Beyond the Mountains, More Mountains: My Experience as a Wildland Firefighter

There’s a Haitian proverb: Beyond The Mountains, More Mountains.

I was a wildland firefighter for one year. I hated it. Our captain liked to show other captains how hard his crew worked.

While he stayed in the back chewing tobacco, we would spend hours upon hours cutting shrub and scraping dirt in the middle of the forest to make a clean path. This was part of our job.

And given the circumstances I put myself in, I should have been grateful. But I wasn’t.

I’ve always held onto an assholish sense of entitlement—a selfish quality that has never served me well. Even to this day, I have trouble shaking it.

Our captain was not a bad man. He was just doing his job and wanted to do it well. So sometimes he’d go overboard for the sake of making our crew shine brighter than the others.

Unfortunately, for that to happen, we had to work our asses off. We worked for 24 hours straight once. I mastered the ability of falling asleep while standing.

The work was hard. Back at the camp, I would lay in bed at night with my elbows tingling as if both funny bones had been stricken by a hammer. My hands would fall asleep often, and I’d have to sit on them to get the feeling back.

I wasn’t a tough person. I never wanted to be tough, I just wanted people to think I was. But when you’re constantly bitching, nobody thinks you’re tough.

Despite our captain’s ego—probably to compensate for his 5’3” stature—he had some good advice. He’d say, ‘Keep your head down, and keep moving forward.’ This was the most practical advice given to me during the season. It’s advice I follow to this day.

You see, forest fires always seem to be at the top of the mountain. Which is quite inconvenient for fire trucks, bulldozers, and other expensive equipment. So up go the humans with chain saws, gasoline jugs, shovels, rakes, and other heavy-duty gardening tools. Once there, we would separate the burning from the unburned by creating a clean dirt path at the top of the mountain. It’s a primitive strategy, but it works.

When you’re wearing jeans, a T-shirt, heavy work boots, leather gloves, an additional layer of fireproof pants and jacket, and a hard hat with shawl while caring a 30+ pound backpack full of water, batteries, extra gear and medical supplies in one-hundred-degree weather while hiking to the top of the mountain—it can get quite tiresome.

The top of the mountain would never seem to arrive. But when you finally make it, the work begins.

The most efficient way to get to the top of the mountain, whether or not you are enduring harsh elements or carrying additional gear, is one step at a time. By not looking up. By not counting your steps.

By just doing.

Focus on your breathing. Be grateful you’re outside. Be grateful that you’re doing something good for a change.

Every step makes you stronger. Progression. Keep your head down and always move forward. Sometimes you’ll be slower than other times. But always fucking move forward.

I didn’t do all of this. I constantly looked toward the peak. It never seemed to arrive. It was brutal. I’m a masochist.

I couldn’t help not looking.

But I kept going. That’s the one thing I did right.

There were better men than myself on my crew. Peewee, Chino, Dreamer, Spike, Manny, Danny Boy— these were all men greater than me.

A bunch of drug addicts and felons covered in gang tattoos. They were better men than me.

I’m not a wildland firefighter anymore. I’m a digital marketer. An aspiring writer. A troll living in a shed, sitting on an exercise ball pecking away at a keyboard. A nobody.

But today, when my workflow is disrupted by the irrelevant fears of never being good enough, of never making it out of the shed, of getting fired by my clients—sometimes I stop and think.

And I experience a moment of gratefulness.

Because deep down I know that I am a fucking juggernaut. And that the road to success is always under construction. That anything worth its weight isn’t going to be easy to obtain.

And I better be strong enough to carry that weight when my time arrives.

I’m starting to understand that life is about the journey, not the destination. It’s during this journey that we get to truly know who we are.

And we have the opportunity to change for the better—if we decide to do so.

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