Thanksgiving at the Ranch

Sal's Canyon

Two strangers arrive at Tim’s cabin the morning after Thanksgiving. Bill has a fox-colored pageboy and bright blue eyes. He’s strong, and his face just misses handsome before it veers off into unsettling. Jerri has long, tired blonde hair, and wears high-heeled sandals that wouldn’t do well in the February mud up there.

Bill wanted to show her the spot where he lived 25 years ago. There were just three houses in Sal’s Canyon then: Sal’s own homestead; a nearby place with a sign that says “General Store” above the front porch (it’s not a store); and the little shack that Bill rented above the golf course. It burned down long ago, so he’s finding out who lives here now, in these newer cabins.

Sal was a character, he says. Must have been in his fifties at the time. He was still teaching shop in East Palo Alto. “I remember him coming home, complaining about the students –‘Jesus Christ, kid, did ya learn nothing here? You wrote ‘Fuck’ five times on the wall of the boys’ bathroom, and you spelled it wrong every time.'” A ladies man, Tim offers, and Bill shrugs that well, he _thought_ he was. As to whether he was successful, Bill couldn’t say.

Bill grew up on a dairy farm in Oregon. Fourteen cows in an open barn system. At dawn he and his brother would milk, and after school there’d be hours of chores: more milking, cleaning out the barn, and foddering the herd. In the winter they’d be up in the night, calving. In summer, they’d cut and pitch hay. The milk ran through a Rube-Goldberg system of funnels and filters and cooling channels in the barn, and when the churns were filled they’d haul them into the truck and take them to the dairy.

“The churns would run down on rollers, and when the last churn had gone through, we’d be allowed to balance on the rollers in our sneakers”–he mimed a skier’s crouch–“and ride them all the way to the end. Then they’d give us a pail of fresh cheese curds, for free. Squeak, squeak.”

“Sounds like an industrial accident waiting to happen,” says Jerri. “Sounds like OSHA wouldn’t have much to like about that whole set up.”

“Well, it was kind of backwards up there. Twenty or thirty years behind the times, even then. I used to be able to go into the grocer’s store and get my dad’s cigarettes, all kinds of stuff, just for signing for it. No ID. All on account. He’d pay for it at the end of the month or in the summer, whenever he had money. That’s just how things worked.”

In fishing season, he’d get up in the dark, eat breakfast and head out to the river, then come back and drop his wet clothes for another sleep until his mother called him for chores and school. “Wheere’d all these _fish_ come from?” she’d holler over his second breakfast. They were so plentiful up there that salmon would pile up. “Got so’s I wouldn’t even bother with it unless it was still warm from the smoker,” he said. His mother finally banned him from fishing the day she opened the freezer and an icy, 45-pound salmon fell out onto her foot.

“Fishing is a beautiful thing to watch,” says Jerri. “Peaceful. I went out with him in the summer and caught a 65-pound halibut.”

I ask if he ties his own flies, and he shows big, scarred hands in answer. “Naw, I was never much good for that. I got hands for heavier work than tying flies. And now this one is wrecked. See that?” He pointed to a puncture scar in the fat part below his left thumb. “Drove an awl through it six months ago. Severed the nerve. Now I got no feeling in this finger, permanently. I burn it and I don’t feel a thing.” There’s a new, raw blister on his forefinger.

Jerri says, “It’s just the grossest thing. He says, ‘Do you smell something? I think I burned my finger again…'”

Bill worked as a logger, first around his hometown river, and later, running a crew that worked from Sikorsky helicopters near the Columbia River. “It cost $1800 an hour to keep those boats in the air,” he says, “and that didn’t include the ground crew or maintenance.” He chose the target stands and planned the routes for the logging company that rented the helicopters.

Jerri is leaning towards her man. Once in a while she adds heroic details to his laconic telling of the logging life. “They’ll be swinging in a little cage off the end of a line to get into these places. Real dangerous. Crazy stuff…”

“I got 20 bucks an hour–no, lessee, 25 an hour. The crew got 20 bucks, as long as the boat was running. And 13.25 when it wasn’t.” (American strangers can be so frank–and so precise–about their means.)

They worked in all through the Oregon winters. One day, he says, he’d damn near had enough of logging by the time the boat came to pick him up after a real long, freezing shift. He got on the line, but instead of drawing him up, the pilot swung him over the trees to the water and carried him home that way. Dangling three feet above the Columbia River, going 60 knots an hour. That was a good day.

I ask Jerri if she’d ever gone up in the helicopter.

“I didn’t know him then,” she says, looking uncomfortable. “We’ve only known each other five months. I’m going through a bad divorce. Yeah, no, don’t be sorry. My decision. Best thing that ever happened to me–believe me.” Her kids had just got through high school. “They walked across that stage, and boom, I was outta there. Done with marriage. Done with Oregon. Done with nine months rain a year.”

They’d spent Thanksgiving with friends in Santa Cruz–“a liquid Thanksgiving,” she says, flouncing her hair. First time in years she hadn’t been worrying about a turkey, about pleasing spoiled kids, about which families that didn’t like her were coming for dinner. “Stuff your own goddamned turkey,” she says, to people who aren’t in the room. Then she laughs. “I tell you what, when I had a few Long Island Iced Teas and a coupla Maker’s for dinner, I felt like I was eighteen years old again. Dancing. Doin’ what I wanted, just ‘cos it was fun.” She has the hopeful, hungry look of someone with an unexpected taste of freedom. By the way she looks at Bill, she thinks it comes from him.

“We got so wasted we couldn’t type ‘Lynard Skynnard’ between us on the computer jukebox thing,” she giggles.

“I did it! I got it down eventually. But then you hit ‘Cancel’ instead of puttin’ it through…” They laugh, a hoarse, happy, you-shoulda-been-there laugh. “Anyways, I’m glad of this coffee, get me started up again”.

She’s bartending at the Molly Wee in Rheingold, but looking out for something better. A lunch shift, maybe–waiting tables 11 to 2, get in and get out. Tim tells her about his recent trip to South Korea, where the office workers take real, restaurant lunch breaks with their colleagues every day. From where we sit, above a Silicon Valley of vending- machine dinners and corporate-canteen cocoons, Seoul sounds like Peter Mayle’s gin-soaked fantasies of _la France profonde._

“Yeah, I like the sound of that,” says Jerri, but she means as a worker, not an eater. “Nice big lunchtime trade. Yeah, I’ll take your money.” Mostly, she wants to match Bill’s schedule, now that he’s doing odd construction work.
“I keep logger’s hours,” he says. “Have done all my life. Up at five, in bed by 8.30. Like to spend time outside in the daylight.”

Jerri has just had her first taste of wild oyster mushrooms.

“He knows every living thing out there by its right name. Me, not a thing. _What’s that, Mom?_ A tree. _How ’bout that?_ Uh–‘nother tree.” She shrugs, and smiles at him, proud to build him up at her own expense. “We’ll be out walking, he’ll stop and make me taste something, and I’m like, that’s _bark,_ are you kidding? Next day, I’m goin’, hey Bill, got any more of that bark?”

“You know the cascara?” says Bill, and Tim nods. (There are few things I like better in a man than a quiet store of natural history–which narrows the field in Brooklyn and San Francisco.) The men talk mushrooms. Spore printing, innoculating oyster mushroom logs, treacherous _Amanita muscarias._ Bill intones old favorites. “You’ve got your shaggy caps, your chanterelles, your dead-mans-brains, your oysters, your honey mushrooms, your slippery jacks, your corals…”

Tim tells him about a good mushroom patch up on the golf course.
“The golf course?”
Sal made one-hole golf course, Tim explains. A one-hole, gopher golf course.

“That’s Sal all right,” Bill says, “A one-hole golf course. Always got six projects on the go. Always too excited about the next one to finish the first.”

Tim had made a honey mushroom omelette for breakfast. He could vouch for this patch. “Shaggy caps and venison sausages, now that’s a good breakfast,” says Bill. Used to get himself a bit of venison in these parts, he admits, and notes that our deer are small this year. They do seem young–double antlers, at most–even though they’ve been fattening up all Fall, too stoned on acorns to bother dancing out of human reach. Now they’re getting ready to rut, strutting in the headlights at night, showing off their new racks like Miami trophy wives.

Tim says that he hears Sal’s generator, which means he’s back and will surely love to see Bill again. Bill nods. We almost don’t notice his lack of enthusiasm, we’re so fond of Sal, and curious about what this most vigorous 80-year-old might have been like in his prime.

“I bet you have great stories about him,” says Tim.

“I’ll bet he has some stories about you,” says Jerri to Bill, loyally.

Bill smiles. Says yep, he probably has a few to tell. He was maybe a little wild. He lived here with a wife and a small daughter, Amber back then. Amber fed chickens and goats. They kept a garden–“He can grow just about anything!” says Jerri, though she hasn’t known him for a full growing season yet.

Sal, it turns out later, isn’t sure he would have wanted to welcome the prodigal Bill. That wife he’d had was crazy, he says. A real handful for a landlord to deal with. She ended up doing some crime, some damn fool thing, and Bill took the blame for it to keep her out of jail. Once he’d served time they stopped paying rent for good. When Sal finally evicted them, he discovered that they’d forgotten to take out the garbage. He filled two pick-up loads with dirty diapers alone.

Which explains why, shortly after Jerri volunteers their cellphone number so that Sal can get in touch with them in case they don’t catch him on this visit, we see Bill barreling their truck past his house and out to the highway. He’s close now to the age Sal was back then, but it’s the 25-year-old Bill, the one trying to keep it all going however he can, that he doesn’t want to see in his old landlord’s eyes. Better to stick with the kind, brave, Skynnard-loving, Makers’-drinking naturalist that Jerri sees. You can only go back so far.

There are eight more houses now in the canyon now, cabins really, that Sal built after he retired. He rents them out to waifs and strays. There’s a lot of talk these days about engineering mixed communities, but Sal’s been cooking them for decades, bringing together Valley engineers and gentle schizophrenics, carpenters and drying alcoholics, horse trainers and scavengers, surfers and gardeners. The occasional criminal and fall guy. Whether it’s gruff charity, or a real income, or just something to do, I’m never sure. But on Thanksgiving most of the residents troop down to the cookhouse outside Sal’s place and share turkey and fixings. It’s a meal that’s closer in spirit to the original Thanksgiving dinner than the Whole Foods feasts in the mansions up the hill. (Or than the beef stew I made for Tim and me–liking, as always, the ideals of tradition and community more than the reality of pitching in with neighbors.)

California’s population has tripled in the last thirty years. You can feel it on Highway 101, where every day the rush hour extends a minute or two, like spring evenings. Tim and I can’t complain much; we’re among those who have followed its latest upswing. 20,000-square-foot homes aren’t unusual in these parts–half a mile from where Neal Cassady settled at the end of his journey with Jack Kerouac.

Among the mansions, this little canyon has an enchanted quality. The homesteads Sal built from recycled Navy wood feel fragile enough to dissolve back into the winter mist at any time, leaving only the piles of junk and boats and old trucks that dot the property. The well-funded county conservancy has right of first refusal on these hundred acres, in exchange for some tax leniency now. That will save it from the granite-countertop developers when Sal finishes his stewardship. When I am Sal’s age, this will probably be open land, and we’ll need more than ever. The raw mounds of earth that he loves to shuffle with his dozers and diggers will have grown grassy coats. There will be no more woodstove suppers eaten here, but many more picnic lunches. The coyotes, the deer, the hummingbirds, and the cougars will hardly notice our departure. They already think it’s theirs, whatever the title documents say. Only the rats and spiders will miss our human shelters. I hope I’ll visit once in a while, like Bill.

3 thoughts on “Thanksgiving at the Ranch”

  1. Thanksgiving? I’m grateful for this story in many ways. It made me sigh for California, Californians, and the twisted roads we’ve followed, and it warms me to hear about you and Tim.

    You’re a masterful writer, Ms. Hanley.

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  2. Hi D, Amazing writing recently – pleae don’t tell me you think you’re still not ready…..

    Your e-mail is chocker – I tried to send you a letter, although having read the above I’m feeling inferior, so pop me aline when you clean it up.

    Ciao,

    Mark.

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