Friday, June 25, 2021

Hummingbird Heaven

 I was on my porch when a small, green-backed hummingbird buzzed me. She flew around me for a few seconds, and then hovered near last year's nest in my wind chime. Could it be last year's mother, come to nest again? It was impossible to tell, but she seemed very familiar with my back yard, visiting the feeder and immediately taking up residence in the nest.

I instantly instituted Operation Hummingbird Success. Forays near the nest had to be done with caution. Visitors were banned from loud talking. I hung around the window. obsessively checking on the status of the mother bird. If she disappeared for while, I fretted. Where was she? The nest was too high for me to look into it without a ladder, and I didn't want to scare her off. When she appeared again I breathed a sigh of relief.

I went away for a week and immediately checked on the nest. The mom flew in and appeared to be feeding babies! This brought a new concern: what if something happened to her when she was out foraging? But the mother bird, a single mom (the father doesn't even help build the nest), always came back. Soon, I could see little beaks poking up out of the nest. After that, it didn't take long to start seeing the babies.

I watched them as they stretched and flapped their wings. One was bigger and bolder than the other; it sat on the edge of the nest, looking around curiously. One day I walked around the back of the house to see only one baby left. Worried, I scoured the trees with binoculars until I spotted the adventurous one, sitting on a nearby branch. I watched as the mother came to feed it there.

The other little bird waited a day, and then it was gone as well. The mother came back to the nest as if she were looking for it. After that day, I didn't see the babies again. This was unlike last year, when I saw the two babies flying around and eating from the feeder for a few days.

Are they doing well, merely chased off by the mother to find new territories, or did something happen to them? It's hard not knowing: I feel invested. Still, I try to imagine that first flight: what it was like to launch fearlessly into the air, doing something they had never done before, hurling themselves into the unknown. I prefer to think they are out there now, hovering helicopter-like over flowers, getting ready for that incredible miracle of migration. And I saw the mother today: she came and checked out the nest. Possibly she will have another brood this year.  If not, I look forward to seeing these little birds again next year. I love them.

Friday, June 18, 2021

The spring of (not) boring trails, part one

There are many trails around here I had never hiked. I thought they would be boring. They appeared to be long forest slogs, taking forever to get to any sort of view.  I can sort of be forgiven for this, because I live in a pretty spectacular area.  Why hike a "boring" trail when there are so many beautiful places to go?

My friends wanted to hike to a lake in the park. As I threw a puffy jacket and Clif bars in my pack, I envisioned a cloud of mosquitoes, endless trees, and lots of other hikers. In addition, it was 17 miles. But I'm usually up for anything, and it could be a one and done, no need to re-do this trail. 

There was only one car at the trailhead. We started hiking up a steep ridge. To my surprise, because of a recent forest fire, sweeping mountain views soon appeared. Mysterious large green meadows lay far below the trail, probably hidden to hikers before the flames. The vistas only got better as we descended into the valley.

The lake sat in a cirque of tall peaks. A waterfall roared down from a hidden lake high above. If this trail were shorter, it would be overrun by people, but we only saw a solo woman leaving the lake as we arrived, toting a fishing pole and camera tripod. 

We ate lunch in the sunshine next to the water, marveling at our good fortune to have it all to ourselves. As we hiked out, we only saw two more people, who looked like they were struggling as they crested the ridge and probably wouldn't make it to the lake. Other potential hikers probably sped by this trail, like me thinking erroneously that it would be a long, boring haul. Like me, they were wrong.

If nothing else, this pandemic has taught me, once again, not to take things for granted. There are other hidden treasures out there, and I intend to find them.


Thursday, June 10, 2021

Goodbye, work friends

 We spent many hours together, up to 16 at a time, sometimes for 14 or 21 days straight. That's enough time to get to know a person. You learn what they like to eat for lunch, what their pet peeves are, what will cause them to have a meltdown. Often you dive deeper too, finding out their fears, insecurities, and what brings them joy. I've had coworkers tell me things they wouldn't reveal to their significant others. 

And yet, when you leave the job, that bond is usually broken, unless you're friends outside of work. I'm sure many colleagues are; with my job it was hard, though. I was the boss of my crew: I had to maintain a certain boundary with them, and socializing makes it difficult. Plus, when you spend so much time at work, you want to get away from it all on your time off, to see your non-fire friends, or revel in solitude.

My former workplace has gone on without me, which, of course, it's supposed to do. The ink barely dries on your retirement papers before someone else is occupying your job. I don't hear work gossip. People experience major life events that I don't know about. Others get promoted, some past their level of competence or despite their questionable ethics. I was there for almost ten years, but suddenly I'm not a part of it anymore. The appreciation I felt from my work friends and colleagues is gone. 

This is normal, though. I haven't even been retired six months, and I'm still navigating my world without fire and without employment. I don't want to be a hanger-on, one of those people who shows up at retirement parties, circling the room looking for someone to talk to. It's time to move on.

Luckily, I have another group of friends. They don't fight fire. They range in age from mid 20s to mid 70s. We mostly hike together, but sometimes take dogs for walks or have dinner. They're the people who stuck by me when fire assignments and a pandemic kept us apart. I deeply appreciate them. By just being in my life, they are helping me turn the page on my past life and move on into the new chapter.

We might be weird, but we are here for each other 

Wednesday, June 2, 2021


I struggled along on a trail run. Glaciers were probably moving faster. It felt hotter than the mid 70s in the woods. Still, as I collapsed back at my house, contemplating the hours of yard work still ahead, I felt lucky.

Summer has arrived, and I'm here for it. This is my first summer that I'll have real time off since 1990.

I started fighting fire in 1988, but for those first three years I was what was called "militia." As a park ranger, fire wasn't my primary job, so for the most part, unless I was needed for a fire, I had a pretty regular schedule: two days off a week, eight hour work days.  In 1991 I got on my first fire crew, and all that changed.

When you work as a wildland firefighter, summers are your sacrifice. If it's particularly rainy that year, you might get your two days off, but that's only if there's nothing happening anywhere else in the country where they might need your crew, helicopter, or engine. More likely, it goes like this: you leave your house in the morning, not knowing if you'll be back that night or three weeks later. You'd better have everything packed in your personal gear bag and everything else: bills, pets, plants, etc handled. 

If the fire season is instead raging at your Forest or Park, you're still not going to be home much. You'll be working 12 to 16 hour shifts, probably 14 to 21 of them, and then get one or two days off. At least one of these days is usually spent dealing with everything you let drop while you were working. If you're lucky, and feel motivated, your friends will accommodate your crazy schedule and hike with you when you finally get time off. One summer I worked 65 days straight (nope, we weren't supposed to, but there was nobody else to take over).

I don't know what it's like to have days off on a regular basis during the summer. One year, I took advantage of my boss's good nature and requested a week off work in June to go to Iceland. As I boarded the plane, I felt like I was getting away with something. A few days after I got back, I left on a two week fire assignment. 

Now that I'm retired, the summer is mine. This thought makes me feel slightly anxious. I should be out doing ALL THE THINGS, all the time. I need to hike all the trails! Kayak all the lakes! But look at the yard, it needs attention, and the porch needs painting. I tell myself to settle down. There's time.

I worked hard for this, but I'm grateful. I made it through thirty lost summers, some scary moments, thousands of hours of overtime, and the loss of some relationships to get here. It was all worth it. I'm ready.