Thursday, February 25, 2021

new chapters

 I saw one of the firefighters at the gym. "I thought you went to South Carolina," he said, referring to a group of people who had gone south for prescribed burning. "No, I retired!" I said. "That's even better!" he answered.

It's been less than two months since I took early retirement, but already I feel the world of fire slipping away. I rarely talk to former employees; they are busily making decisions about my program that I used to make. I don't hear work gossip. I'm invited to a meeting, but wouldn't get paid if I attended, although there are methods and money to do so. I attempt to call to keep my access to a financial system that I'll need to use, and it's obvious that nobody has much of an interest in helping a retiree. I'm a has-been, a "former firefighter."

I was curious about what this would be like. After being a firefighter for 33 years, I wondered if I would feel a little lost to lose that part of my identity. This happens to a lot of people. They flounder, wondering who exactly they are and what their purpose is, after devoting so much time and energy to the job and giving up so much in the process.

I'm discovering I'm not one of those people. I have wonderful memories of my adventurous career, but I don't miss it that much. If I never get in a helicopter again, I'm all right with that. If I only see smoke from a distance, that's fine too. I'll never forget the places I got to see and the people I shared it all with, but it's time for new adventures.

 Although being a wildland firefighter was a large part of my life, I always knew I was more than that. I loved my job, but I was always happy to have time off. There were so many other things I wanted to do. I liked my crews, but I had good friends outside of fire to spend time with, a small but mighty support system. Fire was only one of the things I did.

I'll always look up when a helicopter flies over, and I'll wonder about a smoke column in the distance. I'll always treasure my time out in the forest, saving trees, houses, and sometimes lives. But after a short pause, I'll continue on down the trail, looking out for whatever is around the next turn.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

In praise of the non-alpine start

 I dreaded it on my mountaineering trips: the rustling sounds, the tent zippers coming open, people stomping around, usually at midnight or 1 a.m. It was usually bitterly cold, and nobody felt like eating, but we had to. If you hadn't had the foresight to put anything that might freeze overnight into your sleeping bag, you'd be sorry, even if it meant being crowded in with boot liners, water bottles, batteries, headlamps and cameras. 

The alpine start is necessary if you have a long way to go and if you want to be headed down before snow conditions change, falling rock and ice danger mounts because of warming temperatures, or darkness falls. I never liked it though. At 19,000 feet on a Himalayan peak, I tossed and turned, checking the time compulsively, while my tentmate Lesley snored away contentedly. I knew we would have to get up soon and this made sleep impossible.

In the summer, starting out early to hike is easy. It's warm and the sun is up. You want to avoid any tourist hordes. Winter is harder. Lately the temperatures have been below zero for the highs. The roads are icy. Luckily, I have some hiking buddies who like to adjust start times in the winter. Maybe they went out the night before and need a more relaxing morning, or they walk their dogs or shovel their driveways. We often meet at 10 or later, if the trailhead is close.

In past years I might have called myself lazy to get going that late. I've discovered though that there are some benefits to it. Obviously, it's warmer. Around here in the winter, the sun sometimes hides in the clouds and there is an inversion until later in the day. Many times I've arrived back at the trailhead to see the sun just breaking out, probably brilliantly illuminating the frigid peak or lake I tagged and raced away from to avoid hypothermia. Also, delaying the start time sometimes means a group of snowshoers has packed down the trail; thanks guys! Too, I have some hiking friends who just can't get going earlier. I wouldn't want to miss out on being with them.

The non-alpine start is especially possible this time of year as the days get longer. Starting at noon, we can still cover 10 miles and be at the car by dusk. And we can see the sunset!

Don't get me wrong, sunrises are great and it's nice to be out on the trail early, especially in the summer. But if my friends want to meet at 10 I'll be there for it. And if I see you out there at the trailhead at noon I won't be like the acquaintance I ran into while snowshoeing in the park. "You're just heading out now?" she asked judgmentally. "The snow's going to be really soft!" Instead, I'll say hi and probably feel envious that you're going to be hiking in the sunshine the whole way.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

The local life

 One thing that kept me going through all the years of overtime, employee supervision, and having no real summers for over 30 years was the thought of retirement. When I retire, I thought, I'm going to do ALL THE TRAVEL. No longer would I be limited to the southern hemisphere because the only time I had free was in the winter. Now I could travel in the spring and summer! Norway, Greenland, Switzerland, here I come! 

Um, no. I can't plan anything, due to the virus. It's iffy if other countries will let us in by the summer, and the vaccination is a long ways off for me, due to not being in any high risk groups. I know people who are happily going to Mexico and other tropical destinations right now, but personally I just don't feel right about that yet. I'm even hesitant to plan road trips right now, although I could probably stay pretty distant from others. So, staying local it is.

I knew vaguely of a lake only a few miles from my house, but for some reason I had never visited it. One day while hiking, B. mentioned that she had skied on it. My ears perked up. Most of our winter so far has been mild, so many lakes hadn't frozen over. I looked up the ice fishing report. Eight inches of ice, that could hold a snowmobile! I packed up my microspikes and headed over.

There were only a couple of people on the lake. They were ice fishing, with varied degrees of seriousness. I started hiking around the perimeter on the ice. It was quiet. A few snow flurries came and went, temporarily obscuring the mountains. The lake was three miles around; I walked a couple of laps. 

It's not Iceland or even Sedona, but it'll do for now. I don't know when, if ever, I would have gone to this lake, but now I plan to take my kayak there in the summer. If I can't travel this summer, there are a couple of backpacking trips I want to take; one is to a backcountry lake I saw once from the air, that will require a packraft and a few miles of bushwhacking. For now, I'll be happy with what I have.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

The Representative

 The hotshot crew raved about our employee Gary (not his real name; apologies to Garys everywhere), when we sent him with them on a fire assignment. "He's a really hard worker, and doesn't talk much," they said. "And he has a great attitude!"

We considered this. Hard worker? Yes. Doesn't talk much? Debatable. Great attitude? We snickered. Not so much.

Gary went about his day with a permanent chip on his shoulder, often taking it out on us. Somehow we were the reason he wasn't getting ahead in his career, not his inability to get along with others or his negative mutterings about pretty much everything. How could the hotshots not have seen this, we wondered.

Then it dawned on me. They hadn't met Gary, not really. They had met his representative.

Everyone has a representative. The representative is who shows up at the beginning of a new job, a new relationship, or a new social setting. It's sometimes called "putting your best foot forward." Social media is full of people's representatives: only the good photos, and the most interesting situations, make the cut. 

Most people can't keep it going for very long in person. We had met Gary's representative briefly when we hired him; however he soon relapsed into his real self. His representative was very different from the reality.

A representative can be a good thing. Mine has gotten me through some social situations that I dreaded, assisted me with public speaking, and gained me some hiking partners I might not have gotten otherwise. I've learned a lot from my representative: I feel that she has many qualities I strive for. In the end, though, your representative just gets you a foot in the door. It's up to you to keep walking through it as the real, genuine, complex person that you are.

This beach in Hawaii is called Shark Bay; even my representative wouldn't swim at a beach with that name!