my first day

At last I’ve set myself down and done some writing. I’m re-revising an essay I revised for Judy Elsley’s memoir writing class last fall. Here’s the first day’s worth. I’m calling it “Fanning the Flames”–for now.

Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.

– Herman Melville, from Chapter 1 “Loomings,” Moby Dick; Or, The Whale

Let me just say up front that this is not an essay about Moby Dick. I’m merely using the book to situate my own story, to serve as a starting point—because one has to begin somewhere—to launch this narrative into its much more modest than Melville’s telling.

I first read Moby Dick while I was working as a wildland firefighter in Yellowstone National Park. It was 1988 and, like Ishmael, I needed an adventure and a break from the disappointments of the previous academic year. Like Ishmael, I was relatively young, almost 26, and still quite naïve about the ways of the world.

But this isn’t about Moby Dick; it’s about my summer in 1988. By August I had learned that I’d failed my preliminary exams for the Masters of English Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I had planned to spend the summer studying for my exams, which I took at the end of July. Instead, my summer was consumed by a low-paying job working a coffee cart for Victor’s Coffee & Tea on Madison’s State Street, lazy afternoons dipping in Lake Mendota, humid nights swilling beer and listening to local bands on the Union Terrace, and a passion for a fellow English student from Virginia. As I spent more time with Chris than my books, I believed I could learn about literature through osmosis: by sleeping with Shakespeare, or in this case, a brilliant if self-absorbed Pynchon expert. Well, I failed my exams.

My failure was not a surprise; I knew when I wrote my essay about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which I hadn’t read, that I would be lucky to pass. Rather than “lighting out for the territories,” I claimed that Huck returned to small-town life with Aunt Sally or Mrs. Watson or whatever her name was. Wrong. Failure #3.

This was not my only failure that year…shall I list them? I received my first “C” on a paper, written for a tiny little man who taught the 18th century novel (ugh) class. He liked to humiliate people: when he arrived in the classroom he carefully placed a heavy metal trash can against the door so that if someone arrived late he/she would be forced to crash into the room disrupting this man’s painfully quiet class. We read Clarissa—1500 odd pages of epistolary novel (letters and more letters), which tells the story of a man’s seduction and eventual rape of a young woman. Torture. How could I write a decent paper about such a book? I got the “C” and had to meet with the professor and revise my paper. For an honors student this was torture: meeting with the professor and revising my paper. More and more torture. In the end, I pulled a “B” and was quite grateful to get out of the 18th century alive. Failure #1.

Then in the spring, during my postmodern literature class, I developed this horrible crush on Chris Norden. He had this sweet Virginia accent, spoke eloquently about Gravity’s Rainbow—a book I couldn’t even finish, let alone understand—and liked the Grateful Dead. Because I’m shy and undervalue myself, I tend to do stupid things to get people’s attention, like drink too much at parties. And I did just that on March 16, 1988, when I went to another grad student’s party with my friend Trudy. I thought Chris would be the party, so I prepped myself with a couple of drinks; at the party I continued drinking because I thought he might show up at any minute; then, when he didn’t arrive, I convinced Trudy that we should drive over to his house. We arrived at his place on Johnson Avenue, across from Lake Mendota. I’d never been to his house, but I’d scouted it out before—how pathetic is that?—so I knew where it was. (Un)fortunately he was home. We stayed and partied some more. I flirted. We left. On the way home we drove through a complicated intersection, which I’d driven many times before, but apparently I wasn’t in the correct lane or I turned on a red light or something the police office felt obliged to pull me over for. I was fine, but he decided I was drunk. Trudy had to find her own way home. My little red Mazda GLC had to be towed. I was taken to jail.

Which was worse, you might ask, earning a “C” on a paper or earning a DUI? Hm. I’m still pondering that. The four hours I spent in jail were not pleasant, I’ll say that. They took my rings, my earrings (the crystal ones I’d recently bought myself as a present for getting over a boyfriend), my knee-hi stockings (so I wouldn’t hang myself?), my shoes, and my purse. I guess they weren’t worried about the under-wire bra or the purple sweater. They put me in a cell by myself, thank god. But there was this woman in the cell next to mine who kept sobbing and moaning about how awful her life was. I almost joined her, but I kept together for a little while longer.

(Un)fortunately my parents were in town for the weekend. They were staying at my aunt and uncle’s house, so I called them. The phone was busy. I called again. Still busy. Maybe the third or fourth time, I finally got through. Now the sobbing started. My parents came. They bailed me out. They took me home. They tucked me into bed. The next day, and the next, and the day after that, and the following weeks and months I relieved the shame of it all. I lost my license for 6 months; I had to pay large amounts of money to the state of Wisconsin. Failure #2.

I stuffed a shirt or two into my old carpet-bag, tucked it under my arm, and started for Cape Horn and the Pacific.

– Herman Melville, from Chapter 2 “The Carpet-Bag,” Moby Dick; Or, The Whale

Okay, I promise I won’t use a quote from each chapter of Moby Dick—that would be 135 quotes, and I don’t have that much to say and don’t want to be like Matt Kish, who painted a picture for every page of the novel (the Signet Classics paperback edition with 552 pages)—but this part of Ishmael’s journey reminds me of my own. He had to wait around in New Bedford before he got on a ship. I waited in Panguitch, Salt Lake City, and Cedar City. That’s all. This essay is about my summer in 1988.

So after suffering these 3 failures, I packed up my stuff, left my car at my aunt and uncle’s house, and flew home to Utah. In August I returned to Bryce Canyon National Park to earn some real money and clear my head. It was my fourth season as a backcountry ranger. Because of my DUI, Chief Ranger George Buckingham was reluctant to hire me again; however, my immediate supervisor, Ken Kerr, convinced him that I would get my license back before too long (mid September) and that I was worth the investment. But George never let an opportunity slip to give me a hard time about it. If I radioed for transportation to/from a trailhead, he would pipe in with “Why do you need a ride 763? Weren’t you able to take an NPS vehicle today? Snigger, snigger.” My call number was 763. The ribbing was incessant.

Fortunately there were more pressing concerns than my DUI. That dry summer, all available personnel from national parks, forests, monuments, recreation areas, and historic sites throughout the country were programmed into wildland fire management activities. Though fires raged throughout the west, the fires ravaging Yellowstone received the most media attention and thus demanded the most financial resources. These were the largest blazes to attack the West in seventy years. Senator Jake Garn, from Utah, visited the park and declared, “We must save the jewel of our national park system!” By June, approximately 250 separate fires had sprung up throughout the 3,468-square-mile park; on September 8, 1988, the entire park was closed to all non-emergency personnel for the first time in its history. Within three days of my arrival at Bryce, my supervisor (Ken Kerr) left to serve as a security manager on the Mink Creek Fire (just south of Yellowstone), and within a week our park, which in past years was obligated to send only four people to non-park fires, sent ten firefighters to Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. Fire, like whaling, becomes an obsession for those involved in the fight/hunt.

On September 13th, I joined the thousands of people mobilized to fight fire in the Yellowstone region. When I got the call-out, I was sitting at Logger’s Inn, a local pub just outside of Bryce, with some friends who had arrived from Salt Lake City for the Labor Day weekend. You see I didn’t quit drinking just because I got a DUI. I simply found other people to drive. Initially disappointed that I wouldn’t get to hang out with my pal Pam, I soon grew excited at the prospect of heading to Yellowstone. As I hurried through my packing, arranging, planning, and driving to Panguitch, I suffered another disappointment: I learned I would be going to Salt Lake instead. As I drove through the night, my disappointment was lost in fear for my hometown. Emigration Canyon was burning—a canyon just a few miles from downtown and even fewer from my family’s house on the east bench.

I remember driving into the Salt Lake Valley, which was engulfed with smoke. The air stunk of burning wood and, although it was midday, the sky was dark like dusk. It was the air of winter inversions: when the cool air traps the smog in the valley, and the National Weather Services issues red air warnings—stay indoors unless you have to go out. My eyes stung. As we drove up Parley’s Canyon, to access Emigration Canyon from the other side, the air cleared somewhat, and we could see the flames racing up the hillsides behind million-dollar homes.

Our National Park Service (NPS) crew was the sixth crew the Color Country Region of Utah had sent out on interagency fire that summer. We also were the first crew to arrive on the Labor Day blaze in Emigration Canyon. Since fires are usually named for their place of origin, this one was called the Affleck Park Fire after the campground in which it originated, even though most of the burn was over the ridge in Emigration Canyon and at the top of Red Butte Canyon. Only half of our twenty-two-member band had been on fires before and none of us had worked together as firefighters. I did some back burning (intentionally setting fire to deprive the oncoming fire of fuel); called in water and slurry (fire retardant) drops to combat the really hot stuff; dug hurried fire lines with my recently sharpened Pulaski (a combination digger and ax); and somehow won the respect of the Boise Hotshots.

The hotshot crews, as their name implies, are top-notch firefighters with the U.S. Forest Service. They spend the entire fire season—often six months or more—fighting fire and thus quickly become professionals in their work. The Forest Service tends to view the National Park Service as less able-bodied when it comes to firefighting. There are a number of reasons for this attitude, but the fact is that park employees tend to spend less time battling fire and thus have less experience. So on the second day, when the Boise Hotshots actually requested to work with our brand new NPS crew, I felt privileged indeed. By the end of the week I was digging line with this rugged bunch and cracking jokes about the “green” crew from Florida dragging along behind us.

Within ten days, the Affleck Park Fire was contained, or kept within established boundaries, though not yet extinguished. Our crew was called off the fire and other crews were brought in to do mop-up, basically cleaning up any spots that remained hot and removing any lingering fuel from the area. After two days of uncertainty, of orders given then retracted—I received separate orders for Idaho, Southern Utah, and California, all in the space of two days—at last I received word that our crew was destined for Yellowstone. I was detailed to the Wolf Lake Fire near of Mammoth Hot Springs, the northernmost village in Yellowstone and site of spectacular terraces formed by geothermal activity and deposited calcium carbonate. After a long bus ride from Cedar City, we arrived in Mammoth on September 13th, 1988.


About BJ

living the dream in northern Utah
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