Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Travels with Gretchen

When you're managing a large helicopter, you do a lot of driving.  Not allowed to fly with it, you resign yourself to chasing it; a route that takes the helicopter three hours can take you ten or more. 

Normally we take a trainee along; not only can they do our paperwork for us (ha) but they can help drive and navigate.  On this trip I don't have one though, which isn't bad either.  Since I don't like to stop often when I drive, I can barrel along the road without having to accommodate someone else's food and pee schedule.  I don't have to make small talk or supervise anyone.  Of course, I also miss out on other people's Pandora channels, interesting stories and stealing their Sour Patch Kids.  So there's a tradeoff.

I do have a companion, though.  She's pretty quiet a lot of the time.  If I have 300 miles to drive on the same highway, she won't speak up until there's a turn ahead.  She can get pretty bossy if I decide to deviate from the route she picks.  She occasionally tries to send me on weird shortcuts.  Her voice is pretty robotic.  I've named her Gretchen the GPS.

When I first started driving cross country at about 19, we didn't have Gretchens. I had a well-worn atlas and a series of index cards on which I would write out my route.  Mishaps often occurred if I mixed up or dropped the cards, and I would have to pull over and consult the map.  I also stopped at gas stations and asked for directions (oh, the horror!).  Much later, I used my phone to navigate, but something always went wrong: the program would malfunction, the screen was too small, someone would call.  Still, I never thought about getting a vehicle GPS until, following yet another helicopter, I was surrounded by vehicles catapulting through LA County, a place as different from the small towns I usually visit as possible.  I immediately ordered one.

Now Gretchen tells me exactly where to turn (with some variations).  She doesn't understand detours and gets irritated if I don't follow her directions, but having her along makes the trip much more pleasant.  Most of the time we roll down the highway in silence, both thinking our own thoughts.  I don't know what hers are, maybe "I can't believe she just went that way! What is she DOING? Recalculating...." In any case, I'm happy to have her with me, and we'll keep heading down the road, following the fires.
We saw this. I took a picture. Gretchen didn't say anything.


Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Fire Season Check In

Last year at this time, we were chasing fire all over the landscape.  We already had visiting helicopters parked at our base, and an active fire just down the road. 

This year couldn't be more different.  The woods are lush and green, and there is still snow in the mountains.  Although the media is playing up a few large fires in the southwest, the truth is that the season is slow to start.  Because we still need to stay busy, we look for something, anything, to do.

A squad leader jumps on the riding mower as often as he can.  He listens to the news as he rides around, manicuring the area and adding as many bonus acres as possible.  J. asks for time off to go backpacking, claiming that he has finally gotten an elusive permit for a wilderness area.  M., tired of being short, decides to build a stool.  She looks up plans for one on Pinterest, and busily starts cutting wood.  Seeing her using all her personal protective equipment, I yell, "I see someone being safe in here!" and ambush her with a safety award, a 32 ounce hydroflask.

Some of the minions have escaped, taking freedom flights or drives to locations that are allegedly burning, or are about to.  One sits in Alaska with scooper aircraft, until it starts to rain there too.  J. is out with the hotshots on a stubborn fire in Arizona; in his first year with us, he may be already converted to their way of life and may need to be deprogrammed when he gets back.  K. is with a crew enduring 120 degree heat; we can't decide whether it is a good deal or not.

It's bound to pick up sooner or later (probably later) but for now, the hills are alive with the sound of weedeaters and hammering.  The rate of paperwork completion is at an all time high. It's pointless to speculate on the season: it depends on the summer rains and the lightning track.  In the meantime, we are here, ready to go.
The woods are green here.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Nike Pegs: A Love Story*

If you looked in my garage, my truck, my fire pack, or my house, chances are you'd see at least one pair of Nike Air Pegasus running shoes.  Most are retired from running: now they are hiking, walking and biking shoes or work-in-the-garden-shoes.  Many are no longer with me but are living the good life, recycled into playground surfaces through the Nike Grind program.

I started running in Nike Pegasus shoes when they came out in the early '80s (yikes! I've been running a long time).  I instantly knew these were my shoes.  They're one of the reasons I've never had a running injury.  I ran (and won) races in them.  I ran up mountains, along rivers, and on long, lonely roads in them.  I ran in places like Ushuaia, Argentina, Reykjavik,  Iceland, on a treadmill on a ship in the Drake Passage headed for Antarctica, in the jungle in Belize, and so many places in between. I got temporarily lost, avoided bison, mountain lions and bears, and left my footprints all over the world.

Change is good when it comes to things like new trails and new adventures.  But sometimes when you find a good thing, whether it is a loyal friend, a destination that makes you smile every time, or even a type of shoes, you need to hang on to it.  I'm not the fast girl who won races anymore, speeding down the road doing sub-seven minute miles. But I'm still running in her shoes.

*I didn't receive any compensation or merchandise for writing this post. I just love these shoes.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

what I wanted to say

This spring I went back to high school, and it was much better than I remembered.

I was over at the vocational/agriculture building to give a talk on aviation in firefighting.  I was early, so I wandered the building.  In it, students were building sheds or making things in the metal shop. Girls were driving tractors (you go, sister!)  Outside there were farm animals in pens.  This wasn't an "alternative" high school (do they still have these?) but a program offered through the regular school.  Despite the lovely shelf shaped like an owl that I built in wood shop in school, I wished something like this had been around then.

The students were enthusiastic.  I hit the high points: rappelling from helicopters, camping out in remote areas, impressive fire pictures.  It's all I had time for in the 15 minutes I was allotted.  But here's what I really wanted to say:

This job is hard.  You'll never get rich from it.   Your starting wage will be less than what fast food workers and some politicians are advocating for as minimum wage; in exchange you will risk your life for other people's and for their property.  Even with twenty years in you will probably make less than brand new college graduates in many fields. If you do it for a long time, something will chronically hurt: your back, your knees, your shoulder, and you will probably need surgery at some point.  No matter who you are, you will be expected to keep up and carry as much as everyone else, whether you are male, female, five feet tall  and 90 pounds or six foot five and 270.  When you are fifty you will be expected to keep up with 21 year olds, if you are still on the line.  If you have moved to an administrative job, you will be stuck in meetings and at a computer all day and you will very rarely see any fire.  You won't be able to get a permanent job after age 37 if you haven't gotten in before then, and you will be kicked out at age 57 no matter what.

You will probably lose relationships, because people in "regular" jobs will get tired of your schedule or lack of one.  You will be gone a lot, and live in a tent and work 16 hour days.  It's hard to have pets.  You will miss birthdays, anniversaries, and parties in the summer.  Most likely if you stay in long enough you will know people who die doing this job.  You will come close to it too.  You will be scared, bored, dirty, and tired a lot of the time.

But.  You will save people's houses and you will save people.  Little kids will make signs saying "Thank you firefighters" and put them up on the lawns in front of courthouses in small western towns.  You will meet some amazing people, an incredible brother- and sisterhood of firefighters who will have your back and risk their lives for you.  You will lie out under the stars on a remote fire and hear elk bugling and watch a fire burn like a thousand candles up on a hillside.  You will sit in a helicopter and feel the ground letting go as it moves into translational lift.  You will get to see places like Yellowstone and the north slope of Alaska and half the time wonder how you got so lucky.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

It's National Trails Day!

I actually didn't realize this until I got home and read it online, proving that Facebook can be useful for something besides uninformed political rants (seriously people, just stop).  But since it was in the 80s and sunny after a rainy spring, I was out there anyway,

I contemplated backpacking, but my favorite hiking area is still under a lot of snow and I didn't feel like taking snowshoes.  I decided to day hike instead.  My first choice of trailheads was crowded with people, including a group just setting off.  Too busy for me! I drove to the park instead.

I hike this particular trail a lot, partly because it's close by and accessible, there's a fire lookout at the end, and there's enough people on the trail to not have to worry about going solo in bear country, but usually not too many: the elevation gain and switchbacks tend to space the groups out so you aren't hiking on people's heels.

The view from the top is always worth it.

The lookout hasn't been manned in years.  I really want to go inside and spend the night here!  Sunrise would be amazing from here.  Sadly, that's very unlikely to happen, as I'm not a park employee and it is all boarded up.

I had it all to myself...for awhile.

I suspect my fellow hikers may not have known it was National Trails Day either (who names these things?) but they were there: the Frat Boy Posse, the two girls in sports bras and booty shorts, the determined little kids, even the couple without anything (no water?! What are you thinking?)

Did you get out on National Trails Day? If not, that's OK.  Any day is a good day to hike! And, I totally missed National Donut Day, but I don't like doughnuts anyway.  When's National Chocolate Chip Cookie Day? Can't miss that one.