Monday, July 1, 2013

fires in the west, or, durango-to-paonia journal


Friday, June 28: Durango

I woke up early this morning to the smell of smoke drifting in through the open windows, diffusing the bright morning light that usually wakes me. Drowsily, I thought to myself that if Durango was on fire, at least I was ready to evacuate, my belongings already filling Jesse's truck in preparation for my move to Paonia. Then I fell back asleep, and tossed in and out of strange dreams tinged with the smell of smoke. 

It is slightly surreal to continue sleeping while smoke seeps in your window, but that's what life is like in this part of the country, at this time in history, when southwestern wildfires are burning hotter and brighter than ever before due to a century of forest mismanagement, increased beetle kill and climate change.

When I woke for real, the first thing I did was turn on the radio – every small community should have a local public radio station, a fact which becomes ever more evident in the midst of natural disasters. Luckily, KSUT reported that there were no new fires, just an inverted weather pattern that was sending smoke from the Pagosa Springs fire (to the east) south to New Mexico then back north to Durango. Smoke that smelled dry and acrid, like pine needles underfoot on a hot day, was swirling around the Four Corners – a misnomer itself, for there are no real corners here, only rolling dusky foothills and ponderosa pine valleys and sensuously carved sandstone; mesas and plateaus and mountains, washes and gullies and hoodoo rocks.

Driving north out of Durango with a fully loaded car reminded me of my drive through western Massachusetts and New York state six weeks ago. With the windows up, the hazy, smoky air settling over ranches and fields looked almost like the early morning fog that followed me out of New England on my journey west, a mist that snaked through dewy valleys and around red barns struck by early morning light.

But there was one major difference. One haze was born of moisture, and one of its absence. I left a world of abundant water – water so pervasive you could feel it on your skin, see it beaded on every blade of grass – to a place where you cannot legally cache your own rainwater, because it's such a precious commodity that it belongs not to the landowner, but to the state.

It was 99 degrees at 11 a.m. when I drove through Montrose, and the radio hose called the weather "crispy." It was an apt description. I've never lived anywhere before where the weather could be described as crispy, like a french fry pulled from the oven, but that's what it felt like.

Saturday, June 29: Paonia

Last night a mosquito landed on my arm while I was in bed, and I fell asleep to coyotes howling and the whistle of the train. This morning, it's hard to get out of bed, because the sliver of sky behind my curtains is gray with clouds – a welcome change from the ceaseless blue of Durango skies. I dreamt about rain again last night, again. When I lived in the steamy Marshall Islands, I'd dream that I was swimming in the ocean toward a distant iceberg, blue and irridescent, and I'd swim up to it, treading water at its edge, licking it gratefully. In some versions of the dream, the glacier turned into an ice cream cone.

Here, my dreams are not of respite from heat but from the dryness. Last night I dreamt I walked out of a grocery store into a mundane parking lot made miraculous by rain pouring from the sky, gathering in puddles. I walked slowly with my head tilted up, letting it wash over me.

Paonia is 150 miles north of Durango, but a different environment entirely. This valley is green, full of orchards and vineyards and farms. My new road – Box Elder Lane – is shaded by huge old maples, and stepping barefoot onto the back steps this morning, an unbelievable smell rose to greet me – warm moisture, green growing things, and a few fat raindrops splattering through the leaves. The rain didn't last long enough for me to roll up the windows in my car, but the smell it brought – the wetness of warm streets and gardens and lawns – smelled like home.

Sunday, June 30: Paonia

As I type my journal entries onto the computer, thunder rolls through the valley, and the sky is thick with clouds. It rained today, really rained, hard but brief. People tell me it is the start of monsoon season. Having lived nearly all my life in wet places, I never thought I'd rejoice for rain. But when it comes, I run for the door and stand outside, as if in a dream.

Addendum: Last night, 19 firefighters died fighting a wildfire in Arizona, the deadliest wildfire in the U.S. since 1933. 

Smoke from the fire near Pagosa Springs, Colo.

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