[This article originally appeared in The Mountain Times, a monthly newspaper that serves Oregon’s Mount Hood area where the Zigzag Ranger District is located. Paul Gleason lived there for 14 years. Paul Keller wrote this piece a few months after Gleason’s death in 2003. Keller served as a member of Gleason’s Zigzag Hotshot Crew from 1986-89.]
By Paul Keller
Hey, does anyone up here remember that older blue Toyota pickup truck with the custom—and somewhat perplexing—“LCES” license plates?
How about its driver? (We’ll get back to the license plates later.) That guy behind the wheel with the no-nonsense Olympic gymnast-like body, boyish yet tough-guy face, and unmistakable Kris Kristofferson voice—both low and gravelly yet honeycombed sweet—tapping his hands and feet beside his climbing ropes and Whites (special wildfire lug-soled boots) with Hendrix or maybe David Bowie or the Doobie Brothers cranked-up good and loud.
For more than a decade, you might have seen him every now and then tucked back in the booths at Mt. Hood area restaurants fueling-up on coffee and pastry while puzzling over his Einstein-like mathematical equations. He loved to scribble them onto placemats and napkins where ever he went.
Remember? He was the guy in Thriftway with the beeper on his belt two long decades ago. Back when only shady characters and medical doctors enroute to their summer homes wore such new-fangled gizmos.
His name was Paul Gleason.
But if you knew him—like practically everybody up here—you just called him: Gleason.
And you never forgot him.
Gleason made his home with us here on Wy’east (Native American Indian name for Mount Hood) from 1977 through 1991. Of course, even then, we didn’t have him here that much. In the winter, he climbed mountains throughout North America and beyond. And every spring, summer, and fall he led his U.S. Forest Service Zigzag Hotshot Crew into the chaos of flame-fronts all across the United States. (Hence, the beeper. They were on call 24-hours-a-day.)
By the time Gleason’s heralded hotshot boss stint here was up, he had earned an esteemed reputation among the national wildland fire community—that will only continue to grow—for his wiliness at understanding and outwitting fire.
No doubt about it. Where ever they went, when Gleason and his crew with the funny rolling papers name showed up, the fire bosses all smiled. They breathed a little easier. His crews were known for their endurance, their tenacity and their guerilla-tactic savvy—imprinted and inspired by guess who.
During the wildfire off-season, the craggy peaks called to him. Gleason had climbed them all—in several countries. He even summited Mt. Rainier (and got his photo in National Geographic on a spooky perpendicular ice field to prove it) when he was only 16 years old.
For several winter seasons, Gleason employed his mountaineering skills roaming Mt. Hood’s wintry upper elevations as the Zigzag District’s snow/climbing ranger.
Gleason even started ice-climbing frozen Multnomah Falls way back in the 70s when—to the rest of us normal human beings—such a feat would be akin to successfully going to Pluto.
Climbs Mt. Hood Twice in Same Day
When Gleason read in the local history books about legendary Mount Hood mountaineer Lige Coalman remarkably climbing to the top of the mountain and back twice in one day, he decided he wanted to do it too.
So he did.
Of course, Coalman’s double climb was accomplished long before Timberline Lodge was ever erected—let alone envisioned—up there at 6,000 feet. No such luck. In Coalman’s hardy day, there was no “Timberline Road”. This Mount Hood pioneer icon started both arduous round-trip climbs from way down there in the trees at Government Camp.
So did Gleason.
National Programs have Zigzag Roots
After a total of 14 years here (the longest he will ever live in one place), Gleason packed-up that blue pickup—with those LCES license plates—and drove off into his continuing impressive wildland fire career. It escalated from District Fire Management Officer to Forest Fire Ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, Wildland Fire Specialist and Deputy Regional Fire Management Officer with the National Park Service, and, finally, in 2001, he launched into a full time—albeit way too short-lived—teaching post as wildland fire science adjunct professor at Colorado State University.
Gleason will be forever recognized for his various contributions to the national wildland fire service, including:
- Developing his LCES brainchild (Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes, Safety Zones) concept—initiated here at the Zigzag Ranger District—that has become the modern foundation for wildland firefighter safety throughout the United States.
- Helping pioneer the wildland firefighter professional tree falling program—which he also started at our Zigzag District.
- His relentless quest to spearhead the development of improved fire behavior training.
He is also remembered for his promotion and support of women on the fireline. As early as 1983, the iconoclastic Gleason had hired seven women onto his 20-person hotshot crew. By 1985, often to the bewilderment of other hotshot crews back then, his Lead Pulaski (a crucial firefighting position requiring huge mega doses of endurance and gnarly) was—watch out fellas—a woman.
During 1990, inside Arizona’s Tonto National Forest, a persnickety wildfire unexpectedly blows up. As hundreds of firefighters flee up into safety zones (as they should), Gleason opts to scout down into the perils of a burning canyon where a fire crew is entrapped by fire. His heroic actions save a severely-burned firefighter’s life. After Gleason helps get this guy into the hands of some brave paramedics, he continues on—with flames encircling him—to find the bodies of six dead firefighters.
This sobering experience convinces Gleason of the dire need for his LCES.
Leaves Us Forever
Living in Colorado, in April of 2002—incredulously—the ever-invincible Gleason is diagnosed with colon and liver cancer. He underwent six months of aggressive chemotherapy. After a heart-wrenching never-say-never fight, in late February of this year (2003), at only 57, Gleason left us forever.
“Clearly, Paul was suffering beyond what any human is prepared to endure,” marveled friend Merrill Kaufmann on the severity of Gleason’s aggressive, fatal cancer. “Though, I can truly say that Paul lived through his recent illness with the same class and grace we have always known of him.”
Before he died, Zigzag District employees—current and former—who know and had worked with Gleason, made him a video. Everyone individually spoke to Paul and wished him well. Some expressed their true appreciation for his impact and influence on their lives.
Back in Colorado, the bedridden Gleason wept when he first watched it. When it was over, he watched it again.
Local Gleason Tribute
In early May, a Gleason memorial tribute was organized by this local Mt. Hood area community of friends who had once fought fire beside him. Many of his former Zigzag Hotshot crewmates–literally spread out now from coast to coast–were invited. More than 100 people attended, including Paul’s wife, Karen Miranda Gleason, and his brother, Phil.
His wife spoke. She said that, to Gleason, this area always felt like his true home. She said he always missed Zigzag and the mountain and its people. His brother told the gathering that he felt like they were Gleason’s true clan. He had already attended public memorials for Paul in Colorado and California. He said that while he appreciated these other services, “today I feel like I’m with Paul’s real family.”
There were few dry eyes when Gleason’s wife also confided that his last words had been a request for her to play their Zigzag video again.
Yes, our fellow Zigzag well-wishers became the man’s final goodbye.
And, darn it, if Gleason didn’t–beautifully–return the favor.
That’s right. That guy who once drove up and down Laurel Hill in his blue Toyota with those weird plates, penned us all the following poignant farewell:
“When you have walked to the edge of all the light that you know and are about to step into the darkness of the unknown, faith is believing that one of two things will happen: There will be something solid to stand on; or, you will be taught to fly.
The scores of letters, emails, tapes, calls and visits that I’ve received from you have meant everything in the world. They made me feel like my life was meaningful.
The path that I was on has resulted in me passing on, but I want you to know how much each of you has meant to me. I have loved you with all my heart.
When you get to the other side, I’ll be in the most beautiful mountains you can ever imagine, lying on a grassy bench a few feet above a mountain stream.
Please stop by and visit me.”
Do you have a Paul Gleason memory or story you’d like to share? Please do.