Enchanted Rock Red
The Fire Burns Out
Maurice Neunhoffer stood in a circle of 13 men and 2 women near the entrance to Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, 17 miles north of Fredericksburg, Texas. The Fire Boss was reviewing the day. They all wore yellow shirts and green pants made of Nomex identifying them as firefighters. The golden light of the setting sun made the colors richer and added to the drama of the moment. All of them were tired, some near exhaustion, and they were grimy with ash and the residue of smoke. A few feet away flames flickered on the trunk of an old mesquite tree, dead for years, one of the targets of the controlled burn. Maurice was not listening; he had heard this drill before. He was thinking about the folded envelope in his pocket and its implications for his future. Seventy seven miles away (as the crow flies) in south Austin, the woman who penned the note touched her wine glass to another, celebrating the successful transition she had made over the last two days; a new city, new job, new place to live, new boyfriend.
The meeting ended and the firefighters climbed into their cars and pickup trucks even as the cars and pickups of the day’s last few park visitors lined up at the entrance station. Maurice stood by himself.
“You coming, Maurice?” Two men he had worked closely with during the long day looked at him from the open window of a pickup painted in the forest green of Texas Parks and Wildlife.
“Nah, I’m going to hang out here for a while.”
“Machts gut.” The men shook their heads and turned away, their thoughts already on beer, chips, salsa, and beef enchiladas at the Enchanted Inn back towards Fredericksburg.
Maurice walked slowly to his pickup after the last of the firefighters were gone. He didn’t have anyone to go home to. He didn’t even have a home to go home to. He pulled the envelope out of his pocket, removed the hand-written note inside, and read it again. He camped at the park the night before because of the early start for the controlled burn, and had found the note under the windshield wiper on his pickup earlier in the day as he sat in the cab eating his brown bag lunch.
“It’s over, it’s been over for a while, we both know that. I don’t have any bad feelings. Your stuff is in number 1329 at Tivydale Business Park. The combination to the lock is your birthday. I have a new position in Austin teaching reading, which you know I’ve always wanted to do. I moved out of the apartment and turned the key in. You’ll be fine. I will too.” It was signed in the familiar looping script with a little heart over the “i” in Tina.
He thought about burning the letter in the remains of the fire, but decided it wasn’t worth the effort. Besides, he might need to refer to it again for the number of the storage unit. He had packed up his tent and camping gear early that morning and it was all still in the back of his pickup. Many of the other firefighters had stayed in the bunkhouse, Maurice had spent the night in the campground. He liked the solitude. He would rather sleep on the ground anyway. Tina never understood that side of him. She wanted things from him he couldn’t give; a room in a nice hotel, dinner at a fancy restaurant, emotion. Even now, with nowhere to go, no one to go home to, Maurice didn’t feel much. He hadn’t really felt much in a long time. He started the engine and drove to the campground, parking in front of the bathrooms. All around him people were cooking camp food, setting up tents, rolling out sleeping bags. He could see at least three different Boy Scout units, numerous 20-somethings, a few families. He couldn’t see an empty campsite. What he needed most was a shower. He got together his shower kit and a change of clothes and a towel and went inside.
When he emerged clean but wearing yesterday’s jeans and t-shirt, he looked around the camping area – there were some places he could pitch his tent, but there were people everywhere. The sun was low on the horizon, about to slip behind a ridge of pink rock. He opened the locked toolbox on the back of his pickup, got his Kelty backpack, and stuffed it with some essential overnight gear and the rest of the food he had brought yesterday. Inside the toolbox were also a clean Parks and Wildlife uniform, a gun belt, and a badge. He was the law enforcement ranger on duty in the morning. He would drive the pickup marked “State Park Police” on the side, keeping an eye on the visitors. He only wore the gun belt if he was expecting a visit from his supervisor, who emerged from Headquarters in south Austin every now and then to check on him. Weekends were very, very busy, and the crowds often reached the capacity of the park to absorb them. With that many people there were always problems, sometimes related to the consumption of alcohol, sometimes simply unleashed dogs, or lost hikers. Some of the law enforcement rangers he knew liked the work, relished exercising their authority, wearing the gun and the badge. Maurice worked law enforcement because had to; it paid better than being a ranger and there were not enough hours doing the other jobs at the park to keep him employed full time. He was a licensed peace officer, the certificate a remnant of ten years as a police officer in Fredericksburg. He had found that career not to his liking. His job title was PPO, Park Police Officer, but he preferred to think of himself as a Park Ranger. He had read somewhere that the job was, “protecting the people from the resource, protecting the resource from the people, and protecting the people from each other.” He hefted the pack on to his back and walked along the road towards the Loop Trail. He knew that if he walked closer by some of the campsites later in the evening he would detect the odor of burning hemp and that he could easily make a bust for possession of marijuana. He did not care if they got high sitting around a campfire. They did not cause trouble and did not drive. Besides, if it was a felony he ended up testifying to the grand jury in Fredericksburg, which was time consuming. Live and let live, that was his motto. Let them have their fun. He got to the end of the pavement and headed down the trail. It was not his responsibility tonight.
The park had three designated backcountry camping areas. Maurice knew the park intimately, including some beautiful camping places that were not strictly within the designated primitive camping areas. His presence in the backcountry, such as it was in a park of 1664 acres, was a part of his job, and sometimes he would spend the night in one of those places. He was always very careful to leave no trace. These special places renewed his spirit, helped him hang on, and gave him the enthusiasm to be positive and friendly with the large numbers of people he saw every day. The hike was about 20 minutes. He approached the place quietly; often there were deer drinking from the creek in the evening. The sun was below the horizon as he carefully picked his way over the rocks to a little glade of sorts – a wall of stacked boulders keeping it out of view from the trail, a pool of water, and a gravel beach to lay his sleeping bag on. He sat down on the gravel beside his pack, and then looked up at the sky. No chance of rain. He unrolled his pad, pulled his sleeping bag out of its stuff sack, and laid it all out. Then he found his “Pocket Rocket” and put together the little propane stove. He took a drinking cup out of his pack and measured 1½ cups of water from the clear pool, put it in a beat up aluminum pot, and started heating it to a boil. Because the water was unfiltered, he boiled it for a couple of minutes, just to be sure. Too many people out here. He rummaged through his food bag until he found a pouch of freeze-dried food – Mountain House Lasagna. He carried a few of these meals in his pickup in anticipation of nights like this. He sometimes had to work law enforcement at other parks in the Hill Country, and he usually camped. Winter or summer, hot or cold, wet or dry, he preferred the solitude of the camp to the depressing atmosphere of motels or the blandness of park housing.
Clean and full of lasagna, he got into his mummy bag, moving the gravel bed beneath him a little here and there to get it just right. The Milky Way and its billions of stars were clearly displayed above him. He thought of a song he had learned as a child, “The stars are big, the stars are bright, deep in the heart of Texas.” He thought about Tina, hoped she was doing well. He knew he had not been much of a companion for her, was glad they had not gotten married after all. Deep inside he had known they were finished. She had not gone camping with him in a long while, or floated the rivers beside him in a kayak. She had just moved to Fredericksburg the year before, at the end of the school year, and he had met her, coincidentally, on her first night in town, at Hondo’s on Main. They had danced the two-step, moved in together; a year later, she danced back out of his life. He had hoped she would heal his wounded heart. She was pretty, vibrant; a bleached-blonde brunette, an elementary school teacher. She was just what he needed. Somehow, it had not worked out; she had not healed his brokenness or filled his emptiness. Maybe he had become more distant? It was very quiet around him, just the rustle of a breeze through the trees. He smelled something odd in the air, just a hint of something. He wondered if there was the carcass of a dead animal nearby. Then he heard a loud snort, and turned slowly to see a buck deer silhouetted in the moonlight. He lay very still and quiet. The buck walked slowly, cautiously, towards the water, twenty feet away, watching him for signs of movement. Maurice counted the antler points – eight, maybe ten. A nice trophy, but not for him, for his live-and-let-live policy extended to deer. The deer took a long drink from the pool, Maurice shifted slightly, and the buck suddenly sprang up and ran away.
He rolled over and fell asleep, dreaming of deer, smoke, and fire.