Monday, December 29, 2014

Iceland it is!

My unscientific poll of the five people who read my blog indicates that Iceland is where I should go.  Ever since then, Iceland is everywhere: several TV shows that I was flipping past (one on a golf channel I didn't even know existed), articles in magazines I already had, and websites I discovered while looking for something else.  So it must be meant to be!

It appears that people either go to Iceland in the winter to see the northern lights, or in the summer to hike/climb/see waterfalls.  I'm sure the auroras are beautiful there, but I saw them often while living in Alaska, and I don't really want to travel to another cold place from the cold place where I currently live (it's supposed to be -15F tonight).  So I'll be going later when you can access a lot of the trails and peaks.

I'll most likely go by myself, but I'm used to that by now.  There are groups I could join when I got there, so I'm not too worried.  Here is what I want to do:

Go to the Blue Lagoon.  Yes it's touristy, but I have to.   Look at it.  I've heard it makes your hair feel like straw.  Anybody been there who can confirm this?  My hair often feels like straw while on vacation, so this wouldn't be anything new.
Picture from Wikipedia
Climb Iceland's highest peak, Hvannadalshnjukur.  Extra points if you can pronounce this.  It's only a little over 6000' but you start at sea level so it's about a 12-14 hour round trip, and it's glaciated, so you have to rope up.
Image from
See the Gulfoss waterfall.
Picture from Wikipedia.  Gullfoss means "Golden Falls."
Visit the glacial lagoon at Jukulsarlon and the geysers at Geysir.
Picture from Wikipedia
I have the feeling I might want to move there!

Anybody been there?  What am I missing?

Anybody else have trip plans?

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Eve snowshoe

I woke up and peered outside.  After days of rain, it had finally snowed a few inches.  I had a run planned, but that didn't look too fun, so I decided to carpe the diem and snowshoe instead.  I didn't need to drive anywhere; I had several acres of woods just down the street.

I had to be quick about it though.  The dog walkers around here, a dedicated bunch, come out early, no matter the weather, and pack down the trails.  I put on my snowshoes at my house (a hidden benefit of having a street that is rarely plowed) and headed down the road.

The forest was quiet and snowy, with only a few deer hiding in the trees.  Not a lot of snow, but enough.

Blue Subaru Man was the only one there, but I know his route, and took another, a loop about 5 miles long. 

It was snowing, a soft wet snow that was almost rain.  A skier had the same idea this morning.
I figured out where this skier lives.  Good thing I'm not a stalker.  I'd be really good at it.
It was a good way to start the day.

Admin note: Bloggers, do you know how to add a feature where people can be notified if someone responds to their comment?  I do try to respond to every comment on here, but I'm sure most people don't come back and check.  Is there a way to do this in blogger?  Thanks!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

what I'm pondering lately

1.  Whether it's very common to be googling "wild turkey repellent."  My current method is to burst out the door yelling at the turkeys that seem to be liking my porch lately.  It's rather satisfying on a temporary basis, but probably alarming to the neighbors below.

2.  My next international trip: climbing volcanoes and sitting in hot springs in Iceland, or trekking to the east and north Everest base camps in Tibet?  So hard to decide.  #FirstWorldProblems.

The Blue Lagoon in Iceland (no, not the one with Brooke Shields).
3.  How did I not know there was such a thing as a blog post generator?  You just type a subject in and it gives you a title!  No, it's not very helpful, but it did give me such ideas as "Seven ways running makes your hair look better"  (I need to read that, because I don't know a single one) and "Twenty things your boss wishes you knew about Tibet."

4.  How wildland firefighting became a year round job.  Meetings! Conference calls! Hiring! Forty applicants wanting you to call them back and chat!  What did we do before?

5.  How I unjustly made fun of B. for eating chips while on a no-sugar "cleanse."  Why is it that when you have no sugar in the house, you crave salt?

6.  How I can come back in my next life as a house cat.  Unlimited food? People buying you treats and toys?  Being thought of as cute for really doing nothing?  Sign me up.

7.  Where to go winter camping.

8.  Why some hills never get easier, even though you run up them all the time.

9.  Should I get these wheels for my truck?

PIcture from the RBP website.  RBP 94R custom wheels
10.  Why assisted pullups don't seem to help you get better at the real ones.

There you have it, some random thoughts from a blogger with nothing to write about.  The blog post generator says I should have discussed "10 things your competitors can teach you about cats."  Stand by for that one.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Happiness is a trail in the woods

Before I bought my current house, I used to drive to a trail to run.  It's a nice trail.  Everyone in town knows about it.  A marathon takes place on part of it every year.  It's maintained by volunteers, with well-banked corners for mountain bikers and signs at trail junctions.  If you want to know how far you went, there's a map at the trailhead with mileages on it. 

I don't run there anymore.  My new house has a trail system less than a quarter mile away.  To be honest, this was worth at least $10,000 of the asking price.

These trails started out as skid trails in a logging unit, and are maintained by people's feet.  There are roots and holes in them.  When we have a rainy spring, the vegetation grows as high as my shoulders.  They are often muddy in the fall and icy in the winter.  There are dogs, lots of dogs, none leashed to their humans.  Most of them are friendly.  Deer hunting is allowed during the season; the dogs then sport festive orange ribbons and I have to find my bright sweatshirt if I want to run there.  There are homemade mountain bike jumps and paths leading off into neighborhoods.  These trails are unpretentious. 

I used to get lost on them, running extra miles to find my way back, but now I have a map in my head.  I know which trails are lightly used and how long each one will take me.  I measure my runs by time, not by distance; there's no way to know exactly, unless you carry a GPS-enabled device, which I don't. 

I'm starting to recognize some of the people.  There's Blue Subaru Man, who has the misfortune of not living nearby and has to drive,  which he does, twice a day.  There's Woman with Many Dogs, and a few other runners.  This winter I'm sharing the trail with a woman on a fat tire snowbike.  There's early morning skiers after a fresh snow and a snowshoer I have yet to see.  I follow these people's tracks, interested to see which trails they chose, where they turned off.

I know these trails now, their hills and turns.  I've run and walked there in every season.  It's my forest, waiting there at the end of the street for me to put on my shoes and get there.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014


I get paid to exercise.  Don't hate me.

If you're a firefighter, you've encountered "PT", physical training, sometimes known as physical torture.  It usually happens around the first hour of the day, after you've read the weather and the situation report, put your gear on the helicopter and your overnight bags on the chase truck.  If you're the boss, like I am, you have to hustle to get out the door, because this is when the phone will probably start ringing, leaving you gazing longingly at the crew as they head off down the road. (If you're the boss, you also have to run awkwardly with your phone, or worse, a handheld radio, in case you get a fire call while you're gone).

On my crew, we mostly PT on our own, because for years I was forced to take part in the dreaded "group PT", and because honestly, it's the only break I get from them all day (Sorry).  It's true that group PT can be a bonding experience.  I used to run with JS when he was on the crew, because we had the same pace and he could distract the local dogs.  Sometimes B will inflict Crossfit on unsuspecting rookies.  But mainly we do our own thing.  I've been on enough crews where we had to run in lockstep to never want to do that again.

Running is the most common form of firefighter PT because it's easy, only a pair of shoes required.  We seek out trails instead of the roads, sometimes to our detriment.  After a rash of twisted ankles, trail running was banned at Mesa Verde. Volleyball and basketball soon followed, forcing us to run glumly on pavement, until we decided to sneak back on the trails again, making plans to limp out to the road if injured.  In Montana, B claimed to have encountered a badger, but since he was running alone he had no backup, so was not widely believed.  Another B almost ran into a bear with cubs, twice, causing him to reconsider running and return to Crossfit.

We don't always get to PT; sometimes fires or projects or classes take precedence.  One of the local fire management officers here doesn't really believe in it.  "Sawing is PT," he bellows, sending his crew out the door with their chainsaws to work on a thinning unit.  We can't go off  site to a nice gym.  We are allowed to use the district weight room but it is often full of hotshots; instead we do creatively named workouts such as "Billy Big Arms" and "Card Deck of Pain."  We make it work.

In the end, PT is a privilege, not a right, I tell my crew.  We do it so we can do those 50 mile hikes out of fires carrying stuff and work all day long.  An out-of-shape firefighter is a liability in the places where we work.  So there we'll be on most days of the summer, running down the road or doing burpees and mountain climbers in front of the station.  Don't be jealous.  Sometimes that fancy gym and available shower that you have looks pretty good to us.  Remember, the grass is always greener (unless it's on fire).

Thursday, December 4, 2014

You look great for...

This is Jada Pinkett Smith's mom.  Her name is Adrienne Banfield-Jones and she is 61 years old.

I can just hear some of you saying, "She looks great FOR HER AGE."

Stop! (First of all, look at her.  Most of us could only dream).

I can't really blame you.  When I was younger, I thought this was a compliment too.  But now that I'm getting (ahem) to the age where people might conceivably say this to me, I don't see it that way.  To me it sounds like, "Wow, if you were 25 you'd look like an old bag, but compared to the other hags your age, you look pretty good."

#Sensitive?  Maybe.  But what is a certain age supposed to look like/act like/exercise like?  I'm in better shape than a lot of the people in their 20s I see at the gym and even work alongside sometimes.  Now more than ever, I see people of all ages running marathons, climbing mountains, and fighting fire.  I also see people of all ages who have simply given up.  What does "for your age" really mean?

So next time, do a favor to me and to the other older gals still out there hiking and trail running and fighting fire and looking great doing it.  Say, "You look great!" and stop right there.  That's a real compliment.  Remember, you'll be here someday too, if you're lucky!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

In which we all go back to middle school

When you see video and interviews with firefighters on TV during the summer, we all seem so serious.  After all, it's a job where a mistake can have grave consequences.  It would lead one to assume that we are always taciturn and unsmiling.

Um, not really.  When the situation calls for it, we are focused and decisive.  But when times are slow and we need comic relief, sometimes you'd think we were all 12 years old.  That's when the pranksters come out.

Mike, from a Wyoming helitack crew, was a pro at the hiding gear game, mostly because he had such a poker face.  The victim would rush to the van, having learned that a helicopter he was responsible for marshaling was headed back to the base.  "Where's my hard hat?" he would eventually ask as he gathered up his required personal protective equipment.  "I'm pretty sure you left it out at pad 10," Mike would say, naming the helipad that was the farthest away.  The crewmember would sigh and hurry out there; as he grew smaller in the distance Mike would smirk and pull the missing hard hat out from under a pile of gear.  He was so good at this that his crewmembers fell for it, every time.

Putting something unexpected in someone's pack is always good for a laugh.  While rocks are common, usually only discovered at a rest stop by the unfortunate rookie who wonders why his pack seems so heavy, we often resort to something less mature.  I confess to hiding a rubber snake in Chris's flight helmet bag, which was mean, since he was known to scream and run at the sight of a real one.  However, his lack of response upon finding it was disappointing; I should have spent more money and bought a more realistic one. 

Someone enterprising discovered this truly horrible photo of David Hasselhoff:

He made a photocopy and put it in Tom's rappel bag with a note saying, "Have a good fire assignment. Love, the Hof".  Somewhat chagrined, Tom returned and reported that he had opened his pack and revealed the picture with some strangers standing around.  This photo became a staple in fire gear for awhile.  However, it eventually backfired on us when we forgot to take down a copy that was hanging on Teagen's locker; it was spied by an eagle eyed fire management officer during an inspection and deemed inappropriate.  That pretty much marked the demise of the Hof love notes.

Decorations are easy and provide much amusement.  A crewmember perusing a newspaper found an adoption ad for a small, hyperactive dog named Bert that had housetraining problems; this was immediately posted at  the human Bert's desk.  Karl filled in with us so long that he took down MB's nametag above her locker while she was on assignment, hid her stuff, and posted his name above not only her locker but also the empty ones she was known to colonize for her overflow gear.  Articles about bear attacks and ads for electronic bear fences were taped to Dan's locker, as he was a known bear attractant.  Guy hated Texas for some unspecified reason, so Texas-related items often showed up on his desk.  We found a blow-up training dummy at a fire station where we were camped; we dressed it in fire clothes and a flight helmet and installed it in the front seat of the helicopter for the pilot to find in the morning.  Later it took up residence in a hotshot vehicle after we found their keys.

Our job is difficult, at times monotonous and at times scary, so I appreciate when I walk by the crew room and hear them giggling about something like a For Sale sign they put on Wendy's car or about the time they called someone on the radio and said their parole officer was on the phone.  It's good to know they can still have fun.  Even if some days you'd swear we were all sixth grade boys.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

In praise of living alone

On every fire crew, there is usually that one person who you can't send to sit up on a high point for the day and watch out for the rest of us.  It's not that this person is incapable of recording weather observations and reporting back to the crew on the fire status and any hazards they might see.  No, it's because they can't be by themselves that long.

These are the same people who think I'm crazy for wanting to work in a fire lookout.  "I could never do that!" they say.  "I'd get bored.  Wouldn't you get lonely?"

Here's the thing, people.  Alone is not a synonym for lonely!

I lived with other people for years, including an ex-husband for 14 years (some of which was spent in a 400 square foot apartment).  I had several roommates.  Some were great and some not so great (the one who got involuntarily committed to a psych ward, the one who stole from me, the couple who fought incessantly, driving me to put my tent up in the campground for the summer).  Now I live with a couple of cats, and I think it's the best thing ever.  Here's why:

I do whatever I want.  Eat the same thing every night for a week? No  problem.  Never ever have to watch football again? Check.  I can get up or go to sleep when I want without disturbing anyone.  My cats can hang out on the counter, and nobody gets upset. I put my stuff where it makes sense to me.  If I want excitement, I can go out and look for it, or invite it over.  If I want to stay home and eat cookies, that's ok too.

The bathroom.  It's all mine.  Need I say more?

Finances? Not sharing them.  That means I can buy this without consulting anyone:

I can make my own plans (or not).  I can get up and decide to go on a hike, or to Antarctica.  Or just stay home.

I have to be more self-sufficient.  Those nursery trees aren't going to plant themselves!  On the other hand, I've learned who I can count on when I need help with my cats or have a big hole in my roof during a rainstorm.  Those people aren't obligated to help; they want to.

For those of you reading who are saying, but I live with my husband/wife/significant other/friend and I can do all those things (because I know some of you are!), that's great.  That hasn't been my experience.

What living alone really means to me is that finally I have peace.  I might not have another human in my space, but I'm rarely lonely, and if I am,  my people are out there.  I get to be with them, and then go home to my refuge.  It's the best of both worlds.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

more gym thoughts

There is an episode of Seinfeld where Jerry talks about the gym.  He says:

To me, going to the health club, you see all these people and they're
working out, and they're training and they're getting in shape but the
strange thing is nobody is really getting in shape for anything. The only
reason that you're getting in shape is that so you can get through the
workout. So we're working out, so that we'll be in shape, for when we have
to do our exercise. This is the whole thing.

Sometimes I think about this when I go to the gym.  All of us, running and biking and stair climbing to nowhere, and lifting heavy stuff so we'll be able to go back and lift more heavy stuff. (Disclaimer: I know some gym goers actually are training for something like a race or competition.  But most of us aren't).
Rule #1: Cardio
Still, the gym is a necessary evil, even for wildland firefighters, because unless we live someplace like Florida, most of us work at a desk all winter (unless we are laid off due to lack of work).  In the summer we usually work hard enough not to need it (and aren't home to go there anyway).  So once winter comes you'll find us there among the other zombies, attacking a machine or dumbbells, all of us working out so we can go back and work out again. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

there's no crying in firefighting...or is there?

Years ago when I was on a hotshot crew, we barely escaped being burned over by a fire in the Salmon River country of Idaho.  We ran through a small gap in the flames, holding our breath, everything forgotten except escape.  The break in the fire closed up behind us, trapping a crew that followed on our heels.  We lost them in the smoke and heat.

We ran down the ridge and jumped in helicopters at the next opening in the trees.  Safely on the beach, our superintendent tried to raise the other crew over and over again on the radio.  There was nothing but silence.  Then as we returned to the helispot to gather our gear, we heard the sound of rotors.  The helicopters returned, carrying the lost crew.

Seeing their path blocked by flames, they had turned and raced up the ridge, luckily finding an old helispot near the top.  The helicopters had been able to swoop in and pick them up.

Getting off the aircraft, the other crewmembers thought we were there to greet them and started hugging us.  We were embarrassed.  This just wasn't done, especially by hotshot crews.  We were tough.  We didn't show emotion.  We were just there to pick up our gear.

That night we slept on the beach.  Nobody talked about our close call, or the fact that we probably shouldn't have been where we were in the first place.  We went back to work.

Two years later, the other crew tried to outrun a fast moving fire in Colorado.  Almost half of them could not, and died there on the mountain.

Twenty-two years later, times have changed.  On one assignment, my ignition specialist trainee burst into tears when our prescribed burn bumped the road, sending embers over our line.  People ask for days off to go to weddings, family reunions, even Burning Man, something we would not have even thought to ask for back in the day.  Fire assignments are 14 days instead of 21.  There are showers, bottled water, and radio trailers on most incidents.  The 36 and 24 hour shifts are mostly in the past. If people are forced to work that long on initial attack, they usually complain about it.

In training classes, we are encouraged to talk about our feelings.  We are expected to counsel employees and try to understand why they aren't doing a good job, instead of just telling them to shape up.  We have to be careful what we say, for fear of offending someone.

These aren't all bad changes.  But sometimes it's been hard to get used to.  As a firefighter, I had to hide the emotional, sensitive side of myself for so long that it's difficult, and uncomfortable, to let her out.

When I chose this life so many years ago, I became a part of a culture that weeded out the weak, the emotional, the needy.  We, especially the women who had to prove they could work alongside the men, were encouraged to be strong, to stand alone, not to lean on others.  Would I be a different person if I had chosen to be a nurse or a meteorologist?

Any thoughts? How has your career changed you?  Are you encouraged to share your feelings?  If you've been doing this job for awhile, has this changed over time? Is our society just more open now? Discuss!

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Oh the irony, and other Denver weirdness

I approached my gate with relief.  I had been at the Denver airport so long that I had started and almost finished a whole book.  However, an agent was muttering something into a microphone about a delay.  It appeared that the inbound plane, the one I was supposed to then board and head for home, had struck a bird, causing enough damage that the aircraft had to be taken out of service.

Isn't it ironic?  Why yes Alanis, it is.  The reason I had been in Denver was to attend an aircraft accident investigation class.  We learned how weather conditions, mechanical problems, or pilot error could contribute to accidents.  (And yes, birds).

Other random strangeness:

The weather!  No wonder all you people live here.  Three hundred days of sunshine a year?! Does everyone know this?  Oh wait, I guess they do, judging by all the traffic.  I felt like I was driving in southern California!

Monks.  I saw two of them in two days.  What's up with all the monks?

Six other people in the hotel workout room before 5:30 am.  EVERY DAY.  Usually the hotel workout room is a deserted wasteland I have all to myself.

I had dinner with my long lost friend K who lives in Denver. I hadn't seen him in 27 years!  Not only did he tell me real war stories about the combat zones he has been in, but we also figured out that we had lived in the same town and worked on the same military base for a five year period.  We probably passed each other on the road many times!

The birds decided to calm down for the night and the new plane made it home safely.  Now I'm qualified to be an accident investigator trainee, if an aircraft working for my agency is involved in an incident.  Years ago, I was involved in a helicopter crash; you can read about it here.

I hope we have no accidents.  However, I know how lucky I am to have survived, and if I do get to investigate one,  I'll use the knowledge I gain to possibly prevent similar accidents.  This will be my way of paying it forward.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Don't do this at the gym!

The other day I was at the gym, minding my own business, finishing up an exercise with dumbbells when I felt eyeballs on my back.  I turned around to find an older, chubby, neon-shirted man staring at me.

"Can I give you a pointer?" he asked.  "No thanks, I'm okay," I said nicely. 

He laughed condescendingly and somewhat derisively.  "I just wanted to give you a pointer," he said defensively.

I REALLY HATE THIS, even more than Competitive Man (gets on the treadmill next to you, looks to see how fast you're going, and turns his up faster), or Lonely Man (thinks the gym is and asks you out while you're trying to run). 

I started lifting weights in 1991.  No other women lifted at the tiny gym I joined; they did aerobics, bouncing around wearing thong leotards and tights, much to the delight of the guys in the weight room.  A competitive bodybuilder took an interest and taught me the core exercises I still do today.

Since then I've belonged to many gyms and lifted weights with a lot of people.  I worked with an athletic trainer for a year when I was in physical therapy.  I know what I'm doing.  The exercises I do help me carry heavy stuff up hills and dig fireline all day.  I'm well aware that there are many different ways to do most exercises, even simple biceps curls or tricep kickbacks, depending on which part of the muscle you want to target.

Just because he thought HIS way was right, doesn't mean it's right for me, just like the way he was doing lunges (extending his knee beyond his toes and letting dumbbells nearly touch the floor) might be right for him, but wouldn't work for me.

Obviously, if you see someone about to drop a bar on their head at the gym, feel free to jump in.  If you really must butt in to someone else's workout routine, talk to a trainer (they are all over my gym), and have them intercede.  If you MUST.

This man was not a trainer.  He was not fit.  I didn't even get a nice, friendly vibe from him, just a superior, creepy one.  I doubt he would have said anything to a man who was lifting.

Why do some guys think this is okay?


Monday, October 27, 2014

The flight of the minions

It's an event that happens every autumn without fail.  The fall rains are the first hint that it is about to occur, combined with widespread restlessness and then, finally, the departure of our contract helicopter.  Then, much like a flock of migrating birds, it is time for the minions to depart.

They all go, even the ones who say they want to keep working.  This desire fizzles out as the days get colder and the work gets more monotonous.  I can't blame them, really:  when I was in their shoes I wanted to leave too, to get to the next part of my life.

Now I'm the only one left, except for D., who has managed to stay out on assignment in California for the last month.  I turn the heat up.  I don't have to forego a shower after running because there are nine other people who want to use the one bathroom.  There are no time sheets, no putting my employees before myself, no questions.  Even though I really like my crew, it is peaceful.

Some, like B., have gotten other jobs.  The other B. got married and nobody sees much of him.  IH fled a month ago to a raft trip in Peru.  J. went back to sunny California, but he likes it here and may be back someday.  M. and J. got real jobs, which is what we call any job that isn't firefighting.  MB is in nursing school.  C. has not resurfaced in awhile, but whatever he is doing probably involves coffee and a skateboard.

Some of them will be back and others won't.  Sometimes the ones who return seem the least likely to at the end of the season.  As for the ones who don't, who move on to hotshot crews or smokejumping or real jobs, our paths will probably cross at some point in the future.  Then we will reminisce about Hay Creek and hanging out with Alex and sitting in the grass at Ferndale with food from Woody's.  Even if they never fight fire again, they were once part of the fire brother and sisterhood for a little while.  It's something you never forget.

This is what it looks like around here right now

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


This all happened in less than 2 weeks:

First, a gorgeous summer-like day (and an 11 mile hike with friends):

Then it was winter all of a sudden (and an 8 mile hike in the snow with the same adventurous friends):

 and a few days later, back to summer (and a short hike by myself):
I once lived in Hawaii for a short time.  I loved living there because hello, Hawaii?  But I missed the uncertainty of the mountains.  You never really know what you are getting into.  The forecast could call for sun, and yet it snows at the top of a peak.  Sunny, warm days are precious and people here make sure they are out kayaking, hiking, climbing; the gym is deserted on those kind of days.

I do wish winter were shorter (sorry, skiers and snowmobilers).  But it's all part of mountain living.  I've lived in 15 states, and I'll pick the mountains every time.

Why do (or don't) you like where you live? 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

What kind of house are you?

If I were a house instead of a person,  I would be a log cabin, kind of on the small side, not exactly new but with a few good years still left.  I'd be a little weathered on the outside but obviously cared for, with a few things that needed fixing but still structurally sound.  Inside I'd have a woodstove giving off heat like a big heart but you'd have to go inside to find it which means you'd have to have the key, which not very many people have gotten.  I'd be tucked up in the mountains next to water with a nice view, by myself but not too far from other houses, not too long of a walk if a person got lonely.  I'd have big windows to look out at the world and to see who was coming up the path, and a cat or two, maybe even a dog.  I might be up a long crooked road, but if you took the time to come up, you'd want to stay. 

What about you?  What kind of house are you? 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Why I don't have a bucket list

  • I don't like to plan.  I don't know what I'm doing tomorrow, how can I plan for something that might be years away? I didn't plan to be a firefighter, and 27 years later I'm still fighting fire.
Me on a hotshot crew

  • What if you change your mind? As in, "hey, running with the bulls would be fun!" (Don't worry, mom, this sentence has never crossed my lips).  Then, older and wiser, you realize it might be sort of dumb, and you don't want to do it anymore.  Can you actually cross things off a bucket list? That seems kind of wrong, so much so that one day you might find yourself sprinting along in Pamplona, thinking, darn that bucket list! What was I thinking! But now I HAVE TO!

  • I don't always know I want to do something in advance.  Last November I was scouring the internet, thinking, I've got to get out of here, where can I go? when I saw a friend's pictures of Antarctica.  Oh ok, I'll go there, I decided, and left a month later.  While climbing a mountain in Antarctica, I realized I had been climbing on every continent except one (Europe).  Hmmm, that would be kind of cool to climb on all seven continents, I thought while waiting for the person on the rope ahead of me to negotiate a crevasse. OK, I'll do that then. Iceland, here I come!
Climbing in Antarctica
  • I've already done a lot of stuff.  Skydiving? Did it.  Climb Kilimanjaro?  That too.  Fly in a helicopter?  All the time.  See the Big Five in Africa? Yep.  Of course there's still things I want to do, but usually I figure them out at the last minute.

Here's what I think about bucket lists.  Have one, if you like lists, or if you need one to plan ahead.  But life is uncertain.  If you want to do something, do it!  Unless it involves another person who isn't in the picture/isn't ready/isn't born yet, tons of logistics, or millions of dollars, your dreams are closer than you think.

What do you think? Do you have a bucket list? If so, what's on it?

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

the middle ages

George, our pilot a few years ago, was frequently amused by us, but never more so than when he heard a (very young) temporary employee refer to our rappel spotter as "middle aged".  S., who had just turned 30, was a little perturbed by her new status.

While she was clearly not middle aged, it gave George the opportunity to expound on one of his favorite subjects:  what is middle age?

To him, chronological age had very little to do with it.  He explained that a certain 25 year old could be middle aged but not another 70 year old.  It all had to do with interest in life, curiosity about the world and other people, and having something you were passionate about.  If you were in a rut and had basically given up, that to George was being middle aged.

In his 60s, George loved to tinker with mountain bikes and travel.  He talked about quitting flying and opening up a bike repair shop.  He hadn't given up on anything.

It's been awhile, but he hasn't forgotten our conversation.  He occasionally emails me with helpful links to things like a sale on hydration packs, because, he says  "it's important for middle aged folks to stay hydrated."  This makes me laugh but it also makes me think, am I acting middle aged as defined by George?  Is it time to take a spontaneous trip or do something different?

Bike on George, and may you never be "middle aged", at least not in spirit.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Why you should travel by yourself at least once

Occasionally when traveling, by which I might mean a lot, my travel companion (i.e. the ex husband) and I didn't see eye to eye, and we would disagree (some might say FIGHT).  I thought of our travel experiences as amazing journeys punctuated by the occasional tantrum and underlaid with anxiety.  Then I started (note the "ex" above) traveling by myself.

What a difference!  I'm not suggesting you travel by yourself all of the time, but if you're like me, and your potential journey companions can't afford it/don't have time/have kids/don't want to do the same stuff, go anyway! (Insert cautionary note here:  of course, be sensible where you are planning on going.  Europe would work, anyplace with Ebola, probably not).  Here's why:

1.  You don't have anyone to vent to.  At first this might seem like a bad thing, but it's not.  If there's nobody around to complain to about 2 hour immigration lines, annoying people, or pushy taxi drivers, you just deal with it.  You might actually feel sort of Zen about the whole thing.

2.  You get to do what YOU want.  Want to climb mountains instead of sitting on a beach?  Tired of trying to fit in a run around your partner's sleep schedule?  Want to keep going on the trail instead of turning back?  You can, and all without guilt.

3.  You're a lot more approachable.  Couples, or even friends traveling together, tend to want to hike together, tie in on the same rope, and do the same things.  They're harder to get to know, even on the trips I've taken where I've met up with a group to climb a peak or hike a trail.  I tend to drift between the other loners, hiking a few miles with each one, and finding out about them.  As someone traveling alone, I'm also approached often by locals who start firing away in their language, not seeing me as American (which these days might be a good thing).

4.  You don't have to worry if someone else is having a good time.  The afore-mentioned ex husband would have been perfectly happy lounging on a tropical beach instead of teetering on the edge of death on the side of a mountain, where we often ended up.  I didn't realize how stressful it was worrying about someone else's happiness until I traveled alone.

5.  People back home think you're cool.  Kind of weird, but cool.  "You went to Antarctica/Nepal/Patagonia by yourself?" they ask, intrigued.  "I couldn't ever do that!"  Here's where you get to smile smugly while maintaining a mysterious air.  "Yes," you say, "I did, and it was great!"

Thursday, September 25, 2014

the mystery of the itchy left elbows

Back at work from California, I absently scratched my left elbow.  "I think I got poison oak when I was out there," I said.  "But just on my elbow."

My assistant looked at me incredulously.  "ME TOO!" he yelled, displaying a rash in the same spot.  I had taken over the California assignment from him.  We approached the employee who had been managing the helicopter before both of us and asked the question.

"Yes, but I just thought I had dry skin," he said, distracted by the prescribed burn we were supporting.

We looked at each other.  It had to be something on the armrest of the vehicle that we had all driven.  We eyed K., our usual carrier monkey, but this time he was blameless; he hadn't been anywhere near the car.

I sent a voice message over the Voxer app to the person who currently had the car.  "Do you have an itchy left elbow?" I asked.

"What? NO!" he answered, sounding apprehensive.

"Well, it's probably in the mail," I said.  "You might want to clean off the armrest."

We are at a loss.  Was it poison oak, and if so, how did it get in the car, and only on the armrest?  Managing the helicopter, you typically do not encounter poisonous plants like you do on the fireline. Here is where our CSI skills fail us.  What else could it be?

Any ideas?

Saturday, September 20, 2014

going farther

You can always turn around, I told myself as I charged up the trail.  There was nobody around.  It had rained earlier that morning, and clouds hung damply over the mountains.  A cold wind swept through the trees.  The leaves were red and gold.  I don't like to turn around.

You started too late, I thought.  A thirteen mile hike was probably too long to undertake starting at noon.  What if I had to hike back as it was getting dark?  I imagined bears lurking around every corner as the sun set.
There's no trail to this lake, but you could scramble to it.
  I decided to hike to the first lake and then decide.  Birch Lake was deserted today.  I'd go a little farther.
Birch Lake, about 3 miles in
The trail narrowed and got rockier.  The air felt like winter.  I should probably go back, I thought.  But I kept going, and there it was:  a blue jewel set among granite peaks.
Crater Lake
I took some pictures and headed back, seeing no other hikers, only a few mountain goats clinging to cliffs across the valley.  Back at the trailhead, I was surprised to find that I had completed the 13 miles in four hours.

Sometimes it's good to keep going.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

prayers for California

The Courtney Fire, Oakhurst, 40 homes burned, 9/14/14

photo courtesy of the Madera County Sheriff

The Boles Fire, Weed, 100 structures burned, 9/15/14

photo by Greg Barnette/Record Searchlight

The Dog Bar Fire, Alta Sierra,  5 structures lost, 9/13/14

photo from the
The state is hot, dry, and ready to burn.  While there's snow in the mountains of Montana and it's autumn many places, it's not over here yet.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014


We are on the edge of Yosemite National Park, fighting a fire near Half Dome.  The lucky pilots get to see the Yosemite valley every time they launch with water bucket in tow.  Since they are not allowed to carry passengers, i.e. me, this is what I see:

This is okay though.  It is cool in the mornings, and there are 6 other helicopters coming and going.  Currently I am gazing at a hill with the name of the nearby town on it, spelled out in white rocks, trying to figure out the best way to get up there.  Tarantulas come out at night, to our horrified fascination. The town is cute and looks to have some running possibilities.

One of the best parts of this job is the places we get to go, places where people save up for months to visit. I've spent nights on wilderness fires in Yellowstone and Glacier, hiking past hidden hot springs and hearing wolves howl across a quiet lake. I've seen backcountry Anasazi ruins in the southwest and muskox on the north slope of Alaska.  I've landed on the shores of alpine lakes that would ordinarily take climbing equipment to visit.  Even the most desolate, windswept places have given me good stories.

The pilots will fly several hours today, and tie down the aircraft in the darkness.  We will look for spiders and watch the Supermoon rise.  Tomorrow we will be here again, or we won't.  Either way, if we see each other again, we will talk about it, remembering some things and forgetting others.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

against the wind

My assistant has a slightly glazed look in his eyes as I hand him the rental car keys and prepare to take over managing the Type 1 helicopter for two weeks. "I'm ready to get out of here!" he says, before fleeing to the airport and his freedom flight home.

We are a few short miles from LA, but this is not the land of movie stars and palm trees.  This is real desert, the kind that would kill you pretty fast if you wandered out in it without water or a backup plan.  It is hot, and we don't fly, because despite the conditions, there are no fires.  People drive aggressively on the freeway.  There is an air conditioned pilot lounge, but we sit outside in small patches of shade, not wanting to impose.  But even all that isn't so bad.

It's the wind that gets to us.  It is unrelenting.  You might have an hour or so in the morning before it starts, but then it rolls out of the hills with a vengeance. It's like being blasted with a giant, 20 mile an hour blow dryer.

I've read stories, possibly apocryphal, about how the wind on the prairies drove pioneers insane. I can kind of see it.

The helicopter next to us has been here all summer.  One of the mechanics confesses that near the end of his tour, he starts getting mad at people and wanting to throw things.  He blames the wind.

It makes us exhausted.  We collapse at night as if we have worked a 16 hour shift.  When I drag myself to the hotel exercise room in the morning, I still feel tired.

Still, it could be worse, and we know it.  We are lucky to be out, in this slow fire season.  The crew and I amuse ourselves by naming worse places we could be.  We perk up at the sight of a bunny, and wander among old aircraft that flew in here and will never leave.  It's as good as any, really, in a job where you deal with rain, snow, smoke, and of course fire.

The wind is increasing as I write this.  It blows across the desert like it has for thousands of years.  To it, we are just an obstacle in its path, soon gone as if we were never here.
Old planes in the desert

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Friday walk in the park

Miles hiked...17


Wildlife seen...mountain goats, bighorn sheep, marmots

Grizzly bears seen...none

Temperature...about 60

People seen....quite a few

People we caught up to and passed...almost everyone

People who passed us...2

Food brought...lots of energy bars

Huckleberries eaten...not enough

Summer days left...not many

Friends....the best!

Monday, August 25, 2014

walks with friends

All has been pretty quiet here on the western front.  It has been raining so much that everything is green again.  Fire season here is over, not that it really began.  We show up every day, but don't expect to go anywhere.

Chris starts putting skirting on our office trailer.  He doesn't even work for us, but has adopted our trailer as his personal project.  I go to the hardware store and look at paint samples, determined to make the trailer look better, and settle on a dark gray called "Sooty Lashes."  We wonder how to get a job naming paint colors and notice that a lot of the grays have cat names: Tomcat, Mr. Kitty.  Most nights, we are done with work at five, like normal people.

I go meet my friends J. and D.  After dinner we drive to a trail where I have never been, and stroll past a small lake.  We point out meadows where we would like to build a cabin.  The sun sets as we arrive back at the trailhead.  I realize that I don't do this often enough.  Usually I charge up a trail, determined to get a good workout.  It's good to slow down sometimes and look around.  Especially with a friend or two.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

the rainy day diaries

It rains.  Pretty much every day.  It's generally accompanied by thunder and lightning, but it's far too wet for any fires to start.  We dash inside the hangar and listen to the rain fall on the roof.  On the lawn, a couple of sprinklers still run optimistically.  It feels like September.

The minions are starting to fade.  A couple have left already, having accepted "real" jobs as a software analyst and a music teacher.  Another leaves soon for nursing school.  The rest hang on, hoping for another assignment.  But the ones that were out get released due to torrential rains that cause mass demobilizations.  D. escapes to the sure thing, a tour with the type 1 helicopter, and ends up chasing it to southern California.  The rest of us stay here, watching the rain.

Karl decides to build a picnic table, and spends hours with a tape measure and drill.  I count flight gloves, inexplicably finding 5 right handed ones but no lefts.  The pilot and mechanic take over the barbecue grill, producing hamburgers and some delicious cheesy potatoes.  Some bigwigs appear for an inspection.  It rains some more.

Those of us who have been around for awhile know how to do this, though.  Some summers are like this.  Others are ablaze, and you end up in October exhausted.  It all evens out.

Thanks to those who commented about my kitty.  I miss her terribly.
Athena 1999-2014

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

a blogger's prerogative

So, I just wrote a post about how I was going to delete my blog, and immediately got 2 nice comments from A  and Linda, and realized I'm not ready yet. But...
For those reading, what would you find interesting to read about? More of my daily life as a firefighter? Days off activities I do like hiking? Different jobs a firefighter does? How we keep fit? I'm taking any and all suggestions. I feel like my blog has gotten a little boring.
And for those of you who commented on kitty, she is hanging in there, but not well. I'm spending every moment with her.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


My cat Athena is dying.  Two different vets disagree on what is killing her, but the one thing they are in agreement on is that it won't be long.  She will be the second cat I have lost in eight months.

One day she was fine and the next day she wasn't.  I had just left for a fire assignment.  It was supposed to be a short one, but my pet sitters called and said I should probably come back.  I woke up at 3 am and started driving through the darkness to be with her.

And I just stay with her.  I don't leave the house.  I don't exercise.  There will be time for that later.

I will never be anyone's mother.  For a long time I never wanted that, and then when I thought it might be okay, it was too late.  Instead, I had cats. 

That was okay too.  People don't unconditionally love each other, even if they think they do, but pets love you this way.  They aren't critical or defensive or say they hate you when they're mad.  They greet you the same way if you were gone 5 minutes or 5 days.  They forgive you if you irritate them by getting a new kitten.  You can wear yoga pants all day and not brush your hair and watch the Kardashians and they don't judge you for it.  They don't grow up and move away, or break up with you because they met a new person.

I tell Athena it's all right if she needs to go.  That I've loved every minute of the last 15 years with her.  Maybe, if you believe in these things, and I want to,  my other cat who adored her will be waiting for her somewhere.  They will be together again, happy and healthy.  My heart is broken, but she needs to be free.  I have to let her go.

Monday, August 4, 2014


We have had lots of lightning the past few days, and I haven't had time for a real post. Here are a couple of pictures instead.

Monday, July 28, 2014

A normal person summer

Days off.  Shorts and flip flops.  Hiking on trails instead of on snow.  Seeing friends I don't normally glimpse between June and September.  What is this?! Is this what normal people who don't fight fire get to do?

I don't remember a summer like this since, oh, maybe 1987.

Despite needing the money that firefighting brings, I embrace the slow season and the opportunities it brings.  I hike an 11 mile loop in a place where I usually flounder through snow in June or October.  I meet friends and hike to a chalet in the mountains of the national park, where we peer for bears through the brush and watch mountain goats come down from the cliffs.  I kayak the local river and some lakes.
Hiking with friends in the national park

I'm amazed.  This is really FUN.  This is what normal people, with weekends off and time for camping trips, get to do ALL OF THE TIME.

It's sure to come to an end soon, as fire season is creeping slowly toward the mountains.  One more weekend, maybe.  Then I'll be on the road, wearing nomex instead of a cute sundress.  This is good too: it's how I get the funds to take trips to places like Nepal and Antarctica.  It is my job, after all.  But after almost 30 years, firefighting is losing its grip on me, and the call of the mountains and of home is stronger. 

I've missed many summers by being on the road, and I'll miss more, but the mountains are patient, and so are my friends.  One day I'll be one of those "normal" people, looking at a smoke column up on the hills and wondering what's going on with the fire, who is there, what the plan is.  I will feel some sadness, I expect.  But then I'll turn and hike on, toward whatever the trail brings.

Black Lake in Jewel Basin

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

My last post about fire lookouts for awhile*


What would you say if you were a person mildly, ok a lot, obsessed with fire lookouts, and planned to rent another one for the weekend, when out of the blue a fire management officer called you and asked you to staff one for 3 days? And you got paid for it?

Well, I'd say call me Alanis Morissette, because that's ironic!

Friday morning found me on the trail to Spotted Bear Lookout, on the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, loaded down with food, water, and other necessities like flip flops, a kindle, and a backup e-reader in case the kindle's batteries died.  I plodded along the 7 mile trail. forgetting to even look for the sign nailed to a tree saying "Tired?" partway up the ridge.  Nearly 4.000 feet higher in elevation later, I peered at the lookout, looking impossibly far away on the next hill.  Cruelly, the trail dropped down into a saddle. losing a couple hundred feet before then regaining it in the final ascent.

But finally I arrived and opened up the door to my temporary home.

A fire lookout is three things: a building, a job, and a person.  Although lookouts have other tasks, like building maintenance and trail work, there really is one main duty: to spot fires.  Once a day you also take some weather observations and radio them in to Dispatch.  It's not difficult.  In fact, once you have learned to read the country surrounding your mountain, you take plenty of breaks. You can read, play guitar, or write.  Of course, your territory covers 30 miles or more with plenty of drainages. mountains, and ridges to learn.

The first two days, smoke from fires in Canada settled in the valleys.  At times, visibility was only about a half mile.  Since there was nothing to see, I hiked up the nearby ridge.  I did an exercise circuit, lifting rocks and doing pushups.  I gazed at the deer grazing below the tower and read books.

This chair has insulators on the legs.  You sit on this chair during lightning storms so you will theoretically be safe if the tower gets hit.
On the second night, a strong wind blew in from the west, clearing out the smoke and uncovering snow-covered peaks 20 miles away.  On my last morning, it rained a little.  I packed up and talked to a retired smokejumper named Norm, who had ridden his horse up to the lookout to work on the radio repeater.  Bob also arrived leading a pack string of mules carrying supplies for the regular lookout I had been replacing.  I helped him empty the boxes and put things away in the lookout.

Pack string coming up the ridge
I headed down in the early afternoon in a light rain, covering the 7 miles in less than 2.5 hours.  This time I had only borrowed the house in the sky: the regular lookout would be back up there the next night.  But you never know the turns in the road ahead.  Maybe someday I will have my own lookout summer.