The rain came down so thickly that the water-pregnant clouds that carried it were camouflaged and hidden high above. The bare, breast-shaped hills that were pockmarked with tree stumps became muddy and slick. Streams appeared, gullies formed. A cold and miserable greyness shrouded the landscape, suffocating optimism.
Doug appeared two metres to my left, his thick glasses and wet straggly moustache his only recognizable features above his covering of yellow wet-weather gear. His movements were slow and precise as he climbed upwards. Every second moment his right hand, which held a long wooden-handled mattock, would slash down through the wetness and gouge a hole into the soft ground, while his left hand plucked a spruce plant out of a soaking mud-weighted bag that was strapped to his back. In one movement the plant was rooted into the ground and held in place by dirt that Doug would wheel in. He would then take three steps forward and repeat the planting. And I would attempt to do the same.
The beer tasted sour and weak, but I drank it anyway. They only sold beer in the tavern. Doug, who drank cautiously, spoke in the same way, ‘You warmed up yet? It’s no way to start your first day of tree planting with slick boots and no wet-weather gear, not up in this country where it rains more than it shines. You looked like a walking drowned man. I ain’t never seen anybody shaking so much.’
I had found the job the day before through a man who had picked me up hitch-hiking outside Portland, Oregon. We had driven together to Olympia in Washington State, and I was now working for his brother-in-law, John Mulverhill at Forest Renewal Management, for $4.75 an hour.
Doug stood by the bar staring at the pool table, wondering about his last shot, not understanding how he had missed. ‘Not such bad country up here?’ he finally asked after his long contemplation of the balls that he had just played. He seemed to be speaking to somebody else. I looked around before I answered. The jukebox was flashing light and filling the bar with a Dr Hook tune, the cigarette smoke united and became a blue-grey mist held by the low ceiling. Drinkers who looked like bikers, but who I knew to be woodsmen either killing trees or planting them, crowded the bar and occupied the pool tables, swilling their Budweisers from the bottle, dry and happy. Young women wearing tight jeans flittered in and out with trays of beer, occasionally rubbing against you, giving you hope.
‘She’ll do, mate,’ I finally answered, ‘she’ll do.’
I worked two months planting spruce saplings in country that climbed so high it pushed through the low-slung clouds. Cold rain was thrown at you constantly like pebbles at a stray dog. We lived in mud. But on occasions the sun would shine and the warmth would lift the wetness from you in a vapour, light would be refracted from the dampness and the world would begin to sparkle, deer would walk near as if they were just part of the work crew. Men would laugh.
Doug became a good mate during this time. He taught me the planting technique, hole, plant, bury, three paces, repeat, and he showed me how to hide trees under fallen logs to keep production up and convince the foreman — who screamed a little too much instead of watching more closely — that we were damn quick workers. At midday break when the weather allowed we would light a fire and heat water for coffee. Tree bags which weighed thirty pounds were downed for an hour and the crew would fall around the fire to warm. The foreman drank his coffee alone. He wasn’t welcome.
It was during one of these breaks that Tommy, a grey-bearded, middle-aged drifter who always spoke with eyes pointing downward, slurped his too hot coffee and told us a story about the Alaska gold rush. ‘Men became mad, crazy for gold,’ he began, ‘they came from every state in the Union, wharf labourers and clerks from New York, Boston, farmers from the Midwest, or south of the Mason-Dixon Line, cowboys from Montana, Wyoming, Texas, poor men, adventurers, thieves and profiteers. They came from all walks of life, all heading to Alaska. Some crossed the continent from east to west, others caught ships that sailed down the East Coast, and passed through the Panama Canal before heading north to San Francisco or Seattle. Everybody was heading for Skagway, from where they could cross over the mountains to the goldfields and fortune.
‘For men with money it wasn’t a problem getting to Skagway, but for others it was a desperate time. Food supplies, tents, blankets, mining equipment, bars, shovels, gold-pans and mercury had to be bought, and the prices had been pushed sky-high by the gold seekers crowding the stores. Tickets going north were expensive, boats had to be shared with cattle, horses and freight. A lot of men were forced to try it on their own. Small boats were built or bought. Sailboats, canoes, rowing dories. Some were worm-riddled, rotting, unseaworthy, and the men that set out never had a chance of arriving. Others were good boats handled by men who understood tides, weather and charts. These carried their passengers all the way to Skagway. The sailboats could make it in a month, but the rowers took two and a half months to pull the one thousand two hundred miles. Sometimes a line would be thrown from a passing ship and they could hook a ride, but that wasn’t often.’
I can’t remember whose idea it was, whose heart first beat faster, who made the other excited, but at some point during our time working as tree planters in the forests of Washington State, Doug and I decided to row a boat to Alaska.
The planting had finished and now we sat slowly sipping tin-tasting Budweiser beer in the small prefabricated home of Jack Waterman, our lead planter and hero since he had told the foreman ‘to go fuck himself’ the day before. Jack’s Nez Percé Indian wife Charleyne stood frying pancakes for everybody on their two-burner gas stove.
‘What’s this I hear about you rowing a boat to Alaska?’ asked Sid Beachworth, the father figure in our crew, as he carefully measured and poured our first glass of after-dinner Jack Daniel’s. ‘It don’t make sense.’
‘What don’t make sense?’ answered Doug defensively.
‘Well,’ continued Sid, who had a fierce drinking face gouged with lines that could only have come from laughing, ‘it will take you a long time, time that you could be using to work, to start a career, getting on with life, not wasting it. Besides it’s been done before.’
‘That was a long time ago and not by an Australian,’ I said.
‘Wish the hell I was going,’ yelled Jack from the other side of the room where he had been changing a country song for another country song. ‘As far as I see it, it don’t have to make sense.’
Sid smiled, deepening his face ravines. ‘I guess I’m just getting old,’ he offered in his good-natured way, raised his glass of Jack Daniel’s and wished us the best. We all drank.
Seattle was built on a neck of land between the Puget Sound and Lake Washington. To the west climb the Olympic Mountains, protecting Seattle from heavy winter rains that race in from the sea. To the east, the Cascade Mountains shield it from the great heat and cold that breeds in mid-continental America. It is completely married to the surrounding wilderness. A pearl in a blue-and-green shell. It was born as a mill town, but its protected harbour and geographical location allowed it to blossom as a centre of trade to the Orient and Alaska. The harbour is constantly full of large ships, emptying and loading, or just swinging around on their anchor lines waiting their turn at the dock like milling cattle needing to be milked. The clean, tall, modern city stands gazing down. Seattle was the place we chose to start our trip.