To Sleep So Close To Fire
This story appeared at Mojave Heart (now defunct) November 2019.
Amy a rookie on our crew, the Rocky Mountain Hotshots, that summer. Cute, blonde, blue-eyed, always smiling, and a good runner and hiker. All the guys liked her, and she liked the attention, though from the beginning she said she had a boyfriend, “the one.” He wasn’t a firefighter, she had met him at a wilderness first responder course down in Fort Collins that winter before we started. He was the head instructor actually, and gone a lot giving wilderness survival courses all over the country.
She and I got to be friends, sort of. I was one of the few guys she could ask questions of without being talked down to, and also we were two of the few people who stayed at the barracks on the weekends. We were out-of-staters, flatlanders (her Minnesota, me Michigan) and neither of us knew anybody in the area. She liked that I played guitar. When we had free time at night or on weekends, I’d play out on the barracks porch and she’d come out and listen, sometimes reading a book or taking a nap. Her favorite song was “Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen, which I’d play for her whenever she wanted. One time she told me she liked it when I sang really low, that it made her legs shake.
I didn’t have a car that summer so for the first month or so she would take me down to Boulder with her sometimes. We’d hang out at Penny Lane Cafe, go to the Boulder Bookstore or one of the used places down on Pearl St. Maybe see a movie. Dinner at Dara Thai became a sort of ritual.
Fire season late in coming, but we finally hit some down in New Mexico. Amy fit right in, swinging and grubbing her pulaski with the rest of us diggers behind the growl of the saw teams, or gridding and mopping in the ash after we’d contained the fires. Never openly complaining, but occasionally asking me if that was how it was on other hotshot crews: the long weird hours, sometimes not doing anything, sometimes cutting a twenty-foot swath through the woods, bad fire camp food, all that money spent on airplanes, helicopters and Gatorade. The ‘get out there and kick some ass’ attitude. I told her that, from my four years of being in fire, I thought our crew was probably the least bad of all since we were Park Service instead of Forest Service and had four women, which tended to make the 16 guys act move civilized. Which she couldn’t believe.
When we were on fires, we’d usually stay in fire camp. We had tents, but most people just slept in a sleeping bag, under the stars, which I loved. I also loved my space, and more importantly I like sleep: sometimes we were only getting six or seven hours, so every bit counted. Other people on the crew liked to stay up talking a while around the hotshot buggies, so I’d just go off a little ways for some quiet.
Amy liked to be around people. She’d never done any camping or anything, so I think she liked the security of having someone around. At first she slept next to Gary and Mandy, but they tended to stay up the latest, talking, so eventually she started sleeping by Ed, another hotshot rookie, though he had worked on a Forest Service engine for two summers. He was quiet, though full of funny one-liners. Like when he had to take a piss, he’d say, “Gotta go shake hands with the Governor.” He and I never hung out, probably out of a sort-of rivalry over Amy, but I liked him. I just felt bad that he was following her around like a puppy. I told her that he liked her, but she wouldn’t believe me. She was surprised when the rest of the crew started talking about the two of them. Rumors spread quick on hotshot crews.
We ended up on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon for what they call a ‘fire-use fire’: on National Park land, so they were letting it burn, but adjacent to some Bureau of Land Management land with some old-growth ponderosa on it. They needed us to keep the fire from spreading to that area, so the trees could be saved — for a timber sale. Amy at first amazed, then angry that no one questioned our orders. She asked me how I could stay in fire and still put up with the silliness. I’d asked myself that too. Many times. I guess it was being outside, working with my hands, and seeing fire. There is nothing like a forest fire. The flames, the heat. Whole trees going up in flames. The element of danger. I didn’t plan on making a career of it, thinking about going to grad school at some point, though mostly I liked having my winters off to travel on all the overtime I’d made.
One night we ended up ‘coyote-ing out’: cutting line into the night, missing our chance to get flown back by helicopter. We didn’t have our sleeping bags and they hadn’t flown out food, so had to eat MREs (Meals Ready to Excrete) and would roll up in space blankets that we carried in our daypacks.
My clothes were drenched from sawing all day, so I got a fire going in the sage near the line to dry them out. Some other guys came over to do the same and eventually we all had our pants pulled down to dry out our underwear. Amy came over and the other guys pulled up their pants, but I just didn’t want to sleep in wet underwear that night, and figured it was nothing she hadn’t seen before, so I kept mine down. She didn’t seem to mind. I think she liked the idea of hanging out with her fire-fighting ‘brothers.’
I was still pumped up on adrenaline, so at first I enjoyed standing around listening to the guys’ stories. After a half-hour though, it suddenly hit me how tired I was and I said goodnight. Amy said she was going to bed too and came with me.
The crew was bedding down in a large sagebrush meadow near the fire line, and as we were walking toward it, she asked me if I was going to use my space-blanket, that she had forgotten hers. Rookie mistake: we usually carried our space blankets in our line gear, but some people used them for putting their sleeping bags on in fire camp. Amy hadn’t repacked hers since we hadn’t used them on a fire yet.
I told her, kind of joking, that I was going to use mine but that she could share it if she wanted. She smiled and said ok.
I hadn’t expected that. But she was serious.
I found my usual space away from the crowd and she came over after cleaning up. I spread out the space-blanket, we both lay down on it, then I wrapped it over us, burrito-style. For both of us to get into it, we had to get real close. We lay on our backs, side by side, for five seconds, then without saying anything or any signal, we both rolled on our sides and spooned together. Not saying anything, just listening to the crackle of trees still burning fifty yards away.
A big Ponderosa cracked and fell over. We both sat up and looked, but it had fallen inside the fire, no threat. Glowing orange wall of burning tress. She looked at me. “Do you think it’s dangerous to sleep so close to fire?”
I lay back down. “No, we’ve got the line between us. It’ll be alright.”
She lay back down in my arms, and we spent the night curled in different positions, sometimes spooning, sometimes with her head on my chest or shoulders. I couldn’t sleep. Bright stars, thousands. We would lift our heads to watch the burning trees, sometimes woken by a snag or branch falling. Plus her.
At one point she whispered, “Are you sleeping alright?”
“No. Because I was sleeping next to a beautiful woman.”
She sighed and said, “Oh Dan, you’re dreaming.”
We spooned together again, my hand on her stomach. Her t-shirt pushed up. Touching her warm skin. I moved my hand in circles. She was awake. I pushed my hand up and felt one of her breasts through her sports bra. She didn’t move or say anything. I moved my hand down under her nomex pants and touched the top of her panties. “Do mind if I do that?”
She was quiet, then said, “I don’t know.”
I didn’t know if that was an, ‘I don’t know yes’ or ‘I don’t know no’ so I stopped and we finally fell asleep.
The next morning a lot of people saw us get out of our burrito together. More soap-opera rumors for the crew, especially since Ed had known Amy didn’t have a space-blanket, so left his on her line gear and spent the night without one. I felt bad about that.
We cut more line that day, but not a lot. I was dragging. The whole crew was. That afternoon we got flown back to fire-camp and showers and hot food: Spaghetti with garlic bread. I went back for seconds. That evening, sitting on my sleeping bag, in just a t-shirt and boxer-briefs, airing out my feet and the rest of my body, doing some stretches, Amy rolled out her sleeping bag with everyone else, but walked over. She said she just wanted to say hi. She was rubbing her shoulder, so I asked her if she’d like a shoulder massage. She said she’d love one, and sat in front of me on my sleeping bag.
I asked her if she’d felt bad about what we’d done the night before.
“I was going to ask you about that. I’m not sure.”
“Well, it felt good.”
“Yeah. It was a fantastic night. The stars, the fire. Part of me feels like it would have been a good time to make love.”
I reached around and, no bra, cupped her breasts under her t-shirt. She half turned around and looked at me. “Dan….”
I took her right hand and put it down so she could feel how hard I was. She stroked it through the material and said, “Oh.”
She got up. “I’d better go.”
After that, nothing. She talked to me like normal during the day, but never made another evening visit. And she kept sleeping by Ed. So I decided forget it.
We came back home to our park and stayed there a couple weeks. I made a point of not doing anything alone with her, though we went to Boulder once with Mandy and Gary and had dinner and a movie. And she still came out to listen when I played my guitar. I still played “Suzanne” for her.
One day off Amy and Ed went out for an afternoon and came back sunburned all over from skinny-dipping in a creek and then falling asleep. No one could figure out who she was hooked up with, even though, or even as, she kept talking about her boyfriend, who was supposedly in Alaska for a while.
I talked to her about Ed again, in between songs one afternoon. She said they had had a talk. “He knows I have a boyfriend. We’re just friends.” I shook my head and said, “Alright.”
We got a call to go to western Colorado. One of our crewmembers couldn’t make it, so we picked up one of the trail-crew guys from the park, Tony. He was a real good guy. Hard worker, funny, never complained.
We spent three weeks there. Hot but beautiful country, pinyon-juniper and red-rock canyons. After we got back, the next day I was talking to Mandy, who was mad: Tony had asked her out the day before. She told Amy about it, and right after that Amy went over to Tony’s barracks house and asked him if he would like to hang out with her sometime.
I teased Amy about it a little later. She smiled and blushed and asked me not to talk about it with anyone. I said ok but everyone knew anyway. She was shocked.
Fire season continued. We were out a lot. On one fire south of Moab, we spiked out, and helitack flew our red bags — which we kept our sleeping bags and clothes in — out to us on the line, along with tubs of hot food. Saves all the time of flying everybody out and then back in the morning. I found a spot out in the woods to sleep and was sitting on my space blanket, leaning back on my red-bag, putting baby powder on the insides of my thighs where they were a little raw. I heard a twig snap and looked behind me. Amy looked more surprised than me. “I’m sorry to interrupt.”
I realized that from where she was, all she could see was me sitting with my hands moving between my legs. I laughed and said it was alright, and told her what I was doing.
She walked over to my left side. I pulled my pants back up. She said, “I didn’t mean to sneak up on you. I was out cleaning myself up. I was almost naked wiping myself off with a wet bandanna.”
I said it wasn’t problem, wondering if she believed me about what I’d been doing. There was a pause where we both looked at each other, then she said, “Well, I have to get back and see where Ed is.” We both said goodnight and she left. I lay there that night staring at the stars.
We were out twenty-one days, so had two days R&R when we got back. Everyone left, the barracks deserted except me and Amy. I was sitting on the porch playing my guitar. She came out and sat next to me and listened. She asked me to play “Suzanne,” so I did. When I was done, she said, “Why don’t you talk to me anymore?”
I didn’t know what to say. I strummed my guitar. “I don’t know. How’s your boyfriend in Alaska?
“He’s been writing me letters, but I don’t know….”
“What about Tony?”
“We’re going to camp out tonight.”
She went inside to pack. Later, in my room, I heard her drive off. I got up and went outside. Clouds building over the mountains to the west.