My recent job is close enough to where I live that I can ride my bike to work.
The bicycle that I have is a black, old-style bike with upright handlebars and a wide seat. Riding it down the dirt road that we live on immediately brings back memories of childhood summers in the country, and my sister and I riding together to the post office in the hopes of finding a letter, or down to the creek for a swim.
On my way to work, there is a steep down hill that begins at our house on Gold Hill and takes me on a smooth, coasting ride more or less all the way to the high school. On the way, other bike riders zip by me in either direction. They are serious-looking, most of them, with logo emblazoned shorts and tops, riding gloves, and helmets.
I’ll often pass donkeys and horses grazing in a peaceful stretch of wooded pasture just before Farmers Corner. Today a group of children are patting the horses that have reached their long soft noses over the fence that bears the sign “WARNING! Stay Back! Horses and Donkeys Kick and Bite!”
Further along, there is what looks like a tee pee, made of long wooden poles, with possibly enough room inside to fit a person who is trying to escape the rain. And a picnic table tucked behind a stand of pine trees seems to be just waiting for someone to stop and enjoy a moment in the shade.
It is a beautiful morning, and you might almost miss the faint smell of smoke and ash that still hangs in the air. You might not notice that it seems too hot, too dry.
On the day that wildfire broke out on Gold Hill, Alan was away and I raced back home from work to get my dog, Luke. A huge column of smoke was rising behind the house, blooming into an enormous, evil-looking flower of brown and black. I stood in the driveway, frozen, watching it move and expand, unsure if this was just a scary, unpleasant situation—or the moments before a life- changing calamity.
No houses were damaged in the fire, but over 80 acres of woodlands, home to chickadees, bluebirds, foxes, moose, and all manner of other creatures, was burnt to ash. If the wind had not changed our homes, too, might have been in peril.
Today, by late afternoon, it is overcast. As I set out again on my bike, this time for home, it starts to pour rain. It is cold, my wet clothes are sticking to me, and raindrops are smudging my glasses. But as I ride down the twisting path through the pines and aspen, the smell of things burning is gone. Instead the damp air is saturated with the delicious scent of trees, clover, sage, wet dirt.
The earth, finally, is getting a good healing soak.
Just past the high school, an orange Subaru speeds by me in the rain, going in the opposite direction, and honks at me. I wave and keep on riding. A few minutes later the Subaru passes on my side of the road, then pulls off to the side in front of me and stops. Alan gets out of the car.
“Do you always wave at strange men who honk at you?” he says teasing me. The rain comes down in sheets now, and I hop off my bike. Alan takes it from me and attaches it to the rack on the back of the car.
“You’re not that strange” I smile, relieved to be rescued from the long ride up Gold Hill in a downpour. I get into the car, and give him a big wet smooch. With the blessing of rain, life slips back to happy normalcy. It is easy, welcome almost, to put the past few frightening days of wildfire behind us.
But I keep thinking about the moment I was standing in the driveway looking up at the smoke behind our house on Gold Hill. On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was working in downtown Manhattan. At 8:50 a.m. I was disturbed but mostly annoyed that what seemed like a freak accident—reportedly, a small plane flying off course into a tower of the World Trade Center—had caused traffic and subway disruptions that would delay the start of a sales meeting I was running.
By 9:05 a.m. the world as I knew it would never be the same.
Things can change so quickly. And yet, every sudden, shocking, cataclysmic event—whether it is political, environmental, or personal—comes as the result of a series of actions, events and choices, each one impacting the next often over a period of time.
I hope we are still somewhere in the middle of that tumbling row of dominos, where there is the possibility of taking a different path, towards a different outcome.
The earth is no longer what it was 40 years ago, when my sister and I raced each other to the creek on our bicycles. All of our collective actions on the planet have led to higher temperatures, more volatile weather events. In the West, we are experiencing a record number of wildfires. Yet while the conditions have led to more potential for fire, according to the National Park Service close to 90 percent of wildfires are in fact started by human action.
I do not know what the answer is, or the best way forward. But with the near certainty of more destruction on the way, it does not seem like a viable strategy to hope for rain, or a change in the wind.
This essay ran in the Summit Daily News on July 19, 2017