My old journalism professor, Michael Downs, sold me on Norman Maclean’s book Young Men and Fire almost 10 years ago when he told me how perfect the ending was. I don’t remember what he said, or what the last few lines were, but I remember how it felt when he told me. It was important that if I wanted to be a writer, I read that book.
In the book, an elderly Maclean investigates the Mann Gulch fire, the 1949 Montana wildfire that killed 13 firefighters, 12 of them smokejumpers. The book becomes a reconstruction of the fire and the last moments of the crew of firefighters who died—not one of whom was over the age of 28—as well as an exploration of life and death as only Maclean could write it. The writing has always been important to me, and the story about the firefighters stayed in the back of my mind.
I was up late this past Sunday night, clicking around the Internet for information about climbing routes, when I read that 19 firefighters died in a wildfire in Arizona on Sunday. Eighteen of the men were in their 20s and 30s. Instantly, whatever I was going to climb on Tuesday was unimportant.
It’s unmistakably a tragedy when 19 men die, and we will do all the things we do when people die too soon: mourn, speculate, try to remember them, read news stories that tell us who these 19 men were when they were alive, donate to help their families deal with the tragedy, call them heroes, investigate what happened in hope of finding something that can be done differently in the future, and above all, wish they weren’t dead.
All these things are appropriate, especially the heroes part. I keep searching the Internet for the definition of a hero, and I can’t find the one I’m looking for, which is something along the lines of: A hero is someone who puts their life in danger for someone else when they don’t have to. Which is what those firefighters did on Sunday, and they lost their lives.
I’m sure there are many times when firefighters, soldiers, and police officers face situations in which they might be killed, times when they think about quitting, about turning in their badge, or getting a dishonorable discharge. All of us have quit jobs over less: We’re not getting paid enough, we don’t feel challenged, we’re not advancing in the company quickly enough. But most of us haven’t ever, as part of our job, gotten shot at, put on body armor to go to work because we might get shot at, or jumped in front of a fast-moving wildfire.
We talk about climbing as if it is heroic sometimes, like we’re fighting a war against an invading enemy, as if it’s something we must do. And it’s not. And all day Monday I thought about all the dangerous situations I put myself in, and how it’s amazing when I make it out alive, but if I don’t, it’s nothing more than folly.
Tuesday I walked up high into my favorite mountains, hopped wobbly boulders, chopped steps across a snowfield, tied into a rope and picked my way up a face of gneiss past loose blocks, to a summit no bigger than a studio apartment, worrying the entire time that a thunderstorm would roll in on top of us before we got down, and it was great. I risked my life for something meaningless to almost everyone in the world but me. During my long walk in, I thought a lot about those 19 men who died in Arizona.