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On the Border

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July 1, 2013

A firefighter reflects on flames, family, and migration in the deserts between Arizona and Mexico.

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Image from Flickr via Alan English

As an engine boss trainee for the United States Forest Service in May 2006, I went to Safford, Arizona. I flew down with the other two on the crew, Chris and Sean, to rotate with three others from the Clearwater National Forest. Our forest already had an engine stationed down there for several weeks to assist the Coronado National Forest as they’d been fighting fire since January with little relief. We flew into Tucson, and the heat hit us like a rabbit punch. Just the night before I’d been reading Winnie-the-Pooh to my six- and four-year-old daughters, Sophia and Madison, in the cold Northwest, where they’d pointed at Piglet and Pooh sitting together saying, “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” I’d be gone three weeks this time.

Summer and the seven-year drought, the worst in over three centuries, dragged on in the American Southwest. The heat exhausted everything in the desert except the vultures that lazed on thermal columns, watching for a rabbit or an orphaned calf to collapse under the weight of dry air. Cacti faded to brown, blue throated lizards panted in the shade, and rattlesnakes moved with ease before dawn. Knots of smugglers and migrants hunkered down in the shadows of rocks, resisting their urge to drink the last of their water, waiting for night.

Firefighters new to the Southwest, after being briefed, will ask when rain is expected and others will ask about the forecast of dry lightning, LAL 6 (Lightning Activity Level). They will joke about alto-cumulous-over-time-for-us clouds. None will think to ask what the chances are of getting caught in a gunfight between smugglers and the Border Patrol.

Firefighters new to the Southwest, after being briefed, will ask when rain is expected and others will ask about the forecast of dry lightning, LAL 6 (Lightning Activity Level). They will joke about alto-cumulous-over-time-for-us clouds. None will think to ask what the chances are of getting caught in a gunfight between smugglers and the Border Patrol.

We drove between the vast armada of mountains, called sky islands, that had risen in a geologic shoving match between expanding tectonic plates over the Sonora Desert of Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico. The archipelago transitioned between the Sierra Madre Occidental in Mexico to the Rocky Mountains of the United States; they contained a biodiversity from semi-tropical to arid desert to temperate forests.

On our first morning the temperatures on the valley floor, at 3,000 feet, cracked 109 degrees. We were the reserve unit and had to go out and patrol into the Pinaleño Mountains, looking for smokes and unattended campfires, and ready to respond anywhere we were needed. Another Idaho engine from the Payette National Forest had also been detailed to that district office and would head for a different area of the Forest. We left Safford, three of us shoulder to shoulder in the seat of the Type VI engine—essentially a pickup truck with a water tank and toolboxes instead of a bed. We agreed to swap driving by days and rotate the middle position. Sean had been a lineman on a college football team out of Montana, and Chris—while not the size of a lineman—still had broad shoulders. No luck to get thin guys on this crew, and we rubbed a lot of shoulders in that truck during the three weeks. We wound our way out of the dusty grasslands and into the scorching foothills and dry washes of ocotillo, saguaro cacti, and acacia bushes. We ascended the mountains. Sean gaped in wonder not knowing vast stands of ponderosa, white pine, Douglas fir, and spruce with aspen grew in Arizona, a place he always equated with deserts.

At 10,000 feet, the temperatures under the evergreens remained in the 80s throughout the day. All of the ranges had different ecosystems. Not only did they overlap geologic formations, but deserts as well, straddling the Sonora in the West and the Chihuahua in east. Some had very little vegetation, while others had thick stands of gambrel oak with a thin forest. All of the ranges shared rugged and steep terrain that was both hard to negotiate and treacherous to the unwary traveler. The volcanic rocks, pushed up from the earth’s guts, stripped the lugs off of boots, shredded clothes, and sheared skin off unprotected flesh.

At the end of a rugged dirt road a metal-framed lookout tower stuck up. An older man in a snap-up cowboy shirt and faded jeans invited us up into the tower. The country opened up in front of us saw firsthand how the Apache chiefs Cochise and Geronimo eluded the United States Army or holed up in fortresses of rock escarpments that the army couldn’t breech. As a kid I’d heard a story of a squad that refused to advance up a narrow trail because every time the members did they were forced back by arrows and rocks hurled from the heights. General Crook employed Apache scouts to, as one of his advisors said, “Fight fire with fire.” The general harried the Apaches and gave them no respite. The army set up mirrors on the peaks staffed with signal troops, infantry, and supplies for thirty days where they observed the Apache movements and could signal to their units poised to take action—in effect, taking the Apache’s strategy and using it against them. Cochise eventually surrendered not because of decisive military setback, but because he tired of seeing his people in a constant state of siege. The last war chief Geronimo also eventually surrendered, although later he’d wish he hadn’t.

In one of those mountain ranges I had seen my first forest fire. Before my family moved down from Gilbert, Arizona to stake out their 40 acre dream of homesteading, we had traveled down to spend a weekend on the undeveloped desert we lovingly called the Property. We pulled up to an A&W drive-in and parked. Night had descended over us and we sat in the car eating burgers and fries and drinking root beer. In the blackness I saw an orange glowing as if a shimmering caterpillar hovered in the sky. “What’s that?”

My father looked to where I pointed. “Forest fire.”

I watched it pulse and wondered at how big it must be to cast its thick light so far. My only fire exposure had been campfires, and the wind-drifted smoke in my face sent me choking with tears. Now this fire, although small because of the distance, writ itself large in my imagination. The noise, the light, the heat and smoke. I marveled at who must be up there fighting it at the moment. What were they doing? How tough they must have been to go into the deep mountains to battle this dragon like ancient knights, in my mind.

Later, I’d find out firefighters called suppression operations “slaying the dragon.” Even after I became a firefighter I remained captivated by the flames wavering between being and not being, between life and death, and between the light and the darkness of an Arizona night.

The morning after our expedition to the mountaintops, our engine had been ordered to a fire a couple miles north of the Mexican border in the boot hill of New Mexico. We rolled toward Douglas on the dark interstate in a truck outfitted to suppress fire. Here, for four hundred years, the Apaches had used fire to destroy the land and forests of their enemies, both Native and European.

Along the edge of the road in Douglas, four women, six kids, and a man sat in a line, their hands behind them. The dusty faces of the children made me think of my girls after they had been playing in the garden. The faces of these kids were written from exhaustion and failure, not from wearing themselves out among the flowers.

After several hours we passed through a ranch belonging to one of the Budweiser heirs. It was a small house with bird dog kennels and horses. Later we would meet Budweiser’s private fire management officer. Branches squealed along the doors and side boxes of the truck as we negotiated the rutted road. We stopped in a clearing where a couple of other trucks were parked.

An engine crew from Oregon was there. One of their guys suffered heat exhaustion and was taking it easy in the shade. Chris, Sean, and I geared up and met Fernando, who was going to line us out and get us working. Short and barrel-chested, he walked through the brush like a bull. He led us into the dry wash. Maverick Springs had been developed so that the water pooled in a concrete cistern that had been fenced in with barbed wire and a tube gate. We climbed out of the brush and white oaks and into the sun scouring the desert. Above the wash we reached a trail littered with plastic milk jugs, articles of clothing, a cut up tennis shoe, a backpack, wrappers, and paper.

Fernando pointed. “See this shit? We have to clean up after all the illegals. They got no respect.”

He told us to start digging a fire line—removing the vegetation to mineral soil to deprive the fire of fuel and stop it from spreading—up the flank. “Let me know when you reach the bluff.” He measured us with his eyes. “I have another crew on the far side and some others on the way. Any questions?” We shook our heads and he left, disappearing around a bend in the arroyo.

I hiked the fire. The smoke hung in the air, drifted up from tufts of grass like dying campfires, and smoldered in cacti and yucca spikes. The heat lingered. It felt hotter under my feet as I walked over the rocks. I hiked past islands of vegetation the fire had burned around. A jackrabbit huddled in one bush. A knee-high whirlwind of ash spun and collapsed. Small insects flew in circles around hot spots.

If we could tie line in between the bluffs on south and north of the ridge from where the other crew worked, we could secure the south flank and create an anchor point so the hand crews would have a good solid area to continue north and west. After reaching those bluffs, I’d hike the fire again to determine the next course of action. I wanted air support to give us a better chance of keeping the fire as small as possible. Retardant drops would slow the rate of spread so the ground crews could hook the fire across the top, but fires threatening homes at Sierra Vista meant no aircraft for us. I mapped the natural firebreaks, scree slopes, bluffs, stretches of barren ground and calculated how far they might work before the fire burned around that area.

At the top I paused. From where I stood I saw 20-some miles across the Animas Valley to the east and the Animas Mountains. That mountain range was owned by the Budweiser heir and part of the largest deeded property in the United States, which he used as an exclusive hunting preserve like some European aristocrat. South of the Animas Mountains, the Sierra de San Luis extended the continental divide into Mexico. To the north and west the higher ridges and peaks of the Peloncillo range dominated the horizon, and to the south across the ancient dry lake into Mexico was the steep drainage like a chimney in Diablo Creek in the Guadalupe Mountains. I wondered how many people got caught along the trails by the flames and died during fire season. Hell fire on earth.

The local fire folk told us that the Mexican government didn’t suppress fires in those mountains. The breeze blew over the ridge, and I shivered at the thought of my own near misses and how it was nothing compared to being in front of a fire advancing three miles a minute, ill-equipped as the people I’d seen sitting along the dusty Geronimo Trail, waiting for the whirl of fire to drown out the roar of superheated wind.

The fire popped as a juniper tree fell, scattering embers. Being this busy this early in the season, I wouldn’t see Sophia and Madison very much. Many times I worried that my daughters’ first memories would be devoid of me or, worse, include me only when I was angry or had to discipline them. Some nights it made my guts twist. I’d spent a lot of time away—sometimes weeks or entire months—with only a day or two between assignments to visit my girls. Over the summer they grew in quantum leaps. Once I had come home from an assignment to discover Maddie had started pronouncing her R’s. Rotacized, I knew from college. As Kathy drove us from the airport, I could only look into the backseat, while she told a story about the neighbor’s cat—the words overflowing like a dam giving way. I stared a long time, smiling and nodding and wondering at what moment this leap had happened.

The temperature reached 100. I rolled my shoulder and canted my neck to stretch the stiff muscles. Today my body felt great. I hoped to be done with fire in two more seasons. Not only because of my children, but because of the physical beating my body took. I was already in my mid-thirties when I started in the business. There was soreness in my knees whenever I carried the eighty-five pound packs, and a strain in my elbows when I worked all night with a power saw clearing chaparral or scrub oak along a fire front. The persistent everyday pains, better some days and worse others: the knot in my neck like a shard of glass, or the dull ache deep inside my calf. Compounding these were the injuries from dirt bikes, football, and martial arts that welled up in my body like a sulfurous spring.

I loved leading a crew against the fire and bringing it under control. I thought about the contradictory urges: to be home more with my girls and to be away fighting fire.

But then, I felt I could hike to Mexico and fight the fire there as well. I experienced a mixture of elation and apprehension on every fire. Electrified. “That which we are, we are,” I said just to hear my voice. “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” The desert breeze blew my words away. Sometimes I felt like Tennyson’s aging Ulysses, older, but still carrying the passion to fly in over the ridge tops with the fire whirling uncontrolled in a remote area. I loved leading a crew against the fire and bringing it under control. I thought about the contradictory urges: to be home more with my girls and to be away fighting fire.

I loosened the shoulder straps on my fire pack and continued to fight the fire. The fire moved across the hill and climbed for the ridge top 1,000 feet above. Flames butted into the bluff and crept down the edge of the escarpment. It burned for the ravine. If the fire hooked below, we’d never catch it along the bottom before it burned up another drainage. Ahead of us extended miles of desert and mountains, range for cattle, bird migration routes, wildlife habitat that the fire could scorch, and because of the intensity of the drought and the explosiveness of the invasive cheat grass it would take a long time to recover, if ever. Climate change made the seasons come earlier and last longer and burn harder and higher in the mountains than ever before witnessed. I blinked. The air wavered as if looking up from the bottom of the Bering Sea.

Along the trail, I discovered a small black antenna nestled in a mesquite bush. I thought of the children I’d seen lined up along the gravel road, waiting for processing and deportation. The mothers and fathers so desperate they chanced the crossing for their family. I appreciated the risk, the gamble. Respected, as I knew what it took to undertake the journey, but didn’t know what it meant to be that desperate. The heat bore down on us and the fire had mostly obliterated the shade. The heat lingered in the branches, the earth, rocks, and the blackened waste.

Later, when I asked Fernando about the antenna, he told me, “Motion detector. For the border patrol. They know we’re out here so we probably won’t see them.”

“Doesn’t look like it could transmit very far,” I said.

“Maybe, maybe not, I don’t know.”

The fire cracked, popped, and roared when it hit the junipers. The leading edge of the fire gathered intensity. The curtain of oily smoke formed into a denser column. The digging got harder. Instead of putting out concentrations of burning material, we scraped away grass and weeds, pulling aside rocks and chopping away brush, creating a firebreak. At places we’d stomp out burning grass and use it as a line after running ungloved hands through the ashes. We chipped rocks and the steady rhythm lulled us. The sun reached its apex and leaned its rays down the eastern slope we worked on. The smoke hung heavy in our sinuses and glazed our faces. Our tongues thickened, and mucus and grit covered our teeth. The heat made us sluggish.

In the far northern Idaho mountains we had fought no fires. Snow still held in the mountains, and the rivers still swelled with the freezing runoff of mid-spring. Flowers hid dormant, saving their buds for June and July. We hadn’t seen a 90-degree day up north. In the desert we relearned the hardships, hardening the body to the flames forgotten in the dim winter past. We endured scratches and abrasions and the collection of grime and sweat in the body’s cracks and crevices. We adjusted to the weight and continuous chafing of straps from fire-packs, and boots that pinched and suffocated the feet. Hands calloused and strengthened as we worked; the pain in our joints a familiar embrace. Each became cocooned in his own thoughts as we worked, only forcing ourselves out of the trance of labor to look at the fire’s behavior, check the changes in the building clouds, and track the sun as it stamped our skin.

Shade fell on some parts of the fire from rises and dips in the ground. The dingy sheet of smoke rose all along the ridge top, casting a weak shadow on the upper reaches of the fire. In a few spots, black smoke braided into the sky. The fire crossed a ridge. It cracked in thicker stands of trees and brush. Thunderclouds continued to build over the mountains like black and slate stained sails luffing in the wind.

The twenty-person Coronado IA (Initial Attack) crew arrived and began digging a hand-line from exposed lava rock in a dry wash up the ridge on the northeast side to a bluff. We had pulled off the south side having completed the work and rested in the spackle of shade under some mesquite bushes. We’d been going for nearly fourteen hours. One of the supervisors called me on the radio and asked if we could help with the digging.

We hiked to the base of the ridge and followed the hand-line up. The crew had nearly reached the top, and we only helped dig the last portion. The ground was rich with stones: white quartz, rose quartz, rocks that were rusty looking, dull reds, grays, greens, and blacks. The amount of rocks, from the size of sand to the mountains themselves was dazzling. We dug in a kaleidoscope.

On the bluff the sun grazed the top of the mountains. The land softened in the valleys and a thousand feet below us men in jeans and t-shirts wandered between our parked trucks.

“Who are they?” I asked.

One of the guys chuckled. “Scouts. They’re looking to see where we are and the best way around.”

I scanned down the foothills. Those migrants scrambling over the trails would do well to seek high ground during daylight. Many of them hid in the dry washes in the thick stands of brush and stunted trees. The monsoons with torrents of Pacific water were overdue. Rain falling miles away and out of sight had sent flash floods of mud and sand thundering down the arroyos hard enough to wash semi-trucks to Mexico. An irony, I thought, to be drowned in a flood during a drought.

The assistant fire management officer from Douglas brought out fried chicken and mashed potatoes, coleslaw, corn on the cob. Beams of headlamps penetrated the dark as people moved around filling water bottles and Camelbaks, replacing food for their packs, sharpening tools for the next day, and then grabbing some food. Fernando asked if my crew would stay behind and sleep on the fire and climb back to the bluff at 0600 to get a good look at it. He planned to have the hand crew stage back in Douglas in case they were needed for the fire outside of Sierra Vista where houses had been lost and others threatened.

“You bet,” I said. “We’d love to camp out here.”

“Good deal,” he said. “We plan to fly the fire in the morning, but if we’re not here call dispatch.”

I’d been warned that contact was lost often enough in the remote location due to bad signals or bleed-over from Mexican taxis and delivery trucks jamming the repeaters. Sometimes, traffickers hijacked the repeater with a more powerful signal, drowning out the Forest Service. I’d heard Spanish over one of the channels earlier that day. On any district it wasn’t uncommon to have black holes where a radio couldn’t transmit out, but the hijacking of frequencies was new to me.

We three Idahoans watched dust kicked up like red glitter in receding taillights. The dull stamped metal of the crescent moon descended the clear sky like a scythe. Around us the darkness swallowed the details of the land. The night sky brightened over the black void. Stars materialized. Diffused light emerged from the horizon heightening the separation of land and sky. The rocks and sand reflected the sparse light and made the trees and brush darker. Nocturnal creatures arose from dens and burrows to forage and hunt. To the north the wildfire burned in patches like a sleeping army, and the main fire burned beyond the ridge, backlighting it, dimming the northern stars beyond.

The fire on the mountainside, a scattering of red, orange, and yellow lights pulsing and flaring a city of hell. The cooling night quieted the fire.

We worked our bodies into the ground and watched the sky. The wildfire’s glow dampened down. It looked like the sodium lights of a town over the ridge.

Even when exhausted my mind clicked and clicked. I laid out some fusees next to my fire-pack for any camp visitors: the roving bear, coati mundis scavenging in the packs, and people. I took a couple of pulaskis, stuck them in the ground and strung orange flagging between them so that if any vehicle traffic showed up they wouldn’t run over the sleepers. I felt better with those things, but knew sleep made anyone vulnerable and to react to danger out of dead-sleep was chancy. On nights like this, I would sleep and wake, on average, every forty minutes until dawn when I’d sit up off the cold earth.

Voices carried from up the arroyo. The group at the spring had moved on. Many people trekked north and spent years away from their families to support them. I would do the same. Borders are an artifact of the last war. The poor have to work and work hard as they have for centuries. All those headed north wanted was to feed their family with some dignity and, like the Okies struggling out of the Dust Bowl, were met with derision by people no better than them. My parents had us living in tents on the other side of these mountains for over a year, chasing the original American Dream. People in run-down trailers looked down their noses at us. Least we ain’t them, some said. At least we risked, I said back. The gate clanged as somebody walked into it. Another round of furtive whispering broke the quiet. Antoine Saint-Exupèry wrote, “What makes the desert beautiful is that someplace it hides a well.” A sublime beauty at that.

Some of the migrants succumbed before finding that. Seeing the kids along the dusty road put the hex on my mind. I imagined Sophia and Madison graveside, black dresses and lace, the flowers, a summer’s day during a dry spell, an explosive season where the tears and sweat of the dead dried minutes before the sweeping flames and my girls standing, maybe crying, maybe not, all their tears spent during long absences and my failure to give them any reason or faith to carry them past their grief.

The soft ticking and shifting of burning wood carried down the mountain and settled my mind. I awoke in the gray dawn. After rolling my shoulders, I canted my neck, but no vertebrae popped, only the sharp pain. Stuck.

It was 0458. I stood and stretched. Dirt coated my pants and shirt, and I scratched my scalp under my knit cap. I tore the top off a packet of instant coffee, dumped it in my mouth, and then chased it with a swig of water. The cool water caused my teeth to ache a little.

I stood and twisted my waist and shoulders, breathed out and touched my toes. My hamstrings were tight. I sat back down and unlaced my boots. Sleeping with my boots on made my feet feel stifled and chaffed. I peeled the outer wool socks off and then the inner anti-blister layer. My legs were soot-covered. With the tops of the wool pair, I wiped my feet. Even with soot smudged cloth my feet cooled and dried. After putting on clean socks, I sprinkled some powder in my boots and put them back on. I wiggled and flexed my toes. From the breast pocket of my fire shirt, I fished out my travel toothbrush and ran some paste over the bristles. I rinsed and spit, wiped my mouth on my sleeve, and put everything in the pack. When I finished, the other two had risen from their own underworld of sleep.

The eastern edge had burned out during the night along a wash and was pushed back on itself in long ragged fingers by the squirrelly winds between the playa and the foothills. It always impressed me how much burned in the desert and how fast a fire could move, cascading embers igniting spot fires, racing toward each other, clashing in a whirlwind of smoke and flame.

We gathered our packs and tools and worked through the brush. The sun still hung below the horizon, but the air began to warm as we hiked. We began to sweat, but picked up the pace, working our legs and bracing our tools in front of us with both hands. Nothing moved in the desert dawn. The rocks and gravel crunched under our feet. We hiked to the top of the bluff we had dug line to the evening before. The fire didn’t smoke. It looked out, but it only slept until the sun got a chance to heat it.

From up on the bluff, Mexico stretched into the background. It seemed not a different place from where we stood. We could walk there, but if we did we’d find ourselves in a different mercy system. I wondered how many bodies filled the desert unseen, missing from somebody’s life.

A jet began to cut a rose-colored contrail across the eastern horizon. The sun crested the Animus Mountains, tipping the peaks and striping playas with light. Long shadows stretched out from the west facing slopes. The foothills and arroyos around us were still in the shadows, but the sun gathered intensity as it cut across our spot.

I picked up a rock and held it in the light. It was milky with rust colored seams. I put it in my pocket.

“Rock collecting are you?” Sean asked.

“I bring my daughters cool rocks from fires. They gather them together with their dolls and pretend they’ve found gold and magic crystals.” I danced my hands like I had dolls. “Malibu Barbie, meet Treasure of the Sierra Madre Barbie.”

Up on the bluff we saw dozens of miles. Out there people hid. This harsh place didn’t look it, but many crisscrossed it looking for something. The Conquistadors and missionaries came, those great destroyers of other cultures with their horses, guns, religious zeal, and lust for gold. At about the same time the Apaches arrived from the plains, using fire to drive out other tribes. They hindered the Spanish efforts at settlement for centuries. I often laughed when people said they wanted to bring back the “natural” fire regime, when for hundreds of years the Apaches kept this area virtually depopulated of people, settlers and other tribes, by driving off livestock and then torching the land.

At the top we took some photos. Mexico stretched into the background. It seemed not a different place from where we stood. We could walk there, but if we did we’d find ourselves in a different mercy system. I wondered how many bodies filled the desert unseen, missing from somebody’s life.

Just after 0700, the steady thump of rotors filled the arroyos. I knew it wasn’t the Border Patrol looking for stragglers caught in the dawn flooding the dry lakes and arroyos, but the FMO seeing how we fared down on the frontier.

That evening after a full day on the fire, we’d drive into Douglas along the Geronimo Trail where in 1846 during the Mexican-American War, the Mormon Battalion passed through on their grueling march of 1900 miles from Iowa to San Diego, securing the Southwest for the United States. They never fought the Mexican army, but nearly did in Tucson where the Mexicans retreated upon their approach.

The FMO and his wife took us to Agua Prieta for dinner. We knocked around Old Mexico a couple of nights, drank in the Douglas hotel where Pancho Villa rode his horse up the steps, took our pictures in front of the Bird Cage Saloon in Tombstone, and by some vestige of childhood memory rediscovered the isolated stand of white oaks in Turkey Creek Canyon where they buried Johnny Ringo after finding him dead of a gunshot wound to the head. This place has never been an easy stretch of the world for many and if weren’t for drilled water wells, air conditioning, and the United States Army it would still be largely vacant of people.

On that bluff after the helicopter had reconned the fire and flown off, I took off my hardhat and retied my bandana over my head to keep sweat out of my eyes. The freshening air and physical activity energized me. The day had dawned. The reds and pinks had set the dry lake glowing like an ancient caldera and then bled out to stark blue. The dawn colors reminded me of the Fourth of July. I figured I might not get to see the fireworks with my girls, and as it turned out I was right. In less than a week I flew to another fire assignment in Arizona where I saw another bar Pancho Villa frequented to play cards. I deployed with crews in Montana and Idaho to suppress fires. But I wouldn’t stay until the bitter end of the season when rain, snow, and budget cuts chased us into unemployment. On my last day that season I learned of the crash of 5EV, a helicopter some of my friends worked with on the Payette National Forest. I headed back to graduate school off kilter from the crash and wondering about those lost lives. Maybe in a couple of years I’d be teaching away from the smoke and heat and the broken distances from my family for good. For the time being it was all good in the Hundred-Acre Wood. I hadn’t discovered the gnawing desperation yet. I didn’t know any better.

G

Jerry D. Mathes II is a Jack Kent Cooke Scholar alumnus. He is the author of The Journal West: Poems, an essay collection; Fever and Guts: A Symphony; and Ahead of the Flaming Front: A Life on Fire, a forthcoming memoir about his experiences fighting wildfire.

He has received Special Mention for Fiction in The Pushcart Prize XXXI, XXXIV and XXXV along with several other nominations, had an essay listed as notable in Best American Essays, a story listed as notable in Best of the West, as well as other awards. He loves his two daughters very much.

Ahead of the Flaming Front: A Life on Fire, from which this essay is excerpted, will be published by Caxton Press in September.

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