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"Jesus Lizard" by John Yohe

Lizzie and I were the only two ‘girls’ on the Snake Mountain Hotshots that year, 1997. Our supervisor Bob would only hire two for a twenty-person crew and he even told me once that he hired two so that they could be friends. Fortunately, Lizzie and I were friends, or became friends. I dont think thats always the case w/two women—I talked to other women on other crews—that can set up some kind of dynamic where the women compete w/each other to be accepted by the menfolk.

It was both of our first time on a hotshot crew, an elite wildland firefighting crew that travels all over the west—where the big fires were, that/s where we went. She/d done one season on a regular hand crew in Tahoe, I/d been on an engine in Sedona, then helitack for two in the Grand Canyon. I think both of us wanted to test ourselves, prove ourselves.

Much to Bob/s annoyance, I was one of the better sawyers that year—meaning I could handle a chainsaw—so I got to be on the third saw team. I was actually relieved when Lizzie asked to be my swamper. I wasnt looking forward to being on a saw team w/some dude—even the safe ones would always mansplain cutting to me. Lizzie wasnt in the best upper body shape, but I wasnt either compared to our lead sawyer Trace, who looked like a grizzly bear. But swamping is more about stamina, moving slash the sawyer cuts away from the fireline. Which is hard work. The hardest job on the whole crew really, especially since saw team members each carried an extra chain and saw kit w/tools and extra parts in our packs. I wasnt quite sure I could handle cutting all day but I wasnt gonna say no and be a pussy when Trace offered.

Fortunately third saw is usually for clean up—making sure any ladder fuels in the black are cut and cutting any logs or downed trees into rounds—which takes time but isnt as much arm work—Lizzie did some of that, just so I could get a break and she always took care of gassing and oiling the saw when I emptied a tank, so I could pound some water.

One of Lizzies goals was to really learn how to run a chainsaw on her own and if I have one minor claim to fame its that she learned it from me that summer.

Lizzie showed up to work the first day in jeans black t-shirt and fire boots—she liked Whites, I liked Nicks—and w/brown dreadlocks pulled back in a big Alien tail. A big wooden cross necklace drooped down so low it kind of hung between her boobs. As far as I know, she always wore it—tucked in on fires or outside when not. Even, you know, during other times.

Lizzie wasnt a total conservative—I mean, she was on a hotshot crew for gods sake—she never swore but didnt mind if other people did, like me, or the whole rest of the crew, all the time. She didnt smoke or chew but did drink. I did all three—Skoal Wintergreen was my fave and kept me going on a long day, which gave the guys endless amusement—they/d offer me their chew just to see a girl put a pinch in. They laughed and laughed all summer.

But Lizzie was what my mom called a Jesus freak. She/d been homeschooled up by Mt. Shasta (the town) and from what she told me her parents were old school live-off-the-land hippies when most people by the seventies had given that up. I think she went to some summer camp somewhere and discovered Jesus—not like w/a vision or anything, not even as a Jesus=God kind of way, just talked about him as a person or a teacher and loved that and read the Bible on her own. She told me, —My parents didnt understand it, but didnt stop me. They always just wanted me to learn whatever I was curious about. They thought it was a phase.

Her dad was a woodworker, made furniture Amish-style or something—no nails, just grooves and glue—and taught her how to work a bandsaw and lathe. And how to whittle. She was carving little wood animals since I was six. The way she described it to me was after her ‘come to Jesus moment’ of how ‘cool’ Jesus was, she whittled a small carving of him and gave it to a girl she liked at camp. —She was so happy that I thought maybe I could make more and make more people happy and, you know, spread Jesus’ message. That could be my purpose in life. I decided I/d do 10,000 carvings in wood. That will just take my life. The process, the whittling, the carving, is also a way for me to return to Jesus, think about him, to focus myself every day.

I did the math w/ her one time when we were in fire camp laying on our sleeping bags waiting for the dudes to stop belching and farting and go to sleep. —Lizzie, if you do one carving a day, that/ll be like twenty-six years to do 10,000. If you do one every other day that/ll be fifty-two years!

She laughed. —I never even thought about that!

—How many have you done?

—She didnt hesitate. —Two thousand and seven.

She was twenty-two that year.

—Lizzie, you/re behind! You/ll have to do two a day sometimes to catch up!

She/d been laughing the whole time. —I know! The problem is that sometimes they/re big! Sometimes they take a few days.

—You mean they/re not all just little whittles?

—Ha! Little whittles. I like that! No but seriously, I just look for wood, I look at wood, and see the Jesus in it. It could be a tree.

—You cut down trees to carve Jesus in them?!

—No! Of course not! I just carve out his face and prayer hands in a living tree. Like, reveal the features I already see. I did tons of those up at Humbolt around campus and the woods out back. But I do want to do big ones! Have you ever seen the totem poles native tribes do up in Canada? I/d like to do something like that. Except Jesus.

So thats how she got her nickname. A lot of us had them on the crew, like Dingo, Snake and Maui. Mine was Vasquez, because of the character in the Aliens movie. Which, I was cool w/. Vasquez rocks. At first Lizzie was Jesus Lizzie, then it just seemed natural to make it Jesus Lizard. Strangely, they never shortened it to Lizard—she was always Jesus Lizard. Even over the radio: —Maui, Chase. Send Jesus Lizard over here.

And she was ok w/ the name. If I/d been interviewed for the documentary thats what I wouldve told them about. I know thats what they would have ended up calling it, not Carving Jesus.

Lizzie even did one of her tree carvings out back of our barracks. The guys got to be in the brand new barracks buildings, but the two of us were in an old trailer together right on the edge of the compound up against Forest Service land. It/s still there as far as I know, though I wonder if anybody ever found it. Most of her Jesuses (Jesi?) are of a bearded man w/ hands together at his heart, and that one was—she did it in a ponderosa pine, stripping the bark away around eye level, finding knots and cracks and making them the facial features or the hands, using her knife or chisels and ‘gouges’ w/ a mallet. It really did look like the face of Jesus (or a bearded man) was there, like she/d just peeled away the outer surface of the tree and unhidden Jesus. She didnt usually like to make crucifixes, though the one she wore she had made. —I dont know, thats not his main message. He didnt die for our sins. He died because he was healing people for free, offering his knowledge for free.

Mostly, at least at that point, on the road, she did smaller whittles. She always had a big lockblade knife on her, and a piece of wood. On down times, if we were in mop-up mode on a fire, she/d get them out and whittle while we talked. Sometimes it was annoying when I/d be trying to take a nap, but if thats the most annoying she ever was I/d say she was doing ok.

What the rest of the crew thought of her was mixed. A lot of the guys didnt like ‘girls’ on a crew period. If she had just been a hippie tho, I think she would have gotten a lot more meanness—to the point of harassment—but the Jesus thing threw them—they didnt know what the hell. She made a Jesus carving for each and every one of them, regardless if they were raving assholes or not. Some of them, a few, kept them all summer and would even pull them out of their red bags on the buggy to show her. —Hey Jesus Lizard! I still got your Jesus!

She would always smile. Like, really smile. —Right on! I/m glad Jesus is still w/ you.

There were of course bets on who could bang one of us. I had my informants, some of the safer guys like Roberto and Joseph who would give me the scoop. And, you know, what girl can resist being around eighteen buff dudes? Lizzie was the cute one, they all wanted her, but the odds were good, even for me. Towards the end of the season, when we/d been gone to Idaho for two three week stints—r+r in Boise and back up to the panhandle for the biggest fire in North America, ever—we came back to northern California, to our station and all headed to the one bar in town, The Timberline. I was playing pool, pacing myself on the alcohol so I could concentrate and beat everyone (my dad had a pool table in our garage in Salem—the one skill he taught me) so I was not blackout drunk like everyone else. I do remember that every time I saw Jesus Lizard she had a shot glass in her hand and I know neither one of us bought a drink all night. I got a little distracted w/Trace putting his hand on my thigh and whispering sweet nothings in my ear like, —I’m gonna destroy that pussy.

What girl can resist a line like that?

We all got 86ed—or else the bar was just closing, I forget, so a bunch of us piled in Trace and Maui/s pickups and ended up at Lizzie and I/s trailer. Trace didnt really give me time to collect myself—or even ponder the fact that he had a girlfriend—and had me in my room, w/Lizzie and the other guys right on the other side of the door in the living room.

My pussy was indeed destroyed, as I think everyone on the compound could hear. Afterwards, or during, Trace said, —I/ve been waiting to do that all summer.

I said, —Me too.

He passed out. I got up and took a shower, then checked the living room. No one there. But there were definitely voices coming from Lizzie/s room down the hall. Male voices. Multiple male voices.

If I/d been any more sober I might have—should have—checked on her. But, instead I went back and put my head on Trace/s chest and fell asleep.

In the morning after the awkwardness of Trace leaving w/o much conversation, I was sipping tea on the couch (the only thing my stomach could handle) when Jesus Lizard came out. Smiling.

—Lizzie, are you ok?

She kept smiling. —Yeah. Why?

—I just...did

She giggled. —Yeah. Did you? Actually I know you did. I heard you.

—Yeah but did all of them?

Her face got red. —I mean, yeah?

—Do you remember?


—Are you ok w/ that?

She shrugged. —Sure.

We stared at each other. I said, —Ok. Wow. How many?

She looked at the floor. —Um...I dont know.

I nodded. —Ok. Wow.

After that, for the rest of the season, which was like six more weeks, down into Big Sur and Orange County, the dynamic shifted. Not that they had ever took Jesus Lizard seriously but, before, she had been kind of the crazy little sister. That they all wanted to bang. After the banging, they became more rude to her, ignoring her or yelling extra harsh. Not everybody, not overhead or the safe guys, they treated her the same, mostly. But the assholes were just bigger assholes. Surprise. I think at first she was surprised, then hurt, and she would lose her smile at those points. Thankfully by the time we were in central and southern Cali, we were running four saw teams, cutting all the time through forests of manzanita brush (and poison ok) so she and I just spent most of the time by ourselves. She still carved little Jesus dudes—even gave me a rare crucified Jesus out of manzanita, which I still actually have up on my bedroom wall, the one arms cracked off and I glued it back. I call it ‘Cracked Jesus.’

On the Big Sur Fire we were inland, in the forest, in the redwoods actually, but in mop-up mode holding a line we hadnt cut and there was this ponderosa pine stump, waist high. Normally a sawyer low-stumps all her trees, but this one got left or lost.

Lizzie got back her regular energy, crouching down examining it. —Do we have to lowstump it?

—Well if we dont someone will. Do you want to do it?

—I want to carve it. I can see Jesus in it. Look: these knots are the eyes, this is the nose and prayer hands would be here.

And I could see it. —So this Jesus is buried halfway in the ground?

She laughed. —Yes! Rising back from Hell! Can I use the saw? Will you make sure I dont kill myself?

—Sure. Just watch the kickback, especially if you try to cut w/ the tip. Dont do that.

That became her first Chainsaw Jesus: Rough, but definitely him, w/ a long nose and beard and the two hands. Mostly what she did was trim the back side of the stump, carving the wood away from the Jesus. We didnt tell anybody about it but Joseph commented on it in the buggy later after we/d hiked out, that it was a good Jesus. Still maybe out there somewhere in the woods east of Big Sur, if some other crew didnt cut him down later.

By the time the season ended, we were all done and we left the morning we got back (hotshot tradition: to leave early on the last day). Lizzie and I exchanged parents’ phone numbers and addresses and hugged, knowing neither of us would be back the next summer. She never fought fires again. I went back to helitack—helirappel actually—up in McCall, Idaho.

And now she/s actually done. 10,000. Some people dont believe her, but I do. I had seen some news features on her throughout the years, especially more recently as she was getting closer. The documentary about her is still up on Netflix. She still has the dreadlocks, now silver. And, she wears long flowing skirts, or overalls when she/s working on one of her bigger chainsaw sculptures, which go for tens of thousands of dollars now. She lives in Sisters, Oregon and has a wife and two daughters. When she/s asked in the documentary if she/ll keep carving Jesuses after 10,000 she says, —I dont know what else to do. I still believe in ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ That/s still worth reminding people about.

Her daughters have whittled their own Jesus carvings, though they seem more excited about the little wooden animals they made.

Born in Puerto Rico, John Yohe has worked as a wildland firefighter, wilderness ranger and fire lookout. Best of the Net nominee x2. Notable Essay List for Best American Essays 2022 and 2023. @thejohnyohe www.johnyohe.weebly.

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