We did very little work that summer. Most mornings we cleaned culverts, which meant shoveling out a little sand and sending the smallest member of the crew deeper into the culvert to scare out the snakes and vermin so the rest of us could feel comfortable taking a prolonged nap in the cool wet darkness of those heaven-sent tunnels. It was hot. We wore Levis and Redwing boots, long-sleeved shirts and heavy orange helmets. Our firefighting gear was worse still: heavy yellow overshirts that made us slow and clumsy, a fire pack full of MREs and a fire shelter, a headlamp, a warm set of clothes for the chilly Arizona nights, and all the water we could carry in those big clunky round canteens. Mostly, the gear stayed in the crew truck, but every now and then, if we were the closest crew, we’d be dispatched to a fire. We’d hear the radio crackle and smash our heads on the roof of the culvert, sitting up quick and half in a dream. Out we’d scramble and paw through our gear to find our fire shirts, pull them on and yell, needlessly, “Let’s go!”
But most of the time we got a ride in with the helicopter. The Crown King district of the Prescott National Forest was all twisty canyons, impossibly remote, and manzanita brush climbing up to pinon/juniper country and up beyond that into the ponderosas. The lay of the land up there at the tail end of the Bradshaws was convoluted, and from above, from a helicopter, looked parched and wrinkled like an old woman’s face. We’d drop down into it out of the sky, scrape line all night, rest a bit on a trench of coals covered with enough dirt to keep us warm but not aflame, and rise up two hours later to be told we were done, it was time to hike out. Oh, we were used to it. We were lowly Crown King crew 232, no one taller than five-foot four and all in the same size Levis. There were seven of us, and we named our crew truck Snow White. You can guess who we were. We’d hike out, McLeods and Pulaskis over our shoulders, whistling hiho, hi ho.
Crew quarters for me was one half of a thirty-foot trailer hauled out into an open half-acre of cheatgrass poking up through old blacktop, so if you went down to the saloon and walked back home up the hill you’d better know where your feet were or expect to trip over random chunks of someone else’s idea of a parking lot. All I could figure was the situation was put there to test sobriety, which was in short demand most of the time. The saloon was famous for live music, and that meant an opportunity to be part of the band or just a groupie. I played tambourine and, as required, back-up vocals in a band whose name I’ve forgotten. We did a lot of Eagles hits, easy for a percussion neophyte. All I had to do was stand and shake my tamby and look happy to be there, which I was.
But the most memorable moment of that summer had nothing to do with music, fire, or flying high in the chopper. It was long and loud and chilling, and if others were part of it, if others heard it, I never knew. It was the scream of a woman up behind the trailers, a sound repeated three times, each time trailing off into an eerie moan. I sat up in my bunk and waited for the scream to come again, and when it didn’t I drifted back to sleep, a troubled sleep to say the least. Later, I asked someone about such a sound, such a cry, and they said, “Oh, yes. A mountain lion. That’s what you heard. Plenty of them up there in Crown King.” The human pitch of that scream, the sheer volume of it furling out into the night, the sharpness of it cutting through sleep and darkness, these I will never forget.