October is far and away my favorite month of the year. Not only does fall offer some of the country’s best weather for outdoor recreation but it’s also the month I’ve been laid off in for the last three years. Usually getting laid off isn’t something most people celebrate but to me it offers a foreign opportunity; freedom.
Working as wildland fire fighter on a hotshot crew is an intensely unique experience. If you’ve ever worked outside 16 hours a day for two weeks at a time, without showering in some of hottest months of the year, you know what I’m talking about.
A lot of people picture wildland fire fighters standing in front of a wall of flames fighting the intense blaze. Although, brief moments of intensity exist, the reality is much more monotonous. I like to equate it to being a member on a chain gang. Most of the people on Hotshot crews dig fire breaks; an 18 inch wide, 6 inch deep trench that can span for miles. You swing a tool all day long, sometimes only taking a 30 minute break to eat lunch. Instead of digging, I run a chainsaw as a sawyer on the crew. Although I do get to cut down the occasional burning tree, most of my time is spent cutting knee high brush out of our line, making me feel more like a glorified Gardiner than a wildland fire fighter.
Hotshot crews like to arrange themselves in a militaristic hierarchy that breeds conformity. We sleep on tarps on the ground next to our trucks. Wake up is at 5:30 but no one can set an alarm. Walk to breakfast in a single file line. Meals are eaten together with little to no talking. If you get done eating first, start working on chores. If you finish your meal last, eat faster. The crew is filled with both spoken and unspoken rules that dictate your life from sunup to sundown. Your only free time, besides while you sleep, comes two days at a time every 14-21 days in what’s fondly called R&R (rest and relaxation). After six months of nothing but this schedule I don’t mind taking the pay cut.
October 1st, I have nothing. No obligations, no meetings, no job and most importantly no schedule. The ability to do what you want, when you want for months at a time is a rarity, especially for a 25 year old. Most people spend their early twenties working there first professional job and living their life through the weekend. Although I can relate, packing a years’ worth of work into six months comes with its perks.
I fish, travel, hunt, drink beer and fish; a lot. In October/November I was outside fishing or hunting 25 of 30 days. I spend time with my old man on our boat telling stories, watch the sunrise on the mountain glassing elk and wade through cold rivers as trout feed in preparation of the oncoming winter. I’ve slept outside more days than I have inside and the only thing I have to worry about is what I’m doing tomorrow.
Now don’t get me wrong, seasonal living shouldn’t be a lifelong plan. Moving every six months and doing odd jobs throughout the off season isn’t exactly a reliable retirement plan. The transient lifestyle and constant moving isn’t something you still want to be doing when you’re 50, unless you want to be that guy living in a van down by the river.
Writing this in April, I’m training for my fourth year working wildland fire and preparing to go back to school in the fall. Although my four year hiatus from pursuing my career has set me back, I wouldn’t give back any of the experiences I’ve had even if I could. The places I’ve seen, situations I’ve found myself in and friendships I’ve made will last me a lifetime. I’ve lived and worked where people take their vacations and seen nature at its most brutal. I’ve traveled to multiple countries for weeks at a time and regularly fished in some of the best fly fishing rivers in America. I’m not sure if getting out of fire is the right choice but I know I won’t regret living my life six months at a time, even if only for a while.