Back in the late '70s in Eugene, Ore., my friend Stan and I were out of work, with bills stacking up and no jobs around town, so we took a job planting trees. Every morning at 5 we got onboard the "crummy," the crew bus, and rode off into the Cascades. Carrying 50 pounds of baby Douglas firs in large packs on our backs, we proceeded, using a device called a hoedad to make a hole, then planting another tree, then moving 10 feet on to do it again, a line of men up and down the slope.
Before long, our crew was transferred to Washington. The first day, the snow was too deep to work. We hung out in Stan's camper near a logging road next to Mark and Pierre, who were living out of Pierre's little turtleback trailer. While I complained about no work and no money, Stan kept reminding me to just enjoy the wilderness and relax until we got work. We cooked over a fire and drank beer while he and I passed a guitar back and forth.
The day turned into a week: The snow was still too deep. One cloudless night Pierre pointed to the silhouette of one of the mountains against the starry sky. "That's Mount St. Helens," he said. It was just a few months before the volcano erupted, and it looked majestic. "And that's Mount Adams, 20 miles to the east of it. An easier climb. We could make the summit in one day."
Mount Adams topped off at a little more than 12,000 feet. At first it seemed like a joke, but anything was better than hanging around the campsite another day. I had never climbed a mountain, and it sounded like just my type of adventure. Maybe Stan was right, stop worrying and enjoy the day.
The next morning we rode in Pierre's Toyota pickup, ascending the mountain road toward Mount Adams' summit. When the snow got deep, we parked beside the road and strapped on our work boots, each taking a pack that was lightweight compared with the tree packs we used. The ascent was easy up 5,000 feet, at a spot where cars usually stopped during the summer and hikers took off by foot. As we continued, we passed climbers coming down who told us the winds were picking up. By late afternoon we found a log shelter and stopped for a rest. Pierre pulled out his hatchet, chopped up some log pieces, started a fire and cooked up rice and beans. As we ate, I saw him pull a gun out of his pack. "What's that?" Stan asked, eyes wide.
It was a .44 Magnum. As soon as I saw it, I immediately thought back to the movie Dirty Harry.Pierre held it up and explained that he kept it handy when he panned for gold in the Oregon woods to protect himself from drunks and robbers who found their way to his camp. I felt like our pioneer quest was now complete. He took the bullets out and handed the gun to me. Some men were raised around guns all their life, taught to shoot as kids, taught to hunt by the age of 12. My life was sheltered. I never held a gun before, but now I marveled at the weight in my hand, the gun as big as a cannon almost, the blue steel, the smell of gun oil. I handed it back to Pierre as though returning an ancient relic, and he reloaded it, checked the safety and buried it deep in his pack. "You ever shoot it?" I asked.
"Besides practice? Just once, to scare away some drunks who were pestering my dog outside my trailer one night. I fired at the sky, it lit up the woods, and they took off in their pickup like the devil was biting at their heels." I saw the whole story in my head, Pierre warning them to go away, then scaring them off with one pull of the trigger. What an adventure! We finished the rice and beans, packed up and headed on.
An hour later we were above the timberline, the wind shoving us back and forth as we pushed on. Mount Adams was not a technical climb, which meant you didn't need any special equipment, no crampons, no ice axes, just a strenuous climb uphill. But the thinning atmosphere was slowing us down, and the wind wasn't helping. I glanced at Mark and Pierre ahead, then glanced back. "Hey, where's Stan?"
The other two looked back. "I dunno," Mark said.
"He must've headed back."
"Should we look for him?" I asked.
"My truck's unlocked. We'll probably find him asleep in the cab."
We continued on, but I was now worried about Stan. We marched on until it started getting dark. By now my toes were numb and I was shivering. Without a word we all turned and headed back. We navigated our trail by starlight, smoking Pierre's Swishers, the only lights we had in the darkness.
Hours later we reached the Toyota, but Stan wasn't there. Even Pierre, a capable woodsman at heart, felt a little concerned now. On the drive back he stopped by a tent alongside the road, one of the day's climbers. The man inside poked his head out and said he saw Stan that afternoon, but didn't know why he didn't wait for us.
When we got back to camp, I climbed into the trailer. I found Stan at the portable stove cooking bacon and eggs. I told Pierre and Mark that he was all right, and they went off to bed. Then I turned to Stan. "Where've you been?"
"I just got back. It was a long walk."
"I guess so, but you took off without telling us anything. We weren't sure if you were all right or not." Stan was always the sensible one, but now he had that look in his eyes as if he had seen a train wreck.
"When Pierre pulled that big gun out, it got me worried."
"Worried? About what?"
"When I saw the gun, I knew he was planning to kill us." He gave me that scared look again. "Why else would he have the gun?"
I shook my head, confused and angry. "Now you're really talking psycho. Pierre isn't the kind of person to do that. And even if he were, he wouldn't show us the gun first, and you couldn't hide bodies on a mountain that thousands of hikers climb every year."
I didn't point out that he was enjoying a meal after leaving us for dead.
"This is not Jeremiah Johnson country," I continued. "And Pierre is not a killer. Look, we're all back safe. Get that crazy idea out of your brain."
Stan just shook his head and continued eating out of the skillet. The next morning things were back to normal, and he didn't seem to have any concerns about Pierre. I had known Stan for three years, but it would be another year before he told me the story of seeing a drunk shoot and kill someone in the woods during a hunting trip. He was a teen that day, walking with his father and a group of hunters, and he had yet to hold a gun himself. He never would.
David Wood is a writer in St. Petersburg.