They called us the panther babes. We were three long-haired, beautiful women, firefighters from the wildlife refuge. We were living an extraordinary life, although we did not know it at the time. We drove big-tired swamp buggies, saved house from wildfires, took our chainsaws and sanvics out to cut trees and clear trails. It was just another day of work for us.
In the winters, the dry season, we lived in a rusty old FMA trailer in the swamp. We wore camo fatigues and jungle boots. We fixed brakes and built pole barns. We set prairies on fire.
The girl I used to be smiles out at me in a picture taken fifteen years ago. Her hair snakes down her back in a fat braid. She holds a fire tool and wears an orange smokejumper pack. I remember that day. We had been sent up to Kentucky, to a pointless and wearying fire. The locals set fires below us and on the night shift it was freezing, unseen trees falling around us. We huddled in our space blankets around a warming fire. By all rights, we should have been miserable. Other people my age had houses, families, steady paychecks. But in the picture I am completely and totally happy.
The panther babes scattered to the far sides of the country but we all got together last weekend in the Florida keys. Though it had been years, we slipped into a comfortable place with each other, like it was yesterday when we walked the fire trails together. Which started me thinking about the value of being with people who really know you. These were the friends who taught me how to run a saw, whom I trusted to walk a parallel line through thick brush alongside me as we laid down strips of fire. These are the ones who pushed me to run faster, work harder, talk about my dreams and my problems. These were the ones who held hands at a funeral.
It takes years to really know people, to let them sink into the tough outer skin you present to the world. I don't regret all the traveling I have done, all the wilderness trips I have taken. But I miss them, the people who really know me.