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.
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.
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.
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.
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