In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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Downtown, in Emil’s Redwood Cafe and Burl Emporium, he is known among the locals as Joe Moccasins, but almost everybody in these parts knows that isn’t his real name. On the Oregon welfare rosters he is listed as José Ganchobianco, second-generation Mexican, and at the California Bureau of Native American Affairs as Joseph White Belt, Hoopa Indian. Some even have it that on the other side of the mountains he collects an unemployment check from the state of Nevada in the name of José Silva, naturalized Portuguese. Nobody’s been able to prove any of this so far, but then, nobody’s tried very hard.
When he and his family show up at the annual cookout for the reservation community, no one questions his right to be there, although some of the hard-liners might grumble about Joe’s being seen at the Cinco De Mayo festival in town last month, drinking Dos Equis and belting out canciones in perfect Spanish.
There’s the same problem with Joe’s ranch. Situated in a place where the borders of the reservation, the national park, and two state lines intersect, it is difficult to accurately place the location of Joe Moccasins’ holdings when legal matters arise. The fact is, Joe’s twenty acres seem to have the ability to move at will, depending on whom he is dealing with at the time: the tribal council, the national parks system, or the county assessor’s office.
All summer, when most of the menfolk are off logging the old growth, or deep-sea fishing, or pulling green chain down in Company Town, Joe seems to have a lot of free time on his hands. He’ll be out at the ranch working on a Ford Pinto engine for one of the widow women in Brookings, Oregon, or fixing up an old Amana Radarange he thinks he can sell at the flea market in Eureka next month. Occasionally the sheriff’s office will get a call from an irate tourist who just happened to be passing through and got up this morning to discover two wheels missing from his Winnebago. A deputy will be sent out to cruise by Joe’s place to see if he can spot anything like that lying around in the yard. But apart from these occasions, the attitude in the area is pretty much one of live and let live.
It is hard to imagine, for an outsider anyway, how an area as economically depressed as this two-hundred-mile stretch of California-Oregon coastline would put up with a Joe Moccasins for very long. Even the aging hippies, who came up here from San Francisco ten years ago to grow a little grass on the unused land, even they have learned, somehow, that they had to pay their dues in order to get along. At the Feed and Seed they learned to wait in line with everybody else and when they talked to old Chet Bering, the owner, they learned to call him “Mr. Bering,” and damned politely, too. Long after they’d done well on the first couple of crops and were dropping fifteen thousand a year in Chet’s till for irrigation equipment, they still called him “sir.”
They learned the rules of the road with the highway patrols of both states: if you got busted bringing a couple of low-grade kilos down the fire lanes early one morning — say, a big bust requiring your old lady to drive all the way to Crescent City to post bail — that didn’t mean you wouldn’t be sitting next to the same officer two days later at Emil’s and he might reach over and pick up your check when he got up from the counter to pay for his own.
Because the economy binds people here — everyone is a little short on cash — if you keep a low profile and show a little country courtesy once in a while, then you’ll be a community member in pretty good standing, even if you live in a tepee and wear your hair halfway down your back.
Joe Moccasins is the exception to the rule. Joe goes his own way and pays no one any real attention. But Joe is an integral part of the economy of the area, and those who live here know that and make allowances for Joe they might not make for others. Because, when the summer is over and the tourists are gone and the first hard rains come in off the Pacific, Joe Moccasins goes out into the foothills of the Sierras to do his real work. At the beginning of winter, while the loggers and the fishermen are resting up and shooting pool at the dance parlors, while the wives are considering going back to work at Sears for the Christmas season or a little pocket money for a manicure and a permanent, Joe Moccasins packs up a small, one-man tent, a few months’ supply of dried goods, and an old English Enfield .303 rifle. He stows it all in the back of a late-model Chevy with off-road tires and goes out into the woods by the back ways, the disused fire lanes, and the clear-cuts. Goes out for all winter and won’t be back till spring. Joe Moccasins goes out to mind the equipment.
The main industries up in this part of the country are fishing, logging, and tourism, and of these the most expensive to get into and the most profitable to stay with is the lumber business. Most of the thousands of acres of prime virgin redwood and Douglas fir were bought up by the big companies — Louisiana Pacific and Pacific Lumber — back in the days of the robber barons. Leland Stanford sniffed around up here. Rockefeller dabbled a little. But there are still a handful of smaller companies, the ma-and-pa operations that get by on a shoestring. They lease the logging rights from the big companies for land too far back in the wilds, too far from the main highways to interest the big boys.
So ma and pa negotiate with the bank for a small, $700,000 loan, using the logging lease and their own good name for collateral, and go out and buy a secondhand bulldozer or two, a good grader, and a couple of flatbed semis to haul out the logs. Then they hire themselves a small crew and drag all that heavy, expensive equipment miles into the backwoods for the summer. They drop trees in places nobody’s ever walked before — Bigfoot country, where all those stories started — and pull those logs out two or three at a time, all the hundred miles or so back to the lumber mills. At the end of the summer, with a little luck, they’ve paid off this year’s installment on the logging lease, the payments on the bank note, the payroll for the hands they hired, and still have enough left over to put food on the table for the winter and maybe put a down payment on the school trip for the kids next spring. They leave the equipment they bought — the ’dozers, the tractors, the semis — up in the mountains for the winter. It’s too expensive and too backbreaking to haul it all up again in a few months. It cuts into the grocery money. In winter they sometimes get fifteen feet of snow up there, it’s colder than a man can stand for more than a few hours at a time, and an icy, driving rain batters in off the Pacific almost every day. The equipment would be safe enough, you might think, and you might usually be right.
But it has occurred to some people that while it is not worth the time and the expense for the loggers to bring all that equipment down the mountain every fall, it might be worth something to someone coming up the back way, from the Nevada side of the range, to risk that long, dangerous journey through the cold and the wind and the rain; to fire up one of those ’dozers and see if it can’t be driven down the fire lanes far enough to be put on the back of a semi and driven to Reno and points east and sold off for a quick thirty thousand dollars or so. Which is not poor payment for, say, ten days’ work.
Once in a while stories are passed around about so-and-so who went back up a year ago and discovered a grader missing; about families who went bankrupt over the loss of one tractor. The possibility of the theft of a large piece of equipment is something that concerns them all.
Joe Moccasins has lived in this area all his life. Almost everyone has a story about him. Even those who have never met him have a Joe Moccasins story. The time Joe tried to convince a park ranger that fishing for salmon during the off-season with quarter sticks of dynamite was an old tribal custom and a legal right. The time Joe was in the used-car business and sold a Chevy Nova to a fellow from Los Angeles. Joe, so the story goes, followed the man all the way to Santa Rosa and when he checked into a motel for the night, Joe stole the car, drove it back to Eureka, and sold it again the next day. According to the story, there are still two sets of identical papers for the car floating around the California Department of Motor Vehicles, wreaking havoc with the computer systems.
The stories are apocryphal and many, but everyone agrees that Joe Moccasins knows his way around the Sierras almost as well as his daddy did. And his daddy used to mind the equipment, too.
Because he always seems to be elsewhere when anyone is looking for him, the occasional pissed-off sheriff’s deputy notwithstanding, those who really need to see Joe for any reason tend to hang around Emil’s place for a few days. It is generally understood among folks that the Redwood Cafe and Burl Emporium also serves as Joe’s office and mail drop when necessary. When reports are coming in that Joe was seen only two days ago trying to unload some off-season deer meat at the gourmet restaurants in Lake Tahoe, when the old-timers are swearing he is holding down a part-time job at La Mamacita’s potato-chip factory in Eureka — at those times Joe can most likely be found sitting in the back booth at Emil’s, catching up on the news and putting away chicken-fried steak with Emil’s famous garlic hash browns on the side.
He is a small, wiry, unpretentious-looking man of about fifty. His skin is smooth and his teeth are white and even enough to be taken for dentures, although they’re not. He wears Redwing high-top lace-ups, Levis, a Pendleton wool shirt, and a baseball cap with a patch that says “Steinbeck.” He could be Mexican or Indian, French Canadian or Aleut. Whatever he said he was, you’d believe it. When he talks, he has an accent that can’t quite be pinned down. It’s not Spanish or Indian or anything like that. He has a careful precision of speech, slow and soft, that adds an intense quality even to the most casual conversation. His request for more coffee from a passing waitress seems loaded with significance. If he talks at all, it’ll be to the few people he knows well, and he likes to begin by talking about the old days.
“My grandfather used to hunt for the Company,” he’ll say, gesturing at the mill across the street. “Eighty, ninety deer. Two hundred rabbits, maybe. Every day. That is how good it was here. In the museum, they have records showing how much meat he brought down for the Company. His signature is on the pages. You can see for yourself.
“This was one of the last parts of the United States to be settled. Did you know that? There was nothing here for them. Too cold for farming. And the tribes too fierce, too brave. Then they came back later for the lumber. Kept coming back. Then for the salmon. Now they have everything.
“You see now, in the papers, the way the conservationists,” he pronounces the words slowly and correctly, “the ecologists, are trying now to save the older trees, the ancient ones? In my grandfather’s time it was all old. Everything a thousand years. It makes me laugh, now. They are too late.
“I think sometimes about UFOs. The flying saucers, and the aliens with their rocket guns, like in the movies? The first time the people here saw the white man coming, killing everything, that was the alien. The first time a big ship sailed into Humboldt Bay — all those sails! Can you imagine it? That was the UFO, believe me. The first tree that was cut down by a man. Can you imagine what they must have been thinking? My grandfather used to weep, remembering. My mother, the other women, would get angry with him for it. Me? I am an educated man. I understand it and I am accustomed to it now. When you’ve seen one redwood fall, you’ve seen them all.
“My father would have worked with my grandfather, but by that time there were not enough animals left to kill. Not enough to feed all the men working. Eureka was a proper town by then, with shops and everything. You could get to Crescent City in two days on horseback.
“My father went to work for the Company. There was nothing else for him to do. He worked at the mill. At night he had to leave town, go across the river to shantytown. He was Indian, you see?
“The Company was very strict. No Indians, no drinking, no women. So shantytown was across the river, all bars and sporting houses. And men who’d had an accident. They couldn’t work, then you had to move across the river. Even now, the people who live in Company Town think they are better than the others. But their time will come, too, when they retire and have to move out. And some of them, even with the attitude, drove trucks, fixed machinery, anything. It was very late in his life when he went to mind the equipment for the first time. He got the job because he was the most qualified. The only one who could do it.
“My mother complained at first, him being gone all winter, but when the money came she was happy. And the house was so quiet, those times. The summers? My father could work or not as he chose. Could fish all day if he wanted and no one say anything. But usually he worked at something.
“I did it from the first. When I came out of school, my father took me up with him and that was that. We could go to a bigger area, with the two of us. Then the smaller companies came to talk to us, so we had two jobs. The big one and the freelancing. It was our own business, like.
“Not much has changed. The big companies have their own security now. Driving around the fire lanes in yellow Land Rovers, you can see them for miles. But they still need me. And the smaller companies still have work for me. I am not on anyone’s payroll, so I have no trouble with taxes. I can cook, fish. The cold, the rain don’t bother me. I like it. Quiet. I read. I have an education from the junior college. See this?” He points to the baseball cap with the “Steinbeck” patch on it. “What do you think? People see that, they think of tractor parts or an automobile distributor. You know what that is?” When he smiles, it looks as though it is painful to him, almost a grimace or a wince. “That’s John Steinbeck. The writer. Nobody ever knows. That is my joke on them.”
Every year, at least once before the summer is over, Joe makes a point of driving to Samoa and visiting his sister and brother-in-law. Except for his wife and son, these two people and their children are the only family he has.
Samoa is an island in Humboldt Bay, connected by bridges to Eureka at the south end and Arcata to the north. It’s a curious mixture of gas stations, convenience stores, and tin shacks strewn over thirty miles of sand dunes. With all that beach-front property you’d think the real-estate moguls of Eureka would have moved in by now but so far something seems to have held them back. Most of the crime in the area takes place over there: the rapes, the armed robberies, the occasional murder. It’s not that Samoa itself is so bad, but it’s conveniently located to the two other cities; the crime is mainly imported. There are lots of quiet spots here and the acoustical dynamics of the sand dunes and the sea tend to muffle noises in the evening.
Joe’s brother-in-law has a fairly middle-class house on the ocean side of the island, close to the beach, the nearest neighbor half a mile away to the south. When word of Joe’s arrival gets around, people start showing up. Twenty families — say, a hundred people — loll around the beach and sand dunes, eating Cheetos, Ruffles potato chips, and the hot, spicy stew that Joe’s sister likes to cook over an open fire in what passes for the back yard.
The party will start about two in the afternoon and the beverages will generally consist of Gatorade for the kids and Dos Equis and off-brand tequila for the adults.
Because Joe is something of a celebrity around Samoa, people will stand too close to him sometimes, or speak too loudly when they’re talking to him, or try to take him off to one side and ask his advice on all manner of things. The kids out on the beach will hold their bottles of Gatorade loosely by the necks, the way Joe holds his Dos Equis, and practice Joe’s gaze, and turn their toes inward a little when they walk, trying to capture Joe’s distinctive gait.
Around dusk, Joe will make his goodbyes and leave for the evening. Even though he knows he’s welcome, he never stays overnight. He’ll take a last drink or two with the older compadres — para la sangre — and head off to one of the cheaper motels in Eureka or Arcata, depending on which direction he’ll be going first thing in the morning. He enjoys his friendships, his relatives, his brother-in-law. But he enjoys leaving, too.
It is interesting enough, you might suppose, that a man goes out every winter, in the very worst of the Northwest weather, and lives out there alone for months at a time, all to take care of someone else’s heavy equipment.
You can admire that in itself. But there is something more to Joe’s story. You can sense it early on, when you first hear of Joe Moccasins. Sense it in the way people talk about him, as though they were thinking carefully about what they said before they spoke, all of it presented with a falsely casual air as their eyes look anywhere but directly into your own. You can feel it, tangibly, in the bars and dance parlors when Joe’s name comes up and someone at the table picks up his beer and nods politely and moves to another part of the room.
In late September, when the false summer is over and the first chill evenings have begun to set in, you can find Joe Moccasins out at his ranch, sitting in the yard on a wooden kitchen chair, going over his equipment, getting ready to leave. Over by his pickup with the camper shell, boxes of supplies sit around waiting to be loaded up: a sleeping bag, the furled tent, the battered old English Enfield .303 he picked up God knows where. His eyes flick over his gear, checking everything on some list he is keeping in his head. Occasionally he’ll glance up at the sky, look over his shoulder at the first line of hills, getting himself mentally ready to go out and mind the equipment again. Because when he’s up there, all winter like that, most years he won’t see anybody.
But sometimes, just once in a while, every three or five years, say, someone will come by with the idea of trying to steal a ’dozer or a tractor or something. And every now and then an item will show up in the Reno Times about a pickup being found, presumably abandoned, on one of the fire lanes on the Nevada side. Or you’ll hear about some local lowlife and petty thief turning up missing in Crescent City under mysterious circumstances. Because what Joe Moccasins does on those occasions, a hundred miles from anywhere and alone and handling the situation the only way he knows how, the way he learned from his daddy, is kill them. That is what Joe Moccasins does for a living. That’s what he’s paid to do.