February 25, 2017, Yarnell-
A lone cactus wren croaked, as I came up the first stretch of hillside, on the way to the spot where, on June 30, 2013, nineteen formidable men met their doom, while working to safeguard this small community at the southeast edge of the Mohave Desert.
I encountered a moderate trail, whose increase in elevation is tempered by long switchbacks, frequent stops to read and ponder each of 19 memorial plaques, set in stones along the way. Wooden benches and informational signs also provide respite, for anyone who finds the place more strenuous than anticipated.
Yarnell Hill abounds in granite boulders, much as does the back country between here and the east side of Prescott, nearly 50 miles away. One of these boulders resembles a praying monk. It is one of the first sights greeting the hiker, on the way up from the trailhead, 1 1/2 miles southwest of Yarnell’s center. He stands, as lonely as the wildland firefighters must have felt, on that blazing final day of June.
Each man left people in grief- parents, a loyal woman, young children, siblings and entire communities, from Prescott itself to places as far afield as Oregon, Idaho and North Carolina. Each man is immortalized by his own plaque. Crew Chief Eric Marsh founded the Granite Mountain Hotshots, and was responsible for the recruitment and training of the men he led, for ten years, in the aftermath of the Indian Fire, which came close to obliterating downtown Prescott, in 2002.
I know some of the family members, of four of the Hotshots. Each of the families has a solid work ethic, reflected in what their sons, brothers, husbands and fathers gave, however long their terms of service were.
The terrain that presented itself, that blustery, torrid weekend, was no gracious host to anyone hauling 50 pounds of gear uphill. It was, as I say, of moderate difficulty for me, with my 15 pounds of day pack, and for those between the ages of 15 and 75, who I encountered along the way. A couple of ladies said they found the trail scary. I could easily figure out which places to which they were referring, though long ago, I stopped fearing secured heights.
Following, are some scenes of just what the wildland fire crew faced, in terms of terrain. Three red-tailed hawks circled, above this rock.
Notice the charred mesquite, above, and the manzanita, below.
Unlike today’s hikers, the Hotshots had to pick their way up granite-strewn hillsides.
The town they were working to save survived, and will be a more vigilant place, with regard to fire safety. Like the boulder below, Yarnell shows a large, if broken heart.
I continued from the main trail’s overlook, at the two-mile marker, to the memorial at the fatality site, another 3/4 mile to the east. At the site, 19 cabions encircle 19 crosses, one for each man who gave his life that day. Some mementos have been left here, as well as at the flagpole that stands 500 yards to the east.
I sat here, in the wind, contemplating the meaning of sacrifice, while a lone woman circled around the memorial, lost in her own thoughts. It is said that the mystery of sacrifice is that there is no sacrifice. That can be understood, but, I would venture, not easily by a small child who wonders why Daddy went away.
Long may the heroes comfort the grieved, from their own private Valhalla.