The summer before I turned twenty, I drove a failing Volkswagen Fox west from Chicago to Wyoming, for the first of many seasonal jobs with the US Forest Service. I worked most of that summer on a three-person crew in the backcountry two hours north of the town of Kemmerer, maintaining trails and occasionally fighting fire. And for a few weeks, I worked closer to town, on shorter projects, as part of a larger crew.
The larger crew included two brothers who had grown up nearby. They were slightly older but seemed to me to be men in a way I would never be. They were big and dipped tobacco and handled tools and pickup trucks without pause. The six of us on the crew rode in one truck flank to flank, three to a row, in the cool early mornings and the sundrenched late afternoons. Sometimes we stared out the window, sometimes we talked smack, and sometimes we got into it. I believe the rest of the crew found me strange and lacking and maybe in some way threatening in a way that neither they nor I could have named.
I clearly remember one moment involving the older of the brothers, Ken, who had dark hair and a dark mustache. The moment came toward the beginning of the summer, when I had been hacking with a double-bit ax at an obtrusive root in the middle of the trail. The harder I swung, the less the root seemed to respond. I had thought I was alone in my futility but then Ken was suddenly there at my back telling me to step aside. He took one swing with his ax—a swing that looked casual to me—and a huge chunk of the root, the just-right chunk, flew into the brush on the downhill side of the trail. Then, without looking at me or saying a word, he walked on.
In this season of heightened attention to divides—urban and rural, blue and red, brown and black and white—I’ve been thinking a lot about Ken and the many other people I came to know during my seasons in the woods in Wyoming, Washington, Alaska, and Oregon. I’ve been thinking about our truck rides and our work and the conversation we shared—the words we used and the way we used them, the smiling digs we took at each other, the many things we did not say.
Looking back on that summer—and on almost every job I’ve had before and since—I see that I and the people I worked with were often poking at and trying to understand what we shared and how we were different. I’ve always felt more or less like an imposter—as though I don’t really belong, as though I’m different in some significant way from the people I’m with. Until these last few months, the feeling has generally stayed there, at the level of differences, some of them sometimes quite serious. But now, for reasons I think I understand but have yet to accept, it feels like I’m supposed to see more than that. I’m supposed to see and believe in divides.
Compared to difference, divide feels fixed, a given. How foolish it would be to deny it or try to change it. Divide suggests canyon, chasm, unbridgeable gulf.
But I don’t think I buy it, the way “divided” now seems not only to describe our situation but also to serve as an immutable sentence. I buy the evidence of significant differences because I’ve read The Big Sort and the articles on who watches Duck Dynasty and Modern Family, Fox News and MSNBC. But the idea of insurmountable difference between people, insurmountable separation between communities of people, feels both unhelpful and, despite not having the research to back me up, false.
This brings me back to a second moment I clearly remember from the summer I worked with Ken. Six of us had been at it for a couple of hours, and the cool air was just beginning to burn off. We were lined up along a graying wooden fence, easing into our coffee break. Ken pulled from his bag a double-sized tin of kippered snacks and a quart of milk. He rapidly downed all twelve of the fish and then tilted the tin to his mouth to drink the oil the fish had been packed in. Without pausing, he went straight from the tin of oil to the full quart of milk, which he also drained. It was a remarkable display, and he knew we were all watching. When he had swallowed that last drop of milk, he belched prodigiously and proclaimed, with a smile on his face, “That’ll make a turd.” And we all laughed.
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