Monday, July 25, 2016

Tales of a Reluctant Road Warrior

When I took the fire assignment last month, I thought I knew what to expect.  After all, I'd been managing Type 1 (large) helicopters for years.  There's always some driving, but generally after awhile you settle in at a fire camp or airport, returning to a motel room or tent every night.  You get to know your surroundings: the "musical road" in Lancaster, California for example, or the trail down the road from the airstrip in Dixie, Idaho.  Life is somewhat predictable, at least for awhile.

This assignment was different.  Like a restless bird, the helicopter never stayed in one place more than two days.  I drove to airports in New Mexico, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana.  I drove almost 4000 miles; as soon as I arrived someplace, it would be time to leave for another.  Entire days went by when I didn't see the pilots.

Early on I realized I needed a routine, even if I had to drive 500 miles that day.  And as I crisscrossed the West, one developed, as weird as it sometimes was:

Wake up at 5 am and stuff my gear into the Ford Escape.  There's a place for everything: my workout clothes, easily accessible snacks, even the big bag of trail mix T. left for me when he finished his stint with the helicopter (stuffed way in the back, so I wouldn't mindlessly eat it). Program the final destination into Gretchen the GPS.  Blearily hit the road.

Stop only when the need for gas and a bathroom arise (hopefully, at the same time).  Buy an energy drink, although they really don't work.  Tell self, don't buy Cheeze-Its. Buy Cheeze-Its.

Break no stopping rule when a particularly beautiful lake appears.  Look longingly at turnoffs for places like the Grand Canyon.  Look at GPS. It still shows 7 hours to go.  Pilot texts that he has arrived at the destination (it only took them 3 hours).
Why wouldn't you stop here?
Try not to be annoyed at other drivers.  Fail.  Fiddle with the radio.  Of course there's no Sirius, so the choices are country, religious, or "top hits." Settle for "top hits." Find yourself singing loudly, "Somethin' bout you makes me feel like a DAAAAANGEROUS WOOOOMAN." Feel slightly horrified; at least you don't have a trainee along.

Arrive at your destination, or, failing that, somewhere ten hours into the journey (all that you are supposed to drive in one day).  Search for a Holiday Inn Express to get the points.  Sometimes settle for something else (The "Retro Inn" comes to mind, although it really was ok). Although it's usually about 9 pm, go to the fitness room and exercise.  Look at Cheeze-Its in disgust; eat a salad. Do paperwork till about 11.

Finally catch up with the pilots the next day; having had lots of rest, they look pretty chipper.  After a couple of hours, get a call from Dispatch. You're headed somewhere else.

This is a strange job.  Sometimes you sit around, sometimes you dig in the dirt.  And sometimes you drive all day.  It's never really the same.  Maybe that's why we keep doing it.

8 comments:

  1. You and Willie "on the road again." Where were you in Wyoming? There's a fire north of Gillette, where Susan lives; it's extremely dry around there, she says. Thanks for the word pix of some of your days (and nights). Have to say, reading about Cheeze-Its before breakfast is making me slightly queasy. Take care!

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    1. We were in Cody. There are some by Dubois and Lander right now.

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  2. Too bad you can't fly with the pilots! I don't mind a little bit of driving but if I had to do it day after day it would get old quick.

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    1. We used to be able to fly in these types of helicopters but after a bad accident (in another model of large helicopter) they are no longer allowed to take passengers.

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  3. What a road trip! Wondering if there were fires in all those places or if there were some other reasons to move the big helicopter around? Glad you and Gretchen made so many miles safely.

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    1. There were fires in those places but they soon were handled.

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  4. I've had some similar road trips this year... drive two days to a predicted hot spot for fires, check in, find out the fires are happening somewhere else, head to where the fires are supposed to be, find out no fires there either, but fires starting at home, drive back to Boise, chase fires in the mountains there, rinse and repeat.

    I agree 100% with your last paragraph... it's a strange job alright, and I've accepted that fact as the primary reason I love and hate it at the same time. It's quirky and just bit dysfunctional a lot of the time, but when it's good, there's nothing else I'd rather be doing.

    Sounds like you and the crew are at least getting out and about a little bit!

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    1. A little. The fire season is starting up here finally.

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