Alone at the table I sit, pen-in-hand, remembering. I’m writing a eulogy. For my boots.
They were my best, most rugged pair of fire boots: Danners, with thick rubber soles and knowing, thorned-in scratches. Victims of a brutal crime: an unannounced cleaning spree at my parents’ house.
It is a eulogy, also, to the migratory life that they and I belonged to, writing fiery poetics in boot-step rhythm all over Georgia’s mountains, swamps and sandhills. In our three years together we wrote uncontainable stories, had so many follies and misadventures that it’s hard to know where to begin the telling.
I could start by telling you this: when I first tried them on, fresh out of the box, they cut me like knives. An older, wiser firelighter told me to take out the insoles, which took the edge off some, but still my boots remained the most communicative pieces of my flame-resistant ensemble. They announced to me when the day had run long, or when I had stood too long in the embers; in those boots my feet got hot but never burned, and for this, to me, they were as magical as shoes that would let a person walk on water.
I could tell you about their scars, badges earned barreling through unnamed brambles, or their softenings, like that time I fell thigh-deep, chainsaw-in-hand, teeth spinning, into a pool of middle-Georgia swampwater. I could remind you just how hard they worked, how they dug in heels and scrambled for purchase while scraping to bare mineral soil on a near-vertical fire line. I could tell you how loyal they were as walking companions on our days off, trudging along on mountain trails and soft clay roads.
I remember how proud they looked lined up next to everyone else’s: miles tall, with loafer-like tongues and half-done-up laces. I’d written my name inside the ankle of the right boot, where it bled, but stuck it out through three years of fire and foot sweat; I’d wanted to know at a glance which ones were mine, and maybe, for them to know that I, in turn, belonged to them.
A boot is, after all, the most intimate of bodily extensions: a second leather encasing rough heel, soul, and arch. After a while even a stiff fire boot melds to fit the shape of the foot it is to carry. The boot begins to smell like foot, and the foot like spicy boot. A boot is the thing that grounds you, places you, makes you immanent with the landscape, because it is the thing that carries you there.
At times, in Georgia, it felt as though my boots absorbed more of the life than I did. The life of a firelighter, a prescribed fire technician, is an all-consuming one that doesn’t well serve the constitution of an introvert, or a writer. My boots soaked up a hearty portion of my exhaustion, insecurity and fear, and carried them for me in their leather cells and rubber souls.
Weather-beaten, broken, my boots came to rest in a landfill. At least they’ll meet their maker on a mountain top, though I’ve no doubt they would have preferred a more incendiary ending: a funeral pyre, a campfire, surrounded by firelighters making merry, raising mismatched glasses to those good and faithful soldiers.
I’ve cried over my boots, here from a very different-looking existence, and I cry as well for that long-lost firelighter’s life, so filled with freedom and purpose and migration and a dusty, exhausted sort of peace.
I’ll remember those boots dirty, hanging off the back of a pickup truck, swinging in time with their brothers and sisters as the red road blurs beneath them. If boots could smile, they would smile in this moment, the hard-earned ride home under a sweet-peach sunset or a big-sky starry night. They’d have owned each step, each pace of the day, would have memorized the softness and hardness of that place and would have lit upon it the most carefully-laid, and mislaid, restorative flames.
Here is the most important thing I can tell you about my gone-too-soon companions: They were my inscribing tools, the instruments which, more than any torch, saw, or axe, left my tracks in Georgia. My boots became my feet, my body, my pen. And if they’re gone now, the place those stories remain is in me, in the body that lifted and dropped each booted heel-to-toe.