Matt ate his breakfast slowly. Chris began driving across the Columbia River on the Megler Bridge. Matt watched the freighters anchored in the channel and the gulls that glided by.
“You know what a slash burn is?”said Chris.
Matt knew what slash burn were. They were the piled woody remains after an industrial massacre known as a clearcut that forest law required logging outfits to burn up, typically in the winter and spring, when the rains came. Their smoke and fires on the hillsides up the lonely river roads were a staple part of coastal living.
They were like funeral pyres for nature. They were one of the more obvious displays of how humans destroy watersheds. They were a precursor of bigger fires and thicker smoke to come.
“Yes,” said Matt. He’d partied up in the clearcuts a few times while the burning slash piles lit up the night and miscreants.
Chris explained the job: oversee about two dozen slash burns on some clearcuts near Saddle Mountain. He had a contract with the outfit that logged it last spring. It was seasoned and ready to go. This was Chris’ business. He’d being doing it for a long time.
“You mean live up there and tend the fires?” said Matt.
“You got it. I’ve got a trailer on site that I move from job to job. If it works out, you move from burn to burn. The season usually lasts until May or when the fire departments shut it down.”
Matt didn’t say anything, but Chris could tell he had questions.
“I supply food, propane and gas to get the fires going. There’s a composting toilet and a solar shower. You collect rain with a little barrel system I’ve rigged up. You can wash your clothes in the stream like our boys at Valley Forge. I come up and resupply you once a week and see if you need anything special, within reason. I don’t bring pot or liquor and I don’t allow it on the job. No visitors either. I can post your letters, too.”
Matt had never written a letter in his life. He didn’t know a single address.
Chris waited for a few seconds, then continued.
“You’re alone up there and can’t leave the fires. That’s the law. If the wind picks up you got to check around the clock. If something happens you radio me and I radio the fire department. But there’s nothing left to burn up there except slash piles and I’ve never had a burn get away from me.”
“What’s it pay?” said Matt, who noticed that they had crossed the river and Chris was turning the truck around at a wayside and they were going right back across.
“Two hundred a week. Cash. No government. You could finish the job with three-four grand in your pocket. Lots of money for meth or starting over. If it works out, you could have this job for years.”
Years, wondered Matt. He’d had thought about years ahead in years.
“There’s no phone, no internet concoction, no TV, nothing. Just some old books. You like to read.”
“What kind of books?”
“Westerns. Some science fiction. A couple of Dickens. And a Bible.”
Matt had thumbed a few books in jail. He pretended to read them.
“Most people quit after a week, two tops. I had some would-be writer think he could hack it and quit after three days. I get most of my employees right out of jail, on probation. Always methed out.”
They had returned to Astoria. The truck was just pulling off the bridge, when Matt said, “I’ll take it. When do we start?”
“Right now,” said Chris. “I’ve got to get you settled in and burning before it gets dark.”