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.