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.┬áThe 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.”