Firelight Along the Frontier

by Michael Canyon Meyer

Flames rushed skyward from a structure less than a mile away across the sagebrush. At the height of another dry desert summer in July 2013, Chris Tucs, a novice member of Carson, New Mexico’s volunteer fire department, was working in the yard of his off-grid home when he saw the blaze. He threw a few shovels into the back of his truck, hitched up a trailer loaded with 300 gallons of water, and sped to the scene, looking up from navigating the ruts in the road to see flames shooting through the billowing smoke, which already obscured the view of Tres Orejas Mountain off in the distance.

The fire was on the property of Tucs’ neighbor who lived with his partner and two children. When Tucs arrived, he saw a wood-framed shed engulfed in flames. The shed stood a few dozen yards from the family’s strawbale adobe; one wall stored hundreds of gallons of unrefined vegetable oil intended for biodiesel. A number of 55-gallon drums fueled the fire. Some had burst open. The shed sat on a slight incline, and a boiling, burning river of vegetable oil steadily made its way over the earth towards the family’s home.

Tucs rushed to the back of his truck. The Carson volunteers had just been handed down fire-retardant bunker gear that dated back to the ‘80s, a good 30 years past what’s recommended for entering a burning building. The fabric had worn down from iconic firefighter yellow to the color of ash. Mostly the volunteers put it on to keep from getting wet when spraying water at trainings, but now Tucs suited up to fight his first fire.

The woman stood with the couple’s one-year-old daughter a safe distance across the sage. Tucs told the man to start wetting down the walls of his home using a 12-volt pump drawing water from a cistern. He sent a bystander down the road to help the fire trucks find their way over the unmarked road to the scene. Then he and another bystander began shoveling dirt in front of the path of the stream of vegetable oil, which shot orange flames three feet high as it crept along the earth. As Tucs shoveled load after load in front of the stream, the fire in the shed grew, and the interior of an old sedan parked nearby caught fire. Tucs’ berm slowed the oil from reaching the home, but the dirt saturated and set alight, and more oil escaped through the flames and poured downhill. He started another berm and the same thing happened. The shed streamed fire. Tucs’ bunker gear lacked suspenders, so he kept hauling his pants up as he worked. As fire trucks arrived from area departments and set up on scene, Tucs heard a rupture and a rush of air, and looked up to see three 40-foot tornadoes of fire whirling above the shed into the sky.

Next to the drums alongside the shed sat a 500-gallon tank, also full of vegetable oil. When flammable liquid in a sealed tank is heated, it boils into a gas and builds pressure until the tank ruptures. This is known as a BLEVE (pronounced blev-ee), for boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion. Seasoned firefighters might never witness a BLEVE in their careers, but it happened in the tank, erupting flames that could be seen for miles across the mesa.

Tucs sat in the dirt, exhausted, and watched as the other fire fighters worked to contain the blaze. Carson Fire was still a month away from official sanction, but one of the members had saved a house.

The Lady of Situations

On a sunny day last August, I rode onto the mesa in a fire truck driven by the chief of the Carson Volunteer Fire Department, David Elliot. Elliot and I rumbled along the main road leading into the part of the mesa known as Two Peaks, the stiff shocks meant for wildland firefighting bouncing hard off of every rock and rut. Elliot was relaxed and cheery, cracking jokes. He pointed out the sprawling junkyard to our left, “the business district,” and took a hand off the wheel to wave at an approaching car. I had been living on the mesa for several weeks at this point, spending my nights in an off-grid trailer not far from where we were now, but I felt tense and exposed in the high cab, like an uninvited guest arriving in the most conspicuous way possible.

Elliot showed me the scene of one of the department’s most recent fires, a trailer that had burned mostly to the ground by the time the fire trucks arrived. On our way back, a woman who must have seen us U-turn flagged us down. She was middle aged and sun worn, standing in the yard in front of her chicken coop. Her voice strained to reach us in the high cab.

“What are you looking for?”

“Nothing,” Elliot said. “I was just taking him on a tour.”

The woman didn’t respond, but didn’t take her eyes off us as we drove away.

“You can see the confusion at having a government vehicle out here,” Elliot said to me as we drove off. He took the next left, and brought us back over the ruts towards the highway.

Heir of City Directors

Elliot is a giant man with an expressive face set behind a pair of cheap eyeglasses. He lives in Taos, 14 miles from the cattle guard that marks the entrance to Two Peaks, and 25 miles from Carson, a small mesa community with on-grid homes. I first met him in the leather shop he manages on Taos’s tourist-filled plaza, a cowhide apron covering his 6-foot-2-inch, 265-pound frame. He leans forward and makes exaggerated eye contact when he shakes my hand, the practiced gesture of a man accustomed to reassuring strangers. He’s 33 and had only been with the department for eight months before becoming chief at the age of 31, but what he lacks in experience he makes up for in a rare disposition: demanding enough to supervise a government entity, but sympathetic to all the reasons people on the mesa are unwilling or unable to follow the rules. This sympathy extends to his own firefighters, many of whom have organized their lives towards the purpose of avoiding schedules, regulations, and hierarchies—all of which are basic features of the fire service. He’s an administrator in a place that defies administration.

Around Taos, the mesa is considered outlaw country—a home for recluses, fugitives, anarchists, and anyone with a strong distaste for The Man. It’s Taos County Sheriff’s department policy that no officer respond to a call on the mesa alone. Fire and emergency services enter only with a sheriff or state police escort. Carson Fire was founded in 2010 to give the mesa a homegrown source of fire protection and emergency medical care. It’s the first government entity to have a permanent presence in the area since the original Carson homesteaders named a postmaster in 1912.

On the way to a meeting, Elliot hands me a copy of the department’s bylaws, which he wrote himself, and says, “I thought you might be interested to see the difference between how we’re supposed to do things and how they’re actually done.”

When he first took over the Carson Fire District, Elliot had only fought a few fires outside of supervised trainings, so he joined the busy volunteer department in Taos to gain more experience. This made him simultaneously the chief in Carson and a trainee in town. He responded to more than 300 emergency calls in 2015, so many that Taos Fire rented him an apartment above the firehouse so he could jump out of bed and drive the truck to night calls. He earns $24,000 a year between the leather store and a second job as a bouncer at a plaza bar. Most of the time he works for free, operating in a near constant state of urgency. Sometimes he jumps in his battered Toyota pickup and speeds across the highway that ascends towards the mesa away from mountain-dwarfed Taos, feeling guilty for the safety violation of breaking the speed limit but unable to stop himself, only to park in a dirt pullout on the stretch of road that runs the length of the gorge towards Carson, having realized that the firehouse errand he was rushing toward is already complete.

Officially, the mesa has only a few hundred residents. Unofficially, the population is likely over 1,000. Carson Fire typically has two or three calls in a given month, and works closely with other Taos County fire departments when rendering aid. As chief of Carson Fire, Elliot must keep his 15 volunteers trained, equipped, and ready to deal with the many challenges unique to fighting fires on the mesa. Every drop of water used to combat a blaze has to be hauled over rough roads. Fire hazards include solar batteries, propane tanks, weapons caches, and the unpredictable structural integrity of self-built homes. Elliot runs meetings, instructs at trainings, heads up recruitment, begs equipment off of more established departments, and stretches a roughly $45,000 annual budget to cover insurance, equipment, and trainings. Above all, he’s responsible for the volunteers’ lives on a fire ground. As the person in charge at a structure fire he removes a dog tag from each volunteer’s helmet, and holds in his hand the names of the people he sent inside.

When the Carson firefighters elected Elliot chief, they hoped that his status as a mesa outsider would help endear them to the county bureaucracy, earning the department funds as well as acceptance. Elliot jokingly calls himself a “mesa translator,” but the role weighs on him. He’s possibly the only person in Taos County who knows sheriff’s deputies, emergency personnel, county commissioners, and mesa residents with equal intimacy. The phone number listed on Carson Fire’s website is Elliot’s personal cell number, and he frequently fields calls that have nothing to do with fire department business—calls from someone who feels ignored by the police, calls to adjudicate disputes between neighbors. Word got out about where Elliot could be found during the day, and people would show up at the leather shop with complaints about the roads, or their social security checks, or child protective services. It got to the point that he yelled at anyone who tried this until the practice finally stopped. When he arrives on fire scenes people pull him aside to discuss urgent needs that have nothing to do with the blaze.

The Human Engine Waits

It took the people of Carson to get a mesa fire department off the ground. Elliot took over the role of chief from Art Wilbur, a retired colonel in the Army Special Forces, and the man most responsible for the department’s founding. Wilbur is tall and paunchy and seems to stand at attention even when he’s working a grill at a fundraiser, an effect that makes him look far younger than his 76 years. A former Green Beret, Wilbur embedded with indigenous populations in Vietnam, Greece, and Turkey, and trained native fighters. He and his wife moved to Carson in 2006, just before the paving of the rim road created Carson’s mini population boom of retirees. He soon became the president of the Carson Community Association, bringing his military bearing to meetings of old-timers held in a dirt-floored Quonset hut. The people of Carson had been trying to form a fire department for 25 years, but had always met with one obstacle or another. Now longstanding residents and newcomer retirees worked together to attract the attention of the county bureaucracy, but the problem remained that all but four of the potential volunteers in Carson were too old to fight a fire. The state required a minimum of 15 volunteers, and at first Wilbur and his allies at the community association were recruiting people who could barely get out of bed. Wilbur knew that there were plenty of young bodies among his neighbors to the north in Two Peaks. Like the rest of Taos County, he considered them potentially dangerous anarchists, but his background in counterinsurgency gave confidence that he could win some of them to the cause.

Wilbur’s timing was ideal. Fires had ravaged Two Peaks the previous fall. One house had carpeting stuffed into the walls for insulation, and produced thick, toxic smoke as it burned.That fire began when an ember from a wood stove landed on an exposed plywood floor. Most of the fires, however, were part of a string of suspected arsons that lasted several months.

It’s difficult to piece together an exact timeline. One suspected arson was a school bus packed with electronics with a shelter built off the side. It burned so intensely that a neighbor woke to the sound of the flame and found his bedroom daylight-bright. Others were small, temporary houses built of pallets that no one was living in at the time.

In October 2011, five structures burned on the same night. “They were starting the fires as we were out there,” Jim Fambro, the chief of the volunteer fire department in Taos, told the Taos News. “Sometimes we get these situations out there… a couple of times a year where they start feuding and they think their only recourse is to burn someone’s house down. It’s a shame they do this.”

The sheriff’s department declined to investigate the arsons, telling the Taos News that none of the property owners had come forward.

One of the Two Peaks residents who witnessed the fires was Aaron Keske, a tall, thin 39-year-old who runs a solar-powered mechanics shop in the far northwest corner of the mesa. Over the years he had seen many fires in his neighbor’s self-built homes, fires that would burn down long before area departments managed to respond.

Keske and others suspected two people of starting the fires. Not long after the night of fires in October, another home, this one occupied by a man who had left for the night, burned to the ground. Keske found an accelerant trail in the snow leading to the home. A few days later, he told me, he was among 25 armed residents of Two Peaks who tracked down the suspected arsonists and told them they had to leave.

“People come here thinking it’s the Wild West,” Keske said. “They think they can get away with anything they want. But there’s a good community out here. That’s why I’m here.”

The next spring, Keske saw a flyer that Wilbur had posted near the entrance to Two Peaks advertising the department, and called to say that he and some friends would like to join.

At the department’s next official meeting, Wilbur arrived to see the room packed with exactly the type of person he associated with the northern part of the mesa: 20- and 30-somethings with unruly dreadlocks and beards, their bodies covered in dust and tattoos and machinery grease. One brought a guitar. Wilbur got up in front of the room and asked if any of them were from Two Peaks, and all of them raised their hands.

Wilbur wasn’t fully convinced of their dedication until months later when he announced they needed to shave their beards in order to fit a breathing apparatus over their faces while fighting structure fires. He worried it might mean the end of the department, but at the next training the recruits showed up as clean-shaven as any member of Wilbur’s tribe.

The Brown Land Unheard
John Nichols, the author best known for The Milagro Beanfield War, describes the slow creep of humans onto the plateau in his memoir On the Mesa. When he first set foot west of the gorge in 1970, he couldn’t imagine people living in a place so remote, let alone fire trucks screaming across roads to attend to people and their problems. There was no water. There were no trees, no power lines, no paved roads—barely even any rocks. He’d drive across the gorge from his home in Taos almost weekly to climb Tres Orejas Mountain. Eagles nested under the third peak. From the top he could look out on hundreds of square miles of empty sagebrush, and feel he had the place to himself. When rain came the roads would turn to clay mud so slick and thick it could have been designed by chemists to defeat a four-wheel drive, and on those days even humans who wanted to couldn’t get on or off the mesa. It was a different plane, separate from the lights of town just 14 miles away.1

1. The mesa had been close to free of humans since the ‘40s, by which time all but a few of the homesteaders attempting to dry farm crops had moved on. The Carson Curmudgeon, a newsletter published for the community’s centennial, told the story. Beginning in 1917, some 200 families had worked to dam the spring runoff that flowed through the Petaca Arroyo to create a reservoir feeding into their fields. The dam was completed in 1932, forming a lake that stretched a half-mile wide and three miles long on the desert plain. But as soon as it was filled, large sinkholes began to open in the porous volcanic rock beneath the surface, and within weeks the farmers’ water had disappeared underground, supposedly forming a new spring for one of the Native pueblos far to the south. Without the reservoir, thousands of acres of drought-doomed farmland went to banks and bonding companies, or reverted to the county for back taxes. What remained sold for as little as 50 cents an acre. A group of investors calling themselves the Great Southwestern Land Company bought hundreds of acres to the north of the failed reservoir and divided it into small lots for vacation homes. They advertised in magazines across the country, and even got up on a soap box at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, offering visitors a chance to own a fabulous piece of vacation paradise near scenic Taos, New Mexico, with hunting, fishing, and stunning views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Those who came to survey their new land found nothing but the view. The steel span built across the gorge was still nearly a decade away, and even getting to their property required a scramble down and back out of the 600-foot banks of the gorge. No one who had hauled a fishing boat out to look at their property wanted to build on a lot with no electricity, no running water, and no phone lines, and so the mesa stayed free of humans, remaining a kind of accidental nature preserve for several more decades. The scam had divided part of the mesa into quarter acres. A quarter acre is 150 feet by 72 feet, smaller than is even legal to build a structure on in some cities. Since the days of cattle barons, New Mexico has been thought of in terms of thousands of acres (Ted Turner’s Vermejo Ranch, across the mountains to the northeast of Taos, covers 590,823 acres). The vacation lot scheme left the northern part of the mesa divided into chunks small enough that even the very poor could afford them, assuming they were desperate or crazy enough to try and live there.

Taos County officials remain baffled by how people from all over the country could wash up in this place, putting pressure on natural resources that barely exist, and straining government resources they supposedly moved here to avoid. Nichols is saddened that the mesa is no longer empty, but he isn’t surprised. He hasn’t hiked Tres Orejas in many years. The last time he tried, a woman threatened him with a gun.

“It’s changed in the way the world has changed,” he told me. The global population was 3.6 billion when Nichols moved to Taos County. Now it’s over 7 billion. “People are moving to wherever they can figure out how to live, and people can live anywhere.” They can survive in subzero temperatures above the Arctic Circle, or in the slums of Mumbai. And they can survive on the mesa with no grocery stores and no water, with long desert winters and grim employment prospects.

Where the Sun Beats

Elliot credits his life in the fire service to Carson volunteer Shiloh Gossner, a close friend whom he met as a fellow bouncer at the plaza bar. Gossner wears long sideburns and speaks with the Texas-tinged accent of rural New Mexican whites. He grew up in an off-grid home in the middle of the junkyard Elliot and I had passed on our way into Two Peaks. By the time he was 10, Gossner had already fired his first warning shot at the feet of a would-be thief trying to steal car parts. Gossner’s father had been among the mesa residents who talked about the need for a fire department, but no one ever felt much confidence that they could raise enough money, or convince enough volunteers, or clear the many bureaucratic hurdles.

“The joke was that if we had a fire truck out there someone would always be siphoning the gas or the water out of it,” Gossner told me.

It wasn’t until after he signed up that Gossner found out that his childhood home in Two Peaks wasn’t technically covered by the Carson Fire District, which struck him as typical of the county’s attitude. “It’s kind of funny,” he said. “Even though that area still falls under no man’s land, the majority of our volunteers are from that no man’s land.” Despite the fact that it’s not in the fire district, Two Peaks accounts for the majority of the department’s calls.

It only took a few decades for Two Peaks to transition from a no man’s land to a place populated with human need. One of the first to live here was Jeff Gossner, Shiloh Gossner’s father, who came with his wife and two children from Texas in 1979 hoping to buy a piece of land for $10. He succeeded, but for an adjacent lot he paid $55, more than he could afford, after a bidding war with one of the mesa’s last remaining family sheep operations. At first, the family of four lived in a ‘67 GMC Step Van. He built a house on the land himself, with no previous experience, using the cordwood construction method last popular during the Great Depression. He bought wood from a local salvage yard for five cents a foot, cut and stacked the logs, and bonded them together with a cement mortar. The result looks somewhere between a log cabin and a bomb shelter. The thick walls keep the house relatively cool in summer and warm in the winter. After his wife left, Gossner started the junkyard on his land so that, while he’d still have to travel for food and water, he wouldn’t have to travel for work, and charged dirt cheap prices as a mechanic to encourage customers to bring their cars across the Gorge Bridge.

The mesa lacked almost every incentive for a permanent population. The one resource it had was cheap land tucked far away from neighbors, cops, building inspectors, and anyone else who might stop a person from doing whatever the hell he wanted on his very own scrap of dirt. Even among the recluses, word was eventually going to get out. Fugitives came to live in hiding. Veterans and retirees came to stretch a monthly check. The hippie communes that had taken root in Taos County in the ‘60s and ‘70s disbanded, and a few diehards decided that isolation on the mesa was the next best thing. Environmentalists came to build the experimental Earthship homes that would have been banned by county building codes. Many came to build a life that didn’t revolve around a steady job and a mortgage payment. Others came simply to retreat into themselves. Today, Taos County is one of the poorer counties in the country. Some do better, some do worse, but the gradation on the mesa, as in much of Taos County and New Mexico at large, is in terms of who has more of not very much. The only common culture, Elliot feels, is one of poverty.

“If you ask someone what the mesa culture is,” Elliot told me, “the right answer would be, ‘We’re going to fix this truck so we can get some water. That’s our culture.’ ” In this light, Jeff Gossner’s junkyard is the mesa’s capitol.

Death by Water

In May of 2014, a family who lived in a trailer in the shadow of Two Peaks ran out of water. It was nearing dinner, and they needed water to prepare food. The only way to get water was to drive to the community well and haul it back, but their truck was broken, so the man of the house went outside to try and fix it.

The fire danger was low. It was the last big snowstorm of the winter. Several inches had fallen and more came down as he worked. On a good day the family’s modest home had one of the most stunning views of the mesa. Their trailer stood near the top of a hill looking over the entire valley between Two Peaks and Three Peaks, high enough to see the wakes of unruled roads meandering, high enough, even, to see the long drift of the gorge that cuts the mesa in two.

In order to fix his truck, the man got down in the snow and slid on his back into the patch of bare earth shielded from the storm by the chassis. As he worked under the vehicle, the axle slipped from the stand and the full weight of the truck bore down, crushing his chest. He was unable to cry out, and suffocated in a few short minutes. The man’s wife found him and called 911 to give dispatch the complicated list of lefts and rights through the mud to the family’s home.

Elliot and the rest of Carson Fire arrived to find that a sheriff’s deputy had already managed to extract the body. There wasn’t much left for the Carson volunteers to do, but technically it was their territory, their scene. Some who responded had known the man personally, and Elliot knew some of the man’s family. The man had been the only adult male in the household, and the only breadwinner at the time of his death. Several children under 10 lived with he and his wife, of what relation it wasn’t clear.

Death mustered all the forces of Taos County. The sheriff, Taos County EMS, and the Office of the Medical Investigator interviewed family members and attracted the stares of neighbors. Just before the medical investigator was to take away the body, one of the neighbors came forward. He was a walking mesa stereotype if ever one existed, an aging, rail-thin hippie with skin better suited for some cloudier climate. He wore his hair in dreadlocks bundled high over his head with beads woven in. He crouched and said a prayer while sprinkling tobacco and sage over the body, then rolled a cigarette and put it to the dead man’s mouth. As he did this Elliot looked around and saw that everyone on the scene—the medical investigator, the EMS, even the sheriff had stopped to observe the ritual along with the family. The neighbor finished his words, and then the medical investigator immersed the man’s body in a bag and took him away.

We Who Are Living

When it’s time for a department meeting, Elliot heads past the old stone schoolhouse abandoned by the early settlers and drives the last few miles on Highway 567 to Carson’s firehouse, which sits atop the floodplain of a dry arroyo. Down the street is the tiny Carson Post office and the Poco Loco General Store. The store recently closed, but in its heyday flew the Jolly Roger from its flagpole and sold Carson t-shirts with the motto: “We’re all here because we’re not all there.” The firehouse is a garage bay wide enough for two fire trucks and a donated portable toilet out back for those not pissing in the dirt. Alongside is a trailer propped on cinderblocks, the Mobile Command Unit.

I attended a training last summer, and it was my first chance to meet many of the volunteers. They arrived in work clothes, joking together as they grabbed sandwiches and arranged folding chairs on the garage’s dirt floor. Elliot was the dorky dad in the mix, though he’s about the same age as most, and younger than some. One volunteer attempted to eat a sandwich with one hand while rolling a cigarette with the other, and Elliot asked, with more curiosity than sarcasm, “Have you ever heard of the myth of multitasking?”

All the volunteers I spoke to said their motivation was to help their community, or, as Gossner put it, “If something happens out here, I want to be able to fucking take care of it.” One of the department’s two female members, who spent several years hitchhiking before settling in Carson, told me that the benefits run the other way. “The department saved my life; it gave me a life.”

Elliot hopes that there are maybe three members of his department who live on more than $20,000 a year. The firefighters depend on their cars for access to food, work, and water. When they burn their own gas attending trainings or fire calls, they have to weigh the risk of not being able to refill the tank. Sometimes the pizza or sandwiches offered at a meeting is the only food a volunteer will have eaten that day. Technically Elliot’s supposed to get a doctor’s note to return an injured volunteer to duty, but since not all of his firefighters have access to medical care, he relies on the rest of the department to tell him who is OK. He opens trainings by saying, “Some of the things we’re going to do today are exactly the way they’re supposed to be done. And some are going to be done the Carson way.” The “Carson way” is “however the fuck we have to do it to get the thing to go.”

Elliot grew up poor in a Minneapolis suburb, the oldest son of a physically disabled mother who gave birth five times in five years. Friends of the family appeared with food or money when things got desperate. “There’s something magical about somebody at the right time saying, ‘Yes, I will help you.’ ” Every now and then he’ll open a meeting by asking if anyone else wants to be chief. So far no one’s taken him up on it.

What Have We Given?

Near the end of my time on the mesa, I drove out to visit the neighbor who had performed the ceremony after his friend’s death, and stood looking at the view from the family’s hilltop, thinking of the words of D.H. Lawrence, who once lived not far from here and wrote, “…If it had been a question simply of living through the eyes, into the distance, then this would have been Paradise.”

The man’s death meant that the family’s cistern was still dry. Before he left the scene on the day of the accident, Elliot told the man’s wife that the department would come with the 2,000-gallon tanker truck and fill the cistern to the top, which they did. The neighbor asked me for Elliot’s number to see if they might come again.

In the spring of 2014, the department held a fundraiser at Taos Mesa Brewing. It was their first chance to meet the community face to face now that they were an official department, and, most importantly, a chance to prove that the department was made up of mesa residents rather than a faceless government entity. They ended up raising about $800, which they planned to spend on needs not accounted for in the state budget, like food for meetings and reimbursement for gas in their personal vehicles. But soon after the fundraiser they held a meeting, and voted to give the money away piece by piece. A large chunk went to the family of the man who was killed fixing his truck. The rest was doled out call by call over the course of the summer, $100 here, $50 there. Even a man who had chased them away from his burning home with a shovel got some money thrown his way.

Late on one of my last nights on the mesa, the wind kicked up and the lights of town were obscured by clouds of dust hanging low on the horizon. The night sky, however, was star-filled and clear. The wind blew so hard I could hear metal bucking and straining in far corners of the mesa: a trailer door, a loose car hood, rattling pieces of fencing. As the gusts rocked my trailer I had an image of the metal hull tipping over onto my truck, parked close alongside. My shelter and access to food and water would all be wiped out in an instant. But then I remembered I had neighbors I could stay with for a day or two, people to call on to help bandage me up and haul me back to the life I had secure and waiting for me.

When I woke up the next morning it looked as if crews had been working all night shoveling sand from one side of the mesa to another, piling drifts against fences, and scraping the ruts in the road so clean they shined. I learned from a neighbor that Gossner’s father had died at home in his junkyard the previous day. Jeff Gossner had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer six months before. As his father lay on his deathbed, Gossner began making preparations for the thieves that would prey upon news of the passing. Jeff had talked for years about installing doors on his open-air shop, but always refused help. Now neighbors set the doors and welded bars over the shop windows, locking the tools and guns up tight. Elliot drove the department’s brush truck to a memorial held in the junkyard. The gathered people of the mesa watched as he set off the lights and sirens in Jeff’s honor.

Jeff’s youngest daughter lived with her mother in a lovely off-grid home near my trailer. Nearly all of my neighbors had children. These children grew up in homes that never quite seemed to be finished, with parents who had decided to stay put.

“I don’t know when we end up getting to be grown-ups,” Elliot said of he and his firefighters as we drove to yet another meeting. “But this feels about as grown-up as it gets.”

Originally published in This Land: Summer 2016