When I was seven years old we moved to Colorado. I recall sleeping on floor of motel room, thinking hard about what my new home might look like. I imagined that all the houses were log cabins, like the ones we’d stayed in on our vacation to Vicker’s Ranch in Lake City. I didn’t pull on an extra blanket in the middle of the night when the AC got too cold. It’s going to be cold there, I thought, I’ll have to learn to deal with it.
I was immediately fascinated with what it looked like, this new home of mine. I had lived in a fairly nondescript suburb in a flat, flat place, and though I loved every detail, knew what it looked like, Colorado was new and fresh. It had HILLS. It had MOUNTAINS. The ground, rather than retreating away from you, rose up to meet you. I spent so much of my time just LOOKING. Looking with the intensity of a young artist who cannot yet capture anything that grandiose. Something so huge and wonderful. On every ride in the car -- be that a trip to the grocery store or a long Sunday drive in the countryside -- my nose was pressed against the glass, trying to take it all in. Imagining what animals lived in those hills. Pretending to BE the animals living in those hills when we got home. Walking for hours and hours on the hills surrounding my home, setting my sights on the larger foothills and mountains as I grew older.
On Saturday I received this photo in an email from my mother, taken from the grocery store three blocks away.
This was my first piece of news about the Waldo Canyon Fire, something that has completely taken over my life since then.
My mother lives in a neighborhood in the NW of Colorado Springs, as do most of the friends and family and friends-of-the-family -- all those people one gets to know over twenty years. Incidental people. Faces from coffee shops, baggers at the grocery stores. That lady who walks her white fluffy dogs every day.
Here’s what I want to tell you about, so you are prepared should this ever happen to you. When a natural disaster slowly encroaches on the place you grew up, the story isn’t just about the natural disaster. It’s much more personal. Well, I suppose that goes without saying. But what I want to get across is the heartbreak you feel at the brink of the approaching disaster. Before the structure damage, before the troubling statistics about missing persons and looting. Because what you see first is the plume of smoke, in the distant hills. And to everyone else who sees this once it makes national news, it’s just smoke in some hills. But those are my hills. My safe and quiet hills of home.
When I saw subsequent photographs of the plume of smoke, I knew immediately where it was, which areas of town were in danger, and became incredibly anxious to get more information. I knew which group of friends to worry for most. Nothing is anonymous for me in this story. When they say “we’re struggling to hold the line at Blodgett” I think of that hill, Blodgett, and how the road curved towards it. The base is a crest of a hill, a loop that can lead back down the hill to Mom’s church. I think about driving back there when I was in high school, when I would be out just driving to drive. I think about that time we pulled into the parking lot, which was one of those “make-out points”, to roll down the windows and scream. (All about random acts of surrealism, my group was.) Imagining it on fire made my mouth go dry. Seeing it on fire in photographs is insupportable.
You can’t but think of the landscape surrounding your childhood home, I don’t care what it looked like. Even if that landscape is other people’s houses.
Which, unfortunately, is also not immune to destruction.
There is a kind of famous picture circulating around of homes catching on fire -- it’s so “good” in the media shock-factor sense that the Denver Post had it uploaded four different times in a gallery. The same photograph, all just from slightly different lights and angles. I don’t know if I know anyone who lived in those houses, (it’s very likely,) but it is taken from a road I drove down every day to get to my job at the smoothie place in high school. The reddish geometric building in the lower lefthand corner is the church some friends of mine went to for a while. I attended a lock-in there. And so on. The memories just flood my already overwhelmed brain as I try and sift through all this stuff. And I’ve spent a lot of time sifting this week. It's what a lot of us are doing who aren't actually in the area. We can't flip on the local public radio station or turn on the TV for updates, so we have to pick up everything we can ourselves. We weed out the "aaugh my home is burning" comments (which thus far have been mostly, thankfully, over-reactions,) and grimly assess where the actual line of the fire really is. And track its sometimes slow, sometimes quick, progress down the mountains.
It goes without saying that my regular scheduled workweek sort of ground to a halt this week. Somewhere in the midst of all this I took down my Canby library show, and as soon as I finish typing this I am going to list some of the new paintings in the store. But then I’m taking an internet holiday. Just for a few days, to give me enough time to go to the seaside and take a break from all this. I’ve been playing around with landscapes and have a lot to say about that, and of course the Charles Dickens project is still going very well. I have five paintings blocked out and in progress that are working beautifully so far. Lots of good things on the way. I just have to blow all of this smoke out of my eyes first.