- Two 16-pound sledges with green, fiberglass handles, which we
had been told would reduce arm fatigue. Getting shreddy by the
heads, from missed blows.
- Two mauls, blade on one side and blunt weight on the other.
- One Husqvarna chainsaw, 24-inch bar, 4.5 horsepower. The
“Husky.” This is new, and it feels quite bitchin’ to cut down a
hanger with it, being careful not to get hit when it falls, with a
thump, onto the ground, where we saw it into 7-foot lengths,
about 15 minutes for a typical 3- or 4-foot diameter. Keep the
tip out of the soil always, except when you can’t.
- One chainsaw-sharpening gizmo, which we learned to thumb
screw onto the bar and use to file the curved bite of each tooth,
pretty much every night, regardless of arm fatigue.
• Five of us. Mid-20s, except the guy who came up with this
scheme. He’s 30.
- Sequoia National Forest, California, bordering the National
Park, 7,000 feet elevation.
- Jeffrey pine, Douglas fir, intermittent incense cedar; hardly any
understory; duffy pine-needle soil not thick at all; mineral earth
under it very dusty. Pussy-paws grow flat to the hot dirt in sunny
patches, but it’s cool in the shade.
- 12 iron wedges. They get too hot to touch, so we stack them in
the shade at each site, calculating the sun’s movement like Aztecs.
When moving to a new clearing, we count the wedges carefully,
find all the strays in the kicked-up dirt and wood chips.
- One single-blade ax.
- One iron bar made from an automobile axle, with a flat-point
end and a pointy-point end.
- Gas can, oil can, cooler, water jug.
- Everything is used, bought for cheap. Original red or yellow
worn off but still showing here and there.
- Duchess, some kind of black Labrador, sleeps with Tom in his
Volkswagen bus every night. They’re usually the only ones in
camp with me.
- The other guys show up when they can. Sometimes we get lots
Point of View
- My idea is that, although I’ve quit mountain-guiding, I can still
spend the summer in the Sierras this way It’s supposed to pay.
I’m glad to be here instead of, say,
- Atlanta, where I am a graduate student the other nine months of
• This is all true. Nonfiction is enjoying a surge of popularity.
When I say I, that’s me. I was there.
- Incense cedar. “Frond-like sprays of foliage, tapered trunk, fra
- “It never grows in pure stands but is mixed with other conifers. …
durable wood is used for posts and shingles.” So says my “Sierra
Nevada Natural History,” trail guide and companion of many
backpack trips. But no trips for me this year. Make money instead.
- Visalia is 30 miles down the mountain in the 100-degree tem
peratures of the Central Valley. We don’t go there unless we have
to, delivering posts and picking up supplies.
- Ranchers in the valley wear Levi s no matter what the heat. We
wear cutoffs, which makes us weak in their eyes. Ours, too. But
we pretend not to notice.
• I don’t wear the cutoffs for working but loose, green, army-
surplus pants—light, durable cotton, many pockets. I have to
rinse them out every other night at least. We use the tourist
Laundromat over in Grant Grove when we can’t stand it any
more. Everything gets filthy here: sawdust, oil, dusty dirt, sweat.
Every night we wash ourselves in cold water from our creek,
which is about 6 inches deep. Our washing spot is 20 paces
from camp. I usually pretend to be reading while the other
guys are washing, so I can watch.
United States Forest Service Work Permit
• Cost us $50, allowing us to cruise wherever the loggers had
recently come through and rummage in their slash heaps and
leavings for cedar logs. They left some big ones just lying around.
I never found out why.
• No one watches me. The cold water shrinks my genitals so that I
am glad no one is watching. Stupid dick. Anyway, I believe I am
skinny, ugly-skinny, graceless. Who would want to watch? After
six weeks of 10-hour days, of circling the sledge overhead or at
awkward angles to drive wedges into the cedars, of pushing and
prying, of carrying or throwing or stacking hundreds of 7-foot,
7-by-7-inch cedar posts we have split out, my body is still skinny.
It is gnarlier, to be sure. Everything in me is wire-taut. But there
is no gorgeous massing of the masculine, no breadth of shoulder
or roundness of biceps. I am hopeless. Tom is bigger than I,
sloppy in the gut and, I privately think, a bit lazy. Yet he can
throw a 7-footer farther downhill than I. Noticeably farther. He outweighs me. It makes me furious, crazy, resigned, silent.
• Tom has a nice smile.
- Every day I get up at first light, eat two peanut-butter breads and
walk for 10 or l5 minutes to wherever we’re working. I carry the
Husky with me in one hand, the 3-gallon water jug in the other.
It is cool in the forest at this hour, silent. I like this; I feel con
templative and smart and alive. The forest is not all logged; too
close to a national park to allow big clear-cuts. Some patches are
cleared, of course, with standing snags left, dead ones for wildlife,
live ones for reseeding; other areas are thinned or left untouched.
I work for three hours in the cool, come back for breakfast, then
work three more hours until hot midday. Lunch and siesta while
the valley-heat reaches up, even to our thinner air, and the sun is
too intense for our stupidly taxing labor. We doze until 3:00 or
4:00, then trudge back out for three more hours at least.
- Tom wakes up whenever, loiters, works an hour before breakfast
maybe. I am righteous, productive. I make no comment. Every
thing is obvious, I think. Self-evident.
- Tom wears a little red bandanna tied around his neck. This is
affected, is it not? Who does he think he is? Tom Mix? A Young
- He has a girlfriend, apparently, way down in Los Angeles, but he
does not seem all that fond of her. Not nearly as fond as he is of
• Our 1947 Dodge Power-Wagon requires exactly one quart of oil
per mile. It is older than any of us, except our leader, who nego
tiated its purchase down in Visalia while we watched from the
lot, standing around it in wonder. It is huge, dented and gunmetal-
grey. It has a winch on the front, a two-ton bed and a 10-speed
compound transmission, which can grind forward 12 feet per minute in its lowest gear. The salesman had a very, very wide grin as we lurched out of the lot.
- A mile later, we stopped to figure out the overheating and, eventu
ally, added our first can of oil.
- We pulled in at Pep Boys on the way home to pick up a couple of
• Tom and the leader will not allow me to drive the Power-Wag. I
am inept behind the wheel, panicked at figuring out the gears.
They are confident, even joyous. I don’t dispute this decision. It’s
obvious. But I do consider, in the privacy of my own counsel,
how I will prove them, one and all, to be weak and lacking, as I
have already done in all our previous summers of rock climbing,
mountain climbing and training those busloads of troubled
youngsters sent to us by parents and social workers for “stress
education.” For five summers we labored together. In the end,
they could not dispute my mileage, altitude, speed, endurance. I
am determined this will end the same way.
- I have always relied on sincerity. That’s my ace up the sleeve. I
remember this all very well. I want to write it up to be vivid,
obvious, self-evident. Would it help to be exacting about the
details? Or to generalize them, even simplify a little? A tuck here,
a snip there. It’s all true, though, in the sense of not not-true.
You’ll believe me. Look how wounded and self-revealing I am!
Poor little pup, you’ll say.
- I look back at it from a long ways off, three decades or so. The
silvering hair, the considered demeanor. You’d trust me if you
met me. My students do. I’ve learned to feign patience infallibly.
• Way back in early June, we had tested our theory of splitting
fence posts and selling them to ranchers and farmers. We walked
out onto this guy’s big spread in the foothills where there was a
fresh cedar log. We set to work, with his advice from the sideline,
and out popped 12 posts in an hour. Twelve! We saw what posts went for over at the lumberyard. We did the math.
• The rancher was balding, bandy-legged, the dad of a fiancee. I
don’t think he liked the guy his daughter was planning to marry.
We were college boys, mostly. He just smiled, sort of. We were
talking and laughing, making plans, excited. We’d spend the sum
mer up there, make big money.
- Tom wrestles the Husky, side-cutting through a bigger-than-
average cedar. The angle is bad, and it takes a while.
- I lie in the shade on one elbow. My arms are sunburned. I peel,
gently, and off comes a half dollar-sized piece, whitish and
translucent, which I offer to one of the huge, black, patrolling
forest ants. Without hesitating, he pinches the edge and starts
dragging it. Another ant comes and they do a Three-Stooges
act—this way, that way. When, apparently by chance, they both
grab the same side, the skin-dollar moves quickly toward the ant
hole. I watch them position it over the hole. Nope, too big. It
flops around; they circle, run over the top, spin it this way, that
way. Suddenly the skin dimples in the middle and like an upside-
down umbrella folding, disappears into the hole.
- There I go, I think. Mortality. Oneness with nature. Elegy. Poetry.
I’m a graduate student. I’m being trained to think like this.
• Cedar is dry wood with very straight grain. Usually. A typical log
will have one or two “checks,” or splits, already visible at the
ends. You shove the tip of a wedge into a check and then pound
it with the sledgehammer. This pries open the crack, and then—
snap, pop—you have a pair of half-rounds which you can quarter,
and so on, until you’re down to the right size for posts. If it
doesn’t pop, you can put in another wedge, double them width-
wise. Eventually you’ll get a crack running all the way down one
side, but maybe it still doesn’t want to pop. Pry it with the axle
bar. Rut around in it with the ax. Run the nose of the Husky
down there, break up whatever’s not following the straight, pure,
sweet-smelling grain we believe and hope in.
• Sometimes you’ll get a pop with just one wedge. Stand there; lean
on it. With Tom off working in another place, its quiet. Cedar-
smell, that pale yellow wood, red bark covering the ground all around.
- Not once in the entire summer did we ever achieve the 12-
posts-per-hour rate again. Turned out five or six was a good
hour. Very good.
- Lots of the cedar salvage we found was the first 10 feet, where
cedar grows wavy buttresses to stand on. Pretty to look at,
elaborate dips and swirly grain. Totally unsplittable.
- The next 10 feet up were pretty good, when we could find any.
- Once I went back to L.A. to see my folks, take a break. My dad
had just earned his private pilot’s license, so when it was time to
return, he flew me all the way up to a tiny strip near Visalia,
right on the Sequoia road. This was back when hitchhiking was
cool, everyone wanting to believe that nothing bad would ever
happen. Lots of tourists went up that road. First I got a ride on
the back of a motorcycle, which was tricky with the backpack.
My legs gripped the guy very tight. We leaned into the curves,
and I was scared and exhilarated. I never rode bikes at all.
- He let me off at Cedar Junction. I stood for quite a while in the
hot sun, waving my thumb and trying to look friendly, until a
small, dirty recreational vehicle took me in. A 35-ish couple, some
where between hip and hippie, with longer hair and bumper stick
ers and patchouli, they wanted me to know Jesus. They were
smiley, sincere, insistent. I didn’t let on that I already knew Jesus, far
too well. I clenched my teeth. Eventually I may have used the
word epistemology. They were not put off at all, blew right past any
thing I said, kept up a regular running account of their Walk With
Jesus. “Better than drugs, man,” they assured me.
• They took me all the way up Generals Highway to our dirt
turnoff, even driving the quarter-mile down to our raggy camp
because it was late and dark.
- We had a torn piece of canvas suspended on three posts by a big
rock. Next to that was a huge pile of logging slash, illuminated in
the headlights. Overall, the look was Appalachian or like something
out of “The Grapes ofWrath.”The RV couple drove off, shouting
about Jesus Loves You. Tom stuck his head out of the Volkswagen.
- By that time, Tom and I had begun practicing ironic silence—a
kind of joking, macho thing—and that moment was a good
opportunity. I stood there, the taillights bouncing and disappearing
down the road. The stars began to appear over the ring of swaying
pine-tree silhouettes. Duchess eased out of the bus—just two eyes
and a collar in the darkness—jingled three paces and squatted to
pee. The tractor-torn ground glowed in the starlight as my eyes
adjusted. Then I could see the pale, barkless limbs and scarred
trunks tangled up; the abandoned cabling; and whatnot.
- “Welcome to Slashpile,” Tom said. That was how our operation
- Near the end of the summer, cruising for the next batch of logs
in a new area, we run into a real logger. He’s old, very old: red
suspenders, dungarees, white-beard stubble. He waves his hand in
disgust toward the not-quite clear-cut. “Wildlife snags” he says,
scorn, disbelief and anti-college-boy-environmentalism obvious.
But he talks to us anyway, leaning on a shovel in the bright sun,
slash and tractor-tread all around. He listens to our plan, fence
posts and so on. He mentions something called a splittin’ iron.
Goes through a tree in a few minutes. Explosive charge, splits it
out no time. Cheap, too.
- This is near the very end of our summer. None of us talks about
it after we leave him. Not a word. The Power-Wag is very noisy,
hard to talk over.
• Somewhere after the RV incident, I got up as usual before any
one else. There were four of us in camp, I think, but no one else
ever wanted to work so early. As I said, my value would become
obvious, self-evident. It felt fine to be out and about, and I set up
at a new piece of cedar, a fat one approaching five feet in diameter, with a goodly check to start. No buttresses visible.
- The first wedge did nothing, so I doubled next to it. Nothing. I
doubled again, halfway down to the center bulls-eye, sinking
them flush. Put in a few at the far end, too. Nothing. The crack
was still just a thin line reaching maybe halfway down the tree, so
I put some wedges there. “Run along now]” I murmured, and it
did, at least, ease down to the far end, a tentative thread. I put the
12th wedge right there, and that ought to have done it. But, no.
- So I went back and drove each of the wedges below flush, as far
in as the head of the sledge would go, scarring the fiberglass han
dle some more. I was swinging very hard and precise. The morn
ing was getting hot, too.
- A pause to consider.
- The cedar did not appear to be damp or green at all; it seemed
ideally dry and straight-grained, but it did not pop. The axle bar
went in, and I pried around with my full 155-pound ferocity, but
it caught tight and held immovably without altering the basic
existential situation, as I might have said to the RV people. I
sledge-hammered both mauls into the side-crack until they, too,
were driven deep and just the handles stuck out—this way, that
way, annoyingly, stupidly.
- There was still the ax. I swung it into the likeliest places, then
thunked it into the thread-crack and sledged its butt until it, too,
was only an ash handle angling out of a cedar log, and then the
Husky came to hand, whip-corded to life and jammed in length
wise along the crack to free up the invisible flanges or mem
branes or whatever they were that did not want to pop, that kept
the two sides attached to each other, and all 24 inches went in,
right to the hilt, and I was rocking hard, back and forth, working
toward the narrow end and, maybe, shouting something over the
roar, until suddenly it wedged, wedged and stalled, stalled and, of
course, stuck fast.
- Blue smoke drifting in the bright, quiet sunlight.
- I wiped my forehead, gritty-sweaty, with the sleeve of my
T-shirt, took off the gloves, walked over to the shade for water.
All our tools. Every one. The axle showed a slight bend where I had bounced on it. Handles poked in many directions. The Husky’s black plastic cowling with its bright yellow letters gleamed. Old, red, beat up, the gas can sat half-buried in sawdust and chips.
• This is the point where sentiment must be tempered with
detachment, respecting the nonfiction feel of the whole thing
yet admitting to the reality, which was a tiny bit emotional for
me. Much more than it should have been, really.
- That was my morning’s work. I left everything as it was. Safe
enough, I said to myself in a humorous, not to say embittered,
way. I walked back to camp for breakfast, which would normally
have been two or three hardboiled eggs, numerous pieces of
peanut-butter bread, a banana, and cold chili-macaroni or
whatever else was left over in the cooler. This time, though, I
didn’t eat much. An egg maybe. I sat there drinking Tang. A
whole morning’s work. Every single tool.
- Tom was alone there, observing me with that look of his—
maybe friendly, maybe not—and wearing that stupid bandanna.
- I didn’t speak. Just sat there letting the grime-sweat dry on my
neck. Tom took this for ironic silence and held up his end. He
was good; I’ll give him that. After quite a long while, he came
and sat against the big rock in the cool spot next to me, called
Duchess, may even have leaned his shoulder against me, pretend
ing it was Duchess’ fault. He left it there, silently, leaning against
me. His body was warm.
- No one ever touched me in those days. No one. Because though
I was through with Jesus, Jesus was apparently not through with
me and I had no idea how to live, so just the warmth, the
offhandedness of Tom’s being there, may have had a surprising
effect. I know I tried to hide it, at which I had expertise.
Sometimes Tom teased me, roughhoused, though I would never
wrestle back. Never.
• Later, Tom walked back with me and figured out a way to get
the axle out, which he used to pry free the Husky, make some
more cuts, and so forth, until, well past noon, everything popped.
Despite its weight, he pushed the big half-round into position
with an easy shove. He joked with me, more quietly than usual.
I felt something pop. I felt exposed, everything obvious.
- We broke even, exactly. We did not Make Big Money. We just
barely paid off the Power-Wag and the food we’d eaten.
- I went back to grad school satisfied anyway. I had a full-ride
scholarship, stipend and everything, so there was very little neces
sity in the summer’s work for me.
- I think Tom could have used the money, though. He and his girl
friend were apparently planning to set up house. I never heard if
they actually did.
- Tom continued to flirt with me all the way to the end of that
- I did not realize this—honestly, I didn’t!—until a few weeks ago
when I ran across that photo we took: all five of us, posed by a
big log; the equipment spread out for show—twelve wedges, two
sledges, the Husky and so on; Duchess hangdog in one corner;
and Tom, with that stupid bandanna. It’s clear to me now.
Everything adds up.
- I don’t look as bad as I remembered. I look pretty strong, actually
—for a tall, light-built guy Tom’s not fat, either. He has that
barrel-chest build over no hips and no butt. He’s beside me with
one hand on my shoulder. I’m standing stiff and expressionless,
grasping a maul like it is going to save me. Everyone else is smil
ing. Tom especially.