Thursday, June 10, 2021

Goodbye, work friends

 We spent many hours together, up to 16 at a time, sometimes for 14 or 21 days straight. That's enough time to get to know a person. You learn what they like to eat for lunch, what their pet peeves are, what will cause them to have a meltdown. Often you dive deeper too, finding out their fears, insecurities, and what brings them joy. I've had coworkers tell me things they wouldn't reveal to their significant others. 

And yet, when you leave the job, that bond is usually broken, unless you're friends outside of work. I'm sure many colleagues are; with my job it was hard, though. I was the boss of my crew: I had to maintain a certain boundary with them, and socializing makes it difficult. Plus, when you spend so much time at work, you want to get away from it all on your time off, to see your non-fire friends, or revel in solitude.

My former workplace has gone on without me, which, of course, it's supposed to do. The ink barely dries on your retirement papers before someone else is occupying your job. I don't hear work gossip. People experience major life events that I don't know about. Others get promoted, some past their level of competence or despite their questionable ethics. I was there for almost ten years, but suddenly I'm not a part of it anymore. The appreciation I felt from my work friends and colleagues is gone. 

This is normal, though. I haven't even been retired six months, and I'm still navigating my world without fire and without employment. I don't want to be a hanger-on, one of those people who shows up at retirement parties, circling the room looking for someone to talk to. It's time to move on.

Luckily, I have another group of friends. They don't fight fire. They range in age from mid 20s to mid 70s. We mostly hike together, but sometimes take dogs for walks or have dinner. They're the people who stuck by me when fire assignments and a pandemic kept us apart. I deeply appreciate them. By just being in my life, they are helping me turn the page on my past life and move on into the new chapter.

We might be weird, but we are here for each other 

Wednesday, June 2, 2021


I struggled along on a trail run. Glaciers were probably moving faster. It felt hotter than the mid 70s in the woods. Still, as I collapsed back at my house, contemplating the hours of yard work still ahead, I felt lucky.

Summer has arrived, and I'm here for it. This is my first summer that I'll have real time off since 1990.

I started fighting fire in 1988, but for those first three years I was what was called "militia." As a park ranger, fire wasn't my primary job, so for the most part, unless I was needed for a fire, I had a pretty regular schedule: two days off a week, eight hour work days.  In 1991 I got on my first fire crew, and all that changed.

When you work as a wildland firefighter, summers are your sacrifice. If it's particularly rainy that year, you might get your two days off, but that's only if there's nothing happening anywhere else in the country where they might need your crew, helicopter, or engine. More likely, it goes like this: you leave your house in the morning, not knowing if you'll be back that night or three weeks later. You'd better have everything packed in your personal gear bag and everything else: bills, pets, plants, etc handled. 

If the fire season is instead raging at your Forest or Park, you're still not going to be home much. You'll be working 12 to 16 hour shifts, probably 14 to 21 of them, and then get one or two days off. At least one of these days is usually spent dealing with everything you let drop while you were working. If you're lucky, and feel motivated, your friends will accommodate your crazy schedule and hike with you when you finally get time off. One summer I worked 65 days straight (nope, we weren't supposed to, but there was nobody else to take over).

I don't know what it's like to have days off on a regular basis during the summer. One year, I took advantage of my boss's good nature and requested a week off work in June to go to Iceland. As I boarded the plane, I felt like I was getting away with something. A few days after I got back, I left on a two week fire assignment. 

Now that I'm retired, the summer is mine. This thought makes me feel slightly anxious. I should be out doing ALL THE THINGS, all the time. I need to hike all the trails! Kayak all the lakes! But look at the yard, it needs attention, and the porch needs painting. I tell myself to settle down. There's time.

I worked hard for this, but I'm grateful. I made it through thirty lost summers, some scary moments, thousands of hours of overtime, and the loss of some relationships to get here. It was all worth it. I'm ready.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021


What does home mean to you? Is it a place, a person, or where you grew up?

The sense of home has always been problematic to me. I was a seasonal nomad for many years, living in 15 different states, moving the same stuff around the country. I had boxes that remained unpacked, because what was the point, if I was leaving again in six months?

There are a lot of places I could live. I like looking out of car or plane windows and seeing the lights of houses or dirt roads leading up to remote cabins, wondering what it would be like to live there. In all the places I called home, even if it was just for a few months, there were good things, even in the midst of months of darkness and cold (Alaska) and "rock fever"(living on one of the Hawaiian islands). When people say, "I couldn't live there" about a place this bothers me. Obviously they physically could. They might even find something great about it.

But even if you could physically live anyplace, would it feel like home?

I've lived in my current town for 10 years, longer than I've lived anywhere since I left my parents' house. I know the best routes to get places. People ask me about hiking trails. I have a small but mighty support system. I could still decide to pick up and leave, but even though I'm retired, I have no plans currently to do so.

Is it home? I think so, but a lot of places could be, too. I've lived in bunkhouses, a tiny trailer surrounded by wild bunnies, and a cabin without water, heat, or a bathroom. For a brief time they were all home to me. I've lived by the ocean, in the desert, and in the mountains. For the most part, I loved them all. More than a place, I carried home with me. It wasn't a particular town or house. It was in my heart instead.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

i'm a guidebook

 The four young men approached hesitantly as I unloaded my bike from the truck. They looked a little out of place in a national park, dressed in skinny jeans and with tiny fashion backpacks. One sported a leather jacket that would look fitting on the streets of New York. 

"Excuse me," one said hopefully. "Where is the Valley of the Sun road?"

I resisted saying that they were standing 50 feet from the Going to the Sun road, a road they had just been driving on for the past 10 miles. Instead, I informed them that the road was right over there, and no, they couldn't drive on it any farther (they must have seen the gate, as it would have forced them to stop), but they could hike or bike on it. They moseyed uncertainly off, unsure of their plans.

This isn't unusual. It happens all the time. I have tried to perfect an unapproachable air, in order to maintain a bubble at backcountry campsites, airport gates, and to discourage serial killers, but it must not be working too well, because people still come up and ask me questions. They even do it in foreign countries. While standing in an immense immigration line in Chile, a person once bypassed all the locals to ask me something in Spanish. 

Maybe it's the years of being a park ranger, where I had to keep a straight face while providing answers to questions like, "how many native American ruins haven't been discovered yet?" and "what time of year do the deer turn into elk?" Or perhaps it's from being a supervisor and having to herd cats, I mean seasonal employees.  Or maybe I seem non-threatening, not the serial killer type. Even acquaintances regularly ask me about trail conditions, or where they should hike, often without inviting me along (this is annoying).

I returned from our bike and hike and started loading my bike back into the truck. A man approached. "Sunset?" he asked. I might as well not fight it. I pointed toward the lodge and told him to go sit there. He hurried off happily to get some photos. I hope they were good.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021


I valiantly pedaled my cruiser bike up a hill. Behind me, some little kids on bikes were threatening to catch up. I'm not really a biker, I realized, as I got off to walk my bike through an icy section. The kids elected to stay on board. This proved to be a poor decision for one of them, as he slipped and eventually fell. Being a kid, he was unhurt and gamely got back on his bike. But the delay allowed me to pull ahead.

The road through the national park doesn't open to cars till late June at the earliest because of the massive snowdrifts that must be cleared. When it does open, the lake I wanted to hike to is an easy 5 mile round trip from the trailhead, and overrun with tourists. Now, biking or hiking 12 miles round trip is the only way to get to where the trail starts. Hence, the bike.

Hardier cyclists than I hurried by, bound for higher elevations. But I turned into the campground and left my bike there, slipping on microspikes and starting up the trail. Nowhere in sight were the summer hordes, sporting questionable footwear and carrying portable speakers. A few people sat quietly at the lake, drinking in the view: I knew how many there would be, by the bikes left at the gate.

After awhile I turned to go, and headed back down the trail to my trusty bike. I pedaled the six miles back to the parking area, feeling pleasantly tired and happy to do something different (and to at least stay ahead of some little kids).

Monday, April 26, 2021


 I've been vaccinated for about a month now, so I've been out on the town, hugging strangers and...just kidding! I didn't do that before the pandemic! 

For me it's a relief though.  I can now hang out with vaccinated friends. Travel doesn't seem so daunting. We can now carpool to trailheads instead of driving several separate vehicles (aka the "Montana car pool:" one person per car). I'm not quite as grumpy when I encounter an unmasked person where masks are required. The gym is not as much of a minefield now.

Sometimes I feel like I'm "wasting" whatever period of immunity that I have. Places like Iceland are now letting vaccinated travelers in; tickets are cheap and I think about buying one and just going. I'm hesitant, though: people there are conflicted. They rely on tourism but are aware that they live on an isolated island; an undetected covid case brought in by a visitor could lock them down again. I don't want to be a cause of annoyance for them. Plus, I don't feel like touring around the country in a mask and having to get a covid test to get back in the U.S.

"I'll pick you up," I say to my vaccinated friend as we plan a hike.  I'm so happy that this is possible. Thank you, scientists!

Monday, April 19, 2021


 There is a trail that is only known to a few locals, although more people are discovering it. When D. showed it to me last year, it was faint in places. Now it is more defined and wide. I even saw three mountain bikers on it yesterday. Regardless, though it is near a popular, crowded trail, there is abundant solitude here. 

Recently we found something new on this trail. Several signs warned aggressively of no trespassing, and several stakes decorated a section of the ridge. Orange flagging was lettered with words like "garage" and "living room." Someone had obviously purchased this plot of land right on the trail, and was determined to build a large house there.

In order to build, they will have to extensively level the ridge that they have staked out. They will bring in heavy equipment, tear up the hill, and cut down the trees. Our trail, and our access, will be gone.

Over thirty thousand people moved here during the pandemic. They aren't coming to work at Wendy's; the majority of them are remote workers or self-employed, fleeing their crowded states. Most likely whoever is building up there is one of them.

I know that the economy marches on, and real estate is at a premium. I'm not from here either, despite having moved to this state fifteen years ago. This ridge we traversed must have been private land to begin with, albeit with no signs or owners around. It was probably only a matter of time. 

For now, I slip past the signs, a small act of defiance.  Soon this won't be possible; this gorgeous, quiet ridge will be off limits. I can't help but feel sad about it.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Hiking in the time of corona

A little over a year ago, I stopped trusting some of my friends, and they probably stopped trusting me.  Being a first responder, I didn't have the luxury of working from home.  I tried my best to avoid the dreaded covid, but I had to interact with other firefighters, pilots and the public every day. People at work were getting the virus all around me (I'm proud that my fire crew stayed covid-free). 

As for my hiking buddies, I knew some of them were embracing a hermit-like lifestyle, but others weren't quite so careful. As the pandemic wore on and restaurants and bars were opening, they started going out. They posted pictures on Facebook of themselves hiking in large groups. They frequented unmasked places, like church. 

As hard as it was, I had to avoid them. People in the next tier, the mostly cautious, I would meet at trailheads instead of driving together. This once resulted in four cars, each with one person, traversing a long, snowy road, which was pretty silly, but virus-free. A few people stayed in the inner circle; I  sometimes drove with them, but often met them at the trail too.

Now that I'm nearing my vaccineversary (I made that up), I'm ready to let go of this stress. I'm aware that no vaccine works 100% of the time, but the people I hike with are also now vaccinated or planning to get it soon. Some things won't change ( I'm still not a fan of big groups) but it's definitely a relief. The bears are coming out too, so it's time to hit the trail with friends.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

(more) dumb stuff I've done in the woods

 Just when you thought it was safe to go in the woods, here I am again, doing more dumb stuff! Actually, you're pretty safe: most of these things happened awhile ago. However, you're sometimes just one forgetful moment away from having a silly moment in the forest. In reality, I remembered more things I've done, so here we go, with some of the dumb stuff I've done out there:

Believed a guy when he said he knew the way out of the woods. Much floundering ensued, accompanied by mirth on the part of the rest of the crew when they had to come get us almost a mile away from the vehicles.

Believed a map and didn't check with locals, leading to crashing through brush at two a.m. in bear country and an illegal campfire in a national park.

Accidentally sprayed myself with bear spray.

Almost caught a fire lookout on fire by putting a piece of wood into the stove that was too big, then having to pull the flaming wood out of the stove and throw it off the catwalk.

Was sure the big, angry buffalo that I drove by would be gone after I parked and went running back the same route. It wasn't.

Took a potty break behind the Land Rover in the Serengeti, neglecting to see the leopard perched nearby in a tree.

Saw a mountain lion while running, continued running in blissful ignorance.

Didn't seam seal an old tent; it rained.

Didn't want to carry a sleeping bag into the Grand Canyon, figured it would be hot, carried a sheet and rolled up like a burrito on the beach; froze.

Succumbed to peer pressure and skied down a big hill instead of taking off skis like I wanted to; broke my ankle.

Told my group of hikers that I knew the way; ended up at the wrong lake.

Neglected to properly vent a can of chili on a campfire in the Yellowstone backcountry, causing it to burst and my companion to yell "bear bait" as we picked up beans from the dirt.

I'm unlikely to do most of these things again; however, dumbness in the woods is always lurking. In fact, I confidently told my friend that she wouldn't need snowshoes or hiking poles the other day; as we postholed through the forest, she may have been thinking, this is dumb!

Hopefully not about to do something dumb

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Dumb stuff I've done in the woods

 People often ask my advice about hiking trails. They want to know where they should go, what the conditions are, what they should take. I might be forgiven for thinking I'm some kind of expert or something. 

But behind every expert is a long list of lessons learned, things they could have done better. As I hiked back out of a trail today with wet boots after a water mishap, I reflected on some of the missteps in my outdoor life. Let's begin! In the (in some cases, not so distant) past, I:

Forgot an important item, such as microspikes, insect repellant, bear spray, etc, that was essential to that day's success. Once I forgot my whole backpack! Luckily, I was close enough to my house that I could go back and grab it.

Ran out of water, once shamefully asking a fire lookout for some (I would never do this now, instead I would suffer, but it was a long time ago).

Ran out of food.

Didn't bring rain gear. Needed rain gear.

Went running during a tornado watch.

Got temporarily misplaced and had to look for the trail.

Caught my hair on fire.

Neglected to set new tent up before the backpacking trip, leading to an hour's worth of flailing at the campsite trying to figure it out.

Didn't make enough noise and surprised a bear.

Attempted to hike in snow wearing sandals.

Got my vehicle stuck driving ill-advised roads to trailheads.

Had my brakes go out going down a winding, narrow logging road coming back from a trail.

Jumped off a rock into poison oak.

Refused to pack air mattress to save weight; campsite was rocky.

Climbed up places without thinking about how scary it would be to climb down them.

Fell through thin ice when trying to step off the shoreline of an allegedly frozen lake.

Wore shorts; encountered stinging nettles and devils club.

Changed into pants at campsite and climbed to a viewpoint to watch the sunset, leaving shorts out to dry; looked down and saw a mountain goat making off with the shorts.

Ignored tide charts and attempted to cross a bay that was rapidly filling with water; had to sprint back to the other side.

Let go of kayak while getting in it and had to run along the river bank trying to grab it.

If the people who asked me for advice only knew! But what's important is that you learn from your mistakes, right?

Anybody else have any silly things they've done in the woods?