Month: August 2015

The West is on Fire

Our Cabin in Winter

Our Cabin in Winter

This morning, moments after I woke up, Kellie greeted me by saying, “It’s all over.”

“Huh?” I said, rubbing my eyes and starting the kettle.

“Our cabin,” she said, and explained that Aeneas Valley was evacuated overnight. Our cabin currently sits between two rapidly growing fires.

Just last weekend we had traveled there with a weed whacker in the back of the truck because the fire season was well under way, because it was already a bad one, because we were overdue for our annual fire abatement—and also, because we love it there.

interiorWe left on a Friday morning, the same morning that lightning had started dozens of small fires. Some of the fires had grown into big ones. As we drove through Chelan, the air grew increasingly thick with smoke. The parking lot of the elementary school was filled with fire trucks and mobilizing crews. Spectators lined up on one side of the bridge, shielding their eyes with their hands. As we crossed the bridge, I saw what they saw: a bright red fire descending down a not-so-distant hill.

For a mile we drove through smoke as thick as fog. When we finally turned North and traveled along the Columbia River, the air became suddenly clear enough that we could see again, and I felt just as suddenly that we had emerged from a place we shouldn’t have been. My sons pointed out the window, watching as a helicopter descended and filled its red bucket in the river. The bucket looked so small—like an overfilled water balloon—that I wondered how it was even worth the effort.

“That bucket carries 350 gallons,” Kellie told us. She speaks from experience. For nine years she fought fires on a helitack crew. Any time we hit the road during fire season, I can see something like nostalgia rise within her, a former way of being, woman vs. fire.

We traveled for another eighty miles, but the smoke never fully cleared. When we arrived at our cabin the air was visibly hazy. Kellie got out of her truck and surveyed the horizon. “That’s not good,” she said. She pointed to a puffy white cloud. It was mostly blocked by trees but steadily growing. Our kids ran wild around the cabin, but I stood there watching as Kellie narrated the cloud to me. There, where the cloud looked brown, living things were burning up. There, where white smoke fed the cloud, that fire was burning hot. I stood there transfixed. Without Kellie’s help I might not have even noticed that cloud, but now the more I looked the more I understood it as a living growing thing.

“Should we even stay?” I asked her. It was six o’clock already, and the sun would soon sink on the other side of the hills.

“It will cool down tonight,” Kellie said. “We’ll watch it in the morning.”

I spent the night awake, imagining the fire creeping towards us, the phrase “fast as wildfire” in my head, but when morning came our land was magically clear and still. Stump, our two-year-old son, played on the porch while I drank my morning tea at the picnic table. My heart filled. Usually being in wilderness feels good, but there’s angst at the edges. It’s a little too hot or a little too cold, or you’re swatting away at black flies, or your kids are fighting, or one of your dogs keeps putting his nose in your crotch. But this morning the sky was blue and the air was just cool enough. The smoke had settled. The fire clouds from yesterday had disappeared.

RocksKellie spent the day whacking down dry grass and raking it into piles. Together we moved the piles to a tarp and dragged them away from the cabin. Every year we had done this. The idea is to create a safe un-flammable circle around the cabin, but to be honest it feels more like dropping a penny in a well.

That evening Kellie said to me, “If there’s anything you want to save, now’s the time to grab it.” It took me a minute to realize what she meant. She meant that even though the air looked clear right now, even though I had relaxed my guard, I should prepare to say goodbye. I should save any object I wanted to keep. Kellie pointed to a painting of a mountain goat we’d found at a thrift store, and an antique wooden goblet that featured an elk. These were her choices. I agreed with them.

Only two weeks ago, I wrote about object attachment and how, if you asked me what three things I would save from a fire I wouldn’t know what to choose. As it turns out, that was accurate. As I looked around the cabin, the things that I wanted to save were the walls, the floor, the woodstove, the porch. The actual cabin. There wasn’t any individual thing I wanted, just all of things, together.

Earlier in the day it had occurred to me: this cabin was the one thing that Kellie and I have bought and made together. Kellie and I had been a couple for three years when we decided to buy raw land. We spent months driving around the state every weekend looking at parcels. We bought land where we did because it was cheap and wild and beautiful, even though it meant driving three hundred miles on the highway and another six miles up a rutted dirt road. We paid a local jack-of-all-trades to build a cabin: four walls and a loft and some windows. We’d do all the finish work ourselves.

For at least three years we spent seasons full of weekends making that drive to put in floors, build an outhouse, install a deck. I’m not handy, but I can follow directions and Kellie can give them, and so when I look at the floors I remember installing the boards with a pry bar and a nail gun, and when I look at the ceilings I remember trying to hold the sheets of plywood steady, one at a time, while Kellie nailed them to the beams.

We were probably halfway through this years-long project when Kellie and I got married in front of family and friends, but when I look back on things it feels like that cabin is the thing that married us. Because driving six hundred miles together every weekend, and drinking beers on the front porch as the sun sunk below the hills, and arguing about whether or not that board is hung at an angle, and trading off two-minute solar showers, those are the things that bound us.

fireOn Sunday afternoon, the day before we had planned to leave, we drove eight miles to the general store for ice cream. As we pulled into the dirt parking lot there were people watching the most recent blaze. The fire was climbing up one side of the hill, and it was clear that soon it would descend on the other side. The store owner said he would stay open all night. Further in the distance was another fire cloud. These two fires were expected to combine and grow. A couple in a Subaru pulled in next to us as we watched the fire and ate our ice cream.

“Is anyone fighting that?” a tall man in his thirties asked Kellie.

“There’s no one left to fight it,” Kellie said. “The whole west is on fire.” We watched as a single airplane zigzagged in the distance, but so far there was no parade of fire trucks, no clear and obvious rally like what we’d seen in Chelan.

sunThat night I took a bath outside as the clouds changed color and I felt as lucky as I ever have to be nestled, naked, in the mountains. Though I knew that fires blazed less than ten miles away, the air was clear and it was easy to believe that all was well, that it always had been and it always would be.

This morning, after Kellie shared the news about the evacuation and the growing fire, as I slowly woke up and tried to believe what I knew was real, I thought about our cabin floors again, and our walls. From the beginning we knew that we risked losing anything we built on that mountain, that wild fires blazed every year and missing them was just a matter of luck. Still, we didn’t build a cabin we could bear to lose. We built it as if we planned to pass it on to our sons, to keep it in our family forever. We loved every beam and every plank. We cut our pieces carefully and laid them out true. And I realize that is exactly how I want to live.


The ER Conundrum: Life, Death, & Inconvenience


Last Saturday, Stump was stung by a bee. It was a hot afternoon and Stump was splashing in his pool. One moment, a honeybee was hovering just a bit above his head, and the next thing I knew, Stump was wiping at his face, crying, “Sting me!” I lifted him from the pool and Kellie pulled the tiny brown stinger from his forehead.

Stump has been stung before, and I knew enough to worry. I brought him inside for a dose of Benedryl and sat him in front of the TV, so that I could watch him. I knew that swelling on its own was not a sign of anaphylaxis, but still it was alarming to watch his face transform. The swelling spread from his forehead to his eye. Though the left side of his face was normal, the right side was unrecognizable.

And then he started coughing. It was a little cough, one that I wouldn’t have thought anything of on a different day, but it was undeniably regular. Every twenty seconds or so as he watched Handy Manny—cough, cough.

If you google “signs of anaphylaxis”, “difficulty breathing” is the first thing on the list. If you continue this investigation, you’ll discover that coughing counts as difficulty breathing.

It was the kind of situation I’ve found myself in too many times since having kids: I’ve got a problem that might be urgent—a fever that spikes at 106, say, or an asthma attack in the middle of the night. It’s probably okay, though—my child is responsive and his color looks fine. But what if I’m wrong? What if it’s not okay?

In this case, Stump didn’t start coughing until fifteen minutes after the sting and true anaphylaxis usually happens immediately. It seemed like the most likely scenario was that Stump would continue to cough until the Benedryl kicked in. We could probably stay home. But if I were to follow the internet’s guidance, I’d bring him in just to be safe.

The closest ER is an eight-minute drive from my house, and I know what to expect there, especially on a full-moon Saturday evening. The waiting room would be packed with a wild assortment of people: people coughing behind medical masks, people taking up a bench all snuggled in blankets, people with one sock off and an elevated foot, people crying on their cell phones, people moaning, people just sitting quietly with magazines and waiting.

And so, faced with a probably-ok-but-scary situation, I always picture the ER and think, Really? Do I really need to go there? Now?

Because first of all, the ER feels like its own risk, the opposite of what a body in crisis needs. When my child is sick I don’t want to bring him to a room full of suffering strangers, to make him wait for hours past his bedtime, to take off his clothes and have a new doctor press a cold stethoscope against his chest.

But also, I can’t deny that I just plain don’t feel like dealing. Sometimes I’d rather keep my own vigil; I’d rather worry from the comfort of my couch.

And this time I would have. I would have tracked Stump’s cough until it eased and then I would have continued on with our evening. Except then he started moving a tongue in a circle on the inside of his mouth as if trying to ease an itch. When I asked him about it, he looked me in the eye and said, “bye-bye.”

The nurse at the check-in desk had close-cropped hair and a nose ring. She took out her stethoscope and listened to Stump’s breathing across the counter. “He sounds clear,” she said. She examined his tongue. “We’ll get you seen,” she promised. “If anything changes, you come and tell me right away.”

But nothing changed, except that Stump’s Benedryl-induced stupor wore off the moment I set him down in the ER waiting area. He ran through the aisles of patients and climbed up on the windowsill to examine the statue of Mary in the twilight. “Go there?” he asked. He pointed to the bike rack outside and said “Playground?” But there is no playground at the ER. These are some of the ways that Stump passed the time:

  • Ran to the end of the ER corridor.
  • Discovered that the main lobby of the hospital was accessible to us, and totally empty. Experimented with echoes.
  • Pressed the buttons on the water fountain until the whole front of his shirt was soaked through.
  • Chose a bag of chocolate chip cookies from the vending machine, ripped it open down the middle, and then insisted on carrying the “whole bag!” with him at all times.
  • Went outside for a change of scenery, yelled “hi” at the woman trying to talk on her phone, successfully broke free from me to stomp on the landscaped beds.
  • Returned to the empty lobby and took off his sandals. Discovered that soles of feet were now black from stomping on dirt. Washed feet in bathroom sink.

one-eyedWIt was ten by then, and Stump was getting tired. This didn’t mean that he was slowing down; it meant that he was hitting me. Stump is not the kind of kid who is capable of getting sleepy in an ER. Stump does not get sleepy until everything is quiet and all the lights are out. We had waited two hours, but when I looked around I realized that all of the people sitting in the waiting room were the same people I’d seen at our arrival. As far as I could tell, no one had seen a doctor yet.

I’m embarrassed now to admit this, but: I wondered if I was allowed to leave. Like, once you checked your kid into the ER, was it easy to check him out? Would I be accused of child neglect? Would I be judged? Because it was well past bedtime, and though Stump’s eye looked awful I was pretty damn sure he was going to be okay.

And so, I hovered near the check-in desk, trying to gauge my options. The same short-haired nurse who had listened to Stump’s lungs was still there, and a woman with black hair and bright pink lipstick had joined her. An older woman leaned into their space and asked for information. “Do you know how much longer it’s going to be?”

The short-haired nurse shook her head. “I can’t tell you that,” she said, annoyed. “Some people are waiting six hours and I’ve got ambulances coming with new patients. If you want to leave that’s up to you.”

When she left, I approached them sheepishly. “I know you can’t advise me,” I whispered to the nurse who wore lipstick. “But we’ve been here two hours, and he’s tired, and I’m thinking he’s probably not going to go into shock at this point, so—“

“Oh honey,” she interrupted. “You’re so sweet. He looks great. I think you’re fine.” I understood that she meant this as a compliment, but I felt a little stupid for having waited so long. She tapped the short-haired nurse on the shoulder. “These guys should go home, dontcha think?” she asked.

The short-haired woman looked up from her computer. “Well, he sounded clear when you came in and I’ve been watching him run around the last two hours.”

“Okay,” I said. The other nurse had already handed me a waiver and I was signing it.

The short-haired nurse spoke again. “But officially I’d recommend you wait for the triage nurse to see you. She can assess the situation.”

“Oh,” I said, looking back and forth between the two women, and then back down at the waiver.

“I’m just giving my professional opinion,” she said. And then, I swear, she winked at me. “If you want to go home, I totally get it.”

I bolted out of there into the warm night air, clutching Stump at my side. The moon was rising; it was orange. Stump pointed at it and said “The moon! The moon!” By the time I had navigated out of the hospital campus and turned onto the main road, he had fallen asleep.

When I laid him on the bed, above the covers, both eyes closed, his breathing steady, measured, normal, you might not have guessed that anything was ever wrong.