Most of the summer Winthrop, Washington was on fire. By July almost 250,000 acres had lit up the evening sky, covering much of the Methow Valley in smoke, dust, evacuations and homes burning to the ground. When the rains came in August, they were a reminder to be careful what we wish for: lightning sparked new fires and flash floods rolled unchecked over the charred earth, burying homes and adding to the chaos.
All residents suffered. None escaped the smoke or the power outages. Many residents lost their homes, cut adrift like the very flames that set them into motion. Some ended up staying with neighbors. Others packed up and left. Most found a way to get by.
Every Labor Day I take my daughters deep into the canyons near Winthrop for a camping trip. My wife stays home to get prepared for the upcoming school year. I get a few days a year alone with my girls. It’s one of my favorite things to do.
This year the campgrounds were closed until the day before we left. We woke up on the day feeling lucky that our biggest concern was where we would stay. We saw online that the annual rodeo was not only a go, they were asking people to please come because the town needed the business.
When I called the ranger station the lady on the phone said, “Yep, campgrounds are open. We are not advertising it though. If you build a fire, we’re handing out $100 tickets. You got it?”
Yes I got it.
When we arrive at our spot there are only a few campers here. Most of the sites are vacant. The people next to us light up a roaring fire as the evening overtook the canyon.
I walk over to them and say, “What’s up? I thought there was a fire ban?”
As I get closer I get a closer look at them. They are shot through. Wasted. Whatever you want to call it, not ready for me being a smart ass.
“We’re exempt,” she says.
I look at her, eyes blinking, smile fading.
“Damn fire took our home.”
Her husband nodding into the fire, not even looking up.
“And we were evacuated from our house,” says a man in his 60’s with a face that says 70. “It’s all burned to hell around it. It’s not what we call home. So we are out here and yes, this fire feels good.”
After that they just kind of stare into the fire.
I see all of their camping supplies laid out in moving boxes, over a dozen spread out like toys in my children’s room. Walking back to my camp I hear a beer crack. I am happy they have that, at least. I don’t hear them laugh tonight. They hardly talk. Only drink and stare into the fire.
The next night we drive into town. For the first time in over a decade we find parking downtown. No parking by the red barn and doing the walk of shame into town.
If you haven’t been to Winthrop, here’s the skinny. It’s literally about a block or two long. No traffic light. Just a 90-degree turn on Hwy 20. The town is dressed up in an old-west costume. Brewery, tourist shops, bookstore. . . that’s about it. People don’t come here for the town. They come here for the lack of a town and a landscape worthy of any artist’s eye.
Eating dinner Friday night we sit outside in the one upscale restaurant in town, Arrow Leaf Bistro. Nobody out there until the end of the evening. Two couples sporting “ranch” clothing and slivered hair sit behind us.
As my girls drift on and off the deck looking for snakes I can’t escape their conversation. I sat out on the deck to get away from people. Not to eavesdrop.
“Well you know we sold off some of our properties and rolled them into a bigger yacht,”
“Ha. That’s bad. Now you have a bigger hole in the water to dump money.”
The sound of wind in the trees. Always the river, in the background. A gentle reminder of the glaciers melting deep in the canyon of the Cascades.
I’m trying to drown them out, but they are too close. The backs of our chairs touching as they sat down.
“You hear about Tim? He’s sold it all off. Besides, their house, down to just a condo. He and Kim are going to go travel.”
“Wait. Sold it all off?”
“Hell that’s bad as being homeless when you are just down to a condo.”
They erupt into laughter. I’m swirling the wine in my glass, wishing there was more. But I’m driving precious cargo. More will come later.
My kids start screaming. Apparently they have found a snake and are chasing each other with it. I sip my wine.
The people behind me, well their food arrives and so does their complaining: It’s over cooked, yeah, do you think they even know what saaaalsa verd is? This is nothing like we get in LA. . .”
I finish that glass of wine. Say goodbye to Winthrop for the year and head back to our own campfire – the ban was lifted earlier in the day.
They are still talking trash about the food when the wind comes up and sends them scampering indoors, holding their wine glasses as if their life depended on it.
We count deer driving home. There’s an unusually large number in the field, more then 20 eating peacefully, watching the traffic with one eye, the looming darkness of the hills with the other. We get back to the campsite after dark. Besides the cracking of cans next door, there is no sound, but the wind and the always that water and my kids drifting off to sleep.
I light a fire. The evening rolls out under my feet. I feel the warmth of the fire on my knees. It feels good to sit there for hours. Time passes. It occurs to me looking up at the Milky Way deep in the night, that maybe we are all not so different.
We each suffer loss in our own worlds in our own unique way.
I think the issue is in scale. To the restaurant people, a meal (let me guarantee you it was nowhere near bad) and selling your possessions is a form of abuse. It sounds pathetic, but to them, make no mistake, it is a form of suffering.There is still a loss that takes place, perhaps the drama dresses up the boredom of a life without need for struggle.
To the people next door, they lost everything, or so they told me.
As for me and my camp? To quote Barton Fink, I am a tourist with a typewriter. Just along for the ride, but not really. By now, I’m participating in the dance.
Through the starlight I see them next door. Knees almost touching each other. Soft murmur of conversation, not punctuated by laughter. A sort of mournful discourse losing itself in the currents or air playing in darkness.
Hell, I think, taking a sip of Laphroig, maybe they are forgetting that which is closest?
I tilt my glass to the fire and say prayers for those I love who no longer have the opportunity to overcome such hardships. I say thanks for giving my oldest daughter and myself, back to my family.
In the stark outline of trees against an evening sky it’s obvious there are lines that divide.
If you are on this side you still have a chance to fight. You have it in you to rage against the tide. You have the responsibility to burn brighter than a firestorm in a dry summer.
Grab the ones you love, because nothing in the world replaces that kind of loss.
Let them know how you feel.
Let them know that the fires of this world can come and go as long as they are there with you, sitting by a river, listening to the wind crackle through the same burning wood that took your home.
Image from: http://northwestnaturalmoments.blogspot.com/2012/09/smoke-filled-sunset-from-four-fires.html