March 22nd, 2011
Six and a Half Months Since the Fire
There are fires burning all over Colorado today. About ten miles away, the Indian Gulch fire is still out of control, and has consumed 1,200 acres so far. There’s a fire in Longmont, just north of me, and another in Evergreen, to the west. Not too be overly dramatic, but I am literally surrounded by wildfire.
I stood in my kitchen this morning and thought about the fires, wondering what to do. Some girlfriends have invited Nellie and me to join them on a Spring Break getaway – a trip to the hot springs over on the western slope, where they’ve rented a cabin. They’re going to spend the week knitting, eating, and soaking in the hot springs. I desperately need a vacation, and I really want to go. The only hitch is that to get there, I have to drive right through the Indian Gulch fire.
As I made coffee I thought about this, and it made me catch my breath; a clutch of fear in my stomach. Facing down fire. Facing down fear.
One of the conscious practices of my life has been to face down my fears. At one point I even made a list of everything that I was afraid of. My goal was to face each fear, crossing it off, until I reached a state of fearless equilibrium. I think I was in my thirties, and didn’t know yet about the vague, nameless fears that can crop up as we age. How do you face down mortality, aging, and loss? Those dragons are a bit harder to conquer.
As I stood there I thought about my years as a Park Ranger, and those times when I faced terrifying and truly dangerous situations in the wilderness – spinning down an ice-filled stream in Alaska in a kayak, out of control and surrounded by icebergs the size of Volkswagons; nearly falling off a cliff in Yosemite, saved only by the guy above me who grabbed my backpack and hauled me up over the edge; crawling down an unmapped cave passageway in South Dakota that got narrower and narrower until I was pressed like a piece of cheese between two layers of rock.
At fifty-three, I don’t crawl around in caves anymore, and when I kayak, it’s close to shore or in lovely, calm lakes. My battles with fear these days are more personal, more internal.
I decided that I could face my fear and get out of town at the same time, and started packing the car. I found a box on the porch and started throwing in all the insurance paperwork, the few pieces of jewelry people have given me, my pearls, my hard drive, my birth certificate… Oh God, I was packing a Fire Box. Just in case, just in case… Deja Vu all over again.
I put Nellie and my suitcase and the Fire Box in the car and started driving south, towards Golden, Colorado, and as I came up over the hill, the wind shook my car, and there was a wall of smoke. I was driving right into the fire. A mile from the road I could see trees aflame, and twists of grey smoke shooting up from the grass. Nellie peered out the window, and I took a deep breath. “Into the Teeth of the Beast,” I thought.
And then I realized I didn’t have to face this alone, so I called my friend Terri. “I’m driving through Golden,” I said, “through a wall of smoke.” “Oh God,” she said. “I’ve been thinking of you. How can I help?” I said, “Just talk to me. Just talk me through the fire.” As I drove through the smoke, I wondered aloud if this was becoming my standard operating procedure – packing up what is precious, fleeing from fire, being surrounded by smoke and flame and feeling like there was no safe place left anywhere. “So many things going on in the world right now,” said Terri, “Earthquakes, tsunamis, political upheaval – These are such disastrous times.”
I told her that even though things seem particularly grim right now (the economy, weird weather, floods, droughts,) my friend Matthew says it’s always been like this, all through history. He likes to say, “The world situation is…desperate as usual!” When he says that it gives me perspective. Homo Sapiens have been facing down fear and dealing with disaster as long as we have been conscious – stalking the saber tooth tiger, riding into the untamed West, exploring the New World.
In truth, we all live on our own personal fault line; there is a tsunami waiting for each of us. We must face the upheavals of aging parents, chronic illness, loved ones who pass on before their time, the loss of a spouse, home, career. The great tide of grief will roll in and wash away what is precious to us, and sometimes that grim tide seems to go on and on and on, like a giant wave. But at some point, the tide ebbs and the wave recedes, the ground stops shaking and we must pick up what’s left. And then, there are the hands of friends who reach out and say, “How can I help?”
I made it through the smoke and the fire, up into the mountains and half way to the hot springs, to my friend Barbara’s house, where we stopped for the night. I am miles from the fires now, and Nellie is curled up beside me. It is peaceful here; so peaceful.
Tomorrow we will drive to Buena Vista and meet up with the other gals, and camp out in our little cabin, and soak in the hot water and knit, and I will try not to think about these Disastrous Times. Instead I will revel in the love of friends, and listen to the sound of Cottonwood Creek as it bubbles by our cabin. Maybe I’ll knit a hat.
Sending you Love, and Wishes for Peace amidst these Turbulent Times,