Redwood Snowshoes

Redwood Snowshoes

November 10th, 2009

by Malcolm Terence

Redwood and I got cabin fever bad by January of ’69. Black Bear, the commune, was buried in snow, at least three feet deep and had been that way for many weeks. The summit into the ranch was blanketed six feet. The county road crew had their hands full even managing the main Salmon River Road. We were forgotten. Cabin fever, they say, comes in waves like malaria. In its throes, the commune seemed crowded and chaotic. We needed a cure, the get-out-of-here-for-anywhere-else cure.

“Let’s go down to the city,” Redwood said to me one evening in the teeming commune mainhouse.

“Right,” I said. “I suggest we fly.”

“Roselee has a couple pairs of snow shoes. It’d be easy. We walk to Sawyers. It’s only eight miles. Then hitch to San Francisco,” said Redwood. He was from Los Angeles, a graduate of Santa Monica High where first period classes were always half empty on days when the surf was good.

“A great idea. I’ll hit up Rose for the snow shoes,” I said. I was also from Los Angeles.

Two mornings later, just before light, we departed with food and people’s letters in our packs to the cheers of our comrades. It was just three miles uphill, five down and you were on the road in Sawyers Bar. The uphill went well except that along the way we crossed a stream that wet our snowshoes. After that, they started to cake with snow so we had to kick the ice off every few steps. Finally we tired of the kicking and just packed ten pounds of packed snow with every step. Redwood told me a story about surfing in Santa Monica. Then he told another. Finally we made the summit and our time seemed good. The sun broke through the overcast. We sat on our snowshoes during lunch and dangled our feet into the snow that was probably deeper than we were tall.

Then we launched what we expected to be the short final leg of the trip. “All down hill from here. Let’s hitch all afternoon and we can be in Frisco by morning,” I said. King Oedipus had hubris, that fatal pride the Greeks cherished so much in their drama. I was just ignorant. In LA, we didn’t have snow. We didn’t even have miles except as numbers on the signs on the freeway.

In a half hour the warming snow began to cake even heavier. The front binding weakened on Redwood’s left snowshoe and finally snapped. He began an ungainly kick step to compensate. “Let’s kill a seal so I can cut a new binding,” he joked but I could tell he was in pain. Redwood was a big man. He’d played football at some Los Angeles high school the year they won league. Every half hour he would stop to massage away the cramps that exploded in his left leg. Then every fifteen minutes. “Downhill’s not as easy as I hoped,” he said and then he stopped cracking jokes altogether. More than once, Redwood fell and managed to get up with much effort. The third time he disappeared entirely into the deep snow. “Go on. Save yourself,” he urged. I dragged him up and he continued in great pain.

Two miles out of Sawyers it began to snow again. It was slow at first but soon thickened. A breeze came up and blew the flakes around in a way that would have seemed pretty in most other settings. It never became a wind, just little gusts. One mile out it started to grow dark. Days don’t last long in January. The last half-light was almost gone when we stumbled across the North Fork bridge into Sawyers. We were coated with snow. Our long hair and beards, which the unfriendly Sawyers Bar folk had found so threatening in the fall, were now laced with ice and twigs from overhanging snow loaded branches. A car came by and caught us in its headlights. It went by. “That fucker drove right by,” I protested.

“Maybe he didn’t see us,” Redwood said. “Two snow covered freaks standing in a snow storm. Hard to see.” Then he winced again and began rubbing his left thigh urgently. The next car came and we waved again. The driver gunned his engine to get by and his car fishtailed past us in the snow. The tire chains slapped and clanked off in the growing gloom. Redwood didn’t speculate whether this driver had seen us. I grumbled curses. We hurried to the small general store which would close soon.

Outside the store, Brian Bundy was pumping gas into a huge military truck that he’d converted into a mine truck. The store lights were already off and Brian’s headlights barely penetrated the thickening snow. “Hey Brian,” Redwood yelled. Brian pretended not to hear.

When we got next to him I said it again. Brian had visited in the fall when we had first come into the country and he and Richard Marley soon were trading stories of their years in the Merchant Marine. Later he came back and traded us a grass rake we had, the kind one pulled behind a tractor, for a pelton wheel. We really needed a Pelton Wheel because it was the turbine one used in those parts to make electricity. At the time, though, it seemed unimaginably high tech, as though a Martian had handed me a computer chip and said it was an essential element of a time travel device. I suspect that this crowd of hippies stirred Brian’s imagination and he cooked up the trade as a social ploy. . “Whattcha doing?” he said out of the corner of his mouth without turning to face us.

This evening in the gloom and what would soon be a blizzard, on the icy road where all his nosy and disapproving neighbors lived, he was less social than he had been last fall. “Whaddya mean?  ‘What are we doing?'” I blurted. “We’re freezing to death. Give us a hand. We need a place to stay.”

“It is a pretty bad day,” he conceded, again out of the side of his mouth in little more than a breathy whisper. He still had not turned to look at us, as though pumping diesel fuel took all a man’s attention.

“Jeeze, Brian,” I pleaded. “Redwood’s leg’s fucked up from the walk. It’s a blinding fucking snow storm. You’ve been to our place. If we don’t get a place to stay we’ll fucking freeze to death before morning.” My hysteria froze on my cheeks as it dribbled out of the corners of my eyes. “We’ll freeze before the ten o’clock news,” I thought to myself.

Brian pondered our plight and then, still not looking away from the gas hose, in a nasal voice we could barely hear, whispered, “My house is on the right, quarter mile down river, don’t let people see you come.” With that, he jumped in the truck, sparked it into noisy life and rumbled away.

Redwood gave me a pained thumbs-up as Brian and his massive truck were swallowed by the gloom and we stumbled down the road to his place. We nervously climbed the icy stone steps to the front door that we hoped was to the Bundy cabin. Redwood knocked loud on the door. Nothing happened. He knocked again, much louder. The door opened a crack and Brian peered out, checking in both directions to see if neighbors saw him. No neighbor, no matter how nosy, would be out on a night like this, I thought. This town is really up tight about hippies to have Brian so paranoid about being seen with us.  He motioned us in with choppy hurry-up gestures and shoved the door closed behind us. Then, before we could get off our snow drenched coats, Brian changed.

“Let me help you with those coats,” he said. “Come belly up by the stove. It’s starting to get cold out there. Are you hungry? Betty! Get these guys some grub. You wanna drink? Of course you want a drink. Don’t worry about the mud. Just sit right here.” He poured us each a tumbler of whiskey and poured one for himself, which he emptied. At the door to the next room, two or three young children stole peeks at us but an adult hand tugged them back to safety. Probably the invisible Betty.

Slowly the warmth from the roaring wood stove crept into my body. I looked around the room and realized it had the style of very old buildings. Wallpaper covered some walls but others were made of barely planed rough cut planks with newspaper or fabric neatly pressed into the chinks. Everything had the glossy patina of old wood smoke. Brian stuffed another log into the stove even though it was nearly full and grinned at our ecstasy. Old wood smoke was suddenly the best color in the whole world.

“I guess Betty is busy with the kids,” he apologized for his wife’s disappearance. I’ll cook something. You guys like eggs.” Redwood and I nodded in slack jawed bewilderment, still marveling that our life had been saved by this reluctant, crazed saint-gold miner. He disappeared into the kitchen and soon smells of bacon and coffee started to fill the room.

He returned in 20 minutes with platters heaped with the promised “grub.” He refilled Redwood’s glass and his own, then frowned at mine which was not quite empty. “You don’t drink?” he said, perplexed and maybe wondering if he’d saved the wrong kind of person from the snow storm. I hastily downed the glass and the one after it and maybe more. We ate the food and he promised more until told him we were stuffed. I started to fade into a reverie. I remember a little of his stories – how to start a fire in a snow storm with Ponderosa pine cones, why the inside bend of a river collects more placer gold than the opposite bank, how a whore in Manila stole his shipmate’s false teeth. I remember that Betty finally joined us although she never released her grip on the children and they made little effort to move away from her. But they stared. As our long hair and beards dried and fluffed out, Redwood and I must have looked to them like some kind of dirty road kill, riz from the dead and brought home by Pop. I remember Betty said she was born in the cabin and that it was first built in the 1850’s and that it had survived the three fires that ravaged Sawyers Bar over the years.

I do not remember much else except that we must have drifted off to sleep. We must have lived.