Lost and Found

November 7th, 2010
Two Months After the Fire

English mapmakers used to place the phrase “Here There Be Dragons” at the edges of their known world. If you sailed past this point, they said, you would end up in the Teeth of the Beast, and never be heard from again…

This morning I woke up early, just as dawn was breaking, and felt restless – like a pressure cooker with no release valve. I paced around, fretting and itchy, wondering what to do with myself. “Low altitude sickness,”  I thought. “I need to get back up the mountain.”

I realized that in the mountains I had a way to let off steam from my busy life – I would go hiking with Nellie, on the trail that went from my kitchen door, up the side of the mountain to the Old Dime Road.   Each evening I would hike up there with her, through the trees and grasses and flowers, hiking quickly, and quietly, the trail winding around, and finally reaching the top. I would take in the quiet, the aloneness, the peace and green of it all.  Nellie would run, wagging wildly, and sniff and roll around and explore the mountainside, and I would simply sit quietly, letting go of the day, of work, of any hurts or frustrations. I would just watch my little dog play, and toss pine cones for her, and take in the view.

And every day, every single day, I would say, out loud, “I LIVE here. Here. In this beautiful place. I am so lucky.” And I would smile, and hike down the mountain with Nellie, back to our warm and cozy home, to make dinner and watch the lights of Boulder come on, and the stars come out, as the day turned to night.

We floated up there, at eight-thousand feet, in our quiet and peaceful ship, like sailors in the clouds. I would watch the lights of town twinkle in the distance, and listen to the deep Whoo-who-who-Whooo of the Great Horned Owls, who hunted at night – our brothers and sisters of the rarified air.

View from My Old Porch

Sometimes at night I’d hear the screech of a mountain lion, or the wild cacophony of nearby coyotes.  And always there was the whisper of the wind in the pines for company.

Once, a friend of mine from Ohio visited Colorado for the first time, and that night she stepped out onto my porch and froze in rapt attention. “What is that SOUND?” she asked. And I got quiet and listened. “I don’t hear anything,” I said. She was quiet and then said “That! What is that?”  I laughed, “Oh, that’s the wind in the pines. You’ve never heard that before?” “No,” she said. “It’s so beautiful.” That night I thought about this and felt so sad for her. Imagine living forty years before you heard that soft, ocean-like whisper of the wind in the pines on a Colorado evening. I was grateful that I heard it every day, and every night. So grateful.

And now my ship has run aground, and I am here on the rocks and shoals of Life in Town. Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful to be in this lovely little cottage, in this warm and wonderful community of great souls here in Chautauqua.  This little neighborhood is full of writers and artists and dancers and architects, and grad students doing fascinating work on bio-mechanical arms, and Just Plain Interesting people, none of whom I would have met if I’d stayed in my little ship up there.  My next door neighbor is a Scripps Journalism Fellow, and the folks on the other side of me work for the Teton Science School in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Their daughter has become Nellie’s New Best Friend, and at night we play Cribbage and smack down the cards and laugh, and I forget about All This.

Chautauqua Cottages

We have Movie Nights, and Cooking Classes, and Historical Walking Tours. There are Ranger Hikes and Star Walks and amazing trails all around, just steps from my door. For a mountain girl like me, used to living on three acres behind a forty-acre ranch, this is as good a Halfway House as I could get. This is my refuge, this place, and it is lovely, and yet. And yet.

There are people all around me, at all times. Tourists and hikers walk by my porch, only a few feet from where I’m sipping my coffee each morning.  I am not used to this –  this concentration of people, all day, every day.  I’m used to driving up Boulder Canyon each day, and marveling at the sparkle and flow of the creek as I drive, and thinking to myself, “Home. I will soon be home.” Even the drive home, up the mountain, was relaxing.  The higher I went, the better I felt.

But this is my Year in Town, my Mandatory Vacation, my Rest Between Measures. This is Where I Am Right Now, so I’m trying to pay attention to all that it has to offer me — the new friends, the new experiences. And yet I grit my teeth when I have to put a leash on Nellie each morning for a walk – my little dog who has run free for years, who has spent her days lying in the meadow, or playing with her buddy Rusty, the big Golden Retriever, who roamed the mountainside and always ended up at the kitchen door, peering in and wagging, as if to say, “Is Nellie home? Can she come out and play?”

Nellie can’t go out to play these days – she has to walk on a leash like a normal dog, or hike with me up to the leash-free area, where there are big, strange dogs that frighten her with their bounding enthusiasm.  Nellie has her own version of PTSD, and all these dogs overwhelm her. She snarls at them, when they run up to her – City Dogs, who are used to dog parks and fenced yards and who have spent the day in crates and doggie day care. Nellie is not fond of these dogs. So instead I take her to the back meadows, where there is no one around, and let her run for a bit.  But these quiet places are hard to find, and it is not Our Meadow, and she knows this.  She runs a little, peering around nervously, and then trots over to me and sits down.  I pick her up and tell her we will go home some day, and she will have Her Meadow back, though it will be changed and strange.

Nellie in the Burned Meadow

Our Mountain and Our Meadow are gone, and will not come back in my lifetime. And most people don’t understand this. Most of us hear the happy little Forest Service talks about how the grass comes back so quickly after a wildfire, and how fire is good for the land, but that’s not the whole story. I was a Park Ranger for eight years.  I used to give talks about Fire Ecology. And I know that in a really hot fire like this one, the land can be sterilized, and it will be dead and lifeless for decades.

I drove through Yellowstone on my way home this summer, and saw acres and acres of black, dead trees. And it’s been twenty-two years since that fire. Twenty-two years. It’s good for the land, but how would you like to live in the middle of it for the rest of your life?

You’ll see cheery pictures, I’m sure, in the paper and on TV, of new, green grass growing in the midst of ashes and blackened soil. This is true – I already have little green sprouts on some parts of my land, little patches of grass pushing up – new life in the midst of tragedy. But all around the meadow are dead trees, hundreds and hundreds of them, and this breaks my heart.  This is the story you will not hear on TV, as newscasters try to find the Silver Lining in this Local Tragedy and then move on to talk about the weather.

The beauty of mountain life in this area was that you could live surrounded by pine forests, and look at acres and acres of trees.  And six thousand acres of those trees are burned, charred, and scarred beyond recognition.  Six thousand acres. The foothills and the canyons that were burned by the Four Mile Fire were a patchwork of private and public lands, and most of those acres will never be cleared. The grass will come back, but those ghostly, corpse-like trees will stand, a grim remembrance of this fire, for the rest of my life.

A Burned Tree on My Land

My neighbor, Walter, who is 81, isn’t moving back up to Sugarloaf. He’s going to get a condo in town. He knows that his time on the mountain is up. “It won’t be as pretty as it was,” he says. He was surrounded by green woods for the last forty-five years, and now his land is black sticks.

I tell a reporter who interviewed me the other day that our once-strong mountain communities are now fractured, and fragmented, into Burned and Not Burned areas.  The fire jumped around a lot, so in some places there is one lone house left atop a mountain road.  What will those folks do now, alone on a mountain top, surrounded by burned foundations, piles of rubble, and charred pine trees? Some neighbors will sell out and move to town, some will clean up and rebuild, but the communities will never be the same. We will all have to shift, to adjust to this New Gravity, to see what the future has in store for us.

For twenty years I floated in the clouds, but that ship has sailed. Nellie and I are on a new journey now, through strange and uncharted waters. And yet there is so much to see along the way. There are islands of hope and friendship, filled with interesting new people, and new experiences.  There are incredible acts of kindness that float up like buoys each day, and deliver small treasures of food and clothing and dog toys and good wishes to our little ship.  There are songs of hope sung in our ears, like siren songs, that beckon us on.

We are moored for a time, in this little safe harbor, this cottage in Chautauqua. There is much that is Lost, and much that is Found.  I grieve for my losses, and embrace and treasure what is Found.  Each day I find more tiny gems —  small sparkling objects that I gather up and hold in my hand, and watch as they refract and reflect the light, and guide me Home.

May we all embrace what is Lost, and what is Found. This is the Dance of Life, I think. Sometimes we decide to let go, to loosen our tethers and sail on into the Unknown. And at other times the moorings are cut in the night, slashed by the Great Hand of Fate, and our little ship is pushed into the torrent, rudderless and spinning. But it all leads to the same place in the end. For this is the Great Adventure, after all, and if we are fearless, we may sail past the rocks and shoals and brooding islands, past the sign that says, “Here There Be Dragons,” and find a New World.

Wishing You a Good Night, and Smooth Sailing,
Andi and Nellie

Nellie in the Charred Meadow

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29 Responses to Lost and Found

  1. Thank you for another beautiful essay. It is so hard to leave, for any reason, a place that was the exact right fit for you. And even if you get to go back, when you had to leave like that, it’s never the same. Even if it’s not a fire that forces you out, the fact that you had to leave when you didn’t want to makes it not right when you come back. But to have it wrested as violently as all that. I’m so, so sorry. We build our lives and are so lucky if they align with our natures, and even luckier still if we realize this. And yet that can make it all the more painful when it’s lost. And, as you say, lost for good. Maybe not all of it, but that arrangement, the way you had it and wanted it and loved it. Good for you for recognizing what there is to value in your new experiences, and you will find much to celebrate when you return to your meadow, even if now it will be lower-cased. But the course is changed, and the ship won’t be the Ship. But maybe she’ll be breeze-worthy all the same. Your ears will grow really sharp now, listening for the wind sliding through the stars.

    • Andi says:

      Thank You Claudia. I was hiking here in Chautauqua last evening at sunset, rounded a corner and heard a roaring, whooshing sound…The wind in the pines! It took me by surprise, after only two months away. It was like an old friend, saying “Hey, hello, we’re still here, and we miss you.” So nice. It made me smile.

  2. Wow! This blog is an incredibly grounding and thoughtful way to start a Monday. This post has me thinking about change and how we adapt. And how often we have the luxury of pretending that our lives haven’t changed, when they are, of course, doing so at every turn. And then Andi comes along to remind how there are some changes that are absolutely, irrefutably final and there are times we don’t get to pretend that things will just go on the way we want them to forever.

    • Andi says:

      Thanks Laurel. Change is indeed the One Constant. Not that I’m always happy about that, but working to accept it. Ebb and flow…

  3. Andi: What a poignant post. It’s astounding to me how this fire that ripped your home from you also left behind a place for this beautiful prose to be born. From out of the fire has arisen this blog, these essays, and they will flow like a river over the great worldwide web and nourish and encourage others who have experienced deep loss.

  4. Greg says:

    Your stories and words are touching and moving. Thanks for the tour up there today. It was a pleasure to meet you and I feel your recovery will be as strong as you are. Be well.

    • Andi says:

      Thank you for reading, Greg. I’m looking forward to seeing the pictures you took today (and so is Nellie!) And your kind wishes are much appreciated. Take good care.

  5. Andi,
    Your writing is so lucid and evocative. I cry every time I read one of your posts. Thanks for writing.

    • Andi says:

      Thank so much Deborah. I cry when I write them – it’s a good way to keep feeling through all of this. Thanks for reading,


  6. Wren says:

    Hi Andi,
    While reading your post, I couldn’t help but think of the countless times I’ve recounted the history of Outward Bound for my students while huddled in a circle on some mountainside. Outward Bound, for those who don’t know, is a nautical term for when a ship pulls its anchor and is no longer safe in its harbor. The ship, being Outward Bound, is of course vulnerable to risk and danger. Yet as we all know, difficulties often tap strengths that we didn’t know existed before. Andi, may your compass continue to point you in whichever direction you need.

    • Andi says:

      Thanks so much Wren.

      Your comment reminded me that “Mark Twain” was the term that riverboat captains used when the water was deep enough to be safe for sailing, so that they wouldn’t run aground. So deep water brings us safety, adventure, risk and growth. Off we go! Take good care,


  7. Denise Thomas says:

    Wow – I have been thinking to myself – well soon she’ll rebuild and go back. But after reading this I now fully realize the enormity of your loss It sounds like it was indeed a magical place. I remember you telling me in SMA how much you loved it. The tragedy of this event has sunk a little deeper for me today. Your hopefulness and eagerness for a new journey is wonderful to behold – Goodonya!

    • Andi says:

      Thanks Denise. I really wanted folks to understand the magnitude of this fire; that it not only changed individual lives, but entire communities. There is no going back – we can only go forward.

  8. Reed Glenn says:

    Beautiful essay and reflections, Andi. And Nellie is beautiful! Interestingly, the color of ash.

    • Andi says:

      Thanks, Reed. Interestingly, that photo is un-retouched; not even cropped. Nellie was hot and tried to find some shade in the scrawny shadow of a burned tree, when I snapped that. Her look says it all.

  9. Jerrie Hurd says:

    Write on. It’s so inspiring. Here’s hoping the words lift you as well as your readers.

  10. Stewart Walker says:

    I love your work. I think of New Orleans after Katrina every time I read one of your posts. Your 81 year old neighbor not moving back is consistent with the experience in NO. Almost all of the people who died in the flood (not hurricane, flood) were 70 or older, because they did not leave or because they couldn’t handle the stress of the evacuation. No one knows any 80+ person who rebuilt. Many of them passed away in the first couple of years following the flood. The death certificates for these people will say natural causes or various illnesses, but it is widely thought that they could face returning home.

    My point is that the stresses from this sort of trauma are not recognized generally. A good insurance policy helps financially, but does little to address the underlying trauma. Your work here is one great way to live fully with that trauma.

    • Andi says:

      Thanks Stewart. I think people can die of a broken heart, and losing home, your real home, can be heartbreaking. I feel so fortunate that I will be able to go back to my land, in whatever fragile and renewing stage it is in when I return.

  11. Gail Storey says:

    Each of your posts has deepened my awareness of what was lost, and this is the deepest yet. So much burned beauty. I’m at a loss for words, but thank heaven you are not. What is it that’s still so profoundly here, even more vividly than before?

    • Andi says:

      Thanks Gail, that’s the Great Mystery, isn’t it? What is it that’s still here, when all else burns away? I am looking, looking, for that very thing.

  12. Brooke says:

    I was at Yellowstone (stranded actually) during that fire (as I look back I realize how surrounded I’ve been by fire throughout my life). And I’ve been back and seen the lack of life… still. However, even though we too had a very hot wildfire, the grass has grown back surprisingly quickly, almost to where I’m nervous about it, again. Rebuilding in the same spot has its drawbacks, I’m learning!

    Shoot me another email. I’d love to feature your story on my Fire Fridays in one of the coming weeks! And I will probably forget within a couple minutes of posting this comment as the Lyme seems to have eaten my memory!

    • Andi says:

      Thanks Brooke.

      I’d be honored to do a guest post, and I’ll be in touch. Maybe we should get neighborhood Rent-A-Goats, and they can wander around, eating up all the flammable grass. Hm? Talk to you soon,


  13. Marj says:

    My heart ached for you when I read of that lost, never to return, beauty, and of the parched desolation of Yellowstone. But there can be an austere beauty in such starkness. Especially when the snow falls.

    • Andi says:

      Thank you Marj. There is austere beauty when you’re driving by taking a picture, but as I say, do you want to live in the middle of it? It’s a lovely canvas, but do you want it for your backyard? That’s the hard part. I met some folks with forty acres in Sunshine Canyon, and it’s all a moonscape now. You can’t clear forty acres, not really, and they had a small cabin there. So they are struggling with their choices. A burn has its own poetic beauty, but is it Home? No. That’s the heartbreak for so many folks.

  14. Natasha Beck says:

    Feminista from DTWOF here.

    I just skimmed through your heart-felt,eloquent blog. I appreciate your honesty,clarity and courage. I’m so glad you and Nellie have each other.

  15. nancy says:

    What a loss, I never knew about it; this blog has made me feel how much loss was realized. But still I think its beauty will be restored. This is great work and show of courage. Of course its heart breaking but hope there will be restoration of Yellowstone’s’ beauty.

    Great work, keep up the spirit. good blog.

  16. nancy says:

    This loss is more than I expected at my first read. What courage to represent all this. It is a good blog. Will Yellowstone restore its beauty for sure? I really feel the pain and the deepness of the loss. Can’t bear it!

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