methow grist 2011-2014 archive


Fire Camp

Years ago now, I worked in the Cascade range
running a packstring up the side hills
taking supplies to the fire crews.
Thinking I was just headed up
for the day the fireboss shook my hand
and gave me a paper sleeping bag
to lay out on the ledge above camp.

I turned out the string in the meadow
with a bell and hobbles on the mare,
the mouse brown mules watching her every move,
skittery around the smell of smoke.
The fire just a haze of light
like a small town behind the hill: a few thin
sparks zagging upwards, and burning out of sight,
while I slept in my crackling bag.

I was up before dawn, stumbling towards the bell
the nightsong of the crickets still echoing
in that cold morning of another hot day
and when I found the mare, she swung
her anvil head towards the grain
I pretended to carry in my hat and
lunged her two cuffed front legs
over the rocky ground
to come to me.

I turned sixteen on that fire
complained about being there then
And now I complain of other things;
my knees, and joints, the sleepiness
that overcomes me some afternoons.
But sometimes before the sun breaks
over the hill, I can still hear the ringing
of that bell mare in the meadow
during my first fire season
when I knew for certain
I was alive.


John Straley first came to the Methow in 1963 for a family pack trip with Jack Wilson and three years later went to work for him. When Wilson sold out to Claude Miller, John was thrown into the deal and he packed for Claude through 1975. After a summer working for the Courtney family in Stehekin, he then moved to Sitka, Alaska where his horse career ended and his writing career began.

John has seven published novels along with the book of poetry this poem came from, titled ‘The Rising and the Rain’ from the University of Alaska Press.