Back Home, Briefly

Making the most of 36 hours of freedom

After my welcome home brunch I felt a little stir crazy. So I rode my longboard to the park by the river and did yoga while listening to Above & Beyond (English trance group) through my little portable speaker (thanks Mom). My friend and I FaceTimed for a while, which drained my phone battery. I needed to be ready to pick up a fire call at any time so I rode back home and did handstands (five sets of one minute holds) against my wall while my phone charged. I also pulled one of my friend’s Aunt’s chickens (which she raised and slaughtered herself) out of my freezer. I set it in a bowl on the counter to thaw.

Once my phone was at a sufficient battery percentage, I bolted out the door to finish my workout at the outdoor gym by the river, which I affectionately refer to as Oregon’s Muscle Beach. It’s a cluster of pull-up and parallel bars; all I need.

That day there was another person using the gym: a Guatemalan bloke with flowing hair and a young white pit bull. Oscar is a fresh-faced 24-year-old who was taking his Subaru Forester up the West Coast in search of a new place to live. His journey nicely paralleled my bike tour, which I had taken the previous year. Except that he was heading north along Highway 101 whereas I had traveled south. I asked him what towns he liked so far and he highlighted Arcata and Santa Cruz. Being from both Guatemala and Sacramento he was used to the sun and didn’t expect to find his new habitat in Oregon or Washington.

It turns out he knows both French and Spanish. He’s a substitute for language classes at middle schools down in Sacramento. He had recently finished up the school year and had since been road tripping with his kayak and dog.

We were getting along so well that I invited him to accompany me to Red Barn Grocery; I needed ingredients to make tortilla soup. Soon we were skating through the Whiteaker, trading off Paloma’s (meaning “dove” in Spanish) leash so we could both be pulled along.

As I wandered around the store collecting $25 worth of produce, Oscar explained to me that Paloma is not spayed and this could potentially be her “love trip”. I told him that if Paloma did get end up preggers I would claim one of the litter. Sure, I’m probably too transient right now to commit to a dog, but sometimes fate comes calling.

On our way back to my house, we stopped at a weed store because Oscar hadn’t yet been in one (for some reason it’s not legal in CA). Also I wanted a titanium grinder but they didn’t have one. Oscar bought these thick incense sticks for burning and smelling, called Palo Santo sticks. Apparently they “get rid of bad energy”. In my kitchen he lit one up while I set about cooking the now thawed chicken. The smoke was a pungent combination of pine and citrus.

As my roommates trickled in, they were greeted by Paloma, who would run out of the kitchen to the front door, barking until she was calmed by lots of pats. Animals are always a welcome surprise at our house. Though I was sure to run upstairs to shut the door to Dre’s room; no sense risking her guinea pig (Roscoe). My roommates chatted with my guest while I prepared the soup. When it was finally done, we all stood around in the kitchen and ate it. To this day it is one of my finest culinary achievements.

Tony showed up while I was rolling a joint in sun room. He doesn’t smoke but Oscar and I took some bong rips before our walk to Old Nick’s Pub. There was an ear-splitting metal show going on. Most people were in their thirties at least and were dressed like has-been Sex Pistol groupies (lots of DIY denim/leather vests). The bouncer was your classic creepy bald white dude and he requested a $5 cover from each of us but we promised to get our drinks and sit outside. I ordered two Boneyard IPA’s for me and Tony and a cider for Oscar. The music was so loud that we could still hear it clearly from our picnic table outside the bar. We had to significantly raise our voices to understand one another. I felt glad to be free to drink and talk like this. We did a round of shots of some artisan Fireball knockoff distilled in Portland. The bartender said they don’t sell Fireball because it contains traces of antifreeze.

We strolled home through the basketball court under the freeway. We made plans to hoop the next day. As we approached my front walk, Oscar and Paloma took their leave. I pulled some cushions off the futon and put them on the floor of my bedroom so Tony wouldn’t be woken up by my roommates in the morning (it was a Sunday night).

At about 9:30am I was roused by the fire call designated ringtone. I reached over from my bed and tugged my phone off its charger. “Hello?” I said, groggily. I was hungover.

“Can you be here in 45 minutes to an hour?”

I was going to make a big breakfast for Tony and myself, go to the Wandering Goat for some coffee, work on a blog post, shoot a basketball around… but no. I was glad I had completed my laundry the day before. I packed my things in my giant green parachute duffel bag (purchased right before college at an Army Surplus store) and threw it into the back of Tony’s truck.

His red Toyota Tacoma is manual and he drives it like a sports car. We mobbed on over to the Springfield base and wouldn’t return again for two weeks…

Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains

Gridding and being sent home

 

It was a two and a half hour drive to the fire. The crew boss, trainee, and tattoo artist cheersed their 5-Hour Energys and knocked them back in a synchronized motion. They asked me and Tony if we wanted one. We declined. I for one did not want flammable piss.

“Though it would be nice to get on your level,” I said, in good humor, thinking that the statement was pretty benign. But somehow they took offense to this. There was a general uproar as they repeated my statement to one another. The indignation in the truck was palpable. “Get on our level? we have the best fucking job in the fucking United States of America apart from shooting fucking Osama bin Laden!” I raise my eyebrows and nod noncommittally. I really shouldn’t be surprised at this point.

Our truck was a constant tirade of legal drugs: chew and ciggies (sometimes simultaneously), sugar, and caffeine. Full Throttles were a common sight. Thus burps became a familiar smell. More than once the trainee would burp (a drawn out note) and it would travel back to me as I sit captive in the middle seat. A sour blast from his nicotine-marinated mouth would hit me in the the face. I learned to hold my breath and turn my head at the sound of his burp.

By the time we arrived at the fire it was nearly dark. We drove up a hill to the end of a road and parked in the driveway of some rich person’s two million dollar property (it was for sale). The house was mostly white and had columns. I tried to remember moments from my urban walks with my cousin, when he would wax architectural about the buildings. I guessed the house was some form of “Southern Gothic”. It was a fancy place, complete with a tennis court, pool, and a gaping view of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Someone informed me that Lake Tahoe lay just on the other side.

The grasslands, a quick burning fuel type, had allowed the fire to have already burned over and gone out. One large area of the burn was tinged red from a retardant drop.

The crew geared up. With the sun behind the mountains, we had to get our headlamps out of our line packs and attached to our helmets. We marched up onto the hill and were split into groups of five to “grid”. This means walking in a slow line about ten feet apart, starting at the edge of the black (part of fire where it’s been burned through). We felt for white ash with the back of our hands in search of hotspots. When someone found one, they would call out, “hotspot!” and they would hack at it with their tool (usually a Pulaski or a shovel) until the coals were separated and the heat was smothered. The idea was that we were quelling the possibility of the fire starting up again. If we could then hold the back of our hand to the hotspot for a sustained amount of time we would yell, “heat clear!” and “grid on!” The message would be passed, telephone style, all the way down the line until the last man said, “last man copy!” It’s all very redundant, but out on the hill, like with relationships, communication is key. Although I was rather put off by someone mentioning that we were sticking our hands in the habitat of snakes and scorpions; no doubt they were spooked from the fire.

After a few hours of gridding we came down the hill in a snaking line. The crew hiked at a quick pace. With our headlights activated I thought we resembled a scene from Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone (probably the film version) with our lights gently bobbing in the dark like the lanterns of the first years crossing the lake to Hogwarts.

We awoke in our sleeping bags on the tennis court. In the early dawn wild horses were peeking at us over the burned hill. Everyone yellowed up while the crew boss retrieved and donuts and coffee for everyone. Each firefighter was handed two paper sacks.”Breakfast. Lunch.” Said the trainee.

Gridding that morning revealed even fewer hotspots than were there the night before. We break for breakfast after an hour. The fire is dead.

It was back to chilling out on the rich person’s property. Tony, Casey, Jackson (short muscly tree climber) and I found some shade in the grass near the pool. We shot the breeze, sharing our gripes with the job, which we’d kept to ourselves for the most part. I reckon everyone left the conversation a little unburdened.

At 6:30pm we loaded up and drove in search of dinner. The crew boss wanted steak so the trainee used his phone to find an Outback Steakhouse in neighboring Reno. He gave the restaurant’s number to the tattoo artist and a female voice answered. “Outback Steakhouse.”

“Hi, can you handle 20 firefighters?” There’s a smattering of laughter in the truck as we contemplate the entendre.

We entered the restaurant and there was a dash to the men’s room so everyone could wash their ash-blackened hands. Waiting in the sad little line and surveying the restaurant, I remarked to the tattoo artist, “back in civilization.”

“This isn’t civilization, this is Reno,” he retorts, displaying his trademark cynicism. Looking about the patrons and watching them eat I couldn’t help but think (admittedly, condescendingly) “animals.” Based on the sample size in the restaurant, Reno is apparently the Obesity Capital of the U.S.A., an assertion that could probably be  be extended to Obesity Capital of the World.

After I’d quickly scrubbed most of the ash off of my hands and face, I slid into an empty booth in the corner of the restaurant. Tony and Casey joined me and we had the best time out of all of the firefighter tables. Somehow the subject of rapping came up and Casey was saying, “You rap? I rap,” with a big smile out of the side of his face. Tony revealed that he makes beats and the three of us began making grand plans for our artistic collaboration. All four firefighters in the adjacent booth sat in silence, absorbed in their phones. We had a cute waitress named Tanya, who kept looking at me. This prompted Tony to tell me that “you’re good looking, bro! You gotta use it dude”.

A different waiter came and informed all of our firefighter tables individually that a neighboring table had offered to buy our dinner. We looked over at a party of a dozen or more. The men wore ten-gallon hats, bolo ties, blue jeans and moustaches. Seeing us look over at them, they waved and smiled. Apparently a woman at that table had lost her house in a fire a few years back. You’d think if anything she’d have a grudge against firefighters because they failed to save her house. But instead she inspired her table to pool together money to pick up our $600+ tab. I wondered who was paying for this meal. The mob or oil? The tattoo artist’s cynicism was rubbing off on me.

Right when our food arrived we had to get up to take a group picture with the gifting party outside the restaurant. As we filed through tables one cowboy started up clapping and the rest of the patrons were obligated to clap as well and we were subjected to an unwarranted round of applause. The one girl in our crew turned red. “I just don’t feel like we deserved it,” I hear her saying after the picture was taken.

 

We sleep at some sort of Forest Service headquarters. Different crews of firefighters were scattered across the grounds. They slept in groups about the dozers and assorted big machinery. Some squads even slept on top of long flatbed trailers.

I end up sleeping on a small hill rowed with trees at the edge of the property. I wanted to stay away from the machinery. I remembered a quote from one of our class instructors (in reference to fire camp layout and the importance of designated sleeping zones): “There are horror stories about trucks running over sleeping firefighters.”

In the morning it’s Denny’s for breakfast. Again I’m the last to finish eating. “Firefighters eat fast, huh?” I say, sharing another observation with the tattoo artist.

“With firefighters it’s tip your plate in your mouth and…” He mimes the action, shoveling invisible food into his mouth.

Back at the Forest Service headquarters there was a small line for both the women’s and men’s bathrooms. Everyone was speculating if we were going home. We all wanted a few days to reset. The crew boss especially, who had been quietly suffering through a bout of kidney stones. The poor bloke needed a doctor. Sure enough, the one girl on the crew interrupts Casey and my tete-a-tete to announce that we are going home.

I spend the long car ride staring straight ahead listening to the radio. The tattoo artist and I duet “Santeria”. I make a mental note to choose that as my next karaoke song (aside: I sang this at a bar last week). Interestingly, he sang soprano and I sang alto. I also spend time writing rap lyrics, consulting my rambling phone notes. I’m inspired by my recent discussion with Casey and Tony. I scribbled in a pocket-sized spiral notebook that I picked up at a gas station, writing two lines per line space so no one could peek and read my bizarre jottings, containing bars like:

Got work in the morning but can’t leave my bed,

convincing you to skip too and stay with me instead.

I’ll get you moaning like Myrtle.

If you alone in my room you better not read my journals… you get the idea.

After seven or eight hours, we pull into the dreaded Redmond base. I think about what a long week it’s been. We wash all four trucks. Some firefighters were dispatched out of Redmond, so there are a few rushed goodbyes.

With a smaller crew I was able to upgrade to shotgun in the truck driven by a fellow bike enthusiast. He’s done a full coast to coast tour of the United States. He’s also a former Jimmy John’s rider. I tell him about a summer I spent delivering food around Seattle on my bicycle for Postmates. We share our memorable courier moments. One time he had to juggle four drinks on his bike in addition to the subs. I relate my ill-advised one-armed carry of a taco order and subsequent accidental slam on the front brake while going down a hill. The tacos were delivered successfully, albeit badly jostled in their styrofoam box, which I handed to the purchaser with bloody elbows. If the customers only knew…

He’s familiar with the courier community in Eugene and he suggested I look into riding for “Ped-X” a long-standing bicycle delivery service. “I might have to look into that one after fire season,” I said. Or immediately when I get home…

I appointed myself DJ and started off my set with “Easy” by the Commodores. “Someone’s missing their girl,” said the bike enthusiast. To my surprise, Tony lit up when I played “Your Love” by The Outfield. “My dad loves this song,” he said. Josie’s on a vacation far away…

Back at the Springfield base, everyone was hustling to organize their things and return their issued gear. I got back into my civilian clothes, the same ones I was wearing when I arrived a week ago. I climbed into my Subaru. I felt numb at the wheel after such a long time as a passenger.

Finally I walked in my front door and I hugged my roommates and chatted with them. I was so beat that I fall asleep before showering.

I slept till 12. I was awake but still tired. A mirror inspection revealed creases on the underside of my eyes. I took a long shower to wake up and it was back to the old routine of an elaborate solo brunch. I fixed myself a plate heaping with four eggs, four slices of bacon, discs of cucumber drizzled in olive oil, and two pieces of Dave’s Killer toast heavily buttered with Kerrygold. The scent of bacon filled the house. I felt slightly guilty; two of my roommates are vegetarian. Now everyone knows: Brent is back.

Reassigned to Winnemucca

Living with a jumbled circadian rhythm

When I awoke from my midday blackout room snooze, I walked into the bathroom and saw my face in the mirror for the first time in a while. Tired eyes, unibrow forming. My brain was buzzing because of my jumbled circadian rhythm.

We have ourselves a Sysco dinner at the fire camp, now fully stocked with caterers, portable bathrooms, mobile showers, and a few command tents. According to the crew boss, they were wasting their time setting this all up just to take it down because the fire was nearly burned through.

Just like the previous night, we drove out to the fire, exited off the highway to a gravel pit, and witnessed another unreal, expansive sunset. I sat in a truck bed and caught up on my journal. The tattoo artist asked what I’m writing.

“Just journaling. About this mostly.”

“Are you a spy? Cronin.” He thinks over my name. “You Russian?”

“No, Irish.” Although I do like Borscht.

“Oh. Cronin sounds sorta like Lenin.”

Seeking a little more solitude, I climbed a massive sand pile near the trucks (about 40 feet up!) and continued to write, trying not to get too distracted by the sunset.

Once I was at a comfortable stopping place, I put in a podcast and sifted through my lunch. I emptied mustard and mayo packets onto big hoagie and ate that with vacuum sealed cabbage and pecans, ignoring the chips and candy and assorted junk. My meal was interrupted by the cue to “load-up!” and it’s back to the canyon to survive another nightshift.

Back at the BM fire camp, breakfast was the best Sysco had to offer: French toast, scrambled eggs, hash browns, coffee, grapes, yogurt. I “load-up!” my plate and wolfed it down and I was still the last to finish. I’m a notoriously slow eater, even when I’m focusing on eating quickly. This is one of the reasons I’d like to live in France, with their huge hunks of time devoted to the dining experience.

We get ice, water bottles, and sack lunches handed to us by volunteers out of the back of semis. Then its back to the grass for dayshift, which means lounging around in our boots and greens, “staging”, that fancy word for passing the time, getting paid, and being ready to “load-up!” in the trucks at a moment’s notice.

Our usual staging spot, the hospital grass, was wet from sprinklers so we ended up across the street in the lawn of someone’s house. It turns out it belongs to a family whose great grandmother used to live there and recently died. To show our appreciation (and to feel useful) we “gridded” their lawn, picking up sticks. We swept their walks, raked their gravel, and pulled their weeds, temporarily turning into a 20-person landscaping team. We took a group photo in front of the house and the tattoo artist wrote down their address so he could send them the photo.

I called my mother, on break at the hospital. I called my best friend and asked how he’s settling in down in San Francisco. Three Mexican girls aged around seven showed up with bags of apples and kind bars and chocolate and pass them out excitedly. I was grateful for the fresh fruit, but felt somehow undeserving of such gratitude. The most we’d done to help this community is bag those lunches for 30 minutes right after we’d arrived.

There was plenty of time to observe the firefighters as we all lounged about the grass trying to kill time. One of the more fascinating subjects was Jackson, one solid hunk of muscle, all 5’6″ of him, the very definition of stocky. He was always in a chipper mood, with a shaved head, often spitting, regularly expending a hoarse laugh with a single, very audible exhale. He’d come to Oregon from San Louis Obispo after years of tree work, but he’s originally from Georgia and hasn’t lost the accent. He has a reputation as the hardest worker on the crew, but at that point I hadn’t really personally seen him in action (he did live up to this when I worked with him later). Though I know all of this waiting around was killing him. He was always stretching or pacing with big white headphones, listening to Rob Zombie or Creedence Clearwater Revival, or the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. When he did rest, he lay on his back with a red bandana over his eyes, with his hands on his belly like he’s laying in a coffin.

His morning stretches inspired me to do the same, might as well, and soon I was emboldened enough to do some Vinyasa yoga, a challenge in boots with inch and a half heels. I was stretching out my calves in downward dog when I heard the familiar “load-up!” We were being reassigned to Winnemucca, an hour or so drive toward Reno.

We pulled into an elementary school alongside other fire trucks and were given some cursory information: we were to remain there, “staging”, until further notice. The crew, bored and exhausted at this point, pulled their red duffles out of the trailer and walked across the grounds to a nice plot of grass, shaded by a row of trees, a requirement in the 100+ degree weather. We lay out in a row ourselves and people started guessing how long we’d be stuck there in Winnemucca. “I say four days,” said one quiet, skinny, ex-military guy, when I asked him.

So I pulled off my hot black boots and peeled off my socks, rubbing my hands over my feet and between my toes, cracking them. I lay my head on my duffel bag, popped in my headphones for another episode of Filmspotting, (my favorite movie review podcast) and closed my eyes, ready to shower and chill, when the very same guy who hypothesized our four-day wait came running toward the resting firefighters and I knew what he was going to say before he said it: “LOAD-UP!”

On the Night Shift

Sleeping, eating, and posing in my fireman outfit.

I woke up and checked my watch: 5:00am sharp. It was still dark. All of the firefighters were in various stages of rolling up their bedding. I slumped over my Therm-a-rest and pushed the air out as quick as I could, feeling foolish as it hissed. Tony and I were the last ones to toss our red duffels in the trailer.

McDonald’s wasn’t open (I was glad) so we hit up a 24/7 casino diner. My carnitas omelette was the the last plate to arrive. People had already finished eating so I wolfed it down fast, inspired by a quote from a Louis L’amour novel: “It is better to eat when one can, for one never knows when he will eat again”. My stomach was bursting. I needed fuel for the physical labor to come.

We made it to BM’s Town Center in time for the 6am briefing. The crew boss and his shaved head sidekick went in the building, leaving the rest of us to do what we always do, hurry up and wait.

We were all ready to go. Boots laced. Greens on (cargos) and “yellowed up”, referring to our fire-resistant Nomax button down shirts in various shades of stained. The big front buttons indicate that the style hasn’t been updated since the 50’s.

The crew boss returned from the briefing and informed us that we were on standby. More staging. The minutes turned into hours. The trainee asked the hospital across the street if we could chill on their grass and they said yes. So I lie down in the shade and slept, face down, having gotten only 6 or so hours the night before. I was trying to build up my sleep reserves. A man should sleep when he can…

I regretted having left my Paul Theroux book in my red duffel, locked in the trailer back at the high school. Some unknown amount of hours later, we were informed we would be working the night shift. So we went back to the high-school, where the beginnings of a fire camp had formed; a catering truck, a mobile shower. The crew found a slice of shade under the school’s awning and we all slept.

Dinner was served by female inmates (someone makes an inevitable ‘Orange is the New Black’ reference) who placed a conservative amount of meatballs (two) on top of pasta with canned green beans and other Sysco cafeteria slop. I thought the lack of quality food would be inconsequential since it would be merely fuel to be burned. I recalled a quote from one of the class videos: “Firefighters are athletes. They burn up to 10,000 calories a day!” So far I hadn’t even swung a tool. I had been sitting, eating, and sleeping. I was effectively posing in my fireman outfit.

At last we were geared up and loaded up in the trucks, convoying toward the smoke as the sun set. The word spectacular is overused when describing sunsets, but that one really earned it. The heavens exploded with slow evolving orange, pink, purple, and yellow swaths. Golden rays shone through airbrushed clouds while the core of bright orange energy drew my eye.

The trucks transitioned from highway to gravel roads, built for the gold mines. I could see them in the distance, lit up like cruise ships with their blinking towers. This was what we were there to protect.

After about 40 minutes of driving on backroads, we were in a canyon. The stars were out. Tony got his line pack on but the crew boss told him to take it off. It turns out we were only staging there too; waiting, waiting.

The moon rose and the crew milled about, joking and lounging in trucks. I got cold. I thought we would be expending energy hiking or digging but no, we were just sitting. I pulled my buff over my face and put on my unblemished virgin white gloves.

Eventually Tony and I opened one of the truck canopies and found Casey sprawled out. He invited us to join him and we climbed in, grateful for the warmth. We talked in circles about girls, our lives, past jobs, future jobs, and girls. “You name it I’ve worked there,” said Casey. “All of the chains. Costco, Subway, Chipotle, Applebees…”.  He’s blonde, tall, and wiry and I was surprised he’s already 30. “So am I,” he said. He has two cats including a Maine coon, the “man of the house”. He wasn’t sure who he missed more: his Labrador or his girl.  I tried to find a comfortable place to sleep, but the plastic truck bed was hard on my tailbone and the line packs always poke something when they are used as pillows. We opened the canopy from time to time to air out farts. Our diet encouraged many, unfortunately.

When Tony and I left the canopy to check on our own truck we saw the tattoo artist lying across the back seat, asleep, so we had to track down some spare seats in Casey’s truck, scooting in next to a strange mustachioed fellow. I hadn’t (and still haven’t) met many 19-year-olds with mustaches. We were all delirious at this point in the night, but not so much so that we couldn’t bullshit. Mustache boy entertained us unintentionally with his stories and one-liners. When the driver mentioned he had to go to all the way Coos Bay for sex, mustache boy retorted, “that’s not a problem for me. I can get laid anytime I want.” He proceeded to show us intimate videos of him and his girl, who, after four months of dating, saw fit to have his initials tattooed on her wrist: a rather appropriate M.A.D. Later in the week I walked past him Facetiming his girl and overheard, “let’s wait until we have kids”. Finally we fell asleep sitting up, with Dante complaining about Tony and I taking up room in the back seat.

I woke up exhausted. I barely remembered getting back into the boss’s truck and stopping on the way out to take in the sunrise. I fell asleep in the truck and woke up back in good ol’ Battle Mountain. Breakfast was eggs, bacon, and milk, served by the same convict crew. Then it was off to the west side of the high school building, where we passed out until about 11am.

For a while I snoozed in the grass, dodging the sun as it crept up on my feet. I talked on the phone and then listened to a podcast review of the new Spiderman movie. Ultimately the thin trees were insufficient shade and the midday humidity became too much to nap in, despite me being dead tired.

I packed up my red duffle bag and dragged my Therm-a-rest, Linus style, to the Town Hall. There they’d designated an air conditioned room for sleeping. Firefighters assigned to the nightshift were scattered all about the pitch black room. I picked a place near the door, spied Tony on my left, and passed out while listening to the occasional fart and giggle from my neighbors.

 

 

Taking the Death Trap Highway to Battle Mountain

Stuck in the back seat of the crew boss’s truck.

“I’d’ve picked you anyway”, the hyperactive, shaved head crew boss trainee said to me, turning around in the passenger seat to face me in the back seat. I’m in the stuck in the middle again.

“Thanks man. Why?”

“The other guy (Eric) was kind of… chubby.”

On my left was a friendly bloke I recognized from basic training, Tony. Though we hadn’t said much to each other during the class, he’d given me a bro hug after we’d passed the final exam, a gesture that told me enough about his character to mark him as a potential friend. In any case I was grateful to have another rookie for solidarity against the other three in the truck, all experienced firefighters. With the crew boss driving, we were leading the convoy of four white trucks out of Oregon and into Nevada.

To my right was a heavily tatted guy I recognized from the office on the day I had done the pack test. He’s got seven kids at home and he tattoos on the side. “It get’s us through the winters,” he said.

“Decent odds that one of your kids will get rich, ” I suggest.

“One will definitely kill somebody. I think it will be _____.”

From up front: “Who?”

“_____. The autistic middle child.”

He’s got the Guy Fawkes mask from ‘V for Vendetta’ boldly tattooed on his left hand. I later learned he did this himself.

As we rolled along the desert highways, everyone lost cellphone service. I was the only person with music saved on my phone so I was appointed DJ. I started with a neutral, pretty universally appreciated song, “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe,” by Kendrick Lamar, but after about a minute the crew boss said it was putting him to sleep. So I draw from my “Hip Trance Basey Beats” Spotify playlist, an amalgam of EDM I’ve collected over the years, including artists like ZHU and RL Grime. But when Porter Robinson began to feel a little too blissful for the crowd, I transitioned to disco. “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees struck such a chord with the crew boss that he requested it hours later.

They continued to interrogate me. “Do you have a girlfriend? I lost 7 to firefighting,” confessed the crew boss. “What made you want to be a firefighter, naiveté?”

They still didn’t believe I was 23 and advised me not to shave. “I didn’t even bring a razor,” I said.

“Do you believe in God?”

“No… is my short answer.”

I got a fist bump from the trainee and the noises of approval around the truck told me that everyone else is atheistic as well. Except for Tony, apparently, who turned and said, “Really?”

I was quick to reassure him that I’m more in the agonistic camp.

All the while the trainee was shuffling through papers regarding our fire assignment: the Rooster’s Comb fire. When we regained cell service, the tattoo artist provided real time updates from his phone. The terrain was grasslands and the fire was growing.

Along the way we made several gas station stops. Everyone loaded up on chips and energy drinks. The crew boss went through more Dr. Peppers than I could count, casually tossing over his shoulder and into the overcrowded back seat until the floor was littered with empty bottles.

“You’re not Mormon, are you?”

“No.” I was almost insulted. “I’m just quiet.” Well, selectively.

They thought my response was hilarious and the trainee relayed it via radio to the whole crew.

“Hey guys just so you know Brent’s not Mormon he’s just quiet.”

“Do you curse?” asks the crew boss. “Say fuck.”

“Fuck.”

Hours went by as we ripped through the desert. According to the tattoo artist, this stretch of interstate is known as the “death trap highway”. The rolling hills make it hard to see far enough in the opposite lane to safely pass. People try anyway, with mixed results. During one stretch our driver acts like he’s playing Forza Horizon and starts gunning it around turns until the other trucks are out of sight. I’m powerless in the back seat, oscillating between looking anxiously ahead and closing my eyes.

We pulled into the Town Center of Battle Mountain, NV. I acronymized the town name in my head and smirked.

Right away our crew began assisting various volunteers pack lunches. It was a massive assembly line. I was responsible for putting a black styrofoam box full of mostly iceberg lettuce into the lunch bag and then I had to pull up a napkin without them sticking to each other and add that as well. It took all of my dexterity but we completed 400 lunches in 30 minutes. The crew was entertained by a rather candid older woman, a medic, who was responsible for adding the salad dressing. She kept teasing the man (presumably her friend) who was trying to organize the lunch packing plight. She jokingly accused him of letting power go to his head.

Dinner was all 20 of us decimating the salad bar at the Owl Club Casino. Afterwards we drove back across town to Battle Mountain High School, home of the Longhorns. We slept in their soccer field, under the stars, tightly packed together to keep space available for other arriving teams of firefighters. I balanced my contact case on my lap, pinched them out of my eyes, and blew up my $160 Therm-a-rest sleeping pad, a gift from my mother. No one else appeared to have an inflatable mattress. The others on my crew were getting comfortable lying on the grass in their sleeping bags. Again I felt green and a little out of place. But I wanted a comfortable night’s sleep before the early wakeup. I needed to be as fresh as possible for whatever the day would bring…

Purgatory at the Redmond Base

An exercise in “hurry up and wait”

I was among the 22 firefighters who got the fire call and rushed to the Springfield base. We changed out of our civilian clothing (I just dropped trou right there in the hallway) and into identical outfits: green cargos, black boots, black company shirts. Slung over our backs were massive red duffels full of our gear. Us hermit crabs scuttled to the four white pickups and we headed for the larger base in Central Oregon.

I was up front, sandwiched between driver and passenger. My knee was against the shifter but space was so limited that there was nothing I could do. The driver realized he forgot his Hydro Flask and cellphone. He called this into the radio and got permission from the crew boss to “peel off and get them” so we did.

We stopped four times in search of a cassette with an aux chord and when the one guy (handsome, boyish-faced, rural-Americana-accented deer hunter I chatted up during the pack test) finally finds one at Walgreens, it didn’t work and he was pissed. The truck was a parade of of cigarettes and chew, with firefighters burping, joking, and fiddling with the radio. Though when we approached the pass, the truck fell quiet. Everyone was apparently lost in the gorgeous views available in every mirror.

Geometric tattoo guy was in the truck as well, fitting right in with his dip spit bottle. The driver was “nuking it” to catch up to everyone, but we still made time for a gas station stop. Soon energy drinks and coffee were being slurped all around. A fat bag of Dorritos opened on my right. 200,000+ miles on the truck full of six guys, assorted hand tools, and our line packs and we were passing people no problem. The driver flirted with 90 MPH on the straightaways. We arrived base right as the other trucks were arriving and the driver was pleased with himself.

It takes 20 to make up a hand crew. 22 of us showed up in Redmond. It turns out me and another rookie were not on this crew, but had just been sent to Redmond to “stage” or essentially wait around until another crew needed us. There were rumors of us getting on a five-person engine crew. The two of us grab our red duffels out of the trailer and head up to the firehouse.  A guy in front of a giant T.V. gives us the most informal tour ever, gesturing around the place without ever getting up or saying much more than “you sleep here, shit there.” There’s a 40-person bunkroom. A door leads to a weight room with a pool table overlooking the engine hangar. I find unsettling similarities to frat houses I’ve been in.

We changed out of our fatigues and washed up. Sitting up in my bunk, I scribbled some thoughts in my journal. The crew we had ridden up with was sleeping in the hangar, refugee camp style, to expedite their early morning send-off. In the 40-person bunk were myself and the fellow rookie, as well as a blonde country girl who reminded me of Carrie Underwood (she showed up at base with a cowboy hat) on her fifth season, and a New York transplant who had driven to the base from Portland, also a rookie.

We were up at six and the other crew was already gone on their fire assignment, somewhere within a few hours drive. Some middle-aged football coach looking gent turned up at the base with a carton of eggs and the Portland rookie, a cook by trade, scrambled them up for us. Carrie Underwood fixed all four of us our own bowl of sliced strawberries.

The day became an exercise in the notorious and oft-quoted firefighter slogan, “hurry up and wait.” We were getting paid for four hours of work at the base but weren’t permitted to leave while we were staging. The fence around the base was topped with barbed wire. I initially assumed that it existed to keep people from getting in, but now it looked like it was keeping us from getting out. At 8am the July desert sun was already making me sweat. We wiped down surfaces all over the industrial kitchen and inside the firehouse and bathrooms.

When we’d finished our chores, Carrie Underwood lent me her boot oil and I slathered it over my Red Wings. They looked even newer now, a glaring sign of my greenness. If the boots haven’t seen fire, neither have you.

Then the rookie and I got to know each other as we shot pool. Eric is a young, bully-thick, all-American type. “What’s your sport?” I asked him. “Wrestling and football.” He’s 18, just out of high school. He has plans to be an EMT, which he explained to me without a hint of doubt. I was surprised by his certitude. Only 18 and he’s got it all planned out.

From the weight room hangar we watched a drama unfold. A full hand crew shows up, looking weary after a 14-day run. They frantically washed all four trucks, undoubtedly excited to get back home. Then we spotted Carrie Underwood and the Portland rookie, who get issued cards from some engine boss. Of course there were only two spots available. They left promptly, leaving Eric and I to wander the base, trapped, anxious, and green.

24 hours after getting my first fire call and my primary responsibility was laundry. The loads were endless; all of the filthy company issued gear, ripe off the backs of the demobilizing fire crew. “Don’t forget to check pockets for cigarette butts,” says the informal tour guide. I’m unsure about his position of authority but I’m new and he’s older than me so I obeyed.

As I waited for the laundry cycles I laid down on my bunk, exhausted by the heat, dozing and listening to movie review podcasts. I checked my email thread regarding my freelance request to the Eugene Weekly. The editors bemoaned their small freelance budget. My skin stuck to the plastic mattress and I sighed.

One of the older guys (who is in such a position that he doesn’t have to rock fatigues around base) came into the firehouse. He was wearing an Oregunian hat. Eric and I hopped up, eager for any news about our fates. “I have some chipping work tomorrow but I only need one of you. Pick a number between one and ten.” Eric, apparently the superior statistician, guessed five. I said seven, my lucky number, the emotional choice. I wanted to hit the number dead on. The number was 3. I was bummed but the way my luck had been lately, I wasn’t surprised. “I had to go with five. Middle of the pack,” said Eric, grinning. He would have a full day’s pay and most importantly, time away from the base. The prison comparisons crept into my mind…

The hand crew had come and gone by lunchtime. They didn’t miss much; lunch was a sad affair of grilled cheese and tomato soup, prepared by our informal tour guide. Unsurprisingly, me and the other rookie were tasked with the dishes.

Another hand crew showed up after having spent three days on a nearby fire. Again, I watched a crew clean their rigs from the comfort and relative privacy of the pool table area. Eric and I were instructed to join the crew for dinner.

22 of us sat across tables in a Mexican restaurant. Eric and I got quizzed about ourselves. They didn’t believe I was 23. A tattooed girl, one of the sawyers, had me guess her age. Her skin is young looking so I say 26 but she’s 31.

They dispensed advice. Everyone warns me to “stay on top of your blisters.” “It’s not if, it’s when.” My feet felt okay, molding my boots slowly, but the boots hadn’t yet been forest tested. The warnings came from everyone, including my childhood friend who is on her second fire season working for the BLM up in Wenatchee. Her text read something like, “TAKE CARE OF YOUR FEET”. And some grey bearded has-been I passed in a fire base doorway looked down at my shiny, freshly oiled Red Wings and said, rather obnoxiously, “ow.”

After dinner I had my best game of pool against Eric. There was a nice purple sunset going on over the Cascades so I grabbed my book and headed outside to find a group of fratty chatties having their evening cigarettes so I sat on the bench near the door and tried to drown out their predictable conversation with Paul Theroux. I began to feel self-conscious reading there but I didn’t think I’d be able to find better privacy so I endured.

Meanwhile the hand crew I drove to Redmond with was back and was being debriefed before heading into the kitchen for supper. I enviously spy the two from my rookie class, fresh off their first fire. It’s geometric tattoo guy and the dude who dressed in his landscaping gear every day during basic, a red-bearded farmer mechanic. Tall and strapping, the two funnel into the firehouse past my bench, their faces proudly covered in black ash. I needed to get out of this purgatory and out working.

The next morning my wish was granted. At first everyone was milling about, eating cereal. I drank coffee with lots of milk and did a set on the bench press. Then came the whispers of a fire in Nevada. Five members of the crew we had joined for dinner were leaving for various personal reasons. I was assigned to replace one of them. Ironic how Eric Williams picked the right number to do the chipping but will return after the day’s work with the Oregunian to an empty base. That’s the way it goes I guess. I hopped into a truck with an empty middle seat (at least it wasn’t up front this time) and it was a seven-hour drive to Nevada…

Basic Fire Training

Taking the class, getting prepared, and being “on-call”

On the Monday the class began, I arrived at the Springfield base to find about 40 young men (and two women) milling about outside the hangar doors. Some glistened with sweat, struggling out of their weighted vests after just having finished the pack test. One girl sat crying at a picnic table, vest still on, complaining to anyone who would listen about how she could’ve completed the pack test if it wasn’t for her sore feet. Sizing her up, she looked the wrong side of athletic, and I thought her shoewear related excuses insufficient. In typical Oregon fashion, she was wearing Nike trainers, and who blisters in sneakers? Others sat, brooding, with their backs against the fence. I joined them.

I looked around for an ally. One bloke was striding around with easy, athletic grace before coming to sit next to me against the fence. He wore cutoffs and a loose tank, revealing several small tattoos, some of which were probably of the stick-and-poke variety. I recognized a fellow insubordinate, and, spying his vans (and thin shin tattoo of a skateboard being the real dead giveaway) asked him if he was a skater. Of course he was, and he proceeded to tell me that this was his “third or fourth season” with this company. He bemoaned their “paramilitary” approach, citing other, “chiller” private contractors that some of his friends worked for, but he liked some of the people he worked with and kept returning.

He was a young drifter, with shaggy black curly hair and teeth afflicted by cigarettes. He grew up in both Minnesota and Oregon, where he now splits his time. “I just got out of a weird relationship,” he tells me. I don’t press him for details. Instead I quiz him about this job. “Get Red Wing boots,” he tells me. He’s biased, being from Minnesota, where Red Wing Shoes originates. “Most other boot companies get their leather from Red Wing,” He says. I trust him, and later in the week I end up shelling out the extra $80 or so for the Red Wing 9-inch loggers.

Eventually all of us got funneled into the classroom. The two instructors had about 70 years of wildland fire experience between them. “I swear he doesn’t age” said my skater friend of the shortish mustachioed instructor. The other was a less Jewish Rob Reiner family man who rookied his first summer out of high-school and here he was, 37 years later. All the rookies got sent home early that Monday, while the returnees stayed for the one day refresher course. “Don’t be late,” warned the mustachioed instructor, addressing the rookies.

Of course that Tuesday morning I had to make my breakfast of bacon, eggs, and cucumbers so I get out the door at about 8:43am for my 15 minute drive to the base. Lo and behold, I’m blocked by the train, which is honking its way obnoxiously through my neighborhood while I sit in my car, trying not to freak out. I make it there at a miraculous 8:58 and the door to the classroom is locked. Did I miss something? Is class canceled? I turn around to check out the office when the mustachioed instructor opens the door and lets me in. I take a seat in the back and the 8 hours of classroom fun begins…

Every wildland firefighter needs to take this basic course, which is essentially an introduction to everything you encounter out on a fire assignment. The goal is for you not to be too surprised when you are out on your first fire. The class includes information on fire behavior and suppression techniques, as well as the structure of the command system (who’s in charge of whom). Every profession has it’s own vernacular, and wildland firefighting is no exception. As rookies, learning the vocabulary was essential, such as “anchor point”, “spot fires”, etc.

“When we were starting out, it was stick your head down and dig. Now we want you guys to be amateur meteorologists,” said the Rob Reiner instructor. I never had much aptitude for science, particularly weather systems, geology, most of the things that would prove useful knowledge for a wildland firefighter. I guess I was always of the camp of lets just be in awe of nature, let it do its thing, stay out of its way. I’ll have to amend this attitude if I’m to stay safe out there. There are warning signs in the clouds and the wind. Rapidly changing weather is the biggest threat to firefighters. Change in wind direction can cause a fire to change direction. Increasing temperatures can dry out unburned fuels.

Above all, safety is stressed, with plenty of examples given of missions gone awry. Nearly half of the final exam tested our understanding of the 18 “Watchout situations”, which include such don’ts as “building fireline downhill with fire below” all the way to “taking a nap near the fireline”. The course was an exercise in common sense, as well as patience. Many hours sitting a classroom for four days straight takes a toll, particularly when the sun is out and beckoning.

Luckily I had my yerba mate in my car, providing much needed energy and respite. During each 10 minute break I would lean against my Subaru and pour hot water into the wooden mate (cup) and suck the smokey, caffeinated tea out the bombilla (metal filtering straw), offering sips to the other rookies who were walking to and from their cars.

We had an hour lunch break each day. The first day I went to a burger joint and read Bukowski’s “Post Office”. Then I discovered this park near the base and would lay out my car blanket, take off my work boots (I had to dress masculine for such an environment) and shirt and soak up the sun, eating ground beef salads out of tupperware, my poor man’s healthy meal.

One of the few times we got out of our seats was to practice deploying fire shelters. Half the class went at a time, pulling out these green plastic tarps (real fire shelters are reflective silver) and wrapping them over our bodies with our faces as close to the ground as possible. Ten bright green burritos, squirming in the sunlight. I hope to have the luck of the instructors and never have to deploy my fire shelter. It is a last resort tactic.

Many lives have been saved, claustrophobically cocooned in their shelters while the loud fire rages around them. “I know what hell is like,” says a survivor from the instructional video. But then again, many have been cooked alive inside their shelters. The only injury I sustained from deploying my (practice) fire shelter was a scraped elbow. We practiced this on concrete, and I scuffed myself in my haste to get under my shelter (mine was missing a handle and we were being timed).

There were 20 students when we started on Monday. By Friday, there were 17, most wearing their new sturdy black boots, breaking them in and having the instructors check them off. Apart from my seatmate, the friendly bloke from Mexico City, (poor dude has a huge disadvantage with English being his second language) everyone passed the course. You just have to get a 70% or better on the final exam.

The moment I finished the course, I drove home, hopped on my bike, and rode to a barbershop. I was driving to Lake Shasta that evening for an annual houseboat trip with college friends and didn’t want any weird tanlines. Coincidentally, my barber had had four years of wildland fire experience. When I asked him what company he worked for, he said “adult daycare.” Convict crews are common on fires. I only hope the convicts I work with (if I do) are as amiable as my new barber.

I returned from Shasta and began my “on-call” life. They could call me at any time and I could be gone for 1 to 30 days. I changed the fire company’s ringtone to a bell-ring-like alarm, distinguishing it from other calls. I was careful to keep my phone charged and on hand, a challenge for a luddite like myself. The waiting dragged on, a few days, then a week, with all of my personal gear laid out in my bedroom, ready to go at the drop of a hat.

I had to find a way to pass the time while constantly being available. I saw three movies at the theater right across the river from my house: “Baby Driver”, “Spider-Man: Homecoming”, and “The Beguiled.” I continued my bodyweight fitness routine, having concluded after two visits to the local Crossfit gym that I am not enough of a douchebag to fit in there. I prefer doing handstands, planks, and yoga in my room and then running to the park where there is a perfect a little adult jungle gym, with parallel bars for dips and plenty of pull-up bars. I even incorporated a set of backflips into my routine to keep that party trick sharp.

I sent out another rent check for July and was starting to get anxious about my money situation. The feelings of dread and aimlessness returned as I wondered whether I was ever going to get called out on a fire assignment. I began to wonder if my roommates think I’m a good for nothing bum. I still had next to no friends in Eugene. I called the farmer to set up work with him; he wants to rebuild a fence. Perfect.

It’s Sunday and I go to the Wandering Goat to crank out a blog post about the basic fire training when… bam! A 541 number calls and I pick up on the first ring. It’s ol’ crazy eyes, my fellow film lover from the pack test. “I’m counting on you. Be here before six tonight. Don’t be first, don’t be last. Stay in the middle of the pack.”

My next post will be about my first fire assignment. I’d say three posts is plenty of set-up. It’s about time.