When I was twenty, I imagined I was all grown up and ready to plan the rest of my life. Even if I had had a clue about what I would want for the rest of my life, planning wasn’t my strong suit…and still isn’t. I met a boy who made me laugh, who could sing like Paul McCartney, and who was a Democrat. I married him while we were both children, he was 21 going on 15. I was young and dumb but far more responsible.
I parlayed his CalVet loan into a modest house in a diverse neighborhood that consisted mostly of older people who had built the homes they lived in. The house we bought had been built by the uncle of the next door neighbor. Decades later, when my present husband remodeled the kitchen, we found scrawled inside the wall, “Lois begain(sic) his house 1940”.
And so, we were able to guess that the two Chinaberry trees in the front yard had probably been planted before the end of World War II.
Over the last forty-seven years, husbands have come and gone, but year after year these stoic trees added to their girth as they sheltered my yard and house from the relentless afternoon sun. Their lavender blossoms carpeted my driveway in spring and sent my allergies into high gear. Their arching branches provided a safe refuge for cats, raccoons, and opossums escaping marauding dogs and coyotes. Birds of a feather flocked together in the cool canopy of lacy leaves. And each fall I cursed them as they covered the lawn in leaves, and then sticks and berries. All trees are messy but these took mess to new heights.
My mom, always the practical one, advised me, year after year to take them out before they damaged the house and each year I would have them trimmed instead, loath to give up the glorious shade they provided.
BUT, a few days ago I noticed a faint whiff of sewage coming from the kitchen septic tank. Thinking the filter had gotten clogged, Mike went out and drained the tank and cleaned it thoroughly. But then he noticed that there was standing water where there should not be standing water. Excavation revealed that the leach pit was full and there was standing water in the leach line. A bit of online research revealed that this particular tree was not only invasive above ground but they were also an anathema to underground plumbing.
Making the decision to remove my eighty-year old trees felt like deciding to put down a beloved pet. Mike and I were both sick to our stomach with dread, but eventually came to the understanding that we had no choice.
Tomorrow the tree cutters will come to remove the stumps and we will begin the adjustment that follows every change in life. Everything we know is ephemeral but trees always seem symbolic of permanence, especially when their presence has been a part of one’s life from brash youth to maturity.
So, to Lois, who begain his house in 1940, I say thank you for your foresight…but next time please pick trees with less invasive root systems.
Sally and I walked the dogs around the perimeter of the camping area and discovered that there was a strong cell connection at the South end of the mesa. I took advantage of it and responded to some text messages from my sister and nieces.
We also discovered a recently vacated camp site atop a rocky knoll with a nice copse of juniper trees that offered morning and mid-day shade. We immediately re-positioned our camp site.
This site had the advantage of being up wind of most of the dusty roads and there was only one other occupied site close by.
After setting up our new camp, we drove up to the Kolob reservoir. All three of us piled into Sally’s little SUV (wearing masks and with all windows open) and all three dogs shared the back hatch area (without masks or social distancing).
We stopped at the little market/restaurant where I’d bought ice the day before and ordered one Hatch chili burger with pepper jack cheese to share. The woman who took our order was surly and I didn’t tip. The cook/waiter, who served us on the deck, was cheerful and attentive, zipping around on bandy legs, tattooed from ankle to the bottom of his shorts (as far as I know).
Sally, who replaces her vehicles every few years, didn’t mind driving on dirt roads a bit, so we drove around the reservoir. The locals were camped cheek by jowl (by my standards) and had all the accoutrements I detest in camping neighbors: motorcycles, amplified music, kids, etc. We encountered a small herd of cattle and a few horses in a pasture and stopped to take some pictures. The horses were friendly and came over to the fence for some attention. When one grew too assertive and started pawing her front hoof through the wire fence, we beat a hasty retreat lest she hurt herself or damage the fence.
Jordy had an essay that was due by midnight so we headed back to camp where she worked on the essay and Sally and I prepared dinner. Jordy had made a delicious concoction she called pizza in a pot and I made a fresh vegetable salad. It was the first real meal I’d had since leaving home and it tasted out of this world! Then Sally and Jordy drove down to La Verkin to send her essay in, and I washed up the dishes.
During the evening more campers streamed into the mesa and soon our secluded site was surrounded by other campers. By dusk, each campsite had a fire going, never mind that it was over 70 degrees on the mesa, and once again the smoke drifted up the hill and an asthma attack forced me to put on my N95 mask.
Shortly after the girls left, the large group nearest our site fired up rapid staccato dance music over which they shouted and laughed uproariously. One woman in particular had a most annoying laugh that reminded me of my neighbor’s dog that barks incessantly in a regular rhythmic pattern. I resigned myself to the fact that I’d driven 400 miles to escape smoke and noisy neighbors only to be surrounded by smoke and noisy neighbors. Well, at least the latrines had finally been pumped and it was cool.
By morning I’d pretty much decided to leave Smith Mesa. Sally and I took the dogs for a walk around the ranch perimeter looking for a more secluded camp site, but the entire meadow was populated with campers. We found a trail that was evidently used for the guided horseback rides (2 hours @ $99). It wound through the remains of a juniper forest that had burned some years ago. It occasionally veered to the rim of the mesa to offer a panoramic view of the canyon below.
I noticed string of horses on the trail ahead so we called the dogs and stepped about 20 feet off the trail to allow them to pass. The ride leader, a boy of about 18, was riding a young, blue roan who noticed us first and pricked his ears at us in mild alarm. I spoke soothingly and moved in a calm manner a little farther off the trail, allowing him to identify us as nothing dangerous. But the young wrangler, happy to have an excuse to show off his horsemanship skills, stirred up the nervous horse and lost control as the horse began sidling off the trail, snorting at us and disrupting the progress of the dude horse that were following with their greenhorn riders aboard. The confused animals left the trail nearly scraping their hapless riders off on the burnt remains of the dead junipers. When the junior ride leader regained his composure, and his paying customers resumed their line behind him, I heard him say, “I don’t know what they’re doing out here anyway”, as if it were our fault that he was riding a green horse over which he had limited control. As a former trail horse rider, I have little patience for people who take their inexperienced horses out on trails and then blame others when their animals get spooked.
Back at camp, I packed up the trailer and bid Sally and Jordy a fond adieu, inviting them to join me at Red Rock Canyon later that afternoon.
Red Rock turned out to be a bit farther out of the way than I’d anticipated and the small campground was full by the time I arrived. I did and internet search for BLM camping and found Lovell Canyon, allegedly 35 minutes away, in the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area, Nevada. Highway 160 was lovely but it was under construction most of the way, so the thirty-five-minute drive turned into more like an hour. No problem, I had nothing but time and the scenery was expansive and the traffic light.
At last I came to the turn off for Lovell Canyon, a narrow paved road that climbed gradually up a broad valley https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pKdG9A_E2Bo (my campsite is at 6:46 in the video) lined by junipers and desert scrub, a quintessential western landscape.
In minutes I’d found an acceptable flat spot to spend the night. I soon had everything set up, even the temperamental refrigerator. Feeling quite smug about events, I opened a bottle of Pinot Noir to breathe and prepared to take a “shower” at my outside shower.
The term “shower” isn’t exactly descriptive as the shower consists of a hand-held nozzle that kind of drizzles tepid water (there’s no water heater). But it serves to rinse off the dust and grime of the trail and leaves one feeling refreshed. The air temperature at 5,000’, in the desert, was a lovely 80 degrees and I luxuriated in my bath al fresco. Since there is no privacy at the side of my trailer, I wear a loose, sleeveless shift of sorts, and clean myself under it.
Clean and content, I settled into my camp chair with a glass of wine and some sliced apples and yogurt. A group of Hispanic (I guess the current politically correct term is Latin-x) folks down the road were playing their music loudly enough for me to make out some of the lyrics but not so loud as to be annoying. I enjoy ranchero music and it’s fun to try to figure out the gist of the Spanish ballads. A little less enjoyable was the frantic barking of their Chihuahuas. It sounded way too much like my own neighborhood! But I relaxed with the belief that they were not spending the night. The ranger had stopped by earlier to remind me of the “No Fire” edict and in chatting him up, I mentioned the music. He said it didn’t look like they were staying overnight. There was only one other tent, a hundred yards down the road, but I saw no evidence of occupation.
No sooner had I settled into the cooling dusk when the music ceased and a motor of some sort was fired up. Hoping they were preparing to leave, I calmed myself. But no, it must have been a generator, because it droned on for over an hour. Around 8:00 it was shut off and the silence was almost palpable until I registered the songs of nighttime insects. Within a few minutes I heard their trucks coming up the hill. Since I was camped right on the edge of the road, they passed within a few feet of my trailer. Two vehicles passed by but the third and fourth ones stopped right next to my trailer that was parked behind a tree. I was suddenly aware of my vulnerability. Peering out, I contemplated what course of action I should take if anyone approached my Wanderlust. I didn’t even have my canister of pepper gel with me! The thought that their Chihuahuas would be no match for Sadie, my Klingon Dog Shepherd and Molly Bear Dog Border Collie, I relaxed and started composing greetings in Spanish. “Buenas noches, no me gusto la migra y ICE.”
To my relief, they continued up the road after a minute or two, and at last I had the peace of the desert I had traveled so far to find.
When I went out to pee, I noticed the glow of Las Vegas, almost forty miles away, on the eastern horizon, as bright as the waxing moon. There was no sign of the Milky Way but I reveled in the sounds of silence.
There truly is no rest for the wicked. Awake at 3:00, the moon had gone down, yet Las Vegas provided sufficient light to stumble to the edge of the clearing to effect some dust control. It was too cold to do anything but crawl back under the down comforter and try to find sleep again. When that failed, I read for an hour or so. I soon felt restless so, dressed in all my layers, I started a pot of coffee and then packed up in the dark.
Truly, the worst day of camping is better than the best day of anything else.
Leaving the paved Kolob Terrace Road, I was relieved to see that Smith Mesa Road was wide and nicely graded. The instructions to find the Zion Wright Family Ranch said I would find the gate just a mile and a half up the road. What it didn’t say was that it was quite literally UP the road. Carved into the side of a deep canyon, the road dipped and rose with each drainage it crossed, each successive one deeper and steeper than the last. By the third, I looked across at the steep grade out of the ravine and wondered if my intrepid Lexus was up to the task with its city slicker tires and dragging my tiny house behind. Using a tactic well known in mountain biking, I gathered speed on the descent, using momentum to assist in the climb out of the drainage. Nearing the top of each ascent, the road was rough, chopped into stutter bumps by many vehicles laboring up the grade. Presently I came to a sign that advised me that the road ahead was impassable when wet. Thank goodness there was no chance of rain because I found it nearly impassable when dry!
My relief at reaching the ranch gate quickly evaporated when I saw that the tracks leading to what passed for campsites were not just rutted, but blanketed in several inches of fine, red dust. I parked my rig and set off on a reconnaissance mission to find a campsite on foot.
There were a few scrubby juniper trees scattered about the perimeter of the mesa but most of them had other campers already ensconced next to them. I finally settled on a site against the fence that marked the western edge of Zion National Park, ensuring I would have no neighbors to the east. There was a group of rent-a-tents on the other side of the dusty track, but they all appeared to be unused.
I got the trailer reasonably level before attempting to switch the refrigerator from 12V to propane. Several attempts to light it were unsuccessful so I turned it back to battery power and went for a walk. That’s pretty much my solution for nearly every problem. If a hike or a bike ride doesn’t solve it maybe it just shouldn’t be solved.
Returning from our walk, I had nicely lit the fridge, showered, and poured a glass of wine when the day trippers began to roll in. The previously empty tents now were filling with people who barreled down the dusty road sending rooster tails of dust into the air. The prevailing breeze carried it gently over my campsite, dusting my freshly washed body with crimson bath powder. When the dust finally settled, they built white-man campfires that sent choking smoke across the road. And just when I thought it could not get any worse, someone fired up a generator. So much for silence, solitude and stars.
I poured a second glass of wine and settled down to whine in my journal. As I reflected on the day, I realized that despite the apprehensions and inconveniences, there was no place I would rather be, nothing I would rather be doing, and nobody I would rather be doing it with at that moment. Molly and Sadie dozed contentedly at my feet, the evening was cool, my cozy bed beckoned.
After the three previous sleepless nights and two glasses of wine, I fell into a blissful coma. Sober by 3:00 A.M. I awoke and, knowing that waiting for sleep to return only allows depressing thoughts to roam, I put on some warm clothes that I’d packed in a moment of optimism, and went for a walk.
The puny waxing crescent moon had set, leaving the stars to carry the show, which they did admirably. The Milky Way, never visible at home, splayed across the sky weakly through the smokey atmosphere. I lit the path with my flashlight just in case any nocturnal rattlesnakes happened to be on the trail. The latrine was about a quarter mile away and I hoped that the trek would prompt morning ablutions. The cabinet was clean, though there was no paper, but being prepared, I opened the lid to the commode.
Why does one compulsively look into the gaping maw of a public toilet? And why would any sane person of normal sensibilities shine her LED flashlight into it? I suppose it’s to determine if there’s room for one more deposit, and in this case it was wise that I did. Despite the omnipresent signs begging users NOT to put anything but poop and tissue in the toilet, someone had filled it to within a couple of inches of the seat with disposable diapers. I decided to take my business elsewhere. No image necessary, I believe I can leave this one to your imagination.
Is there anything finer than having the day lie ahead with nothing to do but follow where your curiosity leads? No schedule to make demands, I lingered in camp, reorganizing and tidying, writing and enjoying the quiet, cool morning. A young coyote took umbrage at the dogs on his turf and commenced to hurl insults at us in the coyote dialect of the region. We had no difficulty understanding him and the girls would have liked to have taught the cheeky youngster some manners, but instead sat watching the brush from whence came his vitriol. Eventually, he got over himself and moved on. As he trotted off, he grumbled more to himself than to us, and I couldn’t help but sympathize with him.
The mile and a half back to Kolob Terrace Road was half as long without the trailer bouncing along behind and in the downhill direction. We turned north continuing to climb towards the Kolob Reservoir.
Scrub brush and junipers gave way to pines and cedars and the kolobs and pinnacles of Zion Canyon graced the views through the trees. I drove slowly and pulled over frequently to allow folks who obviously could process splendor faster than I to pass. The air grew cooler as we climbed and as the aspens laid claim, shivering in the light breeze, their leaves hinted at the golden spectacle they would be less than a month from now.
At the reservoir, it was a pleasant 72 degrees. (Remember that I had driven four hundred miles to escape triple digit temperatures) The road around the reservoir wasn’t paved and I didn’t see any obvious hiking opportunities; so after chatting up a bearded young man who was sitting in front of the canoe rental concession, we headed back down the hill.
We stopped at Lamb’s Canyon, which the sign said offered rock climbing. It was BLM land so the dogs could run free. We hiked around following a crisscross of cow paths and the girls had a field day, bounding through brush, scaring up birds and rabbits. There were a couple of rock climbing outfitters taking beginner clients to climb for the first time. I heard one instructor ask, “Do either of you have a fear of heights or exposure?” I thought that was an odd question considering they had probably just paid him several hundred dollars to take them rock climbing.
In search of a cell connection, I drove down to Virgin where I received Sally’s text that said they were already in La Verkin (5 miles away) working via the Wi-Fi of the River Rock Coffee Company. They spent several hours there, Sally in a virtual meeting and Jordy tutoring students. I drove down and met them for coffee, then got gas and headed back to camp.
I found free camping (BLM) under a canopy of cottonwood trees. The track along the creek wasn’t actually a road and was pretty rough, so I parked the car and walked in. I found a young couple sitting immersed in their electronic devices. I greeted them and confirmed the camping here was free. It became apparent that English wasn’t their native tongue so I asked where they were from. They were from Argentina and their English was significantly better than my Spanish but barely up to the task of conversation. What they lacked in vocabulary, they made up with excellent pronunciation, so talking with them was a pleasure.
Dani and Nanchy were traveling in a van conversion that Dani said Nanchy had built from a bare bones van. It was fully self-contained, including solar power. They had driven it from Argentina, camping along the way. Making a display of my ignorance of the numerous countries they had traversed, I asked about their experiences in Mexico. I’d recently read Paul Theroux’s, On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey, in which he had described the perils and pleasures of traveling in Mexico and I was interested in hearing about their journey. I asked if they had to pay mordida (bribe) to the Federales and Nanchy laughed and said, “Oh yes, all the time”. They were using an app (iOverlander) that allowed other travelers, like themselves, to share where to safely camp, even in big cities. The rule, she said, was never to travel after dark and when possible, camp with a group. Paul Theroux had said the same. They were so genuine and interesting that I invited them to come stay with us if they got to Southern California.
As appealing as the creek-side camping appeared I did not consider moving our camp down to this little slice of heaven by the stream because benthic cyanobacteria mats have been observed in North Creek and the Virgin River. The likely cyanobacteria blooming in the Virgin River is the genus Tychonema. It forms colonies that can be red, yellow, tan, green, brown, or black in color. It produces the cyanotoxin called anatoxin-a, which impacts the nervous system. It posed too great a danger to our dogs who love to play in the stream. It can be dangerous, even fatal, even if it only touches broken skin.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…nothing had changed. The port-a-pots had not been pumped and yet more campers rolled in. I walked my luggable loo down the dusty track to the nearer latrine, hoping it would have had less use, being farther away from the tent encampment. At least it wasn’t filled with diapers but the pumper guy was going to have his hands full when he showed up.
Sally and Jordy arrived just before dark and I suggested a walk to allow their young dog, Bella, to stretch her legs. Accustomed to my sedate dogs, Bella was a whirlwind, a bull in a china shop. Sally and Jordy tried to contain her exuberance by yelling and complaining to little effect. I was instructed to tell her to sit when she jumped up on me. I employed the more effective technique of lifting a knee to fend her off but she soon figured that if she jumped on me from the side, I was defenseless. Sadie was not pleased with her cheeky behavior and tried to keep herself between Bella and me, giving her the stink eye but not actually snarling.
After Sally and Jordy got the contents of their car disgorged onto the ground next to it, and made their bed in the back, we sat in the gathering darkness for a bit. My dogs were ready for bed. Molly climbed into bed and stayed there but Sadie kept coming out of the trailer to encourage me to come to bed with them. So, I bid the girls good-night and came in to write while they trekked down the dusty track to the latrine.
Stay tuned for the next episode of Girls Gone Mild.
Camping and hiking plans in California thwarted by wildfires, Sally and I desperately looked farther afield for options. I noted a small island of smoke-free air over a portion of Southwestern Utah and a new itinerary was born. It was agreed that I would leave on Tuesday, camping at Valley of Fire, which is more or less halfway, and Sally and her daughter Jordy would follow Thursday to meet me at a working cattle ranch just west of Zion National Park.
Planning, provisioning, and packing are always a good portion of the fun of camping and since this was to be the longest and farthest from home I’d ever done, it was especially important to be prepared. This was my second solo trip but still, I felt a little trepidation about the responsibility of all the details. By Monday night, everything except the refrigerated food was loaded. I was so excited I could barely sleep and when I awoke at 4:30, I despaired of going back to sleep and got up.
The drive from home to Las Vegas is always tedious but towing a trailer, it’s LONG and tedious. By the time I got to the turnoff for Valley of Fire, I was way beyond ready to call it a day.
I was gratified to find that my favorite campsite was empty and I quite proficiently backed the Wanderlust into the little box canyon. When we camped here last spring, the protective canyon walls shielded us from the chill wind; but now, at the end of summer, the sun-baked sandstone felt more like a pizza oven.
We all needed some exercise after a day in the car, so before we lost our daylight, we went out to do some rock scrambling. Molly, remembering the skill she had developed last year, led the way with evident enthusiasm. Sadie, has aged in the last year and found that leaping up ledges that were effortless before, now took some planning. I too noticed that I’d lost some agility. We circled around to the back side of our campsite and clambered down the wall to our warm nest.
Dinner consisted of the sliced apples and yogurt that I’d packed for lunch as it was too warm to consider cooking inside the trailer. We sat outside, the dogs ears cocking at every nocturnal rustling, while I jotted the day’s events in my journal. Traveling alone allows ample time for reflection and journaling, a rare pleasure. When my head began nodding over my notebook, I moistened my shorty pajamas and settled into my little bed at the front of the camper. I set up the big bed at the back for the dogs, but this night they chose to sleep outside in the cool sand.
Morning proved to be not a whole lot cooler so we ate a quick cold breakfast and packed up, hoping to do a short hike before the sun got so high that there would be no shade. The trailhead to Natural Arches proved elusive so we plodded up a sandy wash in the general vicinity of the alleged trail.
The trail eventually slotted up into an interesting canyon but shade was intermittent and the dogs soon became overheated; so we turned back after only a mile or so.
Back on the road, the girls napped while I listened to Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety and the miles passed pleasantly.
The Virgin River Gorge is always exciting both in the astounding scenery and in the white-knuckled competition for road space in the narrow canyon. Two lanes in each direction wind through the gorge carved over eons by the Virgin River. From the depth of the canyon, one might envision a raging torrent of a river violently scraping away layers of sedimentary rock. But when one catches a glimpse of the artist at work far below, it is a placid creek, meandering its serpentine path to join the mighty Colorado River at Lake Meade. Not that a driver has many opportunities to ogle the mind-blowing spectacle because big rigs on a mission swarm around my little rig which is trying desperately to adhere to the posted speed limit of 55 mph (autos towing trailers). Even in the most constricted curves, where the posted speed limit is 55 for all vehicles, the average speed is closer to 70.
We found the turn at Virgin that took us up Kolob Terrace Road to the Smith Mesa junction without difficulty. I love Google Maps! Kolob Terrace Road is just another astounding example of man’s road building ingenuity. Rising steeply from the valley floor, it straddles a ridge where in some places the road occupies the entire width of the ridge. Profligately green pastures and expansive ranch houses (actually B&Bs) could be seen in the canyon below if one had the nerve to look. About seven miles up, we found the graded but not paved road veering off to Smith Mesa.
A whole ‘nother adventure presented itself. But this post has grown too long so there will need to be a sequel. Stay tuned.
With the El Dorado wildfire “knock, knock, knocking at heaven’s door”, I’m thinking about what preparations I should be making, just in case the wind shifts to push the inferno down the valley.
My friends who are staying with us illustrated that when the evacuation order comes, is NOT the time to plan your escape. Even though they had hours, even days to decide what to take, their brains could not function in an orderly way. Maybe it’s due to the fact that nobody actually believes that their home will be destroyed. They cling to the thought that they are leaving “just temporarily” to comply with authorities. John and Donna arrived with their two SUVs, not nearly filled to capacity. By their own admission, they had no idea what they had taken; but they soon had time to think of things they should have brought. Most important: mountain bikes and related gear.
And so, I began my preparations with a loving pictorial inventory of my yard. My heart ached to think of my 80 year-old China Berry trees being annihilated, along with their inhabitants. My next step is to create a list of things to pack, in order of importance. One may have minutes or hours, so things like pets, computers, and valuable papers need to go first. If time permits, the rest of the list gets checked off. My pop-up camping trailer provides a modicum of security, insuring that I will always have a bed, a stove and a fridge. Call it a security blanket.
My world continues to shrink as the El Dorado fire rages on. Ignited by ignorant party goers, it has now consumed thousands of acres of forest and displaced hundreds of people and animals who live near the forest.
Yesterday dawned cool but smokey. Since the dogs had not had any exercise in days, we headed out to the wash despite the poor air quality.
I had intended to make it a short walk, but the overcast morning was such an unexpected pleasure, we were loathe to turn back.
I felt like the character in A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World as I explored this familiar but now dystopian wilderness.
This morning the smoke is too thick to go outside without an N95 mask. Thankfully, the Santa Ana winds that were predicted haven’t materialized, which means the smoke and ash remain concentrated in our valley. The monotony of being housebound is relieved by the company of our evacuated friends, John and Donna, who are staying in my mom’s granny flat while the fate of their home remains nebulous. They are lovely guests and great company!
The unexpected cooler, more humid weather has allowed fire fighters to bulldoze a fire break and ignite back-fires above their house. The back-fire was not entirely successful as it was hindered by the the more temperate weather.
John was planning a stealth trip back to his house this afternoon. The roads are barricaded and manned by law enforcement to prevent people from entering the zone; but we mountain bikers know the trails that circumvent the barricades. His plan was to hike in, have one of his scofflaw neighbors drive down to pick him up out of sight of the officials, and stay home long enough to water the plants and tend to whatever is decomposing in the refrigerator. Then, he planned to ride his mountain downhill to his home-away-from-home with us. His daring plan has now been derailed upon hearing, from the postal clerk, that the road may be reopened tomorrow.
Readers often ask me, when they hear of raging wild fires in California, if they are near my neighborhood. Most of the time, they are so far away that, if we notice them at all, we see only the smokey haze that creeps up our valley at the end of the day. Occasionally, one erupts closer to home which makes ash rain down and subdues the fierce summer sun. And rarely, hell descends upon us.
Yesterday, with temperatures nudging 120 degrees and a light wind wafting oven-baked air from the low desert, a spark ignited brush in a newly minted park a scant 5 – 10 miles away. A pillar of smoke quickly shrouded the cheery, decorative clouds that punctuated the flawless blue sky.
By the time I came home from visiting with Sally (we have been unable to ride together because of the excessive heat), the entire ridge was in flames, clearly visible from the freeway twenty miles away.
This morning, we are bracing for another day of 120 degrees AND Santa Ana winds! (just in case the fire fighters were thinking they might make some headway towards containment)
Mike, always the pessimist, predicts our forests will be entirely gone within ten years. There’s no doubt that the warming climate is taking its toll on vegetation, making it more vulnerable to fire. Rain, when it does come, is more inclined to come in brief downpours that wash the denuded soil down into the canyons, burying steams and riparian ecosystems in ashy mud.
We invited John, a cycling friend who lives in the evacuated area, to hunker down in my mom’s granny flat. Initially, he gratefully accepted; but later decided to stay in his mountain home to monitor the water system in their village. He is the chairman of the water company board.
The Village, as it’s called, is at the bottom of the ridge where the fire rages, and on the opposite side of Mill Creek. The creek is only a trickle but it has a wide swath of relatively clear wash-bottom that provides a good defensible space between the fire and the houses. That said, Santa Ana winds could easily carry embers into the wooded village. The highway to their home is closed to outside traffic but I assume, should it come to that, he would be able to drive down the hill.
Bombarded by news feeds that shrill, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling!”, even a stoic like me, grows morose occasionally. There are so many behaviors that baffle me, so many inexplicable points of view that make me wonder why mankind assumes it is superior to the rest of the animal kingdom. From my vantage point, man is simply less tolerant and more lethal.
To reset my equanimity I generally put some distance between me and the world by hiking or biking off the beaten path. Just a mile from my front door lies the Santa Ana River, a mile-wide, rock-strewn, paradise where I can wander for hours and the girls can sniff, chase, and roll in whatever disgusting thing they can find. There’s not much that the $#!t-eating grin of a happy dog can’t cure.
In the cool of the morning, we set off with a full hydration pack, a trekking stick with the rubber tip removed, and a small canister of pepper gel. Why the defensive weapons, you ask? Well, the local news source had published a story of a man and his gentle Labrador Retriever being attacked by a couple of pit bulls, only a mile away from our sanctuary. The owner of the dogs stuck around long enough for the Sheriff to show up, but he gave a false address so animal control wasn’t able to take any action. The article included a photo of the man’s vehicle, which included a license plate, so I would imagine he will eventually be tracked down. Sadly, his dogs will suffer for his ignorance.
At any rate, with the violence of the world on my mind, we set off. Taking comfort in the fact that the dogs have had their rattlesnake vaccines, I allowed them to explore off trail, knowing they are not clever enough to catch anything. The farther we got from civilization, the more my mind relaxed. There was ample evidence that others wander “my” trails, sneaker prints, paw prints, motorcycle tire tracks, but little trash. Two girls, wearing matching team running jerseys, greeted me pleasantly as they loped by, and a lone motorcyclist sped down a distant trail, but otherwise, we were alone with our thoughts.
And soon enough those thoughts turned to breakfast; and so our footsteps turned towards home, mind and body restored.
That was the way my sister, Babs, described our trip to Big Bear Lake. Though it was never intended to be an epic adventure, merely a short break from the oppressive August heat, we did think it would be well worth the hour drive. And, quite honestly, it really was.
A generous friend has a vacation house in the mountain community of Big Bear Lake, about an hour’s drive from my home. When I texted to ask if it would be available today and tomorrow, he said I was welcome to use it as nobody else would be there. Actually, he was pleased that I would go up and check on the place as he had found it with open windows and unlocked doors, full of flies, and the gate not secured when he had gone up last weekend. Evidently, the last people who had used it had neglected to lock up, though they insisted that they had. Since he couldn’t be sure, he had changed the lock on the door and said I should look for the new key on a red flower pot, on the front porch. I keep a set of keys for the place, so I was glad he had told me where to look for the new door key.
I called my sister and suggested she meet us up there, packed an overnight bag and a cooler full of food for the dogs and me, and headed for the hills. I was gratified to see the temperature dropping and a few sprinkles of rain as I ascended the mountain.
No sooner had we arrived at the cabin when it began to rain. I searched the porch for the red flower pot that held the key. No red flower pot, no key.
Scantily dressed, the chill 66 degrees raised goose flesh, a novel experience. It also increased the urge to …well you know… The house is in a regular neighborhood but thankfully, none of the neighbors were visible; so, I made use of what little privacy the tool shed afforded.
Babs soon arrived and when I told her of our problem, she too made use of the lee side of the tool shed. Or now maybe it would be called the pee side of the tool shed. At any rate we were not sorry to see the rain become a serious downpour to eliminate the evidence of our indiscretion.
A response to my text soon arrived from the owner of the house. He clarified that the key was on a milk can, next to the door, on the porch…at his home in Redlands. Minor detail.
We sat on the porch mulling over our options and enjoying the deluge. Popcorn-sized hail stones bounced around the yard and the dogs looked uneasy as thunder shook the porch.
Reluctant to admit defeat, I scoured the tool shed for something to use to break into the sliding glass door that was secured with a simple stick in the track. I could get the door open about 2 -3 inches, just wide enough to get my hand inside.
Of course, nothing worked. So, there was naught to be done but go out for breakfast (my sister’s brilliant solution) at Thelma’s because they have outdoor seating (my deluded idea). We drove into town thinking that the rain would surely slacken and the sun would smile upon us. But no, if anything it intensified and Thelma’s patio was a swamp.
By now, I was soaked and chilled to the bone. I’m bragging here, certainly NOT complaining. Remember it’s 100 degrees with 28% humidity at home. But nonetheless, we decided to take a rain check and head for home.
In no hurry, I drove slowly and when I left the rain behind, I rolled the windows down and breathed in the aroma of heaven. There is nothing like a freshly-washed, Southern California forest. I detoured to a hiking trail that I like, but signs informed me that the San Gorgonio Wilderness was closed due to the Apple fire.
By now, I was feeling lethargic from the lack of exercise, so I wasn’t too disappointed. I figured a nice piece of fresh, fruit-of-the-forest pie, a la mode, at The Oaks restaurant, would be just fine. But, of course, they had only pecan pie, easily resisted.
Now this might have all added up to a disappointing vacation if viewed as a series of thwarted plans, but it was absolutely not! There was the anticipation, the beautiful drive, the thunder storm, and time with my sister, all condensed into one day.
Ladies, have you noticed lately that your man seems to be more annoying than previously, and by previously, I mean pre-Covid?
We live in a modestly sized house on a proportionally large lot which normally works out pretty well for me because I’m not crazy about being indoors. However, the house has grown noticeably smaller with both Mike and me (and three cats and two dogs) home almost ALL of the time. Then factor in the Southern California August weather, 108 degrees with 16% humidity, and you have two normally active adults hunkered down, sharing said shrinking space.
But here is the marriage saver: The Man Cave.
Mike has been building guitars in his spare time for many years, and now that he’s retired, he works at it almost full time. He claims the work is either boring or stressful but I gather there is something therapeutic about it since he’s currently working on numbers 10 and 11. He imagines that he will someday sell them, but since neither of us have any marketing skills, they continue to pile up, each one more beautiful than the last.
These classical, nylon string guitars are more sensitive to humidity than more robust instruments and so are kept in a humidified room. Bear in mind, today’s 16% humidity is uncomfortably high in these parts.
The man cave also serves as our bike shop.
Visitors are welcome so Molly, Sadie, and I visit just long enough to remember how annoying our constant companion can be and then trot back to our own space where I turn the produce of my garden into my own works of art.