Up in the hills outside Leucadia, above the ocean, not far from where the flower fields are spread out along Old Highway 101, there's a grove of eucalyptus trees with a maze of dirt roads running in and out of it. A woman cruises these roads in a battered International pickup. She has a cigarette arching from her lip. Her sleeves are rolled up above her biceps. One elbow rests out the window. She has a cup of coffee sloshing between her legs, and there’s a scowlish grin on her face. Her name is Audrey, and she runs a woodcutting outfit in these hills.
Audrey’s tough. She doesn’t take nothin' from no one. She keeps her hair slicked back, wears black Can't Bust 'Ems, and a dirty white workshirt. She doesn't have breasts-or at least you can't see them-and instead of anything looking like a figure, she sports a proud, union-looking beerbelly. She's tough all right, but she doesn't talk tough, doesn't have to; in fact, talks in a kind of nice, sympathetic voice, like a good-guy foreman.
What Audrey does is thin out the mature trees on this land, buck them into 16-inch lengths, and sell them, by the cord to woodyards. Or else she splits them, dries them, and sells them herself; there’s more money in it this way, but it takes longer, and it requires a yard to dry them in. Either way, firewood brings a good price in San Diego County.
Audrey owns a pickup, a half-dozen smoke-belching chainsaws, a 3/4 ton stakeside, sledges, and wedges. She doesn't do the work herself; she’s the bull o' the woods, and a bull needs a crew. So she hires North County surfers down on their luck - and that includes a lot of surfers in the fall and winter months.
It starts with one guy who happens to know Audrey, and he tells his friends, and they tell their friends, and before long Audrey has her crew. She pays them the minimum wage, or if they want they can get paid according to how much they do. When she has a pickup truck full of them, she drives them up to her hill - the lot of them happy in the back, knowing they’re finally going to make a little money, hollering at friends they see along the road, maybe passing around a bottle of cheap wine among themselves, content really just to be moving, which is all that makes a surfer happy anyway, as near as I can tell.
I found out about Audrey from an old friend I used to work with on a logging outfit up north. He told me she needed a tree faller, and would pay $10 for every cord I could cut. I figured I could cut at least a cord an hour. I was broke. So I asked my friend to take me to Audrey's place.
Audrey told me to be at work in half-an-hour. I went back and put on my work boots, grabbed my hard hat, stuck a hanky in my back pocket, and threw together a lunch of apple, cheese, banana and a can of beer. I was in the cab of her pickup on the way to the job before I even had a chance to think over the prospects of going to work again, let alone for this woman.
“Unnerstan' you useta work as a faller, 's'at right? she asked me.
“Oakhurst, Bass Lake, North Fork. 'Round there.”
“What kina fallin’ you do?”
“Sugarpine, yellow pine, some cedar.”
“Yeah, well, we don't have none a them around here.”
I figured she was ok. Just another old gnarled, wrinkle-faced foreman.
She pulled into a mini-mart to pick up a couple quarts of oil for the saws, while I ran next door for coffee to go. I got one for her too; she liked that, and then we rode across the highway, past the flower fields, past the nurseries, past the rich Spanish-style homes of Leucadia, and up to Audrey's hill.
She showed me the trees I could start on. “What we’re gonna do here, see, is get these big ones next to the road where the boys can load ‘em up easy.” Everything was green from the rain, and out to the west was nothing but blue, blue ocean. “I wancha ta get a good head start on the resta them so they won't have ta wait, see.” I nodded.
She gave me her best saw, a little Homelite. I cranked it up and started in putting an undercut on the first tree. I kicked out the notch with my foot. The eucalyptus smelled spicy. It was nice to have a saw in my hands again. I went around and started on the backcut, looking up at the tree, wondering how many cords I could get out of it. I felt a tap on my shoulder, looked back, and Audrey was motioning me to shut the saw off.
“Yer luggin' it.” she hollered. “Lemme show ya.”
Hmm, I thought. I stepped back, leaving the saw idling in the wood. Audrey stepped up and finished the last two inches of the cut. It fell right where I'd aimed it with my undercut, and Audrey's eyes shined. I think she was smiling. She handed the saw over to me and walked back to the truck. I limbed and bucked the tree in about thirty minutes. A cord and a half.
The saw idled a little roughly, and I needed a screwdriver to adjust the high speed jet. I started toward the truck where Audrey was playing around with her saws, chain smoking - keeping an eye on me really, was what she was doing.
“Jest a second,” she said when I got within about twenty feet of the truck, “Could you stay right there fer jesta second?” She walked around behind the truck where I could only see the top of her head. She was fumbling with something. I couldn't see. I, heard the sound of water splashing.
What the ? “Now then,” Audrey said stepping from behind the truck, fumbling with the fly on her Can't Bust 'Ems, wrinkling her brow, but really looking pleased with herself. “Le's get those big ones on down the road there.”
“Sure.” I said. I found a screwdriver, adjusted the saw, and went to work on the next tree.
But the same thing happened again. I put in the undercut, started on the backcut, and then felt Audrey's tap on my shoulder again. She was muttering something about “luggin' these damn small saws like that.” She finished this tree, too, and handed me back the saw.
I thought I may have to have a word with her about stopping me like that, but as it turned out. Audrey had had her fill of tree falling for the day. She left some gas and oil for me, gave a final warning on lugging her saws, hitched up her belt, climbed into her pickup, and drove down the hill to see how the rest of her boys were doing.
I worked about an hour there alone before the saw broke down.
I tried to fix it, but I didn't have the right tools. Besides, I didn't hire on as a mechanic and couldn't make any money working on saws.
I sat down on a stump and looked out to the ocean. It was clear, and the day was still early.
I picked up the saw, grabbed my lunch, and walked down the road to where the rest of the boys were. They were sitting around a pile of unstacked wood. Flipping their long hair out of their eyes, talking about surfing. I asked for Audrey, and they said she'd gone into town. They didn’t seem to want to talk to me much probably because I’d just hired on, but was making more than they were. “Well, tell her this saw isn't getting spark, that I'm going home, and that she doesn’t owe me anything.”
I set the saw down in front of the circle, and they all watched it silently, like they'd never seen it before. Finally, someone said, “Sure.”
I started down the road, wondering if I’d meet Audrey on her way back up, but not really caring. I walked down past the red tile Spanish homes, past the intense orange and scarlet flower fields, past a tract home project with huge concrete pipes laid out in rows like strings of Mexican beads, and past a trailer court.
I ate my apple and my hunk of cheese. I opened my beer and finished it off in a few quick swallows as I walked, crumpling the can and stashing it in my brown bag.
When I got down to 101, I stuck out my thumb and the first car pulled over-a young guy in a red sports car.
“Just get off work?” he asked, swinging back onto the highway, checking out my hard hat, my dirty clothes, my brown bag.
“Yeah,” I said, not feeling up to explaining it all.