment without tearing up the roads. Once the snow made work impossible, or made the roads impassable, we would be laid off for the season. The few married men were anxious to go home to the families they saw only occasionally through the summer. Most of us were single, though, and we would move on to other jobs until we could return. The students who worked the fall had a couple of months before the next semester began. Dave Johnson and Tom Weunschel would hole up for the winter in Missoula or Orofino, living alone, surviving on unemployment and what they had managed to save. I’d move back to Lewiston and look for work. My brother had recently moved to Seattle, a city I had never seen, and I thought about visiting him. Mostly I would stay in Lewiston and watch the weather.

I often stopped at the pond on my way out. The meadow lay blanketed with snow. Only ravens called, the trees blue against the ridge, and to the south, the space between horizon and cloud was nearly black. Steve Munson or Don Logsdon and I came back occasionally to cross-country ski, but the mountains in winter are not something I know well. But I know few things look as cold as Mus-selshell closed up tight for the winter. Musselshell Creek was little more than a channel between ice, with snow built up along the banks. We heard chickadees, a pileated woodpecker and saw the tracks of deer and snowshoe hares. We skied the clearcut, the old roads, smelled the clean scent of firs against the snow and held our breath in the quiet. And I knew if I came back in late winter, I would smell the ground beginning to thaw. The forest was not in that deep sleep I have heard described, only dozing, waiting, just waiting.

About the Author

Robert Coker Johnson

Robert Coker Johnson was born and raised in Lewiston, Idaho. He received a B.A. in English in 1989 and recently completed a degree in graphic arts. An earlier essay on the Forest Service, “What I Know of Fire”, won The Gettysburg Review award for Nonfiction Prose in 1995.

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