FANNING THE FLAME – Becky Jo Gesteland
In 1987 I’d moved to Madison, Wisconsin, to pursue a master’s degree in English. While there, I received my first “C” from a tiny little man who taught the 18th century novel. We read Clarissa—1500-odd pages of epistolary novel—which tells the story of a man’s seduction and eventual rape of a young woman. How could I write a decent paper about such a book? I revised the paper, pulled a “B,” and was grateful to get out of the 18th century alive.
I much preferred the postmodernism class, where I could listen to a PhD student from Virginia talk about Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow—a book I couldn’t even finish, let alone understand. Because I’m shy and undervalue myself, I tend to do stupid things to get people’s attention, like drink too much at parties. When I went to another grad student’s party with my friend Trudy, I thought the PhD student would be there, 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. He lived with several other students, mostly undergrads (go figure), in one of those turn-of-the-century houses packed tightly together on the waterfront. Like its neighbors, the house was a rental and desperately in need of renovation. He was home, so we stayed and partied some more. On the way home we drove through a complicated intersection—one I’d driven many times before—but apparently I wasn’t in the correct lane or I turned on a red light or something for which the police office felt obliged to pull me over. I was fine, but he decided I was drunk. Trudy found her own way home. My tomato-red Mazda GLC had to be towed. I went to jail.
They took my rings, my earrings (the crystal ones I’d recently bought myself as a present for getting over another 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 over-sized purple sweater. They put me in a cell by myself, thank god. But there was a woman in the cell next to mine who kept sobbing and moaning about how awful her life was. I almost joined her but kept it together for a little while longer.
My parents were in town for the weekend, staying at my aunt and uncle’s house, so I called them. The phone was busy. I called again. Still busy. About the third or fourth time, I finally got through. Now my 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 humiliation of it. I lost my license for 6 months; I had to pay large amounts of money to the state of Wisconsin. And I had to explain over and over again why I couldn’t drive.
I had planned to spend the summer studying for my exams. Instead, I spent it working a coffee cart on State Street, dipping into Lake Mendota, swilling beer, and listening to local bands on the Union Terrace. Oh, and I more and more time with the PhD student from Virginia. I’d convinced myself that I could absorb literature through osmosis: by sleeping with Shakespeare, or in this case, a brilliant if self-obsessed Pynchon expert. Needless to say, I failed my exams. 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. Later I discovered that the PhD student had been sleeping with other women too—including one of his own undergraduate students.
After my failures in Madison, I packed up my stuff and 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, the Chief Ranger was reluctant to hire me again; however, my immediate supervisor convinced him that I would get my license back before too long (mid September) and that I was worth the investment. But the chief never let an opportunity slide 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?” My call number was 763. Weren’t you able to take an NPS vehicle today? Snigger, snigger.” The ribbing was incessant.
Mercifully 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 greatest financial resources. These were the largest blazes to attack the West in seventy years. 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. Just because I got a DUI, didn’t mean I quit drinking; I simply found other people to drive. Initially disappointed that I wouldn’t get to hang out with my pals, 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’d be going to Salt Lake City instead. As I drove through the night, I became fearful 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.
We arrived in Salt Lake City on the morning of 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 Service issues red air warnings. 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 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. 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, Calvin, assumed authority over the situation and set us to back burning and digging hurried fire lines with Pulaskis, while he called in water and slurry drops to combat the really hot stuff. It was hot, exciting, scary, and exhausting work. So we were glad when the Boise Hotshots arrived and took command of the fire.
As their name implies, hotshot crews are top-notch firefighters with the U.S. Forest Service. They spend the entire fire season—often six months or more—fighting fire and justifiably consider themselves professionals. The Forest Service tends to view the NPS 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 generally 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, we 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.
Most women in the fire world end up in the office as clerks or in the kitchen as cooks. The few who actually fight the fires usually don’t get past basic fire-line duty. Our crew was rare in that we had 6 women on a 22-person crew. The Boise Hotshots had one woman, and she worked for six months alongside twenty-one men. I remember thinking she had balls. I’d think about her lack of privacy every time I had to tell my squad boss I needed to change my tampon in the woods. Well, I wouldn’t tell him that, I’d ask permission to “use the facilities” then I’d muck about in the dirt, trying to find an unburned bush or big stump to hide behind while I did my business. Unlike me, who only spent one menstrual cycle on the fire, the lone woman on the hotshot crew potentially spent six and probably spent most of her firefighting time camping. As I said, she had balls.
Within ten days, the Affleck Park Fire was contained though not yet controlled. Our crew was called off the fire and other crews were brought in to do mop-up. On the last day a National Guardsman greeted me with a six-pack of my favorite beer. I had mentioned, during one of our rides up Red Butte Canyon in the back of an army convoy truck, that I wanted nothing more than a Miller beer, so, as I climbed out of the Army truck, he handed me a garbage bag filled with bottles and ice. Miller never tasted so good. At the time I thought he was just being nice; now, I imagine he may have had a little crush on me.
We waited for news of our next destination on a tarmac near the Salt Lake International Airport, playing hacky sack and watching a mostly Native American crew from Alaska huddle around a small transistor radio listening to Bobby McFerrin’s song, “Don’t worry, be happy.” We started singing along with them. The song became the anthem for our firefighting season. Eventually we flew on a 22-person plane to Cedar City, where we spent two luxurious days in the Best Western: swimming, sunbathing, and relaxing. I bought a copy of Moby-Dick and began reading about Ishmael’s adventures. After two days of uncertainty, of orders given then retracted, we at last received word that our crew was destined for Yellowstone. Rather than flying us up there, they put us on a bus: “hurry up and wait.”
Early in the morning on September 13th, we drove into Yellowstone through the West Entrance. The sky was so smoke-filled that most of us missed the bear walking alongside the road. Since my first day in Yellowstone was R&R, 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 Affleck Park. A massive bull elk approached on the other side of the river and watched me soak. I watched back. After a while, he wandered off. The elk were in rut; males vied with each other for female attention, throwing back their heavily antlered heads, bellowing, and often clashing with other males. Kind of like the guys in fire camp. 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. Lots of riotous bugling and fierce knocking of antlers but they never drew blood.
We began work on the fire three days after the first snowstorm. The fire season in Yellowstone was essentially over, but we were part of mop-up operations: making sure the edges of the fire were cold, putting out hotspots within the burned area, and cleaning up fire lines. This was the job we’d left others to do in Affleck Park; now it was my primary job. It stinks—literally. Firefighters sift through burnt terrain—hopping quickly through the steaming ash so as not to burn the bottoms of their boots—pumping water onto the really hot spots with water from our fire-fighting backpacks, affectionately called “piss-pumps,” and turning over the 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 on campfires.
Some days I had to remind myself that I wasn’t in college but in Yellowstone fighting one of the greatest fires of the century. I slept in the lodge employees’ dorms, in my own room, with a hot shower down the hall, and fell asleep to Melville. At 5:30 a.m. we’d be yelled out of bed, hustle to breakfast, grab a sack lunch, then hurry to the fire cache, where we’d wait, freezing, until the bus came to take us to the helibase. If people weren’t too sleepy, we’d play some hacky sack to stay warm. Once at the helibase we’d wait some more: “hurry up and wait.”
Yet I came to enjoy the time in between sleeping, eating, and working. While waiting I could read—something I hadn’t done in a long time. I sat in the dirt by the helipad and read Moby-Dick, immersing myself in whaling lore, cetology, and lengthy descriptions of everything whale. I got lost in the adventures of the Pequod, Ahab’s internal struggle, and the sense of powerlessness the crew felt. I could relate to that. One day our crew was flown by helicopter to our assigned ridge above Mammoth Valley. It was the scariest flight of my life. Had the choice been up to me—and it wasn’t, because I was a government employee, a hired hand, a slave to the fire—I would not have climbed into that 4-seater, would not have lifted off the soft turf, would not have watched snow plaster the foggy windshield, would not have flown close to the wall so as to avoid updrafts, and would not have deposited three cold and terrified firefighters on a forested ridge high above the Gardiner River. But I had taken a pledge to fight fires for the NPS until they no longer needed me. Much like the Pequod’s crew, who pledged to find and kill Moby-Dick, I grew increasingly fearful of the “quenchless feud.”
After that scary flight in, we worked for a few hours. The snow turned into a cold rain. Water and ash clung to my boots, making my work on the steep slopes especially difficult. I slipped and slid through muck, scrambling for footing on any remaining roots. At the end of the day Calvin passed along the order to hike out. I’ve never been so glad for a trail and reasonably sure footing. As the light faded from the cloudy sky, the snow resumed, gently coating my parka and covering the mud and ash from the fire. We made our way back to Mammoth Village just as the sun set over the mountains ringing the valley. I remembered why I joined the NPS in the first place: the adventure, yes, but also this—the serenity of a backcountry trail that carries me away from the sounds of man. On the trail, nature controlled me, not some bureaucracy that dictated when and where I should go. I balanced on the edge of the coin: at once exciting and fear inducing, two sides of the same doubloon.
All summer I’d heard stories about bears wandering into Yellowstone’s fire camps; fights breaking out between cooped-up men; and the rape of a woman by a prisoner. I first learned about the prison crew, the Flamingoes, on the Affleck Park Fire, where the crew was assigned to fire truck duty—duty that kept them far away from the non-incarcerated firefighters like me—because earlier in the summer one of the prisoners had raped a woman in a Yellowstone fire camp. Thus they acquired the nickname “Rape ‘n Goes.” I’m not sure what happened to that prisoner, though I assume he was removed from the crew.
After the marines were called in to assist with mop-up, Calvin warned the women not to wander out alone at night. I thought he was over-reacting, but if I had to walk a long way, like to the supply tent, I would get someone to go with me. My only interaction, if you could call it that, with any of the marines was on trail. One day our crew hiked 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 the trail alongside us, virtually running 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. 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. After seeing them in action that day, I kind of felt sorry for them.
One foggy night several of us procured a van and drove over to the main supply tent a few miles outside of Mammoth. There I hoped to find the much sought-after brush jackets that would keep us warm in the snow. Alas, they had none, but what I found was much more enchanting. Within the canvas walls of the hasty commissary sat two young men, warmed by an electric space heater, listening to the Grateful Dead. These were the men who gave out supplies. I wanted to stay and chat and listen to the music, but we had to get back to the dorms before lights out at 10 o’clock.
The winter snows extinguished any lingering flames in Yellowstone, doing what roughly 25,000 firefighters could not. On my birthday, September 23rd, we received a radio call that people from my region were being demobilized. I was going home! By that evening I was on another flight back to Cedar City—this time from Bozeman. No “hurry up and wait” this time.
Obviously, wildland fire suppression is not an inexpensive or efficient enterprise; the government spent roughly $120,000,000 to fight fires in Yellowstone that summer. Personally, I received two flights to Cedar City that summer and lodging in Cedar City (2 nights) and Yellowstone (14 nights)—I don’t count the nights I spent camping in Emigration Canyon. Plus, the government 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.
When I returned to Bryce that summer I enjoyed a few moments of fame. Everyone wanted to hear about my experiences, so I regaled them with stories of my firefighting adventures. Even though I saw none of the raging fires that made it to the nightly news, and I performed no heroics to brag of to my peers, every time I talk about Yellowstone I add another chapter to my story. Each one is a spark, fanned by an audience, and fueled by the telling. Like the forest after a fire, my world is rejuvenated by my storytelling. I feed the flames. I keep the fire going.
The drama’s done. Why then here does any one step forth?—Because one did survive the wreck.
– Herman Melville, from the Epilogue, Moby-Dick; Or, The Whale
After that summer I hunkered down in Utah for three months of intensive study and successfully passed my masters’ exams the following January. Seven years later I finished my PhD in English, married my best friend—not the PhD student from Virginia—and began thinking about a family. Today, I can list my successes more easily than my failures.
Twenty years after that infamous summer I visited the park with my eight-year-old daughter. We made the same journey I made then: we drove north through Idaho, east into Montana then Wyoming, arriving at West Yellowstone where we spent the night. The next morning we drove east into the park, through Madison Valley, past grazing bison, and stopped to see Norris Geyser. We followed the Gardner River north until we saw some cars pulled over for what I cynically thought was another “buffalo jam”—people jamming up the road to catch a glimpse of animals that park residents see every day. Then I realized that I was a tourist too and decided to stop. Fetching my binoculars, I followed the tourists’ gazes and spotted a solitary wolf off in the distance.
As we drove further north to Mammoth, I could see new growth everywhere: wildlife, grasses, flowers, shrubs, aspens, and lodge pole pines, to name a few. The lodge pole pine actually relies on fire to regenerate; the cones cannot release their seeds without the application of heat. Fires are essential to the rejuvenation of the forest. I tried to explain this to my daughter, but she had fallen asleep in the back seat.