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Oct 15, 2011


A redwood cannot change its nature. Can a dope dealer?

The authorities have sprung Hobart Hawkins, pure-blooded Yurok, big-wave surfer, and pot farmer extraordinaire, after a five year sentence in Corcoran State Prison. To help reenter the straight world, Hawkins enrolls in an extension botany course, where a young professor, Faith Bartlett, introduces him to the thrill of climbing giants--the coastal redwoods of Humboldt county.

Hobart, succumbing to the charms of his teacher, finds himself embroiled in an ambitious scheme to save an 800-acre grove of old-growth forest, a scheme that requires a tremendous sum of money, money he can only raise through clandestine agriculture. Meanwhile, a series of rivals tests the rocky relationship between the ex-con and his attractive professor.

Through the course of a growing season, Hobart must contend with his rebelling teen-age son, the savage murder of his pot-farming mentor, and the thousand natural shocks illegal cultivation is heir to. Rip-off artists, torrential rain, rodents, mysterious uprootings, forest rangers, corrupt cops, and drug-war storm troopers all threaten to ruin his hard work, destroy his love life, and slam his ass back in stir--forever.

Whether surfing together, tree-sitting to protect a huge redwood from loggers, or having a quiet feast in an Airstream trailer parked deep in the forest, Hobart and Faith struggle to reach an understanding with themselves and the natural world. Buzzing choppers, blaring music, and a speed-freak named Fart King, though, put their love to the test.

Moral problems beset Hobart, problems that challenge the code his long-dead father instilled in him. Should he honor a million-dollar debt to a dead man’s widow? Should he take the life of an evil thief? Should he sully the pure Faith Bartlett by dragging her into the heart of his illegal enterprise?

The answers can only be found high in the branches of the world’s tallest trees.

Oct 15, 2011

Informazioni sull'autore

Glenn Vanstrum’s fiction has been published in LITnIMAGE, the Bellevue Literary Review, and THEMA. His book of nature writing, The Saltwater Wilderness (Oxford), won a San Diego Book Award. Essays of his have appeared in Sierra, California Wild, and the Los Angeles Times. Vanstrum has written five novels and two story collections. Setting plays a major role in his character-driven fiction, work that often uses nature, music, or medical themes. His novels range from drama (Let Fall Thy Blade; Certain Stars Shot Madly) to historical fiction (Northern Liberties) to satire (S.I.C. Memorial). His latest work, Humboldt, a story set among the Northern California redwoods, is part roman noir, part satire, and part thriller. A Minnesotan by birth, Vanstrum majored in music at Grinnell College in Iowa and attended U.C.S.D. medical school. He has spent most of his life in California, where he practices anesthesiology. A professional nature photographer, he publishes images in numerous venues worldwide. Magazine credits include Audubon, Sierra, Terre Sauvage, National Geographic Traveler, National Wildlife, and Discover. The photographic stock agencies Animals Animals/Earth Scenes and Custom Medical Stock Photography represent his photographs. Vanstrum, a pianist from age five, still practices daily and performs works from the classical, romantic, and modern repertoire on a regular basis. A student of Cecil Lytle and the late Nathan Schwartz, he plays both solo and chamber pieces. The author, a lifelong surfer, has ridden waves in Hawaii, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Bali. Still riding a shortboard, he wipes out with great regularity. Further information on Vanstrum’s writing, including book reviews; music, including concert schedules; and surfing, including a surf blog; appears at "Glenn Vanstrum is a force of nature. In addition to being a published author (The Saltwater Wilderness, Oxford University Press, 2003), he is a concert pianist (and regularly performs complex pieces by Beethoven and Mozart in public venues near his home in San Diego), a highly regarded medical doctor, an accomplished surfer, an underwater photographer who has worked around the world, and a dedicated husband and father. Somehow, in this incredibly busy life, he continually produces exemplary works of fiction and non-fiction. "I've known Glenn for fifteen years. In that time, I have read every single one of his books, and they are uniformly excellent. His fiction is distinguished by fast-paced plots, fascinating characters, amazingly realistic dialogue, and passages of great strength and beauty. His innovative treatment (in Northern Liberties) of Thomas Eakins' painting 'The Gross Clinic' was absolutely brilliant, and his collection of animal stories is par excellence--certainly in the league with such notables as Roger Caras and Ernest Thompson Seton. "His non-fiction, best exemplified in the essays of The Saltwater Wilderness, reflects his love for the sea and dedication to the conservation of oceanic resources. In summary, any book by Glenn Vanstrum is worth reading and owning, and I enthusiastically encourage all those who value contemporary literature to explore the corpus--now available as e-books or print-on-demand--of this gifted American author. " --John A. Murray, senior editor, The Bloomsbury Review (1987-present); founding editor, the Sierra Club American Nature Writing annual (1994-2005); former director, graduate program in professional writing, University of Alaska; author of 42 books; recipient of Southwest Book Award and Colorado Book Award.

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Anteprima del libro

Humboldt - Glenn Vanstrum


A Novel


Glenn Vanstrum

Smashwords Edition

A redwood cannot change its nature. Can a dope dealer?


A Novel

Copyright 2011 by Glenn Vanstrum

All rights reserved.

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to living persons is entirely coincidental.

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of the author.


Table of Contents

Part I: Yurok and Xenon

Part II: North Jetty

Part III: The Pianist

Part IV: Seedlings

Part V: Starts

Part VI: Harvest


About the Author

Works by Glenn Vanstrum

Sample Chapters of Other Fiction

Let Fall Thy Blade

S.I.C. Memorial

Certain Stars Shot Madly

Northern Liberties

Yellowstone, 1876

Disease Beyond My Practice

Of Lion Paw and Tiger Jaw

Picture This!


Part I: Yurok and Xenon


Hobart Hawkins craned his neck to stare upwards into the tree. Tree: the redwood towering above him seemed too big, too strange, too otherworldly for such a simple word. The trunk stood silent and immobile, fading into the fog, no limbs visible for the first two hundred feet, a massive pillar sculpted by millions of years of blind trying and failing and finally getting it right, ascending to the sky like some oversize Corinthian column at the base of an arboreal Parthenon.

The girth of the thing. Thick as a house. Twenty, maybe thirty feet in diameter. Bark more than a foot deep.

In Yurok legend, the dead climbed a mythical ladder in the far North to get to heaven. Hobart wondered if he could get there this way, disappearing into the clouds, vanishing into the spirit world, never to be seen again.

His belly churned. A sudden urge came over him to puke breakfast--a day-old carne asada burrito he’d taken as carry-out from Luzmila’s after huevos rancheros yesterday morning.

He pulled out a baggie holding a single stalk of Purple Kush, pinched off a flower coated with resin, and stuffed it into a handmade soapstone pipe. He fired up his lighter, sucking the cloying, honeyed fumes deep into his lungs. Getting stoned and climbing did not make an ideal combination, but he needed something to calm his guts.

After a second hit, and a third, the bark started to vibrate in time with his racing pulse. He’d climbed a smaller coastal redwood for his botany class with his professor, Faith Bartlett. That had been different. The tree Bartlett taught him on, Liberty, had a rope set, having been climbed already. A known tree, a tamed tree. This was a wild tree, deep in Redwood National Park, unlikely to have been touched by a human. It stood on a thirty-degree slope just under a ridge. To find it, he’d spent yesterday and most of today bushwhacking through downed logs, clearcut slash, and thorned huckleberry. His GPS stopped working. His cell phone could not pick up a signal. He had a Forest Service topographic map, but he’d lost all sense of direction.

Hobart had just about decided to quit, to give up his goal of discovering a record-sized tree, when he spotted the crown of this giant at the apex of a steep drainage ignored by pre-park logging. It took him four hours to find his way to the base. Other redwoods grew near it, all old-growth Methuselahs, but this one, a monster among monsters, stood out.

As discoverer, he owned naming rights. He decided to call the redwood Yurok, after his tribe.

He lay down with his hands behind his head on the sloping floor of redwood needles, just above the base of the tree, peering with rapidly reddening eyes at the canopy far above him. Burrs and bits of leaves from the hike stuck to his hair, hair twisted into a long, loose Native braid, something he’d avoided cutting for years. He ignored his parched mouth, dry from weed and exertion. His grandfather used to talk of the spirit world, of the big people who lived deep in the forest and looked after it, of the little people from whom his tribe evolved. Legends that thrilled a five-year-old, legends he flipped off as a teen. Now, in the presence of the giant, stoned, he felt ready to believe anything.

Marshalling his energy, he pulled himself off the duff of the forest floor. He took a measured sip from his canteen. Not much water left.

Using all his strength to bend the yew bow, he slipped the string over the notch at the tip. He pulled out a blunt arrow and tied one hundred yards of fifteen-pound monofilament fishing line through the fine hole he’d drilled in the end, between the nock and the fletching. Squinting his eyes to peer through the mist, he could just make out a sturdy limb isolated from the foliage. A tree window. He notched the arrow, pulled it back close to his cheek, and let fly. He tried to give it enough loft to clear the limb and fall back to the ground.

He missed. Too short.

Hobart retrieved the arrow and re-spooled the fishing line. The process took him thirty minutes, making him wonder if he might have done it quicker without the pot in his head. He took careful aim at the window but missed again. This time the arrow managed to wedge itself in the bark above the limb. He yanked it out, trying not to break either the line or the shaft. The arrow and monofilament fell in a pile at his feet.

He stared at the limb high above him, impossibly high. Above it, a green chiaroscuro of needles shimmered in the wind, a westerly of about ten knots that he could only feel as the lightest of breezes down below. A few rays of light slipped through the vegetation, shifting flashes of gold hinting at summit glories, brief sparkles penetrating a sea of roiling branches. Mostly, though, the canopy was dark: dark, damp, and miserable.

He liked that word, chiaroscuro. Mary Ann taught him about it when she took a class on Renaissance oil painting. Light and dark. Contrasts. Come to think about it, she’d introduced him to Corinthian columns and the Parthenon, too. As the Kush penetrated deeper into his brain, as he bent his neck to look up, he grew dizzy. He swallowed, tasting his burrito yet again.

Hobart pulled back the bowstring, aiming high above the limb--a six-foot-in-diameter limb that would be a huge tree in its own right--and fired. On this, his third attempt, the arrow soared true, carrying the line past its target and back down to earth.

A broad grin stretched across his face. He retrieved the arrow, tied the monofilament to a two hundred-meter length of nylon cord on a spool, and pulled that up the limb. Digging through his pack, he unearthed the black 10 mm rope he’d bought in Grant’s Pass, a polyester fiber static line developed for U.S. Special Forces. The Oregon climbing store rated the line to stretch no more than one percent with a full load. He tied it to the nylon cord. Using the cord, he pulled the rope over the limb and back down. He knotted one end in a bowline to a baby redwood trunk growing thirty feet from the base of Yurok.

Excited now, his heart pounding, his mouth drier still, he pulled a pair of four-foot nylon rope loops from his pack, tied each in a triple prussic to the free end of the draped stealth rope, and put his boots into the loops to test his knots. With his weight on them, the loops held, but he could loosen them one at a time to climb the static rope. Not easy, but steady and practical.

Bartlett used CMI aluminum ascenders. Hobart planned to buy some, but that meant collecting cash from his secret spot near the rez boundary and making a second trip to southern Oregon. For now he would have to get by with the low-tech prussic technique. A helmet would be a nice addition, too. A webbing harness. Real climbing footwear instead of his worn Sears work boots. Lots of stuff.

People called Hobart many things, some of them insulting, but no one ever accused him of being patient. He meant to climb a wild tree solo, a big one, and he meant to do it today. The gear he owned would have to do. He took a last swig of water, ate a dried apple, and closed up the pouches on the red Kelty backpack. He decided to leave it on the forest floor--no one would disturb it.

He reconsidered. The food--he’d seen plenty of bear scat hiking in. He pulled out a battered day pack, stuffed it with the remainder of his trail mix, water, and dried fruit, also his pipe, lighter, and stash, and slung it onto his back. He hefted the spare 150-foot climbing rope and debated whether he should bring it along. Despite its weight, he threw the coil over his shoulder.

Here goes nuthin’. The redwood trunks around him absorbed sound, muffling his voice. He slipped on a pair of leather garden gloves, fit his feet into the loops, and started climbing.

The only point of stability came from the limb high above him. At first he tried to shift his weight to prevent swinging, but soon he began to pendulum in slow, sickening arcs. He forced himself to keep going. Place weight on left foot. Loosen prussic on right loop. Pull up. Put weight on right foot. Test. Step up. Loosen lower prussic. Pull up. Repeat one million times.

At a height of fifty feet, what tree-climbers call the red line, the swinging abated. That was good, because if you fell above the red line, you died. But his right quadriceps began to shake. He couldn’t control it. Sewing-machine leg. He needed to switch feet, to lead with his left.

He pulled his left foot free of its loop, set it next to the right foot, and slipped his right foot free. He started swinging again. His stomach gurgled.

Stupid fool. He went over again exactly why he’d come to this place. Alone. Without Bartlett. He was a good eight years older than the woman, even though she was his professor. He had more money, too. He’d bet next year’s crop on it. He’d buried two hundred grand in a barrel on his property near Bluff Creek, next to the corner of the Hoopa rez, and she limped along on an assistant professor salary.

But she knew nothing of that and refused his suggestion for dinner and drinks after the Liberty ascent. Worse, after their climb, her sweet ass disappeared into the passenger side of a black 911 in the faculty parking lot.

He waved his right foot in the air, searching for the lower loop. He found it, and began to lead with his left.

He’d show her. Simple. He’d tell her all about his discovery, bring her here, reveal Yurok. He’d get her to have a toke or two, they’d climb, and she’d fall for him and dump the dick in the Porsche.

The climbing went faster now. He shimmied past a fire cave, a hole burnt into the tree four feet wide and twelve feet tall. Lightning, maybe, or a forest fire. In the cave, collected soil, dust from a millennia of falling needles, gave birth to a boysenberry bush that struggled in the dim light to survive. A pile of pellets and rodent bones covered the floor. The abandoned nest of a great horned owl. He thought about swinging into the hole to explore but decided against it. He wanted to reach the canopy.

A thrumming from above began to grow louder. Raindrops fell onto his head, wetting the rope and his gloves. He could feel wind now, a real wind that tugged at his wool shirt. He hoped the triple loops on the knots would hold onto the now-moistened rope.

He pressed on.

Every muscle in his body ached, though the pain concentrated in his overworked thighs. His mind wandered as he inched upward. He was an idiot to think he could get Bartlett’s attention. He should go back to Mary Ann, his ex, and make their teen-age boy, Hector, happy. If she would have him, which he doubted. In the past ten years he and Mary Ann had come close to getting it together, but never close enough. Like too much spring runoff flowing through the dams on the Klamath, too many bad things had gone down between them. Thing was, she still looked good. Something about the way she tied her blouse up in the summer, that taut belly of hers with its faint peach-hair, that half-smile she gave him... Thinking about Mary Ann made him horny and frustrated at the same time.

Things between them fell apart a decade ago when that HSU co-ed took a shine to him. What's her name. The redhead anthropology major who wanted to get to know a Native American. He could still remember her freckled skin, those just-right champagne cup breasts... The woman that ruined his happy home. What’s-her-name. Eileen.

Bullshit. He couldn’t blame Eileen. It was his own lust, his inability to settle down, his failure to be a good dad that did in the marriage.

He looked down and regretted it. Man, he was up there. The stealth rope was four hundred feet long. Doubled, it just reached. That meant the limb started at two hundred feet. No doubt, Yurok was a record-size tree.

The rain let up, and his knots held. Prussics were tricky. You wanted them to grip, yet you had to loosen them every step of the way. Aluminum ascenders could fail, too, though. Climbing--a risky business.

Like surfing twenty-footers at Patrick’s Point: You’d catch sight of a decapitated seal on the beach, but you’d paddle out anyway. Or you would if you were Hobart.

Forget Mary Ann. He’d done his best to keep up with child support and alimony, gave her every last cent the judge ordered. Fell behind some during his stay in prison, but he made it up. Paid her off in hundred dollar bills, a lump sum. A problem, that. No records, no receipts. If she wanted to contest it in court, he’d have a tough time proving himself.

One of several issues with growing: Payday always came in cash. Made it hard to go legit.

He passed a burl in the side of the tree, the stump of a knocked-off limb, a splash of needles growing from a shallow-rooted epicormic branch. False friends, epicorms could break off under your boots when you least expected.

When he enrolled in the extension biology course at Humboldt State, he thought he might pick up some extra knowledge about plants--his financial lifeblood, for a while at least, until they legalized dope. He picked up a lot more. He developed real interest in Sequoia sempervirens, a fascination with leaf area, biomass, and cambium, the single layer of living cells inside the bark that formed the soul of a tree. Beyond that, he felt something spiritual the day he climbed Liberty with the class, something that reminded him of nights spent as a child in a Yurok sweat lodge with his elderly uncle, Lothar. He also developed a growing unease over the trees he’d logged as a teen.

Funny how he had never--before Bartlett’s course, that is--thought of trees as alive. To him they’d just been money wrapped in bark. Stupid, immobile, they grew everywhere, giant weeds needing only sunlight, water and soil, never complaining as his chain saw bit deep into their woody flesh, making no scream of terror as they plunged to earth, dull and dense, deaf and dumb, unfeeling, their only purpose to grant him a fat wad of cash.

But now, from Bartlett’s lectures, he understood that trees held the same spark of life he did--different, but the same. A wave of guilt broke over him. He wondered how many redwoods he'd personally felled during his lumbering years. Dozens? Hundreds?

What a dumb punk he’d been. Still, as he helped destroy the forest, it had amazed him, even as a foolish youth.

Enormous things always held an attraction for Hobart. Gray whales. Female marijuana plants in September, twenty feet tall, laden with buds dripping resin. White sharks, if they left him alone. Elephant seals. Nothing, though, grew as large as this creature next to him. The sheer bigness of the tree mesmerized him.

His mind, still stoned from the Kush, wandered to carnal fantasies involving something else he acquired in his college course: a desire to caress Bartlett’s perfect, petite behind. A round little pumpkin of a butt. Small was OK, too.

The limb grew closer. To his dismay, no branches grew beneath it to grant him footholds. The girth looked to be at least eight feet. Later, if he could get Bartlett interested in Yurok, they could rig the limb with a motion lanyard and measure it with an infrared survey laser, technical stuff his class did on Liberty. They might set humidity and light-detecting stations up in the crown, too. His prof could get permission from the NPS. Until he moved the static rope to a higher limb, though, he would have to hoist himself up onto it using the loops, and they could only get him part way around.

Hobart reached overhead to press his hand against the underside of the limb. After the long ascent, the roughness of the bark, damp from the rain, felt solid and reassuring. Buttressed by thick folds of lignin from below, it split off from the trunk at a right angle, then curved upward to disappear into the cathedral of green above him. As he stared overhead to follow its course, the rain started again.

He pulled himself inch by inch, his weight holding the line against the wood and making it close to impossible to advance his knots. At last, in a desperate, stoned gamble, he swung his right leg out, found a toehold in the bark, and yanked himself up onto the limb.

He collapsed upon the broad reach of wood, his loops still attached to the black rope next to him. The rain strengthened. A heady aroma of living tree filled the air. Redwood perfume, Bartlett called it. It made his head spin. He let his breathing slow, resting before making what he hoped would be a quick dash to the top. From this height on, multiple limbs sprang from the center trunk, branches and handholds abounding on each of them.

He unslung the ten-pound 1/2" coiled rope from his back and looped it with care over a foot-wide burl on the limb. He unzipped the day pack and took a slurp of water from his canteen. Slowly, he chewed a handful of gorp. Around him there was no sound but the shimmer of rain and the hissing of wind upon redwood needles. He could find tree pools of water up here, no problem.

Something rustled above, and the face of a flying squirrel peered down at him. The critter seemed surprised, giving him, the human intruder into its private world, a wide-eyed, questioning look. The animal’s nose twitched three times, as if it stifled a sneeze, as if it objected to his body odor.

Hobart laughed and set a peanut from his trail mix on the limb. The squirrel approached with caution, dashed in to grab the morsel, and fled back into the canopy.

He filled the soapstone a second time and drew another toke into his lungs. The rain, falling harder, put out his pipe for him. As he exhaled, the tree seemed to pulse again, as if it welcomed him into its green heart.

Leaving the stealth rope hanging--his escape route, his only way home--he set off upward, free-climbing, taking his time, careful to check each foothold. He could have self-belayed with the climbing rope, but he felt confident without it.

Hobart reached a massive fork in the trunk where a windstorm hundreds of years ago knocked off the top the tree. Two trunks grew on up from here, each ten feet in diameter. He picked the larger of the two and kept going.

Redwoods were famous for decay resistance. Most trees, their crowns broken, would suffer fungal infections and die. Not this dude. It licked sap from its wounds for a century or two and grew back, bigger and more robust than ever. Fire-resistant, decay resistant, able to live thousands of years--all Hobart could do was smack his palm against the trunk.

He tried not to think of economic necessity, tried to forget the politics of lumber and jobs. Still, he couldn’t deny the fact that most of the big mills in Humboldt County had closed. Arcata Lumber, the one Hobart worked for as a seventeen-year-old dickwad, shut down in September, the last of three in the town of Orick.

Hobart climbed to a piano-sized chunk wedged between the trunk and a limb. A widow-maker. A fragment knocked off from above, years, maybe centuries ago. A Steinway grand of a wood chip. He avoided putting his weight on it. Brachiating like an orangutan to a branch above it, he gave it a kick, moving it ever so slightly.

Something about widow-makers, something Bartlett told him. Dislodged, they could strip your climbing ropes, leaving you stranded above the earth. He scampered past it, careful not to touch it again.

Logging. He’d earned enough scratch working timber in four years after high school to buy thirty acres with two springs and a working well: a pot grower’s paradise. He lost four pals during that mad harvest, though, one a year. Including his older brother.

The memory of Henry’s gruesome death gave Hobart the willies. He shuddered and kept on climbing.

He passed a pair of branches that grew into one another. If they rubbed together long enough, the bark wore off and exposed the cambium, the growth layer. The living atman, as Mary Ann would put it, the tree’s Buddha-nature. Soon the parts fused, or tried to fuse.

He’d seen branches from two close-growing yet separate trees connect in the same manner. It was sex, in a way. An image of Bartlett came to him again. He wiped the sweat from his eyes and kept on. That was the good thing about surfing--you never got sweaty. Tree-climbing was another story. He stripped off his shirt, the wool damp from the rain and his exertion, and cinched it around his waist.

He pressed on, half-naked, spidering upward, gripping holds, ditching them fast as he found them, three of his hands and feet stable, the fourth free, reaching, finding, wedging into a crevice in the bark, testing, hoisting his weight upward, always upward, steady, in a rhythm, the music of progress in his ears, never stopping, never looking down, never dropping the beat, never giving in to fear, to rationality, to morbid thoughts of falling. He hoisted himself with abandon, defying gravity, climbing out under overhangs as if he had suction cups on his fingers, climbing with reptilian cool, with grace, with alacrity--another good word, another Mary Annism.

At last he rested on a huge oblong limb. Something had cracked the end of it off long ago, and a fresh trunk--his prof called it a reiteration--grew from the scar, straight and true as a redwood growing from the ground. The limb, to support the weight of the new growth, buttressed itself into a comma shape. An epiphyte grew out of a hollow at its base, a pizza-sized mushroom thingy identical to something Bartlett showed them on Liberty. An Ascomycota lichen. A symbiotic fungus. Cool. Stepping around it, his foot slipped.

He caught himself, but a wave of adrenalin shot through him. Careful, dude.

Already some 300 feet high, he could see dozens of redwood crowns around him, each treetop covered with asparagus-like needle tufts, each a distinctly different shade of green. Fog wisps hung like tufts of wool between the trees, letting the sun break through here and there. Dappled patches of hard light led to a distant emerald horizon.

Hobart forced himself to focus on the small universe within Yurok. He started climbing again. At a crotch pool between a pair of branches, two buggy eyes stared at him, unblinking. A wandering salamander, resting after a long night hunting crickets. He smiled hello to the amphibian and kept on. The limbs and branches grew smaller, his weight making them sway, his boots cracking off small branches. Bartlett taught them that negative pressure on the water column within the cambium slowed tree growth at these heights. Or rather, gravity sucked. The redwood needles did seem smaller up here. Sunlight streamed through the limbs and branches.

He kept on, the ascent easier now with less ferns and lichens--epiphytic growth--to slow him. He found himself nearing the tip of a five-inch-thick leader.

There was no place further to climb. Around him a dozen other limbs flattened out, forming a broad crown, a redwood meadow treetop a good three-hundred sixty feet above the ground. The leader limb undulated in the wind.

The strangeness of the scene filled him with fear and exultation, nausea and joy, exuberance and dread. He grasped the tree limb with both arms, swaying between rain and sun. He stayed there for a long time, soaking up light beams and raindrops, the ambiance of the canopy. He had become an extension of tree, his own cambium pressed into the sequoia’s.

A tree hugger. He’d turned into a goddamn tree hugger. A liberal. An eco-freak. A soft-headed, pie-in-the-sky idealist. But the redwood was no myth. It was no baby-whale smooching, spotted-owl kissing, salmon-spawning, granola-head symbol. It lay under him, alive and growing, impossibly old. He dug his fingernails into the bark to prove it.

The redwood trumped everything else in his life, every boring, mundane thing. His foolish hankerings for love. His mildewed pile of cash buried in a barrel. His ex-wife. Maybe even his son, Hector. He could feel a seismic shifting, felt himself transported out of space and time to Lothar’s sweat house, felt himself wanting to vow to serve this tree and all other trees like it. He had sinned deeply in the past; he had slaughtered too many of these giants. Now he must make amends.

"Noolumek' keehl chpikah. His Yurok sucked, but he knew enough to make the pledge. Noolumek' keehl chpikah."

I protect this redwood forever.

The tree was real. It was Now. And his. All his. His to name, his to climb, his to topple from and die.

He held onto his perch there, stoned, joyous, tearful, at the very tip of Yurok, when he heard it.

A scream. It came from below, a high-pitched sound that, even at a distance, shook his ears. It made every hair on his body stand erect. Another scream followed, and another.

Hobart grew up on the Hoopa rez, one hundred forty-four square miles of paradise, the best rez in the country, much of it wilderness. He’d heard coyotes howl, screech owls screech, and bears growl. He knew the snarl a cougar made when cornered by a pack of dogs. He’d been in his share of bar fights, too, and recognized the bellow of mad violence. A five-year stint in Corcoran State Prison gave him two tats, four nasty scars, and a familiarity with the chaotic roar six hundred men make during a riot.

But the three screams were like nothing he’d heard in his life. An odd warble put a quiver in the caterwauling. The screams brought instant fear. They sounded like the dying protestations of a woman--a large woman, a Viking, a Brunhilde--getting skinned alive.

As best as Hobart could tell, the screams came straight up from below. Much as they made him want to climb higher, that was not an option. He forced himself to descend to the first enormous limb.

Climbing down through the rain proved much harder than going up. Hobart could feel the Kush dumbing his brain.

The trouble with pot--came a time after you smoked when you wished you could switch it off. You wanted to get straight, and you couldn’t. When you saw that flashing light from the squad-car in your rear-view mirror. When your wife found you in bed with a young co-ed. When you free-climbed a giant redwood, and you heard horrible sounds you’ve never heard before.

After a good deal of slipping, sliding, and scrambling, without rope or protection, he made it back to the giant limb. His spare line lay where he’d left it, safely looped around the burl.

The black static rope, though--his lifeline--had vanished.


It took a while for the shock of the missing rope to sink in. Hobart, forgetting for a moment why he’d descended so rapidly, sat down on the coiled spare, as if to hold it in place. He reviewed his options.

He could call for help. That one made him laugh: He’d wiggled his way into a remote corner of a rarely-visited national park in October. Even if there were summer tourists, or rangers, there was little chance any of them would wander into this remote gully. If they did, it was unlikely they would hear plaintive calls for help from two hundred feet up.

Two hundred feet. The rope rubbing his rear end was 150 foot long. Even with his fuzzed brain, the math seemed pretty straightforward. He could rap down to the red line, no further.

He could hear his breathing, plumes of moisture accompanying each exhalation. He had a woolen shirt. A pair of jeans. Everything sodden with rain and sweat. No sleeping bag. A cup of water. A few buds to smoke. A handful of gorp. A cell phone with no service.

Hobart, optimistic by nature, felt the first unnerving tendrils of despair wrap around his spine.

The fire cave. Maybe he could rappel 75 feet on a double line, swing into the cave, pull down the rope, and find an anchor to get down on a single strand the rest of the way. Easy.

He heard a ripping sound from below. He remembered the reason for his helter-skelter descent. The girth of the limb obstructed his view of the forest floor. He fixed the rope around his waist with a bowline knot and tied a section off on a stout branch veering from the limb. Putting his weight on the rope, he leaned out over space, over two hundred feet of empty air. Nothing below moved. His backpack--he thought it was his backpack--looked funny. He squinted. Someone had scattered bits of red nylon around the base of Yurok.

A black shape lay on the ground near the young redwood. His static rope. Some fucker had pulled it down, then trashed his backpack. And screamed. He could not forget the screams. Someone, or something, wanted him to leave. He felt the message in his bones, deciphering it as clearly as if somebody shouted it over a megaphone.

Hell, he wanted to leave, too. But the idiot, by pulling down his line, seemed more likely to kill him. Probably a rival pot grower. Someone digging holes, hauling in soil amendment, getting ready to plant spring girls close by in a few months, maybe under the madrones on the ridge with the south exposure.

Leaning out over the abyss, he could see the fire cave. It looked about as lost as he felt. It had to be less than half-way down.

He untied the bowline at his waist, untied the knot holding his rope to the branch, and, after passing the line around the branch, tied a loose double half-hitch with the twin rope ends. He flung them down into the void.

As best he could tell, the end knot hung at the level of the roof of the fire cave. Unlike the static rope, though, the climbing rope would stretch. They made it to stretch. It had goddamn well better stretch.

He wrapped the double line over his left shoulder and back, around his right thigh, and up against his chest. Taking a deep breath, relying on the mad abandon he used surfing, the recklessness that made him paddle into a triple-overhead falling mountain, he pushed off.


Climbing schools teach non-mechanical friction rappelling, but they do not recommend it. Hobart felt the twin ropes burn across his back, through his groin, and around his leg. If he could have kept his feet on the trunk he would have felt better, but his anchor branch grew six feet from the base of the limb.

He peered down, and regretted it. Nothing moved on the forest floor. The shreds from his pack looked untouched. His enemy probably lay in wait behind a redwood, fixing him in the crosshairs of a .30-06.

A dead

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