By Jen Jackson Quintano
Not long after starting our arborist business, Tyler and I decided we needed one more iron in the fire. Tree work was good, but we wanted something more recession-proof. Turns out that, when times are tight, no one cares about the health or happiness of their trees.
Based on Tyler’s years of experience in wildland fire, we hatched a plan to become contractors. (A contractor is a private entity the federal government can call upon when short on other firefighting resources.) If we bought a water truck, we could be a ma ’n’ pop show — only two of us being required to run it. No need for employees, workers comp or many other responsibilities, about which I was then blissfully naïve. It would be our Next Great Adventure… and it would pay well.
I quickly cracked open the trusty laptop and whipped up an official business plan. Though enthusiasm abounded, we lacked capital. I intended to remedy that at the local credit union. Wearing our nicest attire (read: no bar oil stains) and with a perfect plan in hand, we marched down to the bank.
The kindly woman behind the desk never even glanced at the pages. She smiled, handed me a lollipop (for real) and ushered us back out the door with promises that someone named Josh would be in touch. He never was. And guess what: Lollipops can’t be traded for heavy equipment… except for in preschool sandboxes.
This episode immediately followed the Great Recession, and I understand that banks were then wary about offering loans. It was a tough time to go begging for money. However, I was never taken seriously enough to even get rejected. I failed before I started.
That could easily have been the end of our wildland fire dreams. Instead, I floated the idea by my aunt. She believed in it enough to loan us the $13,000 necessary to buy our first beater truck, Swamp Donkey. That loan, and that truck, made all the difference in our lives.
This story, however, is incompatible with the notion I carry of Tyler and I being bootstrappers. I love our trajectory. It’s built of so much grit and determination and hard work and all the things that make folks living in the American West special. Sometimes, I look at where we came from and can’t help but beam with pride at what we’ve accomplished.
When we started out, Tyler and I were living in a 1971 Streamline camper trailer (replete with eight-track player and cigarette lighter next to the toilet) at the fringes of Moab, Utah. Our first winter together, we subsisted on little more than homemade tortillas, PBR and a prayer. Come spring, we desperately needed a plan. Tyler had a small collection of equipment that he occasionally used to help people with trees: a couple quirky chainsaws, a climbing harness, some rope and an ugly trailer we affectionately referred to as the Afghani Pawn Shop Trailer; as if we knew anything about Afghanistan and the state of its pawned trailers.
These became the seeds for our future business.
God knows why anyone hired us in the beginning. We operated out of a beat-up Toyota pickup, and the trailer was the kind of thing that immediately gets reported in good neighborhoods. Neither of our saws liked to run if you looked at them the wrong way. Our helmets were ill-fitting thrift store finds. We also purchased an old Army stretcher from said thrift store to help carry heavy logs from one place to another. This was looooong before the skidsteer.
We had no chipper, and our initial plan was to simply dispose of branches deep in the desert where no one would ever find them. Thankfully, we soon connected with someone who would take our slash for a price, meaning there would only be a small handful of random branch piles scattered among the desert sage. Every day ended with us tugging tangled limbs out of a trailer we had just painstakingly packed. We sometimes employed the help of tallboys and ’80s rock to get us through the tedium.
We looked a sight, but we got the job done. Somehow.
On our thrift-store-and-PBR budget, we slowly saved money. We bought a new flatbed trailer and built walls from scavenged scrap metal (likely radioactive from Moab’s uranium boom days). Our saws eventually crapped out and we bought better ones. We tossed out the Army stretcher and purchased a portable winch. And, wonder of wonders, we could eventually afford a six-inch chipper.
We started to look and feel legit. Work increased apace. Eventually, we had enough in our pockets for a down payment on a ramshackle log cabin nearly nine miles up Rapid Lightning Road. In the predawn darkness of a November nearly a decade-past, we said so long to our camper trailer and drove north.
Our first months in Sandpoint were lean times. We drummed up a little work by placing flyers around town, but mostly, we watched our savings dwindle. By June, we had nothing. But that month, we were dispatched to our first fire assignment. Swamp Donkey carried us to the fireline in Colorado and away from the poverty line here. Our business expansion paid off. My aunt’s loan saved the day.
Our business has since expanded to include more than I could have dreamed in our first years: employees, successively bigger trucks and chippers and trailers, a skidsteer, a freaking bucket truck. Go team! I want to attribute that meteoric rise to our mental and physical fortitude. I want to assure everyone that the American Dream is within reach, if only you work hard enough.
Yet I realize that we were — and are — in a privileged position. Our families had our backs every step of the way. They could afford to have our backs. We had a safety net. We could take risks with our business because, if we failed, we had a support network to ensure we wouldn’t go hungry or homeless.
My aunt had faith in our dreams when financial institutions did not. She was our springboard. My in-laws have been behind us every step of the way, ready to help if we reached too far or risked too much. They have been a source of meals and childcare and home improvements and so much more. Which begs the question: How many hands have been on those bootstraps we’ve been tugging on over the years?
Yes, I believe our combined work ethic has taken us far. Yes, that’s something in which to take pride. Grit counts for a lot, but so do foundations and family.
Jen Jackson Quintano writes and runs an arborist business with her husband in Sandpoint. Find their website at sandcreektreeservice.com. See more of Quintano’s writing at jenjacksonquintano.com.
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