Friday, January 10, 2014

Just Another Day in the Wilderness

A summer spent as a Re-Forestation Specialist -- or tree-planter in the common tongue -- yields many wonderful discoveries:
  • experiencing nature (black flies, deer flies, hungry bears, and coyotes)
  • group dynamics after living in the bush for four months (think: Lord of the Flies)
  • your own character (in adverse conditions, you might not be as nice a person as you assumed you were)
  • DEET, the breakfast of champions
  • the daily ritual of the morning fire-pit, with the cozy circle of steel-toed work-boots lined up around it (because cold steel boots are very painful on the feet)
  • breaking a hole in the ice-covered lake to wash your hair (rinse and repeat? Are you kidding?!?)
  • 14-15 hours per day shalt thou work, six days a week, come sun, rain, or snow
One fine morning -- sunny with blue skies and high temperatures -- I found myself staggering and dizzy in the midst of the planting area, shovel in one hand and a carrier with a hundred little baby trees in the other. The planting area had been devastated by a forest fire some years earlier, causing it to resemble the surface of, say, Mars.

Dizzy? Staggering? Whatever for, you ask?

Our crew's supervisor, the previous afternoon, had been driving our work van at speeds usually reserved for those fleeing in abject terror from the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Logging roads are notoriously unpredictable, and when we hit... something... the back of the van lurched sharply up and then powerfully down.
As the occupant of the very back seat, I was thrown against the roof (the rear seats had no seatbelts), and cracked my head on the exposed frame. As it turns out, the frame of the van was made of sterner stuff than, say, my skull.

A two-inch gash was my reward, and I'm reasonably sure I actually saw stars. Somebody's t-shirt was sacrificed to stem the bleeding, and Tylenol helped me sleep that night in spite of the pack of coyotes doing laps around our nylon tents.

But the Morning After ... Have I mentioned deer flies? They have radar ability to scent blood like Ring Wraiths chasing Frodo through Mordor. So here I was, staggering and dizzy in the field, trying to ward off strafing runs from blood-crazed insectoid alien life forms. After four months in the bush, I thought I was going to lose my mind.
And, just for fun, try to picture what it must have looked like: a dirty, sweaty 21-year-old in ripped and filthy clothing, standing in the middle of a burned-out lunar landscape, swinging a shovel over his head at tiny but murderous insect assailants. To even the most casual observer, it probably looked like I had already lost my mind.
And then it hit me, a revelation of almost biblical proportions: I wasn't a prisoner here. I could quit! Escape with my life and most of my sanity intact! Get my head examined! (too little, too late?) And so, still swatting deer flies away with my shovel, I began to calculate my escape plan.
  • I'd have to hike a couple of miles back to our base camp for my personal gear.
  • It was a further 15 miles (24km) from base camp to the nearest town. With all my gear.
  • My winter gear was still stored in yet another town, 60 miles north. I'd have to get that, too.
  • An "A-ha" moment:  I remembered the additional van back at our base camp, which wasn't in use because it needed repairs.

I informed my supervisor that I was quitting, and then hiked back to the base camp. My supervisor had expressed a certain lack of confidence (to put it politely) in my ability to repair the van, but she under-estimated just how desperate I was to escape hell return to civilization, now that I'd made my decision.

As I had suspected, it was a carburetor problem, easily and quickly fixed. Shortly thereafter, I pulled into the nearest town, bought a bus ticket -- it came only once a day, so the pressure was on -- asked the gas station attendant to "watch my gear", and drove north to get my winter gear.

A couple of hours later, I was back at the bus station/gas station/post office/general store, and added my winter gear (and guitar) to the pile that the gas jockey was responsible to safeguard.

Before heading back into the bush, I filled the van with gas (seemed like the right thing to do), and drove back up the logging roads, and left it at the base camp.

And started walking.

Despite (a) my ambitious escape plan, (b) successful repair of the van (yep, it was the carburetor), (c) purchased bus ticket in my wallet, and (d) gathered gear waiting for me in town, Reality began to rear its ugly head.

The bus only came once per day -- about 45 minutes from now.

I was on foot, with at least fifteen miles (24km) to go.

Although it was still mid-afternoon, I would probably have to spend the night sleeping somewhere in the bush (the memory of the coyote pack from the previous night popped uninvited into my mind).

Prayer seemed like a good idea. I had no intention of walking back to the base camp (nor was I certain if my supervisor -- repaired van with a full tank of gas notwithstanding -- would even allow it), but I had to face the truth: there was no way I was going to make it back into town in time.

I had barely said "amen" when I heard a loud engine approaching from behind. Turning around to look, sure enough, a pickup truck came bounding over the hill, raising a huge dust cloud as it careened down the logging road. As I soon learned, a work crew from a nearby hydro-electric dam was knocking off early and heading into town for beers.

I stuck my thumb out in the time-honored tradition of Escaping Re-Forestation Specialists everywhere. They only had space for me in the back of the truck bed, but it looked like Elijah's Chariot of Fire as far as I was concerned.

And the next thing I knew, I was dragging my gear to the side of the road just as the daily bus appeared down the highway.

I was reminded of two very important lessons as I stretched out my dusty and aching body as best I could in the bus seat, swallowing a few additional Tylenol for my omnipresent headache:

And I'm grateful for both.

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