On The Forest

I landed my dream job when I spent two months working on the Bighorn National Forest one summer, and an encore summer that became life changing.  As spectacularly fabulous as the experience may have been, what followed blew me away.

Wait until you feel the breeze, too.

Begin the series with The Lumberjack and see their opportunities lift in Their Secret.

  • Breaking News – Part 66

    Taking full responsibility for the length of our meal, attributable in equal parts to my indecisiveness and my consumption speed, we return to the eighty-mile-per-hour interstate. An hour later we pass Glendo as another Wyoming memory crosses my mind.

    On my drive from point A to the Bighorn National Forest on my initial arrival in Wyoming, I camped at the state park named for the nearby reservoir.  I recall the water levels being dismal, and the surrounding brush displaying the impact of the dry spring preceding my camping in its brittleness.  The one night, I found it chilly, but sultry by May-in-Wyoming standards, reminds me of how tough my exterior has become since my first drive into the state.

    Green in my own willingness to adapt to the changes that would bend and twist me in the breezes of my first few weeks in service of the Bighorns, I probably didn’t realize how out of place I appeared in the near-drought conditions of Glendo.  Ill-prepared for both the Wyoming weather and the windy weirdness of my encounters with Daniel, I expect the transformation from the naïve woman to today’s forester might reflect the current appearance of the southeast corner of the state – more lush and fertile.  Life goes on again, reborn and refreshed, and the symbolism of the scenery looks me straight in the face as we pass the exit to my first Wyoming campsite.

    The ringing of Jackie’s phone interrupts my reflection on what now foolishly feels like easier times, which, a few days ago, I would have challenged to a dual anyone who might have suggested such nonsense.  She must recognize the ringtone as she immediately begins a conversation with Mr. Waterfield over the car speakers.

    “Darling, we’re only another ninety minutes up the road.”

    “I have news.”

    Jackie looks at me as she continues forward.  “Should we pull over?”

    “No, you should keep going.”

    I’m too impatient with this casual conversation.  I expect she wants to brace me for bad news, but just tell me.

    “What do you know?  Is Daniel alive?”

    “Yes, he’s alive.”

    “Oh my gawd!”  Of course, I start crying again drenched in relief.

    “Natalie, he’s alive, but he’s been injured.  Significantly.”

    I try to listen and prepare for the bad news delivery after the first round of good news.  “How significantly?”

    “They are airlifting him to Germany.”

    “What kind of condition is he in?  Did they tell you anything?”

    “He’s serious, but stable.  Or I guess, stable enough to be transported.”

    “Did they tell you anything about his injuries?”

    “No, not much, the…” the cellular service in the ravine we’ve entered cuts off his update.

    “What did he say?  Could you hear him?”

    “No,” Jackie replied, but could obviously tell how anxious I am for more details as she attempts to reassure me.  “Once we get to the top of this next hill, we can call him back if the call drops.  Let’s just keep going and hopefully we’ll get a stronger signal.”

    The call hangs on, even with no sound from the other end until we hear him checking the connection.  “…can hear me.”

    “Yes, darling, we can hear you.”  She squeezes my arm and makes a deliberate breathing movement to remind me to inhale.  I realize I am holding my breath, and it’s a blessing that she is astute enough to walk me through this.  “We missed some of what you said, though.”

    “Yes, about his injuries.  How bad is he hurt?”  I am begging for any details.

    “He’s still in transit, so we don’t know much, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there will be some type of surgery needed when he gets to Landstuhl.”

    I’ve heard this location before – it’s the military hospital in Germany.

    “Can he be treated at a military facility?”

    “Technically he’s a DOD contractor, so yes, but I get the impression he is not the only casualty being evacuated.”

    Casualty.  My Daniel is a casualty.  He survived military fire fights in Iraq, but he becomes a casualty while building a school.

    “Is he there already?”  I really don’t know what to ask, but I do want to be able to speak to him as soon as I can.  I desperately want to hear his voice.  Thank goodness for the stack of napkins Jackie provided earlier.  I am using them up rather quickly, accumulating a pile of damp ones in my lap.

    “No, from what I have gathered, he’s departed Afghanistan, but I don’t have an ETA on his arrival.  I’ve got a few calls into people, so they know I am waiting for more details.”

    Aren’t we all?

    “Darling, thank you for letting us know.  I know we are concerned, but this is at least some relief.”  Jackie’s glance towards me confirms my sentiment to Mr. Waterfield accurately.  I smile weakly in affirmation.  “We’ll be home soon.”

    “That’s the other thing.  I think it might be best if…”  Again, the signal cuts out, and this time the call drops.

    “It’s alright, dear.  At least we know he’s okay, and he’s being cared for with the best resources possible.”  I nod in response, having already tried to convince myself of the same, but I still wonder what other information he planned to share.

    When we reach the next hill, the phone rings the same distinct jingle, and she again engages the car’s bluetooth.

    “You were saying, darling?”

    “It leaves in just under three hours.”  She looks at me with the same confused look I must be wearing.

    “The flight to Denver.”  He states flatly as if we know the rest of the conversation.

    “Darling, we missed everything about a flight.  You must have cut out before then.  The last thing we heard was you telling us not to come to the house.”

    “Just go straight to the airport in Cheyenne.  I’ve got Natalie booked on a flight from Cheyenne to Denver, and then on to Germany.  It might stop in New Jersey, I don’t remember, but you are booked on the only other flight out today, so just go straight there.”

    I wonder if I need to pay for the ticket when I arrive.  No telling how expensive a same-day ticket to Europe must cost.  Thousands, I presume.

    “Do I need to pay for it when I get to the airport?”

    “There’s no way in hell I’m letting you pay for this ticket.”  I never imagined Mr. Waterfield swearing, even a timid one like, ‘Hell.’  His tone is emphatic.

    “Thank you.  I absolutely can’t thank you both enough for everything.”

    “Let’s just get you…, oh my dear, I’ve got an incoming call, so I need to let you go.  I’ll call back if I hear anything more.  If not, I’ll meet you at the airport.”

    At least I would be on my way to Daniel.  When I am able to get enough bars on my phone to search the internet, I avoid news of the explosion and concentrate on how long it will take me to get to Germany – to get to Daniel.

    Between the sporadic service points along the Wyoming landscape, I spend the majority of the time to Cheyenne crying and thinking about the broken body of the man I love.  He’s alive.



  • The Handshake – Part 1

    Adulthood and its ferociousness, until now, practically killed me.  I wasn’t about to be taken down by bad wiring, an apathetic coworker, and a major household appliance.

    “Honestly, I would rather repair it myself than wait for the landlord to hire someone, but since I am not an electrician, I don’t have a lot of options.”  I wasn’t entirely sure Bonnie was even listening.

    After two weeks in my new apartment, I avoided giving in and visiting the laundromat, already putting me at odds with the owner; plus I hated to go to a bank, feeling as if I were begging for a roll of quarters.  I’ve never been particularly prone to conflicts, having lost way more than I’ve won, but I don’t avoid them for the sake of eliminating all hassles, instead tackling just the ones that involve business associates.  Or at least the business associates that I’m not dating, and my very-nice-otherwise, twice-my-age landlord definitely did not fit that category.

    Here’s what my minorly technical skillset assured me: if I plug the dryer into the wall, it ought to run, and the basic concept ranked as obvious enough that the topic warranted debating with the landlord to my advantageous resolution.  Were the dryer not less than six months old, the question could arise as to the fault of the device, or the apartment, or perhaps even user error.  But in this particular case, I safely narrowed it down to the magic not happening inside the wall.  The sooner the landlord sent someone to restore the electrical brilliance of my apartment, the sooner I wouldn’t have to leave my clothes draped around the apartment on the partially unloaded boxes still awaiting their opportunity to be unpacked completely.

    “Did he say when he’d be able to get someone to your place?”  Bonnie made polite conversation, but she still hadn’t embraced my presence in her quiet, moderately secluded corner of the world.  Don’t get me wrong, Bonnie appeared to be a lovely person, just introverted and less forthcoming than the boisterous gang I left in Texas.  The United States Forest Service local office lacked the chaos and exhaustion of a high school teacher’s lounge, for which I was grateful, and to which I continued to adjust.

    “Well, his voice mail didn’t offer me a lot of details, but I’m sure he’ll be in touch anytime in the next week or three.”  Subtly wasn’t my strength, one of many, and sadly the landlord’s voicemail received the brunt of my frustration.  I know this is one of those areas where I have room for growth and the opportunity to improve as a human being, as my performance reviews  in my younger years may have identified, but for now, I just wanted dry clothes.

    “And you think this will work?”  Her skeptisism rivaled her disinterest.

    “It always works.”

    “How many times have you tried this technique?”

    “Well, just the once, but the results were outstanding.”  My enthusiasm betrayed my stats.

    Bonnie’s visual reaction confirmed the pessimism of her voice.

    “It will work,” I confirmed, “assuming, of course, I can get him in the same room.  I think that’s a far greater challenge at the moment.”

    Bonnie’s attention to her computer screen implied she returned to her responsibilities, although she could have been pseudo-ignoring me, so I let her work in silence.  When she glanced my way nearly twenty minutes later, she returned to the topic as if only moments had passed.  The guidebook I received from the humanities council in the first few days after I arrived described the style of conversations in Wyoming as often taking a slower pace, but this delay amazed me.  When contemplating the skills I could develop here, I may have to hone a patience for waiting, even if it eluded me over thirty-eight years.

    “So if you go to his store, why are you so certain this will work?  What happened last time?”  Bonnie resumed her questioning with only feigned interest.

    “Well, I tried it on our head of IT.  I wanted to learn how to activate the LAN connections that had been wired in our building, and since he was based at the district office and not our school, I thought if I ever had the chance, I would ask him.

    “When I attended in-service training one day, I sought him out and when he went to introduce himself, I pretended to be more enthusiastic than you’d traditionally express to the IT guy, and I extended my hand.  Once he shook back, I had him in my clutches.  Ten minutes later when I let go of his hand, he was leading me into the LAN room and providing me with a personal, system set-up tutorial.”  I could still visualize his face as he tried to figure out how to extricate himself from my grip.  “I’m telling you, it works.”

    “It’s not that I doubt its initial success, but how do you know it will work on the landlord?”

    “I’d wager it would work on anyone.  No one wants to shake hands longer than a couple of moments.  It’s bizarrely awkward and uncomfortable, and they will do whatever it takes to get me to let go.  Trust me, I am a master of awkward.”  This fact was unequivocally true.  “It’s also humorous to watch, unless of course, you are my target.”

    Bonnie’s perspective remained unaltered and cloaked in doubt.  “Try it on someone here.”

    “Like who?”

    “Our boss.”

    “No, it won’t work on him.”

    “I thought you said it works on anyone.”

    “Yes, if I’m meeting them for the first time.  I’ve been here long enough that a handshake won’t work.  It needs to be someone I’m meeting for the first time.”

    “Perhaps you should try the next visitor to wander through the door.”

    “Maybe I will,” I strategically considered.  Of course, it could be hours before someone wandered inside the Forest Service office.  Thankfully, within thirty minutes, midway through a mundane stack of copies, I heard the jingle of the office’s cow bell against the glass door frame and some poor soul stepped into our little experimental web.  This might be my chance to convince Bonnie at his or her expense.

    NEXT: The Handshake – Part 2

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