On Confidence: The Microburst (Part III of III)



Part I and Part II of this essay.

I’m a newly qualified crew boss with my twenty-person crew on a wildfire in Wyoming. My crew is assigned to mop-up an area—to slowly move through and extinguish everything that is burning. The command team is less worried about the fire at this point and more worried about how slippery the roads get after storms—morning briefing includes the warning, “When it rains, these dirt roads will be nothing but slimy mud. Be aware of the potential of getting the trucks stuck. Watch out.”

The sky is clear except for one tiny cotton ball cloud. I stay up on the ridge as a lookout and watch my crew drive down the rough road, park the trucks, tool-up, and start working.

I watch them for hours, keeping track of the squads and monitoring radio traffic and the weather. The cotton ball cloud is motionless, but it becomes an irritant, poking at me and not leaving me alone. Why? I don’t know. I can’t stop watching it.

I call my squad bosses and ask, “How’s it going?”

“Going well, working mainly on stump holes well inside the line.”

My hackles are up and I know the cloud is involved. The feeling won’t go away no matter how much logic my mind throws at it. You are being ridiculous, my mind claims. That is the smallest cumulous ever.

I look at the sky, the crew, and the steep dirt road. The trucks won’t climb the road if it gets wet. But the cloud isn’t building. It is a tiny, fluffy, beautiful summer day cloud. Why am I agonizing over it? I want to pull the crew up the ridge—part of me knows that, but another part is uncertain. I have no substantial reason, only a small puff of water vapor. The cloud is white, puffy, and innocent. Relax, I tell myself.

I consider the meteorological concepts I know. Statistically, how likely is it that cloud will turn into something? What if I’m wrong? If I leave the crew down there and it rains, they may not be able to get back up the road for hours. If I pull the crew up and it doesn’t rain there is lost work time and I have to explain why I brought them up—overreaction to one tiny cloud. I risk feeling overly cautious, ridiculous, out of touch with reality, certain I am an impostor in this job.

My gut will not stop urging me to bring the crew up. My brain is uncertain.

I call a squad boss, “Hey, load up the crew and bring them up the ridge.”

“Are you sure?” he responds. “Another hour or two and we can be finished down here.”

This doesn’t help.

“Come on up.” My voice is solid, but a part of me is now convinced that I’m going to regret this silly, nonsensical decision.

Gusty winds begin just as the trucks are cresting the ridge. The innocent cloud swells so fast I can easily watch it grow. Within moments rain and hail pour down. It’s a microburst, complete with heavy rain and strong winds. The road surfaces turn slick as snot.

“How’d you know that was going to happen?” my squad boss asks, just as the Division Supervisor radios to me, wanting to know if the crew is still down the hill.

“No,” I respond to Division Supervisor, “We pulled out just before the storm.”

My decision was correct in this instance—was I skilled or was I lucky?

I look at my squad boss, but I have no answer for him. How did I know to pull the crew up?

Is that confidence?


Here’s what confidence means to me: Confidence is simultaneously acknowledging that I have legions to learn and that I’m a capable and skilled person, and being able to hold both of these ideas without conflict. Confidence is not being oblivious to others’ pain or efforts; it is acknowledging that we all have hidden struggles. I want to challenge myself, yet I don’t want to assume that I know things I don’t. I pray to the gods of complex mountains, deep rivers, and sudden microbursts to help me tell the difference.

Confidence happens when we stand in the moment of uncertainty before the certainty of decision. There is no “I don’t know” choice—not acting is itself a choice. There may not be a right or wrong choice, only the decision that forms the future. It is easy to judge decisions after the fact, once the outcome is known. But it is in the uncertain decision point, the future-creating point, that we exercise confidence, acting on our reading of the situation and our decision. It is in this moment that we shine our flashlight into the fog of uncertainty and stand in our decisions, stand in our confidence.

On Confidence: The River (Part II of III)



Part I of this essay.

Continuing to explore confidence, I think of my friend Sarah’s experience. There are two cars in the river, an upside-down sedan and a right-side-up pickup truck, three people in the truck and four in the car. Most of the passengers get themselves out of their vehicle and out of the river, but two are stuck between the dash and the seats, unable to get out, unable to stay above the water.

Firefighters have stabilized the cars when black-suited divers wade in the cold snowmelt, breaking windows and tearing metal. They can’t get to the people fast enough. The air is bleak. In the back of her ambulance an EMT feels pulses, checks blood pressures, and asks questions in a quiet voice, her heart full of sadness and intimacy with these people, the ones who got out of the river.

The EMT was my friend Sarah. She told me about an encounter she experienced soon after the accident.

A few days after the accident, Sarah settles in the vinyl chair in front of a mirror, feet on a metal footrest, her wet hair dripping. The air smells of shampoo and hair spray and the stylist is combing her hair out when the door of the salon opens.

“Hello, I’m early, take your time,” says the woman.

She sits down in the empty barber chair next to Sarah’s and pulls a newspaper out of her bag. On the cover is an aerial view of the accident, the large black identification numbers on the roof of Sarah’s ambulance in the center of the photo.

“I don’t understand why on earth they say they couldn’t get those people out of that car,” the woman says, shaking her head and motioning towards the picture.

“The river is so low right now,” she continues, “I don’t think it would cover the wheels of a car, much less an entire car.”

Sarah remembers the divers standing in the river, water up to their armpits.

The woman continues on: what a poor job the fire department did, the river is practically dry right now, those people should have been out of the water within minutes, did the emergency crews try at all? Sarah listens quietly. Occasionally the stylist says appropriate nothings, “I’m sure they did everything they could,” and “it is very sad,” and mostly makes vague, possibly agreeable noises.

I’m horrified listening as Sarah tells this story. Have I unknowingly acted so oblivious to another person’s experience, I wonder? Sarah was there, caring for patients, everyone aware of the people who couldn’t get out of the cars, out of the river. Telling me about it, Sarah was both indignant and sad. “How could she say that?” she asks me. “I was there.”

I don’t have answers for her. Would this woman pick the “I don’t know” choice on a test? Would she claim to know the mountain well?

I read about the importance for women to speak in clear statements without using minimizing words. Strong statements convey confidence; overconfident statements unknowingly trample souls. How to differentiate between the two? Her words were without indication that perhaps other experiences existed. The woman in the beauty shop was confidently wrong, or perhaps, wrongly confident.

Can I make bold, certain statements without denying another’s experience, experience that may be more accurate than my own?

Is that confidence?

Part III

On Confidence: The Mountain (Part I of III)



Confidence and women; women and confidence. Women should lean in; use power poses; not minimize our words or our selves; negotiate; and, above all, be confident! Without, of course, being bitchy or bossy or cold. The internet tells me confidence is “not something that can be learned like a set of rules; confidence is a state of mind.” (www.skillsyouneed.com/ps/confidence.html) Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, authors of The Confidence Code, say that confidence is “…less worrying about people-pleasing and perfection and more action, risk taking, and fast failure.” I take their quiz and score “low confidence.” What the hell is confidence, anyway?

We spent the night enduring shallow sleep invaded by the sound of grit hitting our tent at 12,500 feet. Even so, when I finally open my eyes to morning light, I am hopeful we might have a chance to hike to the top of this mountain. We need to descend into the safety of trees before the daily thunderstorms begin to pepper the high elevations with lightning.

Unzipping our tent door breaks the mountain silence; I look out at the rocky flat known as the Boulderfield, the flat area on the north side of Longs Peak, the only 14,000’ peak in Rocky Mountain National Park. Outside, long skeins of low-hanging stratus clouds are weaving in and out of the jagged rock ridge above our tent. Turning to the east, far in the distance is a skinny cobalt-colored sliver of sky, the thin layer emphasizing the long stretch of gray cloud between it and me. Clouds this early on a July morning don’t bode well for the day–they will grow into afternoon thunderstorms.

Three years ago I introduced my husband, Chris, to this mountain, but we were forced to turn back before climbing much higher than where we pitched our tent last night. Today we are back, with hopes of making it to the top. Looking at the clouds, we shoot worried looks at each other and postpone deciding whether to go higher. Uncertainty fills my belly.

I emerge from the tent and begin rock-hopping my way to the privy, when another climber approaches me.

“Do you know the mountain well?” he asks.

I consider my experiences on this peak. I’ve spent years here, on and around Longs Peak, both during my work for the park and on my own time. I’ve attempted the summit three times, making it once and turning back twice. I’ve hiked to other features on the mountain multiple times, carried injured hikers down the trail in rescue litters, and loaded injured climbers into helicopters in the Boulderfield.

Do I know this mountain well?

I think of the other more technical routes to the summit, routes that require ropes and rock-climbing hardware. I think of a coworker who has summited the mountain over one hundred times and during every month of the year. I’ve only been on the mountain in the summer months. I’ve never done a technical route.

Do I know this mountain well? I am uncertain.

“Somewhat,” I answer.

Back at our tent, the gusty winds and layers of clouds haven’t dampened Chris’s excitement about today’s summit attempt. I’m filtering water out of a stream hidden underneath boulders when he heads to the privy. I hear the same climber ask Chris:

“Do you know the mountain well?”

My husband answers without pausing.

“Yes,” he says, with certainty.

I look at the water I’m filtering, the clouds overhead, and I’m flooded with emotion. I’m upset when Chris says he knows the mountain well. Every time he’s been here has been with me. Does that mean I also know the mountain well? Is he full of bluster or am I being too modest? How do I know what I know?

In studies, women are more likely to choose “I don’t know” on tests if they aren’t certain about an answer, while men tend to guess. When “I don’t know” isn’t an answer, women guess (and score) equally as well as men. “I don’t know” is scored as incorrect, but there’s no choice for “I’m aware of too many nuances with this question to feel comfortable answering without discussion.”

On a written test, the uncertain option scores as wrong. On the mountain, the score is never certain.

What is confidence? I yearn to acknowledge the wonder of the unknown, embody the confidence of experience and knowledge, and accept mistakes. Yet at the same time, I long for absolute lines demarcating expertise. At what exact point do I know the mountain well? I couch my statements with qualifiers and am cautious not to bluster or to claim I know something I don’t. I downplay my experience, expecting people to be able to separate true expertise from blustery claims.

Then I’m upset when my experience is minimized.

I stare angrily into the stream running amongst the rock of the Boulderfield. Did the climber interpret my answer as acknowledging the complexity of the high altitude environment, or as lacking in mountain knowledge and self-confidence? I suspect he left with the impression that my husband is more competent and confident in the mountains than I am. How do we choose whose judgment to trust?

Chris laughs when I tell him about our differing answers to this climber.

“I have a map and compass. What else do I need to know?” he says.

Is that confidence?

Part II

The Flood: The Flood Shrine

Today is one year from the Flood of 2013. Commemoration events are happening in Lyons and in Boulder County. To commemorate the flood in my own life, I am posting part of my flood story every day this week. This is the last post. Here are the firstsecondthirdfourthfifth and sixth posts. Rather than simply tell the chronology of my flood story, I’m hoping to share some of the feelings I experienced. Down, up, and sideways. 

This is my story, but it is not one of significant difficulty or hardship. People are still experiencing extreme difficulty and hardship because of the flood. Please consider helping through a donation to Lyons Community Foundation.


Fifteen days after the flood began, I wrote in my journal, “Things are moving at breakneck speed around me and I have completely stopped moving.”

External change was rapid. Internal change was exhausting. I needed a deep pause to catch up and mourn. The flood shrine provided that space.

I love that Lyons created a flood shrine.

The Flood Shrine

The Flood Shrine

Here is a piece of Apple Valley Road. Here is a dresser, a mirror, a bowling ball, a stop sign, pink flamingos, a painting, a car grill, metal gas cans, a rifle. All found after the flood.

Flood Shrine 3 -AV road



I loved that it was called “The Flood Shrine.” A shrine combines a place for the dead with awe. It is “a place hallowed by its associations,” according to Websters.  I could leave the old with the flood shrine, revere it, remember it, and know that it had a place to stay as I moved on.

I put myself in the flood shrine.

Flood Shrine with Emily

Flood Shrine with Emily

I left my old, pre-flood self there, and moved into my new, post-flood life.

Today, September 12, 2014, is one year after the flood. Today I need the same pause that I needed a year ago. I need to revere the flood, to fear and respect it.

After a year of rebuilding and accepting, I pause.

As I remember the noise, the confusion, the camaraderie, and the disorientation, it is tempting to tie this series up with an uplifting bow of recovery and a town pulling together. But that is only partially true. My flood experience was relatively mild; my post-flood life is not dramatically different than my pre-flood life. That is not the case for everyone. I look around, and I see roads that are rebuilt and people that are home. But I also see people having to wait to rebuild, people who don’t know if they will ever rebuild, and people who will never be able to return home. Recovery–whatever it looks like–happens at different rates for different people.

Every one of us is called upon, probably many times, to start a new life. A frightening diagnosis, a marriage, a move, the loss of a job . . . And onward full tilt we go, pitched and wrecked and absurdly resolute, driven in spite of everything to make good on a new shore. To be hopeful, to embrace one possibility after another–that is surely the basic instinct  . . . Crying out: High tide! Time to move out into the glorious debris. Time to take this life for what it is.  

~Barbara Kingsolver, High Tide in Tucson, Essays From Now or Never

There is no tidy bow. As we continue to integrate these events in our external infrastructure and our internal resilience, I hope we learn from them. My part of Colorado is starting a new life, and, as Kingsolver says, taking this life for what it is.

The Flood: Carpet

Commemoration events are happening in Lyons and in Boulder County. To commemorate the flood in my own life, I am posting part of my flood story every day this week. This is the sixth of those posts. Here are the firstsecondthirdfourth, and fifth. Rather than simply tell the chronology of my flood story, I’m hoping to share some of the feelings I experienced. Down, up, and sideways. 

This is my story, but it is not one of significant difficulty or hardship. People are still experiencing extreme difficulty and hardship because of the flood. Please consider helping through a donation to Lyons Community Foundation.

Hello Linoleum!

Hello Linoleum!

We’re going to sleep at home tonight.

Not for good, only tonight. We can’t drink the water from our well yet, and Chris is still in the middle of moving his shop, so we’re going to keep living in the campground. But tonight, as a treat, we’re going to sleep at home.

Excitedly, I buy a celebratory feast. Grass-fed steaks, horseradish, salad greens, and strawberries. Chocolate: a bar of dark chili chocolate for Chris and salt and almond chocolate for me. Red truck wine and three dog bones. Water–a five gallon container and a pottery crock. I walk out of the grocery store to my mud-splattered, dog-filled truck and hum to myself as I put the groceries in the back seat. A woman walks up to the car next to me; she looks at the mud, the dogs, the “Lyons: We’ve Got Grit” bumper sticker. I can feel her soaking it in.

“You look like you are going on a trip,” she says.

“I am–to sleep at home tonight!” I say, and explain that I’m from Lyons.

“Do you want some dill pickles?” she asks. I am confused and she explains that she cans and sells her own pickles and that she’d like to give me a jar. She has opened the trunk of her car, which is full of boxes of pickles, and is holding a jar out to me.

“Sure!” I say. Today I’m happy. I’m sleeping at home AND a stranger just gave me a homemade jar of dill pickles.

I drive home, through the checkpoint, surrounded by military vehicles and massive trucks. I pass a standup piano sitting in a dirt pile on the edge of the road. Helicopters are flying the river. I take my new, roundabout route home, let the dogs loose in the yard, put the food in the fridge, and watch one mule deer amble slowly across the hill above the house. This almost feels normal.

Chris comes home and we grill our steaks and sit on the deck and drink red wine. The stars come out. A little respite. For a little while, I can forget about the lack of infrastructure in my town and in northern Colorado. I’m home.

The next morning, I don’t want to leave. I pace the house. I bring in the houseplants that have lived outside since we evacuated. I pack up our winter coats, just in case. I’m restless with the need to do SOMETHING.

I look at the carpet.

I’ve hated the carpet since we moved in. It’s old and dirty and catty.

Fine, I think. If everything is going to be turned upside down, I’m pulling up the carpet. And I do. With utility knife, screwdriver, and hammer, I pull up all the carpet and padding in the living room, revealing old linoleum underneath. I make a big pile of rolled up carpet in the garage. I fill a trashcan with dirty, disintegrating padding and sharp tack strips.

With each trip to the garage, roll of carpet on my shoulder, I feel better. I am joining the chaos. The world is turned upside down. Nothing will be the same. Some things might even be better.

Goodbye carpet. Goodbye old roads. Goodbye, pre-flood life.