Now I Taste Water
There were times when I was comfortable. Too comfortable. So far beyond comfortable that I become indifferent. Deranged. Gorged. So bored that I become lonely. So bored that I become tired. So low to the ground that getting up felt daunting. Days pass by, and can move me so little that I begin to even take the taste of water for granted. So removed from the microscopic joys of life, that they start to blend in with the mundane. How do I get so hypnotized? How have I come to lack so much infatuation with living?
And then I found wildland fire, and so I found the taste of water again.
I’ve made fire my life for six years now (three on a type 6 engine, three on a type 1 handcrew), and it has been the most enriching, humbling, inspiring, unrelenting, miserable, and remarkable experience I have ever had. I have come to discover unspeakable, speechless experiences that only those working beside me will ever understand. I don’t know if there are any series of words that could be relayed to someone at home which could possibly describe the beauty in the way a flare launched through the sky softly illuminates the distant faces of mountains in the noiseless dark of night. Or the power that this job has to give you a deep sense of gratitude for the most minute, subtle joys in life. The people you meet here; they are not the same breed of people you’re used to from your hometown, they know the taste of water and they don’t care that you haven’t showered in two weeks. In truth, I don’t know how I could possibly re-integrate with any other kinds of people.
I don’t know if I can relate to the softness of air conditioning, the lack of stars under a roof, daily traffic commutes, or tame social behavior. When you describe our job to people at home, it seems that all they hear is that it’s “hard”. I wish I could possibly show them why that difficulty is exactly what makes the job beautiful.
There are stories I'll carry with me that hold so much meaning, memories and values that I hope never fade. So many people who extended a profound amount of support to get me here. There was a time when I was all skinny legs and bone, never ran a mile in my life, and it never dawned on me that the forests ever burned because I was from the city. I never thought that I could be here, sharing in wholesome suffering with 19+ other men and women who also sought after a non-ordinary life. It’s easy to think about the gifts this job has to offer, but it is not without a price; and as you continue to navigate life’s avenues, this price is always changing. Once I had a taste of the poetic misery of fire, I never thought that I would leave. But the reality is this; for many of us choosing this world of fire, we are choosing an ultimatum again and again. Make it to your best friend's wedding, or show up for your crew and your commitment to service. Be there when your friends and family call, or let it ring so you don’t wake up the people sleeping on the ground around you. Be there to help fix the leaky faucets, the broken fences, the crying baby, or pack up your things and get ready to leave for New Mexico’s biggest fire to date. Or, as I am faced with choosing; continue to build my career and commit my time and attention to the hotshot crew I work with, or start a family (because two hotshots don’t make for much more than part time parents at best).
There’s a lot of stories out there about how quickly a spark is lit in ourselves when we enter the realm of fire, but I feel that there are still too few discussions about the slow burn of taking an exit from it. I have a lot of fear in trying to have any other kind of life than one engrossed in fire. I’m afraid to return to complacency, to boredom, and to stagnation. I’m afraid of forgetting the taste of water, but I want to believe that no amount of time or changes in life can make me forget.
The days that I curse are simultaneously the best I’ve ever had.
It’s masochistic, I know. But these days or weeks that catapult me out of any semblance of comfort, that land me sleeping in the dirt at a random place on a map, no phone service, no nice meal, getting nearly trampled by javelina in the night, on some commute from the bottom to the top of some godforsaken dozer line; makes me feel more alive than when I dwell in the cycles of my comforts. Makes me taste water again like it’s the first time. There are days when I’m sweating down to my shins and the cramps try to morph my hand into a claw and I ask myself why on earth I tremble at the thought of how much I’m going to miss this work. But then I take a sip of water and the taste is more euphoric than it's ever been. Have you ever been so thankful for a drink of that stuff? Sometimes I feel like more and more people are letting that sensation slip by. That’s what makes these men and women of fire so special; they long to renew the memory of how good it feels to be so damn tired, so alive, so intimate with discomfort. Those pursuits have built us all, the same way that iron sharpens iron. Our friends and family may not always understand why we choose fire over and over again for so long, but for us, the value of that great suffering will never depreciate. It costs a lot in heart to walk away. And when we do, I think most of us leave a part of ourselves lingering there.
Like I said, the price is always changing for us in this community. It’s not easy to leave fire but sometimes you have to move on in order to nurture other pieces of your life. But I’d do it all over again to learn the lesson of thirst. I’ll never be the same from what I’ve gained from this job, and I really hope that everyone who lives and breathes gets to find that spark in the things they choose to commit themselves to. Wherever you yourself go in life, no matter which ultimatum you choose, I hope you take some time to evaluate your relationship with comfort and how you challenge it. I hope that you find that thing in life that makes you truly blown away by a sip of cool water, and I hope you’re able to honor that journey for as many miles as it lasts until the next fork in the road.