Thursday, June 5, 2014

Remembering Fire

On Highway 120 heading into the town of Groveland, California, on the way toward Yosemite ValleyNational Park, on the right is Mountain Sage Coffee Shop.  The one-story building is in that perfect moment of “Gosh, I love this old house” and “Geez, how long will it remain standing.”  It’s cute and funky; it’s a bit creaky.  In the back, opening into the screened in porch-like room is the coffee counter where a man, the cheerful, optimistic owner, brews a lovely cup of caffeine and microwaves a tasty slice of quiche.   Knightsmama and I sit at a table and catch up on some free wifi and read our current books. Me, Pride and Prejudice, for the class I am taking.  She, looking for hiking inspiration, is reading Grandma Gatewood’s Walk:  The Inspiring Story of the Woman WhoSaved the Appalachian Trail.   Across from our table is a collection of elementary school age student art, twenty or so 8 ½ x 11 watercolors thumb tacked to the wall.   Isn’t that cute and all community supportive, I think, without really thinking. 
On the Road to Yosemite
Temporarily tiring of Elizabeth’s pre-nuptial trials, I wander off to a side room that opens out to the sweet smelling gardens at Mountain Sage.  The room is rectangular, about 15 feet long and 10 feet wide.  At the far end from where I enter is something like an altar.  A log with rocks or something arrayed on top.  I have been loving these mountain towns; they are good, semi-spiritual places for us self-consciously semi-spiritual throw-back hippie types.  So I am walking around the room feeling self-consciously cool, all proud and puffed up to be a semi-spiritual hippie at home among the semi-spiritual hipsters.
Then I notice that the log is black and charred.  And all around the room are more burned branches and limbs.  In this room, the photographs on one wall are not just pretty landscapes of tall trees, but off in the distance in each are plumes of smoke and tall flames.  Among these framed photographs is a monitor on which one stunning photograph fades and a second emerges then fades and a third emerges and so on.  Fire.  The frightening during, and the sorrowful after.  I have not wandered into a room that has been “decorated,” arranged as some sort of exhibit.  It’s a room that has been dedicated, memorialized, sacrialized.   On a little bench beneath  a window are three or four local newspapers with bold headlines.  One stating the fire, named “The Rim Fire,” had finally been contained.
The Rim Fire began on August 17, 2013, in the Stanislaw National Forest east of Groveland, two weeks after The Caravan of Wonder began its journey, east, across America.  It began as one hunter’s illegal campfire that spread out of control, eventually burning 257,000 acres.  The newspapers announce that the fire was finally contained on October 24.  On a purely personal level—which is purely irrelevant, really—on August 17, The Caravan drove to Charleston, Illinois, and on October 24, The Caravan was nestled in Middleboro, Massachusetts.  In two months, we had travelled a long  way.  In two months, the fire had ravaged 400 square miles.  The day it was “contained,” I remained in the belly of The Monster composing one of my brilliant blog posts , I suppose, while Knightsmama and the boys explored Cape Cod.  Dr. J. slipped and cut open his chin and ended up in an emergency room.  As I say, an irrelevant detail, as much of what occurs in The Caravan is irrelevant, compared to the terror and destruction of a major forest fire.  The Rim Fire in now in the record books:  The third largest fire in California history and the largest fire in the Sierra Nevada.  But on the land is where the real record exists. 
A Sign at a View Point on 120
For eight days, we camped just east of Groveland in the Yosemite Pines RV Park.  On three of these days we drove the 40-plus miles on Highway 120 to the Yosemite Valley.  The first day, one shrouded in fog as we drove in, we explored the visitor’s center, museums, Ansel Adams Gallery, and gift shops, just looking at the sights we could see easily.  The second day, I road my bicycle the entire length of the valley—30 miles, there and back—while Knightsmama and the boys hiked.  That night, we stayed late for a movie and talk by famed rock climber Ron Kauk.  A few days later, while Knightsmama hiked alone, the boys and I explored Camp 4, where the climbers establish home base.  Captain Crunch and I visited with and observed some young folks who were bouldering.  The Captain conquered a few rocks himself, bare foot, I should add.  That day, Dr. J. took it easy, nursing a foot greatly swollen from a bee sting the previous day. 
What did we do the other days?  Well, it was Memorial Day Weekend, so for a couple of days we hung out at the campground, talking with some really nice folks from Livermore, near San Francisco, our next stop, who were camping for the holidays.  Captain Crunch loved playing with their daughters.  Dr. J. met some teenage girls, which is a good and fun thing.  Let’s face it.  The boys get a little sick of their parents’ company and close supervision.  Another day, Knightsmama, who hates sitting still when there are new things to see, took the boys to Sonora so Dr. J. could watch a movie in a theater and the Captain purchase some toys he had been Jonsing for.  Another morning we all returned to Sonora for the Farmer’s Market and for general exploration of non-mountainous terrain.  I have loved our two weeks in the Sierra Nevada, following our time in Los Angeles.  Still, in spite of the beauties ofSequoia National Park, Kings Canyon National Park, and Yosemite National Park, getting to them, the winding switch backs, the steep inclines, the descents on narrow roads without railings, had worn me down and frazzled the nerves.  I was glad to say put for a few days.
Mural at Farmer's Market, Sonora
On the road to Yosemite, sometimes butting up to the road and sometimes on both sides of the two-lane highway were the signs of The Rim Fire.  In some places, charred, limbless poles remained standing, a grim reminder.  In other places, trees remained, branches spread, but, this spring, the leaves were still rust, dead, I assume.  The first day that we drove the route to Yosemite, much of the ride was just plain eery, black sticks, dying trees hovering in fog.  The second day was awe-inspiring.  Hillsides devastated.  What must the heat have been?  What must the roar of flames have sounded, assaulting the ears?  Silence in the car.  Another kind of wonder for the Caravan to ponder.  The third day a kind of grief began to settle in.  After all, we had grown used to, settled into, the beauties of Yosemite Valley, the sweet winding river, the majestic cliffs rising thousands of feet above the valley, the fields of green spring grass, the trees in the valley, and forests above and around us as we drove in.  Then, in contrast, driving back to our campsite, here bare blackened hillsides, there a mass of shriveled trees, burned low on the trunk, leaves brown and brittle as fall.
For the folks at Mountain Sage Coffee Shop, Groveland, and all the little towns in this part of the Sierra Nevada, the effect of The Rim Fire, is not just economic (tourism dropped substantially) or the temporary disturbance of air quality (events as far away as Tahoe were cancelled due to the smoke from the fire).  There is something larger and more long term at stake.  The Sierra Nevada are suffering from a long term drought, and now faces the danger of fire, not just in the high danger months of hot summers, but almost year-long.  One source states, “Red Flag Warnings have been issued for parts of the Sierra where dry forest conditions are more similar to the month of July than the beginning of January.”  And while 60% of California’s developed water supply comes from the Sierra Nevada, National Geographic reports that this winter a team of researchers delivered   . . . ominous news from their most recent recordings: 7.1 inches (18.03 centimeters) of water, only one-quarter of what's normal. While that's an uptick from the season's first measures, it's not enough to reverse the drought.”  Some folks even worry that California is caught in a “mega-drought” that could last 200 years.  That’s the kind of drought that most likely drove the Anasazzi from there homelands in places like Mesa Verdi.
Scenery from the Truck
We, in Texas, have also suffered our devastating droughts and fires.  Just three years ago, the beautiful Bastrop State Park was almost destroyed by a fire that burned from September 4, 2011 to October 29, 2011, burning almost 35,000 acres, including a great portion of the Lost Pine Forest. The Lost Pine Forest is a stand of loblolly pines that due to climate change a million or so years ago (give or take a million) remains isolated in central Texas. This fire is the most destructive fire in the state’s recorded history. My family has a deep love of Bastrop State Park because for a couple of years we visited it regularly as Dr. J.’s mountain bike team trained on his rolling hills, and Knightsmama and I trailed along many minutes behind.  A few weeks following the fire, even though authorities warned the public to stay away, I couldn’t help myself.  I had to see the damage.  It was heart rending.  While the Bastrop Fire was much, much smaller than the The Rim Fire, its cost was vast.  Almost 1700 homes and 40 commercial buildings were destroyed.  The Rim Fire, while much larger, consumed 11 homes and about 100 other buildings located in the forest.  It appears to have never been an imminent threat to towns as the Bastrop Fire was.  The Bastrop fire leapt Highway 71 and crossed into the Tahitian Village sub-division where so many homes were burned.  On one side of 71, I could see the vast determination to consume that fire becomes.  I could imagine the wall of flames rushing, a singular entity pouring over the forest.   When I drove through Tahitian Village, I could witness the random cruelty of fire, houses left standing untouched, houses burned to the foundations, homes only in memory.  One can understand, perhaps, the random hunger of fire for fuel and oxygen.  It’s harder to phantom the dancing, irregular spark that requires the victim to ask the unanswerable question:  why me?
Of course, it is an empty exercise to compare miseries.  I am just trying to come to some emotional connection.  Following our moments standing in the memorial room in Mountain Sage Coffee Shop, Knightmama and I would drive to Yosemite, absorbing the blackened remnants of terror, wondering what would we do if we were caught behind a fire line as it moved toward us.  How does one live, calmly, in a forest during drought season, free from the smoldering embers of worry that at any moment some act of man or nature will ignite the conflagration?
Bridal Veil

When I returned to my table and the burning anxieties of Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters, I looked again at the watercolors by the elementary school children, but more closely.  There, too, is the fire.  At first I thought I saw a kind of picture that ten-year old boys draw, at least I drew them, of stick figured men in uniforms, clumsy outlines of planes and helicopters, flying, shooting, blowing things up.  Scenes the sons of soldiers imagine.  Now I see that little Roger has not drawn a war scene.  Not the kind I drew.  He has drawn and painted two green mountains framing the edges, and a helicopter hovering between, like a war ship, dropping, not bombs, but water.  The cool blue pouring out, falling in a heavy rigid sheet, like steel, like hope, to extinguish the red, yellow, and orange flames rising from the bottom of the page.

Soundtrack.  James Taylor:  "Fire and Rain."

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