So, far, the roads are passable, with remnants from the plows piled along the edges even where there isn’t much shoulder. We pass the overlook where Daniel and I ate our first meal together. I cannot disconnect any part of my work life here from my life with Daniel. We are intertwined in the mountains, and I could not be happier to be a part of them. Once the curves and inclines taper somewhat, I force myself to focus on my work and I try again to ask Archie where we are going.
“So, what is our destination today?”
“What day is this?” Did he not just have a weekend off? I suppose, in fairness, I didn’t either.
“Which Monday?” Does he mean the date?
“It’s the nineteenth.”
“No,” he corrects, even though I know it is. “It’s the third Monday of the month. The tasks we complete are done from the perspective of the month, so we are at the beginning of the third week of tasks.”
Of course, this makes sense. How I wish we could spend all four weeks together learning the full range of responsibilities.
“Every week we make the rounds of the campgrounds that are open, and we work to access the ones that are nearly passable.”
“Even in the winter?” I know we have a couple snow mobiles, but the forest service uses them sparingly.
“Well, there comes a point when you just can’t get to them, but it is always beneficial to attempt, so that way you know if there are trees down, or other impacts from Mother Nature. Besides if it is even a little passable, assume that someone else has tried to pass through the area, too.”
That makes a lot of sense. I still don’t know where I’m going.
“So, this time of year we have different weekly and monthly structure than we do in the summer. Dealing with the random, loose cow, increased tourism, even just maintenance that you can only get done when it’s not covered in snow – that all gets done in the summer.”
“Sure, but you have all the extra summer labor, too, right?”
“Oh, and add babysitting to the list of extra summer responsibilities.” I hope he didn’t think today was one of those days.
While Archie spoke of structure to his schedule, going through the day did not reflect much organization. Admittedly much of the ability to complete tasks is due to the unexpectedness of the mountains, such as the downed limbs on the snowmobile trail or the impassable snow drifts, while others require follow-up when the temperature is fifteen or twenty degrees warmer.
I knew enough to tuck a small notebook into my pocket this morning as I prepared for my outing, but I missed a lot of content since I was driving. As I review at the end of the day the multiple pages of notes compiled just from my first eight hours, the list is about items that require attention when it’s warmer, when a trail is clear, when equipment gets repaired, or when more hands are available.
Nonetheless, my first day on the forest teaches me a handful of new skills, a reminder that I am fortunate Daniel taught me how to use his power equipment, even if he still wields the chain saw when we work together. I review a lengthy laundry list of learnings for which I will be solely responsible by the end of the week, and about which Archie did not have time to elaborate.
The best I could show for my years of experience on the forest is that I can find many of the roads on a map, I know where all of the campgrounds are located, and I can manage switching from two-wheel drive to four-wheel drive, assuming the vehicle didn’t need transmission work.
By the middle of the week, not every new experience brings with it resumé-worthy skills. I learn that snow is preferable at times to mud, I discover a few vendors who believe that the Forest Service intrudes on their space, not the other way around, and more than once I am given the opportunity to perfect my talent at making yellow snow. This expected necessity recalls that first camping trip with Daniel and my self-taught latrine skills. Each day something or other reminds me of him, even the wholly unflattering task of squatting behind a tree, and all the small but helpful ways he taught me to live a mountainous life.
In addition, day three piqued my sore muscles as I adjust to a far more physically rigorous routine than my previously sedentary office life. While grateful for the new opportunity, my legs and arms and shoulders and even my ass feel the strain of the work. It hurts, but it feels good.
Curiously, it’s how I feel about Daniel’s absence. When these two weeks began, when he stepped out of the truck in Billings and the airport doors swallowed him, I imagined these weeks would drag endlessly and that I would spend hour upon hour slowly counting down to his return. Now, I am so busy with all the new and exciting tasks I will be doing for the Forest Service, I hardly even notice that he hasn’t called or written since the weekend. As swiftly as my week is passing, it will be no time at all until he is traveling. While sitting in any of the myriad of airports in his journey, he will undoubtedly have time to update me as he hops from city to city on his way home.
So, I am shocked when I get into cellular range on Wednesday as I near the end of my day and discover multiple missed calls and a voice mail from him. I listen once I am in my own vehicle before leaving for home.
“Nat, it’s me. Are you okay? What’s going on? I’ve been trying to reach you and you don’t answer your phone. That’s not like you. I’m sure it’s nothing, but I’m just a little worried.”
Despite his concern, he whispers most of his message.
“Um, it’s almost 10:00 at night here and the dentist called about my appointment tomorrow. Did you not call them? Um, I’m not certain what time it is there now, but I hope you get this message soon and that you’re alright. God, I’m really worried. I love you.”
Oh no, I completely forgot to cancel the appointment! Even if I remembered, I didn’t have cell service up in the mountains, not that that’s an excuse, but it completely slipped my mind. I thought about it Sunday night when I saw the note I wrote myself laying on the counter, but I never moved the message somewhere I would find it during my unusual new routine. All this time I was celebrating how well I was doing on my new job and I missed the one little thing Daniel asked of me.
I replay the message multiple times listening for nuances in his voice. It might be that the call even woke him up, which would explain the hint of grogginess I hear in his voice. As much as I would like to call him, I opt for an email instead, since I still am completely incapable of figuring out the time zone difference.
I’m so sorry I forgot to call the dentist and cancel your appointment. It’s been an unusual week at work – I’ll fill you in when you’re back here – but, oh I’m just so sorry. I’ll call them in the morning, I promise, and I’ll get everything worked out and get a new appointment for you.
I love you, Nat
NEXT: On The Job – Part 13