Thursday, December 31, 2020

Return of the Lone Ranger

 One of my friends invited me to a New Year's Day hike. "I know you don't like large groups, but it'll be fun," she said.

She was referring to the fact that I really don't like to hike with lots of people (more than, say, five). I've done it, but I don't find it that enjoyable. Paces are different, people need or want to stop at different times, causing lots of stops and starts, and I miss the quiet trail experience. Some people love the camaraderie of that many hikers. I really don't.

And now there's covid. I feel like the covid police turning down these invitations. People probably think this is dumb. After all, we are outside! We can social distance! However, when I see their photos, they are driving together, hugging each other, and standing close for photos, no masks in sight. Some of these people are new to the group. Others are going to restaurants and bars regularly. 

I'm probably missing out on a lot of fun. I'm certainly missing out on time with people I like. But I've known people who had covid, and I don't want it. For now, the Lone Ranger will ride, I mean hike, alone or with one or two careful people. 



Thursday, December 24, 2020

Something Right

As of today, I have 4 days left to work until I take early retirement from my job as a wildland firefighter. I was pretty adamant that nobody needed to do anything for me. The only thing worse than a retirement party, in my opinion, is a Zoom retirement party. Awkward!

I was surprised to find an envelope in the mail from my past and former employees and my supervisor. Opening it, I found they had treated me to a hot air balloon ride! Not only is this not cheap, but they knew I would love it. 

I don't know any supervisor who feels 100% confident all the time that they are doing the right thing. I've been kept awake at night many times worrying about my employees and decisions I made. Sometimes I felt like I was just muddling through, faking it until the day was over.

But if you have a group of employees who get together to give you a gift like mine did, it erases that uncertainty. I must have done something right along the way.

Picture from 2FlyUs.com, the company I'm going with


                                      

Thursday, December 17, 2020

The Long Run: The Racing Years

 After I started running at 14, it was probably inevitable that I would eventually start competing in races.  Most of the people in the small running community in my town did. Some were very competitive, but most of them did it for the social aspect. Running was a pretty solitary pursuit back then, and it was a chance to see (and measure yourself against) others.

We would gather at a usually chilly spot, often by the lakeshore, because so many of us ran there that we knew the course. We were cold because running tights and leggings had not yet been invented, so most of us wore shorts and waited to warm up. There were no chip timers, so we stood poised with our fingers on our Timex Marathon watches. Then we were off.

A few volunteers usually staffed the course, calling out mile times. If race organizers were feeling fancy, there might be a table halfway with cups of water, but usually not.  At the finish, we milled around waiting for the medals, which you got if you placed in your age group. There was usually a cotton t-shirt too, with a design created by a local artist. 

The usual cast of characters showed up at most of the races, with the occasional ringer from somewhere else; someone visiting family or in town to check out the college. At a glance I could usually tell if I would place in my age group or even win. At one race I was recruited by the university cross country coach to join the team. The competition that day wasn't too stiff, but I had ended up winning.

Because we basically knew everyone, some shenanigans occasionally resulted. The same cross country coach and his girlfriend, both runners, had a bad breakup. "I never want to see your face again," she reportedly told him. Taking her statement literally, and knowing she would be at the next race, he showed up at the starting line with a ski mask obscuring his features. My dad, running by someone he didn't recognize, would inquire, "are you over 40?" in order to size up his age group.

When I moved away, I ran a few races but it wasn't the same. My dad, who was faster and always finished ahead of me, wasn't there. I felt pressure to do well that I hadn't had in my happy running community. Races were more organized and had better medals and shirts, but somehow it wasn't as fun.

I'm glad I had my racing days. I met a lively group of runners in my hometown, and shared races with my family. I joined a university cross country team. I learned how to do speed work. I realized that at times, I was actually a fast runner.  Sometimes I reminisce about my fastest race ever, an 8K in which I almost, but not quite, finished ahead of my dad. Although I haven't raced in decades, and prefer a trail in the woods to a starting line, I'm happy for the memories.

Getty Images/iStock photo



Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Winter hikers are nicer. Change my mind.

 R and I powered up the switchbacks of a popular park trail. It's been a dry fall, and normally we wouldn't be able to drive to the trailhead this time of year, which would have made this hike four miles longer. We also would have been wearing snowshoes. Because of the unseasonable weather, and because the possibility of sunshine existed above the thick inversion, there were a few cars in the parking lot.

We reeled a few people in as we climbed, as well as encountering several on their way down. Everyone seemed upbeat and friendly. They pulled off the trail to let us by and didn't seem disgruntled to be passed. In the summer, this isn't always the case. Then, on these more well-known trails, slower hikers sometimes look back to see me approaching, but keep going, forcing me to say "excuse me," while attempting to pass. Some appear annoyed. Others walk two or three abreast, not moving aside at all. This seems to be mostly a summer phenomenon. But why?

As with most things (I should have been a detective), I have some theories. In summer, people are focused on pulling off their vacations. They might have planned this trip for months, and might be under some stress caused by weather, large crowds of other tourists, and family dynamics. Often they are herding along kids and other relatives who might not want to be hiking. Also, since this is known as a "hiker's park," there isn't a whole lot of other things to do here, so many of them may be novices, not knowing trail etiquette or particularly caring. The hike might be something to check off the list before rushing back to the lodge to eat.

In winter, though, it's different here. The locals return to the park from the national forest where they have been hiding out until the tourists leave. There are fewer roads and trails open, and pretty much no amenities in the park: the people who come here really want to be here. You need warmer clothes, waterproof boots, and microspikes, so those who throw on their Ugg boots to hike won't be found here. You have to deal with short days, snowy trails, and cold temperatures. 

I think for the most part, winter hikers recognize each other as outdoor kindred spirits. We are the ones who keep going all winter, even when we have to switch to snowshoes, and when the road to the trailhead is two icy ruts. In the summer, when there's daylight till eleven, it's easy to throw on some shorts and race up a trail. In the winter, it takes more effort, more deliberation. You have to want it more.

Whether I'm right or not, it was a pleasant day. We sat on the catwalk of the abandoned fire lookout as hikers came and went. There were no illegal dogs or drones, and nobody was playing music. People chatted, but respected those who wanted to be alone. And when we headed down, everyone on their way up was smiling.




Tuesday, December 1, 2020

The Sacrificial Lake

I headed up to the park with trepidation. Although tourist season was allegedly over, there were still plenty of out-of-state license plates around the valley. It was also a weekend. However, the park road was closed about 15 miles up, which might temper some people's enthusiasm, at least the lazy ones who didn't want to hike.

I really like the lake I was headed for. For only a small effort (5 miles round trip), it provides a huge payoff.  The water is clear. Waterfalls cascade down the cliffs, where occasionally mountain goats can be seen climbing around. In the spring, avalanches sweep the mountainsides while you safely watch from a small beach. In the summer you can swim in the cold water; if conditions are right people bring ice skates here when the lake is frozen.

And yet. This hike is also frustrating, because it is overrun by people. All kinds of people, not just the hiker types. People in flip flops, Uggs, jeans, and high heeled boots. Some take dogs and drones (both not allowed) and music (annoying). Many hike very slowly, and in groups, making it hard to pass. "Influencers" and travel bloggers pose here, cropping other people out of their pictures, and write posts on "how to get here" (if you can't get here, your navigation and google skills are seriously lacking).  If this park were the setting of the Hunger Games, this lake would be tribute, sacrificing itself to keep other areas more pristine.

I guess, although it makes me sad, that is necessary. As I circled the parking lot looking for a space, I realized these types of places need to exist. They will satisfy 95% of visitors' desires for a hike, while keeping the true wilderness for those who really value it and want to work harder for it. Maybe a small percentage of the city dwellers who visit this lake will be inspired to hike more and to protect these areas. I started up the trail feeling encouraged.

This trail and I have a long history. Years ago, as a college intern, I used to lead nature walks here. We were only allowed to hike one mile an hour, to accommodate most abilities. Along the way, I would stop and identify plants and animal sign. Once at the lake, the group was on its own, and the children on the hike and I would often run back down, happy to be freed from the slow pace.

I passed a few groups on the trail. Some were struggling on the ice, not equipped with cleats. They seemed nicer than the summer hikers, though, immediately pulling over to let me pass. At the lake, some people huddled against the wind, but it was easy to find a more secluded spot. 

As I left the lake, two people I had passed on the trail finally arrived. The woman had seemed to be having a hard time on one of the hills, but she had made it. As she emerged from the woods to see the lake, she looked amazed. "Oh wow," she said. "Oh wow!"

Moments like that make the idea of a sacrificial place worth it. I'm so used to beautiful places that it's easy to forget what it was like when I first came to the mountains. I'm glad this lake was accessible to that woman and others like her.

Besides, winter is here. Soon the road will be closed even farther away, requiring a ski or snowshoe of about 16 miles round trip to get to the lake. Snow will blanket its surface until late spring. This area can rest until about June, when the hordes will again start to arrive. The lake has earned its sleep.




Monday, November 23, 2020

Bye, Fire Season 2020

 It was November, and I still had temporary employees hanging on, somewhere in Colorado. "They might want us to extend," one said hopefully, while the other hoped to be done,  seeing visions of hunting season passing him by. Our vehicles had yet to go to the shop for their annual inspections. The pilot of one of our helicopters, out in Idaho, watched the weather closely, worried he would get stuck somewhere by a snowstorm.

What was going on? I shouldn't have been surprised. Like all the other weird things that happened in 2020, a fire season that just wouldn't quit should have been pretty normal. While it was pretty slow at our home base, the crew spent most of the summer all over the country on fires. It rained, and they kept going. It even snowed, and then the fires came back to life. Would it ever end?

Finally the last two employees straggled in. A truck appeared to haul off the extra office trailer we had rented for the summer.  We shoveled snow and winterized the chainsaws. A flurry of paperwork ensued, and the seasonal workers were on their way, to ski or travel or work somewhere else. It was finally over.

My crew successfully avoided covid-19, despite some scares when their roommates and friends came down with it. Nobody got injured. They all mostly got along, and everyone made it home safely. Now it's time for the sigh of relief and the slowing down that comes with the approach of winter. My fire season 33 is in the books. Like all of them, it was definitely one to remember. 

You might be cool, but you'll never be Marilyn Monroe getting out of a helicopter cool. I use this as my online meetings avatar.


 

Friday, November 13, 2020

The Long Run: The Early Days

 It often startles me to realize I've been running since 1978.  That's the longest relationship I've had with anything except for people I'm related to.  After all these years, we've never broken up.

When I started running, it was to copy my dad. He was the only runner in our neighborhood. People used to say, "there goes the jogger," as he went by.  Back then, being a runner was somewhat of a serious business. If you were a runner, you ran. You didn't wait for nice days, or go every once in awhile. If there were treadmills in town, I didn't know about them. 

We ran outside, in blizzards and rain storms and on ice. We ran races that cost ten dollars to enter; we got a T-shirt, and a medal if you won your age group. The same people were there: you knew who your competition was as you stood on the starting line.

There were no fashion shows out on the roads back then. We wore sweatpants, or shorts over long johns. The sports bra had only recently been invented. For cold or rainy days, we had goretex running suits: jackets and pants that kept you dry but burdened you with an annoying swishy noise as you ran, alerting you to the presence of another runner closing in behind you. There were no microspikes then, so we tiptoed across ice and tried not to fall. 

I got the first pair of lycra running tights in town. I had to get them handmade by a seamstress. Debuting them at a race, I attracted some curious looks. "Your legs are blue!" somebody said. 

 We  didn't wear or carry gadgets with us. A few people attempted to juggle the bulky Sony Walkman, but most of us didn't want the hassle and thought they would make us seem less serious.  We didn't worry about step counts, GPS tracks, calories burned, or heart rate training.  Instead, we thought about shoes, Runner's World magazine, and whether we were doing enough speed work.

There was no social media, so we really didn't care what we looked like out there; our statistics, written in our running logs, were just for us. All we really needed was a good pair of shoes and an open road. We would open the door and just go. 

The world is more complicated now than when I started running, but running really doesn't have to be.  I still don't run with gadgets, except sometimes bear spray. I try not to drive anyplace to run, preferring the trails by my house. I rarely take pictures on the run, and prefer utilitarian clothes instead of fancy workout wear.  Some things should stay simple. I think it's why running and I are still friends after all these years.

I've worn Nike Pegasus since 1983!



Thursday, November 5, 2020

Spontaneity

I threw a couple of energy bars into my pack and eyed the winter hiking boots I was wearing. They were probably overkill for the short, easy hike we were planning, but, too lazy to change, I left them on.  There would be other people there on such a nice fall day, but out of habit I added my bear spray. One water bottle should do it, I thought.

R. approached me at our meeting spot. "I was thinking about doing something different," she said tentatively. She named a trail about six miles longer and much steeper than what we had planned. I pondered for a couple of seconds. It was very possible that the area was buried in snow and we would barely make it a half mile from the trailhead, let alone to the top of the mountain.  We didn't even know if the road to the trailhead was open or not. "Let's do it," I said.

We hiked up the trail, feeling fortunate for every mile we made it. The easy going turned to snow at a high saddle. Still, we didn't want to turn around. I could see cut log ends and a slight dip in the snow where the trail was hidden. The sun was out; R. was wearing shorts. We continued on.

Soon we were post holing up the last steep incline to the summit. The snow was up to our knees, with a slight crust on top; it wasn't consolidated enough to hold our weight. It was arduous, but every step took us closer to the sky. 

We topped out near an old lookout site; another lookout that is staffed in the summer was visible on the next mountain. The peaks over in the national park were covered in white. There were no people around.



If we had gone to our original destination we would have loved it; the lake never disappoints. But to have this amazing view and trail to ourselves, on this day in between fall and winter, was an incredible gift.  We soaked it all in and were thankful for spontaneous decisions.







Thursday, October 29, 2020

The Grown Up House

"B has a grown up house," I reported to another friend.

"I don't have a grown up house," my friend said immediately.  

I don't have a lot of close friends, but this is why I love the ones I have.  I didn't have to explain what I meant by "grown up house."

B's house is beautiful.  It is immaculate, despite her rambunctious dog. She has nice furniture that looks like it was chosen carefully.  Spaces are clear of random knicknacks.  Her guest rooms are actually guest rooms, with beds and chairs in them.

My house is cheerfully described as a "bungalow" on real estate sites.  It's over a thousand feet smaller than hers.  Unless managed, the surrounding forest is always threatening to take over.  My furniture is mismatched, my art is eclectic, and my "guest room" has litter boxes and an exercise bike in it.

It is cute rather than beautiful, a hippie sort of place. It'll never win design awards or sell for a fortune, but it is cozy.  I look forward to coming home to it when I'm away on a fire assignment. The truth is, I like the grown up houses and I'm sometimes envious of people who have them, but I'm not really a grown up house kind of person. I'm happy in my little space.



Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Exercise on the road

 When you travel, if it's not an adventure type vacation, is your first thought how and when am I going to exercise? No? Just me? 

I admit to being a little excessive about it. I worried slightly as I packed my running shoes for a fire assignment that ended up lasting almost 3 weeks. Despite popular belief, not all assignments involve hiking a fireline and swinging a pulaski. These days, because of other qualifications I have, my days, while long, can be pretty sedentary.  

Some people use this as an excuse to slack off on their routine, which is understandable; after 12 to 14 hours of hanging out at a helibase or airport with a helicopter, I really just want to eat and maybe watch TV, if I'm lucky enough to have a hotel room and not a tent. But it had to be done or else I would soon feel icky.

Arriving at the small airport, I surveyed my options. There was a gravel road that ran the entire length of the perimeter fence and was more than four miles long.  Another road circled some private hangars and was a mile and a half. Despite the vigorous wind that often scoured the area, the mechanic and I were determined to get workouts in. After returning from a run or walk, we would compare notes on how far we went. "The house with the dirt piled up in front of it" or "the bridge to nowhere" were important markers.

I peered longingly into the hotel gym. Surely it was closed due to covid. Upon inquiring I was delighted to learn that it was open by appointment. I could reserve it for an hour and nobody else would come in. Looking at the sign in sheet, it appeared that nobody else at the hotel was interested. Even though it often meant that I was in there late at night, it was worth it to be able to lift some weights and use an elliptical in peace.

Introvert Exerciser's Paradise

I was even able to get my feet on a couple of actual trails.


Life would probably be easier if I could let this exercise obsession go at times like my coworkers seem to be able to do.  I guess we make time for what is important to us though.

Is anybody else like this? What are some of the ways you make it work?




Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Fall

 I don't know if it's politically correct to say "Indian Summer" anymore, but if I were a Native American, I'd definitely want to claim this one. 

After a summer that seemed to go by too quickly, we are having a glorious autumn. Days are in the 70s and even close to 80, and the nights are crisp. The larches and aspens are turning golden. And even though I have to work (I'm managing a helicopter that is still responding to fires almost every day), I am still loving it.

I was briefly able to break away and hike. I didn't know what to expect of this trail: it was close to town and I was worried it would be full of people. But as I climbed through a beautiful canyon and up to a ridge where the trail met the Continental Divide Trail, I met very few other hikers.  I lingered on the CDT, imagining what it would be like to be hiking these miles from Mexico to Canada. 

I know we are on borrowed time. Some years, it starts raining and snowing in September. The forecast is looking grim for this weekend. So I'm enjoying this interlude while I can.



Monday, September 21, 2020

A wolf that's coming for us all

 The above quote is from a friend. He is describing Covid-19. While I really hope it isn't true, it's hard to keep the faith. 

There are more and more cases in my town and state every day. The main office is partially closed due to some positive employee cases. People I have interacted with have come into contact with Covid positive individuals. There is also a large number of anti-mask, conspiracy theory believing, pandemic deniers who live in this valley. One of them cruised by my employee in the grocery store, maskless, coughing derisively as he passed people wearing face coverings.

Friends ask me to hike, and I make up excuses (usually "I have to work," which is true). The real reason I avoid them is because I see their pictures on social media, hiking with groups, hugging people, and going to bars and restaurants. There are basically two people I trust to hike with these days; still, we are careful in our interactions.

If I get sick, my whole fire crew is quarantined. This includes the pilot, who won't be able to fly, go home, or basically do anything for 14 days. We can't respond to fires; there is nobody to fill in behind us. But there is only so much we can do. We have to trust each other: our lives are in each other's hands. We do our best.

I take solace in just a few people. I stay home more, or in the woods. I haven't had a haircut since January or set foot in a restaurant. I don't miss these things, but I do miss my friends. I miss travel; maybe I even miss the possibility of travel more.

Stay strong, friends. Be safe.

Simpler days, hiking in Patagonia




Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Smoke

 The blanket of smoke rolled eerily into town Saturday afternoon.  Because for us it is drift smoke, it doesn't burn our eyes or smell strongly. It just sits there, keeping the helicopter from flying and obscuring the mountains.

I hear people complain about the smoke. These tourists probably planned their vacations for months and they still came, despite covid. They want to see the glaciers and the lakes.  I understand, but I'm not very sympathetic.

My town is not on fire. We enjoyed a mostly fire free summer for once. We had lots of days of clear skies and warm temperatures. The smoke that blankets our valley now is a nightmare for someone farther west. People have lost homes and loved ones. They are struggling.

Firefighters are working desperately to save communities and are devastated when they can't. Many of them are making $14-16 an hour to risk their lives for someone else's land.  Many are seasonal employees; they don't get retirement or health insurance and are laid off after summer ends. They breathe smoke like this for months. They have to listen to politicians who don't care about science saying they should be "raking the forest."

Here in my town we are fortunate this year. Soon fall rains will come. But our hearts are with those who are still in the fight. 


Saturday, September 5, 2020

Dog Days

Work days are dragging here. There are fires other places we hear, but not here, not really. Oh, there are a few in the wilderness, but they are not being actively suppressed, because they are only doing good out there. The lightning season is pretty much over. The careless people leaving campfires unattended are doing it along roads, where an engine can drive up and take care of it swiftly. Although it is slow, it is too hot and dry to send most of us away to where help is actually needed. We have become a sad thing: a fire crew without fires.

To my hiking friends, this is good. They can't fathom actually wanting fires. But this is what we train for, what we get paid to do. Doctors don't want people to be sick, but they want to have patients; otherwise they are useless. None of us want large fires, the kind that burn homes and cause a large army of overhead people to be imported, but a few small ones, high up on the mountain: we would take those.

The crew attempts to stay busy. They split endless rounds of wood for the rental cabins. They rejoice in being almost done, until an engine rolls up, drops off more wood, and flees. They do online training and run the weedeater around the buildings. A bird finds its way into the hangar; surely the dumbest bird ever, it can't find its way out. Several creative solutions are floated involving nets, recorded bird songs, and improvised poles. This takes up several hours until finally the errant bird has had enough and exits.

We have time for resource projects that might normally go by the wayside. I take a couple crewmembers and hike over six miles into an abandoned mine site above a turquoise lake in the currently closed area of the national park. We jump a blonde grizzly on the trail: it stands up, looks at us, takes one step in our direction and decides to run off. When we get to the mine, it is too windy for the helicopter to bring in the supplies needed to complete the project. The mine experts who hiked in with us are disappointed. "I hiked 6 miles for nothing," one grumbles. "Twelve, " I say helpfully, since we have to hike out. But I am happy: who gets to do this and get paid? Normally this lake is swarmed with people.

I write a plan for flying into an abandoned lookout cabin with archaeologists. They have heard it is a steep hike and want to fly there. I hiked there this summer and it wasn't that bad, but I don't discourage them, anticipating a beautiful flight. I tell the park radio techs that they probably need to go back to a scenic ridge that we landed on last summer. "Hmmm, we probably do," one says, taking the bait.

I'm sure some of my employees expected more this summer: more fires, more money, more activity. But you take what you get in a weather dependent profession. After over thirty years of doing this, I know it all evens out.  For them, there will be other summers, ones where they will be tired of constantly moving from one fire to another, when they will just want it to rain. Then they might look back on this season, and remember a hike they were able to do, or a leap into an alpine lake. 

Fires will be back, but we might not. Today we are here. Not everyone gets to stay in this life as long as they want. We need to embrace these days.



Friday, August 28, 2020

Travel in the time of corona

 No, not international travel *sigh*.  My Greenland dream may be over for good. But I had to go see my parents, so I nervously arrived at the airport.

I live in a resort area with a famous national park, so there are lots of tourists. Most don't seem to care about the virus or the fact that they might be bringing it here. They are here in droves. They also roamed the small airport, many with their mandatory masks off or only covering their mouths. I was apprehensive. Was this how the rest of the trip was going to go, I wondered, dodging some maskless bros who were loudly talking about their travels.

Actually, I was pleasantly surprised. We boarded the plane five rows at a time. There were no endless lines waiting for people to shove their enormous roller bags in the overhead bin. Middle seats were blocked out. Masks were required. The flight attendant handed out alcohol wipes to everyone to clean off their tray tables and surrounding areas. The plane was fogged with disinfectant before we got in.

Deplaning, the most dreaded part of flying for me, was actually okay. People weren't allowed to stand up and get in the aisles until the row in front of them had departed. There was no more standing in slow moving lines in the aisle, being bumped by someone's duffel, waiting for someone to pull their suitcase out of the bin. Everyone was courteous. What was this sorcery?

Arriving at the Minneapolis airport, I braced myself for crowds during my layover. Instead, it was deserted. There were acres of empty gates with charging ports to hang out in. Nobody approached with stinky food to sit next to me. There were no loud cell phone conversations near me. It could actually be considered pleasant.

As I sprawled out in a row of three seats on the way back, I was reminded that flying used to be like this: empty seats, less stressed people, and whole gate areas with nobody in them. I know that airlines have been hit hard financially, and this affects the economy, but I couldn't help thinking, this would be great if flying was like this again. I love travel, but usually the worst part is actually getting there.

My disclaimer alert is this: I flew on Delta, and my experience might not be yours. However, I felt safer flying than I do going in some of the stores in my town, what with all the anti-maskers and covid deniers here. I wouldn't be afraid to fly again.




Saturday, August 15, 2020

Just another adventure

I hiked along the trail, feeling optimistic. It seemed easier than the last time I hiked it. This was probably due to the fact that last time I had backpacked up to the lookout for the night, hauling up extra clothes, a sleeping bag and pad, and lots of food. But I chose to think that the rest of the day, which involved a stiff climb up a trailless peak, accompanied by a bushwhack that was described as negotiating "a ridiculous amount of downed trees," wouldn't be so bad.

We sat at the fire lookout, debating. The trail alone was 12 miles round trip; a trip report on a peakbagging website stated that it took the climbers five more hours to summit the peak and return to the lookout. But the days were long and we were already here. How bad could it be? We would try it. We set a turn around time, one that, similar to doomed Everest climbers, we would then ignore. 

We set off into the woods and soon found ourselves thrashing through a steep forest of alders, dead trees, and other flourishing vegetation. Occasionally a game trail would give us hope, only to fade out or head in the wrong direction. Bears probably didn't want to walk in here either. Finally we emerged on top of a nearly 8000' foot peak.

From here, the route to the main mountain was described as "an easy ridge walk." These are not the words I would use. We downclimbed. losing elevation and then gaining it again. There were some problem cliffs to avoid. There may have been some whining on some scary scree. The wind picked up just to make it more sporty. I arrived at the summit, glanced at the USGS marker, and immediately turned to leave. 

By then it had started to rain, making the downclimb less pleasant. We counted how many times we fell, tripped up by slippery beargrass and roots. Stumbling out of the woods, we found the fire lookout to be a pleasant sight. 

We still had six miles to go though, and if we didn't hustle, we would be hiking out in the dark. We hurried along, at one point encountering a solo hiker we had seen on the peak. "Are you guys from here? And you bag peaks?" he asked. Yes. Yes, we do! Happily we reached the trailhead. The sun was setting. We had a two hour drive ahead of us. We were tired, but happy.

We aren't young anymore like some of the hikers we meet on our adventures. Sometimes we get nervous on terrain that at one time we might have scampered up without a second thought. We get aches and pains, and we are more cautious of our knees than we used to be. But we are still out there, doing hard things.  And having adventures.

Friday, August 7, 2020

Empty Nest

Operation CSI: Bird was in progress. The perps were apparently using the side of my house as their personal restroom, but where were they?

I looked up and saw it. A small, delicate nest perched on a wind chime. In it, two little long-beaked babies sat, watching me quietly. Hummingbirds!

How had this whole operation been going on above my head for so long without me seeing it? The adult bird must have come and gone, collecting fluff and twigs. Then she sat on the eggs, while I went in and out of the door.  Now the babies were fully feathered and bright eyed, almost as big as their mom.

I obsessively watched them for the next few days. I worried if I didn't see the adult. When one baby walked out onto the wind chime, I kept checking on it until it returned to the nest.

One night I came home from work and checked on them as usual. One bird was gone from the nest! I anxiously looked around on the ground, fearing the worst. Not finding anything, I went to turn on the sprinkler. When I came back, the next was empty. I missed seeing the final bird take its first flight by only a few seconds.

When hummingbird babies leave the nest, they don't return. The parents may use the nest the next year, but often it is so fragile that it falls apart over the winter.  I knew the babies were around somewhere, but they were hard to see, although I kept looking.

I felt sad. I missed them and wondered if they were all right.  Although I knew they might leave the area, I bought a hummingbird feeder and hung it up in a tree.

The next day, a flash of brown caught my eye.  One of the babies swooped down onto the feeder.  Then it disappeared into the woods.

While I still wish I had gotten to see their freedom flight, I was glad to see the little bird flying around. It made me happy.

Friday, July 31, 2020

The Great Mask Quest of 2020

Two words  I never thought I'd see in the same sentence: Fashion and Mask.

Back in February, when most of us were innocently planning travel and thinking all was normal, I had a sense of unease. Surely my trip to Greenland wouldn't be affected, but I started feeling some concern. "Hey," I said to a coworker, "I have an idea. We should start making custom masks, with designs on them and stuff." He laughed it off, and yet another money making opportunity passed me by.

When all this started, I thought I could get by with a buff as a face covering. For those not familiar, these are often called "neck gaiters" and are worn by hikers, skiers and climbers and used for a variety of purposes: warmth, impromptu towels, and head coverings. I had a few of them. They should get me by.

Also, results of no haircut for almost 7 months.
We even bought some fire resistant ones for the flight crew to wear.


But as the mask orders became more prevalent, the buff didn't really cut it. They slipped down and didn't stay in place. I also felt like an out of place cowpoke who had lost the herd. I tried out a mask that we got at work. It was made by Hanes, so we called it the Underwear Mask.  It was comfortable enough, but bore a strong resemblance to tighty whities.


I also acquired a disposable mask, but it wasn't meant for the long haul and sort of looked like a feminine hygiene product.



Finally I broke down and ordered one. I considered all sorts of designs. Sparkly? Cute sayings? Flames? I found one on Etsy with a cat face on it. Sold!


Now that my state has a mask order, I have masks stashed everywhere. The Underwear Mask is in my truck along with a disposable one. The buffs reside at work, although I forgot one while following a helicopter around and had to do a walk of shame through a gas station (although there were a lot of people not wearing theirs either, ahem people, do better). I carry the kitty mask everywhere, occasionally succumbing to the same momentary panic as when I can't find my keys or wallet when I don't know where it is.

Any interesting or cool masks out there? (Bonus points for cat themes).



Wednesday, July 22, 2020

The missing blogger: a solved mystery


Where have I been? Not writing blog posts, obviously! I wish I had something interesting to say, such as I snuck into Iceland, or was undercover investigating all the fire lookouts in America, but alas, it was nothing so exciting.

File it under the "lazy blogger" category. Time seems to be flying by. Although I've been working and hiking a lot, it still feels like summer is slipping through my fingers and will soon be gone. That is sad, because it's my favorite season, the one I wait for all year. I endure winter here because summers are so magical. I'm not ready! There are so many more trails to hike, lakes to kayak, and mountain goats to see!

We are flooded with tourists, despite covid-19. A huge parking lot in the national park was full at 5:30 am the other day. FIVE THIRTY.  Keep in mind that to even get to this parking lot from the closest town takes at least an hour. Who are you people?

Anyway, thanks to my readers (my mom, mostly) for still coming by here. Real posts to follow! Leave a comment about what you've been doing!






Saturday, July 4, 2020

A meeting with the young me

We hiked and scrambled along the ridge. At over 8000 feet, we weren't moving very fast, mostly because we had to keep route finding so we could stay up high on solid rock instead of descending onto the scree of doom, like many of the social trails did.  Behind us we heard a voice, and turned to see a solo female hiker.

She was in her early 20s, moving quickly.  "Can I climb with you?" she asked. Despite her confident appearance, she hadn't done this route before, and wanted company on the last bouldering pitch.

We gladly accepted her into our ranks, and she stayed with us for the rest of the ascent and part of the descent. Then she said she had to meet some friends up north, and took off rapidly down the trail.

As I picked my way do through the rolling rocks and steepness, I thought of my former self. When I was Brie's age, I was carefree and footloose. I would head off on an unfamiliar trail or peak solo, throwing my pack in the car and sometimes sleeping at the trailhead. One time, approaching the summit of a 14,000 foot mountain in Colorado, I encountered a group of bros descending. "There's a burly girl, doing this solo," I heard one say.

I was never unsafe during these travels, but I had less worries. I had yet to have knee surgery, and bounded down steep paths without thinking about injury too much. I had confidence I could descend anything I climbed up. Despite wearing cotton, running shoes, and leaky rain gear, I knew I would always be okay.

I'm not sure if it's age, a few injuries, a couple bear encounters, getting temporarily misplaced a couple times, or a combination of all of those that have changed me. While I will still hike solo, especially in places without grizzly bears, I do more preparation now. I check the weather forecast. I tell somebody where I'm going. I try and find out trail conditions. I hike with other people more often now.

I have to admit, when I saw Brie gaining on us, I felt a little sad. That used to be me, I thought. But then I thought about my friends, who put up with my whining about mosquitoes and were encouraging when I was apprehensive about a climbing move. I thought about the times I had to abandon a trail because of getting lost or snow conditions and had to stomp back home feeling annoyed rather than laugh about it with someone else. I thought about all the hikers who have gone missing, people who were young like I was, doing the same things I used to do, but who had one misstep or fatal miscalculation.

Hike on, Brie and others (and me). I would never want to change those days of roaming solo across the country, picking a trail on a whim and going to explore it. I will still do that, only with more caution. There is a woman in her 80s I see a lot when I hike up the local ski hill. She climbs alone, accompanied by her dog. This is a 2000 foot ascent, yet she does it often, arriving at the top unwinded and calm. She has it all figured out. I like to think that she, too, when young, walked all over these mountains, happy and free.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Sometimes it's the destination

We slogged up the trail. It was a steep, viewless climb of almost 1,000 feet elevation gain per mile through thick forest. The bushes were wet, and my companions put on gaiters that then became muddy. Several trees had fallen across the path. A group of hungry mosquitoes joined the party.

Then, finally, we broke out into subalpine meadows. Snow-topped mountains surrounded us. We stopped at a saddle and looked down into a wild, trail-less basin where two lakes, still partially frozen, gleamed in the sunlight. As we continued on to climb a small nearby peak, the views only got better.

There are popular sayings, embraced by many, that state that "it's not the destination, it's the journey." Miley Cyrus sang that it was the climb that was important, not the mountain itself. Even getting fit is often referred to as a "journey." These memes, quotes and thoughts celebrate the way to something as the most important part. The ending point is often portrayed as irrelevant.

This can often be true. I struggle with being end-focused when hiking or climbing. I dislike turning around or abandoning a trip due to weather or other problems. To combat this, I try to be conscious of the delightful things along the way: flowers, rushing creeks, the satisfaction of feeling fit enough to tackle steep inclines. It's important to enjoy it all.

But as we sat on the pass looking at mountain peaks and hidden lakes, we thought: sometimes it really IS the destination. It's what makes the hard climb, the obstacles, and the annoyances worth it. Yes, the journey is important. It shows you what you really have in you. It's necessary. But sometimes your end point is what matters the most: when you get to a beautiful, serene place and look around, and think, that was tough, but being here makes it all worth it.



Sunday, June 14, 2020

Don't wait

First of all, I'm still here. Thanks to everyone who commented and wanted to keep reading. I didn't even know some of you read here, so that was a nice surprise. I haven't yet pulled the trigger to go private, but I have your emails when I do, and will make sure you are included in the invite.

Recently I got an email from one of the hotels where I had made a reservation in Iceland. "Thanks for staying with us," it said cheerily. I felt grumpy. Not only had I NOT stayed there (because the border is closed due to covid), but they had also kept my money. While I had accepted the loss of my trip, this was just another reminder of how impossible travel is right now.

Still, this made me think of my past travels. It would have been easy to put them off, to say I didn't want to spend the money, the logistics were too hard, I didn't speak the language, it was too scary. But I went. I went to places like Nepal, Tanzania, New Zealand, Antarctica. I climbed mountains, trekked deep into the wilderness, saw amazing animals, and went sailing with locals. 

If I hadn't done these things, if I had told myself I would wait till later, I might never have gone. Travel is going to be very different now, maybe for years. I wouldn't trade those memories for anything. I'm so glad I didn't wait.
On the way to climb Kilimanjaro

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Overrun!

B. wanted to walk her dog. An enthusiastic puppy, he was too young to go far, so we settled on a three mile round trip trail to a small lake. I've been there many times over the last nine years; there have never been more than three cars at the tiny trailhead parking area. But as we rounded the bend, we were shocked to see about a dozen vehicles lined up along the road.

We fled in horror. To people from more populated states, this might not seem like very many folks to deal with on the trail. But here, at this pretty but not spectacular trail, not really close to any other attraction and with no sign on the road off the highway indicating its presence, it was too much.

Luckily, B. knew of another trail in the area. We drove there anxiously, but there were only two cars there. Bonus, it was twice as long and would tire the rambunctious dog out. While I was disappointed at not seeing the lake, the solitude of the new trail made up for it. Wildflowers dotted the hillsides, and we looked down at the valley from a small overlook.  On our way back to town, we glimpsed another trailhead, and saw cars parked half a mile along the road.

I'm not sure what to make of this trend. Even the woods in my neighborhood are crowded, when I used to be able to have them to myself. (Yes, I realize I'm contributing to the crowding). My theory is that while the gyms were closed and people working from home, they discovered some of the trails. Also, tourists are here, fleeing their more restrictive states. Some don't seem to get trail etiquette: bikes race toward hikers, their riders not even saying thank you as we leap off the trail. Even more unruly dogs jump on strangers than normal.

Now that gyms and all businesses are open again, maybe the crowds will lessen, especially when they can access the national park. I really shouldn't be surly: I'm out there too, and I should be glad that people are enjoying the outdoors. And soon the snow will melt, and I can get into the high country, and leave most of the people behind.



Sunday, May 17, 2020

Pity, Party of One

In January I decided to take a trip at the end of May. I didn't tell very many people. I didn't even ask for time off work; there would be plenty of time to do that. Unlike the other trips I have taken, I had a weird feeling about talking about it. I almost felt that I would "jinx" it.

Well, I didn't jinx it, covid 19 did. By the beginning of March I could tell it probably wouldn't happen. So instead of packing for the flight that was supposed to take off in thirteen days, I'm cancelling reservations and filing a claim with my travel insurance company. And while I understand the need to cancel, I'm sad.

I was going to fly to Iceland and then on to Greenland for a few days. Amazingly, everything lined up perfectly. I booked a few nights in Iceland, one at a fancy hotel with its own hot water lagoon, as a treat. In Greenland, I was going to a tiny town that overlooked a fjord full of icebergs. One of the places I was staying was a wilderness hut where I would be dropped off by boat and then hike back to town. The flight from Iceland to Greenland was more expensive than the plane from the U.S. to Iceland, but this was a trip of a lifetime, my last big international travel before I have to leave my job due to age limit rules. 

Iceland and Greenland's borders will still be closed. They are set to open soon, but after my trip dates have come and gone. Even then, testing and self quarantine will be required. The airlines cancelled my flights. Some of the hotels refunded me; the others refused, even though some of them aren't even open. "We're a small business," one of them said. Listening to the weird feeling when I booked, I bought Cancel for Any Reason travel insurance (most travel insurance companies will not refund you for "fear of coronavirus"). I should recover most of my money.

Will I ever get to go? Maybe not. I won't have the income I have now next year at this time. The virus may return to Iceland and Greenland, causing them to close borders again. Airlines may go out of business (I hope not, because I'm waiting on a refund). International travel may be changed forever, or at least for a long time.

I know it's not all about me. There is a greater goal here. But it's okay to be sad when you have to let go of plans, of seeing friends, of travel. Maybe I can find somewhere to go this summer locally and feel happy about it. Until then, I'll throw away my packing list and tear up my confirmation letters. Maybe someday, after all this is over, I'll be walking down a trail in Greenland. Or maybe not. Despite all the plans we make, we are never really sure what is waiting for us down the road.
Picture from my last trip to Iceland

Friday, May 8, 2020

These dreams

There is a trail I know about. It's sort of a secret. There's no sign and it's not in any guidebooks. It passes through some private land, but the landowner is tolerant so far and hasn't put up any gates or signs.

At one point the trail crosses an old road that is slowly being reclaimed by the forest, although it still looks driveable. Along this road at several scenic overlooks are building lots carved out of the trees. Piles of wood lie here, some covered by tarps. My friend who showed me the trail says the wood has been here for at least ten years. He thinks someone bought the land to build some luxury homes, but either ran out of money or found some problem that made building impossible.

The lot I would choose is the highest one, near the top of the ridge. You can see a lake from there, far below. Wildlife would visit up there. It would be quiet. If the other houses were built, you wouldn't be able to see them. You could hike and run the old roads and trails.

When I pass the piles of building material, I think about dreams. This was someone's dream that they had to let go. I wonder if they ever go back there, if it's too painful, or if they moved on long ago. Some dreams are easy to release and others stay with us always.

People are starting to find the trail and my days of hiking it may be numbered. For now it's still mine, to walk and listen and dream.


Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Stay at Home Diaries: Workout Edition

The ski hill closed almost a month early. The gyms soon followed, and then the national park. It was time to get creative.

Fortunately, I wasn't bothered. I've spent much of my career working where there were no gyms, or mediocre work ones with a rickety bike and a dumbbell or two. I also go on the road for work which means searching out hotel gyms or places to run that won't kill me. I've always liked exercising outside much more than in a room surrounded by strangers.

I borrowed some dumbbells and started using my old, but good stationary bike more. I run on the trails by my house. I find myself walking and hiking a lot more, even if it's only an hour at a time.

I started hiking up the local ski hill. Absent the usual crowds, it's easy to find a deserted run to snowshoe or walk up. From there I can gaze out into the forbidden park or at the lake far below. No bears lurk there, so I can hike without yelling or having bear spray at the ready.

Lifting weights at home, when I can watch Survivor  educational programming, and not try to work around the bros who sit on machines while scrolling social media or tie up two machines at a time, has been much more enjoyable, as has eliminating the commute to get to the gym. Going out for a hike on a day when I might have defaulted to the elliptical makes me feel better.

Some people are having a hard time with their gyms closed. The gym is their comfort zone and their therapy. But it's good to get out of that zone and to challenge yourself in different ways. Your body wants to be outside and moving in the fresh air. Take it there!

I don't miss the gym at all. I might not go back.


Friday, April 24, 2020

The Stay at Home Diaries: Telework Edition

My state is opening back up, which means I'll return to the office soon.  For the past five weeks or so, I've been working from home.  What's it been like? Apart from a few issues (employees with computer problems, endless video calls), it's been pretty great.

At first it was a little hard to get used to.  I slouched out to the kitchen table wearing yoga pants and a hoody.  Why was everyone sending so many emails? What was this video chat nightmare, and how was my cat able to create a new folder on my desktop by merely walking across the keyboard?

Soon, though, I got used to it.  I surveyed my closet and decided to start wearing dresses and skirts. After all, I can't wear them to work.  There are no dresses in firefighting!  Without the distractions of the office, I was able to get a lot more done.  My hour commute became a few seconds.  Since everyone else was sheltering in place, they were less likely to flee to the field, leaving calls and emails unanswered. 

I had a real kitchen (we don't have one at work)!  My cats happily "helped" by sending instant messages to people.  I looked outside and saw my trees and the green grass starting to come up.  I spied on the weird neighbors who appear to be building an illegal camping facility with outhouses on their property.  I sat in my hot tub at lunch time!

Yet the office awaits.  It somewhat resembles a hoarder home with the stuff that would freeze during the winter jammed in the only small room with heat.  Projects that we would normally have completed by now will have to be frantically done in a few days before the seasonal workforce starts.  But it has to be done; fires won't fight themselves, and we have already had a few. 

I hate the reason why I spent the last five weeks working from home, but I loved being there. 
I like this kind of coworker!





Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Return of the Lone Ranger

Once upon a time, I was mostly a solo hiker.  I love hiking alone.  I can walk at whatever pace I want, stop where I want to stop, and change my mind about where I want to go.  I can wake up in the morning and decide I want to go to a lake, or scrap my plans entirely and go kayaking, without anyone else getting upset.  I hiked and backpacked mostly alone for years.

But then I moved to a place with lots of grizzly bears.  It's much safer to be in a group if there are bears around.  More people can make noise, and a bunch of people look more intimidating to a bear than just one person.  I figured I had better become more social.

I met some nice people.  Some I met in a meetup group, but most through others.  I met a couple of them sitting by a waterfall.  Some I see more often than others, but when we hike we pick up where we left off.  Although I can't be quite as spontaneous (turns out other people like to plan ahead), it pays off in other ways.  If I wake up and it's cold and I feel lazy, I still have to go so I don't let them down, and I'm always glad I went.  I get to see places I didn't know existed, and to share beautiful spots with others.

Now, because I'm trying to be a responsible public lands user and social distancer, I am alone again.  The national park is closed, but the enormous forest is still open.  The bears are awake now though, and can be somewhat surly this time of year.  They're hungry, and they have young cubs.  So I'm limiting myself to safer places.

Right now that means a weekly jaunt up the ski hill.  They were forced to close early due to the virus, but there is an enthusiastic contingent of locals who hike up and ski down.  The snow conditions are too rough for me to haul my snowboard, but I bring my snowshoes.  Alone, I set off up a lesser used route to the summit, 2000 feet above.  There is usually nobody there.  Last weekend it was a brisk 11 degrees.  I look longingly at the peaks in the park in the distance.  It's too cold to linger, and I take another route down, one that winds past a statue we call Mountain Jesus.  Far below, a blue lake sparkles.

I know a lot of people are hiking with others.  They say they are staying 6 feet apart and carpooling, or they just aren't worrying about it.  As the snow melts, and we get fewer cases in my town, I may start venturing out with my friends again.  I miss them, and I miss getting into wilder territory.  But for now I walk alone in familiar places.


Wednesday, April 8, 2020

It's all OK

I don't know why a pandemic has brought out the judgey people (never mind all the conspiracy theorists in my town), but here they are.  There is a smug meme going around proclaiming that if you don't come out of this stay at home order with a new skill or more knowledge, you're just lazy.

Oh, shut up.  First of all, a lot of us are still working.  Many of us are essential workers.  Some are parents trying to home school their kids.  Most of the people who are laid off are worried about making ends meet or when they can open up their business again.  Nobody needs to hear that they are lazy for doing the best they can.

This is an unprecedented situation.  I personally think that whatever people can find to do right now, as long as it isn't illegal, unethical or immoral, is all right.  Work out a lot, or take a break.  Feel free to ignore all those "home workouts" that people keep posting; most of them aren't certified trainers and I think we all know what a squat is.  Hike if you can: follow social distancing and please be prepared; now isn't the time to put rescuers at risk.  Try to eat well, but if sometimes you eat more candy than normal, don't beat yourself up.

It's not selfish to mourn trips you can't take, or events you have to postpone.  It's all right not to miss the gym, or to be relieved that you have more time alone.  If that work project takes a little longer than it would have two months ago, give yourself some slack.

I'm not learning a new skill.  My house is only marginally cleaner than when I worked all day in an office.  I still eat too much chocolate.  But I go trail running in the woods by my house and lift some dumbbells.  When it warms up a little I'll work in my yard.  I message my hiking friends to make sure they are ok.  I'm reading books.  My cats are happy that I'm home more.  And that's enough.


Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Nothing

I keep typing new posts, but erasing them.  Nothing seems interesting or appropriate right now.  I'm teleworking; however, eventually fires will need to be fought and we will have to go out into the world to do so.  My current coworkers, two fluffy black cats, are doing their best to send out gibberish skype messages on my work computer and otherwise distract me.

If you can hike, bike, run or just get outside safely, do it.  Otherwise please stay home and stay healthy.




Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Please don't come here

I live in a resort town. There are always tourists here.  In the winter they come for the skiing; in the summer they flock to the famous national park down the road.  It gets so busy that most locals avoid the popular trails and viewpoints.

But we are still a small community, as are most towns outside of national parks.  We have limited hospital beds and ventilators.  The virus cases that we have here seem to have come from people traveling and bringing it back.  The hospitals can't absorb a high volume of patients.

I went up to the park.  I walked on the closed road, staying far away from others.  Many people were practicing social distance, hiking and biking in family groups.  But there were lots of out of state license plates.  People were parking close together and chatting with others only a couple feet apart.  I watched somebody use a stranger's phone to take their picture and then hand it back.  People were going in and out of the restrooms, touching everything.

Please don't come here right now.   Enjoy your own area and your own outdoor spaces if you can.  The mountains will be here for you in the future.  Please stay away.


Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Social distancing status: expert

When I read about how people are saying their lives have changed drastically and how devastated they are that they have to practice social distancing, I have to wonder:  is there something wrong with me?

Was anyone else a "social distancer" before there was a word for it?

I like wide open spaces with no people in them.  If there are people rummaging around in their cars getting ready when I arrive at a trailhead, I hurry to get on the trail so I don't have to walk awkwardly behind them or attempt to pass.  I've been known to abandon a hike when there are "too many cars" at the trailhead, and go somewhere else.  I dream of working from home instead of going to the office.  My ideal snowboarding day would be a chair lift all to myself.

I rarely go out to restaurants, mostly to save money but also because I don't live very close to any (if I could walk or bike to one I might).  I like being at my house; it's cozy and there are sweet cats there.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not a Billy No Mates (a term I learned from some British people on a trek in Nepal; it means someone with no friends). I have a small group of friends: they are mostly the kind of people who want to go for hikes instead of to coffee shops or bars.  They also understand the need for alone time.

If nothing else, this virus has shown me once again how different people are.  Where I live, there is a vocal majority that insists it's "just a cold" or "a conspiracy" and refuses to change habits, day drinking at the bars and proclaiming that because schools are closed they are still going to take their kids everywhere in the community.  Then there are the usual TP hoarders.  Interspersed (but not too close, 6 feet away please) are the people more like me: cautious but not panicky, using this time to get out in the woods and enjoy the solitude.

Are you a social distancer or more of an extrovert? Have you changed your routine at all? Please stay healthy, everyone.

P.S.  If you are in danger of losing your job or getting sick, that's a whole different story and as someone who has been unemployed/furloughed before, I'm empathetic! What I'm talking about here is having to stay home more...which to me is not a hardship.


Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Vintage

"What a drag it is getting old," the Rolling Stones sang, and yes it can be.  There's not a lot to recommend it as a process.  Gray hair, aches and pains, feeling invisible, having some limits where you used to be limitless.  It's easy to fall into the self pity trap about all this.  But this isn't very productive, and it dishonors those who died young and didn't get the gift of all these years.  It's better to be grateful.

"This job used to be more fun," some of us old-timers are heard to say, and it's true.  The temporary employees I supervise now seem less happy, more stressed out than we used to be when we were in their shoes.  Back then, we didn't try to have it all, like people now want to: we knew houses and expensive vehicles were out of our reach, so we didn't worry about them.  We floated around the country like a gypsy tribe, working at whatever forest or park where we could get a job, and traveled, couch surfed, or worked somewhere else in the winters.  At work, there was minimal paperwork, no online training, fewer regulations. 

We had no social media, no "influencers" or "internet models" to make us feel inadequate if we didn't look perfect.  There were no filters on pictures; what you saw in the photo was what you looked like for real. You could be as in touch as you wanted to be, or not.  Sometimes a letter would come in the mail from a long lost friend; this was exciting.  You navigated with maps and occasionally some word of mouth; secret spots stayed secret and rarely got ruined.  I got to see some amazing places with nobody in them; now those lakes and mountains are overrun on most days.

When we went on fires, people didn't sit hunched over their phones during lunch breaks. I remember  discussing literature on a nameless hill, everybody examining the books people had brought. We built creative furniture out of fire hose and limbs we cut.  People made art projects out of paracord and spent up to three weeks in the woods with no news media stories.  Mostly we were out of touch with the outside world; we left it and its problems behind.

I know this sounds like the nostalgic musings of an older person about "the good old days."  It's true that not everything was great, and that some of the advances in technology since then have made things safer and more convenient.  But these things have also brought more worries and pressures with them.  I'm glad I didn't have those.  I might be vintage, but I have had the gift of some amazing times that are gone for good.
Cameron reads a women's magazine while Russ takes a break from paracord; homemade pullup bar in the background, somewhere on a fire in Alaska, back in the day.











Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Lessons from a cat

1.  Eat when you're hungry and walk away when you're full.

2. Naps are essential.

3. Investigate everything.  Curiosity can pay off.

4.  When in doubt, look cute. Also do this if you did something wrong.

5.  Stay away from people who don't like you.

6.  There's always room for treats in your diet.

7.  Only cuddle if you feel like it.

8.  Being sweet will get you a lot in return.

9.  Run around a lot on some days, conserve energy on others.

10. Occasionally keep them guessing where you are and what you're doing. They'll appreciate you more.


Monday, February 24, 2020

No Plans

One of my friends sent me a message.  "What are you doing Sunday? I might snowshoe."

It's only Monday, I thought.  I can't plan that far ahead.

I like to think of myself as a planner, but really, I'm not.  I never intended to fight fire for more than a few seasons, yet here I am still doing it.  Most of my international trips were decided on a whim.  I chose to go to Antarctica only a month before the ship departed from Argentina.  

People who are good planners seem to have a road map of their lives written ahead of time.  They save a lot more money, move higher up in management, and know what they're doing on the weekend even if it's only Monday.  Sometimes I wish I was more this way.

Still, there is a lot of joy in spontaneity.  If the weather turns bad, you don't have to bail on people or be miserable because you are locked into something far in advance.  You can accept a last minute invitation.  If you find a great flight and have the time, you can go somewhere great like Antarctica (and because I waited till the last minute, I paid half the price that my fellow passengers paid a year in advance).

Yesterday, I was annoyed at myself that I hadn't planned anything for a sunny Sunday.  At 9:30 I sent a friend a message.  "Want to hike to Garry Lookout?"  "Yes!" she replied immediately.  We happily snowshoed up the trail, my lack of planning ahead paying off yet again.



Monday, February 17, 2020

Life skills I learned from firefighting

I've learned a lot over my years of fighting wildland fires.  I know about weather patterns, and how terrain can influence how fire spreads across the landscape.  I understand helicopter flight manuals, and can sharpen a Pulaski so it will cut with precision.  Those are all important things, but this career has also given me other, unexpected abilities.

Most morning briefings at fire camp start around 5:30 a.m.  The hotshot crew I was once on was expected to break camp and be ready to go at this time.  Those who unfortunately slept in had pine cones thrown at them by the superintendent accompanied by some yelling.  In those days everyone slept in the open under the same yellow tarp.  Early morning rustling with plastic bags and unzipping of sleeping bags earned you the ire of others.  Thus, you had to be really quick if you wanted to be dressed, have contacts in, and have already visited the bathroom before you were supposed to be in line for breakfast.  To this day I can get ready very fast.  

A related skill I have is being able to wake up without an alarm.  I never set one, unless I have an early morning flight, and even then I wake up and turn it off before it rings.  All those years of crew bosses looming over us in the darkness about to yell, "Get up!" must have paid off.

As a firefighter, you learn to sleep like a cat.  You can pretty much sleep anywhere, including on crew buggies, rocks, and next to a fireline.  I'm good at sleeping on planes, trains, and buses.  The downside is that I wake up easily, something you must be able to do as a firefighter, in case the helicopter shows up, the fire comes to life, or a safety officer comes down the trail.

I've traveled with people who have to have coffee first thing, or who need to stop at prescribed times to eat.  You can't do this on fires.  I've gone without food, eaten dinner from gas stations, and gotten creative with MRE condiments. As a result, I'm ok with throwing a couple of energy bars in my pack when I hike, or having snacks for dinner when I travel.  Eating on the run (or on the helispot) has made me a lot more food-flexible.

I'm used to being dirty, tired, too hot, too cold, and surrounded by bugs.  I'm used to carrying heavy stuff and wearing uncomfortable clothes.  So now when I'm on the trail, these things rarely bother me.  No bathroom? Sloping campsite? Drenching rain? I've encountered it so much on the job, I'm used to it.

When I'm done fighting fire, and I no longer commute in helicopters, it won't matter whether I remember the right mix for the drip torch, or how to complete a helicopter load calculation.  But my time as a firefighter has shaped my life in so many ways, some of which I'm still learning.  It will always be a part of me.
 








Monday, February 10, 2020

Box of memories

I brought in a rubber tote from the garage. In it are years of photographs, many on prints and negatives but hundreds on slides.  This box has followed me for decades through many moves and many broken resolutions to finally scan all the images.

Looking through the pictures, I realize that essentially I took all of them for myself.  Occasionally other people were interested in seeing them or were forced to (relatives, partners, coworkers), but for the most part they stayed in photo albums, slide boxes, or envelopes.  There was no social media to post them to for people to press a "like" button and comment.  In the earlier years, there wasn't even a way to preview them to see if you looked fat or weird, or if the picture even came out.  You took them into the photo lab, took the risk of double prints, and hoped for the best.

Now with one click on a phone you can upload a photo.  If you don't like the way it looks, you can alter nature by adding a filter.  You can smooth out your wrinkles and photoshop strangers out of a waterfall shot.  You can even post photos of an activity while you are doing said activity.

I like seeing people's pictures.  In fact, I snooze or unfollow a lot of people on Facebook without them knowing, if all they post is political diatribes and mean memes. I would rather see hiking pictures.  I like seeing their kitties and doggos. 

But there's a downside.  Social media has made it possible for people to travel places without any research and without any caring for the land.  They see photos and want to go there, so they do.  They trample the superblooms in California and Arizona so strangers will "like" the pictures.  They take wedding photos standing on fragile moss. Some formerly secret places have been ruined by the influx of visitors.

Of course, some of this disregard for the land has always happened.  People have always cut switchbacks,  left trash, carved their names in trees, and been generally oblivious to the damage they do.  But social media has caused an explosion in this activity.

Sometimes I wish the internet would go away (she says, as she types in a blog on the internet).  It won't though, so all I can do is be aware of my habits in my corner of the world, and treat the places I go well.  I'll keep some of them secret, and let people find them for themselves.  And I'll treasure the box of memories that I have, back when I went places and nobody knew.