Sunday, March 26, 2017

When good workouts go bad (and vice versa)

I drove happily to the ski hill.  It was a week day, so there shouldn't be too many people there.  The sun was out.  What could go wrong?

Arriving at the lift, I gazed up at the front side runs.  The skiers already up there were making slow, big turns.  Oh no!  This could only mean one thing.  Ice!

But I was already there, so I got on a chair.  The wind suddenly increased.  Ice and wind?  Still, how bad could it be?

I bumped my way down the run.  The "grooming irregularities" threw me off.  My turns were tentative.  I caught an edge and fell, something I hadn't done in a long time.  A mountain host skied up to me.  "You must have won the boardercross yesterday," he said.  Ha ha ha.  I couldn't be mad, though; it was funny.  I made myself do a few more runs, but it just wasn't my day.

Today, I slowly gathered my stuff, trying to talk myself out of it.  It was a sunny Sunday, bound to be busy.  It might be icy again; there hadn't been any new snow.  I couldn't come up with a good excuse though, so I headed out to meet the ski bus.

Surprise.  Hardly anyone was there.  The snow was fast but soft.  The slopes were wide open and I rode the lift by myself.  I did more runs than I planned.

I often wonder why this happens.  A three mile run can seem like 10 one day.  Hills surveyors would miss seem difficult.  A weight I can usually easily lift seems tough sometimes.  A short hike feels like a death march.  Conversely, on days I really, really don't want to run, the miles are effortless.  Faced with a big mountain to climb and feeling uncertain, I end up being one of the strongest in the party.

Discounting any obvious reasons of illness, injury, or overtraining, I think it's nature's way of keeping you humble.  Think you're all that? Well, here's a day when you count every minute of your run and can't wait for it to be over.  And on the other hand, just when you're convinced you're no good at a sport and should give it up, here comes the best day ever.

Today was a good day.  Who knows how tomorrow's run will go.  But that's what keeps it interesting.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Older but wiser

My friends and I compare notes.  Runner's knee. An aching hamstring and sore hip.  Tennis elbow.  A mysterious pulled muscle in the back of the shoulder.  We talk about skipping runs for the elliptical, and avoiding certain weight exercises for awhile.  We joke about getting old, but we wouldn't have these aches and pains if we sat on the couch. 

Over twenty-five years ago, Bonnie sat under the visqueen that was keeping our sleeping bags and fire packs semi-dry from the torrential rain that had already put our fire out.  She was talking about why she had taken a job mentoring kids in the Youth Conservation Corps.

"I want them to know that even though I'm thirty, I can still do everything," she said, meaning building trails and fighting fire.  Younger than she was, we nodded solemnly. It made sense. We all knew people who, as the years went by, just decided they were old.  Their backs and knees would inevitably hurt.  They stopped doing things.

Thirty isn't considered old anymore except by some millennials who don't know any better.  And I'm happy to see that there are a lot of people out there like my friends, who are still getting after it.  When I'm picking berries on a certain mountain trail,  there seems to be a steady stream of men in their 60s and 70s running up the steep path to the summit.  Senior citizens chase the vertical at the ski area.  Gray haired hikers are all over the woods.

As a firefighter, I can usually still keep up with the 21 year olds, but I have to be smarter.  Some of these guys can play computer games and eat chips all winter and start running again two weeks before the season starts, but I can't.  I have to keep going.  If they feel a twinge of pain, they push through it, whereas I have to analyze: what's wrong now? maybe I should ride a bike today instead of run.  I pack lighter than they do, preferring to suffer by sleeping a little colder and eating less food rather than packing 55 pounds in my fire pack through the woods along with everything else we have to carry.

So we discuss our aches and pains, but we know we came by them because we're out there running, hiking, and snowboarding.  We're not planning on stopping anytime soon.  So if you see us on the trail, packing bear spray and wearing hiking skirts (except the guys), you better get to stepping, or we'll be passing you.  See you out there!

Sunday, March 12, 2017


"Good!" I thought smugly as I got my first seasonal referral list in early January. This was sooner than I had expected it, and I fully expected to get the pick of the litter. Maybe they would already be fully qualified helicopter crewmembers. Maybe even ICs (incident commanders, capable of managing small, noncomplex fires), I allowed myself to dream.

Alas, along came a hiring freeze, and my list languished in cyberspace. We weren't even allowed to make tentative selections, even though we knew there would eventually be an exemption. Wildland firefighting runs on temporary employees, who generally work from around May to October, depending on which area of the country they get hired in. Without seasonals, and no funds to make the jobs year round, we couldn't function.

Finally we got the exemption. Time to tackle the list! The only problem was, computer keys were clicking all over the country as other supervisors had the same idea. Two of my seasonals attained the holy grail, a permanent job, making more vacancies. Still, no need to panic, there were 104 people on my list. Right?

It's not as easy as it sounds. First, you have to offer the veterans a job before anyone else. This is reasonable, as many of them spent time being shot at in Afghanistan; the least you can do is give them some preference. However, many of them don't respond to your offer. They've applied everywhere, knowing they will get something; they can pick and choose. They have three business days to accept or decline. Most don't call back, meaning you can't offer the job to anyone else until the three days have passed.

Then there is the cell phone problem. Most people don't answer the phone when they don't recognize the number. My assistant and I felt like telemarketers, cold calling people all over the country. Most never called back. The trusting souls who answered the phone usually had jobs already. Even the newbies were taken.

Occasionally we thought we had stumbled onto a gem, only to contact a reference and find out something terrible. One applicant apparently stole from crewmembers, went AWOL, and got fired. Um, no. Other job seekers tried to be coy. "Well, nothing's set in stone yet," they would say when we asked if they had accepted another job. This was code for, I accepted something else, and they've already done the paperwork, but if something better comes along, I might bail.

Encouraging this behavior, some supervisors engaged in downright thievery, offering the applicant something special: more training, additional qualifications. A person who had bugged me all winter for a job called me to flee to the park after his paperwork had been processed, saying breezily, "well, it was my first choice." Muttering to myself that it would have been nice if he had told me he had a first choice, I momentarily wished for him a summer of sitting hostage on an engine, cutting out trails.

Eventually I found two takers. One hadn't even applied for a helicopter job; he appeared somewhat flustered when I told him I found him on a handcrew list. Still, he was intrigued enough to accept, the offer of cheap housing in the hotshot superintendent's rental trailer probably much of the draw. They are both pretty new to the game and one was born in 1996 (1996! I have outdoor gear older than that) but I think they will work out.

In the meantime, I don't send them pictures of the three feet of snow still on the ground at the office. They will like it here, or they won't. We will do our best, even though we haven't ever met, or even seen, these people. Summer is around the corner (I think).

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Dear Younger Me...

Remember a while back, when it was popular for bloggers to write letters to their younger selves, giving them advice and imparting wisdom they wish they had back in the day?  I always thought it was kind of silly, because 1. Younger Mes always think they know everything and would not have listened anyway, and 2.  Hindsight makes everyone smarter.  But despite being late to the trend, I thought I would give it a try anyway.

Dear Younger Me,

Please do these things.

1.  Wear more sunscreen.
2.   Get a more useful degree, like nursing or something.
3.   Don't date/marry/hang out with men who don't appreciate you.
4.  Stop it with the obsessive running.  Do a pushup or something once in awhile.
5.  Don't be a firefighter.  Do something that makes more money and isn't so hard on you.
6.  Settle down someplace!
7.  Save more money.


Older Me

Then I decided to break it down.

1.  Wear more sunscreen.   This needs to stay.  Younger Me was known to put on Hawaiian Tropic Tanning Oil and "lay out" in the sun for hours.  Foolish YM, focused on a tan, didn't realize that 90% of the signs of aging are caused by sun exposure.  Thanks a lot!

2.  Get a more useful degree, like nursing or something.  I wanted to be a park ranger in college, so I designed my degree around this.  But I can't really say it was wrong, because I did actually become a park ranger, and had an amazing time living and working in national parks.  So, scratch that one.

3.  Don't date/marry/hang out with men who don't appreciate you.  Facebook memes and quotes love to refute this, saying lofty things like. you meet each person for a reason, thanks to the ones who left me, blah blah blah B.S.  I don't need any jerks to teach me more about myself.  This one's legit.

4.  Stop it with the obsessive running.  Do a pushup or something once in awhile.  Truth, I used to be obsessed with running.  It was all I did, unless I went hiking, when I would often run before or after the hike too! It makes me tired to think about.  I don't do that anymore.  I still run, but I also lift weights, hike, snowboard, and a lot of other things.  Still, I can't be mad at this.  I was a good runner then.  I won races.  And I built a platform of endurance and learned to push through suffering, something that helps me when I climb mountains and work for hours on the fireline.  This one's out.

5.  Don't be a firefighter.  Do something that makes more money and isn't so hard on you.  This one's tough.  I see friends who made different career choices who have more money for retirement, and who can take vacations in the summer.  But, scratch this, because firefighting opened up an amazing world to me and brought me some of the most incredible experiences and people.

6.   Settle down someplace!  I have a gypsy soul.  I used to move every six months.  If I had stayed somewhere I would have more friends.  I might have paid off a mortgage.  But this one has to go too.  I've lived in Alaska and Hawaii, and a lot of places in between, including Glacier and Grand Canyon National Parks.  I wouldn't want to give that up.

7.  Save more money!  I wish I had more.  But then I would have had to give up my favorite money-sucking activity, travel.  Give up sunrise on the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro?  Camping on the shore of Antarctica? Backpacking around New Zealand? Impossible!

So here's what I'm left with:

Dear Younger Me,

Do these things.  Or not.  I warned you!

1.  Wear more sunscreen.
2.  Don't date/marry/hang out with men who don't appreciate you.

3.  Try not to regret anything.  Except not wearing sunscreen!


Older Me
Younger Me at high school graduation, probably not wearing sunscreen.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Vanity Diaries, Passport Photo Edition

The Walgreen's clerk peered at me around her camera as I sat in a chair in front of a white screen.  "You can smile, but you can't show your teeth," she said.

What?  The horror!  Except for a few models, most of us don't look good with a "neutral facial expression," as they say on the state department website.  (What is a neutral expression anyway?) My new passport photo was going to look like a mug shot.  I sulked vainly (and in vain), and slunk out with two photos of me wearing something suspiciously similar to a smirk on my face.

I love my old passport photo.  I was getting ready to go to Nepal when it was taken, and I was smiling, wearing a necklace that was supposed to protect Sherpas from avalanches.  I tried to take my own this time, but gave up after fruitlessly trying to edit it to the correct dimensions. Even the apps failed me, either rejecting the photo or appearing sketchy.  Walgreen's it was, although $13 for two tiny pictures (that you don't even like) seemed kind of ridiculous.

My old passport has stamps from places like Argentina, Chile, and Iceland, and a commemorative one from an outpost in Antarctica.  In my picture, I look so much younger, although I thought I was old then.  I lived in a different state, had a different job, and was in a long-ago relationship.  As I nervously put my old passport in the mail (I hate to be away from it, because what if a great trip materializes while it's gone?), I wonder what the next ten years of travel will be like.  Where will I go? Who will I meet? (Seriously, where should I go? I'm thinking about Norway, or maybe back to Iceland, to start).

I guess it could be worse.  I just saw the real mug shot of someone I used to work with, who is probably going to go away for awhile.  Compared to that, I'll take my freedom smirk.  It means I can go pretty much anywhere I want, when I want to.  As soon as I figure out where.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Fifteen or twenty year decisions

We gathered in an auditorium, getting our marching orders.  One of the people in charge tried to impress on us the importance of our task.  "You will be making fifteen or twenty year decisions," he declared solemnly.

We were about to spend the week rating job applications for permanent firefighting positions.  It's all supposed to be confidential, so I can't say any more about the process. But the phrase stayed with me.  And actually, it kind of depressed me.

If I had known, going to my first fire or accepting my first permanent job, that it was a fifteen or twenty or even a thirty year decision, I might have run screaming in the other direction.  I would have felt trapped.  I suppose there are people who set their feet on a road and never deviate, just know that is what they are going to do for decades.  That's not me.

After all, I drifted around the country like a gypsy for years, going from one seasonal job to another.  I went on international trips on a whim, buying tickets only a few weeks ahead of time.  I moved to Moab one winter just because a friend lived there and said it was a good place.

Because I always thought of firefighting as temporary, there always seemed to be a way out.  Otherwise, the thought of decades of carrying heavy stuff up hills, being exhausted and dirty and constantly vigilant would have been too much.  Because there always seemed to be an escape (after all, I never planned to do this, it just kind of happened), I just kept doing it, until now, I've been doing it more than half my life.

As we flipped through paper, I wondered how many of the people who were selected would stick around.  Was it a twenty year decision for them, or just something to do for awhile? Maybe it was sort of accidental that they ended up firefighters, like I did.  I wanted to give them advice.  I wanted to tell them, fires start and they go out, whether we are there or not.  Don't forget to have a way out if you need one.  Buy that ticket to Patagonia.  Don't be so serious.  But in the end, everyone follows their own road.  Some people's are straight.  Some are more crooked, like mine, but we see pretty interesting things along the way.


Saturday, February 11, 2017

In praise of old gear

A long time ago and in a galaxy far away, I had a husband. The "wasband" had a few quirks, as most people do.  He enjoyed spending money, while I was more of a saver (for those of you not yet married, beware this scenario.  Work this out beforehand).  His reasoning when wanting to buy something new when we had a perfectly good version of it was, "But it's old!"

Don't get me wrong.  New stuff is fun, and often necessary.  A toaster that doesn't have smoke coming out of it.  Running shoes.  Athleta dresses!  Well, maybe Athleta dresses aren't necessary. But I digress.  Old stuff often still works, sometimes even better than the new versions.  In many cases it was built to last.  I can't bring myself to throw it all out.

It's been a snowy winter, a shovel-every-day, roof collapsing, roads closing winter.  One morning I eyed the foot of new snow and thought about my cross country skis.  They languished in a shed, hardly every used these days, partly because there's so many other things I like to do, and partly because of a long-ago ankle-breaking incident in West Yellowstone while they were strapped to my feet.

These skis are from the early '90s.  They're skinny, without metal edges.  They came as a package with poles and boots, probably costing around $100.  If I was going to start skiing again on a regular basis, maybe it was time to buy newer gear.

I stepped into the bindings.  My street is one of the last to be plowed, so I could ski from there to the woods a quarter mile away.  As I entered the forest, instead of fumbling and falling, the stride seemed familiar.  My muscles remembered how to do this. 

I don't need new skis.  Maybe if I decide to tackle steeper backcountry terrain, I'll look into it.  But while I was skiing on my old skis, a lot of memories came back.  Living in Grand Teton National Park and "crust cruising" beneath the mountains.  Skiing on frozen rivers in Alaska.  I'd once spent a lot of time on these skis.  Even though they were old, they could still take me places.  It wasn't time to give up on them yet.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Art of Alone

"I could never be the lookout," Jenny said one day on the fireline.  "I'd be too lonely with nobody to talk to."

In most situations, fire crews will post a lookout.  This person hikes (or, rarely, if lucky, gets a helicopter flight) to a point where he or she can see where the crew is working, watch for any approaching storms or wind shifts, and alert the others if the fire makes a move.  The lookout also records weather observations and sometimes acts as a radio link where there is poor communication.   Unlike Jenny, I love being a lookout.

As a lookout, you can't read a book or take a nap.  You're responsible for your own safety, so you have to make sure you can escape if threatened by the fire.  You might need to move locations as the crew moves so that you can see them.  And, although you might be visited by wandering overhead and safety officers throughout the day, you most likely will be alone the whole shift.

There's a reality show on the Discovery Channel called "Alone." In it, ten people are dropped off separately in a remote area.  This year, they are in Patagonia.  They don't know where the others are or if they leave.  Their task is simple: stay there, until only one person is left.  Each person is given some survival items and several video cameras to record their daily lives.  There are no cameramen with them, but they have a satellite phone in case there is an emergency or they decide to quit.

Everyone on the show struggles; there are scary animals, weather challenges, and food is scarce.  But the majority of contestants who choose to leave don't go because of these things.  Most of them do okay.  They manage to build cozy shelters, find food, and start fires.  They leave because the solitude, rather than the elements, gets to them.  They start talking about how they miss their families, how the people back home probably need them.  They leave because they're alone. 

Spending time alone isn't celebrated in our society.  People are praised for being extroverts instead of introverts.  If you go on guided international trips by yourself, you often have to pay the "single supplement," in essence a "fine" for the trouble it takes to provide a separate tent or hotel room for you.  During a workshop, a counselor told us not to retire and go build things in our wood shops; instead, you needed to follow the example of an older man who invited the neighborhood kids over for basketball.  Making your world smaller was bad, he said; a guy in the room close to retirement who was planning to make furniture in his shop looked chagrined.  But I don't see anything wrong with being content in your own company, even if it's just for a shift on the fireline, or for a few weeks in the woods.

I'll never go on the TV show, mostly because I would cringe at my footage: I'd probably get mad if I couldn't catch a fish, or my shelter would fall down, or I'd start singing or something equally embarrassing.  But I wouldn't mind the solitude.  I'd listen to the wind and the birds and I'd make up stories.  I'd look out for danger, like I did when I was a lookout on the fireline, and watch the weather change.  And in the end, I'd come back down to the place where the people who cared about me were.  And I'd appreciate them even more than before.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

The people you meet on the ski bus

I never used to ride the ski bus.  I'd see it lumbering up the hill to the ski area and think, too slow. Probably too crowded.  I don't want to be tied to a bus schedule.

Change is good, though, and after being blocked in by Subarus crammed into non existent parking spots a couple times, I decided this was going to be the Year of The Snow Bus.  I climbed onboard and haven't looked back.

Now that I'm a regular rider, I've become acquainted with the bus's cast of characters.  The bus stops a lot, and there's not a whole lot to do while you're on it, so people watching becomes an acceptable activity.  The riders seem to often fall in the following categories:

Sassy Seniors:  There's a jovial crowd of retired people who ride up in the morning, ski for half the day, and take the bus back down to town after lunch.  Most of them know each other, and strike up conversations about subjects like cooking (which makes the rest of us hungry).  They track their vertical carefully, and always seem happy.  The ones over 70 get free season passes, so if they get one run in or twenty that day, it really doesn't matter.

Silent Teens:  It's midweek and it seems as if they should be in school, but here they are, riding the ski bus.  At least if they are skipping school, it's to do something healthy.  They don't say much, but if they do talk, they're always polite.

Ski Moms:  They trail behind their enthusiastic children, picking up gloves and stray ski poles.  One runs a nonprofit program that provides gear and passes free to kids who otherwise couldn't learn to snowboard.  Sporting dyed blue hair, she affectionately barks orders at her horde.  "NO BRAGGING ABOUT HOW GOOD YOU ARE," she yells into the bus.  "If you do, you have to make the sandwiches with me."  One child looks bemused.  "I'm better at making sandwiches than I am at snowboarding," he confesses.

Helpful Harrys:  These guys see a woman holding a snowboard and just have to offer some tips.  However, they mean well and usually have useful things to say.  One adjusted my bindings and it was an improvement, so bring it, Harry.

The Outsiders:  They aren't from here.  They are on vacation and are enthusiastic about everything.  Icy slopes?  High winds?  They don't care, they're just happy to be here.

Mystery Men:  These guys get on the bus wearing civilian clothes.  Guessing what their mission is can occupy you for a few stops.  The explanation is probably something boring like they work up there in the lodge, or they pay for a locker where they keep all their ski clothes and equipment, but it's still fun to speculate.

Riding the bus isn't perfect.  If you miss one, you're stuck for an hour or more until the next one arrives.  Sometimes it's really full, or there's no heat.  But it saves me 16 miles of driving and it's free, funded by local businesses.  Plus there's built in entertainment, courtesy of the other passengers.  Ride on, ski bus!
image from here

Saturday, January 21, 2017


When I was a child, I used to marvel at the sight of robins in the woods.  They looked like the same birds we had in our yard, but here they were, living the rugged life in the forest.  It must be a lot harder for them out there, I thought (I was clearly a weird kid).

Since then, I've been lucky to (mostly) live where woods and towns overlap, and have plenty of animal visitors.  Where I live now, near a state forest, it's mostly deer and turkeys, although my neighbor had some bears come through his yard and knock down some bird feeders.  I also puzzled over an deer carcass that resembled a mountain lion kill (partially buried, hide pulled off the bones).  In other places there was more variety: a black bear loped past my cabin as I sat on the porch eating cereal; bison surrounded our state park housing in South Dakota, creating a unique excuse for being late to work.

Sometime it's not all great.  I suspect a bunny of decimating some nice plants in my garden.  A band of roving turkeys is kind of cool, and fun to laugh at when they start to roost for the night (since they aren't very good at flying, they seem to attack the trees, flying at them and hoping for the best), but they can make quite a mess.  Something was chewing on my juniper trees until I finally caught the culprits.
The perps

Still, I'd rather have wildlife than concrete and traffic.  When it snows I see their tracks, the paths they make, where they stop to eat.  It's a glimpse into a world that is parallel to ours but is largely hidden, all the animals moving around us, living and breathing and dying, while although so close to them we don't see, and mostly have no idea.