We left our drought-socked stifling valley at 815am and by 2pm—Hwy 99 to orchard-heavy back roads with stop signs, to another “highway”, to back roads with stop signs and colonies of slender giants we realized were members of the Stanislaus National Forest, to Hwy 120 drenched in sunlight and layered in 100 degrees of heat, quick! left! right!, down a dirt and gravel but mostly dirt road to a simple rancher’s gate—we arrived at a retreat by a river with a swimming hole and a swimming pool fresh out of Sunset Magazine and 2 happy dogs and a peacock and a great wooden bear outside our vacation house, and just in time for a forest fire.
“Tell me,” my husband asked Patrick, our host in a white sunhat and work clothes, a man constantly on the move, whether on foot with tools or driving a work-ATV filled with tools (“Don’t kill anything, not even a cockroach because it’s not a cockroach, it’s a beetle and we need those beetles for pest control and if you see the mouse don’t kill it, I’ll trap it, here’s how…”). “If there’s a fire, Patrick, what’s the protocol?” my husband asked as our son, only 7, first time in the mountains, real mountains, took off for the swimming hole, followed by the acreage’s magnificent dogs.
“Police, helicopters, plenty of warning, plenty of time, offroad to highways, ridge road, plenty of means of escape, always plenty of time,” Patrick replied as we blearily followed his hand gestures, knowing nothing.
Patrick encouraged us to get the hell in the pool. And we did, the heat (101 in the shade), immediately thinning into refrigerator air. And as I floated on a thing, my eyes told me the light changed—but the sky, blueberry blue, cloudless, so very Sierra in depth, sci-fi-ish in magnitude, said: Shh, baby, shhhhhhh.
I closed my eyes and breathed in the aroma of the pines so swingy around us.
After a dinner of spaghetti pie I’d made the night before and brought along, we decided to motor on into Groveland for dessert. Patrick popped up next to the driver’s side window as we moved slowly along the unpaved driveway. “You cursed me,” he groaned. “There’s a fire. 60 miles West. I’ll keep you posted.” And Patrick was gone. I glanced at the sky. “Oh,” I said. “I was right.” “Right about what?” asked my husband. “Crap,” I said, delighting my son (not meaning to).
As we drove towards Groveland, the smoke formed a gray tornado. “That fire is not 60 miles away,” I said, and my husband nodded. “Incredible!” he murmured and I pulled over so he could take a picture of the smoke, which had acquired a pulsing, dark pink hue around its middle, the rest of the wide body hidden by members of the Stanislaus Forest. We kept on. “I think Groveland is on fire,” I said as my husband shouted: “Water plane!” Our 7 year old looked up from his Lego Minecraft figures and demanded to know what in heck was going on. Ahead, cars were stopped. I immediately thought of the movie WWZ, Brad Pitt insisting that in times of disaster (or worse) studies show it’s better to keep moving. “Mama is just turning the car around,” I sang, wrenching the minivan into a U-turn. Screeching to a stop on the highway’s shoulder, I ordered my husband to get out and take another picture because now the tornado looked exactly like the forest fire it was: Red as mosquito bites and terrifying. As my husband trotted away from us down the highway and another plane soared overhead, dipping towards the smoke, I thought: My dad would have driven us offroad to the core. I thought: I would have hated that. I thought: Odd I’m not scared right now because I’m terribly scared of forest fires. It’s true. I’ve had nightmares in which I’m running from them. I looked at my beautiful son in the backseat. “Hello? Where’s Dad?” he asked. I looked in the rearview mirror—it was filled with fire tornado. I honked the horn. “Dad’s just coming,” I sang, not scared,but before my husband had shut the passenger door I was gunning the minivan away from chaos.
At a diner near our sanctuary of river and swimming pool and dogs and peacock and Patrick bedecked in hat and toolbelt, we ordered dessert. My husband was eager to ask locals about the status of the fire. Our hostess, in Bermuda shorts and t-shirt, after telling us about her recent, successful gastric bypass surgery (“Right on!” I said and her grin was blatant joy and relief), informed us the fire was in Hell’s Hollows and moving towards a town we had passed through that afternoon—a split-second of a once-boom-town currently riddled in falling down historical structures. A town that had survived the gold rush, somehow, although less than barely–a durable town, California history, threatened. “We’re used to fires,” our hostess insisted. Our waitress said her husband was at the scene. “He works for CalTrans, directing traffic. No evacs yet,” she let us know as she served my son a chocolate sundae. “How far away is Hell’s Hollows?” my husband asked. The women looked at each other, shrugged. “About 15 miles,” our hostess estimated. When their attention was on other customers, my husband mouthed to me, I could never live here.
Patrick met us as we disembarked from the minivan. “Closer than I thought,” he said, a bottle of artisan beer in one hand, a printout from a local news station in the other. “But it’s moving away from us. I’ll keep you posted until you go to bed. I’ll be up all night. Feel free to knock on my door if you have questions.” “Okay,” we said. “Thanks.” At our sanctuary? Only Patrick, in his sweet, wooden shotgun house, had Internet. And phone access. Even Verizon couldn’t reach us. “Okay,” we surrendered. “Okay.”
The moon was a circle of pocked piecrust. Around 4am I sat on the covered patio, on soft blue cushions, watching it turn red from fire smoke. Something screeched in the Stanislaus forest. A bat zoomed into the patio, did zany circles around my head, took off. Fire! Why wasn’t I afraid? I closed my eyes. I saw us eating breakfast in friendly light, right where was I was sitting. Okay, I thought. Okay.
4am: The moon was the eye of Sauron stuck in silhouettes of spiky trees.
6a.m. I opened the front door and invited the morning breeze into the River House. Taped to the door was a printout of fire updates. The last one, reported around 530a.m., stated that basically the fire was under control. Homes had been evacuated, but no homes had burned and there were no injuries. I stepped outside and glanced thataway, past the statue of the wooden bear and metal Dali-esque sculptures decorating the roadside. I heard the river, its soft, persistent variations on shhhh. Patrick’s house was closed up and super quiet. I hoped he was sleeping after a long night’s vigil. The peacock appeared. I gave it some bread.
We packed up for the day and headed to Yosemite for the first time and witnessed sacred rock and river and waterfalls that blew our minds. Some blackened trees from previous fires, but no smoke tornadoes. Some thunder, a flash of lightning that had us clambering quickly out of the Merced river, but no flames. Just. Effing. Beauty.
And a summer peace.
Despite the gazzilion milling tourists.