Smoky Bear, Where are You?
Sore throats and red suns: even in Tennesee, there is smoke
Hi! I’m Sasha! Thanks for hanging out with me. I have a sore throat and no, it’s not from the unspeakable, but rather some fairly awful smoke. Without further ado, buckle up for this week’s newsletter.
The smoke arrived in Tennessee ten days ago.
I didn’t recognize the smoke but the red sun was large and tangerine hovering in the gray sky. I registered it as strange, then let it be. Later on, I played in dirt next to tomatoes and melons and said aloud to myself, “someone must be barbecuing.” The next morning my lungs informed me it was not a barbecue. Smoke had enveloped Chattanooga from the massive forest fires in Western states and from Canada. Part of me is embarrassed I didn’t recognize the smoke after having lived in Oregon for most of my life, but there the smoke was often closer, denser, more suffocating than it was thousands of miles away.
Nearly three years ago on our second afternoon on the road, we waded through long dry grasses outside Red Bluff, California. I took photos of old snags and stood and watched the Sacramento river. I greedily sucked the warm sunshine up as it touched my uncovered skin, but we didn’t stay long. Instead, we left the Northern part of the state quickly.
I had wanted to be in the Bay with friends and after two nights in Red Bluff, we rushed down to see them. In places we would normally stop and explore, we pushed by with vacant promises to return. The greens of the pine trees crept close to the highway as we wound down from Oregon to California along I-5. Surrounded by nature and asphalt, I felt free.
We had been officially on the road for six days on the day that I sat in the car with my best friend. We’d gotten manicures in Danville, California, and neither she nor I had noticed the smoke when we rushed into Starbucks for coffee, but less than two hours later as she drove us on I-680, the sky had turned a thick gray. Miles from her home, the stoplights hazed strangely on the day like headlights at night.
The Camp Fire had begun just South of where we had passed through days earlier. Within 17 days, the fire would be marked as the most destructive and deadliest wildfire that California had ever seen. We knew then that we risked not experiencing California’s Northern area as thoroughly as we wanted, but what we didn’t know was how much would change before we could return.
Had we slowed our travels, we would have been stuck North of our friends, angry that we would have to bypass California for the foreseeable future. As the smoke thickened through that week in November, we waved goodbye to our Bay friends and migrated like geese to the beaches of Texas.
It wasn’t until 18 months later that we made good on our promise to return to Northern California, inching up I-5 from San Diego. Our travels had slowed and we searched places that would let us camp for a week or two during the pandemic, stopping often in truck stops and empty closed-up casinos for a night or two along the way to Southern Oregon. We came an hour or two away from Red Bluff, the image burned into my memory as a place of freedom: that which marked the truest moment of escape from our previous lives. Our normal lives.
Instead of the tall green trees, we found scorched earth. Brown roads and short new green growth of grasses created a landscape of starkness behind the blackened trunks. We drove quietly. We watched the ravaged landscape.
We drove further North than we intended.
Now, there was no use in stopping. Our promises had failed.
Today in Tennessee, my throat burns with the smoke from thousands of miles away. It reminds me of my childhood summers in the high desert of Bend, Oregon. So I close my eyes and I wish peace upon those affected and hold my breath that tomorrow will bring less wind and a little rain, and I think about the first week on the road, and even through that smoke, I remember the sense of freedom. I am free.
Thanks for traveling with me,
Down the Rabbit Hole
The Camp Fire of 2018, deemed such due to the nature of the fire cause, killed 85 people. It was horrible, but that is a theme that the Western states battle against frequently. My earliest memory of fires was in 1990 from a fire called the Awbrey Hall Fire during which my family took in a family evacuated from the outskirts of town. I was seven. Since that year, I have consistently kept a bag packed in the event that we would need to be evacuated. Now, I keep it packed for hurricanes and tornados - not sure which I’d rather have.