I set my lunch in the back seat, which is a cluttered mess of supplies, most loose, covering the seat and floor. Good thing it’s just the two of us. There’s no way anyone else could fit in there with all the mess. It’s definitely a government-issued vehicle. I open the driver’s door and reach up for the ‘oh-shit’ handle to pull myself up when he stops me.
“Forgetting something already, kiddo?” I would object to the reference to my youth since I wasn’t half his age, and also by no means young, but forgetful I may be.
“Let’s assume I’m going to forget a lot of things today, since I’m pretty nervous about, well, pretty much everything about this gig.”
“What the hell do you have to be nervous about?”
“That I am not up to the challenge of filling your shoes.”
“Little Lady, my shoes are just beat up old work boots. It’s time they got replaced with a brand new pair that’s going to work just as hard, get just as dirty, and eventually have to be replaced again and again.” Was he referring to the boots or to me?
“You’re going to do just fine out here, assuming you can remember the most important part of driving a government vehicle.” I like his confidence in me, even if I don’t know at this moment what is the most important part of driving a government vehicle.
I stare across the truck at him as he stands in the passenger doorway. If I just take my time, and not rush through this experience, I may just have a sound start and good memories about day one. I take a deep breath, lick my lips to stall for time, and then remember what comes first.
“The three-sixty walkaround. Always check your vehicle before you even start the engine.” I don’t sound one-hundred percent confident, but the words at least leave my mouth as a statement, not a question.
“See? You’ve got this, kiddo. In fact, let’s just do the full monthly check. It’s probably not due, but it never hurts.”
He pulls a small clipboard out of the glove box, shoves a bunch of other papers back in, and slams it before anything else can fall out.
As chilly and windy as the morning is, the sun is already about ready to rise above the eastern plains, and those extra layers I set out last night are serving me well this morning.
Archie takes the time to walk me through everything, reminding me of some of the items to be checked that I only ever glanced at during our annual training when I nod as if I know to what the instructor is pointing on the vehicle. This time, Archie and I are both on our backs under the truck looking at the brakes and a host of other under-carriage features.
I imagine my Grandfather doing something similar with me when I was a girl. Admittedly, it may be as much a dream of what I wish I could remember about my grandfather as what we actually did together, but this feels like a memory that would have been completely believable – the two of us under one of his cars, propped up on ramps in the driveway, and Grandma hollering at him to not let me get all dirty. I doubt it’s even 8:15 yet, but when the sun peeks over the horizon, I am already dirty and proud to be.
Archie and I finally start up the engine and the truck clock reads 7:32, obviously never sprung forward from a few weeks back. I take time to correct it and as he watches he calmly mentions, “You know, if you wait until the fall it will be correct again.”
“And I’ll change it again, then.”
“Well, that seems like a waste, but to each his own.” Or her own – even his expressions sound like Grandpa.
With the vehicle inspection complete, Archie suggests a quick break inside before we drive into the mountains. I think it’s an excuse to refill his coffee again, but it’s not a bad idea and it gives me a chance to make a pit stop and check on Monica, who arrived while we were underneath the vehicle. We leave the vehicle running to keep it warm, and I make quick small talk with Monica until he taps me on the shoulder and reminds me the forest is waiting for us.
“I really thought you were going to drive,” I finally say after we’re on the interstate headed towards the mouth of the mountains.
“Do you know where we’re headed?” Archie, much like Daniel, doesn’t even turn his head as he asks.
“Well, yes, and no. I know my way into the mountains, but I don’t know specifically where we’re headed today. But I meant, I thought you’d want to drive your own truck.”
“It’s not my truck. It belongs to the U.S. Government. There’s nothing in this truck that belongs to me, except maybe that bag in the back with my lunch, and what’s left of this cup of coffee, but otherwise, everything from the headlights to license plate belongs to everyone who pays taxes.”
“Including that mess in the back seat?”
“Especially that mess in the back seat. Here’s the thing: everything I’m going to show you this week is about how we take care of what is entrusted to us. That starts with your walk-around this truck and continues to the way we interact with campers at the campgrounds, and how you monitor cattle grazing on public lands, and how to respond in an emergency.”
I couldn’t agree more.
“How many new forest technicians have you trained since you’ve been here?” I doubt I am the first.
“Here on the Bighorns?”
“Well, here on the Bighorns, but overall, since you’ve been with the Forest Service? You haven’t always been here, right?”
“No, I started on the Gallatin right out of the army, then went on to the Kootenai. I did a short stint on the Deschutes, but realized I was out of my element and then got promoted while over on the Shoshone, then transferred over here.”
“Why’d you take a lateral transfer, if you don’t mind my asking?”
I am taking a lateral into this job just to get the chance to do more, so I’m curious why he would do the same later in life.
“Do I need a reason?”
“No, you don’t. I took a lateral to be sitting here, so I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a lateral transfer.”
“There sure as hell isn’t.” He does remind me of Grandpa.
“But you had a reason, didn’t you?”
“You’re pretty nosey.” This is true.
I take a moment to do the Daniel maneuver: I turn my head and just smile at him.
He does the same in return. I like Archie immensely.
I turn off the interstate, continuing on the same route that first brought Daniel and me together. My heart beats quicker every time I drive into the mountains, and while I know that sounds ridiculously trite, it is nevertheless true. I still get excited just looking out the car window on my drive to the office, much less ascending the curves and turns upward. As exhausted as I have felt this past week, I am invigorated by this comparatively small stretch of peaks on the far eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains.