Sunday, April 29, 2012

a home in the sky

I hike towards a lookout in the park. There were no other cars at the trailhead, so I sing loudly and badly to keep the bears away. Downed trees crisscross the trail like a pile of pickup sticks. At each tangle I stop and analyze: if I step on this one, then I can bypass that one, and go under the next one. At the top of the switchbacks, a steep snowfield buries the trail. The snow is icy and it wouldn't be good to fall here. I kick steps across it and move on, toward my retirement plan.

Whenever I tell people that when I quit fighting fire I want to work in a fire lookout, they tend to look uneasy. "That'," they say. "But won't you get lonely? I'd be so BORED. What would you do up there?"

There is actually lots to do at a fire lookout, if you're the kind of person who wants to be there. Besides the obvious, looking for fires, that is. You can fix things. Because most of these buildings are historic, meaning 50 years old or more, something always needs to be repaired, painted, or built.  You can work on the trail, clearing out water bars and cutting trees. You can hike the ridges out from your lookout. You can read all the books you meant to, or even write one. You can learn Spanish. You can sing or dance and probably nobody but squirrels and deer will see you, and they won't criticize. And after you do all that, you can sit quietly with all your maps and learn the contours of the land you live in.

When Jack Kerouac scribbled his stream of consciousness that became the book Desolation Angels, he was living in Desolation Lookout high in the North Cascades. I've spent time there, once waking up in the clouds to an August snowstorm. It is one of my favorite places in the whole world. While Jack appreciated the wild beauty around him, his solitary time at Desolation almost drove him crazy with his desires for cigarettes, whiskey, and human company. Over on Sourdough Mountain, his fellow Beat poet Gary Snyder embraced the lookout life, writing one of my favorite poems:

Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout

Down valley a smoke haze
Three days heat, after five days rain
Pitch glows on the fir-cones
Across rocks and meadows
Swarms of new flies.

I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.
Desolation Lookout
I sit on the catwalk of the lookout in the late April sun. I can hear other people coming up the trail; soon it will be time to leave. If I do end up in a place like this, when I am done digging fireline and flying in helicopters, there may be things I don't have up there on the mountain that I wish for desperately. There's no knowing. But somehow I doubt it. I can see myself in that far-off someday, in the arms of the mountains, at peace.


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

walking on the (not so) wild side

At the burn site, we unload our weapons of mass destruction: propane torches mounted on packboards. The burn piles, although shoddily made by a contractor, don't stand a chance. Most people want one of the torches. After all, this is the fun part: lighting a pile and moving on, trailing fire behind you. In contrast, if you're not lighting, you're following. You're throwing half-burned sticks back into the burn piles, hanging out in the smoke, cleaning up. You hike up and down the hill all day, your face and clothes covered in ashes. There's no glory in it.

But today I don't choose a torch. Instead I pick up a pitchfork and hike down the hill. I soon find myself alone. I follow the smoke through the forest. When I come to a pile, I stop. I pick up flaming limbs, shielding my face from the heat, and toss them back onto the embers. Some of the piles need rekindling, so I build them high, watching as the fire reaches eagerly for the surrounding trees, sometimes torching them out in a sudden rush of warmth and light. It's not yet green-up, so the forest floor crunches loudly under my boots as I walk. Although I try to avoid it, sometimes the smoke burns deep into my lungs.

I can tell where my fellow wanderers with pitchforks and rakes have been by the sudden rebirth of fires scattered over the hill. Occasionally I run into one of my friends, and we stop and talk for awhile, but they are loners today too, and we drift apart, following our own paths. Up ahead, the lighters have come to a halt, stopped by overly enthusiastic fire behavior on the private land boundary. We walk among the fires like survivors in some post-apocalyptic landscape. Shadows start to deepen and I make my way back up the hill.

It's the people up in front who get the attention. They move fast, setting the pace, lighting the fires. But if that's what you're used to, try staying back one time. Walk by yourself, making your own trail. Pick up the pieces, stir some things up. Watch what happens.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

band of brothers

I live in a small house on the edge of a 20 acre ranch. It is quiet, except for the sounds of birds in the trees and the horses' hooves when they run in the pasture. The other night I heard a mountain lion scream in the fields. I like the way the silence at night wraps around me like a blanket. Out here, I am my own family.

But I have another family here, although few of us share the same blood.  Helitack, hotshots, and engine crews; it doesn't really matter because we're all the same. We have walked the same steep firelines, have carried driptorches through the same seemingly endless burn units. I meet them under the helicopter rotors, speaking in a kind of shorthand we all understand: "Getalatlongof thenewhelispot/the fire'sonthe orangechannelforsomereason/doyouhavepeppersprayinthatpack?" I don't know where all of them grew up. I don't know the names of all their kids. I don't know why they chose this crazy kind of existence. But we would know each other anywhere. I would trust every one of them with my life.

A few of them know me better than any of my ex-boyfriends ever did. We tell each other just about everything. We do a happy dance when a conference call goes our way and growl at each other from our computers when we have to take mandatory online classes. We rifle through each other's food and give well-intentioned if unwelcome advice. We were thrown together mostly by chance, but somehow it works. Suddenly, I've acquired a few brothers: unrelated, occasionally pesky, but mostly great.

One of my co-workers sends me a text. It simply says "Beer." We stop at the Blue Moon after work on a Thursday, nine men and me. We are allegedly here to unofficially celebrate a retirement and a couple of temporary promotions, but we don't really need an excuse. We sit and talk and laugh for hours, people slipping away into the evening until there are only three of us left and it is after midnight. The waitress apologetically brings us water, but we don't really need it; we are still here because we genuinely like each other. Morning will come in just a few hours, but I'll stay here with my fire family a little while longer.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

my souvenirs

On the outskirts of every major fire, there is a T-shirt vendor lurking, hoping to make some money off the situation. Often these shirts are cheaply made and poorly drawn, but firefighters still buy them, driven by the same urge that causes some people to carve their initials in trees or spray paint rocks, to say: Look. I was here!

I used to buy the T-shirts, until I realized it was sort of lame to do so. After all, some of these shirts are truly awful, with slogans like "No Fear" or "Send us to hell, we'll put it out." It is considered especially feeble to wear the shirt from the fire, on the actual fire. I still possess some fire t-shirts which are so old now (circa 1992) that it is actually acceptable to wear them again. (I know, it's complicated. Try to keep up).

I need to admit something here. I love fire stuff.  All those hats from helicopter companies that we aren't supposed to wear, because a member of the public might think we would give a vendor a million dollar contract if they gave us a five dollar hat? I still covet them. In 2001, my module  bought me lightning earrings which I still wear today (thanks Katie and Ellen!). I have helicopter earrings too, and a helicopter bank, helicopter clock, and wooden helicopters too. I have a fire lookout replica, built to scale by a friend using the original blueprints. A plush Smokey Bear guards the fireplace.

I realize that this collecting of fire stuff is vaguely uncool. They are just material things, after all. Most of them have no real purpose beyond decoration. But someday I won't be a firefighter anymore. Then, I will pick up a small silver helicopter and remember how I used to fly above the trees. I'll open a box and find a shirt from a long forgotten fire. Then, it won't all seem so far away.

 Here is my latest acquisition. They are brown leather cowboy boots with a narrow square toe. But these are no ordinary cowboy boots. White lightning bolts run through them. In them, I'm a force of nature, electric, ready to take on just about anything. I walk toward the future, bringing the storm with every step.

Friday, April 13, 2012

broken roads

I didn't know if I was staying. It wouldn't be so hard to leave. I had done it many times before. Loaded up my truck, changed my address, and gotten out of town. That's what firefighters do. They're always looking for somewhere new and exciting to fight fire, where the wind blows from a different direction, where flames can sweep across prairies or creep through trees. Because it's true that while all fires are the same, they are also never the same.

My last move was complicated. There was a man mixed up in all of it, and a dream that in the end was like an ember that doesn't survive the night. Not made for the long haul, he soon fled after I had packed my life up and cut my ties with the last place. The last I heard, he got engaged to someone else less than three months after we broke up. I woke up to a clear and cold November morning, alone and wondering what I had done.

When you have a gypsy soul like mine, you get used to some things. Having to fit in with a new crew every few years, proving yourself on the fireline over and over. Learning the contours of the landscape and how a fire will move across it.  Figuring out how to read the sky and know whether you need to seek shelter right away or if you can keep walking for awhile. But you never get used to how it feels when your heart is breaking.

There were other jobs out there. I could go anywhere. My former fire management officer asked me whether a hiring bonus would entice me to return. He may not have been entirely joking. I was living in a converted garage. I hadn't registered to vote. I had one foot in my new life and the other still on the road.

Last Tuesday, my two employees who are back at work for the season went to one of the districts to help with a prescribed burn. It was a brilliant sunny day, but I was restless. Finally I realized I missed them. I kind of liked having them around.

I dragged a huge box into the office. In it was my fire history. Certificates from classes I had taken years ago. Awards I had received. Cards I had gotten when I left every other place behind. I filled the empty shelves with books. Tacked up some pictures, old fire crews smiling back at me across the years. Hung up some Tibetan prayer flags. It made me smile to see it all in front of me. It might have been a lost and broken road that brought me here, but it was my road.

I guess I'm staying.

Monday, April 9, 2012


In the summer we hang out at Spotted Bear, waiting for the helicopter to return. We do this a lot, and we are pretty good at it. Occasionally I get into an energetic mood and force everyone to do lunges across the airstrip. Other times, we elevate bothering the fuel truck driver into a form of art. We compare food and look at maps. Sometimes a member of the public appears and we nominate J. to go talk to them. He cheerfully agrees, and from our perches near the chase truck we can hear him earnestly, if possibly inaccurately, describing the fire activity in the wilderness.

Even though we spend a lot of time here, there is always something new to discover. We spy on planes, critiquing their landing technique on the backcountry airstrip. One of my co-workers, despite coming here for years, claimed not to have known until this August that there was an outhouse here. Sometimes a dense cloud of mosquitoes will strategically appear when we have no vehicle, forcing us to sprint down the airstrip. Occasionally people spraying weeds come by. Anxious for company, we disregard the noxious cloud surrounding them. Somebody new to talk to!

If we are lucky, we can see the smoke columns twenty, forty miles away, deep in the wilderness. We watch them climb and grow against the blue sky, and speculate on what the fire is doing. We say we want to be there, and we do, kind of: it's in our blood, the smoke and the flames. But this is good too, waiting here for the sound of the helicopter coming back, this green grass, these people, summer all around us.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

flying into winter

We don't fly in helicopters much in the winter around here. Some people are lucky enough to get an assignment in the south somewhere, feeding the PSD machines with spheres to set Florida or Georgia or Alabama on fire. For most of us, though, we take our last flight in October sometime and won't climb aboard again until May at the earliest.

Four years ago today I was able to experience one of those rare events, an April flight to look for wolverine tracks. We drifted like a snowflake over the silent wilderness, watching mountain goats cling to lonely ridges. Winter covered the mountains.

Of course, nothing went perfectly. It was windy in some of the cirques and we had to depart. The biologist got sick. We didn't find anything we could really say was a wolverine track for sure. But it was still pretty great.

This is what it looked like.

These trees covered by snow are called snow ghosts.
Frozen lakes waiting for spring.
The highest peak in the wilderness.
Cornices on the ridges looked like white waves.

Where are the wolverines?