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.

A Waiting Game

Exploring Eugene, finding purpose

When you move to a new city, first you’ve got to settle in. There is the nesting process of obtaining furniture from Craigslist, feng shui-ing your room, and letting your heart settle down as you fend of doubts that this was the right life decision. One of my roommates has quotes written on notes around her room (and around the house for that matter), one of which says, Make a decision and turn it into the right one. “My mom wrote that,” she said. When you you are adapting to a new environment and your brain is in emotional flux, it likes to cling onto corny little snippets of wisdom, ones you might normally scoff at.

Once my little rented space of the world was as in order as it could possibly be, I no longer had a clear purpose. Sure, I had done the pack test, but I had about two weeks before the week-long basic wildland firefighting class began, which meant I had to find meaning and direction in a new town where I knew only my roommates and my friend’s aunt.

I decided I should use this rare time (with no job, no friends, no responsibilities apart from feeding myself) to orient myself in Eugene. I set about exploring, sometimes by bike, but more often on longboard. Eugene is mercifully flat, with a large network of bike trails along the Willamette river, making it an ideal town for cruising on a longboard. I ride through campus, already feeling like a has-been, hike both Skinner’s and Spencer’s Buttes, meditate, and go to yoga classes. Soon I had developed familiar haunts, such as Chipotle (Oregon’s no sales tax means a huge burrito for $6.75!), Costco (part of adulting means a Costco membership, obviously), and my neighborhood coffee house: The Wandering Goat, where I am now as I write this. But the best of these places is a pedestrian bridge over the Willamette.

During my first visit to this bridge I witnessed an osprey diving into the river with a surprising “kerploop”, like the sound of a small stone breaking the water’s surface. It came up with a fish in its talons and disappeared along the treeline. Young swallows also provide entertainment as they dart about, terrorizing swarms of tiny bugs. Each is a little fighter pilot showing off at the county fair. You almost expect to hear the hum of a prop plane engine as they swoop low, close to me, bearing their bellies. All of this bird activity is happening along the backdrop of a macaroni orange sunset and I decide this is my favorite spot in Eugene so far.

Though I have awesome, friendly roommates, they have busy, established lives, which means I had a lot of me time. One of the (few) plusses of loneliness is a newfound connection with music. And books for that matter. These mediums are always willing to be intimate with you when you are craving human connection. The lyrics that echoed in my head most often during these “me time” days were: “I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend” (Fire & Rain- James Taylor), “When everything is lonely I can be my own best friend” (Lua- Bright Eyes), and “I just need someone in my life to give it structure” (I Love You So- The Walters). For all these lyrics about lonesomeness that resonate with me, the least melancholy line is probably “Sometimes I need to be alone…” (Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe- Kendrick Lamar) so I tried to be a big boy and enjoy my solitude while it lasted.

In spite of all this “woe is me” talk of alienation, I did spend a lot of time with friends in the weeks leading up to the firefighting class. It was really only a handful of days where it was just me myself and I. Although I had to either import friends to Eugene or export myself to Portland or Lake Shasta. One action-packed weekend I hosted four friends. We went to a minor league baseball game, went to 80’s night at a barcade, drove out to the coast, and floated the Willamette. By the end I decided being a camp counselor for four adults was more challenging than looking after a dozen teenagers.

My friend’s aunt had me over for dinner one evening. She introduced me to the farmer across the street, who said he had plenty of work for me if I wanted it. This proved the perfect buffer against feelings of existential aimlessness, providing a temporary raison d’etre and a chance to earn a little extra money.

A few days later I arrive at the farm at 9am and am greeted by an ancient black lab mix. His muzzle is white-grey and his jowls are rubber-black. He accepts my pats graciously. The farmer appears wearing a red shirt, overalls, and sun-hat.

“That’s Toby,” he says.

“How old is he?”

“14 or 15. Can’t hardly see and can’t barely walk. He’s probably ready to go to the vet, but I’m not.”

It’s a beef farm in the shadow of Mt. Pisgah with 14 cows and “130 or 140” egg-laying hens. “I was born in that house there,” the farmer points out as we drive a few hundred feet to another part of his property. The farm has been in the family since his grandfather homesteaded in 1910. He gets out of his truck gingerly. “I’ve been disabled for a number of years. Had both knees replaced.” He speaks with a slight southern twang, even though he’s a lifelong Oregonian. Maybe that accent should be categorized as rural Americana rather than belonging exclusively to the south.

He shows me a section of fruit trees, fenced off and strangled by berry bushes. I set about dismantling the wire fence, the clipping the thorny blackberry limbs, getting my forearms torn up in the process. A misguided someone placed some devil’s snare-ish potted plant next to the fence and it weaved and braided its way up one of the asian pear trees.

The whole little grove was an overgrown mess, but once I had pulled out the fence the farmer showed up with his tractor, slowly coming into my view like a car reveal in a Fast & Furious movie. It’s an ancient red capital-T Tractor, made in the 1950’s and still going strong. Its two headlights resemble crab eyes, although one is blown out. It was dragging a big metal square lawnmower attachment, which the farmer proceeded to back into the little fruit tree area. It loudly ate up all the pricker bushes and weeds and even took down an old peach tree, which had been smothered for so long that it was toast anyway.

For four mornings (and some afternoons) I helped the farmer with his many tasks, moving at a leisurely pace (he graduated high school in ’59). My childhood tinkertoy experience came in handy when we fit together long metal pipes to irrigate his fields, during which I slip in multiple cow pies. “We’ll make a farmer out of you yet!” Exclaims the farmer as the sprinklers get up and going, concluding our labors. I got really familiar with a Husqvarna mower/weed-whacker, annihilating fields of thistles and uncovering a secret nest of eggs, sending the squawking culprit fleeing back to her flock. I get several rides on the back of the tractor, legs dangling off the end, musing on how funny life can be.

 

 

 

 

The Pack Test

First foray into the world of wildland firefighting

After a year of post-grad blues, living mostly at mom and dad’s house in Seattle, working odd jobs, I decided to assert my independence and try being an adult. I crammed my Subaru full of all my earthly possessions and drove south to Eugene, OR on little more than a whim. The Whittaker District, with it’s breweries and crunchy vibe, had struck a chord with me when I stopped by on my recent cycling tour down the West Coast. A room opened up in a five person house in that district and I took it, leaving behind family, friends, girlfriend, my known Seattle world, all in pursuit of a seasonal firefighting job.

Wildland firefighting has been on my radar for the past few years. A family friend is on her second season, working on a type 3 engine for the U.S. Forest Service in Wenatchee, WA. I’ve met several people who have done it for a few seasons and some who have made it a career. Most speak highly of the experience. A friend of mine called it “dirty, hard, thankless work” but I’ll bet it beats the ol’ cubicle grind! I reckon it’s also more rewarding than say, catering business lunches, or running pizzas around a winery, or doing solo landscaping projects on a Lopez Island property. These are among the odd jobs I’ve done this past year to survive capitalism.

Once I knew I was for sure moving down to Eugene, I applied online to a private wildland firefighting contractor based out of neighboring Springfield. To my surprise, the crew boss called me the next day to schedule me for a pack test. This is a fitness test, designed to ensure that you can handle the physical challenges of the job. It is a three mile hike with a 45 pound pack that must be completed in under 45 minutes.

The morning of the test I arrive at the fire station at 9am. A heavily tattooed bloke at the front desk gives me some forms to fill out. Two other young guys sit with me, scribbling on clipboards. The one in the camo hat is joking with the people behind the desk with an easy familiarity. I presume this is not his first season. I finish the paperwork and am given a laminated number “5”.

I walk outside around the building to a hanger. Other rookies are standing around with a few men in their thirties wearing dark colors, with walkie-talkies, heavy boots, obviously the seasoned leaders. One of them, a solidly built gent, sets me up with one of the weighted vests lying on the hangar floor, velcroing the “5” to my chest. He has the strong hands of years of hard work and his light eyes widen excitedly when I tell him I majored in Film Studies. “I love film,” he says. I detect just a touch of crazy in his eyes. The other leader wears sunglasses and a blonde beard and is decidedly less chatty. Both crew leads smoke cigarettes while we wait for everyone to arrive. “As if the smoke from the fires isn’t enough lung damage,” I think to myself, haughtily, aware that I have never been on a fire and don’t know shit. Though I still find these cigarette smoking wildland firefighters, soldiers of the finger-wagging Smokey the Bear, charmingly ironic.

Other rookies trickle in and we chat and stretch, anticipating the test. The one girl in the group betrays her track background by swinging her legs back and forth like a pendulum. The tallest rookie, 6′ 4″ and well built, sporting colorful geometric tattoos on one arm, shares briefly about his experience in the Marine Corps. In reference to Afghanistan: “Best time of my life. Flying around, doing something that matters. I loved it.” Being an apolitical, anti-military hippie, I speculate there being roadblocks to our friendship. Other recruits include a slightly balding dude from Mexico City. When asked how he ended up in Oregon, he responds simply, “I just got dropped off here.” “Welcome,” says the wild-eyed crew lead.

After nearly an hour of waiting around for others to show up, the eight of us struggle into the 45 pound vests and march to the street in a straight line (“get used to walking in straight lines!”) and line up on a telephone pole. I pictured the test being an actual hike through the woods with backpacks, but no, this is a three lap sidewalk stroll through the suburbia surrounding the fire station. Crew leads are stationed at each corner of the “course” in white trucks (“rigs”, as they call them) to yell out times and make sure we are going the right way. No running is allowed, which is probably for the best. Just walking on concrete with a 45 pounds burden is hard enough on your knees and ankles. “This isn’t a race. You are only racing against yourselves. If you’re time is under 40 minutes, I’ll give you a carabiner.” The wild eyed crew lead pulls two from his pocket, then surveys them for a second. “Actually, I need these. They’re really useful.” There’s a ripple of nervous chuckling among the rookies.

“Go!” The crew lead starts the timer and we all take our own diagonal to hug the left side of the road. He yells after us, “Swing your arms! It helps!”I fall into third place, behind the geometric tattoo guy, with the camo hat dude leading the speed-walk. It feels absurd, the group of us fast-walking in black weighted vests, beginning to sweat. A middle schooler wearing an Oregon Ducks shirt pauses her gardening to watch us go by. I give her a “this is ridiculous” half-smile.

After the first lap, I’m making good time and feeling good so I take to chatting with geometric tattoo guy about his time in the military, mostly just to pass the time. I am stride for stride with him and it starts to feel a little awkward being side by side (everyone else is single file in varying gaps behind me) so I push on the gas and speed-walk past him. To justify my pass, so he doesn’t conceive it as a competitive move, I say, “That guy (camo hat) seems like he knows what he’s doing. I’m going to catch up with him.” And I do.

Now I’m chatting up camo hat. It’s his fourth year fighting fire, third year with this particular contractor. He’s got a handsome, boyish face, with a slight redneck (Southern?) twinge to his voice. I ask him about hunting (because of the hat) and apparently he bow hunts here in Oregon, deer mostly. He boasts that he doesn’t even kill spiders, but will kill for the sake of meat. “How Zen of you,” I say. I respect this attitude, and share my own desire to learn to hunt. I feel a little self-conscious about my cave art tattoo (an elk riddled with arrows) in the presence of a practicing hunter, but I am confident I will be hunting in the next few years and my poser guilt will be absolved.

On our second lap, I grab a bottle of water from a cooler by the fire station (like a water station at a 5K) and take some sips. This delay puts me a good 20 feet behind camo hat, who ignored the water station, so I have to really swing my arms to catch up to him, the half full water bottle sloshing in my left hand. One of the crew leads drives alongside camo hat, heckling him. “You aren’t gonna make it! He’s gonna pass you!” He shrugs them off. “If we book it,” he says to me, “we might make it in under 40 minutes. To get on a hotshot crew you need to do it in under 35.” Now I wish I hadn’t been so casual and had really been pushing myself, both to impress the crew leads and prove that I’m fit enough to be a hot shot. I double down for the final lap and start to pass camo hat, saying “I’m going to try for the carabiner!” I don’t expect the crew lead to actually give it up, but I decide to shoot for under 40 minutes, just for the hell of it. Camo hat calls after me, “for a minute there I thought I was actually going to take first!”

I’m in full on race walking mode, really sweating now but feeling strong from doing handstands in my parent’s basement and other bodyweight exercises at the local playground (to the chagrin of many young mothers), in addition to the loading and unloading trucks for City Catering Co., running pizzas for eight hours at a stretch at the winery, rearranging their furniture, boxing wine, and I’ve put a significant 50 or so meters between me and camo hat as I near the finish line, with three crew leads standing with stoic looks and stopwatches. “40:04!” yells the wild eyed one. Damn.

Panting, I return to the hanger and shuck the vest, laying it neatly back on the floor, and squat against the wall to catch my breath, making sure I don’t look too pleased with myself as the others return from their plight. Everyone has completed the test under the required time, including the bloke from Mexico City, who did it in jeans, boots, and a Carhartt jacket. I’m sure he is no stranger to torridity.

The crew leads saunter over and tell us to come back on the 26th for the five day, 40 hour certification class. “Doors close at 9am”. And, echoing my junior football coaches, one adds, “If you’re not early, you’re late.” As I turn to leave, ol’ wild eyes says, “See you in a couple of weeks. We’ll talk film.”