I lugged a full cubitainer of water up the porch steps. It felt heavy, too heavy. “Remember, you used to carry those on the fireline,” J said. I contemplated this. The cubitainers–plastic jugs encased in a cardboard outer layer, were our sources of extra drinking water on the line, and someone had to bump them along as we worked. (Cubies have fallen out of favor in recent days; people said it was because the water could get compromised in the sun, in the plastic. But we all drank them for years and were okay. It beats the millions of plastic one liter bottles that get used now, and most of the time, discarded. Or maybe disposable water bottles are cheaper. I really don’t know.) Interestingly enough, the guys on the crew would hustle right by the waiting cubie, thinking perhaps it was more manly to carry the saw fuel, so I was usually stuck with lugging one along.
Here is how it worked: You had a pack on your back, likely thirty pounds, with your gear. In one hand you carried a fire tool: a shovel or a Pulaski, typically, sometimes a rake like thing called a McLeod. So you were forced to carry the cubie in one hand, by its plastic handle, the weight of forty pounds throwing you off balance as you traversed a steep, trailless slope. On some memorable days, I laced the handle of my fire tool through the cubie handle and carried two of them. Two!
Even though I go to the gym on the regular, I still found today’s cubie heavy. How did I ever do it, I pondered, carry this thing over miles of down trees, down scree slopes? I generally try to avoid the “used to be” blues, because it does no good to reiminisce over times gone by. Used to be a much faster runner. Used to not have wrinkles. Used to can be a trap: either you stubbornly push yourself in an effort to prove nothing has changed, or you sink into despair because it has. The trick is to balance between the two and celebrate what is. I’m not always good at that.
I believe memoir is our way of reliving what used to be. My stories about kayaking in Alaska, about fighting fire, sometimes seem so long in the past, my life so tame now, that I wonder if I am even the same person. It is mostly by geography, not desire, that I live the way I do now, but also because the carrying of things like cubitainers had an expiration date, the running of marathons could not go on forever. They do for some people, but my body said, not for you. I had to make a choice: working outside on a trail crew, running on pavement for 26 miles, or still doing adventures at 80? I had to choose, and so I did.
I write memoir to go back to those days in my mind, since I can’t in person. As I type, the years fall away until I am twenty-eight years old, a wilderness ranger, scrambling up and over a pass to a backcountry lake. I am leading a squad on the fireline, my face blackened with ash, all of us bound together in hard work and adrenaline. I am in a yellow kayak, surfing a sudden swell in the Gulf of Alaska with my friend Carolyn. I watch women older than me, who are graceful in their acceptance of what was, and what is now.
I write memoir also to find that balance, the one between the woman I was and the one I now am. This doesn’t mean giving up on hard things because I am older, and my knees sometimes creak. It means finding that fine line, thinner than a thread, between the choices I have made–home, marriage, a mostly desk job–and keeping the embers inside burning. To do this, I go on small adventures, and some big ones. I hike the entirety of the Pacific Crest Trail. I run up mountains, or sort of run up them. I say yes to things, like going to the Grand Canyon in winter, when it would be easier to stay home. People who didn’t know me as a firefighter, as a ranger, marvel and say that I do all the things, how do I even do it? I want sometimes to break out all the stories–the time we ran from a fire, burning a circle of grass around us to make a safety zone. How I drove swamp buggies in Florida, took floatplanes to work in Alaska. I used to be a lot more interesting, I want to say. But what purpose does that serve?
So how do you do it, continue on with a life that is perhaps less wild than before? I see people attempting all sorts of things. Some go big, scraping together epic adventures across the globe. Others do the opposite–their family fills them up. I’m somewhere in the middle, figuring it all out.