Saturday, September 21, 2013

Holiday On the Edge of the Inferno

Summer ends and another year of business begins with the annual dawn of Labor Day. This year, I woke up headfirst in a pile of my own clothes in a tent at an elevation of 7,000 feet above sea level. In spite of the fact that the hills have been burning for weeks, there is no fire here, just the vague smell of smoke and a haziness over the tops of the trees. The weather is glorious, in fact: warm lake-floating, hiking weather. Outside the tent, a dog is already patrolling the perimeter, snuffling at his tin food bowl, curling up in an astonishingly small ball of fur, waiting for the rest of us to get up.

In a few minutes, I hear the sounds of the eight-year-old giggling and rustling into her purple down jacket to walk to the bathroom, then her father and his girlfriend wondering aloud about whether there is enough bacon for everyone. When we emerge from our tent, we all snuffle quietly around the
site like the dog and smile at each other, re-teaching ourselves how to toast bagels in a skillet.

The forest had been burning for weeks, starting on August 17th and it plowed through over 200,000 acres of land; gnashing up trees, brush, branches and a swath of land that is comprehensively bigger than the city of Chicago. They call it the Yosemite Rim Fire and it swallowed a summer camp and over 100 more human structures. The moment that Jason and I hit the edge of Desolation Wilderness, a gray miasma seemed to be pluming from nowhere in thready clouds and the smell of smoldering brush was immediately in our noses. Completely ignoring the needs of Califonia tourist season and the end-of-summer holiday, the fire threatened to cut San Francisco off from its water supply and even had the temerity to develop its own weather system.

Nevertheless, traffic along route 50 heaped together at town centers, ice cream stands had long lines
In case you can't tell, the sign reads "Welcome to Kyburz,
Now Leaving Kyburz"
and people were content to set their folding lawn chairs directly into the sun-drenched meltwater river that we rode along. Autumn and California tourism are both inexorable, it seems.

It is an interesting thing: going camping with an eight-year-old. You realize how raw and un-evolved you might possibly be, how much you have in common. For example: when the adults fail to stop at In n’ Out Burger, you might very well both entirely lose your shit. When the battery on your phone dwindles slowly to dead, you might wander around in a funk wondering how you are ever going to get through the long ride home without your music. It is almost certainly true that you would rather be reading your book than talking to any of the very pleasant people that you are camping with. And both you and the eight year old are positively sure that “happy baby” is definitely the best yoga pose. And, of course, without sufficient snacks between meal times, you will surely consider throwing someone innocent into the fire.

At least, I can say that this is one of the most charming eight-year-olds I've ever met: interested in hiking, plant names, and yoga poses. Throughout the entire two-and-a-half days that we were in the mountains, she read her book, chatted gamely with the adults, went running up and down trails and climbed rocks more sociably than most of the adults that I know.

But what reveals itself just as plainly, is how much you have changed since last you were eight-years-old.

I wake in the middle of the night that first evening and I can’t breathe. I sit up, massaging my chest, feeling like I could shake something loose. I unzip the tent and walk around in the dark under a sky startlingly blank of stars. The whole world is dead quiet and much as I imagine black bears and coyotes beyond the ken of my night vision,  I realize that it is far more likely that what is making it so hard to breathe in the already thin air is not fear, but the smoke filtering through the trees. The rim fire burns through my mind as I zombie-shuffle through the camp site, imagining that I perhaps can see an orange glow reflected in the tops of the trees and I sit there considering it: its portents, how dry and burnt out the planet is, giving way to my thoughts about the vanishing coral reefs and the great Pacific garbage patch. It is difficult to sleep for the rest of the

At the campfire, after we’ve melted chocolate-covered marshmallows onto gourmet graham crackers, I realize that the purple-jacketed eight year old has maneuvered herself close to me, and by the shushing of her down jacket, I hear first and then feel her wrapping her arms around me while we watch the flames in the fire pit. I snuggle in closer, so pleased to have affection heaped on me: an almost stranger. And wonder how: in complete abandon, with absolutely no reserve or apprehension that I might pull away or reject her at all she can remain completely emotionally available. And I realize that the cheek now tucked under my chin has never known the pain of settling for second happiness.

In a moment of small drama, our eight-year-old takes awhile to come back from her walk around the campground with the dog and just as her father departed on the motorcycle to trace the camp paths looking for her she came triumphantly around the bend, announcing that she had gotten lost and found her way back and was now ready to do yoga. She regarded her absence as a grand adventure, her
return as a testament to her level-headedness and resources and not at all as a failure on her part to do what was expected of her. She didn't waste a moment of reflection or self-beration. She pulled out the thermarest and directed me to the large open field that was obligingly sunlit: “Time for Yoga!”

Autumn has always been a splendid and somewhat mournful season in my heart. I once read that the biggest changes in our life continue to follow the academic calendar no matter how old we are: new ritual beginnings in the autumn, grand adventures that begin in the springtime. I look back over a year of journal entries and realize that I have been in the same place for a year, that the only other country I traveled to this year was Canada, that I am in love and impatient as ever for adulthood to yield up something better than the privilege of being able to eat an ice cream sandwich at midnight if I wish to. I am wondering what this year will be the year of: the year of a career move, or the year of publication, the year of gaining five pounds or the year I learned how to sail? As summer closes down, I realize that there’s very little left of the year to define itself by. I’d better get to work.

The Yosemite rim fire has diminished over the past few weeks, but experts are still predicting that full containment won’t come until October. The fire has burned about 400 square miles, making it the third largest conflagration in California history. It is still unclear how the fire began, though a careless, unnamed hunter is thought to be the source.