Friday, March 28, 2014

Not exercising

I haven't exercised in four days. FOUR DAYS.  Most people who know me would think that was impossible.  I'm the person who has run during tornado watches, ice storms, blizzards, and in sketchy areas of cities where all the windows have bars on them.  I even attempted to  run the same day after summiting a 10,000 foot glaciated peak.  I drag myself to the gym even if I have to go on Friday nights with everyone else who obviously has no exciting plans for the evening.  I've been exercising 6 days a week for as long as I can remember.  I guess you could say I'm slightly obsessed.

When my latest sickness hit I thought I could brush it off and exercise as normal.  But the thought of putting on my workout clothes sounded like a monumental task.  I can't get warm and then I'm too hot.  I have a strange cough that sometimes closes my throat so I feel like I can't breathe.  Some parts of yesterday seem unclear.  The flu? Maybe; I'm not a doctor-goer. 

Instead, I'm on my couch with a heated blanket, a book, and a cat.  My irrational fears of gaining weight overnight or losing all muscle tone are just that, irrational.  It's hard to let them go, though.

I think your body tells you what it wants (sometimes it says "chips", but that's beside the point).  Usually it says it wants exercise, good food, and sleep.  Mine is telling me to stop for awhile.  It's hard, but I'm listening.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Everyday superpowers

Since I've been a firefighter for more than half my life (!), it makes sense that I've picked up a few habits that can be useful outside of work.  Here's a few:

1.  I can get ready really fast.  When I was on a hotshot crew, we had 5 minutes in the morning on fires to get up, get dressed, put our boots on, stuff our sleeping bag and anything else we had taken out of our bags back in, go to the bathroom, and be standing in line ready to go to breakfast.  Of course, you could get up earlier and accomplish some of these tasks, but in those days we all slept under a yellow tarp inches from each other.  Rustling plastic bags and moving around would raise the ire of 19 other people and was frowned upon.  As a result of these early mornings, I can still get ready in 5 minutes.  If you want cute, give me 15.

2.  I never need an alarm.  I just wake up at the right time.  If I'm taking the dreaded 5:15 am flight, I will set an alarm, but I won't need it.  I'll wake up.  Otherwise I never set one.  I know, it's a superpower.

3.  I can sleep anywhere.  In my fire career, I've slept: on a yellow school bus going down the road, on rocks, in bear country by myself with no place to hang my food, in motels where I was scared to shower without flip flops, and in a makeshift tent made of plastic sheeting during a flood watch.  I can't always stay asleep (snorers are the scourge of fire camp and there always seems to be one close by), but I can usually doze off in less than optimal conditions.

4.  I'm not picky about food.  When I first started fighting fire, meals were heavy on beef and pork, both of which I don't eat.  I subsisted on Snickers bars and potato chips (very few vegetables made their appearance back then).  Now there are a lot more choices, but much of fire food is processed, and don't get me started on Meals Ready to Eat.  I will never obsess about gluten, sugar, or anything else, because I couldn't fight fire if I did.  This helps a lot when I travel and eat local food.

5.  I sort of understand men.  I say "sort of" because some of them are just incomprehensible (I'm looking at you, evil ex).  I  can also translate for them.  Often when asked if they want to go on a fire assignment, my female employees will say things like, "Well, if nobody else wants to..."  On one of these occasions I found my male assistant stomping around the office.  "That drives me nuts!" he yelled.  "What does that even mean? Say yes or no!"  I sighed.  "She really doesn't want to go," I said, "but she's afraid to say no because she'll look bad."  "Arrrgh!" he responded.  Because I've worked with mostly men for so long, it's helped me be more straightforward in saying what I mean.

What about you?  Are there any habits you've picked up from work that you use in your real life?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

In the bears' neighborhood

The bears are waking up.  I imagine them, deep in their secret dens, dark-furred and slow.  They move into the growing daylight in response to an ancient mandate, something we have forgotten in our dependence on electrical light.

When you live where the bears do, you do some things differently.  There are trails I won't hike alone.  I don't run with headphones, especially on the trails at work, where I see their tracks in the mud and where Heather surprised a bear in a place I had just passed by, a bear who must have watched me silently.  On fires we carry bear spray and hang our food. One night, a curious bear circled Danimal and Shane's camp all night.  Unable to sleep, they built up the fire, ran the chainsaw and waited for morning.

"They're more scared of you than you are of them."  "You're more likely to fall in the bathtub than be mauled by a bear."  All true, but I have known people who were attacked by bears.  While happy to be alive, they still had scars that went beyond the physical.  I've had my own encounters: the bear that appeared near my solitary campsite after an 18 mile trail day; the hidden one in the huckleberries who ran, and then, terrifyingly, came back and huffed at me as I inched away.

So now it's time to find the bear spray, to pay more attention in the woods, especially at dawn and dusk.  It means it must finally be spring.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Girl on Fire: The Beginning

This is Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, not me.  In case you were wondering.  I never look this good on a fire.
Before I was a firefighter, I was a park ranger.

I wore the Smokey Bear hat and a polyester uniform.  I led groups of slow moving tourists along nature trails, pointing out flowers I had frantically looked up earlier as I sprinted the route with a plant field guide.  I shepherded kids around who wanted to be "Junior Rangers."  I mostly liked it.  I loved living inside national parks, and there was always a group of people around to watch movies or do night hikes.  I thought I would probably do this job forever.

One year, the west was burning with even more ferocity than usual.  "Everyone has to take fire training," my supervisor said.  I was indifferent, knowing nothing about firefighting.  I handled the tools ineptly and suffered through the slideshow.  It didn't matter, because I was never going to do it, I thought.

But then there was a fire.  And you didn't say no, back then.  You went, with a group of 19 other people, some of them strangers, many of them just as clueless as you were.  We were a thrown together crew of rangers, trail crew workers, and fee collectors.  Somehow we made it work.
This fire was a pivotal point in my life, although I didn't realize it at the time.  It could have so easily gone the other way, if we had been stuck mopping up in a black wasteland, or stuck in a staging area.  But we dug fireline at the top of a mountain while a fire roared toward us, the flamelengths soaring 200 feet above the treetops.  We had to run from it, racing down a trail to a highway where we lay on the hot pavement and waited for transportation.  We held the line as hotshot crews burned from the road, and I tied pink flagging ribbon in my waist length hair.  A band came in to camp and we danced.  After 21 days we were sent to a dusty state park for R&R,  and then went back to the fire for another week. 
 I thought all fires were like this.  They're not, but I was hooked after that.  I spent one more season as a ranger, and then applied to a fire crew, and a hotshot crew after that.  I didn't really have a plan to become a girl on fire.  Like many good things, it just kind of happened.  I'm not on the road I planned to take, but it was probably the right one after all.


 P.S.  I'm not sure what's going on with the fonts in this post.  I got tired of fighting with it! Also I added a bloglovin button if you want to follow this blog that way!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

There is no vanity in firefighting

Plenty of firefighters have big egos, especially those of the male variety.  But they aren't vain.  You can't be.  Here's why:

Clothes.  The clothes are all men's.  There's no vanity sizing here like there is in regular women's clothes.  (Did you know that a size 6 in the 1970s would be labeled size 2 today?)  Fire clothes come in XS to XX Large.  They fit like you would expect men's clothes to fit.  There was once a misguided attempt to create women's pants; these fit weirdly and were the worst "Mom Jeans" ever.   The boots are men's boots.  I wear a size 5.5 in them.

Hair.  You will not have nice hair during fire season.  If you do, it's not very busy and/or you aren't really an operational firefighter.  You can attempt a nice French braid, but after hours and days of working outside, it will be dirty and full of split ends.  Roots, if you have any, will appear.  You may end up with an unintentional ombre look.  You wear a helmet most of the time.  Guys' hair will stick up in interesting ways that city guys pay a lot to replicate.  Some give up and shave their heads.

Skin.  No real firefighters wear makeup.  It would be a mess.  Sunscreen and insect repellant is about it.  There's no room to tote your skin care routine in your bag.  Your face is usually dirty anyway.  I've gone for 3 weeks without taking a shower.  These days you are more likely to have shower facilities on fires, but sometimes you're just too tired...and your clothes are dirty anyway.

Weight.  Everybody knows it.  Worse, the number they know is not your real weight: you know, the one you get first thing in the morning when you wake up.  This is your FLIGHT weight.  This includes about 10-15 pounds of clothes, boots, and flight helmet.  It also often includes your fire pack, which weighs anywhere from 25-45 pounds.  So there it is, a horrifying number next to your name on a manifest for everyone to see.  You have to get over it.  Lying isn't a good idea because a. there is usually a scale around, and b. You don't want to overload the helicopter because then it might crash.  I regularly add weight on to the numbers people give me.  At this point, I can pretty much tell what you weigh.  If you come up to me and say your flight weight is 115 I will write down at least 130.  Sorrynotsorry.

Who you are.  You can't be mysterious or have too many secrets when you sleep inches away from other people, eat MREs together, and work next to each other for 16 hours a day.  Let me just say: You go to the bathroom IN THE WOODS, people.  Under these conditions your real personality will come out.  Let's hope it's a pretty good one.

The good thing is, in the winter you can take out flatirons, mascara, and cute shoes if you want.  You can go to a retirement party and be amused at how many guys come up to you, guys you know from the fireline who don't give you a second glance in the summer.  You can think deep thoughts about how our society views beauty.  Or you can just be relieved that for half the year, you have a lot less to worry about.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014


In my last post, I maligned winter and basically said I wanted to break up with it.  The next day I woke up to about half a foot of new snow.  But instead of glumly going to the gym, I leapt into action.  It was time to carpe the diem!

I'm fortunate enough to live next to a large tract of woods that is crisscrossed with several trails.  The surrounding community likes it too, especially dog walkers.  They pack down the snow in the winter, which is great for us runners, but if you want to ski or snowshoe, you have to get out there early in the day and beat them out there.

It was 0 degrees and snowing.  I threw on several layers and grabbed my running snowshoes, because they are small and maneuverable.  (Runners! If you've never tried running snowshoes, it's a great workout).  Since my street hadn't been plowed as usual, I just walked down it in snowshoes.
my running snowshoes
The forest was still and white and untracked.  It was hard to tell where the trails were, but since I run there all the time, I was able to follow them.  In some places the snow had drifted deep.  I saw one set of ski tracks, but never met the solitary skier.

I stopped to make a snow angel.

I headed home after a long loop through the woods.  This was much better than a crowded gym. Maybe I could deal with a couple more months of winter after all.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Biking to nowhere

I don't want to complain about winter.  OK, I will.  This winter has seemed exceptionally long and cold, and it's not over yet.  We have had days of blizzards, -30 wind chill, and freezing rain this year.  The road I have to drive to go anywhere sometimes drifts shut.  Work has been busy, with sometimes contentious conference calls and meetings.  I haven't been getting outside to exercise as much as I normally do.

Many times, I have been defaulting to this:

My exercise bike.  Photobomb by Zoey.
I bought this bike in 1998 when I tore the ACL in my left knee.  After surgery, running, my main form of exercise back then, was impossible.  I couldn't even do my job as a firefighter.  I brought the bike home and somehow squeezed it into a 400 square foot apartment.  The first day I climbed on it, I couldn't turn the pedals in a full revolution.  It hurt.  I was frustrated.  But I kept trying and eventually I was biking.  The bike saw me through the long recovery.

It has traveled with me ever since, moving to houses in Alaska, Arizona, Oregon, and Montana.  It once spent a stint on consignment in a used sports equipment store, but nobody bought it and I missed it, so I took it back home.  On days where it gets dark before I can exercise, or it's too snowy or icy or cold, I still ride it.

Riding my bike, I watch TV shows I usually don't see (something about people looking for gold in Greenland, and people who weigh 600 pounds) and I get caught up on magazines.  I can look outside and see snow falling on the trees and deer walking through the forest. 

It's kind of boring.  It's not like running in the woods, or hiking up a mountain.  It's not even like riding a real bike.  I'm not going anywhere.  But it makes my legs stronger, and builds different muscles than running or the elliptical.  And I'll never forget how this bike saved me when I was a broken runner who didn't know if I'd be able to hike or climb or run again.  Riding it, I felt some sense of control, and eventually the hope that I would have a full recovery.  If I move again, it's coming with me.