Editor’s note: The following is a continuing series of excerpts from “Come to the Edge: Arrival and Survival in Del Norte County” by College of the Redwoods English Professor Ruth Rhodes.
Retired logger and avid outdoorsman Bebo Reynolds describes a life in Del Norte County lived mostly outside. Mixing straightforward narrative with humor and sharp-edged criticism, Bebo quips near the end of the interview, “I hope I haven’t stepped on too many toes.”
I was born at Seaside Hospital in 1955. My father, who was a truck driver, will be 90 this year; my mother passed away at age 54. She was a stay at home mom and worked sometimes at Redwood Elementary School’s library.
Dad drove a truck and later ran the truck shop out at Simonson Lumber Company. Dad was born in Texas. His family came up here during the depression. They were cotton farmers until the bank foreclosed on them. The bank took everything, including thecows, the chickens. All they had was the Model T and the clotheson their backs. It took them two years to work their way out hereto Del Norte County, picking fruit. All of them. Grandma and Grandpa, the kids. When he got here, my grandfather bought 13 acres at $28 per acre. It was a lot of money back then.
I went to Redwood Elementary. Great school. It was more hands-on than the other schools. Teachers interacted with the kids. It’s still a great school. My daughter Sara had her kids going to Smith River, but Smith River is mostly Hispanic, Spanish-speaking children, and that wasn’t working out for our oldest grandson, so she enrolled the kids at Redwood.
This is a hard place to leave. We did move in 1964. Between the tidal wave and the flood, we moved down to Clear Lake for my mom’s asthma. They said it would be better for her health, but the drier climate didn’t really seem to help, and Dad struggled to find work, so we only lasted a year there. We moved back to Del Norte County.
I’ve always felt like I belonged here. It’s God’s Country. Everything that you want or need is right here. We’ve got the Smith River, one of the cleanest rivers in the United States. We’ve got the beach. I like to hunt deer, and I like to fish. So, yeah, this is where I want to be.
I felt like I fit in when I was a kid. It was a logging and fishing community, and that’s what everybody did. I went fishing and hunting for fun a lot with my dad.
I wasn’t the best athlete. I played flag football. We lived up in Mud Hen Village, and there were lots of kids to hang out with. We did lots of things. Caught garter snakes. Built our own go-karts. We didn’t have these devices like kids today have. We had to make our own fun.
Yes, I graduated from Del Norte High—barely. I had to sign up for the draft, and then the year I was out, 1973, they abolished the draft, so I never did get my number. I wasn’t really interested in high school. They passed me with Ds, and I skipped class a lot. My buddy had a motorcycle. We’d leave school and go cruise town. Hell yes, we partied.
The cops were different back then. You could legally blow a .10 then, and they would just say, “You go home now. I don’t want to see you drinking and driving again.” Now they’ll put you in jail for that.
I could never live my youth again. Too many car wrecks. But it was fun. Wild and crazy.
I started working my senior year, before I graduated. Dad helped me get a job sweeping the floors in the truck shop at Simonson Lumber Company in Smith River. I would get home from school, go to work until midnight, come home, go to sleep, and go to school again. I got eight hours in every afternoon.
I wasn’t tempted to go to college. I say I went to “Loggin’ College of the Redwoods.” I did all kinds of work in the industry. I joined a forestry crew, planting trees, thinning trees, and lots of slashing after they finished logging. I eventually made it to foreman.
But I hired friends—never hire your friends when you’re the boss. They just refused to work. So I asked my boss to get me out of that job, and I started setting chokers.
What does it mean to set chokers? I hooked cables to fallen, bucked redwood trees so Caterpillars could haul them out. I did that for a while, but eventually, I wanted to be a cat skinner—a Caterpillar operator. So I did that for $13.42 an hour. That was a good wage back then in 1980.
But gosh, I saw these timber cutters at the work site, driving new trucks. I saw that they left early, maybe worked a six or seven hour day. I wanted to do that. I worked around them, helped them out and learned a little that way. My plan was to do that next.
But when the recession came in the 1980’s, I was still running cat. Everything stopped. Building stopped. Logging stopped. There was very little demand for lumber. Everyone was scared. We had just bought our house and property. Our daughter was not even two years old, and I had to find work because Simonson had nothing for me.
But I could get into the Simonson property and cut firewood. The wife and I, with the baby in the car seat, would go up together. Then, we went knocking door to door where we saw low wood piles. We sold firewood for $50 a cord just to get enough money to eat. I cut a lot of fence posts, too, and sold those to the farmers.
We got through it.
Finally, I went to work on a rock crusher. I did that for about three years. Then, a friend of mine, Leonard Branton—he died later in a logging accident in Idaho—he asked me why I didn’t buy a chainsaw and go cutting. He loaned me the money, and I bought one.
I cut all over the country. “Have saw, will travel.” I learned a lot from that. When the recession was over, my dad’s old timber friends started their own timber cutting company, and they hired me on as a cutter.
I’m retired now. Too many injuries. When you have a bone spur in your neck, and you can’t look up to see which way a tree leans, you better quit. You know, timber cutting is very dangerous work.
A cat has nine lives. I’ve had 999—I’ve been that close to death that many times. I lost some good friends out in the woods to accidents.
There’s many a night that I would lay awake worrying about the next tree I was going to have to cut, how dangerous it was.
I think the first major injury I got was when we were falling and bucking trees out in the old growth in Klamath. It was a steep slope. I was taping—measuring logs—and one of the logs took off and came rolling down at me. I made a thirty-foot jump down to where I saw a big redwood stump I thought would protect me. When I hit, I blew my right ankle up.
There we were, a thousand feet down from the pickup, but still 500 feet from the creek. The Simpson truck shop sent these fat boy mechanics up the creek with a stretcher to get me out of there. Fat boys? Some guys from the shop who don’t get out much in the woods.
My partner, best friend, and “brother,” Wade Gist, and I worked together for twenty-three years. We drove one to two hours one way to get our chainsaw and the timber. It seems like I spent more time with Wade than with my own wife. He knows me, and I know him.
Cutting timber is one of the most dangerous jobs. But hey, every day is a picnic when you don’t have anybody looking over your shoulder telling you what to do. I don’t like Walmart, and I don’t like stoplights.
But as far as injuries go, they’re going to happen. The chain on the saw is razor sharp. It goes through flesh faster than wood. I’ve helped Wade out of the woods and he’s helped me out. “How many stitches this time?” we’d say.
Reaching down for my saw one day after the tree I just felled bent another over, I suddenly had a new elbow between my wrist and my elbow. The tree I bent over threw a piece of limb when it came back. I had to learn how to wipe left-handed for six weeks.
They say the little tree kills more cutters than the big one. Well, a little tree ended my career. It was only four inches in diameter and about twenty-five feet tall. I was cutting my way to a big tree, and I just kind of pushed it out of the way after I sawed it off. I thought, “That’s kind of weird. Where did that little tree go?”
The tree I’d cut just before that one had bent a little oak tree over. It looked like an upside down U. The little tree caught the top of the U and the butt came down on my hardhat. That little tree probably weighed about two hundred pounds. I don’t know how long I laid there, but when I woke up, I thought, “This is how a quadriplegic feels.”
I could hear Wade’s saw running in the distance. I was hoping he could hear my yell when he shut his saw off, but he never shuts his saw off unless he needs gas. Ten minutes later, I started to get feeling back in my toes. It worked up my legs, and finally to my arms.
Wade saw me staggering to the pickup and yelled at me, “It’s not quittin’ time yet!”
I waved him down, and he checked out the ostrich egg on my head. End of career. I can’t turn my head to look up any more. And in this business, you have to be able to look up.
What do I do now that I’m retired? I hunt and fish. I’m at home as Mr. Mom and Grandpa. I have dishpan hands. I do lots of laundry.
The only thing I’m not allowed to do is fold bras. My wife says it gives her wrinkled titties. She still works—she’s a secretary for the Superior Court Judge. She could actually retire now and make the same amount of money she’s making right now, but she loves the work.
My wife and I love the beach. We’re agate-maggots. We go after agates at low tide when the sun’s out. My buddy’s a top-picker. He has knee pads, and he just goes along, picking them, picking them.
I sit in one spot and sift the rocks, just looking and enjoying the sound of the ocean.
As far as what’s fair and not fair, there’s lots of things that I don’t feel right about. I wish that Southern California and Northern California were divided because our vote comes from Southern California. There’s people down there in the cities who have never seen this part of the country. But that’s where the vote comes from.
We used to have a lot of deer around here. But they put a moratorium on hunting mountain lions. They said that there were only four breeding pairs in the state. There was more than four breeding pairs here in Del Norte. While working in the woods, I saw them all the time. That’s an issue that still bothers me. The lions have decimated the deer, and now they eat people’s dogs and cats. You could be next!
The study on the number of lions was an environmental farce. In my lifetime, I have counted fifty-four lions. I’ve recorded each one. Only 1 percent of the US population has ever seen a mountain lion in the wild. The lion is a beautiful animal, and so are the deer. I think the lions should be controlled to an acceptable number. Kill one lion, save 1,000 deer.
Several years ago, a man and his wife were out walking a trail by Orick, California. A lion came out of the brush and had the husband by the neck. All she had for a weapon was a ball point pen.
She started stabbing the lion in the eyes, and it let go and ran off.
She saved his life.
Now, there’s the thing that gets me. Twenty or so years ago, they gave park rangers guns to protect us. But you can’t pack your own gun in the park to protect yourself. You could go to jail or prison for having a gun in the park—or at least get a hefty fine.* Several years ago, a park ranger was walking his dog off leash on South Beach, and a lion came down to the beach and threatened his dog.
He found a stick and fended that cat off. Now, if it was you or me, he would have wrote us a ticket for not having our dog on a leash, but Mr. Ranger could be ten miles away when the lion is attached to my neck.
Now they put the sea lion on the endangered species list. There’s hundreds of sea lions lying on the river banks up here. They go in the water, they get as much fish as they want. When they’re full, they’ll still bite the belly out of a fish even if they don’t eat it. The fishing isn’t anything like it was twenty years ago. It’s getting worse every year. Like I said, we didn’t vote to put the sea lion on the endangered species list.
In Washington and Oregon, I think they’re going to do something about the problem. But here in California, I don’t think we ever will.
The sea lion, like the mountain lion, is a beautiful animal. But, you know, it’s kinda like when they killed all the wolves in Yellowstone.
When they did that, the elk overpopulated, ran out of food, and starved. Man intervened in that ecosystem, poisoning the wolves, and it had a negative effect.
Environmental regulations did make things more difficult for us in the logging industry, too. When I first started driving Cat, we just drove the thing right down to the river. Now, they say doing that kills fish, and they made us stop doing it. But you know, we had more fish in that river then in those logging years than we do now. Like I said, I don’t think people who make the rules really understand what it’s like up here.
As far as cultural differences, the Native American didn’t have much of a chance when the “white man” came to God’s land. The white man had advanced weapons and numbers. We massacred them, and they massacred us. It’s not my fault for what our ancestors did. Their ancestors, too. I just think they should be proud to be Americans. Nobody really owns this earth. It’s God’s gift to mankind. All wars are fought over property, religion, and politics.
I have known a lot of Native Americans who went and fought for this country we call the USA. I can’t wait until the white man is a minority, so I can get some white man money. The Jews should get German money. What do you think? I have a lot of Native American friends, and we’ve discussed this. I hope I haven’t stepped ontoo many toes.
As far as Mexicans, I have a few good friends who are Mexican, but growing up, there weren’t a lot here yet. And through my senioryear, there was only one black kid in our high school, Anthony Sanders.
You asked about the Hmong refugees who came here in the 1980s. You know, a lot of people were curious about the Hmong.
You would see them up there in the mountains deer hunting. The does aren’t legal, but you see them cutting one up on a paved road.
The entire family would be involved in skinning out a female deer. I mean, they’ll be fifteen in one Toyota van. They’ve got to eat, too, but they don’t always follow the rules. When it comes to the Hmong, the game wardens gave them time to learn the state rules and regulations. The warden would give them a slap on the wrist, but if it was me, they’d cuff me and stuff me. They’ve harvested these beautiful sea anemones down at the beach. You don’t see those anymore.
What are some ways our community has changed that aren’t so good? I wasn’t really happy when the prison moved in. Again, nobody voted that in. It was stuffed down our throats. It brought traffic and an increase in population. And a lot of the new folks moved to our small town. The Correctional Officers (COs), families of the inmates, and more. It took time to adjust to all of this. They built the prison in our back yard, you know?
I was tempted to apply for a job, like a lot of people in the timber industry, when the prison came in. I started to fill out the application, but when I came to that page about “Have you ever been arrested,” I thought, “I’m gonna be out of paper writing all this down. I don’t think they want me.” Pot was taboo, and they could fire me.
No, I don’t feel my family had any advantages over other families. We worked for what we have, and we worked hard. For my kids, I just want them to be happy and successful. Both went to college— one to beauty school and another went to Butte Community College and is still finishing up. It’s taking a while. It’s expensive. I know all about that.
Would I ever move? We’ve got everything we could ever want right here. And when it gets too foggy here, just head up 199 and hit the river. We love it. This is where I want it to be.
—April 17, 2018