Maybe work isn’t really all that bad
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Thursday evening found me running with a loaded wheelbarrow across a cobblestoned garden.
“That was a mistake, bubba,” my boss said as he drove us home. My head fell back against the truck seat and I gulped a little. He was right. “Now that I know you can do it, I’m going to expect it … all eight hours, bub.” He almost seemed completely serious.
The thought of it, as I huffed up the first switchbacks of Storm King Mountain Friday afternoon, made my legs feel even worse. Clouds were building. Wind was gusting. And for some reason I had picked that opportunity to hike the steep trail for my first time.
Many locals know the story of the tragic fire by heart. As a former copy editor for the Post Independent, I’m no different. But I’d never been to that haunted place in all my years. People were often taken by tears during the experience, I knew, but I couldn’t imagine myself among them. The story wouldn’t have any shock value, I thought. Plus I was shy about the idea of such dramatic emotional reactions to something that happened to strangers in 1994. Tragic, sure, but nothing that had much to do with me.
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I also have made my share of joking jokes about being “pro-cancer” (hey, someone has to make sure the other side is represented). Maybe I have a fear of falling in perfect line with “all the rest,” so I do the little things I can to preserve a sense of self-governance. It doesn’t matter. The point is that I found out suddenly last Tuesday that my Great-uncle Paul has cancer ” in the brain, spine, bone and liver ” and he doesn’t have too long. I won’t say I regret my silly wisecracks, but I feel a sadness that I can’t do anything to stop such incredible suffering.
As I hiked across the ridge of burned-out trees and melted boulders, I pondered what happened here ” the mortality and how death is like a line of advancing fire, all consuming ” and imagined myself in the flames of such an event. I have a few friends who are firefighters, and picturing their faces ” decked in gear, toiling to save their lives by racing up a mountain in retreat ” made it easy to see myself among the kinds of men and women who died on the ground I walked.
The blaze began with a lightning strike. Kind of like the conditions I was hiking in. I considered the irony if that was how I were to die just then. The wind picked up but I kept going, unsure what I was about to experience. I had to see something more, make it real to my skin.
Reading a plaque detailing the tragic timeline, I came to a paragraph describing some firefighters who gave up precious seconds on top of a knoll to encourage their comrades coming up the mountainside below as 300-foot flames overtook them. Flames blown by the same wind that blasted the side of my face as I read. The shouts of doomed hope still linger there; I felt them. I felt it all, the pressing weight left behind when good things are lost, and that’s when the tears came, like they were squeezed out of me. I draped my body over the monument, my heart howling with the turbulent air. I cried for them; I cried for my uncle; I cried for us. How I wished I could change some facts by mourning them.
Eventually I relaxed, took a deep breath and lifted my head. A fat tear had fallen on the first word of the story, “On …” It began a slow streak down the plaque, leaving a faint trail of salt as it dried, as if underlining the fate I, too, will face one day.
When Saturday evening rolled around I finally gathered the courage to call my uncle. To my surprise, he sounded as good as ever. Other family members were with him in California ” perceptible love was in the air. Paul chatted like normal, asking me about my life. I told him about some recent climbing exploits, how that activity helped me to appreciate the immediate moment of wherever I happen to be, “because we only get what we get.”
“That’s true,” Paul said, cheery as ever. “Love wherever you happen to be, make the most of it.”
As I prepare for another week of ass-busting manual labor, I feel grateful. Grateful for that last wonderful conversation with one of the greatest intellectuals I know. Grateful I am realizing what I have before it blows away in the wind. Maybe I will have to sprint with a wheelbarrow for eight hours today (hopefully not), but at least I can appreciate the things about that place in life that make it good: Mount Sopris overhead, the birds in the trees, the sun on my face and the crew of people next to me. It would be a shame to let my time burn to waste (and I know my boss wouldn’t like that, either).
Derek Franz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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