Thursday, October 29, 2020

The Grown Up House

"B has a grown up house," I reported to another friend.

"I don't have a grown up house," my friend said immediately.  

I don't have a lot of close friends, but this is why I love the ones I have.  I didn't have to explain what I meant by "grown up house."

B's house is beautiful.  It is immaculate, despite her rambunctious dog. She has nice furniture that looks like it was chosen carefully.  Spaces are clear of random knicknacks.  Her guest rooms are actually guest rooms, with beds and chairs in them.

My house is cheerfully described as a "bungalow" on real estate sites.  It's over a thousand feet smaller than hers.  Unless managed, the surrounding forest is always threatening to take over.  My furniture is mismatched, my art is eclectic, and my "guest room" has litter boxes and an exercise bike in it.

It is cute rather than beautiful, a hippie sort of place. It'll never win design awards or sell for a fortune, but it is cozy.  I look forward to coming home to it when I'm away on a fire assignment. The truth is, I like the grown up houses and I'm sometimes envious of people who have them, but I'm not really a grown up house kind of person. I'm happy in my little space.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Exercise on the road

 When you travel, if it's not an adventure type vacation, is your first thought how and when am I going to exercise? No? Just me? 

I admit to being a little excessive about it. I worried slightly as I packed my running shoes for a fire assignment that ended up lasting almost 3 weeks. Despite popular belief, not all assignments involve hiking a fireline and swinging a pulaski. These days, because of other qualifications I have, my days, while long, can be pretty sedentary.  

Some people use this as an excuse to slack off on their routine, which is understandable; after 12 to 14 hours of hanging out at a helibase or airport with a helicopter, I really just want to eat and maybe watch TV, if I'm lucky enough to have a hotel room and not a tent. But it had to be done or else I would soon feel icky.

Arriving at the small airport, I surveyed my options. There was a gravel road that ran the entire length of the perimeter fence and was more than four miles long.  Another road circled some private hangars and was a mile and a half. Despite the vigorous wind that often scoured the area, the mechanic and I were determined to get workouts in. After returning from a run or walk, we would compare notes on how far we went. "The house with the dirt piled up in front of it" or "the bridge to nowhere" were important markers.

I peered longingly into the hotel gym. Surely it was closed due to covid. Upon inquiring I was delighted to learn that it was open by appointment. I could reserve it for an hour and nobody else would come in. Looking at the sign in sheet, it appeared that nobody else at the hotel was interested. Even though it often meant that I was in there late at night, it was worth it to be able to lift some weights and use an elliptical in peace.

Introvert Exerciser's Paradise

I was even able to get my feet on a couple of actual trails.

Life would probably be easier if I could let this exercise obsession go at times like my coworkers seem to be able to do.  I guess we make time for what is important to us though.

Is anybody else like this? What are some of the ways you make it work?

Wednesday, October 7, 2020


 I don't know if it's politically correct to say "Indian Summer" anymore, but if I were a Native American, I'd definitely want to claim this one. 

After a summer that seemed to go by too quickly, we are having a glorious autumn. Days are in the 70s and even close to 80, and the nights are crisp. The larches and aspens are turning golden. And even though I have to work (I'm managing a helicopter that is still responding to fires almost every day), I am still loving it.

I was briefly able to break away and hike. I didn't know what to expect of this trail: it was close to town and I was worried it would be full of people. But as I climbed through a beautiful canyon and up to a ridge where the trail met the Continental Divide Trail, I met very few other hikers.  I lingered on the CDT, imagining what it would be like to be hiking these miles from Mexico to Canada. 

I know we are on borrowed time. Some years, it starts raining and snowing in September. The forecast is looking grim for this weekend. So I'm enjoying this interlude while I can.

Monday, September 21, 2020

A wolf that's coming for us all

 The above quote is from a friend. He is describing Covid-19. While I really hope it isn't true, it's hard to keep the faith. 

There are more and more cases in my town and state every day. The main office is partially closed due to some positive employee cases. People I have interacted with have come into contact with Covid positive individuals. There is also a large number of anti-mask, conspiracy theory believing, pandemic deniers who live in this valley. One of them cruised by my employee in the grocery store, maskless, coughing derisively as he passed people wearing face coverings.

Friends ask me to hike, and I make up excuses (usually "I have to work," which is true). The real reason I avoid them is because I see their pictures on social media, hiking with groups, hugging people, and going to bars and restaurants. There are basically two people I trust to hike with these days; still, we are careful in our interactions.

If I get sick, my whole fire crew is quarantined. This includes the pilot, who won't be able to fly, go home, or basically do anything for 14 days. We can't respond to fires; there is nobody to fill in behind us. But there is only so much we can do. We have to trust each other: our lives are in each other's hands. We do our best.

I take solace in just a few people. I stay home more, or in the woods. I haven't had a haircut since January or set foot in a restaurant. I don't miss these things, but I do miss my friends. I miss travel; maybe I even miss the possibility of travel more.

Stay strong, friends. Be safe.

Simpler days, hiking in Patagonia

Tuesday, September 15, 2020


 The blanket of smoke rolled eerily into town Saturday afternoon.  Because for us it is drift smoke, it doesn't burn our eyes or smell strongly. It just sits there, keeping the helicopter from flying and obscuring the mountains.

I hear people complain about the smoke. These tourists probably planned their vacations for months and they still came, despite covid. They want to see the glaciers and the lakes.  I understand, but I'm not very sympathetic.

My town is not on fire. We enjoyed a mostly fire free summer for once. We had lots of days of clear skies and warm temperatures. The smoke that blankets our valley now is a nightmare for someone farther west. People have lost homes and loved ones. They are struggling.

Firefighters are working desperately to save communities and are devastated when they can't. Many of them are making $14-16 an hour to risk their lives for someone else's land.  Many are seasonal employees; they don't get retirement or health insurance and are laid off after summer ends. They breathe smoke like this for months. They have to listen to politicians who don't care about science saying they should be "raking the forest."

Here in my town we are fortunate this year. Soon fall rains will come. But our hearts are with those who are still in the fight. 

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Dog Days

Work days are dragging here. There are fires other places we hear, but not here, not really. Oh, there are a few in the wilderness, but they are not being actively suppressed, because they are only doing good out there. The lightning season is pretty much over. The careless people leaving campfires unattended are doing it along roads, where an engine can drive up and take care of it swiftly. Although it is slow, it is too hot and dry to send most of us away to where help is actually needed. We have become a sad thing: a fire crew without fires.

To my hiking friends, this is good. They can't fathom actually wanting fires. But this is what we train for, what we get paid to do. Doctors don't want people to be sick, but they want to have patients; otherwise they are useless. None of us want large fires, the kind that burn homes and cause a large army of overhead people to be imported, but a few small ones, high up on the mountain: we would take those.

The crew attempts to stay busy. They split endless rounds of wood for the rental cabins. They rejoice in being almost done, until an engine rolls up, drops off more wood, and flees. They do online training and run the weedeater around the buildings. A bird finds its way into the hangar; surely the dumbest bird ever, it can't find its way out. Several creative solutions are floated involving nets, recorded bird songs, and improvised poles. This takes up several hours until finally the errant bird has had enough and exits.

We have time for resource projects that might normally go by the wayside. I take a couple crewmembers and hike over six miles into an abandoned mine site above a turquoise lake in the currently closed area of the national park. We jump a blonde grizzly on the trail: it stands up, looks at us, takes one step in our direction and decides to run off. When we get to the mine, it is too windy for the helicopter to bring in the supplies needed to complete the project. The mine experts who hiked in with us are disappointed. "I hiked 6 miles for nothing," one grumbles. "Twelve, " I say helpfully, since we have to hike out. But I am happy: who gets to do this and get paid? Normally this lake is swarmed with people.

I write a plan for flying into an abandoned lookout cabin with archaeologists. They have heard it is a steep hike and want to fly there. I hiked there this summer and it wasn't that bad, but I don't discourage them, anticipating a beautiful flight. I tell the park radio techs that they probably need to go back to a scenic ridge that we landed on last summer. "Hmmm, we probably do," one says, taking the bait.

I'm sure some of my employees expected more this summer: more fires, more money, more activity. But you take what you get in a weather dependent profession. After over thirty years of doing this, I know it all evens out.  For them, there will be other summers, ones where they will be tired of constantly moving from one fire to another, when they will just want it to rain. Then they might look back on this season, and remember a hike they were able to do, or a leap into an alpine lake. 

Fires will be back, but we might not. Today we are here. Not everyone gets to stay in this life as long as they want. We need to embrace these days.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Travel in the time of corona

 No, not international travel *sigh*.  My Greenland dream may be over for good. But I had to go see my parents, so I nervously arrived at the airport.

I live in a resort area with a famous national park, so there are lots of tourists. Most don't seem to care about the virus or the fact that they might be bringing it here. They are here in droves. They also roamed the small airport, many with their mandatory masks off or only covering their mouths. I was apprehensive. Was this how the rest of the trip was going to go, I wondered, dodging some maskless bros who were loudly talking about their travels.

Actually, I was pleasantly surprised. We boarded the plane five rows at a time. There were no endless lines waiting for people to shove their enormous roller bags in the overhead bin. Middle seats were blocked out. Masks were required. The flight attendant handed out alcohol wipes to everyone to clean off their tray tables and surrounding areas. The plane was fogged with disinfectant before we got in.

Deplaning, the most dreaded part of flying for me, was actually okay. People weren't allowed to stand up and get in the aisles until the row in front of them had departed. There was no more standing in slow moving lines in the aisle, being bumped by someone's duffel, waiting for someone to pull their suitcase out of the bin. Everyone was courteous. What was this sorcery?

Arriving at the Minneapolis airport, I braced myself for crowds during my layover. Instead, it was deserted. There were acres of empty gates with charging ports to hang out in. Nobody approached with stinky food to sit next to me. There were no loud cell phone conversations near me. It could actually be considered pleasant.

As I sprawled out in a row of three seats on the way back, I was reminded that flying used to be like this: empty seats, less stressed people, and whole gate areas with nobody in them. I know that airlines have been hit hard financially, and this affects the economy, but I couldn't help thinking, this would be great if flying was like this again. I love travel, but usually the worst part is actually getting there.

My disclaimer alert is this: I flew on Delta, and my experience might not be yours. However, I felt safer flying than I do going in some of the stores in my town, what with all the anti-maskers and covid deniers here. I wouldn't be afraid to fly again.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Just another adventure

I hiked along the trail, feeling optimistic. It seemed easier than the last time I hiked it. This was probably due to the fact that last time I had backpacked up to the lookout for the night, hauling up extra clothes, a sleeping bag and pad, and lots of food. But I chose to think that the rest of the day, which involved a stiff climb up a trailless peak, accompanied by a bushwhack that was described as negotiating "a ridiculous amount of downed trees," wouldn't be so bad.

We sat at the fire lookout, debating. The trail alone was 12 miles round trip; a trip report on a peakbagging website stated that it took the climbers five more hours to summit the peak and return to the lookout. But the days were long and we were already here. How bad could it be? We would try it. We set a turn around time, one that, similar to doomed Everest climbers, we would then ignore. 

We set off into the woods and soon found ourselves thrashing through a steep forest of alders, dead trees, and other flourishing vegetation. Occasionally a game trail would give us hope, only to fade out or head in the wrong direction. Bears probably didn't want to walk in here either. Finally we emerged on top of a nearly 8000' foot peak.

From here, the route to the main mountain was described as "an easy ridge walk." These are not the words I would use. We downclimbed. losing elevation and then gaining it again. There were some problem cliffs to avoid. There may have been some whining on some scary scree. The wind picked up just to make it more sporty. I arrived at the summit, glanced at the USGS marker, and immediately turned to leave. 

By then it had started to rain, making the downclimb less pleasant. We counted how many times we fell, tripped up by slippery beargrass and roots. Stumbling out of the woods, we found the fire lookout to be a pleasant sight. 

We still had six miles to go though, and if we didn't hustle, we would be hiking out in the dark. We hurried along, at one point encountering a solo hiker we had seen on the peak. "Are you guys from here? And you bag peaks?" he asked. Yes. Yes, we do! Happily we reached the trailhead. The sun was setting. We had a two hour drive ahead of us. We were tired, but happy.

We aren't young anymore like some of the hikers we meet on our adventures. Sometimes we get nervous on terrain that at one time we might have scampered up without a second thought. We get aches and pains, and we are more cautious of our knees than we used to be. But we are still out there, doing hard things.  And having adventures.

Friday, August 7, 2020

Empty Nest

Operation CSI: Bird was in progress. The perps were apparently using the side of my house as their personal restroom, but where were they?

I looked up and saw it. A small, delicate nest perched on a wind chime. In it, two little long-beaked babies sat, watching me quietly. Hummingbirds!

How had this whole operation been going on above my head for so long without me seeing it? The adult bird must have come and gone, collecting fluff and twigs. Then she sat on the eggs, while I went in and out of the door.  Now the babies were fully feathered and bright eyed, almost as big as their mom.

I obsessively watched them for the next few days. I worried if I didn't see the adult. When one baby walked out onto the wind chime, I kept checking on it until it returned to the nest.

One night I came home from work and checked on them as usual. One bird was gone from the nest! I anxiously looked around on the ground, fearing the worst. Not finding anything, I went to turn on the sprinkler. When I came back, the next was empty. I missed seeing the final bird take its first flight by only a few seconds.

When hummingbird babies leave the nest, they don't return. The parents may use the nest the next year, but often it is so fragile that it falls apart over the winter.  I knew the babies were around somewhere, but they were hard to see, although I kept looking.

I felt sad. I missed them and wondered if they were all right.  Although I knew they might leave the area, I bought a hummingbird feeder and hung it up in a tree.

The next day, a flash of brown caught my eye.  One of the babies swooped down onto the feeder.  Then it disappeared into the woods.

While I still wish I had gotten to see their freedom flight, I was glad to see the little bird flying around. It made me happy.

Friday, July 31, 2020

The Great Mask Quest of 2020

Two words  I never thought I'd see in the same sentence: Fashion and Mask.

Back in February, when most of us were innocently planning travel and thinking all was normal, I had a sense of unease. Surely my trip to Greenland wouldn't be affected, but I started feeling some concern. "Hey," I said to a coworker, "I have an idea. We should start making custom masks, with designs on them and stuff." He laughed it off, and yet another money making opportunity passed me by.

When all this started, I thought I could get by with a buff as a face covering. For those not familiar, these are often called "neck gaiters" and are worn by hikers, skiers and climbers and used for a variety of purposes: warmth, impromptu towels, and head coverings. I had a few of them. They should get me by.

Also, results of no haircut for almost 7 months.
We even bought some fire resistant ones for the flight crew to wear.

But as the mask orders became more prevalent, the buff didn't really cut it. They slipped down and didn't stay in place. I also felt like an out of place cowpoke who had lost the herd. I tried out a mask that we got at work. It was made by Hanes, so we called it the Underwear Mask.  It was comfortable enough, but bore a strong resemblance to tighty whities.

I also acquired a disposable mask, but it wasn't meant for the long haul and sort of looked like a feminine hygiene product.

Finally I broke down and ordered one. I considered all sorts of designs. Sparkly? Cute sayings? Flames? I found one on Etsy with a cat face on it. Sold!

Now that my state has a mask order, I have masks stashed everywhere. The Underwear Mask is in my truck along with a disposable one. The buffs reside at work, although I forgot one while following a helicopter around and had to do a walk of shame through a gas station (although there were a lot of people not wearing theirs either, ahem people, do better). I carry the kitty mask everywhere, occasionally succumbing to the same momentary panic as when I can't find my keys or wallet when I don't know where it is.

Any interesting or cool masks out there? (Bonus points for cat themes).