I was in that state of dreamy half-sleep in the back of the Logan Hotshots alpha-squad buggy, legs starting to tingle from the weight of my fire boots and feet not quite fully reaching the floor, when we went over a large bump in the road. My eyes opened, and I peeled my groggy head off my fire pack and worn yellow nomex---the best pillow system I'd worked out all summer---when I caught my first view of the Lost River Range in the early-morning light. I snapped a few photos on my crappy flip phone and tried to text a picture to my Dad. No service. Constantly tired and never quite feeling like I was keeping up with the energy levels of the rest of the crew during those 14-day assignments, I fell right back to sleep. We were headed to another fire again, and my body understood very well by August that when you had a moment to get some shut eye, you damn well better use that moment properly. I was a coughing, clunky, work-horse that summer; even parts proud, achy, humbled and quiet, while just barely keeping up with the rest of the guys. It would be my last summer of fire after my L1 vertebrae protested like a diva, "honey-child, you're so done carrying a 40-pound pack all day."
That was two years ago. I thought about that summer with a smile and a couple silent chuckles over all the haggardness and physical suffering while I snapped a few photos with my DSLR on the side of the road in skinny jeans and big, silly movie-star sunglasses. The contrast was almost alarming. Here I was in summertime-glam-mode, jacked up on coffee, and acting like a tourist on my way to Powell, Idaho to visit a friend who still worked in fire. The old Laura would have stared in awe and disappointment blankly, and then would have questioned current me why I wasn't still chasing old glory dreams of hotshotting for multiple seasons and earning she-hero status, savin' babies!, as they'd joke. But there I was anyway; I felt so happy and good in those skinny jeans, and I wasn't saving a damn thing, except maybe my back. The breeze was nice, and the sun felt warm. I got back in the car to continue on the drive.
In Challis, Idaho there are striking red and white mountains, sage brush scattered and rooted in their sandy soil. The fragile desert ecosystem of the Great Basin possesses a different beauty, one that is captivating in its barrenness. Cattle land stretches across this valley, dotted with small homes that in their humble simplicity seem to pay reverence to the earth they sit on. I had seen it all before, but only with a certain half-attentiveness to the beauty of the land around me, as the pressure of keeping up in work governed nearly my whole outlook during the summer of 2013.
I stopped in a gas station to pee. I walked in with those giant movie-star glasses on. The lady behind the counter stared at me without smiling. In efforts to win her approval, I thought of apologizing for all the smoke that socked-in her town, hung over it like a plague for weeks on end, during the Lodge Pole fire two years ago. That was a real money maker. I bought a package of chewing gum and another coffee for the road. I smiled extra sweet at her at the cash register. She looked at me like the foreigner I was but said, You have a good day, Dear. Non-emotional, straight forward, sensible, but courteous; the characteristics of people that live in farm country. I felt my appreciation deepen as I walked out the door with a jingle. Eventually, I really need to move out of the city, I thought. And I started up again my little lima bean Toyota corolla and headed off towards northern Idaho.
I had to cross into Montana before heading back into northern Idaho to get to Powell. I drove 100 miles thinking about someone with whom I'd once driven that stretch on highway 93. I listened to blues and vacillated between annoyance, resentment and a kind of bittersweet nostalgia. Once I reached Lolo on the 93, feeling a little emotionally weathered and a little older, I put it all behind me as I crossed into no cell service. 50 miles into the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests, I'd soon reach my friend, down a winding road that parallels the Loscha river. But as I drove deeper into the wilderness, up and over Lolo Pass, I began to question my ability to change a flat tire if the need arose. Or how comfortable I felt hitchhiking with a logger if my car broke down (I can't really help it; my brain does this sometimes).
But the trees. Holy shit.
The trees backed right up to highway 12 in a way that almost scared me. Some towering a hundred feet above my car, they were draped with a moss colloquially referred to as Old Man's Beard by folks that like to talk about foresty things. There was a giant cedar grove that smelled like my late grandparents' old house when I stopped off the side of the road to stare up at it. The last light of the day shot god fingers through those old, giant limbs, and interrupted the cool, damp river air with pockets of warmth. I could see the Lochsa river sitting behind those trees, I figured it was sometime around the salmon spawn, and I wondered with a little unease about Grizzlies in the region as I decided to head back to my car (again, my mind).
That evening I reached my friend in Powell. We shared wine and pan-fried steak. I felt a certain peace at the ease of the conversation, resumed after months of not hearing from her so far out in the boonies as she is. Lying in the guest bed I fell asleep so effortlessly with the window open to the cold northern air, and the backdrop of crickets chirping in the darkest forest I could ever imagine under millions of hole punches in the sky.
The rest of the next couple days I spent a little time in Missoula with Mel, mountain biking in a nearby canyon and window shopping downtown. One day Mel had to work, and I rode my mountain bike on the road up to Lolo pass. It was a lonesome, weighty, 12-mile slog, except for a brief interaction with a road biker, who passed me by pretty quickly. After a pause for a cup of tea at the Lolo Pass information center, I rode down the mountain against a heavy headwind that made the descent feel like a slow-motion ride into heaven with the sun warming up my back.
After 4 days spent by the river and big trees, with ample quiet alone time, punctuated by the sweetest time with my dear friend, I was feeling comfortable in my own skin again. I drove back to Utah in my skinny jeans, headed back to my city-slicker life, the anxiety ache in my chest gone, having been released into that wild, unmapped wilderness.
And you'll never guess what I saw as I was listening to the worst radio country ever, celebrity sunglasses, big ol' wad of gum making my jaw feel sore, going 90 mph on I-15 headed south. Dead moose on the side of the road, a hotshot buggy, and a flock of Canada geese traveling determined and swift, somewhere between solid ground and the heavens.