On Sunday afternoon, my youngest niece, Alice, said good-bye to the attendees at her high school graduation party, and climbed into the car with her mother and me, headed for north-central Washington for her summer job as the only female crew member on an elite wild land firefighting crew.
“The mountain is out!” said my sister-in-law, Lucy, as we drove north on I-5 and then northeast on US 512, aiming for our route over the Cascade Mountains. Sure enough, there was Mt. Rainier–Tahoma, “Mother of Waters”–shining white with the dozens of glaciers that feed some of Washington’s largest rivers.
At I-90, we headed east and uphill, climbing over the ragged, rugged ridges of the Cascades with their fringes of forest between clear-cuts. Up and up and up, into the high country were snowbanks lingered, dirt-etched and deep still.
We stopped at the summit, Snoqualmie Pass, all of 3,022 feet elevation, which doesn’t sound very impressive unless you begin the drive at sea level, which we did. Out of the forest nearby came the queer nasal fluting call of a single varied thrush. The sun was beginning to slant low, the air was cooling, and we had miles and hours to drive.
Alice took over the wheel as we headed down the east side of the Cascades, the forests changing from rain-nourished to rain-shadow, with wide-spaced trees towering over a park-like, grassy understory.
Our route took us south and east to Ellensburg, north over Blewett Pass, and then down into the orchard country along the Columbia River. Cherries hung red and yellow on glossy-leaved trees; apples, peaches, and pears were still ripening.
We turned upstream and followed the Columbia north to where the Okanogan River flowed in from Canada. The light began to slant low as we drove north up the Okanogan Valley, through Omak and along the edge of the Colville Indian Reservation. At Tonasket, we turned back west, climbing over a rolling divide dotted with small lakes ringed by cattails and bulrushes.
At tiny Loomis, we turned south again, following a winding two-lane road along the valley bottom past waving grasslands, through ponderosa forest.
Where a sign proclaimed the home of the Highlands 20 fire crew (H20, “Better Than Water”), we turned uphill. In a saddle shaded by ponderosa pines, we parked by a row of cars and two bright yellow crew-hauler trucks (“crummies,” in firefighter parlance), across from three barracks-like buildings painted forestry green.
The air was still, rich with sun-warmed pine sap, and quiet. A lone guy sat reading at a picnic table. My petite niece, tall in her new firefighter boots, strode over and asked where she should check in. He pointed to one of the barracks.
A few minutes later, she emerged with the fire boss in charge of the camp and the crew boss–the only other female on the crew. After a few minutes of talk, Alice walked back to the car.
“I have my room,” she said. “They said to get settled in.”
We helped her carry her duffel, heavy with firefighting gear, into a spartan single room. Back out at the car, we checked for forgotten items, and she grabbed her pillow. I gave her a hug, and then walked to the car so that she and her mom could say a private good-bye.
Then Lucy and I drove away, watching the sun set through watery eyes. Our tears weren’t just for the ritual of parting, or that this is Alice’s fledging, the beginning of her leaving home. Lucy is a forester, and she and I have both worked as wild land firefighters; we know how hard and dangerous, how exciting and important the job is.
At the bottom of the drive, we turned right, taking a gravel road down the little valley, headed south past quiet lakes and green meadows grazed by deer in velvet, the highlands with their stately forests rising around us.
“Leaving her at college will be a snap after this,” said Lucy as we climbed over a divide and dropped down to the main road, headed on the six-hour drive back to their home in Olympia.
At twenty to three that morning, Lucy and I staggered out of the car and upstairs to bed, each thinking of Alice–now far away, beginning the leaving home, her initiation as a firefighter and an adult.
Wear your boots proudly, niece of mine! Be courageous, but not foolish. Come back healthy, knowing yourself to be strong and whole….