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.