Back in 2004, before I lived in New York City or attended Columbia or even dreamed of starting a company, I fought wildfires for the Modoc Interagency Hotshot Crew. Hotshot crews are the US Forest Service’s equivalent to the Marine Corps: the elite infantry in their perpetual (and stupendously wasteful) war against fire. Modoc Hotshots 2004––the above video––is a highlight reel of that season, my third and last fighting forest fires for the government.
Honestly, it was the worst 6 months of my life. The guys I worked with, well, most of them hated me, and I hated them. I was lonely, friendless, and miserable. They tried to break me. They tried to make me quit. But I didn’t break and I sure as hell didn’t quit.
I showed up at the hotshot base in May 2004 weighing 175lbs and was in what I thought to be excellent shape. Little did I know. As it turned out, I had two problems: 1) I couldn’t hike fast enough, and 2) I couldn’t swing a tool in the dirt for long enough.
Hiking. Sounds like a pleasant, leisurely activity, doesn’t it? Well, in the hotshot world, hiking––since we operated in the mountains, by and large––takes on a bit more urgency. Our packs weighed ~50 lbs. plus a 10 lb. tool, and add an extra 35+ lbs if you were carrying a saw (as in chainsaw). We hiked at altitude, rapidly, and always in a straight line up the hill. I sucked at it.
As the FNG (Fucking New Guy) and an urbanite, the odds were already not in my favor. Our crew was based in the true armpit of California, the northeastern most corner, in a town called Canby, population: 135. And not only could I not hike, but I had a big mouth and didn’t believe in the pecking order. Bad combo.
On top of that, I couldn’t swing a tool to save my fucking life. After 10min, my arms were shot. To put this in context, we were a hotshot crew. Our râison d’etre was to dig fireline with handtools and chainsaws along the burning edge of a wildfire for hours and hours on end. I was like a construction worker who couldn’t lift bricks: useless.
And so, naturally, the guys tried to break me, to expunge me from the clan. A hotshot crew is a clan: 20 people living, breathing, eating, sleeping, shitting and working together almost every day for 6 months straight. When assigned to a fire, we typically worked 16 hours a day for 14 days straight, then got 2 days off before heading off to another fire. Rinse, repeat.
My first big fire was also the most miserable. Much as with the entire hotshot experience, it started off as a dream come true: We had got assigned to a fire in Alaska, the mythic home of the last frontier (see the shot of the moose). Promptly, we were assigned to a .5 million acre wildfire outside of Fairbanks. Contrary to all logic or local fire fighting norms, our boss ordered us to dig proper fireline…through the 8″ tundra and all the way down to the permafrost. It was fucking horrible, pointless, backbreaking labor. The axe head on my tool quickly dulled, and half the time I’d swing as hard as I could just to have my tool bounce off the tundra. That day, half of my hand went numb, and I didn’t regain feeling in it until a year later.
Let’s just say I bitched loudly about a) the hardness of the work, and b) the futility of our task. Did not win me friends. #Fail.
Senior crew members hazed and harassed me. No one wanted to talk to me or sit next to me. Quite simply, it was hard, miserable, lonely work. I had failed. And I got depressed. I started drinking everyday after work (we lived in govt barracks on the base itself, and slept in the dirt when on assignment). My self-confidence turned to shit. But I didn’t quit. And when I wasn’t drinking my loneliness away, I worked out after work. I hiked. I ran. I lifted weights.
By mid-season, I had gained ~20 lbs. of pure muscle and was weighing in at 195 lbs. Finally, I could keep pace with the hikes. Even better, I could swing a tool for hours and hours on end without discomfort. I was fast and I swung my tool (a pulaski) hard. They still hated me, but at least I was good at my job.
To be honest, I wanted to quit; I wanted to quit so bad. But I had debt I needed to pay off and money I needed to save for my impending move to NYC. Mom & dad sure as hell weren’t gonna bail me out. So I pressed on and used alcohol to self-medicate.
By the end of the summer, I was so used to taking abuse that I honestly didn’t give a fuck anymore. I had tried so hard to fit in, and my efforts had failed. I had made every concession I could think of, improved my strength and endurance, all to no avail. So I adapted my thinking: Fuck them, and if you don’t like who I am, fuck you. It was adaptive, really, but also liberating.
I was no longer the sensitive, empathic writer who had dropped out of Berkeley to write a book. No, I had since joined Lord of the Flies, thinking it was gonna be a chapter from the Hobbit. A hard, lonely lesson indeed. And yet I came out the other side.
Yes, I was scarred. It took me 3+ years to be ready to take risk again, to desire another grand adventure having had the last one blow up in my face. But in all the pain and misery and loneliness, fighting fire taught me something invaluable: to be hard inside, to be mentally tough, to inure myself to social rejection, to deal and cope with loneliness and pain and still function.
The best part, now that it’s over, is that I know that nothing I ever do in my life will be as hard as those last six months I spent fighting fire. Nothing short of prison could be more lonely, and no work I do will ever be physically as painful. It is the zero with which I weigh the rest of life’s struggles, and I am glad to have it as a reference. It serves me well.