Barry Smith: Irrelativity
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
“Have you ever planted a tree before?”
This is what the woman at the nursery asked me as I was loading the newly purchased fruit trees into the back of my pickup. It’s a standard question, I imagine, one that she’s probably required to ask each tree-buying customer.
“Have I ever planted a tree before?” I replied. “Ahhh … interesting question.”
I suppose I could have just answered with a simple “no,” thus allowing her to give me some quick pointers on drainage and soil amendments and then head off to help other customers. But a mere “no,” though technically correct, would have only been part of the story. So here’s what I said to her:
“Back in 1990 my two friends and I piled into my Volkswagen van and headed south. Like really south, following the west coast of Mexico all the way down into Guatemala. After about two months of very eventful driving – including run-ins with corrupt cops, machine gun-wielding teenage soldiers and crazy people of all shapes and sizes – we ended up way over on the east coast of Guatemala in a little town called Livingston.
“It was a sleepy little underdeveloped town mostly populated with Rastafarians. The dirt roads led right to the beach, and we spent the next two weeks swimming and eating and drinking and smoking and lazing in hammocks. We befriended some locals, and we hung out with them each night, eating the fresh fish that they caught just that morning. We were living on pennies a day, drinking from coconut shells, sleeping on the beach and generally feeling like we’d ‘arrived.’
“But somewhere during our intentionally plan-free journey we’d concocted an actual plan. Our funds were far from unlimited, and we kept hearing about this gig you can get in Canada where you plant trees for money. We ran into some veteran tree planters during out travels, and they told us of places to go and names to look up once we got into Canada, as well as a time frame for when the tree planting season starts. And, alas, that time was coming soon. Well, not that soon, but we had to factor in the nearly 4,000-mile drive from Guatemala to Canada. So, even though the actual tree planting was pretty far off, we kinda had to leave … now.
“We begrudgingly pulled away from paradise and drove for weeks and weeks, enduring difficult border crossings and poorly timed van breakdowns and an awkward detour at my parents’ house to do some laundry, and we finally – finally – arrived in British Columbia.
“We found the bar where we were supposed to meet our ‘contact.’ We literally had to go into a bar where so-and-so is known to hang out and ask around for him. Remember, this is before cell phones or texting or Internet or any of that stuff. I like technology well enough, but it does kinda take the mystery out of things sometimes. Funny, I was thinking about this time of my life recently, and on a whim, I went to MapQuest to get directions from Livingston, Guatemala to Vancouver, Canada … it basically said that you can’t get there from here! Same with Google maps. So we did a trip that the Internet says can’t be done!
“Anyway, we meet the guy, and he says, sure, he’d love to give us a job planting trees – but – we’re not Canadian, and immigration has just this very year decided to crack down on hiring non-Canadians for these coveted tree-planting gigs, so not only can he not give us a job, but he’s pretty sure that none of the other tree-planting companies will risk the fines involved in hiring us, either.
“OK, I guess this is one instance when being able to send an email in advance would have saved us a 4,000-mile trip, and we could have stayed on that beach for an extra year or two. What a waste. My dreadlocks could have been awesome.
“There are a lot more details of the trip that I’m leaving out, like when my friend got caught in a rip tide in Mexico and when we met Ken Kesey in Oregon, but to answer your question, ‘Have I ever planted a tree before?’ the answer is no. … No, I haven’t, but I have given up so very, very much in trying to do so.
“So, is there anything special I need to know? Like how deep do I need to dig the … hey, where’d everybody go?”
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