I didn’t have as much time today, but I’m finding the Melville connections compelling. Trying to tell myself it’s just a shitty first draft.
Nothing more happened on the passage worthy the mentioning; so, after a fine run, we safely arrived in Nantucket.
– Herman Melville, from Chapter 14 “Nantucket,” Moby Dick; Or, The Whale
This is not about Moby Dick; however, Ishmael’s journey from New Bedford to Nantucket parallels my journey from Bryce to Yellowstone. We both waited, making stops along the way to our final destination: the ocean and whaling for him, the park and firefighting for me. I know, it’s the best analogy—kind of simplistic and obvious, but remember how I said I needed something to hold this narrative together? Or maybe I didn’t….
On September 2nd, the Friday before Labor Day weekend, 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.
After spending all night waiting in Panguitch and driving to Salt Lake City, we arrived in the early morning hours of Saturday, September 3rd. The valley was engulfed with smoke. The air stunk of burning wood. And despite the time of day, 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 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. We later learned that the fire started in the Affleck Park Campground—some campers neglected to extinguish their campfire before departing their site. Only half of our twenty-two-member crew had been on fires before and none of us had worked together as firefighters. Our crew leader was Calvin Jones, an interpretive ranger out of Zion National Park. He assumed authority over the situation and set us to back burning (intentionally setting fire to deprive the oncoming fire of fuel) and digging hurried fire lines with Pulaskis (a combination digger and ax), while he called in water and slurry (fire retardant) drops to combat the really hot stuff. It was exciting stuff. And scary. So we were glad when the Boise Hotshots arrived and took command of the fire.
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—I at last received word that our crew was destined for Yellowstone. I was detailed to the Wolf Lake Fire near 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 (it’s a long story: they flew us from Salt Lake to Cedar in a 22-person plane), we arrived in Mammoth on September 13th, 1988. I was on board.
It was nearly six o’clock, but only grey imperfect misty dawn, when we drew nigh the wharf.
– Herman Melville, from Chapter 21 “Going Aboard,” Moby Dick; Or, The Whale
My trip to Salt Lake City was perhaps more exciting than Ishmael’s trip to New Bedford. Still, I claim that in spite of the excitement of the Affleck Park Fire, which I only appreciated in retrospect, I was so obsessed with getting to Yellowstone that the 10 days working my butt off in Emigration Canyon—camping in a grassy area that would later become the Mountain Dell Reservoir; worrying about the prisoners called in to assist us; and showering in some make-shift tent set up for the women—were a kind of torturous waiting game. I just wanted to head north. So, as I said, like Ishmael, I waited.
Descriptions of driving into the park; bear spotting.