Outrunning the Fire

I’ve had this feeling that the past has been burning behind me. Literally.

You could say, perhaps, that once you take that first step down a path, that the past already begins to consume itself. But it’s weird how your memory holds open those places, bookmarked, almost as if you could drop back in again and nothing would have changed. It’s not the case. Life is more like standing in a moving river…even if YOU are still in the same place, life continues to rush by beneath your feet.

I have dreams, frequently, of being in a familiar house and finding strangely hidden rooms. Sometimes, though, they aren’t even hidden…I’ve just somehow never noticed they were there.

Typically, my sentiment is amazed befuddlement, shock, and wonder… And inside these rooms are lost artifacts from the past: old pieces of art I’d made, favorite shirts, old toys. I go through this warehouse space with the pleased surprise of remembrance. 

I read that the Hidden Room dream archetype is supposed to represent untapped potential, but I can say that for me, these dreams represent the confusion of containing withing myself a past and in some cases a past SELF, which no longer physically exists. And if it no longer physically exists, if there are no traces, I wonder sometimes, as memory mythologizes those events, if it happened at all. Memory casts an unrealness over the past, turning it into gross caricatures, whitewashing the shades of grey.

And then, ok, there’s the problem, the very real, concrete problem, that my actual past HAS been burning. Physically. 

This picture was published by the Methow Valley News. Since the beginning of July, the Methow Valley, where I lived for the last six or so years I was in the U.S, has been burning, in the biggest fire the area has ever seen. 250,000 acres or more, with multiple smaller fires in the area. Homes have been lost, friends have been evacuated. The town as I knew it is irrevocably changed. 

Photo: This is what our house looked like from a distance before the fire was stopped at the end of our driveway. God is so good.

There has always been a kind of wildfire season there. The first year that I moved there: it was the beginning of September 2006, and the wildfires that year were burning all the way up into Canada. I remember the sun barely coming up…just a dim red circle that crossed the sky, the smoky haze thick. We were sleeping outside that summer in a tent, not having yet secured a place to live…there was no escape from the smoke in our lungs. 

We stayed in that tent til there was snow every morning…we stuffed hay underneath the tent to keep from laying on the cold ground, the cold getting in our bones. The snow, and the rains of autumn, were what finally knocked that wildfire out in the end…the smoky hot haze replaced by cool crisp autumn nights full of stars, coyotes howling in the dark outside the tent. 

Where we were camped was next to the chicken shed, weirdly enough, where four young male roosters were awaiting the inevitable day. I got to really like those roosters. One looked like a little fighting samurai…another was big and dumb, but by far the best at crowing in the morning. As it got dark, they would line up and tuck into their strangely constructed homemade coop and squabble a little before settling down for the night. They would make little noises as they fell asleep in the quickly darkening twilight. 

I cried when those roosters were killed as the winter came in. And those wildfires gradually diminished as the snows of winter extinguished them for good.

……………………………..

We moved rather suddenly from Seattle when I was hired by a small glassblowing studio in Twisp, Washington. My dad had just been diagnosed with cancer, and I was struggling with the choice to cash everything in and move back to Buffalo…when this job came along, out of the blue, way out in this tiny rural town east of the North Cascade mountains. 

It was time for a change. Work was getting harder to find in Seattle for me…and my boyfriend at the time, a British ex-dogmusher from the Yukon who was living and working as a night cleaner in a backpacker hostel near the Pike Place Market, had just found himself out on the street when the hostel abruptly shut down and was demolished to make way for luxury condos. 

The studio that interviewed me looked perfect. Operated by a young couple homesteading out up Twisp River, they promised fulltime work and one day a week in the studio to make my own work. Their work was sculptural, landscape based, acid etched, interesting to me. 

  

The area was strange and beautiful and wild. There were wolves, and cougars, and coyotes. People lived off grid still, with wood stoves and piles of firewood stacked outside their homes in preparation for the long cold winters. You saw a chicken coop and beehives everywhere you went. The local bar dated to the 1800s and had shotgun holes in the walls…and at the bar, side by side, you’d see old hippies, young organic farmers, redneck loggers, sharing beers with people dressed head to toe in handmade buckskin. It was just that kind of place.

There were icy rivers that cut through the valley, and the yellow dry sage-covered hills gave way to pine forests, and finally, the snow covered majestic grandeur of the North Cascade mountains. It was wild and quirky and strange in a way that appealed to me. 

Jack Kerouac had been a fire lookout in the summers out here, on Desolation Peak in the North Cascades along with the Zen Beat poet Gary Snyder.The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels, two of my favorite Kerouac books, straddle this time in his life. The fact of Kerouac’s ghost haunting the alley just made it all seem more marvelous and magical to me.

There aren’t many fire lookouts left, by the way…In the days of the BEats, young men would head up to the lookouts in the summer, living on top of mountains with no company except a radio to communicate with the other lookouts, a small woodstove, and their food. THe job attracted many writers and artists who sought out the iosolation…but the Fire Service no longer has the budget to employ actual people and a lot of the lookout work is done from the air now.

There is still ONE remaining fire lookout though, named Lightning Bill on Goat Peak. But I’m getting ahead of myself.  

Anyway: so we packed up our things, piling all our belongings into my tiny mechanically decrepit 1981 GMC S15 Sierra red pickup truck…which ran on three out of six cylinders and, not surprisingly, had the transmission lock completely solid with a screech, half on and half off the isolated road, as it pulled over the North Cascade mountains due to too little transmission fluid in the case. And so, when we arrived at the glass studio on the back of a tow truck, we were grounded for a while, as my ex rebuilt the transmission and I searched for housing. 

During the day, I would blow glass with Jeremy, and at night we would cook dinner on a Coleman stove,watching the wildfires color the sunset in shades of crimson and gold. It was the best of times with my ex, to be honest. 

My ex: He was/is a flawed, complicated, beautiful, pure person. He was running from a lot of things; he drank too much and smoked too much to escape. When he drank he would go into rages, throwing things, breaking furniture, which he then wouldn’t remember the next day. He didn’t fit well into the modern world. Bank accounts and bills were baffling to him. He knew how to build or fix absolutely anything, but only worked as he needed to, moving irrigation pipe or assisting on house construction when he needed the money. He loved animals, more than people. He struggled with rules and laws, identified himself romantically as an outlaw…but was consumed with fear and inertia. I loved him very much. 

For a while there, out in the mountains, sharing a bottle of peach schnapps on the entrance to our tent as the wilfires painted the sky in brillant colors, I thought that things might finally turn around and be ok between us again. It felt like a new start, like anything was possible. 

I guess in the end that the euphoria of starting anew temporarily masked out problems, but hardly erased them, and although we had a lot of good times out there in the Methow, we never were able to fix what was broken. And the day finally came when I was ready to move on, and he wasn’t. I’d tried to leave many times before and kept getting pulled back in, by the simple fact that I still loved him. Easier to leave someone you hate, I guess, than someone you still care deeply for, even as you know that there’s no way to keep going on. 

I tried to hate but it never worked.

Still, we broke up as I prepared to leave to go work another contract on a ship, and I left with all my things still in the house. While on the ship, I realized that when my contract was over, I needed to get in, get what I could carry and get out before I got somehow pulled back in by the guilt and sadness and emotion…which is what I did in the end, I pulled up outside the house and in three days had the backseat of the car full, the bills transferred to his name. I left most of what I owned behind in my panic to get free. And as I pulled down the driveway for the last time, crying, I saw him standing outside our house…looking very small and lost, finally turning away. I actually screamed out loud at the end of the long dirt road before pulling it together enough to put the car in drive and driving away, the scene of my life receding in the rear view mirror.

I thought I’d go back someday. My stuff is all in storage…I thought I’d go back, just to see it all again. I wonder if I ever will. 

………………………………………………….

Around July 1st, I exchanged a series of letters with my ex as he prepared to move out of the old farmhouse we had shared. The landlady had tired of it all…the garbage, the late rent, the chickens wandering around unfenced, the cats. She presented him with a list of requests if he wanted to stay in the house, but I think in his heart, he was tired of working so hard to fit into a life that wasn’t his for so long. He managed to buy a caravan, arranged a place to park it up Libby Creek, packed up the house over a series of agonozing weeks, and finally moved. 

I didn’t hear from him for a week or two, when suddenly my Facebook feed started lighting up with information about a wildfire. It started as four separate fires that quickly merged into one enormous one, that was quickly dubbed the Carlton Complex, and it was consuming the Methow Valley.

This year was a perfect storm. A wet spring led to lots of brushy undergrowth springing up, and then the high winds and insanely hot temperatures (over a hundred degrees almost every day) combined with lots of dry lightning strikes…the tinder box ignited and it all began to burn.

First I began to hear stories about Texas Creek being on a Level 3 evacuation, and I worried about some friends living up there. Before I knew it, Level 3 Evacuations were being issued all over the valley: up Libby and Newby Creek, even the entire towns of Pateros and Brewster, were evacuated as the fires burned, completely uncontained. 

The power lines burned and the Valley was plunged into darkness. 911 no longer worked. People’s well pumps no longer worked. The gas stations ran out of gasoline. People were panicking. The fires came closer. 

There were one or two nights where I saw images of the flames licking the hills behind my house and descending behind the vet’s office…The entire town of Twisp was evacuated. I looked at the burn map, and the fire covered the area where I knew Rob was camping by the river with his cats. 

…………………………………………………………

The weather changed eventually, the winds died down. The fires still burn, there was another scare when a car pulling off the road to change a tire kicked up some sparks that lit off another wildfire, threatening houses around the town on Winthrop. New fires are still being lit as the temperature continues to stay high, but they are being successfully fought or at least contained. And, as the first year I was there taught me, the fires will go out eventually…but not until the snows come in the autumn. 

I finally got an email from my ex…he said he moved his trailer in time. He said it’s been very exciting around there lately. Huge understatement. I’ve written in worry since then, but haven’t heard back…I was glad to know he was ok, but I worried still, about his cats and chickens, about all of it. 

I grieve for the Methow. A former colleague posted pictures of her home, completely destroyed. She had a wonderful blog about art, gardening, homesteading…she was a jewelry maker and mosaic artist. The images of her drill press and carefully acquired art making tools lying ruined in a pile of ashes broke my heart. She has a young daughter who doesn’t understand. 

…………………………………

After I left the Methow and moved to France, our first apartment burned during a lightning storm, taking away most of what I owned. In some ways, as I wrote at the time, the fire was cleansing to me…a symbolic new start, a reminder to not hold on tightly to Things. 

I can’t see this fire and all of its destruction and aftermath in quite the same philosophical light, though. The people who live in the Valley are strong and resilient and take care of each other, and it will be ok in the end, the fire will be a memory of adversity that pulled people together, a scar on their collective psyche that will be transformed into a new kind of strength. Still, though, I feel overwhelming sadness…and maybe a little self pity too, knowing that I never really will be able to go back and see it the way I remember it. The enormity of the change haunts me. 

…………………………………….

How did I stay in touch with the Methow through all of this? Some of it was via the incredible journalistic work of the Methow Valley News, updating the newspaper with images and stories by cell phone during the power outage from the tent city command center at the high school.

But the main source of information was from one of the last remaining fire lookout in the Methow Valley. (In total, there are over 100 fire lookouts still standing in Washington but only 30 of them are actively manned each summer, the height of forest fire season.) He goes by the name Lightning Bill and he ”lives” at the top of Goat Peak near Mazama, WA every summer. He is an artist, poet and photographer, but he is also the forest fire lookout for that peak. Along with his 2 dogs, he makes a weekly trip down the mountain to re-supply and touch base with friends and relatives for a few hours before heading back up to man his post as he has done for each of the last sixteen years.

Lightning Bill is something of a legend around those parts, and has become a popular stop off for hikers in the Valley. He’s been doing this for 16 years, in addition to deep experience fighting fires, including helicopter, ground crew work, and reforestation. In every direction, 360 degreesq, lies a fabulous mountain view of the east slopes of the North Cascades, and Lightning Bill can tell you with his eyes shut which is which. He has a pot bellied woodstove, and makes art and takes photos, writes poetry…And this year, he has been the eyes and ears for those of us far away, updating constantly about new fires and weather conditions, posting photographs and weather outlooks. He has been a godsend to me, so far away here in France. 

It’s nice to live in a world where you know someone like this exists. 

………………………………………………………………;;;

The fires continue. Mudslides and flash flooding are now a constant worry as the rains begin to come, since water just runs off a blackened, deforested slope that has been affected by fire. Dust storms have kicked up east of the valley. A tornado was spotted touching down near the Hanford site. I think the people in the Methow Valley are bracing themselves for the next plague of locusts. I’m sure that the religious among them are praying, and wondering why so many disasters in such quick succession are befalling such a beautiful, peaceful place.

(From the Goat Peak lookout)

Dust storm

Rare tornado touching down near Hanford.

……………………………………………………………;;;

Time moves on, I guess. Unsettling to see fire erasing the past behind me, though. Sending all my good wishes and good thoughts to my friends back in the Methow Valley…I am with you in my thoughts all the time. 

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3 thoughts on “Outrunning the Fire

  1. And then the obvious metaphors of life reforged, what with the glory hole et all…Laurie, you write so well…and someday your will edit your thoughts, writing, photographs into an amazing book?…take care, Paul

  2. The valley will come back and I bet you will too, at least for a visit. Great post Laurie, thanks.

  3. Oh my. So much. So. Much.

    I was just writing (briefly) yesterday about feeling like history is closing itself up behind me, a book slamming shut. I keep trying to go back to the places where I used to exist but *they* don’t anymore. New Orleans, washed away and replaced with a new and unfamiliar city. The farm in Alabama emptied slowly of the people who made it home. Denver, scattered and long gone, no longer a stopping point for my drives across the country, the interstates themselves not holding much appeal. Seattle, Portland, San Francisco: every city I return to only to find it shifted in its seat to accommodate the empty space I left behind, no room for me there now, favorite restaurants gone, bars too loud full of newer, younger, unwelcoming faces.

    I used to think of older versions of me–the one who lived in New Orleans when I was 25, for example– as ghosts haunting that place. If I go back maybe I’ll catch glimpses of her? Feel what she felt? Remember? But it’s not that. I’m not the one turning into a ghost. The person I was isn’t gone, didn’t have anything I don’t have now. I just keep becoming more. More nuanced, more detailed, more aware. The less-formed version of me becomes more and more complex until it’s hard to distinguish her, to feel what she felt, until I can’t remember what it was like to not know what I do now.

    You can’t un-know. You can’t go back to a place and experience it the way you did the first time, all new, all full of promise, promises shaped directly on what you wanted so badly then but have grown out of now. That place, those promises, only exist in us. They are the ghosts haunting our memories. Ghost cities, ghost homes, ghost relationships, ghost times, ghost towns. And then we grow and we get what we need, or realize we never will, and either way we stop needing it and move on to be lured in by new promises, destined someday to be ghosts, too.

    So your past is burning up, and mine is turning into a ghost town, and either way I suspect we are going through a same thing. Which is neat. Especially at the places and people where our pasts intertwine. I still love that stone-like landscape glass, the confluence of the rivers, the newness of Vashon and the oldness of Twisp, fire lookouts, driving through Eastern Washington listening to Alela Diane, all those steps I could try to retrace but can never relive. Not really.

    There’s only forward.

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