I was barely humping in first gear, each step a lead weight, one foot in front of the other like a moonwalk. Every inch up this hill was torture. I pushed my body and my lungs to the bursting point and still kept going. I had no choice. Suck it up, this was good pain, burning off baby fat I carried from the city. And then, miraculously, when I thought I couldn’t go another step, I was sure I was going to collapse and probably die, we crested the ridge and gravity gave way. The blessed downhill. I could cruise, catch my breath, and shift my load a little so it wasn’t sloshing around and pulling me down. I cruised in third gear, cooling off sweat. I practically had a skip in my step.
This day, Luke, the crew boss of this ragtag wildland firefighting crew, decided that I needed to carry a bladder bag for hands-on training in water use. The bladder bag aka piss pump aka backpack water pump was strapped to my back and reacted disproportionately to every up and down or sideways shift in my body. I was having a hard time finding the proper balance.
I was obsessed with weight. How much extra weight could my body haul up and down these fire-scarred hills? How much did my boots weigh? Ten-inch-high top White’s Smokejumper, thick Vibram soles stitched, glued, and screwed to withstand intense heat, weighed five pounds each boot. My legs and calves were strong. In the first three weeks, I lost twenty pounds. The bladder bag added forty pounds to my load. The five-gallon rubberized contraption weighed approximately five pounds empty, including the fittings and brass nozzles. Each gallon of water in the bladder bag weighed 8.34 pounds or 3.785 kilograms at room temperature. That wasn’t adjusting for the barometric pressure of increased altitude. We were operating at an elevation between 4,000 and 5,000 feet.
Including the fire shelter strapped around my waist (4.2. pounds) and my regular fire pack – with fuzees and various instruments, C- Rats, operational manuals, solar cell pack, etc. – I figured I had a total of seventy pounds on my back. It was relatively cool, 78 degrees, with low humidity, and a slight breeze. That was a relief. We were mopping up, tromping through a forest utterly denuded from the flames that probably ran between 1,000 to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit to do this kind of damage. Roughly the temperature required to cremate a body. Nothing left to burn here. The safest place in the forest. This is what we called the black. Blackened ground, smoldering underneath, a thick layer of gray ash on top. The charcoal and ash filtered into everything, every crevice in the earth and my body. Up my nose, deep in my fingernails, the crack of my butt, in my mouth, my ears, my eyes. I took two showers in the last fire camp, and I didn’t get close to eliminating the soot and ash, and charcoal encrusted in my pores.
We humped down into the gully where the fire rushed up in a narrow funnel driven by a wind that probably exceeded 50 mph, leaving incinerated fir trees that formed an eerie charcoal landscape of tall, standing toothpicks. It was an apocalyptic scene, end of days stuff. Nothing living, nothing moving, shades of gray blending to black. The whole crew was in front of me on a long snake line. I was the caboose. There was nobody behind me to push me and I could get lost in my thoughts, be silent, be forgotten, and feel the grit. It was day 16 of mop in the Umatilla and we were all fried, except, of course, Luke. He was at the head of the line, jauntily leading the crew down into the gully, following a hotline that crossed the creek and up the other side of the hill.
I breathed in that deep wet post-fire charcoal smell, earthy, peaty, smoky, the only air I knew for months. It was a joyful moment to hear the sound of the creek. If the creek ran fast, chances were it wouldn’t be clogged with chunks of burned-out debris, and we could find an eddy of clean water to dunk and bathe.
Around the switchback into the cooler wetland, I observed a frightening sight – Luke leading the crew over a log across the creek. I froze and took it in and thought – can I go AWOL, just run somewhere through the charred forest to escape the humiliation that was sure to come? I knew he’d be thinking of me when he crossed effortlessly on the thick fir tree that a brawny sawyer dropped over the creek for the fire crews to pass.
I was entirely unequipped to be a firefighter, and not particularly rugged. I was a city kid who knew bupkus about the forest. There were trees in Brooklyn, I suppose, but I didn’t pay attention to them. I took firefighting in the Northwest as a physical challenge, and, at nineteen, I could handle nearly anything they threw at me. Hauling huge loads up and down hills, chunking hot line all day and night, swinging a Pulaski, chopping through roots and branches, sucking smoke all day and night, running from flames, dodging boulders kicked loose from the line above by another fire crew we couldn’t see in the darkness. It was all a thrill I could thrive on and turn it into a daily routine, a great adventure. But one thing was absolute. I had no sense of balance. Having to cross a wet log over a creek was my worst fear, and the whole crew knew it.
I could see Boyer the Sawyer, huge Stil chain saw balancing solidly on his shoulder, casually step on to the log and then a quick look down, a slight adjustment and he easily navigated across the log with his caulks, his pack and his chainsaw, with all the self-assuredness of a kid who grew up skittering across rocks and logs to ford fast running creeks. That sight increased my nervousness. I wiped the sweat from my forehead and tried to calm myself.
I imagined myself across the creek, smiling and chattering like one of the crew. If I could just transport myself to the other side of the log mentally maybe my body would follow. My breathing quickened; I could feel my heart jump. On the surface I projected calm, underneath I was roiling.
The whole crew crossed to the other side of the creek and lined the bank to watch me. Me and you tree, I thought, as I took my first step, still on solid ground, and then step by step as the bank began to slope away, I could hear the creek louder below me, rushing water swirling over boulders muting the chattering of the crew but not obscuring their faces, laughing in a way that was mocking and dismissive. I tried to balance, steadied myself, took another step, secure, yeah, good start, and a couple more steps. I was accumulating steps, sweat obscuring my vision.
Then I made a big mistake. I looked down at the swirling waters. The bladder bag followed my body and shifted right and quickly pulled me down, my left arm scraping the log as I went down into the creek, flat on my ass, cushioned by the bladder bag and my fire pack, the water rushing around me, the echo of the collective laugh of the crew vibrating in my ears.
I was grateful, at least, that it happened quickly before I was in the middle of the creek, where it was a longer fall into a more substantial body of water. I gathered the piss bag, my pack, and my Pulaski and tip-toed through the creek, rock to rock, stepping in the creek bottom when I needed to until I got to the other side and struggled up the bank to catch up with the crew. Luke was waiting for me, an impassive look on his face.
“Come see me after dinner tonight,” Luke said and walked off like it was some grave ultimatum. That was his schtick. Say something like it was really profound, saunter off, and let you marinate. I carried that order, along with my other burdens, for the rest of the sixteen-hour shift.
It was a long, nasty, dirty, hot, smokey day. By the end of the shift I was exhausted by the anger and resentment that went into every swing of my Pulaski, every burning log I tossed, every skid road I dogged up to get water to fill the bladder bag, every wise-ass comment I tolerated about falling off the log. I could fake it. Dress like a western dude. Chaw tobacco. Drink whiskey around the campfire. Laugh at tall tales, one of the guys. But it was all on the outside. Everybody else on the crew had the woods in their bones. They knew north from south and east from west – no sense of direction, my other affliction – and they didn’t think twice about skittering across a wet log over a rushing creek. I was lucky so far that the drop wasn’t steeper, or that my life depended on getting across the log.
What was I doing here? I was burning off my old skin, adopting a new persona far from my Brooklyn birthplace. I was toying with the idea of adulthood and finding that I didn’t like it or wasn’t ready for it and I didn’t understand it. If I was surrounded by adults, hearty men mostly, I could tag along and figure it out. I was doing okay. Then I fell off the log.
I ate alone among hundreds of dirty, jabbering firefighters. It was dry and warm, still plenty of light left before dusk. The air was thick with smoke, but to us it was normal. There were 2,500 firefighters on this complex of fires. Twenty air tankers, thirty helicopters, semis full of food, a First Aid tent, a weather station, all sorts of support in this pop-up mini city to contain the force to fight a fire that seemed unstoppable. Two firefighters had died on the line a week before and it set a pall over the camp as real as the smoke that permeated everything. The deaths didn’t impact me. It didn’t believe it could happen to me. I was immortal. A greater fear was falling off a log in front of the crew, a different kind of death.
We ate on makeshift tables constructed of plywood and two-by-fours in an open area of dusty dirt. It was shift change, between the day crews and night crews, time to stuff our bellies and then fall into a dead sleep in our sleeping bags and try to block the incessant whirring of the massive generators it took to keep this mini-city humming. 3:45 AM was wake-up, to get cleaned up, fed, geared up, and in the vans to head up to the fire. I was getting the discipline I didn’t know I needed, and I was proving myself to myself, my toughest audience.
I eyed Luke across the camp, chowing down with assorted bosses, like this was one more stop on this circus tour, no big deal. He had an ease about him that I admired. The way he walked, the way he talked, the way he smiled. I wanted to be like that.
I waited until Luke was on the outskirts of the camp before I marched up to him. I didn’t try to hide my belligerence. “I’m here. What do you want?” I was in no mood to take shit from anybody.
“Relax,” Luke said with a wry smile. “You’re too tense.”
Yeah, right. I figured he was saying that to loosen me up before telling me to pack it up and head out. Relax. It was the one word that never failed to tighten me up.
He took me by the shoulders and shook me back and forth and issued orders. Stand up straight. Relax your shoulders. Look straight ahead. Let go. I complied as best I could until the tension in my body gave way and I swayed back and forth like a rag doll.
“Okay, good,” Luke said. “Now, relax the muscles in your face. Take a minute. Close your eyes. Feel the tension drop away.”
I complied. I didn’t realize how I scrunched my face into a tight mask. Once I decided to let go it was like my face slowly melted.
He gave me further instructions.
“Feet shoulder length apart. Watch what I do. Take your right foot and cock it against your left ankle like this.”
I copied his stance.
“Now,” Luke said. “Put your arms up like you’re a goalpost. Chest out, arms back slightly.”
He aligned my body with steady pressure, one hand on the small of my back, the other pushing on my chest. I adjusted my body until Luke said I had it right.
“Good,” Luke said. “Now comes the hard part. Close your eyes”.
I closed my eyes and fell sideways.
I had the same problem,” Luke said. “There’s a solution. This is called the balance pose. Clear your mind and trust your body. Trust your feet. Practice this and you’ll be able to walk across logs with confidence.”
I tried again and again and fell over.
“Find somewhere you can be alone and let yourself ease into it,” Luke said “Then move your foot higher up your leg, like this, into the tree pose. Close your eyes. Once you master that, stand on a stump and do it. Balance is all about training your middle ear and having confidence in your instincts. Got it, sport?”
And he walked off, leaving me to ponder all that. That moment sucked all the anger out of me, and I knew what I had to do. I practiced for three days, any time I had a break. During my seven years fighting fire I never fell again.