Vail Daily column: The road not taken
We compared knee braces, my friend and I. Noticed the other’s gray and how we’d each stayed reasonably thin while most peers have developed more, ahem, girth.
I probably talked too much, too rapidly. Had too much to share over beer on the roof of Ouray’s brewery that Saturday evening.
Dave and Barb smiled, laughed on cue and listened patiently for their turn. And of course, I wanted to know everything, how their past 15 years had gone, their kids grown, adventures, career turns, all that.
I’d seen them precisely twice in 30 years. But this felt like just yesterday. Those kind of friends. Instantly comfortable no matter how much time has gone by.
Last time I did see them, we were relaxing in March 2000 beside the Santa Ynez River, my young family and theirs, girls and boys about the same ages between 7 and 11. “River” in the Santa Barbara backcountry is not exactly like we know here. The girls splashed around in water knee deep to my 8-year-old daughter. The boys skipped stones worn into shape for the job.
Their parents caught up on each others’ lives over the past 15 years. Lots of laughing. Yes, some beer, too.
A weekend reunion and retirement party for the superintendent who had led our hotshot crew for half of its 50-year existence had wrapped up. Last chance to hang out before heading home.
Most of us fought fire seasonally on the LP Hotshots before moving on to better paying full-time jobs with municipal fire departments. Others stuck with the Forest Service. Some went on to become doctors, professors, lawyers. A few went to jail.
I was 22 and Dave 19, I think, when we met as rookies in 1980 trying to hang on and make the team. The crew already was storied — a brash work-hard, play-hard group that ranked among the top two or three hotshot crews in the nation. Like the Oakland Raiders when they were winning Super Bowls.
You get to know your colleagues well on such a crew — between work shifts, on fires and after hours, all that time together. Dave and I also shared a love for surfing. We worked on the same squad for four years, him running a chainsaw, me beating dirt with a super pulaski.
And then, of course, life moved along. He won that next job with the Oxnard Fire Department. After another season, I got married, then got hurt training to jump out of airplanes on fires, and wound up caretaking an isolated lake in the backcountry. My Walden Pond 5 miles behind a locked gate and an hour over the mountain from town.
Dave and his girlfriend, Barbara, spent a weekend with us there fishing and relaxing. I have a great sunset memory of tooling around the lake in our pontoon boat with them, bantering easily as always and promising to make our get-together a habit.
Of course, life clicked along quickly from there. My journalism career took us to a town north of Lake Tahoe and on to Michigan to Illinois to upstate New York to San Diego and finally here.
Dave had the career I missed after blowing out my knee. Now his knee has worn out after 30-odd years at Oxnard and he’ll retire with a healthy pension.
Barbara had gone to bed, and Dave and I sat in the captains chairs at the back of their hotel on wheels, all the comforts of home. He and Barbara plan to spend half their time soon seeing the country this way, their days entirely their own.
It’s easy to idealize the other’s path. I glimpsed the road not taken, imagining their travels from here, fantasizing about where we’d go.
Firefighting suited me well. At least the wildland version did. But journalism opened my mind so much wider. Life became richer once I was forced from the world I knew. Dave helped me see that as he imagined a life outside of firefighting, one he’ll know soon.
Not better, not worse. Just different. I also came to realize, with a bit of a start, that I live so much in my head. Imagination. Mental challenges. This damned compulsion to learn. This is the world I prefer to travel, ultimately the more interesting one. I hadn’t quite looked at it that way before.
What if the knee had held together? How would I think now if I had stuck with the plan? Or are we head cases just doomed no matter what?
I’ll have to talk this over with Dave next time we meet — hopefully a little sooner than 15 years from now.
Publisher Don Rogers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 970-748-2920.