Funny which body sensations trigger memories we don’t recall storing. Today’s 55-year-old out-of-shape body climbs a steep hill. Burning lungs and screaming muscles detour my mind to a summer day six years ago. That day I visited Storm King Mountain outside Glenwood Springs, Colorado, on a pilgrimage to honor 14 firefighters who died in 1994 fighting the South Canyon Fire. Tortured lungs and hot sun reminded me of the day I trailed a group of 20 and 30-year-old men up the steep trail to overlook the arroyo where 14 Prineville firefighters died.
On a cool Colorado summer morning, we snugged on sun hats, tightened packs loaded with bottled water, and grabbed walking sticks to make the difficult hike. For the first hundred steeply-graded yards, I kept up with my fellow pilgrims. However, it didn’t take long to realize my 50-year-old asthmatic lungs could not maintain a pace that made even young men breathe heavily and beaded sweat on all of our brows.
Realizing I would slow these men to a ridiculous pace, I told the group to move ahead. I’d follow at my slower rate.
Though I was beginning my trek, I had some sense of what those young fire fighters faced because I was stretching my own physical abilities carrying a water-filled backpack at a high altitude. I know the firefighters lugged more weight than I and they moved more swiftly, but they had to recognize the same ache deep in their legs and throb in their tortured lungs.
A half mile into the hike, I realized I had another worry. I was so far behind I could not see nor hear my comrades. I finally acclimated enough to the altitude and trail that I noticed I was in prime mountain lion country—a steep, piñon punctuated arroyo.
I scanned to spot sign of these huge mountain cats up close or at a distance. Knowing I was an easy target trailing so far behind the rest of my group increased my speed until I could hear the huffing breaths of climbing hikers.
At the same time, I imagined the fear the fourteen fire fighters felt as they raced oncoming flames would add vigor to their steps just as my fear of prowling mountain lions increased up my pace and added endurance to agonized breaths.
Once I caught up to my group at the observation point, I felt relieved I survived the grueling climb up the mountain without facing my worst fear—a mountain lion. Now I scoped the arroyo dotted with stone cairns marking the sites where many of the 14 fire fighters deployed their fire shelters unsuccessfully. What a lonely, beautiful place to die.
My friends and I took turns reading passages from Fire on the Mountain by John Norman Maclean. The wind carried our words down the mountain the same way it had borne flames six years earlier.
My decision to climb to this observation point hadn’t been any wiser than the Forest Service’s choice to insert this fire team on the South Canyon Fire. However, I learned much about desperation and tenacity that day. I am grateful for the pain that triggered this memory.