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 using the book to situate my own story, to serve as a starting point, and 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. While in Cedar City, between the Affleck Park Fire and the Wolf Lake Fire, I picked up a copy of Moby Dick, so that I could begin re-studying for my master’s exams. As Ahab drove the crew of the Pequod toward its inevitable demise, I obeyed the orders given by the Interagency Fire Center, which governed the Yellowstone Complex of fires. 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, 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? 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 relived 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 won’t quote from each chapter of Moby Dick—that would be 135 quotes, and I don’t have that much to say, and I’m not obsessive 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. 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, Yellowstone 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 a necessary obsession for those involved in the fight/hunt.
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
This is not about Moby Dick; however, Ishmael’s journey from New Bedford to the Pacific Ocean parallels my journey from Bryce to Yellowstone. We both waited, making stops along the way to our final destination: the sea and whaling for him, the park and firefighting for me. So, like Ishmael, I waited.
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 fires 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—but 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. I felt like Ishmael in “The First Lowering,” when he’s finally given his chance.
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. 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.
After waiting several hours on a tarmac near the Salt Lake International Airport, we were flown on a 22-person plane to Cedar City, where we spent two luxurious days in the Best Western—swimming, sunbathing, reading, and relaxing. 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. Rather than flying us up there, they put us on a bus. More “hurry up and wait.”
Wildland fire suppression is not an inexpensive or efficient enterprise; the government spent roughly $120,000,000 to fight fires in Yellowstone that summer. Perhaps someone should investigate the time and money spent transporting firefighters and providing lodging for them? I received two free flights to Cedar City that summer: from Salt Lake International Airport and from Bozeman. I also received free lodging in Cedar City (2 nights) and Yellowstone (14 nights)—I don’t count the nights I spent camping in Emigration Canyon. Plus, they fed me over 4000 calories worth of food every day. And the money was really good: I earned $3000 for 3 weeks of firefighting. Not bad for a GS4 seasonal park ranger! Fortunately, my pay was not contingent upon catching a whale.
When gliding by the Bashee isles we emerged at last upon the great South Sea; were it not for other things, I could have greeted my dear Pacific with uncounted thanks, for now the long supplication of my youth was answered; that serene ocean rolled eastwards from me a thousand leagues of blue.
– Herman Melville, from Chapter 111 “The Pacific,” Moby Dick; Or, The Whale
Ishmael had far greater concerns—“other things” ryptically mentioned here—than I; however, I was ill by the time I drove into Yellowstone through the West entrance. We were 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. When we arrived on the morning of September 13th, 1988, I was nursing a cold, so I missed the bear spotting out the bus window and tried to close my eyes to the creepy sky, colored by smoke and haze. No visions of serene blue seas for me.
Fortunately, my first day in Yellowstone was rest and relaxation (R&R), so I sought out a hot spring within walking distance of Mammoth village—and spent the afternoon soaking away the tight muscles and accumulated ash from working Affleck Park. A massive bull elk approached the hotpot on the other side of the river and watched me for a while. The elk were in rut; males vied with each other for female attention, throwing back their heavily antlered heads, bellowing, and often tussling with other males. They seemed to be everywhere: on the road, in the parking lots, on the narrow strips of grass between the buildings. One morning, as I waited for our bus ride to the helibase (where we’d wait for the helicopter ride to Hurricane Ridge), I watched two males fight over a female. No blood was shed, but the riotous bugling and the fierce knocking of antlers mesmerized me.
After my one day of R&R, I began work on the Wolf Lake Fire. It was three days after the first snowstorm and three days after the park was reopened to the public. The fire season in Yellowstone was essentially over, but I was to be part of the mop-up operations: making sure the edges of the fire were cold, putting out hotspots within the burned area, and cleaning up fire lines. The job of mop-up stinks. Firefighters turn over burnt terrain, trying not to burn the bottoms of their boots in blankets of steaming ash, which sometimes means hopping quickly through the billowing stuff, pumping water onto the really hot spots, and turning over the smoking ash with a shovel. Mop-up creates a wet, pungent slop that penetrates everything: clothes, eyes, nasal passages, throat. For the three weeks I was firefighting, the smell never left me. To this day, I dislike the smell of water poured onto campfires.
It was a boring job and one the government soon turned over to the Marines. MUSING
One day I was hiking up to the ridge top where we’d been working on the burned edge. We were taking our time, hiking only as fast as the slowest person in our crew. All of a sudden about 60 marines came barreling up alongside us, roaring up the slope. By the time they got halfway up the hill one of them had to stop. When I passed him up he was leaning against a tree trying to catch his breath. His superior was standing by encouraging him to catch it faster. If they had just gone slower instead of trying to impress everybody with their macho stamina they might have had more energy left at the top to do what they were supposed to do. Within their first three days on the fire several of them were taken off the line because of careless knee and tool-induced injuries. When their leaders told them “Your tool is your weapon” I was surprised more of them didn’t cut their toes off with their Pulaskis.
Some days, I had to remind myself that I was in Yellowstone and fighting one of the greatest fires of the century. At 5:30 a.m. we’d be yelled out of bed by one of the women on the other Color Country crew and then we’d hustle to breakfast, chow down, grab another lunch of ham sandwiches and junk food, then haul butt to the fire cache, where we’d sit, freezing, until the bus came to take us to the helibase. If people weren’t too sleepy we’d play some hacky sack while waiting. Once at the helibase we’d wait some more. I learned why people joked about the government forcing us to “hurry up and wait.” But it gave me time to read—something I hadn’t done in a long time. Ishmael wrote; I read about Ishmael and whales…everything about whales.