Unfolding the Map
Back when I was in high school, I worked in my town's lumber mill loading trucks and freight cars with lumber. After they stopped hiring high school kids, I got a job working security at the lumber mill, and got to see the whole plant including the huge sawmill - everything from the high jets of water taking bark off the logs to the raw unfinished lumber at the other end. That lumber was soon set out for planing and then air-drying or kilning. William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) brings me back to those days as he passes through Payson, Arizona. To see our northeastward turn from Phoenix, click on the map thumbnail at right.
"....At Payson, a mile high on the northern slope of the Mazatzal Mountains, I had to pull on a jacket.
"Settlers once ran into Payson for protection from marauding Apaches; after the Apache let things calm down, citizens tried to liven them up again by holding rodeos in the main street. Now, streets paved, Payson lay quiet but for the whine of sawmills releasing the sweet scent of cut timber."
Blue Highways: Part 5, Chapter 1
Payson seems like a place that I would be very familiar with. I've never been there, but I think that the town would probably have a similar feel to my home town. I believe this because LHM smelled cut timber as the sawmills whined.
Anyone who grows up in a lumber town knows that they have a culture unique to the lumber industry. I'm sure the same applies to a town that has grown up around any industry, whether it be mining, steel, or even an agricultural center. I know lumber towns. I grew up on the north coast of California, and my town was founded after a lumber mill was founded on the spot. Eventually, my town hosted one of the largest lumber mills in country. It is all gone now - the redwood trees that could sustain a mill's production were logged - and the town has turned to tourism to keep itself viable. Still, blocking our town's access to the ocean is a large tract of land where our lumber mill once stood.
I do not know whether Payson has maintained its lumber industry. If it has, one can still probably hear the whine of sawmills and smell the scent of cut timber. However, even years after our lumber mill closed, the trappings of a lumber town remain.
What are those? Well, logging trucks. There are lots of independent contractors that still log the forest for what's left around my home town. If the same is true of Payson, then logging trucks are still a familiar sight around the town.
Chainsaws. Lots of them. In my town, the typical pickup truck had three things necessary. A dog, a gun in the window rack, and a chainsaw in the bed. A chainsaw comes in handy all the time in a lumber town. For one, most of the houses are heated in wood. That wood has to be gathered somewhere, so you head out to the forest with your chainsaw and cut up downed trees. We called it "making wood" in my town. I did a lot of making wood with my father, so much so that it doesn't bother me at all to pick up a chainsaw, axe or maul and begin cutting rounds or splitting rounds. In fact, there is a Zen about making wood that I miss, and I relish the opportunity to do so now when I get a chance. I also love the feeling of accomplishment in cutting up a tree and feeling my sore muscles from swinging the axe or maneuvering a chainsaw. A shower feels great after one has spent the day making wood, as all the pitch, sawdust and dirt is washed off of those sore muscles under a nice hot stream of water.
A lumber town always has lots of entrances and exits, because there are lots of logging roads into and out of the area. Every local can tell you how to go where on which logging road, because they've made a mental map of all of them. High school kids will know the best spots, such as abandoned landings where once logs were dragged down to be loaded onto trucks, to go and drink and hang out together. Those who are hunters know which logging roads will take them to the best places to secure their game. It's another world in the forest on the logging roads, and if you get lost, you just go with it until you find a road you know. They all come out somewhere.
A lumber town will also have festivals. My town has Paul Bunyan Days in September in honor of the logger's patron and mascot. Events such as a parade and a logging festival with various contests related to logging are part of this annual celebration. Payson appears to have a similar type of Sawdust Festival. They also have a rodeo, testament to the town's site in the Wild West - my town too had a rodeo since so many people owned horses. In fact, my second cousin who once worked in the lumber mill was a regular roper on the rodeo circuit in the late forties with future movie star Slim Pickens.
Some environmentalists, and I count myself one, often have a dim view of loggers because of their work felling trees. However, I never thought there was much difference between the two. Each comes to know the forests and the ways in and out of them like the back of their hands. They each know the ecosystem and know when something is out of place. They each understand the forest and how it works. In their own unique ways, they care for the forests and their long-term sustainability. The logger depends on the forest for a livelihood, and wants to maintain that livelihood because it's what he or she knows and it provides things such as game and recreation. The environmentalist wants to maintain the forest's long-term viability for future generations for similar reasons - to maintain habitats for animals, to create sustainable jobs and to make it available for recreation and education. Most of the people in the lumber industry that I knew in my hometown were very sensitive to the forest, and they taught me to love and respect it.
I imagine that Payson, as a current or former lumber town, is very much the same way as my home town. LHM didn't get that feeling after stopping into a Payson hotel hoping for a drink only to get rebuffed, and he left pretty quickly. I think that I'd probably feel pretty at home there.
Logging, lumber, lumberjacks...you can guess what's coming, can't you? I couldn't resist this one. I'd never seen the whole sketch, and it is funny and strange at once - like the show. Go to 3:54 if you just want to see the song:
If you want to know more about Payson
Next up: Heber, Arizona