Why I write ... and fish.Two decades ago I got into my red Jeep Cherokee with my Labrador retriever Robert and headed west, back to where my life began, to start work on a book about a fatal wildland fire. It was Colorado's South Canyon Fire of 1994 -- which killed fourteen young firefighters. I'd spent three decades as a journalist with the Chicago Tribune, most of that in Washington, DC, and this was a chance at a new direction in life. It was April 1, April Fool's Day, and I wondered if my new life wasn't going to turn into a big joke on me. I was middle-aged, with family responsibilities. A long and uncertain road lay ahead.
I hoped to live out the newspaperman's dream of leaving daily journalism behind to become a 360-degree "literary figure." It hasn't exactly worked out that way, but I can't complain. I still drive a red Jeep Cherokee, a different one but old enough to be a classic; Robert the Lab lived a long life as a faithful companion; and I've written an unintended series of fairly popular books about a single subject: fatal wildland fires. Every time I finish one fire book and start looking for a new subject, another big wildland fatality fire goes down, and somebody calls me up and says, "You need to look into this one." And I do.
Why keep on?
Because one evening a young, dirty-faced kid in a yellow shirt and green pants showed up at a book signing with a paperback copy of my first book that was more bedraggled than he was. He'd read it during breaks on the fireline and wasn't sure if I would sign a book so battered and soiled with ash. And of course I told him that was the book I wanted to sign more than any other. Because one other time a young man had called me up, deeply shaken even several years after battling a fatal wildfire, and told me that a lesson from one of my books had saved his life. It wasn't quite like that: his captain had saved his life. But contacting me and believing he was part of something bigger than himself had helped him get back on his feet.
What does fishing have to do with this? Trout live in the wild, secret places that offer sanctuary from the "fires" of daily life. For me, standing in chill, running water and listening to river sounds as regular as a heart's pulse; breathing the cool, humid layer of air that hovers above a river like a soft mantle; seeing the flash of brilliant colors as a trout takes a well-placed fly: these things make one part of something big and restorative and timeless.
I'm working on another book, this one about the Yarnell Hill Fire of 2013 in Arizona that nearly wiped out a hotshot crew. What could possibly have gone so wrong? It's taking a long time to sort it out. But maybe at the end of the process there will be a boy or a girl in a dirty yellow shirt who reads it, gets it, and comes home safe.