Trading paradise for a life
The path we chose led us to a largely armchair involvement with the wild. Regrets? Well, sometimes.
The closest we get now is living on tussled land where a bear wallowed and pooped next to the front yard the night before we moved in two weeks ago; where one of the dogs the other day brought in a shank of possibly lion-killed deer; where a heron roosts in a cottonwood over the pond.
I drink whisky on the deck and count my blessings by the stars we didn’t see in the megalopolis where last we sojourned before good fortune brought us to Eagle County.
The house, a beater of a log cabin actually, reminds me vaguely of the cottage in the Santa Barbara backcountry when last we lived a parallel existence to civilization, not truly part of it, though we visited regularly. Our pond then was a 160-acre lake, the dirt driveway an hour and a half to town on the coast side of the mountain range.
I got the job because I was lucky enough to be a Forest Service backcountry patrolman that summer, after a knee blew out during smokejumper training, a last fling at youth following a year of a real job in town reporting on that civilization I’d largely managed to escape in early adulthood.
Before I was old enough to drink legally, I was wildland firefighting out of Santa Barbara the dry half of the year and going to college, surfing, traveling, sometimes even working here and there in the off-seasons. I was the one to head into the backcountry just as winter storms were rolling in. More privacy, and summers were out for backpacking those years.
When I married the banker’s daughter, her button-down older brothers were bemused and I think resigned that their woodsy little sister would choose a goofball from the forest as a life’s mate.
I suppose marriage was our first “mistake.” No, not in deciding to live our lives as a team. I mean in this being the first step in civilizing us. I don’t know, some vague notion of responsibility crept in next, unwanted I assure you.
Within the month I was working as a cub reporter in the sawmill Sierra town north of Lake Tahoe where we’d moved to get closer to wilder country.
A refugee from polite society for nearly a decade, now I was covering it. Court, schools, the chamber of commerce, the bureaucratic arm of the Forest Service, business people, cops, grandmothers with recipes to share. I won a statewide award for a story about lugging a big bottle of wine with our standard backpacking gear into some high country, which I think carried me over a threshold. Awards, which I see as the very ruination of my profession now, cinched it for me in a new, sigh, at least somewhat responsible career.
But not before one last desperate escape attempt. The Forest Service jump base in Redding, Calif., invited me a year later to try out the only wildland firefighting I hadn’t done yet: parachuting from planes. Heights scared the hell out of me, but one way to conquer that; I was frightened of the ocean before sailing and surfing, too. My wife was quietly freaked but went along. Bless her.
Seen one way, it was a disaster. The bad knee I figured a year off had recuperated blew out and I washed out. The reporting job had been filled. The only newspaper job open was in Ely, Nevada. Forget it. Then my old ranger district in Santa Barbara found a job for me patrolling a backcountry zone about the size of Oahu. I ached for firefighting, but the knee told me that was done.
I fully enjoyed the freedom from deadlines and flourescent lights. We loved being out in the middle of nowhere, even if this job was seasonal. Then came the lake caretaking job. And, eventually, the call back to newspapers and civilization.
The fork in the road came with a phone call from the paper I’d quit. How would I like to be editor of not just the one weekly, but all six? Give up utter peace for chaos? Trade sanctuary for civilization? The known for the utterly unknown? Walden’s Pond for shrieking deadline?
It really could have gone either way, I muse over the scotch. Who knows, if we weren’t married, we might have stayed. That civilizing touch led inevitably to thoughts about the future, children, how careers might play out.
But it was adventure, I think, that still bubbled and sent us on our way. There was still too much to see. And we were too young yet to stay in paradise.
Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 600, or firstname.lastname@example.org
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