A Hike in Someone Else’s Boots

DISCLAIMER: There is a healthy amount of cussing strewn throughout this post, consider yourselves warned. 

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The Technology Wizard Takes a Detail

The fire season was here once again and I had taken a temporary detail away from my job on the Helicopter Rappel Crew to work at the Missoula Technology and Development Center (MTDC) as part of a four person module to study Heat Stress. It’s certainly not uncommon for me to take a temporary detail but this one was putting me far outside of my comfort zone by getting involved with an entity which has the word “technology” in the title. I don’t know how I slipped through the vetting process with tech-savvy skills which include locating the minimize button and hitting restart but nonetheless, I was on my way!

As per usual I methodically packed all the things I may need for the next 4 months and employed all the creative capacities I had to fit everything into the car. My husband and I performed our usual, “See you when I see you” farewell as is the custom for all fire couples at the beginning of the season and we parted ways prepared to see one another when the stars aligned with the next blue moon.

Upon arrival to MTDC I was given the shiny nickel tour of the facilities and was wowed with all the fancy gadgets that we’d be responsible for operating in the near future with some semblance of understanding. The first couple of weeks were spent mostly scratching my head and portraying looks of puzzlement while trying to decipher the instruction manuals of our equipment. Once our module of 4 felt relatively confident with the equipment we hit the road to start testing firefighters.

The way the study worked was that our module would accept 3 volunteers per day to wear sensors on their person/pack for an entire shift. The volunteers would also answer a battery of questions and participate in a simple brain game test. Once we got our volunteers hooked up and tested we would shadow them out on the fireline, keeping a log of their activities for the day. The main goal of the study was to collect as much data as possible to find consistent correlations or insights into what promotes people going down on the fireline with heat-related illnesses. I thought this was a noble effort by MTDC and I was happy to offer my excessive technological skill sets to help the cause. I was ready to “minimize” my heart out.

We were setting out early in the season but there weren’t any large fires happening yet so we headed down to the southwest in anticipation of the first fires. Luckily the study could also use data from project work and PT hikes as well, so we set out with many-a-shot crews for some high-intensity hiking as we bounced between different districts and forests.

While we were in Arizona I felt like I must be showing signs of aging or something because I just couldn’t seem to acclimate to the heat. I had worked on the Tonto National Forest in the past and although I wasn’t a fan of desert heat I was at least able to cope, but this time around there was not enough watermelon on the planet for me to consume. That, and it felt as if someone had sucked every last ounce of energy out of my body with one of those high-powered Dyson vacuums. Plus to add insult to injury I was breaking out like a high school freshman and I seemed to have a permanent headache/stuffy nose combo, so at least I had that going for me.

Our migration to California gave us a tad bit of relief from the heat but it was still relatively sweltering, which left me feeling like an energy void shell of a human being who was deeply wanting for fruit at all times. We continually jumped around to different fire resources, hooking them up to sensors, downloading our data, finding our rhythm as a module; it seemed everything was going according to plan until…

It’s hard to say how many weeks went by before I put it all together, but eventually I figured out that I was making a human with my body.

!*!*!*!*BRAIN EXPLOSION*!*!*!*!

All the random symptoms that had been plaguing me were easily interchangeable with normal fire ailments except for one. Why did it feel as if someone had been performing an Irish jig on my chest on a daily basis? I could explain away a lot of ailments due to fire season but that one made me stop and evaluate.

So there I was, relatively certain that I was making a human with my body. Let’s face it I wasn’t going to be grabbing a pregnancy test at the morning store stop with the fellas. Plus I refused to pay an exorbitant amount of money to pee on a stick. No, no. I was going the old fashion route of paying attention to my body and using the modern twist of inputting all the weird things I’d been experiencing into a google search; there I go using my excessive technological skill sets again. I gathered from my “research” that I was either making a human or I had become possessed by aliens.

In case you’re wondering if this was planned or a surprise it was much more the latter. As far as biological clocks go, I don’t think mine was ever installed so I never had to fight against some deep seeded desire to procreate, which was advantageous for me in this line of work. Any firefighter who happens to be a female recognizes that if you decide to have a family it is more or less a death sentence for your fire career, rarely do you get a pardon. I myself, certainly wasn’t rushing toward starting a family because of this but at the same time, you can’t really wait until mandatory retirement to start a family either. We were residing in the –whatever happens, happens- category when “it” happened.

So what next? How the hell would I know! I have no frame of reference for this situation.

What actually happened was that I read a lot at night on the World Wide Web to brief myself on my current situation and then during the day I powered through the unbelievable fatigue, I mean seriously. I was constantly daydreaming about lying face down anywhere I was and fading gently to sleep; a dirt road, an elevator, a grocery store floor, an engine bay, a patch of cacti, didn’t matter. This need for sleep is worth taking note of for someone who generally fights to fall asleep even in the best of conditions.

And here I was, sitting on profound life-altering information and not telling a soul because I thought my husband should be the first to know. I wanted to tell him in person and who knew when that would be… so I just kept plugging along Ops Normal until this one-day in particular.

The Ominous Day of Defeat

The day seemed to start off normal; early wake-up, quick PT, breakfast, meet at the rigs, drive to the district, prep all the equipment and devices for the day before the participants arrived at our trailer, same old-same old. We would be headed out on a PT hike with the Hotshot Crew so we did our standard prep for a field day, one of the tasks was filling a cooler with ice; I got this, noooo problem.

I went into the PT room where the ice machine was (fortunately the room was empty) and flipped the top open to begin filling the cooler. It was the standard magnetic flip top like most ice machines have, nothing special. Well, a few scoops into filling the cooler the top came crashing down whacking me in the head. “OUUUUCHH! Son of a bitch!!!!”

*Sidenote* I had begun noticing another magical transformation that was happening during this time period. I was regularly feeling irritable, impatient and short-tempered, what a beautiful combo.

After I finished cussing and rubbing my head I continued scooping and BOOM! It whacked me again. “MOTHER F-_-_-_!!!” Deep breath, deep breath, calm down. I regained my composure and started scooping yet again; WHAM! “FUUUUUUU#@$%$#%*#$%*K!!! SON OF A B%TCH!!” I’m about to rip this whole f&%$ing place apart!! (I threw the scoop across the room and began pacing in circles breathing heavily as if I’d just sprinted away from a bear or something)  This is crazy, I’m acting crazy. Why am I hulking out right now?? What the hell is my problem!? UGGHHHHH, I just want to punch someone right in the f’ing face! What… the… whhhhaaaat is happening right now? (I begin crying which is very abnormal behavior) Now I’m crying? I“m seriously crying right now??? (I quickly retreated to the bathroom so that no one would stumble upon my special brand of crazy in this moment)

After several minutes spent in the bathroom replaying what just happened and taking lots of deep breaths I grabbed the cooler and headed back to the trailer portraying an air of normalcy even though I still wanted to smash everything in sight.

It definitely felt like a good time to get out into the field to do some hiking. I have found that being pissed off or angry helps to fuel my energy of which I have had none lately, so this was working out to my benefit; lemonade people, lemonade.

This PT hike would be long and one-way, which would require some rig shuttling, so we hopped out and fell in at the end of the crew’s line order as per usual.

The entire hike was full sun exposure; there was no reprieve anywhere along the way. One thing that there was plenty of were false tops. We’d start to plateau and I’d think, finally only to be bamboozled over, and over again. I generally have disdain for false tops but with this hike, my disdain evolved into a pulsating hatred.

A little something to help my hike along was the fact that I currently had 40% more blood volume, which means I require 20% more oxygen to do anything and that takes some getting used to. This tidbit explains why I felt winded even going up a flight of stairs, let alone going at hotshot pace up this current false top-riddled hike from hell.

I was fighting against myself in order to stay up with the crew pace as we kept going up, up, up the long pitches. I could hear my breath, loud and labored. I could feel my skin coating with sweat under my nomex as if someone had splashed a bucket of water on me before putting my clothes on but of course, these are the normal physical reactions of a long shitty hike, Ops Normal.

We crested onto a vista where I could see the road and I thought, FINALLY! I felt elated as we began hiking down toward the road only to have us walk right over it to begin up the next pitch. Not long after that is when things started to go south, I had to gap. I don’t gap. Gapping to me is like the death of my (fire) soul transformed into a physical action.

Everyone has their thing in fire that they probably take way more seriously than they should and for me it’s gapping in a hike. Four footsteps of gap might as well be 50 feet in my mind. I gapped one time during my first season on the hotshot crew and it was one time too many for me. However, I was beginning to see stars out of the left corner of my eye which is something I’d never experienced before so I knew it was time to pay attention to what my body was telling me and to relinquish the hotshot pace.

My inner dialogue was going ballistic as I continued trudging up this shitty slope.

I cannot believe I’m having to gap; how pathetic. There’s nothing you can do about it, nothing you can do…. None of these mother fuckers out here are making a human from scratch with their bodies but somehow I look like the weak one?? I should really stop and take some water; this isn’t just about me “powering through” shit anymore. I have to take care of myself. How the hell can something the size of a lemon completely hijack my body? Why does it feel like there’s a friggin’ elephant on my chest?? Women in third world countries don’t get to alter their daily hardships just because they’re making a human so why should I? Pick it up! Shit… No DON’T pick it up. Son–of–a–bitch… Gahhhh!!!!

I kept hiking at a steady, yet manageable pace and the distance between the crew and myself began to increase. A guy fell out of the hike in front of me and began puking. As I hiked past him I thought, well at least I’m not that guy. My empathy switch was flipped to off for anyone that wasn’t also making a human while trying to get up the hill.

The closer we got to the top the more I dreaded it (Sort of. Finishing the hike definitely was not a downer) because I knew I was going to have to tell the fellas what was happening with me. It didn’t occur to me until this hike that people may need to know what my circumstance was in case I went T.U. (Tango Uniform… Tits Up.. a well-used term in fire) out on the line for some reason. I hadn’t ever gone T.U. before so my mind never factored that in as a potential scenario, until this God forsaken hike that is..

Once we all reached the top I grabbed the module guys while the hotshot crew was tending to their puker. Our conversation went a little something like this:

Okay here’s the deal. I have to talk to you guys about something and I really, really don’t want to but I need to because it’s affecting me even though I really hoped it wouldn’t. I paused to gather the courage to say it out loud but couldn’t seem to come up with the words “I’m pregnant” so instead I said, I am carrying some extra cargo (as I pointed to my stomach) and this sucks that I’m telling you because I haven’t even told Ian yet, but given our work situation you guys need to know.

There were looks of confusion until one of them said, “Ohhhhhh! Precious Cargo…” Yes I said. Then all the sudden it felt like I had cartoon characters staring at me with their eyes as big as saucers and jaws seemingly on the ground until another of the guys finally said, “So you’re pregnant??! Holy shit!” My sentiments exactly.

I expressed my concerns about not wanting to be a hindrance in any way, to which they quickly dismissed my concerns. Regardless, when we got back to Missoula I was going to inform our supervisor of my status so we could figure out a game plan. It seemed pretty fortuitous to have an exercise scientist as my supervisor when my body happened to be having a physical revolution. I reiterated the importance of not sharing the information with anyone since now there were 3 fire guys who knew about the tiny human thing before my husband; they were all happy to comply.

What a long day! The ice machine must have been my omen. I remember jumping into the rigs with the crew after the hike thinking, it’s out there now, I guess this is really happening. I also spent a healthy chunk of time replaying my incredible frustration of having to gap because I was thinking smarter not harder. I did the right thing by slowing down and I know that, but every fiber of my being wanted to push harder and stay up with the crew pace.

This was the biggest game of mental warfare I’d ever had to play in a shift and that’s saying something. I hate that on this day I felt as if I had underrepresented women in fire (because of course I was the only female on the hill that day) to this hotshot crew by gapping. Of course, if they had known my situation there certainly would have been no ill judgment, in fact, they probably would have given me a round of applause, but they didn’t know and it wasn’t their business so it’s just going to forever weigh heavily on my mind as a dark day of defeat.

If felt strange to finally have conversations about my situation because up until this point it was just my inner dialogue and I bantering back and forth. This was helpful in making me feel a little less -alone on an island- kind of crazy.

The Stars Align with the Blue Moon

One night over dinner the module was talking about what we’d be doing for R&R. It turned out I would get to take my days off back in Washington and Ian would be home too; stars aligning with the blue moon. The module joked about all the ridiculous ways I could give him the news and then one of them asked me if I was going to have a doctor’s appointment to which I replied, “I don’t know, should I? Am I supposed to start doing that stuff already?” (Says the woman who is nearing the end of her first trimester.) They all agreed that yes, I should schedule an appointment. I found the entire exchange to be really funny; I actually needed 3 fire guys (none of whom were parents) to explain prenatal care to me.

Up until this point I hadn’t been thinking beyond the day I was dealing with, much like rookie training. In rookie training you have no idea what is going to happen the next day but you can rest assured it’s probably going to suck, so you just lace up your boots and get on with it.

Well, I got on with it everyday for the rest of the fire season by finding creative ways to navigate the necessary nutrition (at fire camps no less!), being very strategic about how much food I had on hand at all times, quieting my inner dialogue and instead focusing on my heart rate, sleeping on the ground, hiking around with crews, driving in circles around the west, and peeing as frequently as a 2-month-old puppy. Speaking of peeing, let me just leave you with this last little nugget…

I was officially living in the dorms in Missoula for the fire season, which looked to have seen its heyday somewhere around the mid-80s, but I digress. My cinderblock square of a dorm room did not have a bathroom, but there was a community bathroom just down the hall. Being pregnant, I had the unfortunate ritual of having to pee at least once a night, so I’d roll out of bed and trudge down the hall barely opening my eyes except to peek for where the door was. I’d fling the bathroom door open, and without fail I’d be assaulted by the automatic floodlights from hell leaving me blinded and feeling like I was in a professional football arena. A person can only persevere so much you know?

I brought this up to the fellas in my module to which one guy replied, “Why don’t you wear sunglasses when you go to the bathroom at night?” In that moment no one could have convinced me that he was not the smartest person on the planet. So there I was, 34 years old, and several months into making a human while living in a dorm room and wearing sunglasses at night to go pee. I ask you, what’s more grown-up than that? “I wear my sunglasses at night, so I can, so I can…”