Monday, July 25, 2016

Tales of a Reluctant Road Warrior

When I took the fire assignment last month, I thought I knew what to expect.  After all, I'd been managing Type 1 (large) helicopters for years.  There's always some driving, but generally after awhile you settle in at a fire camp or airport, returning to a motel room or tent every night.  You get to know your surroundings: the "musical road" in Lancaster, California for example, or the trail down the road from the airstrip in Dixie, Idaho.  Life is somewhat predictable, at least for awhile.

This assignment was different.  Like a restless bird, the helicopter never stayed in one place more than two days.  I drove to airports in New Mexico, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana.  I drove almost 4000 miles; as soon as I arrived someplace, it would be time to leave for another.  Entire days went by when I didn't see the pilots.

Early on I realized I needed a routine, even if I had to drive 500 miles that day.  And as I crisscrossed the West, one developed, as weird as it sometimes was:

Wake up at 5 am and stuff my gear into the Ford Escape.  There's a place for everything: my workout clothes, easily accessible snacks, even the big bag of trail mix T. left for me when he finished his stint with the helicopter (stuffed way in the back, so I wouldn't mindlessly eat it). Program the final destination into Gretchen the GPS.  Blearily hit the road.

Stop only when the need for gas and a bathroom arise (hopefully, at the same time).  Buy an energy drink, although they really don't work.  Tell self, don't buy Cheeze-Its. Buy Cheeze-Its.

Break no stopping rule when a particularly beautiful lake appears.  Look longingly at turnoffs for places like the Grand Canyon.  Look at GPS. It still shows 7 hours to go.  Pilot texts that he has arrived at the destination (it only took them 3 hours).
Why wouldn't you stop here?
Try not to be annoyed at other drivers.  Fail.  Fiddle with the radio.  Of course there's no Sirius, so the choices are country, religious, or "top hits." Settle for "top hits." Find yourself singing loudly, "Somethin' bout you makes me feel like a DAAAAANGEROUS WOOOOMAN." Feel slightly horrified; at least you don't have a trainee along.

Arrive at your destination, or, failing that, somewhere ten hours into the journey (all that you are supposed to drive in one day).  Search for a Holiday Inn Express to get the points.  Sometimes settle for something else (The "Retro Inn" comes to mind, although it really was ok). Although it's usually about 9 pm, go to the fitness room and exercise.  Look at Cheeze-Its in disgust; eat a salad. Do paperwork till about 11.

Finally catch up with the pilots the next day; having had lots of rest, they look pretty chipper.  After a couple of hours, get a call from Dispatch. You're headed somewhere else.

This is a strange job.  Sometimes you sit around, sometimes you dig in the dirt.  And sometimes you drive all day.  It's never really the same.  Maybe that's why we keep doing it.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

A Short Break From Fire

It's really, really green here, very different from last year. It's been raining off and on, and snow patches still linger in the high country. I've been back for a week now and I feel restless.  What to do? Get outside, of course!

On Friday, I drove to a local bridge and dragged my kayak down a steep trail to the river.  This is my favorite section of the river because I never see anyone on it, and there are only a few houses along it.

I had to maneuver around some kayak eating logs.

I like to go against the current on the way up and float back down.

Saturday was rainy but an impressive hailstorm made an appearance.

Sunday was a hiking day.
This lake is called Crater Lake (not the one in Oregon).

So many glacier lilies!
Otherwise, not much to report! I hope everyone is getting out and enjoying summer.

Monday, July 11, 2016


I was four hours away from where the memorial was being held for Brad, our co-worker who was killed by a bear.  I was managing a national helicopter which could be dispatched anywhere in the country at any time.  I knew going back would mean an eight hour round trip drive. But I knew I had to go back to pay my respects and support my friends.

I was honored to ride in the procession of vehicles that stretched for what seemed like miles, all with flashing lights.  People stood along the roadway, some holding American flags. Some construction workers stopped work, holding their hard hats in their hands and watching us pass by.

 We passed under a large flag supported by fire department truck ladders.

The memorial itself was a celebration of life.  Along with bagpipes, honor guards, and Amazing Grace, there were a lot of stories about Brad, some funny, some inspiring. 

Then there was the last call, read by a dispatcher:

"FS 44, Dispatch.
FS 44, Dispatch.
This is the last call for FS 44 Brad Treat.  End of watch June 29, 2016.
Gone but not forgotten.
Rest in peace my friend.
We have the watch from here."

This man was loved by many.  It's all we can really hope for as our legacy.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Sometimes there is a bear

The person who tells me is crying. "He was my friend," he says.

I can't say the same, but I saw Brad almost every day I was at the station. He smiled when he said hello, and sometimes we talked, about things that you talk about with people you don't know that well: the weather, fires that were going on, nothing that really matters.  I don't have a part in this story, but I will put my arms around my friends and hear theirs.

I've stopped reading the comments on the news stories. When did we become such a society of victim blamers? "Stay out of the woods," one person wrote. "He should have had a gun," someone else typed (because guns solve everything, apparently). I doubt some of these people have ever been on a hiking trail, and probably none of them have ever been close to a grizzly bear and seen how fast it can move, how much power it carries.

"Sometimes your number is up," C. says.  I briefly argue, but give up. It probably makes him feel better to believe this, but I can't.  I can't handle the idea that we move in a predetermined lockstep, our lives and deaths already plotted and programmed  before we are even born.

Here's what I think the truth is.  I think you can do everything right, and one day get on your bike like you have many times before, expecting to come home and see the people you love and go to work the next day.  Maybe at that moment you are thinking how warm the sun is and how good it feels to be moving.  Maybe you feel glad to be alive on such a glorious afternoon. And then there is a bear, and the bear is just being a bear, not malicious or predatory, just a bear that is scared.  And then everything changes.

I think in almost everyone's life there is a bear at some point, something so big and unexpected that all your preparations don't mean anything. You're just out there living your life, and you come around a corner and there it is.  It's not fate or destiny.  It just is.

Rest in peace, Brad.  I wish I had known you better.