Saturday, June 24, 2017

hanging around

"Why aren't you on a fire?" someone asks.  It might be simple curiosity, but coming from a person who is always trying to get out on assignment, it sounds a bit judgey.  After all, I could be on one. 

There are a lot of firefighters who make themselves available as soon as the first wisp of smoke appears anywhere in the country.  Some will put themselves ahead of their seasonal, broke employees and flee first, leaving others to pick up their responsibilities.  They get away with this, because after all, firefighting is our primary job, although most of us realize that the administrative and teaching part of our positions have mushroomed almost out of control.

After 30 years of doing this, I'm not in a hurry to rush out the door.  It's a slow season, after all: despite a few large fires making the news, there's not much going on, and a lot of resources are available.  And then there's this:

  On Friday I met up with some new hiking friends and drove to the east side of the national park.  We hiked along a lake and to a series of waterfalls.
A fire from two years ago had burned through part of the area.  While there were lots of burned trees, the fire had also opened up the forest, and its floor was covered with wildflowers.
I'm not in a hurry to get out on the road.  The fires will come, but if they don't, I know how to live within my means without the additional income.  For now, I'm content to just be here.  I'm not missing out on anything.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Girl Pants

I nervously approached the fire cache on my first day on a hotshot crew in 1992.  Burly men rushed around handing out gear to us rookies: bright yellow fire resistant shirts, sleeping bags, backpacks.  Although I had fought fire for a few years, this was a new level. 

"Can I have some old style pants?" I asked.  Mark the squad boss paused and sized me up, before rummaging through a pile of green pants to find my size.  Months later he approached me to say, "When you asked for old style pants, I knew you were all right."

"Old style pants" were seemingly modeled on 1980s dress pants: wide legged, with slash pockets in front, they had no place for storage, requiring the occupant to carry pens, small notebooks, and other items in an infernally uncomfortable harness around the chest widely referred to as a "radio bra" because it also housed a two way radio.  They were not fashionable pants, but they were comfortable, and far better than what was replacing them at the time: the infamous "jean style."
It's hard to tell, but I'm wearing the old style pants here.
I have no pictures of the jeans, because I held onto my threadbare old style pants as long as possible.  The jeans were based on a man's body, with legs that constricted while climbing over logs and brush in the woods.  They were widely disliked.  Still, some people in recent years have tried to bring them back.  On one of my crews they were called "discos," as in, "Tom is rocking the discos today."

Some well-intentioned soul designed a women's version of these jeans.  A true high rise mom jean, they either gapped in the waist and grabbed the hips like a boa constrictor, or vice versa.  Most women avoided these and resigned themselves to the men's pants.

Cargo pants were the next to appear. Smokejumpers, known for their sewing ability, tinkered with them, coming up with Kevlar and other versions. I grabbed a prototype pair and never looked back.  These pants, while still designed for men, fit loosely and had tons of pockets, so the dorky radio bra could be abandoned.  They still had issues: being built for a man, the pants sagged, chafed women's legs, and were usually too long.  But they were better than anything else we had tried.
Cargo pants, 1997
Two years ago, a female engine foreman approached me.  "I bought some girl pants!" she exclaimed. "I can help you get some too."

A private company had developed cargo pants for women.  Low rise, they fit comfortably and true to size, unlike some "vanity size" pants (Prana, I'm looking at you: while flattering, there is no way I should be a size 2).  But there was a problem.  Because there was a single source we were supposed to buy from, these pants were off limits for us.  She had found a loophole, though.

In order to buy them, she had to create a "job hazard analysis," basically outlining the problems with men's pants: the chafing, uncomfortable seams, sagging.  In 2017, it seems ridiculous to have to do this to get pants that fit women.  But it was what we had to do, and in the end, we had our "girl pants."

Since it's a hassle to get them, we guard them carefully. Project work? Barbed wire in the area? Throw on the cargos.  Handing them out to crew members? Make sure they give them back at the end of the season.  It's a sign of progress, though, finally.  Yay for girl pants!
Picture from here




Friday, June 9, 2017

(Yet Another) Trail Report

What to do when it's supposed to rain, but you just have to get out? Hit the trail, of course!

On Sunday I met my group of trusty millennials.  It was almost two, not exactly an alpine start, but one of them had to work, and it stays light until almost 10 anyway.  We piled into an old jeep and headed south.

The weather forecast called for a 50% chance of rain and thunderstorms, with high winds.  We went anyway.  Instead it was sunny and 80 degrees.  Everyone else was coming down as we headed up, a bonus of starting late.

The forest opened up into a bowl filled with a subalpine lake, still mostly frozen in this first week of June.  We roamed around on snow still so deep that we were looking down at the trail signs.  Below, the bear grass was just starting to bloom. 

Strawberry Lake.  Some people were (trying to) fish.
 
The trail from here is still under deep snow.
For most of my hiking companions, this was their last hike before they headed out to fires in the Southwest, although they didn't know it then.  I'll stay a little longer, which doesn't bother me.  Look at this place. It's so hard to leave. 


Saturday, June 3, 2017

Be the Anomaly

I'm a woman who has fought fire for thirty years.  Unlike most of the females I started out with, I didn't quit to do something else or raise a family.  I didn't move into upper management or into a job that, while still fire-related, would have allowed me to choose whether I wanted to be on the fireline or not.  I still work in a position where I'm expected to respond to fires and other emergencies at a moment's notice.  There are plenty of men who have done this; they retire with accolades and maybe a nice painting or a shiny Pulaski tool mounted in a frame.

There aren't very many women, though, and there will be less still, as fewer and fewer apply to firefighting jobs.  Because of this I am somewhat of an anomaly.  But this isn't the only reason.

A text out of the blue from someone I used to know caused me to think about how we see ourselves.  There is what we know about ourselves and other people also know, explained a fire management officer in Alabama this spring in a moment of reflection.  Then there is what we know about ourselves and nobody else knows.  The last part is what other people know about us but we don't know; the Jahari window.

But what if what we think we know about ourselves is wrong?

So many of us see ourselves through a warped mirror.  We are at times unattractive, boring, socially awkward.  Too fat or too thin.  We don't exercise enough.  We are bad supervisors or parents.  We are unlovable.

This kind of thinking caused me to join the other young women in college who barely ate and ran miles and miles along the lakeshore every day.  It kept me in a bad marriage for too long and then caused me to choose the wrong people, the ones who lied and secretly loved others and then left.

But it wasn't the truth, and it's not your truth either.  You are someone's unicorn, even if you haven't met them yet.  You're an anomaly too.  Believe it.


 





Monday, May 29, 2017

We're all the same on the trail

Generation X and Baby Boomers complain about millennials.  They're entitled.  They're always on their devices.  Millennials complain about Gen X/Baby Boomers.  They're out of touch.  They left the younger generations with a mess.  You hear both sides a lot.

This weekend I got to hike with both generations.  On Saturday, I met up with some women in my hiking group.  I hadn't ever met them, but most of them turned out to be around my age.  We laughed and talked all the way to an unmanned fire lookout in the park.  It didn't hurt that it seemed to be Hot Guy Hiking Day...each one coming down the trail was cuter than the next, culminating in one we called "Captain America," who strode around the peak with perfect hair and a movie star face.
"Captain America" is not in this picture, so stop looking.
On Monday, I joined a group of millennials for a hike to another lookout.  Some were my employees, and may or may not have been apprehensive to hike with "the boss." Still, we hiked along companionably, abandoning the trail in deep snow and heading straight up, picking up two young women on the way who had turned around after seeing bear tracks, convincing them to come with us.

Each group was at different stages in their lives.  The first group talked about their kids and places they had traveled.  The second group, young enough to be my kids, talked about places they wanted to go and jobs they wanted to get.  Despite that, they were similar where it counted.  We were all amazed by the mountains.  We all watched out for each other on the trail.  We talked and laughed and told stories.  We wondered about peak names and flowers.  We were all happy to be out on the trail.

We really aren't so different.  Maybe we just need to go hiking together more.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Hike with me (please!)

As I drove toward the trailhead, I felt optimistic.  Yes, there are bears everywhere around here, but the trail traverses fairly open terrain, burned in a fire over 10 years ago.  I hiked it by myself last year and didn't even see bear tracks.  The people I had tried to get to come hiking today were sleepy and didn't want to commit.  Still, I had bear spray and could yell "Hey Bear" with the best of them.  Seeing one was pretty unlikely...right?

Some vehicles were stopped in the middle of the road.  This can be pretty typical national park behavior.  Like in Walmart parking lots, people sometimes forget basic driving skills when they enter a park.  However, the people in the cars were gazing intently into the woods.  Memories of my former career as a park ranger began to surface.  This could only be one thing: a bear jam!

Sure enough, a cinnamon colored bear was eating happily a few feet from the road.  Rudely interrupted by the cars, it loped off into the woods, leaving me to continue uneasily toward the trailhead.  Was this a sign? Would my hike be overrun by bears?

Gathering my gear, I spied a woman preparing to set off on the trail.  "Do you want to hike together?" I asked, ambushing her.  In effect, this really gave her no choice unless she wanted to come across as kind of mean.  Luckily, she turned out to be easy going and seemed happy to have a companion.

A. was training to climb Mt. Adams; although the trail gained more than a thousand feet a mile, she moved out rapidly, not bothered by little rolling rocks and snowfields.  We discovered we had worked in some of the same places; she had been a firefighter in the past.  I had found a new hiking buddy!

I don't think you can ever have too many hiking buddies.  My schedule is erratic in the summer, making meetups difficult.  Trail friends go on vacations, have obligations, or get injured.  It's always good to have plenty of people who can join a hike, especially in bear country (four is supposed to be an optimal group size).

We paused at the top, the site of an old fire lookout, before the downhill slog.  Glacier lilies dotted the hillside.  The peaks in the park were still coated in white, but winter had lost its grip at last.  Fire season will be late here, but I don't mind.  After thirty years of fighting fire, I'll take the mountains and trails (and new friends) instead.
View from the top

Sunday, May 14, 2017

how to be found

We just finished a six day search for a lost hiker.  She was found alive and well, but this is unusual.  I've never found a living person in a search before.  During the week, I often thought of younger me.
Looking for Madeline
Younger me, a free spirit, traipsed solo around national parks and forests, usually foregoing essentials like fire starter, many times not informing anyone of hiking destinations or plans.  I like to think I'm smarter now, but realized that I had gone on a hike in the same wilderness in which we were searching only a week earlier.  Because it was a short hike, I rationalized that I didn't need a lot of stuff, and there would probably be people there (there weren't), so I didn't have to leave an itinerary.

If you go missing in my area, we will search for you.  We will risk our own lives scrambling on rough terrain in grizzly bear country and flying low and slow in helicopters.  We will do this whether or not you were really lost, if you did something dumb like jumping in a fast river or venturing out past a warning sign, and we will even search if we really have no idea where you might be.  But if you really want to be found, here are some things to do:

  • Go with someone else.  Or don't, but let someone know where you are going and when you'll be back.  Even a note in your car is better than nothing (we will break into it).
  • Do some research.  I'm constantly surprised at the people I see heading up a 12 mile trail at 4 pm, not knowing where it goes or anything about the area. Sunrise/sunset times are good to know.
  • Carry stuff.  Water, food, warm clothes,  first aid supplies, bear spray if in grizzly habitat.
  • Bring something to start a fire.  It will keep you warm on an unexpected bivouac, and you can use it to signal searchers.  You can see smoke a long way away, and believe me, if you start a fire, firefighters will come.
  • Consider carrying personal locator beacons, SPOT receivers, etc. 
  • Take your phone.  Even if there's no service, if you turn it on, your location can be pinged.
  • Please, for all that is good and holy, don't leave your common sense at the trailhead.  Warning signs are there for a reason.  Rivers are cold and fast in the spring.  Bears are grumpy and need to hear you coming. 
  • Be aware.  If you go off trail, memorize landmarks.  Take  a map and compass, or carry a GPS, but know how to use them.
Being part of a search party is pretty terrible.  You think of all the things that could have happened: bear attacks, drowning, hypothermia.  The parents are often there, desperately holding onto hope.  You wish that the person had just told someone their plans, turned back sooner, carried more gear.  Finding the body is almost a relief sometimes.  At least then you know.

If you disappear, we will look for you.  But before you step on the mountain or the trail, please take a moment to think.  Please help us find you.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

My phone thinks I'm lazy, and other randomness

I've been traveling so much for work lately that I haven't had many outdoor adventures.  It's still snowy in the mountains, so there aren't any fires to report.  Hence, a list of miscellaneous observations from the last week.

I have a step app on my phone.  It came with it, but I never really use it, because I don't take my phone into the gym, to run, or really anywhere I would generate steps, unless I take it hiking so I can take pictures.  Consequently, my phone is pretty disappointed with me.  "You haven't been very active lately," it chastises.  "Do you want to readjust your goal?" It seemed unreasonably happy when I got 40,000 steps while climbing a volcano in Iceland, but now it seems I keep letting it down.

I saw two people smoking outside the gym and thought it was pretty funny.  If I were a smoker, I'd probably walk over by the grocery store instead.

The person in the middle seat on the plane always gets the armrests! ALWAYS.  Why do people still not know this?

You can grow out of a lot of things.  Apparently, an allergy to poison ivy is not one of these things.

I'm so used to traveling by myself that I'm probably somewhat annoying at times to a travel companion.  I don't want to sit next to a bunch of other people in the airport, worry that I'll get a middle seat if mine is unassigned (I did), and announce that we are going to miss our connection (we did).  Sorry...

Southern hospitality is a real thing.  Why are you people so nice?

I've been seeing men wearing leggings, and not just in the gym.  Men in leggings: pro or con? Discuss.

Speaking of leggings, most men seem to think that yoga pants and leggings are the same thing. No, no, no.  They are not.

That's about it in this corner of the blogiverse.  What's going on in yours?









Saturday, April 29, 2017

The light at the end of the tunnel

On the surface, Thursday looked like any other day.  It was rainy and chilly.  I was in a week long class about how to plan memorials for line of duty deaths and how to care for survivors and families.  It was inspiring, but also depressing.  I felt somewhat irritable and sad.

BUT.  Despite appearances, Thursday was a unique day.  It was the day I was eligible to retire.

Retirement often conjures up an image of an elderly person, but, although I may seem old to the 21 year olds I hire, I'm not elderly.  I'm also (unfortunately) not a millionaire, one of the other categories of people who can retire early.  I am, however, a federal wildland firefighter, and we (along with law enforcement) have this benefit.

Long ago, it was determined that firefighters needed to be "young and vigorous." No oldsters wanted on the fireline! Because of this, you can't get initially hired into a permanent firefighting or law enforcement position after age 37.  At age 57, they kick you out.  Before 57, if you have 20 years in as a permanent employee at age 50 (seasonal time doesn't count if it was after 1989), or 25 years at ANY age, you can retire with full benefits.

It sounds great.  And really, it is.  Very few people can or want to be digging fireline and carrying 50 pound packs for 16 hours a day at age 65, and we don't have to.  Many of my coworkers have slipped discs, aching shoulders, and little cartilage left in their knees 20 years before that.  But there are some drawbacks.

Not many of us can afford to fully retire at 50, or even 57.  We don't make very much money considering the hazardous work we do.  A brand new college graduate in a lot of fields out earns many of us in the height of our careers.  Old firefighters used to be able to move into dispatch, but now there are career dispatchers we can't out compete for the jobs.  Spending so much time fighting fire, we are often left without the skills to do something else.

There's always options though.  Many retirees come back in the summer to get picked up on an as needed basis if there are fires.  You can go work for a state agency; they don't care how old you are.  You can go back to work at the agency in some other capacity if you have the ability.  Some people have saved enough that they don't need to do anything at all.

I still went to work on Friday.  I don't know what the future holds.  I could stick it out until they make me leave, or three consecutive bad days in a row could make the decision for me.  It's a little frightening, but also exciting.  Every footstep on the fireline and every helicopter flight has eventually led to this new chapter.  I'm looking forward to writing it.


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

Hireapalooza

"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.

Sincerely,

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.

And:
3.  Try not to regret anything.  Except not wearing sunscreen!

Sincerely.

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.

Antarctica




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

visitors

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.