Saturday, April 22, 2017

Where's the fire?

Every once in awhile I realize that the word "fire" is in the title of this blog, but in fact I don't write that often about fire.  Sometimes I think I should, but then I think, not really.

Sometimes, not very often, I'll come across a fire blog.  Most of the time they have been abandoned for years.  If it's a new one, the person will write earnestly about firefighting tactics and strategies.  He or she might second guess the decisions made during fatality fires.  But usually these blogs die out, or cease to be interesting except to new firefighters.  The ones that remain still talk about fire, but also other things: hiking, photography, or thoughts about life.

I recently took a class on resilience and work/life balance.  It was all the stuff we know, but don't always do.  Exercise (well, I do that), nutrition (I try!) and your life beyond the workplace (I'm not always so great at that).  As a firefighter, it's easy to tip the balance.  It's a demanding job.  You're gone a lot.  You don't get vacations in the summer, or holidays, or special events.  You spend more time with your coworkers than anyone else.

But we are ultimately all replaceable.  Fires eventually go out.  The job takes a toll on your body and for some, your mental state.  Firefighter suicide rates are high.  I've known a few people who have taken that path.  There has to be something else besides the job, even if it is your passion.

So I'll still write about fire, but today here is a picture of a lake I hiked to.  It's not a long hike, but there was still a lot of snow.  Even in snowshoes, I slid around and fell in.  I saw bear tracks and thought about turning around, but instead yelled louder.  The lake is just now starting to lose its winter ice.

It'll be a long time before fire comes to this forest.  It's barely spring here.  But there's plenty of time for that.  I'd rather be out here today, in the snow and sunshine.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Hi. Go Away.

There are some people who don't seem to need a lot of personal space, especially in airports.  They will happily come and sit next to you with their Wendy's or Cinnabon, even though there are lots of empty seats.  They will talk on their phone, and probably talk to you, too (the weirdest cell phone conversation I've heard at an airport was a guy asking if the FBI had found the body yet.  Now, that guy I would talk to).  They might ask you to watch their bag. 

I'm not one of those people.  I don't know about you, but I think airports are the worst lately.  They're always crowded and noisy, and people don't seem to know how to stand in line as they hurry to get on the plane to fill up YOUR bin space with their humongous rolly bag.  As someone with a larger personal space bubble than most, I've had to adapt.

This is it, the holy grail of the layover:

No people within a hundred foot radius at least! No flights departing anytime soon from the nearest gate.  Quiet, except for the loudspeaker, repeating on a loop "this is a regional jet and bin space is limited.  Larger roller bags will not fit onboard.."  Plenty of room for me to eat my $15 sandwich and read my book.

Sometimes it takes time and tenacity to find a good spot.  You have to walk around a lot and visit other terminals.  In Phoenix I found a little nook around a corner, unusable for anything except for a weary traveler to sit and be unseen by the crowds.  A large area of tables isn't so private, but nobody will probably sit by you, and if you're in Seattle, there might be live music there.  If you're really lucky it will be a woman with an electric violin who calls herself Razzvio.  I still think longingly of the comfortable reclining chairs at the Amsterdam airport (does anyone know if they are still there?)

For some reason I feel more tolerant on my international trips.  Maybe it's because I really want to go there, and I'm not on a work trip that I just want to get over with (sorry, boss).  I happily sat on the floor for hours in the Bangkok airport, talking to a couple who was going to hike the Annapurna circuit.  Also, the concept of a large amount of personal space is a pretty western idea: I've had to be more flexible in some countries.

I'm really not as unfriendly as this might sound.  If you see me in the airport, come talk! Really! But you have to find me first.  In the meantime, if you invent a time travel machine, sign me up!

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The in between seasons

A long time ago, I lived in Hawaii.  It was less than a year, because my job was seasonal, but long enough to see what it might be like if I decided to move there.  There were a lot of good things: walking around in flip flops and shorts, the ocean, the street dances the locals took me to.  It rained sometimes, but unless it was a serious storm, it moved on pretty quickly.  There weren't distinct seasons though (locals might differ; I saw people wearing coats when it was 70 degrees).

Where I live now, we have distinct four seasons, and although I've been known to complain about this, particularly when perched on my roof shoveling snow off it, there's something reassuring about dividing the year up in this way.  It's like the chapters of a book.  You might really enjoy reading one section of it, but you're always looking forward to the next one.

What's a little more problematic are the in-betweens.  Technically it's spring, but it's snowing in the mountains today.  This is closing day at the local ski resort; they have a Forest Service lease they must abide by, and it's time to give the mountain back to the bears.  Today I put my snowboard back up in the rafters of the garage, but my kayak still sits in there; it's too cold and rainy for me to take it out just yet.  Hiking still requires snowshoes or a lot of postholing.  I tried to run on the trails at work, only to be stymied by deep snow.

In between seasons requires creativity and flexibility.  There's always the gym, and the roads are clear enough for biking, if it gets warm enough.  The trails near my house are a muddy mess but possible for running because they are at a low elevation and well traversed by dog walkers.  Soon (July?) the high country will be open for hiking.

I always feel a little sad putting away the current season's gear.  I think maybe I should have snowboarded more, or hiked one more trail.  It's good to have something to look forward to though.  Bring on the summer!
See you later, ski area!

Monday, April 3, 2017

Three days in the vortex

Sedona, Arizona has beautiful red rock formations.  There are miles of hiking trails, and canyons with sparkling streams running through them.  The sun shines there 295 days of the year.  But vortices?

Well, maybe.  If you believe in it, a vortex is a place where energy is either entering or projecting from the earth, usually in a spiral.  Supposedly some people can feel them.  The earth is said to be especially alive in these places.  People say all of Sedona is a vortex, but there are some places there where the energy is especially strong.

Sneaking off there for a few days, I hiked and ran on the trails, escaping the rain and snow at home.  I climbed up on the red rocks, looking for natural arches.  Although a lot of other people had the same idea, I was able to find some solitude.

Did I feel the vortex? Well...not really, but I never heard the Taos Hum when I was there, either.  But I don't discount it.  There's a lot of mystery in the world and a lot that we don't know.

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.