Choking in Smoke as The West Burns

IMG_20170905_184257376_HDR[1]As I get ready for church choir practice, it seems unusually dark for 6:30 p.m. I leave the porch light on for the first time this summer. The reason for the darkness becomes clear when I turn west toward Highway 101. “Oh my God!” At the post office, I stop the car and fumble for my cell phone to take a picture.

The sun hanging over the ocean is red-orange, discolored by the smoke from the wildfires burning in Oregon and throughout the western United States. Unlike the eclipse two weeks ago, I don’t need special glasses to watch it because the light is muted, not bright enough to hurt my eyes.

My photos don’t do it justice. I turn north toward Newport, frequently glancing left at this sun so like a harvest moon but redder and on the wrong side of the road. When I look again in the church parking lot, the sun, still an hour from sunset, is nearly hidden in smoke.

When we come out, it’s dark. I see neither sun nor moon. There are no stars. There is only smoke.

Unlike the eclipse, this sky show does not bring me joy.

We are over a hundred miles from the closest fire yet the smoke has turned everything gray since Saturday. In brief moments when the sun breaks through, it tints everything a strange orange color. My nose keeps running. I miss my blue summer skies.

But this is just the smallest taste of it. Inland, where the fires are closer and the temperature has been in the 90s and 100s, ash rains like snow. The smoke is so thick it’s not safe to breathe. Like heavy fogs, it covers everything but without the cool refreshment of fog. And the fires, my God. Judging by the photos, all of Oregon is burning. And not just Oregon. Fires rage in California, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado. See the map here. The fires are so big the only hope of putting them out anytime soon is a monster rainstorm to rival the one that flooded Texas and neighboring states with Hurricane Harvey.

Not long ago, my brother Mike’s home was threatened by such a fire burning around his home near Yosemite. His family was ordered to evacuate. They stayed with my niece in Merced, but Mike kept returning to his mountaintop home to check on its status and protect it from looters. At the same time, Mariposa, the town where he works as a superior court judge, sat in the fire’s path, evacuated but for a few people helping to care for the firefighters. The historic courthouse could have gone up in flames. In the end, his home and his town were spared, but the blaze, labeled the Detwiler fire, destroyed 63 homes and burned more than 81,000 acres. The miles of blackened landscape come within 200 yards of Mike’s property, a constant reminder of what could have happened. They’ll never forget the fear or the taste of smoke in their mouths. But fire season isn’t over. Another fire is burning today near Yosemite.

The biggest fire in Oregon right now is in the Columbia River Gorge. It is burning on the Pacific Crest Trail, around Multnomah Falls, and even across the river in Washington. It was started by kids playing with fireworks, a stupid, horrible thing. A cigarette reportedly sparked the Mariposa fire. Lightning started many of the other fires. Some say the fires are a natural process, designed to clear out the forests and start fresh. People and their buildings don’t fit into that equation. Nor do people help when they ignore firefighters’ pleas not to burn ANYTHING.

It has been a crazy year. After four years of drought, California experienced epic rains. So did Oregon. Day after day after day. Then came weeks of extraordinary heat. The result: wild growth of grasses, shrubs, and trees that make perfect fuel for fires. Now we’re burning.

Out my window, it’s as gray as any winter morning, but the grayness is smoke, not moisture. I like sunshine. I like to sit out in the sun, to bathe in its warmth. I dread winter. But today I’m praying hard for rain to put out the fires and clean the air, to give us back our sun and moon and to help all those people losing everything to the flames. If you are in the path of the fires, floods or hurricanes, you are in my prayers.

What is it like where you are? Are you or your loved ones in danger? How are you coping?

 

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Highway 58 detour worth every mile

img_20160906_101219591For 20 years, I’ve been driving back and forth from my home on the Oregon coast to San Jose, California, where my family lives. I usually take I-5, a straight shot inland, or, if there’s snow in the mountains, I take Highway 101 along the coast. See the same things, stop at the same places, no time for side trips, tempting as they are. It takes me about 13 hours.

This time was different. I scheduled in extra time for a vacation. Just outside Eugene, I left I-5 and headed southeast on Oregon Highway 58. I wanted to see some of the sights I’d seen in the winter on the train and take a little time for myself.  I wanted to see waterfalls and lakes. I wanted to hike in the high country. I wanted to sit by a river and write poetry. I wanted to see the tiny towns along the way and end up in Klamath Falls where my grandmother started her teaching career a little over a hundred years ago. So I did.

Everything published about Highway 58 emphasizes that it leads to Crater Lake, and yes, you can get there that way, but I had already seen Crater Lake several times. I was seeking new territory. Over the next few posts, I plan to share some of that country with you. Did it bother me to be a woman traveling alone? Maybe it should have, but no. I enjoyed my freedom.

Things didn’t start off great as I left home on Labor Day. It killed me to leave Annie, who is not a good traveler. Assuring her she’d have a great time with her dog sitter, “Auntie Jo,” did not keep her from following me around with her tail hanging low. Then I discovered the restaurant where I had my heart set on eating lunch–Eats & Treats in Philomath, so good–is not open on Mondays. So I forged on, taking a different route to Eugene, only to get miserably lost. Thank God for GPS. I ended up eating lunch at the kind of diner where they vacuum around your feet while the waitress hollers, “Whatcha gonna have?” The chicken tortilla soup with two chunks of chicken and four tortilla squares floating on top set my stomach on fire.

dscn4040But then I got out of the city and encountered the first of two covered bridges on this route. The Lowell Covered Bridge is located at the Dexter Reservoir. Ah! Water, trees, blue sky. Also a restroom. I took pictures of the bridge and sank onto a bench to stare at the lake. Now we were on vacation.

Down the road, I came to the Office Bridge. It has openings for both cars and pedestrians. Walk or drive through into a big park with covered picnic areas and hiking trails. I could have sat there and stared at the Willamette River flowing below forever. Note that the directions I got online were wrong. I kept looking for West Road. I think it was a typo. Simply take the Westfir exit off 58 and follow the signs for three miles. There’s a store and a resort there for those who want to stay a while.

img_20160905_154516584Having gotten a late start and gotten lost a couple times, I hadn’t really gotten far from Eugene, but that wasn’t the point. I spent the night in Oakridge, population 3,200. I toured the “downtown business district.” It was pretty quiet on the holiday. Everything was coated in dust from months of no rain. Relaxing at the Best Western (yes, they have one), I noticed the phone book: six yellow pages for business, 32 pages total. The phone book is published by the local newspaper, the Dead Mountain Echo, not a bad local weekly. Why would anybody stay here, I thought. But I learned it’s a hub for mountain bikers, of which there were plenty, and folks also make beer there. They even have a Keg and Cask festival in August. Being only two hours from Eugene if you don’t mess around, Oakridge has a small-town feel with access to big-city amenities.

At dinnertime, I was surprised to find a Mazatlan Mexican restaurant in town and even more surprised that the food was fabulous. Shame on me for stereotyping small towns.

In the morning, surprise! It was raining. What? I had all these hiking plans and this list of stops: hot spring, waterfalls, trails, lakes. Rain? The guy at the gas station was deliriously happy to see water coming out of the sky and hoped for lots more. Sure, but today? I get plenty of rain at home. Never mind, we Oregonians carry on.

Somehow I missed the McCreadie Hot Springs–darned online directions again–but I found the biggest waterfall. Cascading 286 feet, Salt Creek Falls is the second highest waterfall in Oregon, Multnomah being the highest. It was worth the wet walk. Oh my gosh. The trail took me along the creek until it suddenly fell off a ledge and there were the falls, so big, so white, falling deep into a canyon below. My camera can’t portray the way it made me feel. Deep breath.

From the waterfall, I started off on one of the many trails, but it was just too wet, and I feared I would slip and fall into the creek. Nobody knew where I was. Bad idea. Back on the road. Waldo Lake, Diamond Peak, the Willamette Pass Ski Resort, Crescent Lake, Odell Lake, the turnoff to Crater Lake, and finally Klamath Falls, where I pigged out on a Reuben sandwich at Elmer’s and checked into the Holiday Inn Express. Back in civilization again. But that’s another story. If you’re in the mood to wander, check out Highway 58. There are lots of trains, more waterfalls to see, campgrounds and picnic areas, and places to ski. (Bring chains in the winter.The Willamette Pass is over 5,000 feet.)

BTW, I hear truckers take it south to California because it’s faster than I-5. Not the way I did it.