The author in a jump plane.
The author in a jump plane. (Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Berns)

Finding Home in the West—by Smokejumping

"What I've been searching for, I now see, is something bigger than acceptance, bigger than smokejumping, bigger than proving I can be one of the guys."

Courtesy of Sarah Berns(Photo)

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First, the smell: Inside the jump plane, it’s Jet-A fuel mingled with stale sweat and fresh chewing tobacco.

Then, the fire: 1,500 feet above the forest floor, cramped between Kevlar and parachutes, we jostle for a view of our wildfire. I lean toward the smokejumper on my right. “Are we really gonna jump this?

“Looks like the spot I broke my back last summer,” he says. The smokejumper to my left eyes the ground below and crosses himself. His lips move silently.

“Can you pray for me, too?” I whisper.

“Are you baptized?”

“I’m Jewish.”

He nods. “Good enough for today.”

I look down at the jump spot, a slender ridge filled with chiseled boulders and dead, brittle standing trees. Sweat gathers beneath my breasts, in the bends of my arms. Panicked questions pulse in my head: Will I miss the ridge? Crash through snags? Break my back? Or just a leg?

The only thing I do know is that if I refuse to jump, I won’t get another chance. Smokejumpers don’t turn down fires because the jump scares them—it always scares them, and they jump anyway.

I’ve fought wildfires for years but completed smokejumper rookie training only months ago. I’ve never spoken the words aloud: I am a smokejumper. Because when I look in the mirror, I don’t see a smokejumper staring back. I see me, wondering if it’s possible to be one of the guys when I’m a girl.

Brad Pitt introduced me to smokejumping. When he starred in A River Runs Through It, about fly-fishing brothers Paul and Norman Maclean growing up in early 20th-century Montana, I was a Wayland High School sophomore living in the Boston suburbs. Initially, I was drawn to the film by the prospect of seeing Brad—the soft light reflecting off his high cheekbones, river water beading above his rakish grin. But after the movie, it was Robert Redford’s narration that echoed in my head. The way he said “Montana” felt more spiritual than the way our rabbi chanted the blessing “Shalom Rav.”

I left the movie theater on Route 9 in Framingham, Massachusetts, no longer smitten with Brad but with the permanent golden hour of the West. I didn’t want to dance with a handsome Maclean brother. I wanted to be a brother, to run through conifer forests and float down the deadly river myself.

I wanted to go to university out West, but my parents extinguished that dream, insisting that their only daughter stay closer to them. I relented and was proud to be admitted to a college back east with an essay that began, “Sometimes I wish I were a boy.”

My freshman year, researching summer jobs that paid the most over the shortest period of time, I found myself drawn back to the West. I was going to fight fires in a seasonal job with the U.S. Forest Service. When my parents asked about my summer plans, I lied and told them that I’d gotten a job cleaning campgrounds in Washington.

Smokejumpers don’t turn down fires because the jump scares them—it always scares them, and they jump anyway.

“Doesn’t sound very appealing to me,” my father said, without looking away from a Red Sox game on the television. My mother said she couldn’t take me to the train station—her way of showing she disapproved.

My grandmother ended up taking me to Boston’s South Station. When we hugged goodbye, I clung to her cashmere sweater, inhaled her Chanel perfume.

“This is a ridiculous notion,” she said. “Go get this wild scheme out of your system so you can…” Her commanding voice faltered. I kissed her on the cheek and finished her sentence in my head: So that you can come back east and marry a nice Jewish (doctor, financier, choose your own respectable profession).

My first day as a USFS firefighter, I picked up a tool I didn’t recognize that looked like an ax-hoe hybrid. “That’s your Pulaski,” said Steve, the crew boss. “Sharpen it. Oil it. Don’t lose it.”

I nodded, trying to convince myself: I can do this. That summer, I hiked through the Okanogan National Forest clutching my Pulaski in one hand, spilling fire out of my drip torch with the other, for a prescribed burn. While the aluminum canister full of mixed fuel dropped fire on the ground, I chuckled to myself: I’m lighting the forest on fire and getting paid more than everyone I know who’s temping in Manhattan!

It became clear that I was the lowliest grunt on my 20-person crew. The work required a virtual dictionary full of terms I’d never heard before: direct line, hose line, face cut, Jesus clip, pack test, red pack, yellow pine, serotinous pine. I struggled to become fluent in this new language. I fought fire for 21-day stretches, sharpened my Pulaski, and ate MREs with an ash-stained smile.

Driving up Washington’s Methow Valley after a three-week tour on large fires in Oregon, I watched the topography outside the government truck wind and turn along the river. The terrain felt familiar by now. My cheeks flushed, and I smiled to see it. The only other time I’d felt this way about a place was upon returning to my childhood home. For a moment, the feeling embarrassed me, as if I were betraying a first love, falling fast and hard for this beauty I’d just met.

By the end of fire season, I had a bank account in the West full of fire money and was hell-bent on buying my first vehicle to drive back to school. Not just any vehicle: a truck. Owning a truck was like a badge of honor that said “behind this wheel sits a westerner.”

On our day off, Steve, my crew boss, offered to take me to the Colville Indian Reservation to buy a truck from his friend. I nodded my head and mumbled aloud, “Really?” Why would my crew boss, who typically spoke to me only in orders, give up his sacred day off to help?

On the drive over Loup Loup Pass, he stared straight ahead, gripping the steering wheel at ten and two. Finally, he said, “You don’t want to be broke down. By yourself and all.” Then he pulled his baseball cap low over his eyes, and we continued on in silence.

In a 1984 burgundy Chevy pickup, I drove back east with Washington state plates. When I reached the Connecticut River, I began to cry. I downshifted, hoping that if I drove more slowly, I wouldn’t ever make it back to school. That summer, for the first time in my life, I had felt what it was like to be part of a crew that chose to look out for one another.

For the next six fire seasons, I tried to keep up and fit in. Can’t hike as fast? Fine, I’ll work longer. Someone offered me a pinch of chew? Sure, I’ll take it. The harder the goal—helicopter rappeller to crew boss to smokejumper—the better. My first season rappelling out of helicopters, I was the only female crew member. Sometimes I was the only woman for 100 square miles. We hopscotched from Washington to Oregon to Nevada, flew over open pit mines, slept in the dirt, dug hot fire line, and drank for free in dark casino lobbies. When my crew invited me to a whorehouse, I didn’t hesitate. Hell, yeah.

A woman in her late fifties opened the door, wearing a practiced smile. She was thin, without makeup or style, a nearly invisible woman. She ushered my crew into the brothel. Behind her, women lined up in transparent nightgowns. “Come in. Don’t be shy,” the madam repeated. Then she saw me. “Not. You.”

I froze.

“No women allowed. House rules.”

A set of keys flew through the air and smacked my open palm. “There’s a six-pack in the truck,” our helicopter pilot told me. The madam escorted me out. The sun was setting, amber light washed over the cul de sac of brothels, but Brad Pitt was nowhere to be seen.

I tried to keep up and fit in. Can’t hike as fast? Fine, I’ll work longer. Someone offered me a pinch of chew? Sure, I’ll take it.

Soon, men who arrived at the parking lot started to ask me, “Are you working?” I had never thought until this moment that to the outside world, perhaps to everyone but me, I was female first. Being just one of the guys—being a brother—seemed impossible.

Days later, we rappelled a fire in Oregon’s Strawberry Mountain Wilderness, four of us versus a wind-driven wildfire that grew from one acre to ten in half an hour. We dug direct line and called for retardant. An air tanker dropped a full load of red slurry. We tied our line into the anchor point, cheered, and slapped one another’s shoulders. That’s when I slipped on retardant and my Pulaski came to a stop—in my leg.

I looked down at my now-red leather boot and wondered: retardant or blood? I yanked the ax from my leather boot and felt an enormous volume of liquid rushing out: definitely blood.

I hobbled off the fire and hiked to the nearest road (which wasn’t near) to catch a ride into the town of John Day and argue with a nurse.

“No, you cannot cut off my boot.”

I explained that it would take weeks to break in another boot. But what I was really thinking was: I’m not going to let this accident take me out of my own competition.

The nurse and I had reached a stalemate when the rappel base manager arrived. I was mortified to see him. I am not that weak, clumsy girl. Not me, not today. I turned to him.

“Will you pull off my boot?”

He looked to the nurse, who clutched her scissors. The nurse shrugged. He placed his hands on my boot and counted to three. Then he gave a swift, violent tug.

The three of us stared through the slice in my blood-soaked tube socks, into the gaping ravine in my flesh. Blood splattered onto the white linoleum floor. “I’ll go get some folks to stitch you up,” the nurse said. What pain I felt was numbed by the relief that I hadn’t passed out. Or, god forbid, cried.

Back in the plane during my first jump season, we orbit our wildfire and eye that slender ridge. The spotter yells my last name over the prop wash.

It’s my seventh season in fire, but most days, I’m still the slowest runner and hiker. I wear the labels: frailest and weakest. In my head, I keep a list of the people who doubt me. When my legs burn and my blisters bleed, I hear each one of them taunting me: I knew you’d wash out.

In the jump plane, I move carefully under the oppressive weight of my gear. When I stand in front of the open airplane door, I know the spotter sees the fraud in me. He barks, “Do you see the spot?”

I don’t dare glance down at the parachutes of the previous jumpers, now tangled in the snags. I look at the horizon. “Yes.”

I throw my entire being into the void. The noise of the plane fades. Ground and sky blur.

“Do you have any questions?”

I scream to myself: What the fuck are you doing?

“No.” I answer confidently.

“Get in the door,” he commands. Then he slaps my shoulder.

I throw my entire being into the void. The noise of the plane fades. Ground and sky blur. My static line tightens, the chute opens. Free of the plane, the world is absolutely quiet. My senses rack to focus. I toggle the parachute, making adjustments as the earth, and every hazard on it, rushes toward me.

I touch down in the middle of the jump spot, miss every rock, clear all the trees. I hear cheers before I unclip my parachute. Jumpers who have never looked me in the eye approach with arms in the air, palms open. High-fives all around. The sound of acceptance.

Then, as quick as it came, the moment’s gone. The jumpers fade into the dark timber, searching for our wildfire. I’m alone in the jump spot, apart from my crew. Wait, wasn’t this supposed to be the grand finale? But I can’t hear the music swell.

I double down, commit to another season, jump more fires. I’m so desperate to prove I belong that when a parachute oscillation slams me into a clearcut and forces my femur into my pelvis, I don’t say a word. I lie still, eyes closed, until another jumper kicks my boot and says, “You dyin’?”

I laugh, trying to make light of my inaction. He’s not amused. “Let’s head on up to the fire.” It’s not an invitation.

I manage, “I’m not sure. Something doesn’t feel right.”

“For fuck’s sake, Berns. If you’re the last one in the spot, carry all the parachute gear.”

“Sure thing.” Anything for a few seconds on the ground, unmoving.

After carrying everyone’s parachute gear through acres of logging slash, I pace up and down a game trail, hoping the pain in my hip will cease. I walk because I’m terrified that if I stop moving, everything I’ve sweated for, everything I’ve yearned for, will also end. A broken pelvis proves that I’m fragile. Feminine.

Then it hits me—right there on a burning mountainside in Montana. Maybe acceptance by the crew isn’t the thing I’m after. Acceptance is a finicky friend: One day, it’s here (hey, have a chew, I’ll help you buy a truck, high-fives, come rafting with us). The next, it’s gone (you don’t deserve to be here, this is always going to hurt—deal with the pain and shut the fuck up). What I’ve been searching for, I now see, is something bigger than acceptance, bigger than smokejumping, bigger than proving I can be one of the guys.

That night at the brothel, after I’d been abandoned, I didn’t stay in the parking lot. I wandered around to the back of a different brothel and rang the doorbell on the gate. A woman with dark, soft curls appeared, cradling the day’s mail in her arm.

“What can I do you for?” she asked, without judgment or care.

I asked if she had any openings. Not a serious inquiry, of course. But I’d say anything to get away from the leering men outside. Her doe eyes traveled expertly down my body, over my sweat-stained T-shirt and crumpled Levi’s. I slipped my hands into my pockets, afraid she’d see the ash etched into each crease of my skin, the dirt under my fingernails. She unlocked the gate, and I followed her into the kitchen. Around a huge wooden table sat a half-dozen women. Doe Eyes placed her mail on the counter and introduced me by saying, “She wants a job.”

Immediately, a chair was pulled out. The women shouted out their names. I smiled and introduced myself. The room was kinetic, women entering and leaving constantly. Some wore bathrobes; others were in jogging gear. Someone tossed an oven mitt into the air. “Your turn!” A woman tightened her ponytail and used the mitt to open the stove. Inside, baked potatoes cooked in orderly rows.

“My sister’s name is Sarah,” said a woman with a brown crew cut. “Do you have an H at the end?”

A broken pelvis proves that I’m fragile. Feminine.

I laughed, nodded that I did. Crew Cut asked if I wanted a potato, and my mouth immediately filled with saliva. A steaming-hot baker appeared in front of me, a full spread of fixings right behind. I piled on slabs of butter, fresh chives, and bacon (don’t tell my rabbi). I took a deep breath and inhaled the aroma of the warm, welcoming kitchen.

The sex workers and I settled down to the table. Together, we ate and chatted. My formal interview consisted of a sideways question about my first trick. I finished chewing and pulled from every prostitute scene I’d read and watched—told them a fictitious five-minute story about giving a blow job in Central Park. Perhaps it was the details I tossed around (green paisley tie, creased leather shoes, Old Spice, and instant coffee) or the foreign locale, or maybe they believed me because—well, why wouldn’t they? These women welcomed me without pretense—something for which I’m eternally grateful—and I told them a simple story they’d heard a thousand times.

In return, they told me about their “real” jobs (paralegal, mom), their dreams (a PhD, home ownership), their relationships (boyfriends, husbands). I talked with the women until my friend burst into the room. The ladies shouted at him to leave, but he searched the gathered faces, panicked, until he saw me.

“Berns! I’ve been looking everywhere for you!”

I stammered, “This is my…brother.”

He backed me up. “Yup, she’s my sister.”

My buddy, for the record, is Latino. I’m not. And I don’t know anyone who calls their sibling by their last name.

We ran out of the brothel kitchen laughing, fought fire together the next day, and never again talked about that night. But I think about it sometimes. In the company of those women, I’d had my own adventure—a much more interesting one than any of my crewmates had that night and one I never would have had on the East Coast, where I supposedly belonged.

My life has been forever changed by the friendships I made fighting fire for more than a decade. I drove through a deadly ice storm to attend a jumper’s wedding. I won a saloon arm-wrestling match, shot my first deer, preg-checked cows, hitchhiked, and swathed hay. I tore open a newborn’s amniotic sac in the front seat of my fire friends’ truck along a western highway.

I sold my own truck to buy land and bought a chainsaw to heat my cabin. I met my husband on a wildfire and babysat children who have cared, in turn, for my own daughters. Today, my family and I all live out West, in the same valley where I first picked up a Pulaski.

I understand now that taking nearly a decade to achieve my supposed goal—becoming a smokejumper—was a gift. Because in the end, being a smokejumper—one of the guys—wasn’t the real achievement. It was becoming a part of something grand: the West. It was belonging to this wild land—building a life, a home, in the one place in the world where I feel whole.

Lead Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Berns

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