I was not thinking about books that day. At least not to start with. We were hiking switchbacks in the hot sun, Paul and I, overburdened with gear—come-along and wrenches, turnbuckles and shackles—on our way to repair a cable footbridge. It was late in the season, and I’d begun to lose patience with him.
Paul was a cowboy or fancied himself one: tight Wrangler jeans and a slow measured drawl. In reality he’d been a horse packer until this summer when, stripped of his mules, he became just a trail crew grunt like me. And of all the grunts I’d worked with, he was the quietest. Not that he didn’t like to talk, just that he took his sweet time getting to his point.
“You know the O.J. Simpson trial,” he said.
The trial had dominated the news for months.
“I do,” I said.
We hiked up two more switchbacks.
I was freshly out of grad school in English, a fact that amused Paul. Once he gave me a complicated grammar riddle at the beginning of the day involving a dangling participle and two mules, Lonesome and Princess, and it was not difficult, but he urged me to keep guessing pronouns as we sawed logs and tumbled them off the trail. And I kept getting the answer wrong. At quitting time, as we gathered our tools, he came around to the gist. “Lonesome was a girl,” he said.
If this O.J. story were going to take that long, I didn’t know if I could stand it.
“Doesn’t it remind you of An American Tragedy?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s an American tragedy.”
Two more silent switchbacks. My mind wandered. Truth was, I’d been offered a teaching job at the university, and the decision was eating me alive. I’d worked trails for several happy seasons, but maybe it was time to move on. Maybe teaching was my true calling. Books, not bridges.
“No,” Paul said. “An American Tragedy. You know, Theodore Dreiser.”
I was stunned and instantly ashamed of being stunned. I’d spent years in classrooms, years, true, and while I’d heard of Dreiser, sure, I hadn’t read him. But Paul had. Of course he had. He’d read under the stars, camping alone with horses and mules, for years. And not just him. Everyone on trail crew read. Our boss, a leathery Norwegian farrier, devoured everything from Knut Hamsun to Sigrid Undset. He’d talked me into undertaking Kristin Lavransdatter, all 1,200 pages of it, and I’d loaned him Kim Stafford. Another crewmate favored Samuel Beckett and W.S. Merwin. Others I’d worked with preferred Barbara Ehrenreich or Charles Bukowski, and the newbies usually went for the nature writers: Muir, McPhee, Ehrlich, Abbey, Leopold. But everyone read.
I don’t remember what Paul said next, what his point was about Dreiser, and I can’t ask him since he moved on, as so many others moved on. Eventually, after several more happy seasons, I moved on, too. But I remember my elation clearly. I could have my cake and eat it, too. I’d had it all along. I could stay put and work hard and talk about books and maybe someday even write them.
Paul and I repaired the bridge in no time, standing across from one another, on either side of the raging creek. We couldn’t make ourselves heard, even if we tried, over the roar, but we didn’t need to. We made hand signals and tightened bolts and nicked our fingers bloody. We ate lunch sitting in the dirt and hiked home fast to sit on the porch in the evening light, like every night, with a beer and a book.
Ana Maria Spagna lives in Stehekin, WA and is the author of Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus: A Daughter’s Civil Rights Journey, shortlisted for the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association’s 2011 Book Awards; Now Go Home: Wilderness, Belonging, and the Crosscut Saw, named a Seattle Times Best Book of 2004; and, most recently, Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness. Her writing on nature, work, and life in a small community has appeared in Orion, Mountain Gazette, North American Review, Oregon Quarterly and High Country News, and in anthologies such as Wild Moments, A Mile in Her Boots, and Best Essays NW. After fifteen seasons maintaining hiking trails in the North Cascades, Spagna now teaches creative nonfiction in the Master of Fine Arts program at Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. She is also an associate editor of River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative.
Spagna will read Saturday, May 7 at 7 pm at Upper Skagit Library in Concrete, WA; Friday, May 13 at 7 pm at the Port Angeles (WA) Library (sponsored by Port Book & News); Monday, May 16 at 6:30 pm at the Darrington (WA) Library; Friday, June 24 at 7 pm at the Leavenworth (WA) Library (sponsored by A Book for All Seasons); Saturday, June 25 1-3 pm at A Book for All Seasons and Saturday, July 9 at 6 pm at Trail’s End Bookstore in Winthrop, WA. Her full events schedule is here.