Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Smoking Mountain, Part III

Doug gave us the basic strategy on the way there.  I listened, simultaneously maintaining a fantasy about Ana; bedding down under a tree after a long struggle against the fire, taking her in my exhausted arms.
“The fire is on the upper plateau of Wilson Mountain at seven thousand feet.  Between there and Midgley Bridge is Wilson Bench.  It’s a lower plateau at six thousand feet or so.  Once we reach that there’s some level ground as the path crosses the bench.  So that should be refreshing.”  Doug smiled.  I sensed that he was worried about my and Ana’s stamina.  “Then there’s the final ascent.  Hopefully when we get there the fire will still just be on the upper plateau.  And we’ll attack it.
“What’s the horse for?” Mark inquired.
“I’m gonna saddle ‘im up when we get to Midgley and ride on ahead.  I’ll take her up to the bench, dismount and go up on foot.  I’ll start doing some planning and radio what I see back to the station.  Maybe call in some air strikes.”
“Really!” Ana said, obviously as thrilled as I was by the possibility.
“How exciting.” Mark said in a less-than-interested tone.

I said nothing, for the first time brought out of my sexual reverie.  Air strike?  By God, I was on a real life adventure and it looked like nothing could stop me from experiencing it!  My mind veered away from Ana’s body to my own.  Could it make it?  Could my legs carry me up that mountain, the one that loomed larger and larger in the wind-shield?  I was ashamed before the fact, certain that my legs would give out, that I would have to stop and let the others go on up.  Only twenty years old, I was prematurely haunted by a vision of Ana looking back as she forged on with the real men.  A part of me that called itself older and wiser ridiculed the vision and reminded me of the insignificance of this coming tromp in the woods compared to the Fall semester and finally taking courses in my major.  But my stomach churned nonetheless.

Midgley Bridge leaps over a deep, magnificent gorge into which despairing individuals occasionally throw themselves.  My brother the deputy has to coordinate teams to retrieve their discarded bodies from the innocent stream below.  He says it is bizarre, hiking down through such beautiful country to recover a corpse. 
At the North end of the bridge there is a paved pull-off for tourists and a few stone picnic tables beneath stone roofs.  A service road leads out of the picnic area and quickly becomes a footpath, winding upwards toward Wilson mountain.  After we arrived, Doug saddled Bailey as he rattled off a series of technical instructions to his firefighters.  Finally he mounted.
“The big redneck’s in charge.”  He said, pointing at Brian, who smiled and fingered his Confederate belt buckle.  “March as fast as possible.  Get there before the hotshots do.  Don’t embarrass us.  As for the new guys¼” he glanced at Mark, Ana and I, all three of standing self-consciously in a separate group.  “If it gets too tough, you can always turn back and help at the station.  This isn’t the Army and no one can make you fight fire.”
Then he was off.  
“Let’s go.” Brian grunted, taking the lead.  
I was not a hiker and after fifteen minutes I began to lag behind.  It seemed that my pack had gained weight and my shovel was made of lead.
I recalled how much I had wanted to carry a pulaski, the double-headed tool that did the primary work in this kind of fire-fighting.  One side of the tool was an axe-blade. Opposite, in place of a second axe-head, was a pick-like projection.  Pulaski bearers go before shovel bearers on the fire line.  My job would simply be cleaning up after the rest of the team.  Every one but Mark, Ana and I had pulaskis.  Now though, exhausted only a few minutes into our journey, I was glad that I was not deemed capable of wielding the pulaski.  The shovel had to be lighter, burdensome as it seemed.
Presently I began to utilize the shovel as a staff, vaulting myself over boulders, logs and other obstacles.
“Isn’t there supposed to be someone who cleans trails?” I said with a dangerous expense of breath and clambered over a fallen tree that blocked the path.
“Budget cuts!” Shouted Helen far ahead of me, wiping the barest trace of sweat from her downy upper lip with a beefy wrist.  “Now all we have is wilderness volunteers like Mark.”  The entire crew, except for me, laughed in gasps.  I didn’t have enough air left.  “And all he’s good for is locating vortexes and selling crystals!”
I made an agnostic’s vague, wordless prayer, hoping that they wouldn’t start talking about my job.
Some of the crew, especially Brian, began to comment on my slowness.  I was definitely holding them back, and speed was crucial.  Somewhere, high above us, flames were eating their way toward the slopes that led down into the Canyon.  Once there, burning debris could roll down into the thin, thirty-mile long chasm where the disaster would be unbelievable.  Mark, who was in his forties, was handling the exertion better than I.  Of course, his job gave him opportunity for practice.  Ana, though she lagged, did not make the desperate wheezing noises that I made.  Every now and then she would turn and smile, saying, “keep it up, kiddo” in a motherly tone that I found very depressing.
A rest was called before we reached the bench.  I suspected it was for my sake.  By that time I was panting audibly.  We sipped water (“not too much” Helen admonished, wagging a thick forefinger at me) and inhaled the pine scented air.  We had climbed out of the desert.  We exchanged few words.  Brian refused to even look at me.  Ana remarked that she had a blister on her heel and I recognized, silently, that I definitely had the mother-of-all blisters on my right foot, just below the Achilles’ tendon.  My boots were still fairly new, bought for one hundred dollars a few weeks earlier for just such an occasion, and hadn’t seen any more action than that involved in walking from the cab of the toilet truck to the nearest restroom.  I decided to say nothing, since complaining at that point wasn’t exactly going to win me any brownie points and because I was afraid it would be used as a pretext to send me back.
I marveled at how much better I felt with just a few minutes rest.  The air I breathed no longer felt like fire in my lungs.  My entire body felt like a well-oiled machine, warmed up and ready to go.
“You feelin’ okay?” Helen inquired. “You ready to fight fire?”
“Yeah.” I replied coolly, putting my helmet back on.  “Let’s go.”

Ten minutes later I had again fallen behind everyone.  Mark began to shout “The bench is just ahead.  We’re almost there!” every few minutes.
Finally, in agony, I lifted myself up onto a ledge that went on for some way.  I had reached the bench.  Level ground, covered in grass, stretched away into the distance.  There were a few copses and lone trees dotting the surface.  Nearby, beneath the branches of a juniper pine, the Sedona crew stood around Bailey, who was tied to the trunk.  Far beyond them, the ground reached the foot of the upper plateau.  The trail was visible, zig-zagging up the face of the steep slope toward the wooded top.  I fixed briefly on the smoke creeping through the crowns of those distant trees.  The fire was not visible or audible; there was only that flow of smoke into the sky.
As I approached the others explained to me that Doug had probably gone ahead on foot and was already at the fire.  Mark took me aside after a moment.
“Are you gonna make it?” he whispered.  “Because it’s okay if you can’t.” Glancing over I noticed that Brian was glaring at me, buckteeth resting on his almost non-existent lower lip.  Someone had thought it was a good idea for Mark to do the talking. 
“Ana’s gonna go back.” Mark continued. “The blister’s bothering her and she’s afraid it’ll get infected.  Anyway, someone’s gotta take the horse back down to the bridge.”
It was a dilemma.  I felt awful.  But Mark had offered not only an end to my suffering but a retreat accompanied by the object of my lust.
I stared at the mountain-top over Mark’s shoulder.  A column of smoke ascended slowly into the endless sky.  I tried to get rational about it, weigh my choices.  If I went, I went with Ana.  I also went back to toilets.  And being realistic, I thought I had little or no chance with her.  The truth be told, she had never given me an unnecessary glance or comment.  And I would be going back to cleaning toilets.  You couldn’t get away from that.
On the other hand there was the mountain and all its fiery glory.  Coming up the trail my mind had turned more and more toward that goal.  The part of me that had always wanted to be a soldier, to throw myself into danger, yearned to smell the smoke, hear the crackling of underbrush afire, watch the yellow flames creep destructively over everything in their path.  But I wondered if I actually could make it.  And if I did, would I be in any condition to fight fire?  And shouldn’t I just be happy with what I had done already?  It was more than what most janitors did.
“Mark, I can do it.” Said a voice that sounded a lot like my own.  “I’ll keep up.  I’m not turning back now.”  I almost choked on the last word.  My blister was burning like a fuse and I finally understood what people meant when they said that their feet felt like hamburger.
Brian swore and ran to the ledge.  “It’s the Mormon Lake crew.  Let’s go!”  Though it was quite a feat of verbal exercise for the normally monosyllabic Brian, I seemed to be the only stunned by his long-winded, magnum opus.  The others gathered their gear in a frenzy and followed him as he bounded along the trail with ridiculously renewed vitality.  I didn’t understand the need to beat a larger and more-well equipped crew to the fire, but I was in no position to criticize.  Certainly I was too far behind for them to hear me.  
“Bye, Tim.”  Ana said.  I turned and saw her lead the horse down over the ledge.  I let myself watch for a few moments.  At length, I turned and followed my crew.

I managed to keep up, more or less, as we crossed the bench.  By the time we began the last ascent the hotshots were only a few minutes behind.

Going up, breathing became much more difficult.  Part of it was due to exertion.  The other part was due to elevation.  We were quickly approaching seven thousand feet.  Occasionally I caught sight of the Sedona crew, which had gotten away from me, but I couldn’t catch up.

Turning a corner, I found them sitting on rocks and logs.  Brian glared at me furiously.  “You gonna make it or not?”  The others looked away, ashamed.  They were all thinking that I belonged in a bathroom three thousand feet below.

I sat down and sipped water from my canteen for a few moments.  Then the trampings of the hotshots could be heard below us, perhaps just a few turns down.  Brian leapt frantically to his feet.  The others did so more slowly.  I trudged after them.

I plodded on, head hanging, but the hotshots quickly overtook me.  I stood to one side as they filed by.  “How ya doin’, old timer?” someone said.  “Looks like a Klingon.” I heard some one mutter in reference to my ridged helmet, which contrasted with their smooth, red, swept-back, dirty hard hats.  At least they didn’t know that I was the district janitor.  I noticed that they weren’t even breathing hard.

When I rounded the next bend I found my crew, waiting for me.  I figured that there was either a rule forbidding them to leave a member behind or that they had felt guilty and collectively forced Brian to wait for me.  He was staring at me, fuming.

A lifetime seemed to pass as I marched along behind them.  The fire was close and the ground was leveling out.  I could hear the burning and smell the smoke.  Suddenly the ground leveled out completely and we emerged into a small clearing, the other side of which was ablaze.

I was amazed to see all the hotshots sitting on the ground, drinking water. One of them, presumably their leader, stood near the small one-foot high flames talking with Doug.

I collapsed at the side of one of the hotshots. 

The Smoking Mountain, Part I
The Smoking Mountain, Part II
The Smoking Mountain, Part IV 

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Smoking Mountain, Part II

By the time I returned to the doorway, Doug had drafted another employee into the crusade.
Mark was a wilderness volunteer, which meant that he earned room, board and ten dollars a week doing whatever Doug told him to do.  This usually involved hiking, giving information to tourists on the trails and pretty much trying to look official in olive drab while not earning any money.  That entire summer I was perplexed as to why anyone would accept such a job with the federal government when they paid such ridiculous amounts to a hopeless individual like me.
One evening in June, out in the barracks we shared, Mark told me that he had been a personal injury lawyer in New York.  He tried to explain why he was in Sedona working for ten bucks a week.
“I’ve earned plenty of money in my life, Tim.” He said, one hand patting down the graying hair that he swept over his enormous bald spot every morning before spraying it stiff.  “Now I’m looking for something more.”
“Well, if you’re after the harmonic convergence,” I said, “you missed it.  That was years ago.”
Mark chuckled politely.  We had already exchanged stories of the middle-aged, white-collar types who pestered us while we worked with questions about the locations of vortexes and healing wheels.  They looked a little bit like Mark, but usually had a kind of lost look in their empty eyes.  I didn’t see as many of these characters as he did, since they devoted much more of their time to trails than to toilets.
I joined him and Doug in the workroom wordlessly.  Mark was listening to Doug’s spiel about the fire, nodding solemnly in total contrast to my open-mouthed enthusiasm.
“So¼get you’re fire gear on.” Doug said, unconsciously imitating Mark’s nod.  Mark turned and gave me a nod, which I returned, noting that for a moment we were all nodding simultaneously.  Then he sauntered nodlessly out of the room, going down the one passageway that led to the front room and then the lockers. 
I was about to ask Doug (who was still nodding vaguely) where the rest of the fire crew was when I heard the roar of a service truck and an exaggerated slew of gravel being thrown against the side of the station.  I startled and moved suddenly away from the wall.  Doug simply cursed and strutted out the door.
“Goddamn it, Manny!”
I composed myself and followed him. 
The rest of the crew had arrived pulling a horse trailer with one horse inside.  They boiled out of the truck’s cab into the swirling dust, big, stupid smiles on their child-like faces.

“Helen!” Doug barked. “I told you not to let the Mexican drive!”
“Fuck you.” Manny said.  “I’m not Mexican.  I’m an American.  I don’t even speak Spanish.”
Doug grumbled as he stomped over to the trailer to inspect the cargo.  The rest of the crew ignored him and, seeing me in my fire gear for the first time, began to congratulate me.  The powerful hammer blows of their slab-like appendages on my back made my rib cage shudder.  I was relieved when Mark stepped out and was targeted for their brutal displays of approval.  Wanting to make good my escape I staggered over to where Doug was gloomily inspecting the horse.
Once Mark cleared the gauntlet, one hand securing his hair flap tightly against his head, I assumed that the great adventure was about to begin.  It was, however, to be put off a little longer.
Doug directed Manny and Helen to remove the horse and tie him to a tree in the yard.  Brian and Chad, the other two firefighters, were sent to the workroom for extra tools.
“You two.” Doug said to Mark and I, gesturing toward the horse.  “Stow your gear in the back of the truck and hide behind the animal so your bosses don’t try and take you off my crew.”
I did so gratefully, fearing that my big fat boss, whom everyone referred to affectionately as Smacky, might spy me out among people infinitely more useful than him and send me scurrying back to “the shit holes”.
Mark and I took up our positions.  I began nervously eyeing all the entrances and exits of the various buildings scattered over the station, hoping that we finished before Smacky realized that the toilet truck was still sitting in the yard.
People who have spent most of their life in the city are either terrified of large domesticated animals or think that they are all immediately taken in by tender gestures and sing-song voices.  Mark was one of the latter. 
“He’s beautiful.” Mark said, eyes wide.  “I wonder what his name is?”
Before I could say “who gives a fuck, shut up, they might hear you” he tried to pet the horse’s face while making kissy noises and saying “what’s you name, horsey? Huh? What’s you namey?”  The horse lunged and snapped at his fingers, missing by a fraction of an inch.
“Jesus Christ!” Mark screamed, clutching his fingers to his chest.  An electric thrill passed through my body and I leapt with fright for the second time in only a matter of minutes.
“Don’t touch that animal!” Doug shouted, walking over to us.  The station secretary, a thirtyish woman named Ana Dominguez, accompanied him.  She was also in fire gear. They stepped around the horse’s rear at a respectful distance. 
“Here’s the story, fellas.”  He said, glaring at each of us in turn.  “Ana just got a telephone call.  We might get taken up in a helicopter to the fire.  So just stay here for a few minutes.  I’ll find out if it’s true.”  He turned and walked back to his office.  Ana stayed with us.
I gave her the once over twice.  I had lusted for Ana all summer, had the typical adolescent fantasies about her visiting me in the barracks one night, traipsing over the dirty clothes and empty cans of Keystone in diaphanous lingerie and throwing herself into my brawny grasp.  She was a divorcee and looked great in nomex pants.  Of course, I was kind of starved in that environment.  The only other potential target for my depraved mind was Helen, a tough, butch woman who, in a just world, would not be allowed to interrupt my fantasies, wading through the refuse on my floor in a black teddy and lunging roughly into my bunk.
“So.” I said. “They recruited you, too?”
“Yes!” She said.  I mistook the enthusiasm in her voice as being directed at me.  “What a beautiful horse!” 
She began to stroke the horse’s mane before I could ward her off.  Mark retreated, knocking the back of his head on the tree trunk.  But there was no reaction from the horse.  He stood still, tail twitching.
          Then I remembered the old saying that all women love horses.  Was the reverse true?
“You’ve uh¼soothed the savage beast.” I said, hoping to jumpstart the conversation.
“What?” She said without looking back at me.
“Are you familiar with horses?”
“My parents own a ranch down near Nogales.  I grew up with all sorts of animals.”
I didn’t know where to go with that one so I took a new tack.
“Helicopter, huh? That’ll be pretty cool.  I’ve never ridden in a helicopter.”
“Well, that mountain looks pretty tall.  I certainly don’t want to climb it.  I’m not sure I’m up to it.”

I was thinking the same thing but didn’t say so.  Before I could continue seducing her Doug returned with the bad news.
“No helicopter. We’ll have to hike it.”
I was stunned.  My pack weighed thirty pounds. The temperature would be ninety-five degrees by noon.  Doug saw the look on my face and tried to be reassuring. 
“We’ll start out at Midgley bridge.  It’s only another three thousand feet from there to the top of Wilson Mountain.”
“Oh. Okay.”
Now it was time to put the horse back in the trailer.  Why we had the horse I didn’t know and felt it better not to ask.  The task should have taken less than a minute but it soon became clear that the horse, whose name Helen revealed as Bailey, didn’t want to get back inside the trailer.
“C’mon, Bailey.  C’mon.” Doug chanted soothingly, walking the horse in circles around the truck and trailer.  Every few orbits he jerked the reins toward the lowered gate of the trailer, but the horse always resisted successfully. Doug tried using a whip on its flanks.  Then, with no warning or pause, Doug dropped the whip and began to slap the stubborn gelding on the snout while he shouted “C’mon, Bailey!  C’mon!”  Again and again he thrashed the snorting, lurching beast.  Still, Doug could not drag him even an inch nearer the trailer.
It was time for teamwork.  Brian and Chad helped Doug move Bailey into a position just before the gate, which lay like a ramp on the ground.  Bailey dug his hooves into the ground and though Doug pulled and Brian and Chad pushed and Manny assaulted the poor animal with frenzied whippings he did not move.  I flinched every time the braided leather struck and the horse flesh rippled away from the blow.  Glancing over at Ana I noticed that she watched indifferently.
Finally, she suggested a new strategy.  While the others pushed, and Manny restrained himself, she tried to coax the animal by leaning into the front of the trailer through an opening and holding out half an apple.  “C’mon, Bailey.  C’mon.”  She took a small bite out of the apple every time she called to him and murmured the pleasure it gave her.  “Mmmm.  Mmm.  C’mon, Bailey.  C’mon.  Mmmm.”
Bailey slowly clambered into the trailer while the rest of us listened, spellbound to Ana’s throaty hum.  It was Doug who eventually raised the gate and closed it behind Bailey, who accepted his incarceration with placid ruminations while Ana stroked the entire length of his nose.
“Let’s go!” Doug shouted.  “I want Helen to pull the trailer with Manny, Brian and Chad.  Mark, Tim and Ana will come with me in my truck.”
I made sure that I sat next to Ana in the cramped truck cab before we drove away, toward the smoking mountain.

The Smoking Mountain, Part I
The Smoking Mountain, Part III
The Smoking Mountain, Part IV