Recently injured in a vehicular crash that killed his girlfriend, a young forester is assigned to a new job in a remote area of northwestern Montana. He is befriended by an alcoholic logging truck driver, whose efforts to move both into recovery helped in no small way by two women who guide them. Centered on the western logging industry, the story focuses on events that bring sudden change to an ideologically resistant area and the men’s unwilling involvement. Upon arriving, he confronts his hard-driving boss rebelliously, but soon learns that finding what he’s looking for will require a major effort on his part. The locals, a hard-working, hard-living, idiosyncratic lot take on the task of educating their new co-worker in ways he could never have imagined. Learning lessons that teach him about surviving the horrific he finds himself melding into the eclectic area when changing times force the locals to rely on his assistance. Just as he becomes attached to his new surroundings and the quirky inhabitants, new technology threatens his job followed by news of a hydroelectric dam construction effort planned a short way downstream that will destroy the entire valley.
Les sat across from me, his legs dangling under a buckskin lodgepole, scowling at his notebook in silence. His anger hadn’t subsided during the morning and continued into our lunch break.
“You’re crazy, man,” he said to me, finally setting down the notebook and digging in his cruiser vest for lunch. Deep lines creased his forehead. “What you want to leave for?” When I didn’t answer, he continued, “Who the hell am I going to drink beer with?”
We lounged in the cool shade of old-growth conifers deep in the Montana wilderness, work sweat running like rivers from under our aluminum hardhats. A breeze touched my skin, feeling good as I chewed cold roast beef. The long hike up the steep mountain had sapped our young hearts. Jumping from log to log following a preset compass line and measuring methodically between sample plots, the heavy forest and the heat made me breathe in short desperate gasps. The forest canopy shielded the hot late May sun, leaving us in a dark moist shelter of giant western red cedar and limby Englemann spruce. My companion wore his cruising vest like mine, heavy with compass, pencils, notebooks and tree measuring instruments over a flannel shirt and black logger jeans. We both wore heavy logger boots, heavy soled, tight-laced and calf-high.
Les picked our stride up the mountain, pushing my soda-cracker ass at near a dead run while dragging a two-chain-video tape for measuring slope. He didn’t express his displeasure directly, but his killer pace hinted at it. When we finally stopped, he glared at me while standing in his new Buffalo calks, rocking back and forth on a wind-fallen alpine fir, daring the bark to slip. He towered over me, mouthing subtle queries like: “Why Sutton’s Landing?” or “You know, don’t you, that there ain’t nothing there?” He’d been after me all morning since I’d told him about the transfer. He was right, of course, and those were the very reasons I’d accepted.
When we stopped at noon he wouldn’t let up. The truth was he didn’t need me to drink beer; Les could do a respectable job on his own. Lester Dermont at twenty-five stood a couple inches shy of my six foot-four, kept the all the local breweries in business single-handed and stilled the hearts of most women between six and sixty. He wore whiskers long, but neatly trimmed, dark black like his hair. On Saturday nights, Les drove the hundred miles to Butte with his Canadian friends to play semi-pro hockey. I only called him Lester when I wanted to get his goat. Tough as the hobnails on his calf-high logger boots, his left cheek carried a three inch puck scar from mouth to ear to prove it. He liked everyone to think he was western born and bred, but I knew his secret. He learned to play hockey on a park pond in his home town of Nutley, New Jersey.
“You’re a damn fool, Scotty, why the hell would you want to go to Sutton’s Landing?” he asked for the hundredth time. “Missoula’s got the University.” Les wasn’t interested in the University of Montana as an institution of higher learning, although, like me, he’d graduated from the Forestry School. His thirst for knowledge ended with his diploma. His priorities ran to hockey, beer and women of all ages. I never could decide in what order he arranged them. Once when I asked, he said: “They’re all number one!” amazed that I didn’t know. We’d worked together nearly two years woods scaling and timber cruising for Van Sickle Logging. Van Sickle gypo’d for the Northwest Timber Company and the main office had offered me a transfer. To Sutton’s Landing, Montana, an operation three hundred miles to the north and close the earth’s end according to Les. He didn’t know I’d asked for it.
Two weeks later, after a morning of listening to Lester Dermot question my sanity, I loaded meager belongings into my old Ford pickup.
Les leaned on my truck, his bushy head blocking the driver’s window, finally accepting that I really was going, but wanting the last word. “You’re gonna hate it, you know. A month I give ya, then you’ll come screaming back begging me to show you the local night life.”
“I don’t think so,” I said, anxious to be away and tired of his harping on me.
“I know why you’re doing this,” Les said, suddenly serious. “It’s the wrong reason, guy. You got to put it behind you.”
“I need a change.” I ignored his attempt at condolence.
“If you say so.”
“I do.” I could smell smoke from Intermountain’s teepee burner drifting through my truck windows. It hung over the town in a narrow cloud dropping ash like black snow. Rumor said they were going to outlaw the metal cones that burned sawmill residue day and night. Even the companies were looking for ways to get rid of them after last year’s fire. Cinders from the teepee burner turned the logs decks in a spectacular fire that endangered part of the town and destroyed millions of dollars worth of sawlogs.
“Well, if you insist, I guess there’s no talking you out of it.”
“Well, get goin’ then. You’re blockin’ the goddamn street here.” Les slugged my shoulder with a ham-sized fist. “Tap ‘er light,” he said.
“Only way.” I drove away and I could see him in the rearview mirror, standing on the sidewalk, shaking his head.
The sun beat hot on the mirage-covered highway that June day in 1963, softening the tarmac under my bald tires. Highway 93 ribboned north out of Missoula, passed the white-capped Mission Mountains, threading through timbered Flathead Valley and crossing into Canada at Roosville. The transfer papers said Sutton’s Landing — even the name sounded dull — seven miles short of the Canadian line. I’d tucked papers and dreams, nestled between wool shirts and black denim pants, into a single tin suitcase. They told me to report Monday the fifth, but a cranky coil on the 1954 Ford delayed my departure until the seventh.
The suitcase in the rear of my pickup held everything I owned and wanted to keep, the scarce remains of two years with Van Sickle Logging. I’d decided late one night, after another night of too much beer with Les, that I needed a change. I didn’t have a clue what I wanted or why I settled for Sutton’s Landing except the feeling that somewhere there had to be something else. Manny Forsell, a professor of botany and tenured by one year, bought for his new wife the little house I owned on River Road. She’d spent the last two weeks doing what I’d never done and scrubbing an eleven month accumulation of dust. Could it have been that long? I drove by the house before I left and stared at the bright living room windows. They’d hung dark a long time.
When the transfer finally came, I envisioned the worst, a desolate outpost, miles from anything to do and a picture of lonely. The vision wasn’t improved by Les’ continual chipping. Sutton’s Landing? Rumors among the woods crew called it a last resort station. Anyone headed there had one foot out the door. Only the real screw-ups tasted a stint at Sutton’s Landing, the last worst place before you stepped off the earth. The Logging Manager at Sutton’s Landing, named Horne and it fit, was reported to be the toughest around.
Ancient yellow pines, lining the road, guided me along, my path drawn by black asphalt and yellow paint lines. The long drive started pictures flashing in and out like a kaleidoscope, shining brilliant, and then fading away. Knuckles forced white by my grip on the wheel, I tried to shake the visions by closing my eyes hard. The Ford drifted onto the gravel edge and bounced. I forced the truck back, skidding and fish-tailing before it straightened, my heart pounding with old memories.
I topped the last hill at five-thirty in the afternoon after spending an hour in a Kalispell bar looking for an excuse not to go on. I passed through Whitefish and pointed the Ford north following a narrow frost-heaved highway. Sixty miles later, I stopped for my first look at the Kootenai Valley. Outwardly, it emerged the same as a hundred other mountain valleys, wide, regal and guarded by towering tree-covered peaks painted with patches of snow. The horn ring pressed into my chest as I stared through my pulp mill grime-covered windshield. The Kootenai River sliced its way out of Canada, flowing parallel to the highway cutting a wide and meandering course that created islands of thick brush and cottonwood and grass-covered bottom land. The meadows grew lush with the birth of spring between dry alder brush lined channels and backwater slews. The river’s steep banked passage cut deep into the valley floor, hinting at a sleeping giant. Captured by snow-crested peaks , my eyes followed the rugged contour rising like a blue-green backdrop and scraping the sky. The afternoon sun languished low and cast dark shadows across the valley; shadows that were long, mysterious and almost magical played in the thick forest of yellow pine, tamarack, and fir. Despite the narrow two-lane highway, fading Burma Shave signs and a distant logging clear-cut, I felt as though I was the first to see it.
In the distance, the valley narrowed and the mountains closed like a gate on the river. I pulled back onto the highway watching vertical rock grow from the river’s bank until the water, swallowed by the mountains, disappeared. The town, barely a few dilapidated cabins and a lingering hint of better times, lay wedged between steep foothills and the river. Before leaving Missoula, I asked why they called it Sutton’s Landing and no one could remember.
The beauty of the view through the grimy glass of my old Ford took the edge off, but it didn’t erase the sense of dread I felt. Sutton’s Landing. My Shell Oil road map didn’t list it.
The truck’s radio faded in and out, crackling and echoing off the Ford’s interior, its signal weakened by seventy-five mountainous miles. I turned up the volume to drown the silence. The speaker sounded static and the announcer’s voice drained away. My mind drifted to Missoula. Sometimes I could see her face, alive and bright, shaded by a Yankee baseball cap resting on her foot-long ponytail. That day I searched for details, but saw only vague shadows.
The Ford coughed, hesitating momentarily as I passed a rusty metal sign lettered: Sutton’s Landing – 1 mile. The highway dropped off an alluvial hill into the river bottom paralleling tall poplars lining the water’s edge. Flocks of Mallards and a Whitetail buck watched warily from an alder and dogwood screen.
I stopped for gas on the edge of town. From the unattended gas pumps, I could see the log landing, the largest in the Northwest — so the company claimed. Its capacity seven million board feet, the Sutton’s Landing served five hundred thousand acres of private and federal forest. Rows of stacked logs from the finest timber-growing country in Montana covered the twenty acre landing. I’d read all the company propaganda.
Flat rail cars, loaded high with logs and ready to move, sat silently on a desolate siding, ready for the trip to the main sawmill at Libby, sixty miles south. The mill cut dimension lumber for people to build homes, lumber cut from giant trees centuries old and no one would care where the boards came from. The loading crane’s steel boom stood in the middle of the decks like a guardian, with only the top section visible over piled logs.
Copyright© Dave Folsom. All rights reserved.