We’re on the edge of Idaho’s Frank Church Wilderness in a 70-year-old hunting lodge accessible only by plane. It’s our last official day of operations for the 2018 fire season, and the crew lucked out with a three-day assignment to protect this lodge from a small wilderness fire that I don’t even remember the name of now, seven months later. We’d spent our first two days cutting and stacking firewood for the managers of the lodge, a husband-wife duo. Kiere, the wife, offered us lemonade upon our arrival at the lodge while her husband ValDean traversed the property on horseback—a bandana around his neck, a Stetson atop his head, spurs on his boots.
Like us, they’re also winding down operations, but will stick around through November to close things up. They’re grateful for the firewood that will fill their large wood furnace, the lodge’s centerpiece, in these last cold weeks. It’s only early October now, and the mornings are already bitter enough to require long johns and down jackets.
Inside the lodge, old cowboy books splay across almost every surface, deadheads hang above mantles and, in the corner, a small, modern radio that is made to look like one of those old wood-paneled radios from the 40s belts out blues songs. We’ve just finished cleaning up our dinner of “hot boxes”—that is, cardboard boxes of hot food, scalloped potatoes and ham this time around, which are cooked back in the real world and then brought to us by helicopter. Now, a few of us decide to start a game of poker, our season-long entertainment while waiting for an assignment or passing time. Sometimes we don’t know why we’re passing time; sometimes our games are cut short with an abrupt “gear up!” from overhead. Tonight, we play with the abandon of having no deadline, besides eventually having to go to bed.
We pour hot cocoas from a pitcher near the kitchen, left by the woman with the red hair before she retired for the night. “Make yourselves at home,” she said, and we did. At the time, nothing in the world had ever felt more like home than that lodge, out there in the wilderness, on our last day of a fire season that had brought us to seven states and eight fires over 150 days.
We deal a few hands and someone ends up discontent with the blues—they’re soon shuffling through the stacks of CDs on a nearby shelf. I’m dealt a bad hand and fold, and then the music starts up again. It’s a Brooks and Dunn CD, and soon the familiar twangs of “Neon Moon,” begin to emanate from the radio in the corner.
For the first few years after my stepmom, Kim, passed away from breast cancer, I’d be reminded of her every time I heard the song “Neon Moon.” Perhaps it was the memories of her slow dancing with my dad to it; perhaps it was the song’s lyrics (“…now if you lose your one and only, there’s always room here for the lonely…”) that made it feel like such a profound tribute to her, but either way, my chance encounters of hearing this song were always cause for pause. It became a reason to think about Kim, an excuse to let out a few tears for a few minutes and then go about my day—a welcome release of grief, delivered randomly, in bite-sized pieces.
I decided to become a firefighter two years after Kim’s death. Once the idea was in my head, it effectively consumed me. I wanted to start right now and I absolutely couldn’t wait. I knew that leaving my family in Michigan would take a huge emotional toll, but my desire to fight fire was uncontainable. I signed up for fire classes, told my parents my plan and moved away a few months later. The next summer, I took a job in northern Idaho. The year after that, central Idaho. I’m now in my second year on a hotshot crew on the Mt. Hood National Forest. I’d never imagined that this infatuation with fire would lead to a position on a hotshot crew—I’d imagined a year or two of fire at most, just to get a taste, and now I am fully and irreversibly obsessed with it. I’m obsessed with the physical beatdowns and the mental challenge and the idea that with just a bit of fortitude (maybe naïveté) you can do just about anything, sleep just about anywhere, eat just about anything. It only recently occurred to me that I would have never known the challenge and success and failure and absolute joy I have felt in fire if Kim were still here.
Right after starting my first season of fire, I met a woman through a mutual friend who has since become a great friend and travel buddy. We regularly engage in potentially sketchy rendezvous’ together, from hitchhiking in Patagonia to climbing to alpine lakes in blizzards with nothing more than a rain coat and some canned soup to keep us warm. This friend, Allison, was 22 when she lost her mother to breast cancer. She was the first person to ever be able to articulate the feeling I have attempted to explain above—that you would never have the life you currently love if a truly devastating thing hadn’t happened. Allison—one of the most motivated, successful and contagiously happy people I know—articulated this feeling to me better than anyone ever had: she says her mom’s death “was the worst best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
That night, back in an old log cabin in a valley in Idaho, someone decided—on whim, out of virtually thousands of options—to put on “Neon Moon.” In that moment, that song that had brought me to tears so many times in my life by reminding me of a woman who’d affected me deeply, who taught me the beauty in fresh flowers on the counter and the importance of bringing a batch of chocolate chip cookies to every gathering—that song was exactly what I needed to hear. I closed my eyes, leaned back in the creaky old chair that had likely been flown in by plane before my parents were born, and smiled. Smiled so deeply it hurt.
What do we make of happiness we know is only a result of something so traumatic, so life-altering, so incomprehensibly tragic? What do we do with the happiest days of our lives if the road to them was paved with a grief so unfathomable that I briefly considered the possibility that nothing would ever make me happy again?
When Kim passed away, everything fell apart and eventually everything was put back together in a way that I’d never imagined before Kim’s death, this hodge-podged life, a plate shattered and super glued back together, a battered replica of its former self. And in that battered replica I found fire, and in fire I found myself, and in myself I’ve found a life I could have never, ever imagined before a death that on so, so many occasions reduced me to a puddle of tears and heartache‚ overwhelmed at the idea that nothing would ever be like it used to be. I’d never see her smile again and her three daughters would only have passing, indeterminate memories of her, and in spite of this, in spite of all of this—happiness. Who could have guessed?
An hour after we’d finished our last game of poker, after most of the crew had gone to bed, a crewmember and I played a game of cribbage to close the night—to close the season, as it were, with a game we’d played all summer in downtimes, often discussing how we were feeling, sharing how much we missed our respective partners, expressing frustrations and excitements and everything in between. As we played, he looked at me and said, in a rare moment of pure earnest, “You look really happy right now.” It reduced me to tears, and as I allowed those tears to roll down my cheeks in front of him, I told him that I was happy, that I was maybe the happiest I’d ever been in my whole life. This despite the hardest fire season of my life. This despite 1000 hours of overtime, despite smoke and blisters and back pain and exhaustion. This despite spending 120 days fighting fire over the last six months and not spending nearly enough time with the people I loved.
This despite heartache, this despite death—happiness, despite everything.