Grouse Ridge
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Grouse Ridge

 Bill Pieper
 Bill Pieper
Grouse Ridge
by Bill Pieper  FollowFollow
Bill Pieper is a voyeur and exhibitionist, perfect skills for writing fiction. To inspire novels or stories, he eavesdrops and spies on more he encounters, soaking up words, gestures, physical features and behavioral tropes. Then he writes it down, flips open his raincoat and exposes the whole sordid lot to as many eyeballs as possible. So far, he hasn't been arrested for this, but everyone in his Northern California haunts agrees it's a matter of time. Links to all his published titles can be found at:
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Grouse Ridge
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Amid lightning strikes and peyote dreams, "Gary" and "Jack" reunite at a 1970s Sierra fire lookout. Or maybe not.

THE LONG SUMMER TWILIGHTS, when the last of the blinding sun slid behind the Coast Range far to the west, made the little room, twelve feet by twelve and constructed of wood, seem particularly perfect. On waist-high worktables around the perimeter were his binoculars, range finders, radios and other equipment, but with his tightly made cot in one corner, a tatami mat on the floor and the chop-sticks and earthen dishes from his supper stacked to dry near the sink, it reminded him of places he’d lived in Japan—especially the one on the shoulder of Mt. Fuji.

Except the view here was better. Way better. Large glass windows formed the upper half of each wall, and perched like that on the ridge, there were no obstructions for miles in any direction. Which was the whole point, if you were Gary, sitting fire lookout in the northern Sierra, alone day after day. But these golden evenings were the best of it, the time when poems and ideas would come and he’d open the coarse grass-paper cover of his journal to capture them.

Not that he was ever really off duty. You always had to do your call-ins to begin and end the day, keep the log of temperatures, barometer readings, wind velocities and weather fronts, and note whatever you saw that was out of the ordinary. Forest fires could start anywhere, any time—vehicles or aircraft malfunctioning, people being stupid, lightning strikes—though all were more likely by day than at night. It was the breakfast campfires, not the evening ones, that got out of control and caused trouble. In the dark campers could see right away if something went haywire.

And being alone wasn’t strictly true. Hikers would show up now and then from the campground a third of a mile down slope, and according to some calendar only she knew, the Washoe shaman, Dat So Lolly, would burn sage incense on the rocky crag just north of his low tower. Yet even if someone waved or hollered hello, he didn’t invite them up. Access was restricted to Forest Service personnel, and unless it was an emergency, you got dumped for violating procedure.

Every two weeks the supply jeep bounced up the rutted track with his food order, mail, water canisters to refill the gravity tank, propane for his stove and fridge, and fresh batteries for the receivers, transmitters and auxiliary lights. Part of those guys’ job was to clomp around inspecting critical safety features like the fire extinguishers, lightning rod and ground wires, and afterwards they would talk a bit and joke about his diet, but it wasn’t something he looked forward to.

He was also eligible for relief days, when HQ would send up a sub, which he’d put in for once so far. Regardless, he had stuck close by, taking a solo hike with his backpack through the chains of lakes scattered among the granite outcrops and stands of pine to the east and north. Being a lookout was his chance to purge. He didn’t need or want people right now. He’d had lots of them in his life before and would again, as soon as fire season was over.

Dat So was the exception. She claimed to be seventy years old, and ragged clothes or not, had a natural dignity, wasn’t much of a talker and brought him rainbow trout from her illegal camp at Blue Lake to go with the rice, miso soup and vegetables he usually ate. Her incense burns he deliberately omitted from the log, because fire was fire and she wasn’t supposed to do it. Still, her little wads of tied-up sage seemed harmless on rock like that, and she was good about sheltering them from the wind. He always went down to share a word or two, even when she didn’t stop at the base of the stairs holding a fish wrapped in alder leaves.

With night now closing in and stars beginning to show, he quit editing the poem about trail building he’d jotted down earlier, did his call-in, checked the weather instruments, made his final log entries for August 13, 1970, and marked a new page with tomorrow’s date. Ideally, it would be as uneventful as today, but there was something humid in the air and an odd blip on the barometer that made him wonder. Clear skies all around, though, and a half-moon slated to rise in a couple of hours, but it could be they were headed for thunderstorms and all hell would break loose. He’d radioed in three small fires this month already. Storms could even happen at night, when every lightning jab looked like it would start a fire whether it struck anything or not.

Returning from a trip to the tiny outhouse, positioned so your butt hung virtually off the cliff, he watched the rolling expanse of forested ridges in the west turn from hazy green to rumpled black in the fading light, while alpenglow on the barren, snow-streaked peaks to his south and east waned away into shadows. This was what he lived for, this sense of vastness. Then he laid out his morning tea things and got ready for bed. His goal was to live by the sun—sleep right after it set and wake just at dawn. Night also meant a brief yoga regimen on the tatami before he crawled in, and getting up meant zazen followed by calisthenics on that same mat.

In his cot, as sleep took hold, he knew the whole sky above his roof would soon become an intricate, glinting diamond pavé. He also heard in the distance the horn of a train, grinding up through Yuba Gap, where the new Highway 80 and the hundred-year-old railway carved parallel gashes across the ridgeface. Again, all part of the routine, and he let himself go deeply under.

“Gary!” shouted a weirdly familiar voice. “You there? It’s me, Jack!” He rolled over and blinked his eyes in the moonlight.

“Gary! Wake up, man. The night’s still young.”

Planting his feet on the floor, he peered through the nearest window. Outside, at the crest of the trail from the campground, was a grinning guy in jeans, with tousled dark hair, a bulgy gut and a checked flannel Pendleton too small to be buttoned over the workshirt beneath it. But he did sort of look like Jack.

The guy frantically waved his arms. “Hey, man, there you are! Just like Joan said.”

Holy shit. It was Jack. For ventilation, the middle windows on each side were built to hinge open like transoms. Gary went to one that was.

“Unbelievable!” he shouted back. “What are you doing here?”

“Came to see you. What else?” The more Jack approached, the bigger his grin, then he started up the stairs.

“Wait! You can’t come in.”

“You’re still pissed? You’ll lock me out?” Jack’s footsteps echoed as he climbed.

“I have to. Authorized personnel only.”

“Yeah, like us on Mt. Baker. Those were the days, man.”

“Here they mean it. I’ll lose my job.”

“Jobs are overrated.” Jack was on the landing now. “Besides, how would they know?”

Gary stood frozen in place. “The supply jeep’s due tomorrow,” he said.

Jack threw back the door and rushed in for a bear hug. “So we’ll con their asses, you dumb bastard,” he growled in Gary’s ear.

In spite of everything, Gary returned the hug, surprised at his own enthusiasm, but this new Jack was a sweaty, flabby mess. “What time is it?” Gary said.

“Who cares? Two fucking a.m.?” Jack stepped away, shed his rucksack and dropped into Gary’s work chair. “Damn cool place you got.”

“Where did you see Joan?”

“North Beach. We were both visiting Kenneth.”


“Relax. I know the story. She still loves you, but there’s this Japanese babe.” Rolling his shoulders and torso, Jack stretched himself out. “God, what a ball-busting climb.”

“You hiked?”

“With the help of that Indian woman. But first I rode the rails. You can always hop off or on where they crawl through that gap.”

“Now you’re takin’ me back,” Gary said, still standing. “Way back.”

“Same here. I live with my mom in Florida these days, but I hadda have one more fling”

“Jesus! You rode cross-country?”

“No, no. Flew into Frisco, found some of our folks, hung out, then headed to the SP yards. Old Jack knows his way around.”

“Gutsy anyway.” Gary sat on the foot of his cot.

“No big deal, except in Roseville, some cat in a boxcar pulled a gun on me.”

“You’re kidding!”

“I grabbed the thing and busted his chops. It’s in my pack.”

Gary’s feet rocked off the floor. “Oh, fuck! You can’t have that here.”

Jack’s face beamed. “King of the Beats, man. Want to see it?”

“What else is in there?”

Jack unbuckled the flap and laid the bag on the table between the daily logbook, Gary’s journal, and the main radio receiver. “Voila!” he said, feeling around in it. “My knife, whetstone, topo maps, the canteen I just drained and this other stuff.” Two bottles of Wild Turkey sat shiny in the moonlight, along with a short barreled .32 revolver and several plastic baggies.

“You personally can stay,” Gary said. “I’ll take my chances. The gun and booze have to go.”

“All right.” Jack made a namasté bow with his hands and neck.

“Great,” Gary said. “Let’s toss ’em down the outhouse right now.”

“Like hell! We’ll hide the gun out in the rocks. It’s insurance for when I hobo off to see Neal in Denver.”

“Hold on, Jack. Neal’s Mexico, two years ago. I thought you were too.”

Jack wrinkled his brow in a pitying stare. “Neal’s not gonna die. Maybe you are, but not Neal. I’m not either.”

“Are you on something?”

“Possible,” Jack winked. “One little bite.”

“Bite of what?”

“Your Washoe Lolly set us up with a peyote button. Stuff makes you barf, but take a look.” He tossed a baggie toward Gary, who fumbled it onto the floor, then groped to pick it up.

“Uuhh, poets,” Jack said. “Shows who never played football.”

Inside the plastic were what looked like a small mushroom cap dried whole and a half-dozen strips of beef jerky. One edge of the cap was lightly scalloped with tooth-marks. “And those other bags?” Gary asked, handing back the first.

Jack laughed. “A lid of Michoacan weed, a sourdough roll and some prunes to keep my bowel in shape.”

“Oh, no, sorry. That weed goes down the privy with the booze.”

“Oh, no, yourself. “Where the booze goes down is our gullets, and when it’s gone, we smoke the weed.”

“Are you fucking crazy?”

Jack laughed again. “I’m asked that a lot.”

“Look, we’ll hide all that shit in the rocks. You and Neal can have the party.”

“What about the peyote?”

“That too.”

“Yeah, but your Lolly made me promise half was yours. She’s pretty damn cool, in fact.”

“Yeah, she is, but she goes by Dat So, not Lolly.”

“Well, you know ’er better than I do.” Jack split the seal on one of the Wild Turkeys and Gary winced. “Here’s guessing,” Jack added, “she was one juicy earth-mama in her day.” He raised the bottle and took a glug. “I hear Jap pussy’s not bad either.”

“You can kill that talk right now,” Gary bristled.

“Just testing,” Jack said, with another laugh.

But it was a good laugh, always had been, and you couldn’t help responding. Gary smiled for the first time since Jack had rousted him, and Jack smiled back.

“Go ahead, enjoy the bourbon,” Gary said. “We’ll stash whatever’s left at first light.”

“Hey.” Jack offered the bottle. “You can help. A jug of Dago red was too big to carry.”

“I’m not drinking at all this summer. Probably not afterwards either.”

Jack took a second glug. “More for me then. But you and Allen are sure carried away with this Buddha shit.”

“Not really. It’s personal choice. I know what makes me feel right and what doesn’t. I want a serious life and to put down roots.”

“Sounds prissy-ass, my friend. Did you and Allen ever ball?”

“Of course not!” Gary said, posture stiff.

“Makes you the Lone Ranger, but I did it with him and you haven’t missed much. He’s all into serious now, too, and putting down roots.”

“Back East?”

“Colorado.” Bourbon was flowing into Jack after almost every sentence.

“He’s cozy with some hip Tibetan monk who’s lining up bucks to start a university.”

“Say what?”

“You heard me. When it gets going, Allen’ll teach there. So will Gregory, and maybe Burroughs. I figure on seeing them in Denver same time I see Neal. They’re all cranked up to hump the students...boys or girls. I don’t dig the academic scene, but you’d be hired in a flash.”

“My roots are here. I bought land.”

“Goddamn! Where?”

“Along one of these canyons,” Gary said, gesturing. “Remind me in the morning, I'll show you out the window.”

“Does the Japanese honey hunker down with you?”

“Yeah. She’s over there now getting ready and saying goodbye to family.”

“Well, well” Jack again tilted the bottle.

“Look,” Gary said, “I need to catch some Zs. You want a blanket?”

“Sure. I’ll curl up on your floor mat. Hope my snoring’s not a problem.”

“When I conk, I conk,” Gary said. “And something else. You and I were never close, Jack ...not in age, not in temperament, not in style...but you helped me a lot, and I respect you as a writer and as a man.”

“You forgive me for the dharma book?” Jack said.

“Yeah, long time ago. I just never got to tell you.”

“Thanks,” Jack said, tearing up. Unsteady on his feet and reeking of sour mash, he rose and grabbed Gary for another big hug. “Shit, you made me cry. Now where’s that blanket?” But this time when Gary squeezed back, his arms seemed to close on just themselves.

Radio static, a sharp blast of it, stabbed his brain. What the hell? Gary sat upright in the cot and the eastern sky’s first light was ruddy pink.

“TNF weather alert!” blared the receiver. “TNF weather alert! All lookouts be ready for lightning strikes at any time. Repeat, all lookouts be ready for lightning strikes. And Grouse, you’ll get the worst of it, so call on your backup to acknowledge. Repeat, Grouse, call on backup to acknowledge.”

“Son of a son of a bitch,” Gary said. “Jack, wake up and keep your mouth tight shut. If they hear you, I’m fucked.” He looked down at the mat, but there was no Jack, and no tangle of flipped-aside blanket or rucksack-turned-pillow to mark where he’d slept. There were also no bourbon bottles, baggies, or revolver on the table. Jack must already be out finding a stash-hole, but who would figure him for an early riser?

Still in his skivvies, Gary adjusted the switches and dials on the backup units. The main receiver was powered up all the time, but to save battery strength, its matching transmitter and backups weren’t. “TNF base. TNF base. Grouse here. Read you on weather alert.”

Another shot of static was followed by Skip Thomas’s voice. “OK, Grouse. Thanks. What’s the conditions up there?” Skip was an old-timer, and in the 1940s, for years running, had sat right where Gary was now.

Window by window, Gary craned around to scan. “Humid, low clouds, red sky toward Reno, no wind and visibility two miles max. South/southwest looks dark and getting darker.”

“There’s a big old anvil piling up on you, son, but at least we know your backups work. Plenty of wind and electricity coming, and it’ll be wet too, so we might get lucky on fires.”

“What do I do?”

“Follow procedure. Yank out the binder we made you study, find page twenty-nine and do every goddamn thing it says. I got six other calls coming in. Happy trails, over and out.”

He plopped the binder on his unmade cot and read while he dressed: 1. Test backup radio, then turn off all radio equipment. 2. Locate fire extinguishers and emergency lights. 3. Stay inside during the storm and avoid standing near or touching any metal. Simple stuff, which he quickly took care of. The rest, like pulling down the shutters in the direction of the storm and offering shelter to anyone on the lookout site, were to be done outside, if it was feasible to go out. For the moment it was, so he secured the southwest side and made a loop around the exterior walkway, trying to spot Jack.

But again, no Jack, and the deep roof overhang that blocked incoming sun for most of the day covered the walkway too, cutting off so much sky that to really see it, he jogged the eighteen steps to the ground. Near the base of the stairs was a puddle of what looked like fresh barf containing pieces of semi-digested beef jerky. Dodging past that, he looked upward.

The dark, boiling knot of storm was closer now, and he saw lightening arc across its flank. Straight above and to the east, though, things still seemed calm, despite poor visibility and the red cast to the clouds. But what really scared him was a smell he’d never before encountered here—hints of fried ozone bound up with the fecund scent of the Mexican tropics, like when he and his ex had driven her VW to San Blas.

“Jack!” he yelled. “Hey, Jack!” No answer.

The final checklist items were the ground wires and lightning rod. Not that you could do much on the fly if a wire had been severed by rodents or gotten detached, but it was better to know, and let that dictate where you took cover inside. The radios, fire-finder, cookstove, fridge, water and propane tanks, and the plumbing were all grounded separately, a dozen color-coded wires draping down through the tower’s substory. He didn’t have time to be thorough, but when he opened the access port to shine a flashlight on them, everything seemed OK. Same with the big lightning rod at the peak of the hipped roof. Its four heavy ground cables followed the corner posts and connected to lap-welded lengths of rebar, half as thick as your wrist, that angled out from the foundation like buttresses and were anchored so deep in the rock they provided wind stability as well. The outhouse had a rod system too, but nobody ever checked it.

“Jack!” he yelled again. “Jack! Get your ass in here!”

And then it started. Not only did the hair on his arms and head stand out in a prickly way, but the nearest of the rebar ground struts gave off a steady thrum, like some kind of theremin. He’d heard about this from the guys on the supply jeep, but hadn’t believed them. As the thrumming changed pitch into four-strut harmony, he turned and ran up the stairs. Inky clouds and sudden wind swept in on the ridge.

Inside, the thrumming reverberated in the walls like the shuddering bass sustain of Bach’s organ toccata played at top volume. Lightning struck the tower with a an apocalyptic roar and the thrumming stopped, but from under his bed little balls of lit sparklers scampered across the floor and the tatami mat rotated thirty degrees. His chest and right arm went numb.

Terrified and strangling, Gary fell to his knees as close to the center of the room as he could get. It was freakishly quiet and as dark as dusk. Finally, he rallied enough to pull himself up, using the edge of a work table for leverage, and stood just in time to see another roaring lightning bolt hit the outhouse and leave it a smoldering hulk.

Staggering, he barely managed to stay upright, and on the stubby flat crag below his north windows saw Dat So doing a shuffling dance as plumes of smoke from the incense bundles she’d wedged into crevices near her feet swirled away in every direction. With her was Jack, also dancing and waving a near-empty bourbon bottle. Gary screamed and screamed at them to come inside, but his throat produced no sound. He was still screaming, or trying to, when a new lightning bolt struck the crag right between Dat So and Jack, who immediately vaporized and disappeared. She, meanwhile, grew to twelve feet tall. As rain whipped against the tower and the whole ridge, she looked up, her hair already drenched, and began walking toward Gary with eyes glazed, like a Hollywood zombie. His legs buckled and he thudded to the floor.

He couldn’t see and didn’t know where he was, but his nose smelled wood smoke, sage, pine tar, fish and wet leather. Then he felt gentle slaps on his face. “You wake up Mr. Gary,” came Dat So’s voice. “Please, you wake up.”

He heard himself groan. “If you hear me, Mr. Gary, make same sound.” He groaned again, louder. “Good, Mr. Gary. Dat So think you be OK. She try call for help. You rest, don’t move, OK?” He nodded, or at least made the effort. Drifting off again, he heard a furious flipping of radio switches, followed by bursts of static. “Hello, hello,” she said, over and over, “this Grouse Ridge. Storm hurt man here. His badge name Gary Pelton. Please you help. Tell Forest Service Mr. Skip. Please you help.” Amid continued clacking of switches and static, she kept saying it, like a man-tra, as he gradually blacked out. “...storm hurt man…badge name Gary Pelton...Please you help...badge name Gary Pelton...”

He could still smell Dat So, but her hands this time were cool and moist and his eyes could see light. No images, just light, but light that got slowly brighter. Except it wasn’t her hands. She had found some cloth, one of his spare socks, maybe, and wet it to make a compress for his forehead. He could also feel the tatami’s texture imprinted on his back and the weight of the Forest Service poncho she’d put over him. “Thank you,” he heard his voice say. “Thank you.”

“You be OK, Mr. Gary. You be OK. Dat So have water in cup.” Pulling him up with a hand behind his neck and shoulders, she gave him several sips before sliding a pillow beneath his head. “Now Dat So make tea from the gooseberry leaf. This always good for electric times.”

“Thank you,” he said again. His head rung with pain.

“Dat So go for leaves close by. She be very quick. Mr. Gary safe now. He OK.”

He heard her get up and take a step back, and even saw her do it, or saw movement he could assemble as her shape. “Your nice friend, Mr. Jack,” she said, “who visit from the spirit world, he have gone back. He OK too, Mr. Gary. You not worry. He say he make baby with Dat So when she come there herself. And Mr. Skip, he send rescue jeep right away.”

Gary heard soft footsteps on the floor, then the door open and close, then fading footsteps on the stairs. But more and more, he actually could see, and with his head on the pillow she’d pulled from his cot, the extra blanket was in its cubby a few feet away, right at eye level. It was folded as though it had never been disturbed last night, but sitting on top was something strange. Closing one eye to use the other and staring without blinking both failed, but a minute or so after he gave up, it swam into focus. One half of a peyote button, cut with a very sharp knife.



  3 years ago
a satisfying resolution to everything.
  3 years ago
I'm not really up to date on my beat history (or lore) but I'm not sure how much that matters. I found this a really engaging read.

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