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.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Timeline of Pretty

My coworker burst into tears on her 30th birthday.

"I only have five years left of being pretty," she wailed.

Being five years older than her, I tried not to look annoyed.  Although I knew it was illogical, I fought the urge to find a mirror.  Was there a sudden shift at age 35? Had it happened to me and I didn't know it? Realizing that we were in the Alaska wilderness and there was no way to check, I merely remained irritated.

This was years ago, and yes, my former coworker is still pretty, well beyond the five years she gave herself.  Everybody is entitled to a freak-out now and then, and she probably felt silly later.  But still, this viewpoint continues: young is beautiful.

I read a blog where the young writer talked about unwelcome attention from men, but went on to blithely say that middle age was a cure for that.  A magazine article in Marie Claire, a publication that claims to empower women, a few years ago extolled Demi Moore's beauty, but then went on to say, "but sooner or later, her body will turn to mush" (that's when I stopped reading that magazine). A friend, on the phone with one of his buddies, was describing a woman to him.  "She's attractive," he said, and then went on to utter the fateful words: "she's an older woman." She wasn't much older than they were.  Does her age matter?

I found an article about a 57 year old model online.  I thought she was gorgeous.  But when I started to read the comments, I was amazed at the level of animosity that was directed toward this woman, from people who didn't even know her.  Most of the comments were from men.  Why? Did they feel threatened? Were they upset that their wives didn't look like her? If they didn't know she was 57, would they have felt the same?

We'd all (I think) like to believe that inner beauty is the only thing that matters.  And really, it is.  I know some people who would not be considered conventionally attractive who are incredibly beautiful because of what lies beneath, and others who look like models but are ugly for the same reason.  But everyone cares about the outside, even if it's just a little bit.  Otherwise we'd still be sporting our overalls and satin baseball jackets from the '80s (why for the love of all that is good and holy, did we wear these things?) and the bangs that looked like a cresting tidal wave (again, why??).  The makeup industry would go out of business, and plastic surgeons would only do reconstructive surgery.  You wouldn't see 30 year old actresses as the romantic interests of 50 year old men in movies.

I happen to think that pretty-on-the-outside doesn't have a half-life or a time stamp.  I don't think you have to be a millennial to be gorgeous.  Maybe that's wishful thinking, since I'm no longer a young person.  But I really don't see my friends' wrinkles or gray hairs.  I only see their beautiful smiles and their beautiful souls.
Yazmeenah Rossi, 61 year  old model.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Sharpening the edge

It's been cold here.  Not Fairbanks cold, although Fairbanks seems to have gotten warmer than it was when I lived there; I don't see the regular -40F temperatures that I suffered through being recorded regularly now.  Here, it's been below zero and windy for quite some time.

The other day I looked glumly out the window.  It wasn't snowing, but it was a few degrees below zero with a brisk wind.  Apparently the wind chill made it feel like -15.  Gym day, I thought.  Then I caught myself.

What was this wimpiness? Retreating to the soulless treadmill when it got a little tough? Had I lost  my edge? Gotten soft?

I started running during what was called a "running boom," decades ago.  The sports bra (called the JogBra!) had just been invented.  Spandex for running was a few years off; people trotted down the road in sweats, or shorts over long johns when it was cold.  There were no yak trax or spikes; we ran on ice and sometimes we fell.  I didn't know anyone who ran on a treadmill.  We ran in howling winds, deep snow, and ice storms.  We suffered, but we felt really good about it.

I'd like to think that I haven't changed that much.  I don't want to be a person who used to charge hard at life but then gradually gave up and sought the easier path. 

I put on expedition weight capilene, top and bottom, and attached my spikes to my running shoes.  I put on gloves, pulled a balaclava over my head, and headed for the woods.

The wind cut through my layers.  Although the dog walkers had made a valiant effort to pack down the trails, there is an area that always drifts over.  People had postholed and made the trail a mess in places.  The homemade mountain bike jumps were buried and had to be climbed over.  My pace was slow.  Nobody else was around.  But I was out there.

I thought about the young girl I had been, running on ice and snow and during a tornado watch once (I don't recommend this).  She didn't debate whether to go or not.  She just went.

I think she would have looked at me and said, "It's really not that cold out," and run off, much faster than I do now, expecting her decades-older self to make the same decision.  To just get out there.  To just go.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Good Men

The stories keep coming out.  Women, firefighters and others, are still being harassed and discriminated against while working in the government agencies.

This is nothing new.  As a rookie firefighter in the late '80s, I saw it, and kept seeing it throughout my career.  From the men who would stand in front of me at briefings, refusing to move so I could see the map, the overhead who would address my male trainee instead of me, to the crew boss on my second fire who told me I should take a male crewmember's creepy comments as a "compliment," it was out there.  Many women had it much worse, with actions committed against them that were criminal.

But this is for the good men.  The ones who gave me a chance early in my career, and didn't treat me differently than anyone else, as long as I could do the work.  The ones who didn't judge all women by one who might have failed.  The ones who, although they were skeptical about female firefighters (and believe me, we knew you were), didn't show it in their actions.  The smokejumper who parachuted into my first big fire as an incident commander and didn't take over, even though he easily could have.  The men who worked all night alongside me on the fireline and treated me as a sister and an equal.

Change is slow.  There are still old boys' clubs, people who will talk over women at meetings, and those who think it's okay to make crude comments.  Those of us who started long ago learned to keep our heads down, work hard, and not to show emotions. We knew that would help the women of the future who were coming up behind us.

But it's easy to get into man-bashing, and the good men are out there.  I'd like to think there are more of them than the other kind.  So to all the men who helped me along the way, I appreciate you.  You offered me a job, showed me how to fight fire, and treated me the same as any other firefighter. Thanks, guys.
At a spike camp in 1997.  Thanks jumpers for the parachute.  What a mess! I was there for 21 days straight.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Lost Boys of Minchumina: A firefighting mystery

The float plane banked over the fire camp, making sure his passengers could see their route to it from the lake where he would drop them off.  The two men said they understood.  When they were signed up to fight this fire, picked up basically off the street as many firefighters were in those days, they had claimed they were college students from the east coast, in Alaska on vacation.

The plane left them on the shore of remote Lake Minchumina with two sleeping bags and a few other supplies. Then they vanished.

Two weeks later, the two men stumbled into fire camp.  They had gotten lost, they said.  They had survived by eating frogs and drinking creek water. 

The people at fire camp were suspicious.  The two men looked far too healthy, clean and well-fed to have been wandering in the wilderness for so long.  Where had they been?  Had they found a cabin  stocked with food and stayed there until the supplies ran out, or until they wanted to return to civilization?   Had they seen the fire on the way in, thought "nope" and concocted a plan?  Nobody knew for sure, but the two were soon sent packing.

One of my coworkers in Alaska discovered the story while transferring historic fire files from paper to electronic records.  A letter, written by one of the firefighters, was asking for payment for the two weeks the two had been allegedly lost and wandering the tundra.  Intrigued, my coworker dug further, finding that one of the men had indeed been registered at an Ivy League university; there was no record of the other.  Reimbursement was denied.

The real story is lost in the mists of time, over sixty years ago.  What really happened to the two would-be firefighters? Were they truly lost, or living out an Alaskan adventure?

Alaska fire scar and fire in the distance

Friday, December 16, 2016

The first rule of book club...

Just kidding! There are no rules at my book club.  I've heard of some who take it very seriously, who take notes, and vote what to read.  That's not us.

We go wherever someone volunteers to host.  Someone will email a title of a good book, and we say OK and read it.  You can bring an elaborate homemade dessert, or pick something up from Costco and we will eat it, either way.  You can drink wine, or not.  If you didn't finish the book, or didn't even (gasp!) read it, that's OK too.

We meet once a month, give or take.  If someone can't make it, there's always next time.  We recently exchanged "white elephant" books, which meant someone ended up with a book on "How to Be Elegant."  We tend to laugh a lot and eat too much cheese bread.

It's really not about the books at all, although that's what brings us together on a cold night in December.  It's about this little community that forms for a few hours once a month, where we talk about work, life, and yes, books too.