Saturday, May 28, 2016

Another Tribute to the Fallen...

While en route to carefree Carbondale, Colorado I decided to drive a few bonus miles to the South Canyon Fire Memorial Trail. This seemed to be a fitting hike with the upcoming Memorial Day Weekend. I dialed up John (another retired firefighter) and invited him along. 

"John, if you've never been there, it's a must see for anyone who's ever fought fire."
That was all I needed to say. John and his wife Sue would meet me at the trailhead. 

While I was following the sun west on Interstate 70, I thought back to the first forest fire I fought in 1976. I was fresh out of Forestry School and had scored a summer gig in the Bighorn National Forest of north-central Wyoming. My District Ranger, Roger Williams was a tightwad character out of Joseph Heller's classic novel "Catch 22." His office was festooned with U.S. Forest Service awards for thriftiness with the government's money. One of his cost-cutting strategies was NOT sending his seasonal employees to any forest firefighting training classes. In his mind's eye the Public's money was better spent on the crews performing their hired duties only. 

He was rolling the dice on the chance of a fire rising within the Medicine Wheel District that season. In the dry summer of '76 Mother Nature tossed a Snake Eyes. An errant lightning bolt struck a Lodgepole Pine and sparked a fire. Reports from passing motorists made their way to Fire Dispatch. The local band of Rookies (us) were called out to battle the small blaze. It was late afternoon. 

By the time this clueless crew arrived, the fire had spread. We grabbed a few firefighting tools and away we went. We had no idea on how to construct a rudimentary fire line. We knew even less about fire behavior or fire safety. I remember running up to a torching tree and heaving shovelfuls of dirt at the red stuff. That was stupid and dangerous. 

Eventually Roger requested a squad of Smokejumpers from Missoula. He also shouted for a "few truckloads of Indians." His gamble on not sending us to fire training school wasn't paying dividends. 

It was dusk by the time the Smokejumpers floated down from the sky. One jumper got tangled up in a tree. Flames were beginning to ascend that same tree. His Comrades went into rescue mode and interrupted a possible bad outcome. Later I was assigned to build fire line with those  "A Team" forest fire fighters. 

We were well into the graveyard shift when a large snag fell silently across the smoky fire line. The defunct tree bisected the distance between me and an adjacent firefighter. I overheard two professionals whisper, "That's just the way Murphy got it last year." It was then I realized, "Crap! A guy can get killed doing this work!"  That bastard Roger Williams gambled with our young lives as well.

Back to the present: John and Sue met me at the trailhead. The parking lot was full with vehicles from the three major Federal Land Barons-the U.S Forest Service, National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management. There were two empty buses from the Redding, California Hot-Shots too. Apparently we weren't the only ones paying our respects. 

Up the memorial trail we went through the just budded dwarf scrub oak forest. Wild flowers were in bloom filling the steep hillsides with emerging life. It was all Emerald Island green. 

We caught the California Hot-Shots at the killing field where the majority of the Storm King 14 had perished. There are now crosses commemorating the site. 

The young Hot-Shots were decked out in their work attire. Fire fighting tools were clutched in their gloved hands. They wore heavy duty boots, Nomex fire resistant clothing and displayed serious no-nonsense expressions. Each one carried a full backpack. It was almost as if they arrived expecting to fight a rekindle. 

One by one the Hot-Shots touched each stone edifice going from the bottom to the top. Some paused to whisper a prayer. One knelt reverently as she openly
wept. It was a very touching scene. John and I reminded them to "Be Safe!" as we patted a few backs.

This was my second visit to this sigh inducing memorial. My first blog goes into the details of the evolving catastrophe a little more.

On this visit, I left behind an offering. See last photo. I always got thirsty after fighting a fire.

I'm afraid scenes like this will repeat themselves over and over. Forest fires fall into the "Fog of War" category too often. There's too many unknown variables leading up to a perfect storm of death and disaster. It's inevitable when humans place themselves in the line of fire. 

If you ever find yourself near Exit 109, and need to stretch your legs, I highly recommend this stop. It's an impact player of a hike.

Thanks Sue Palmer for allowing me the use of your photos. 

Remember, only you can prevent forest fires, 

Suggested readings: "Young Men and Fire" Norman Maclean
"Fire Season" Phillip Connors
"The Big Burn" Timothy Egan 
"Fire on the Mountain" John N. Maclean 

Thursday, May 12, 2016

When people ask me...

What I do in retirement, my rote answer is "I visit pretty places, take pictures and write about it." If they aren't shaking their heads and retreating by then, I'll add "in the morning, I drink lots of coffee and in the evening a few IPAs. I read a lot too." 

I know pretty simple, but it seems to work for me.

Since April 4th, I've been in five National Parks, one National Monument and a smattering of State Parks. It's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it. 

I was forced to make a detour when the Southern Utahan dirt roads got gloppy wet. I traded a cool and clammy Capital Reef NP for a warm and wet Death Valley NP. Retirement like life is all about flexibility and adjustments. 

With me its all about the weather too. Once in awhile the Weather Channel lies and I'll end up in a downfall of White Death. Like Wednesday at Great Sand Dunes NP. I'm now writing "nasty-grams" to the Honchos of the Weather Channel. Talk about disinformation. 

In case you missed a past National or State Treasure, here's a recap.

Stay tuned for the announcement of the "Great Wandering, Wondering Jew Sweepstakes." Who knows? You may already be a winner!

Here's a few snaps from Great Sand Dunes NP. The White Death melted.


Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Home is where the best...

Breakfast Burritos are and other things.

As I crossed over the Utah/Colorado border, I heaved out an audible sigh. It felt good to be back in the Centennial State. This is Home and it's more than just a mailing address.

BTW many thanks to nephew Keith for the use of his address. He's the CFO who watches over the "Wandering, Wondering Jew's" huge financial empire while I am on the go. I couldn't do this crazy lifestyle without his help. I owe him.

If there's ever a demand for "WWJ" T-Shirts, coffee mugs or beer holders, I'll get my marketing team (me) to start the production line moving. For my faithful readers, it'll be such a deal! 

Here's last year's thoughts of being back in Colorado.

I read the blog over, nothing has changed except now there will be one more family of Sambur's paying state taxes here. Nephew Justin scored a professorship at Colorado State University. Let me be one of the first to welcome J-Man, Deli and Little Max to Paradise. I hope they buy a house with a driveway. It's always nice to plug Barley the Van in for electricity. IPAs taste so much better when they're cold. Reading lights and fresh brewed coffee in the morning are pretty swell too.

So friends and family, I'm looking forward to seeing you. This talking to myself is starting to grow old. (At least I'm not saying "What?") As usual, I'll be looking for folks to play, eat and imbibe with. You know how to find me and right now, I'm not that BUSY!

Here's some photos on why Colorado is more than just the Rockies. 

Cheers and Come on Summer!

"Hey Colorado
It was not so long ago
I left your mountains to try life on the road
But I'm tired of that race
It was much too fast a pace
And I think I've found my place
Colorado, I want to come home

Is it too late to change my mind
I've done some thinking
And I'm trying hard to find
A way to come back home
Cause I've been so very long alone
Won't you take care of your own
I think I'm coming home
I want to come home
Let me come home"

Lyrics by Linda Ronstadt

Friday, May 6, 2016

Belated Flowers for my Mom...

"Don't it always seem to go
You don't know what you got
Till it's gone"

Joni Mitchell

I regret I never gave Clara Sambur flowers on Mother's Day. 
My only excuses are I was too young, clueless and poor at the time. She passed when I was 17. Her final year was spent in and out of hospitals. Mostly in. She died at the age of 52. 
It was a crappy period of my life.

In retrospect, that tiny Viennese born woman (she was 4'11") made a huge impact on me.

Do you like my latch-onto-you-and-hold-on hugs? Thank Clara for that.

Do you like it when I break out into a smile when we make eye contact? Thank Clara for that. 

Do you like the occasional reassuring pats on your back? Thank Clara for that.

Do you like seeing me actually sit still and read a book? Thank Clara for that too.

I'm certain she passed along her gentle genes to me.

So Mom, I brought you some pretty flowers. I just wish I could have handed them to you in person. I still love and miss you.

Here's a little advice: Show your Mom you care while you still can. 

Happy Mom's Day!

Monday, May 2, 2016

Say Yo to a Threatened Species...

Meet a Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassiziiand Gopherus morafkai).  

One would have a greater chance of seeing Sasquatch or Nessie the Loch Ness Monster than one of these units. Besides being rare, they spend 95% of their time in burrows. Out of sight, out of mind. 

I felt blessed to be on the receiving end of this close encounter of the Tortoise kind. 

There numbers have been greatly reduced by the usual suspects: loss of habitat (run over by strip malls, roads and subdivisions),  ATV'ers (run over by motorized vehicles), diseases (infected by pet tortoises released into the wild), and predation (Ravens really do a number on the soft shelled juveniles). 

In other words, it's not easy being green/gray.

In all the years and miles of wandering in the Southwest deserts, this is only the third one I've ever seen.  

However for some reason, this one made the tastiest soup!
Only joking! I would never harm a hair on its thumb sized head. That is if it had hair.

I hope one day you get the opportunity to see a Desert Tortoise. Hanging out with Horace the Tortoise made my day. It should do the same for you.

They live from 50-80 years. They know how to pace themselves. Maybe slow and steady wins the race after all. 

Cheers from Frigid Flagstaff, Arizona 
Last photo: the road does go on forever.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

A Stark Reminder:

Bad things can happen in National Parks. 

When a park's name is Death Valley, I'm extra careful. 

However it doesn't matter how safety conscious a hiker is; sometimes Mother Nature can turn bitch. Like the time I was exploring here in February, 2016. Who knew the rock I was standing on would slide? Why wasn't there a warning sign? 

Because it's a wild place and that's the way it's meant to be.

A typical day for me is to inhale two pots of coffee, washed down by breakfast and head out. I'm not really sure where I'll end up. Oftentimes, I get side tracked. No one knows where I am. 
A lot of the times, I'm unsure of where I am too! I think a lot about Aron Ralston. He's the dude who amputated his caught between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place arm in a Utahan slot canyon. No one knew where he was either. In fact, no one noticed he was gone. 

People are BUSY.  They don't have the time or energy to ponder about other humans precise locations. My black comedy joke with my family is, "if you don't hear from me in a few years, read my last blog. At least you will have an idea on where to start searching for my bleached bones." 

I don't wish to ever write a blog or book about limping out of a scary situation. Doh!  I've already did that! 

Now I have a gimpy left knee. It's better than what the final alternative could have been. 

I'm running out of my Nine Lives. 

With all these morbid thoughts in my brain, I don't take unnecessary chances. When I see a rough route in an unnamed side canyon, I'll look at it from below. Is it worth the risk to see where it might lead? The answer is "No!" If I got into trouble there, Search and Rescue would never find me. Unlike Mr. Ralston, I don't carry a Swiss Army Knife in case I needed to perform an emergency surgery. 

My point to all this? There are risks in everything we do. Try to hedge your bets to see another day. Injury or Death can really screw up your future plans. 

I'll paraphrase World Class mountaineer Ed Viesturs, "Getting to my destination is optional. Returning back to Barley the Van is mandatory." 

Speaking about Survivors! Check out this male Wood Duck doing laps at the Stovepipe Wells pool. A wetlands duck in a vast desert? Talk about misreading your map. 

Be safe out there,