By EMILY GUBLER -- Soft Serve News,

It is 1998. My second year fighting forest fires and I’m temporarily working with a more experienced crew in Montana. People think I’m adventurous and a risk-taker, but really, I’m a worrier. I worry about keeping up with the crew, and whether the meal I cook them will be okay, and about what I might have forgotten to pack in my red bag. I worry about current, actually-happening events, but I also worry about future might-happen events. Worrying serves me well–I meet deadlines; I refill the paper in the copying machine; I cancel my library card when I move. But I struggle to balance worrying with my love of the moment.

At this moment, I am loving camping at the Paradise Guard Station of the West Fork Ranger District. We are spending our days in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness–the week before dry lightning started several small fires. The mountains of Montana are endlessly steep and incredibly vast, overwhelmingly beautiful, exhilarating, and exhausting.

This morning we hiked uphill for a long time, spent a small part of the day mapping the fire, and a little while ago hiked back downhill with aching feet and knees. I’m tired.

I crawl into my bivy sack and lay on the ground, willing sleep to come. I love Montana, I think. I hope I’m not getting a blister. My heartbeats cause an answering pounding in my feet. I roll onto my right side and count sheep, envisioning them flying over my head, Sesame Street style. I roll onto my stomach and play the alphabet game with authors’ names. Sighing, I roll onto my left side. I really want to fall asleep.

Giving up, I open my eyes and shimmering above my head is the Aurora Borealis.

How can I describe the brilliance of the Aurora? Huge white dancing curtains are framed by the treetops–the sky is gloriously alive. Eyes wide open, I feel a jump of excitement in my chest. For a moment I’m not thinking or worrying or wishing–I’m simply looking, in beautiful shock.

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I want to say that I woke up the rest of the crew and we reveled in the beauty of the moment. Or that I realized this was a once in a lifetime chance and soaked it all in. I want to say that I let all the other stuff go.

But, I can’t say that. Fascinated by the aurora, I watch it until my worries sneak in around the edges. I need to sleep for tomorrow. I close my eyes resolutely. But then I peek–is it still there? It is. How can I not watch? I struggle–watch the aurora now or sleep for tomorrow? Caught between my responsible self and my here-and-now self, I struggle until overcome by sleep.

That is the only time I’ve seen the aurora. When I remember that night; I still feel the immediate shock of amazement that rippled through me. In the first millisecond I connected with something bigger than worry. But as that moment widened, the habits of my nature poured back in. Now, sixteen years later, here’s what I tell myself: If you have a chance to see the aurora, take it, even if you have to fight a fire the next day. The smart thing for tomorrow is not necessarily the best thing in the bigger picture.

Watch the aurora. Remember it the rest of your life. Be tired tomorrow.


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