Sunday, January 12, 2020

Late to the party: Audiobooks edition

Weird fact:  I don't really listen to music.  I'd rather hear a murder mystery or talk show on the radio.  But I do take music to the gym, because otherwise I'd have to listen to people's conversations or the loud clatter of weights.  I find weight lifting pretty boring, so music helps a little; however I often find myself thinking something like, ok, 5 more songs and then I'll be done.  

All this changed when my book club chose a book that I couldn't find in the digital library except as an audiobook.  I didn't want to buy it because it didn't really appeal to me, so I reluctantly chose the audiobook.  From the free library app, I could open it on my phone.

I hadn't ever listened to audiobooks.  If I'm going to read, I'd rather have a book or Kindle in my hands rather than a voice talking in the background.  I wanted to control the pace at which I read.  I was sure I wouldn't like it.

I opened the audiobook.  Twenty hours to finish, it said.  Getting through this book would be a part time job.  Then I had a brilliant thought.  I could listen to it at the gym! Of course, I wasn't going to go to the gym for 20 hours before book club, but I could put a dent in it.

I discovered that I liked listening to a book while I exercised.  Unlike songs, I didn't know where the narrative was going.  The plot distracted me from the monotony of the gym.  Time seemed to go faster.

The book was interminable, and honestly, I might not have finished it if I had had to slog through the paper version.  I left it on while I cleaned the house and listened to it when I went for walks.  There was something to this audiobook thing, I decided.  When I was done with it, I downloaded another.

I'm not really an early adopter.  I once was heard to say, "I'll never get a cell phone," and this was after the year 2000.  But I'm happy to say that I was wrong and audiobooks are really kind of okay, especially at the gym.


Sunday, January 5, 2020


I once knew somebody who was faced with a significant work decision.  When I asked what he thought about the impact it would have on a loved one, he replied airily that he "was good at compartmentalizing," which I learned was code for "I'm going to do what I want, even if it negatively affects others."

I'm not good at all at compartmentalizing.  I worry that my cats miss me when I'm gone.  I overanalyze decisions.  I get buyers remorse a lot.  If someone seems mad, it bugs me for a long time.  It would be easier to be able to put things in neat compartments and not worry about them, but I can't do it.

"Australia is interested in you," the work text said.  I agonized.  It was a month-long assignment. When the first two groups went there, it would have worked.  Friends and cat sitters were available; it was the holidays.  One of my cats seemed to be doing well after her last dental surgery.  People were around and could have spent some time taking care of the cats and my house.  Nothing was going on at work.

But now, a month later, those friends weren't as available.  They had to work; some had work travel; a month commitment was too long for them, even with pay. They had their own pets to care for.  The princess cat had to return to the vet, her issue not yet fixed.  Hiring was set to begin in a couple weeks.  Leaving for 30 days didn't seem as easy anymore.

I could have gone.  Most people probably would have. It was an incredible opportunity and Australia could use the help.  I could have patched together a group of people who would come in to check the cats for a few minutes a day, hoped the kitty's medical problem didn't get worse, and tried not to care who got hired.  But in the end, I didn't go.  Someone else did.

Was this the right choice? Not financially, and not in the adventure sense.  Maybe it was a mistake, or maybe down the road in the next few weeks I'll be glad I didn't go.  I wonder what it would be like to be a person who just charged ahead, not caring about consequences.  Maybe they just pretend not to care.  

Because I can't compartmentalize, this line of thinking leads me to ponder other choices in life.  Many were wrong.  Some, while wrong at the time, led to better situations in the future.  So I guess you never can tell.  You just make the choice with the best information you have at the time, and take one of the forks in the road you are facing.  You just hope it will take you somewhere interesting.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Hiking through winter

On the surface, winter hiking can seem like a hassle.  There's a lot less daylight, so you have to get going early when it's cold and sometimes still dark, or pick shorter trails.  There's many layers of clothing to consider. You toss out the bear spray, only to reconsider when you find tracks from a rogue, non-hibernating bear.  Several trails are off limits, because roads to get to the trailheads are closed.  Then there's the question of footwear.  Lately, we have been bringing snowshoes, microspikes, and even skis, and then rolling the dice on what to carry when we start out.  It's been a low snow winter so far, so the snowshoes have stayed in the car, but there have been times when I've carried snowshoes 10 miles and not used them.  Yesterday we ran into people hiking in downhill ski boots, their skis on their backs; they didn't find much snow.

But despite the drawbacks, there's some amazing things about hiking in winter.  Around here, the main advantage is meeting less people on the trails.  When you live next to a national park known for hiking, it's not unusual to see hundreds of people on the popular trails in the summer.  In winter the park largely belongs to the locals, just the way we like it.

Winter changes the mountains and the trails.  Waterfalls freeze on the cliffs, and the lakes are covered in ice.  The familiar peaks are covered in white.  You can see where the animals have walked: wolves, bobcats, moose.  It's quiet.  Places you think are sort of ordinary become magical.

You feel more accomplished hiking in winter, when you've traversed ice, postholed in deep snow, and had lunch on the shore of a frozen lake at 10 degrees.  And there's always the element of uncertainty: was it a mistake the leave the snowshoes behind? will the lake be frozen? will we make it to the peak?

Summer is easy.  You can run outside in shorts and a tank top, throw a puffy jacket and a few snacks in your backpack, and you will probably be okay.  Your water won't freeze, and the air won't hurt your face.  It's a lot easier in the summer.  But the winter trails call to me too.  Come out, they say.  Come see the world in a different way.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

In which I don't go to Australia (again)

If you haven't heard, devastating fires are sweeping Australia, burning homes, destroying koala habitat, and enveloping cities in smoke.  Since their summer is opposite of ours, many of the firefighters over here are available to go help, but this rarely happens.  They have good firefighters already, it's expensive to get people over there and there is red tape involved.

A few years ago I optimistically put my name on a list, but the people who went were of a much higher pay grade than me.  This year I had a better chance, I thought.  I had more experience and more qualifications.  I looked at the regional list; surely I would have a better chance than many. Some people with only basic qualifications had added their names; I admired their enthusiasm.  In the end, only a few overhead folks went.

It's probably for the best.  Taking care of my house and cats for the month commitment required would put a strain on my friends, with the associated snow shoveling and the pampering my spoiled cats require.  Also, some of the fires are burning in places where I, as a 24 year old on my first overseas trip, hiked and explored.  That's always hard to see.

So I'll stay here and enjoy our current mild winter, and start on the seasonal hiring.  I'll watch from afar though, and hope it rains soon.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Age: The final frontier

My former employee asked me when I had worked at a particular park.  When I said, "1991," his response was "Oh wow, I was one year old."

I was immediately annoyed.   "Wow?"  Was this necessary? Pointing out how young you are (or how old someone else is) doesn't seem to have a purpose to me.  This made me think a little more about one of my pet peeves.

Maybe I'm a little sensitive about this because I'm not a young person anymore, but it seems to me that, in a society where it is not okay to remark on someone's weight, mental ability, ethnicity and a host of other things, it is still acceptable to put someone down or describe them using their age when it has no point in the story.

Recently someone in one of my Facebook groups asked about getting into personal training after a career change.  He stated that he had worked in the corporate world for 21 years, and then added, "I know, I'm old." We do this to ourselves! I've been guilty of this myself: why do we do this?  Why do we discount ourselves?  And why do we use "older" or "elderly" to describe someone if it doesn't further the narrative?

I took a deep breath before I responded to my former employee.  Then I typed, "Don't worry, the universe willing, you'll get here too."

Tuesday, December 3, 2019


Everyone's heard of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).  But what about its relative? I've decided to name this Dread of Going, or DOG for short.

As much as I have loved every trip I have taken, from Antarctica to Iceland and many in between, there was a moment of DOG involved in each of them, a time of not wanting to go.  Usually this happened while blearily driving to the airport at 4:30 am, or while second guessing my packing list the night before.

DOG sometimes crops up when local events happen too.  It has nothing to do with how much I love my friends or how fun the day or evening promises to be.  The couch looks so comfy! The cats are especially sweet.  My book is really good, and Survivor is on! That's when DOG appears.

Work trips, even fire assignments, are a good source of DOG.  "Why am I doing this," I think as I drag my heavy bag into the car.  This is also a phrase that would go through my mind as I lined up at the start of the many road races I used to run, also a prime time of DOG.

Why do I get DOG? Am I the only one? Maybe it's fear of change or of the unknown.  Whichever it is, I recognize it as an old friend.  I know it's seldom real.

If you power through your DOG moments, the event or trip almost always turns out to be fun, and you're glad you didn't miss it.  That is, unless it turns into SAHG, or Shouldn't  Actually Have Gone, but this is rare. 

Maybe DOG isn't that bad.  It allows you to recognize that you may be stepping outside of your comfort zone, which is often a good thing.  The thing you're about to do might be hard, or make you uneasy at first, but it will most likely turn out great in the end.
Skydiving = a lot of DOG, but I did it!

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Embracing the lull

"This is winter," I tell my minion, who normally doesn't work this late but who is helping out since my assistant took another job.  "I don't need to know where you are at every minute of the day," I continue.  "Also, this is a good time to get any doctoring or dentistry done."

He is adjusting, but I can tell it's a little difficult.  He is used to the frantic pace of summer, or the shoulder seasons, when we still have crewmembers around to supervise and a finite amount of time to get things done.  He still attacks projects immediately, which means he is now stuck with the less interesting tasks, such as the dreaded "updating employee folders" and "required online training."

We had a slow fire season this year, followed by a slow fall.  It doesn't always happen this way: often, the seasonals depart while we are still cleaning gear, maintaining trucks, and even fighting fire.  Sometimes temporary hiring starts in November, with its accompanying challenges of tracking down applicants and persuading them to decide what they want to do six months from now.

Not this year.  There isn't even enough snow to shovel.  Instead, we start on aerial ignition plans that we wouldn't normally tackle until at least January.  The hotshots puzzle how to transform one of their buggies into a reindeer for a city parade.  J. buys a red plastic bucket for the nose, and then agonizes that it's too small.  "Come look at it," he says.  "Does it look stupid? It looks stupid!" I reassure him that it doesn't, while S. regrets that he has committed to making some antlers.  They ponder the wisdom of driving the buggy, covered in brown paper, through the notoriously windy canyon on the way to town.

A stream of job applicants show up at our offices, hoping for a seasonal position next summer.  They leave either encouraged or with their hopes and dreams crushed, depending on the supervisor.  The smart ones start building a plan to eventually land a job, while the less intelligent ones do things like call our cell phones on Saturday.  Not having our lists till January, we can't tell them much, but we appreciate their earnestness.

I'm all right with the lull.  We don't get a lot of them.  Some years there are fire assignments all year round, a plethora of workshops, classes to take and teach.  January will be busy, with seasonal and permanent hiring happening at the same time.  Managers, energized by holiday time off, will fill the calendar with meetings.  Even my minion, eyeing the snowline on the ski hill, is starting to get used to it.
Image from Imgur

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

How to be seen

A helicopter is my office.  I sit in one for many hours every summer, looking for fires, landing spots, and occasionally, people.

People get lost a lot.  There are those who would like to believe that it is some vast conspiracy involving the land management agencies when someone goes missing in the wilderness.  As a veteran of many searches, I can tell you that is impossible.  With all the people involved in search, such a conspiracy would never happen.  Someone would talk.  Also these agencies don't have the time, the motive, or the budget to "disappear" people.  Lastly,  search and rescue personnel want to find you.  They put their lives on hold and at risk to look for people they don't even know.  But they have to be able to see you first.

A lot of lost people, when found, say something like "I saw the helicopters, but they didn't see me."  Most people don't realize how hard it is to see a person on the ground, especially when they are wearing earth tones and standing in a forest.  There have been times when the pilot and I knew exactly where the firefighters were supposed to be, but just couldn't see them (and they were wearing yellow shirts and were out in the open). 

When we search by air, we aren't necessarily looking for a person or a body.  Those can be pretty hard to see.  What we are looking for is something that looks out of the ordinary: something man made, movement, or a color that doesn't fit with its surroundings.  Some things that work:

-Get out in the open.  It sounds obvious, but some lost hikers don't do this.  Even a small meadow in a sea of trees will catch the eye of the helicopter crew.

- Have something shiny.  A space blanket, silver colored tarp, signal mirror, or strobe light works really well.  Yes, it's something extra to carry, but it may make a difference.  On my crew we carry Fenix strobe flashlights.  They can be seen for miles.

-Wave a bright color.  You can tie a shirt or jacket to a stick or a trekking pole.

- Build something that looks unnatural.  A lost hiker was recently rescued when the SOS she made out of rocks was seen.  Just make sure it is in an open spot.

-Tie something white to a tree.  This helped us find a fallen climber once.  The white against the dark green was very obvious.

-Fire.  You ARE carrying matches, right? I hesitate to mention this, because lost people have started fires that ended up having devastating consequences.  If a fire is your last resort, remember that smoke can be seen much easier than flames.  Once your fire (in a cleared area) is going, pile on punky, damp wood; this will create thick smoke.  Here, we have commercial airliners calling in fires to us as they fly above the wilderness.  Chances are someone will see it.

-Lastly, try to stay put.  Search aircraft will start at the point last seen and move out from there.  Many people, and bodies, are found well outside the search area, where nobody thought they would ever be. 

It's devastating to search vast sections of wilderness and never find a missing person.  It's worse than finding their remains, because then at least you know what happened.  When someone vanishes and can't be located at all, you always wonder:  did I look hard enough? what if they were below me and I just didn't see them?

If you get lost in my area, we will look for you.  We will look even if you didn't carry a beacon, didn't tell anyone where you were going, didn't want to be found, or made foolish choices.  We want to find you.  Please help us.

This was a tiny fire, started by lightning a long way from the nearest road or trail.  It was really just one log burning on the ground.  But very visible.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The regrets of fall

I looked out the window of my office as snow piled up rapidly.  I didn't have my snow tires on yet, I realized.  I still had a weight plate on my rood holding down a patch repair.  My denial about the approach of winter was about to end.

Summer here seemed really short, not for the usual reasons of being busy with fires, because it was very slow in that regard.  A rainy spring charged into a rainy, cool summer.  Then it snowed early, and rainy days were interspersed with brief sunny intervals.  Now they are making snow on the ski hill, and the tire shops are crowded with procrastinators.  It's undeniable that summer, and probably fall, are pretty much over.

This time of year, I tend to think about what I didn't get done.  My kayak reproaches me from the corner of the garage.  "You didn't take me out very much!" it seems to be saying.  My hiking shoes seem to glare from the shelf.  "Once again, no trip to Heavens Peak Lookout!" they might be thinking; my backpack agrees.  Even my garden looks sad; I should have bought more trees this year, but waited till the last day the nursery was open; of course none of the ones I wanted were left.

This is silly, obviously; a sort of delayed FOMO.  Sometimes I want to do it all: see all the countries, hike all the trails, and just do more.  That's impossible, so I look back at my pictures.  This summer I hiked to many fire lookouts, and stayed overnight in three of them.  I spent time with friends on the trail.  I saw some new places.  And, with a demanding job, that's pretty good.

For now I am grudgingly accepting winter's arrival.  There will be snowboarding and snowshoeing to do.  The mountains look beautiful with white tops.  And now there is time to think of all the trails and all the trips that wait in the future.  Get ready, elusive fire lookout! I'm coming for you.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Still running

The sun wasn't up yet as I started up the hill that marked the beginning of my running route around the island.  It's not really an island; it's a peninsula, but everybody called it that when I was growing up.  "Let's go to the island and have a picnic," we would say.  Or, "the race goes around the island."

A cold breeze blew from Lake Superior and it rustled the colorful fallen leaves on the empty road.  Nobody else was out.  I felt like I as running back in time.

This is where I grew up, and where I started running at 14.  I ran so many miles here, in all kinds of weather (I didn't set foot on a treadmill till sometime in my 30s).  I sported the first pair of running tights in town, which had to be custom made.  I even got recruited for the university cross country team, and spent hours on sand hills and trails.

The younger me would have cruised by the me of today at least 2 minutes a mile faster, and would have barely noticed the hills.  The younger me ran all the time.  She did speed work on the track, and hill repeats.  She ran lots of races.  Sometimes she won them.

I ran past the site of the old zoo, now gone, and the summer ice cream stand.  I couldn't shake the feeling of running in my old, ghost footsteps.  So much has changed since then, and yet here I was, still running.

As I followed the familiar path, I felt like I was chasing my younger self.  I couldn't catch her though; she stayed just ahead of me, her feet in the same Nike model I wear now barely skimming the ground.  That girl had no idea of what lay ahead of her, but she was determined to keep running.

 And I have kept running.  Not as fast, as often or as far, but I'm still out there.
I also ran on this beach.