By Meg Upton
On Friday, I saw Greenville for the first time since July 15. I’ve never been a rubbernecker. I shy away from cops and robbers stories and I feel uncomfortable with ambulance chasing. I could have used my press pass days ago but chose not to for the emotional uneasiness I didn’t think I was ready for. I also didn’t want to take photos of anyone’s house before they’d been notified or knew whether or not it was still standing.
The drive is reflexive. My car knows where to go even if everything looks foreign under the thick-layer particulate smoke.
The whole drive down Hwy 70 to the Greenville Wye and on to Hwy 89 to Indian Falls was familiar and foreign at the same time. It felt like being trapped in the Upside Down like on Netflix’ Stranger Things. It was real and it was not real at the same time. The landscape is permanently altered for the rest of so many of our lifetimes no matter what sort of restoration occurs next. I stopped and took some photos of this first drive in a new world, but I had my mind on other places.
I drove directly to the National Guard checkpoint at Stampfli Lane though I’d watched and heard various Indian Valley residents speak harshly about their presence in our community, I was grateful at the same time. They asked for a second ID with my press pass as apparently some people have made fake passes in recent days.
My first stop was where we all knew I would stop: Mount Hough Estates, which is still standing, my mother’s property among the houses. I was grateful that the fight between CalTrans and Plumas National Forest over which trees were whose jurisdiction next to my mother’s property had finally been solved before the fire, and the dead standing had been taken down in June. There were hoses everywhere in the neighborhood and the wood stairs were kicked away from the tiny house—good move firefighters and thank you. The whole neighborhood covered in ash, which gave everything an eerie calm to it. The neighborhood is soundless. I heard no birds, no crickets. My mother is a feeder of blue jays and every time a car pulls up the drive they practically greet us with squawks. There were no squawks today.
In the tiny house, I realized right away I’d left the loft window open. The place smelled the sour smell of days old fire, my skin already saturated with that same smell of the grit of carbon. I grabbed a few more changes of clothes and realized that at the last moment, I must have left my computer bag not in the burned office in town but on the counter in the tiny house and realized there were a few important items I was mourning that were right there in front of me.
I had to sit there and cry awhile. It was something I’d only done that first hour when someone filmed the wreckage of downtown while driving through and I saw that the building where Village Drug and my office was leveled.
I went up and checked on my mom’s, grabbed a few things and took some photos hoping it would ease her worries. All the windows had been shut in her house but it still looked uneasy in there with its dust and eerie quiet and the not so faint smell of smoke that got in somehow.
I drove through the neighborhood and then followed the one-way traffic up “The Grade.” The Grade which can be such a dangerous drive in the winter, usually lined with thick green trees and red dirt and rocks looked absolutely foreign: an ashen forest floor and skeleton blackened trees thinned and barren. Naked.
Then I saw the spaces where houses had been where only chimneys and the twisted metal of old cars that hadn’t run anymore and therefore couldn’t be moved. I saw the miracle of Sleepy Hollow houses still standing. The destruction of Oak Lodge. It struck me that this felt like the photos we see of tornados in the Midwest: one street gone, one street as if nothing had ever happened. It made me ill to think of the arbitrary nature of well, nature.
I went up Standart Mine Road. The houses on the bottom of the street standing with the rest of the houses decimated. I came to Mike and Eva Gorman’s house. How many of us had attended a party at their house over the years? For the uninitiated, the Gormans were the ultimate hosts. Eva with her artistic flair had fashioned a welcoming cozy home and a yard with all sorts of knooks and crannies to hang out in. It perhaps hit me hardest. There are those who live in a house their whole lives and there are those who create a space that looks like they live within art and love. The Gormans was such a space. To see it gone was heartbreaking. Then I saw the big copper hearts Eva had made knitting with vinyl red cord. The hearts were still hanging in the carport untouched, (as was their boat and the carport itself).
It made no sense. But the heart. The heart, I thought, that has to be a sign to carry on.
It prepared me to see our own property on Cheney Street. I took photos for my husband and our neighbors who all just bought lots that now have the scars of Dixie on them, none as bad as our own property.
We have eight acres that we bought with a purpose: to clean up from messy logging (big stumps and branches everywhere), to plant indigenous plants, to clean up from when it served as dumping ground for concrete and bits of road. It’s zoned for commercial and residential. I had the idea we’d have a simple garage and tiny house on it with plans for a cabin one day. Sort of a private campground for artists I know who could use a break. Wayward writer camp, if you will. We were supposed to be able to move on to it three weeks from now. That dream is a long way off now.
I walked two of the eight acres, minding where I stepped, wafts of smoldering fire like some science fiction set design coming up from the ground. I thought of the summer we had ground-based yellow jackets in those spots. Smoked out now, I thought.
My humor gallowed. I guess we don’t have to worry about the burn piles we inherited anymore. It felt like we had more room now. The wetted bio-mass compost project had burned to the ground too. When we bought the place we inherited a molding broken down trailer without tires that I affectionately named The Murder Trailer because it looked like something must have gone down in it. Whatever secrets it held were gone, along with all the used solar panels we’d stuck inside it while we worried how to get electricity on the property since PGE was nearly two years out on an order we made to hook up to the grid. The new generator still in its box melted in the Rubbermaid shed next to it. We don’t really need power, do we? I thought.
Like Eva’s heart, my red meditation bench I’d stuck up on the hill was perfectly fine though the brand new and uninsured dump trailer next to it—used only twice—was dead. How is it that a cheap bench from World Market bought in 2005 is still here but the tool shed full of tools to develop it gone? How is it that the fire extinguisher on the outside of the other tool shed is untouched but the sawmill next to it melted?
I texted my husband for him to tell the Camp Fire survivors who bought lots below us that theirs was okay. But I wonder if like me they think with this heat anyway, why not move to the desert? Does sand burn?
I saw the smoldering mound of ash heap on the other side of our property on the Plumas National Forest side. They’d cleared and chipped a couple acres back there before we’d bought the place. I took photos of things that weren’t there: the lumber my woodworking husband had been drying. The Maidu trail that runs through the top of our property erased.
I didn’t go downtown. As TV news descended upon our sweet little town last week, I started to feel defensive of it. My husband saw someone on TV news stand in the rubble of the library pick up a burnt book and it felt sacrilegious. As if through the TV we could scream to the news guy not to touch our rubble without permission. It’s sacred stuff. There is so much pointless gawking people are doing to our town—trauma porn, if you will, and I want no part of it.
My lungs weren’t up for the AQI level anyhow. I’d begun to cough. My eyes watered. Even when they let us in, it won’t be safe for our elderly nor anyone with health problems already. Particulate matter doesn’t go away, it makes a home in our lungs. It takes years off our lives. Go ask Angelenos with lung cancer, who never smoked a cigarette in their lives. Living in the Los Angeles basin before the 1980s was the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. I think of that behind my N95 mask as I turn around at the Evergreen watching non-evacuators hang out and smoke cigarettes in front of the store.
I head instead down Stampfli Lane and realize another story as I pass the fields still dotted with cows with their heads hung low to that two inches of ground not thick with smoke. A hawk is staring at me as I drive too slow and watch him. He doesn’t bother to fly away. The deer hanging out in the same field. They stare at the car in the quiet of this newness and no one moves. I look up from the doe in front of me and I realize as I turn on to North Valley Road to the left, that much of Greenville is still here. The fire of course is currently ravaging Diamond Mountain Road and I think of the room-sized loom Cheryl Flint had inside their lovely home out there. When will this end? Day 32. How many days before we all break in two?
But there are still places untouched by fire—and a good many of them despite the YouTube videos declaring us defunct, look functional. I can see them with my own eyes.
Can we really be told we are gone with so much still left? I go check on the cats of some friends and I breathe in too much smoke as I close their door and cough fit my way back to my car.
I think of Eva’s heart again and my red bench. The hawk and the cows and the deer and the birds still clung to the wire above Stampfli Lane. They are all still here and I hope that means most of the rest of us will be able to be here too.