The summer that my mom, Mary Pat, was 25 years old, she worked for a helicopter logging company in northern Idaho. It was a pretty brief gig, but a bonkers cool job for someone who had just recently become an independent adult and was figuring herself out.
Mary Pat grew up in Kentucky with fairly strict parents; she lived at home for her first two years of college at University of Kentucky. Then she took a job at a Wyoming dude ranch the summer that she was 19 and…kind of never came back for 15 years or so. She had a lot of jobs and went on a lot of adventures during that time (plus she had me!).
But this particular moment in time captured my interest. So I interviewed my mom recently about her two months working in the dangerous world of helicopter logging.
(All photos are provided by my mom.)
UrsPostrophe: It’s the early 70s–what year was this?
Mary Pat: Late ‘70s. ‘79.
U: And that was like August and September?
M: Right. East of Moscow, in the St. Joe Forest.
U: What were you doing before this? How did it happen?
M: Two months before, I was working at a county park in Moscow after my second year of college…at [University of] Idaho. Three majors, hadn’t graduated. But I got a job at the county park, kinda maintenance, where I got to trim and mow and wear great big clothes, and I painted the restrooms. They were brick restrooms, and I got to paint them all, and then to designate male and female, I put a big MALE sign and a big FEMALE sign. [Laughs.] They didn’t like that.
U: Oh really? They just thought it was like, inappropriate, or something?
M: Right. Well, I don’t know. But I had a friend named Jules, who was…always looking for an adventure. She was from the Basque Country, north of Boise, and was just a real hearty kind of gal. And she had done a lot of outdoor work, different kinds. She had already been working with this helicopter logging firm, and I must have been at a party, at a potluck, something, when she was home from the logging job and told me they needed more help, and would I wanna work? And I said yeah.
U: How did you–beyond Jules just being like “I have a job,” how did you get it?
M: I think I had to call their office, which was in Pierce, or maybe Orofino. I just had to ask about a position, and maybe they told me to show up by a particular day. I probably packed my backpack with my tent and hitchhiked over, but I don’t remember.
Part of the fun of it was that we got to live by the river, and [Jules] had already staked out a little camping area. So I was all about that–I could pitch my tent and cook over my little camp stove at night, and do this job 12 hours a day.
The day would start with getting on what they called the crummy–the busted down old school bus that took us to the site. And even at that time of year sometimes it was kinda cold, and [the bus was] crammed full of guys who worked in the woods.
There was a camp that most of the people lived in and they had small trailers. A lot of men had their wives there, and there was a group of wives who did yoga together and they cooked together, and it was like this suburban thing almost–the wives just hung out all day while the men were working.
U: Were there kids around?
M: There was one family that had a son, I think. They took a liking to me and had me up for dinner. [The man] was a guitar player and I happened to have a harmonica, and he kinda had me playing harmonica with him. I had never really done that before.
U: Did you guys start real early in the morning?
M: Yeah, I think it was 6 to 6. And we took baths in the river, with no-sulfate soap. Just lived by the river, and of course rivers out there are very clear.
U: Okay, so you get on the crummy, and get to the site…
M: Yeah, up this dirt road. My first job was creek cleaning, which meant taking smaller debris out from the trees that had been cut, and other brush and rubble. There were awesome rocks to stretch out on.
U: Were you mostly on your own when you did that?
M: With a couple other people. There was one other woman worker named Kim, and her boyfriend was one of the bosses. And the three of us worked together a couple of days.
The thing with helicopter logging–it’s very dangerous and a very interesting operation. One day I worked on the landing with Jules. After the logs were dropped from the helicopter onto this huge cleared area…and then released from the hook and cable, her job was to wind cable. As big as your arm and really long….it might have been 40 feet long. You take it halfway and then you start winding and winding it until you get to the very end, and then you tuck it, and tie it, and then that is pitched over to the pile to be taken back to the woods, where the cutters and hookers were.
So there were guys in the woods cutting the select trees. You’ve got the cutters in the woods, cutting trees, radioing that they’ve got logs. The helicopter is hovering, and kinda inching down a little bit closer over treetop, and the guys called the hookers would take these giant steel hooks and put them around the logs, manually.
And then run like crazy away! Then the helicopter whooshed the logs up and flew to the landing.
U: And it’s still on a cable, like you’ve got a helicopter and then the log is dangling at the bottom?
M: Right, or maybe five or six at a time.
U: And how big around are these trees?
M: Some were pretty big, like 3 or 4 feet in diameter. When I worked there, there were no bad accidents, but as you can imagine, there’s a history of it being deadly with logs being pulled up and the hookers not running away in time.
U: So the log is supposed to just be pulled straight up?
M: Well, right, but with physics it’s not going to go straight up. It’ll be swinging.
U: And I bet there were times when the logs would come unloosed from the hooks, and…
M: Exactly. I worked one day at the landing, and that was enough for me. That was very, very hard work, and I’m not cut out for that. Jules kept up with the men–it was incredible. They accepted her. I don’t think they liked her bringing her friends on board, though.
U: Well, couldn’t they have told her no, we’re not hiring?
M: Well, they needed people, so. Maybe it was just because I wasn’t a “good ol’ girl.” It was a pretty conservative lot.
M: Yeah, they were sorta…backwoodsmen.
U: Were any of them gross or weird or mean to you?
M: No, but I think they wished that I was more feminine, or something.
U: But…you’re logging in the woods! I mean, what are you supposed to do?
M: I think…they wished that I liked them. Jules was enough–they could sort of deal with her on a worker level. And then Kim had her boyfriend already.
U: Right….since she was the boss’s girlfriend, she can do whatever she wants. And she’s off limits.
M: Yeah. But I was there for experience of living and something new to do and living at the fork of the Clearwater River for two months and just being outside of myself. I was always doing that sort of thing.
My main position was as a road guard, which was totally awesome. My job was to watch the sky for helicopters, and to stop traffic when I saw and heard the helicopter closing in to cross the road on the way to the landing with a load of logs. Because as you said, a log could just fall.
And sometimes you did see it, a log would just drop. It’d land in the river or in the woods, never close to me–they never flew right over me, because they knew where I was.
This really fed my quieter, more introspective nature, because I was mostly alone for 12 hours a day, high in the Idaho mountains, on an old logging road. Beautiful scenery. The only traffic up there was mostly logging traffic. An occasional tourist would wander way up there.
I had this great little station. A couple guys made me a little chair that they carved out of a log. It was so cute! And I had a few books, I had a little cassette player with many cassettes: Steely Dan and Dave Bromberg….Tom Waits, Neil Young, Cris Williamson, Bonnie Raitt, Joan Armatrading. They all were recorded on 90-minute tapes off my record player.
I had a journal, and pens and colored pencils. I usually ate an avocado for lunch.
U: And very minimal traffic? Not people going by constantly.
M: Right. Just the loggers with a full load of logs going to the mill. I would stop them, talk to them. Now, I was reading some pretty radical literature at the time. There was this book back then called The First Sex, by Elizabeth Gould Davis, that I was way into. Her premise was that in the evolution of humans, females were the primordial gender. Like everybody started out as female and then less than half became male, therefore we are superior. I think I had actually read it six months earlier, but I wanted to read it again.
When I was there I started to really question it, in that quiet space with plenty of time to really think about what she was saying. She presented it in this scientific way, but….I couldn’t check any facts. I was so intrigued by it.
So I had to stop these loggers. And I’d walk up to their truck and start talking about this book called The First Sex!
U: Oh my god.
M: And here are these old guys, kinda bent over and wrinkled up. And they’re looking down at me, being all, “Females were there before men were! And we’re really superior!” That was when they really started to not like me.
U: So the guys who would stop in the trucks–they worked for Columbia Helicopters?
U: So you probably know some of the guys, and you’re like “Hey, while you’re stopped here, have a conversation with me about this!” And they’re like, oh, Jesus.
M: Right! [Laughs.] There was a little town called Pierce where we would go to get groceries. But I didn’t have a car, Jules didn’t have a car. And of course, I had a lot of hitchhiking experience, so it was nothing to just go out on the road to hitchhike to Pierce. But guess who would have to pick us up! The guys we worked with. And they did not want to pick us up, but what could they do?
I could tell that they were tolerating us. I never thought anything about safety or danger, but I could really feel–
U: They were annoyed with you.
U: Is that why you ended up leaving?
M: Well, the season was going to end anyway, in maybe late October; however, midway through my two months, I hitched over to outside of Helena, Montana for a music festival. And during the day there were different workshops offered, and I jumped in on the shiatsu workshop. I had been around a little bit of that in Moscow, so it wasn’t totally foreign to me. But here I was, just watching this demonstration of what they called shiatsu, which was basically acupressure. And my heart starts pounding, I start sweating. I felt like I was rising above it and looking down on it, and seeing me–like I was the teacher. I already knew all of the information. I had this out-of-body experience.
Now the teacher was just a gal like me, not a wizened soul who’d already been on the path for 40 years. I went up to her. “Where did you learn this?”
“New School of Massage. California.”
“I have to go, I have to be there! This is what I’m meant to be!”
When I got back to civilization I got to a pay phone and called 411, which is information. This is how we had to do it back then.
U: I think I’ve actually made one 411 call in my life.
M: Okay. I’m glad you had to do that. You go through the ropes of….asking what the area code is for this particular town. And then the operator tells you and somehow you finally get to the Sebastopol, California Yellow Pages, and they give you the phone number of this massage school, and then you have to hang up and call that massage school. Just more quarter and dimes.
And someone answered the phone. Even back then I was shocked. Maybe it was just because I’d been so isolated for so long.
U: Yeah. It’s a real place! Aah!
M: So I can really go there! “When is your next session?” It started mid-October. “How much money?” $400. “Well…okay.” [Laughs.]
U: See now at this point….I’m just like, tell me everything you ever did. But getting back to the helicopter. So at this point it’s mid-September and you’re like, I’m gonna quit.
M: Mmhmm. I think they were probably glad. [Laughs.] And when I told them I was still gonna work another month, they were probably thinking, just go on right now. But I made good money! Wouldn’t it have been something to save–I wonder if I do have some paperwork? I made pretty good money for back then, for you know, unskilled labor.
But see, I had my journal, so I wrote and wrote and wrote. I was reading and writing and a little bit of my freestyle drawing.
It would be neat to go back to those pages. I’ve got them deep in a box somewhere.
My mom did go to massage school in California, and she’s been a massage therapist for close to 40 years now.