At dusk, the power crew rolled up the road between the high plowed berms, not a crew exactly, just our two neighbors, Bob and John, who would ski out in the last of the light to see what tree had lain across the line and whether it might be a simple job, something they could cut and clear without alerting the bigwigs, a job that would officially require a union crew and a long wait unless they got there first. They were racing the dark.
Not just dark. December dark. Three-thirty. Four at the latest. Which meant sixteen hours of darkness awaited us. And with the power out and likely to stay that way, dark meant really dark. The thought made us a little panicky, Laurie and me, more panicky certainly than the big approaching storm that we’d been hearing about ad nauseum all day on NPR before the power went out. I’m telling you, we had no choice. We could sit home in the orange glow of the woodstove or the blue glow of the LCD lantern listening to our new battery-powered XM radio with a thousand stations not worth listening to (weather in Pittsburgh, ’80s top-40, right-wing rants) until our sanity snapped. Or we could put on skis.
We rifled through the jumble on the porch: poles and skis, snowshoes and shovels, on hooks and waiting to be hung. We tripped over the extension cord with a duct tape label — heat tape, no use to us now — and chose skinny rock skis. We packed headlamps, but we didn’t bother to change into rain gear, no time for that, blue jeans and ball caps would do. Never mind the snow dumping off the fir limbs where it had sat for so long, wet clumps loosed in the wind.
We usually don’t get wind. Not in winter. We get inversions. Now we had wind like adrenaline, wind like something at long last happening, and we’d be part of it. We skied down the driveway and across the plowed road, stepping gingerly, not sliding, for fear that gravel exposed in the tire tracks might scrape even more of the scales off our so-called rock skis, and back into the woods: fir, cedar, pine, dogwood, maple, cottonwood. More fir. We could not hear chainsaws in the distance, a bad sign, but then we could not hear anything over the splatters on ourhat brims and the clatter of snow bombs and limbs themselves crashing onto rocks and other limbs and onto bridges and metal roofs and the hoods of cars, crashing everywhere. We skied on.
We skied across a bridge over a narrow creek toward a row of summer cabins by the river, the river running low and trees bowing to one side, then to the other, some bending far, some barely at all, like a group of women in aerobics class with varying levels of flexibility. No, no, check that. Like fourth-graders in PE. Like kids who are supposed to be stretching but are fidgeting instead: bouncing, hopping, lunging. Not swaying. Swaying would not be the right word. Not even close. This was not a slow dance, but an encore. Not a marijuana stupor, but a speed frenzy. We saw tracks, but we didn’t see Bob or John. We didn’t see anyone. We only saw trees arcing, swirling, waving. Falling.
Trees were falling everywhere. We could hear them, and we saw several down. Not snags. It’s not snags that fall. I worked trails for years, so I’d known this forever: dead trees don’t have needles to catch the heavy snow and hold it until wind can use it for leverage and yank the whole deal to the ground. Actually, I should say, I’d known this forever in theory based on the blowdown evidence, but here it was in process. Pines seemed most vulnerable with their showy needle pompoms, like catchers’ mitts full of snow, bigger than baseballs, bigger than softballs, more like volleyballs.
“We ought to head home,” Laurie said. I stood stone still, examining the pine needles. She was over-reacting, I thought. I could see there was some danger, sure, but nothing as bad as whatawaited at home. I was not ready for blue LCD and the music of Phil Collins. I was busy thinking about canceling that XM when Laurie’s voice sounded again, more shrill.
“Come on,” she cried.
Trees weren’t falling anymore. They were snapping off mid-trunk, a sickening crack. Like a femur. Like a firecracker. Like several. And Laurie, I suddenly remembered, has tree-falling phobia. For me, it’s jet airplanes. For Laurie, being out in the dark on skinny rock skis in a windstorm with trees snapping like straw was about how it would be for me freefalling in a 747. With that in mind, I picked up the pace, kick-and-glide in her tracks, head down, toward the road where headlights glowed. The power crew, we thought. John and Bob. But we were wrong. Rangers.
Not rangers exactly, but our neighbor, Loretta, driving the ranger truck with a new recruit. They wore hard hats inside the cab and were trying to figure out a place to turn around.
“You can turn around at the Bowles place,” I said.
I was annoyed that Loretta could forget something so obvious even in a snowstorm. But this is what winter does to us, I thought. All that darkness rots our brains.
“You shouldn’t be out here,” the new kid said. “Trees are falling.”
I ignored him. “Right up there,” I said, pointing behind me into the howling dark.
Loretta shook her head.
I turned to look.
A half-dozen half-trees lay crisscrossed across the road between us and the turnout.
We hightailed it then, Laurie and I, the opposite direction down the middle of the road, ski scratches be damned, and waved to Bob and John as they headed home defeated. Then we charged up the unplowed driveway, not stopping to catch our breath, not stopping for anything. We could no longer see the trees jerking in the wind, but we could hear them and sense them and smell the freshcut pungency of a newly cleared trail, of a lumberyard after a rainstorm. My jeans were sopping wet, my skis hard to lift in the slop. I could see Laurie far ahead on the porch with her headlamp waving her arms over her head.
“What?” I cried. “What?”
And then I could see: she held two cold cans of beer.
Laurie offering a beer while trees toppled was like me uncorking champagne as the fuselage flamed. But what the hell? The worst of the danger was past. We were under a roof, twelve-inch rough cut-rafters, so we might as well watch. I traded my wet cotton for dry wool, and we sat together on the porch in the dark, listening.
We’d listened from this porch before: to coyotes, to owls, to the ocean roar of the river at flood stage, to neighbors testing out their automatic weapons on a lazy Sunday afternoon. This was louder than any of that. We tried to count but gave up and sat and sipped and listened some more. Snap. Snap. Snap.
By morning, were we back out on skis with a saw clearing the road? Or did we let other people do it? Did we stay inside for another Peter Cetera song or the latest body count from Iraq or the latest college football poll from AP — Oregon in the top ten? — or the weather from Phoenix? I don’t remember.
I only remember a week later, after the union crew came to restore power and the sun came out and the crust froze hard. More firewood than we could cut in a month lay scattered willy-nilly around the yard, and we knew exactly what to do. I’d buck the rounds and load the plastic sled — a cheap kids’ sled from the hardware store we use to haul groceries — and Laurie, the better skier, would hold the sled rope in one gloved hand and take off down the mellow grade. Better than a wheelbarrow any day. A snowplow, a telemark turn, a hockey stop, a sip of beer, and she’d dump the rounds in a pile outside the shed and head back up for another load while the sun skirted the ridge top at noon and shone till two, then three, weak as a low-battery headlamp, but shining still. Sometime near dusk, Laurie’s pole caught on a maple sapling and wrenched her shoulder. She laughed. What would we tell the doctor? That she’d been sledding firewood on skinny rock skis on ice while drinking beer? There’d be no doctor visit. We’d nurse her shoulder overnight with snow in Ziplocs, hoping it would be a simple injury, nothing to worry about, then we’d head back out in the morning to stack the rounds and burn the limbs and buck some more, racing the next storm.
Ana Maria Spagna lives and writes in Stehekin, Washington. Her new book, “Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness,” will be published in spring 2011.