This is the particular run of the Soberanes Fire that burst over the Twin Peaks area on July 23 and then within minutes of when this photograph was taken poured down over Peter's home and Patti and Steve's and others' in its direct line—as it then began to fan out and destroy other homes in upper Rocky Creek as well. As I type I've heard a neighbor's unofficial count that 19 homes have been lost in this immediate area alone. It was one of the fiercest strikes that the Soberanes Fire has made to date.
Almost all the photographs in this blog were taken by Debi. Among the handful of exceptions are the photograph immediately above, the one immediately below, and the fourth photograph in this post—which were taken by two of our friends and nearest neighbors who are among the small group of six friends who stayed behind to defend their homes and who ever since have been continuing to help our community.
They don't want to be described as heroes. They hate that narrative. From the beginning they've been cooly doing what step-by-step they think is right.
After the fire passed...
The photograph above is taken from our own property looking up towards Twin Peaks. No surprise that this slope is a moonscape now. It was all dry chapparal—mainly ceanothus—and was begging to burn.
The photograph above was taken on August 8—sixteen days after the run in the first photograph burst over Twin Peaks on July 23. In the photograph above a red circle marks the position of the run in the first photograph in this post. The ridge running south from the red circle becomes Green Ridge. You can see how scoured all of upper Green Ridge is.
The green circle is approximately where our own home is in upper Rocky Creek. You can see how Rocky Creek bends where the green circle is. The lower bend trends southwest towards the Hoist. The upper bend heads north to the saddle with Turner Creek and then Turner Creek travels up to Skinner Ridge. Above the green circle to the right, Long Ridge bends the same way.
Pico Blanco is in the upper right of the photograph. The fire is burning in the north and south forks around it. And it's also ominously burning along the ridge between Post Summit and Mt. Manuel in the furthest distance.
In this photograph the fire that blazed through Palo Colorado is now threatening Big Sur Valley.
My plan had been—in the face of whenever the next fire would come—to join my friend and nearest neighbor for refuge is his extremely well-prepared place. I knew that a couple other skillful and really capable friends would also be there. And I'd have joined them to help defend this nearest neighbor's home and then would've seen if there was help that could be safely given to our own place and others'. I'm no hero. I wouldn't have stayed any other place in any other circumstances. But I knew how thoroughly prepared my friend's place had been made. He's been preparing for this fire for 14 years. And I know how cool, tough-minded, intelligent, and skillful these particular friends are.
But, of course, no one can know in advance the particular way the same fire might strike one place compared to how wind and terrain and vegetation and what can seem like blind willy-nilly chance might cause it to strike another place even the slightest distance away. But my concern had been that if the main front of a fire had spared our cabin(s) that I would've wanted to be around if the cabin could still be saved by safe mop-up work afterwards. And then perhaps I could've been of help to others, too.
It might not have worked. Debi and the kids would've strenuously tried to talk me out of staying. And as it happened, the question turned out to be moot anyway since when I opened my laptop at midnight on Friday, July 22 in Bluff, Utah...the Soberanes Fire had already struck Palo Colorado so hard and immediately that a mandatory evacuation order was already in place and I was already shut out anyway.
Still I had to ask my friend the question when I saw him last Tuesday.
"Did I have the right idea?"
Debi hates what I repeat next.
"Chris, if you'd have been here even with a rake, 100% your cabin would still be here."
You see, what happened is one of the versions of what I thought could happen. That fierce main run of this fork of the fire that you see above in the first photograph actually raced just west of our own place—burning through Patti and Steve's and Peter's and Zach's and Tony's and Angela's and Dorothy and Greg's former place and through Todd and Aya's and Nancy and Gordon's and Saundra's and Cory and Kay's at Sweetwater—and then exploded up on Long Ridge so fiercely that it sent fiery projectiles all the way over Mill Creek to the flank of Bixby Mountain.
As then the fire simultaneously began creeping back and around and "filling in" and burning more moderately in places like our own amid beautiful mature black oaks and madrones.
I can understand if the above sounds like one of the myriad what ifs with which one can torture oneself. But actually it's not that at all. It's actually a great comfort. We did the right thing. We had very good fire clearance ourselves—each year getting high marks from the fire brigade. And the fire came through the way we hoped it might. (It just as easily might not have.) It's just that being away on a 10-day trip to the Southwest meant that we couldn't do that couple of hours of raking away of the leaf litter that falls all the time and couldn't unhook our 5-gallon propane tank and roll it downhill and couldn't be on hand in the aftermath to rake away embers.
I'm worried that this sounds like an invitation to you that you should stay yourself. Not remotely. Another friend and near neighbor—who's also remarkably capable and steely-minded and who always conscientiously maintains the highest level of fire clearance, too—stayed behind alone to defend his home. But that home was lost, too, even though he stayed. And we're all damn lucky that our friend himself survived.
It's self-evident. There's no greater value to yourself, your family, and your friends than your own life.
It looks like a common grief. But even a common grief has its necessary threads of difference. There are many forms of loss. But even amid the loss and ash, this is a blog about hope.
When residents who lost their homes were allowed in for a brief "site-visit" last Tuesday—what a term to apply to returning to your home: site-visit—we met at Rocky Point and congregated into small pockets with our nearest neighbors since we'd be driven up together in a van or truck to our particular neighborhood where then each of us would be dropped off at our own driveway.
We wish more of us from a common neighborhood could've traveled in together. We wish we could've had more time. But in a way it was also perfect. We were still be able to drive in with friends. And we'd also have time for our own private grief.
From the road, driving in, lower Palo Colorado Canyon seems untouched.
And as someone who knew that a much different landscape still awaited us ahead, I had three immediate and different sensations.
— Thank God so many friends' and neighbors' homes have been spared.
— But, damn, does this stretch of road still seem riotously overgrown.
— And, please, may we who live further up also find enough mature trees and canopy to help sustain us, too.
When you've been told you've lost your home, it's all about the trees.
But then again where we live it's always been about the trees.
As we drove higher, the veil of the mirage of the verdant and lush was soon broken. We could see it both in the distance in the firescape of south-facing slopes above and near at hand beneath our feet in the ashen forest floor.
At one point I looked up and back to see Janie and Ben and Peter's rammed earth home standing bravely intact on the brow of the ridge with ash all around it.
When we entered and began climbing Rocky Creek Road, we were unequivocally in a mountainscape of fire.
Sehra and Dylan and Barbara were dropped off at their driveway. And then Tony at his. Debi and I had the furthest to go. We've always been happy—in fact, we've chosen—to live in the interface with the wild. Someone always lives in the interface. It's a privilege and a responsibility.
One of my favorite definitions of wilderness comes from Gary Snyder's "The Etiquette of Freedom."
"A place of danger and difficulty: where you take your own chances, depend on your own skills, and do not count on rescue."
Upper Rocky Creek received no outside help—no water or fire retardant drops, for instance—but though that would've been helpful (most of all to those who stayed) we hadn't been depending upon that either.
You haven't and won't hear of any whining from any of our near neighbors.
As Debi so beautifully says...
"We accepted the risk of knowing that the land belonged to a greater force and that some day we may be faced with this. A risk we wholeheartedly accepted. The day has come and we are now on our knees at the power of the wild."
All the photographs of destroyed small precious places in this blog are photos of our own home. No vulture journalists allowed. We aren't sharing any images of friends' homes. It's the right of each person who's lost his or her home along a private road to process the intimacy of their grief in their own way and according to their own timing—and to share when and if they wish (and with whom and when they wish) the intimacy of their own grief and the intimacy of our communal grief.
The medicine wheel that our friend Patrick created prayerfully step-by-step in response to his own dream and vision survived. Debi rakes and tends it and prays here.
Patrick and I prayed and walked the medicine wheel together on the last Blue Moon. Boon and Kate and Jon and Debi and I processed around it in festive garb on the feastday of Santa Lucia—the local patron saint of these mountains.
You'll have noticed the trees. Long ago, as we kept driving in, we had. They kept persisting.
We were never going to abandon this place. But I feared that if it had been left too barren I might've been left forcing myself to remain. This land—and our particular place in it—has always given us so much. And I was afraid I might have to put on a hair-shirt to keep up my end of the bargain—the way a not-yet saint reluctantly hugs a leper.
But even before we had stepped out of the van—and the CalFire driver and his Forest Service partner, realizing we had further to walk along our paths than other folks had in visiting their homes, extended our half-hour visit an extra fifteen minutes—Debi's and my heart had already begun singing.
We had never loved Rocky Creek more. And if you know us, you know what that claim means.
Look back up at the photograph before this one. Then toggle back and forth.
Hard to be certain which one's more beautiful, isn't it?
Here's a particularly pristine survivor. Not altogether unexpected in one incarnation or another—though I expected to find him warped and discombobulated. That's his warped and discombulated cover lying off to the left.
He's actually quite valuable—in every sense. We have an oven now. And we can already barbecue for the friends who already want to come up and help.
The upward trail to the seaward ridge has never been more beautiful.
And don't let anyone tell you that the fire gods and dervishes don't have a wicked sense of humor.
This is the picture frame that Debi and Dennis conceived—and that Dennis fabricated. It awaits you as you climb the seaward ridge and gain your first view out into the Pacific.
Dennis is a devoté of Vulcan. That is, he builds with fire—not against it—and that's why his shit remains.
Our friend and neighbor Pam—before I even said a word—says that the neighborhood will need to process up to Dennis' frame to begin to watch our neighborhood's rebirth through it.
OK, fine, I think. How sentimental.
But I already have another thought in mind.
The next time we travel up this seaward ridge we'll be carrying Dennis' ashes, too. Some of them will be carried in a special battered small cannister. We'll probably bore a hole in Dennis' frame and hang the cannister like a pendant from it. But the rest of his ashes will be carried in a fragment of one of his favorite shirts.
I'll probably scatter those ashes around with the ash of all the wooden shit of ours that burned.
Dennis, with his Vulcan inclinations, always managed to get the last word. But maybe this time I can.
But then again with a good onshore breeze it will probably end up looking like a scene from The Big Lebowski.
This is our soaking tub looking out from our bath-house.
That Japanese Ofuro woodburning water heater that still looks intact is the real deal. All you wannabe homesteaders pay attention.
The deck that held the soaking tub is gone, but the damn metal stay Dennis fabricated to brace the stove pipe against the deck hasn't budged an inch. The damn stove-pipe is still ramrod straight. Fire didn't make it blink.
And I was trying to convince myself I might get the last word?
This is Debi standing in the ashes of her sweet studio.
Those are her toes regaling themselves in the soaking tub.
You have to laugh so that you don't cry.
But actually I had made it up to Debi's studio before her because she (of course) was lingering behind to photograph.
And it would've been harder had we not known in advance what lay before us.
But when I had asked if there was any chance that anything might've survived, I was assured by two voices I'd trust most—one of our good friends who stayed and the chief of our local fire brigade...
"I'm so sorry, Chris, but everything is gone."
And besides, the land, with its ever-changing face, is as or more beautiful than it's ever been before.
And, my God, the trees.
The faint spoor in the ash is our vaporized waterline.
Death, like the poet says, is mingled into everything like ash.
As Debi tells it, she heard a bloodcurdling cry ahead.
"What could be worse than what we've already seen?" she asked herself and then hurried to catch up.
"I think I'm hallucinating," I was saying.
I had just looked up and thought I had seen my writing cabin still standing there.
It was a stone cold hallucination.
That's me up at the doorstep weeping.
You can see how the fire crept through here through the leaf litter, too. You can see how it burns through the duff to the edge of the slope just below my feet. You can see how it burns quietly along the flat before growing a little tired and irritated at the lack of fuel—and then lays down as peaceably as a lamb.
This is a very small place. If you try to measure loss by dollars and cents—or if you try to measure what's been given back to you that same way—this place doesn't amount to much.
But it was as if I had just laid down my pen and walked out only yesterday. It was as if Debi might be in her studio, too, and we'd go back down the trail now to make dinner.
There's already a futon in this writing hut and bedding in a chest. It's where Debi and I sleep when we have guests. It's a foothold from which we can begin again.
But it's also more than that. It's also like a canny sign.
It's where I write.
And it's more than that as well.
Several years ago Debi asked our friend Missy Lofton to paint Pico Blanco as a birthday present for me.
Had we not been so far away when the mandatory evacuation order came, the first three things Debi and I would've taken out to safety would've been Missy's "Pico Blanco" and two George Choley paintings.
And I'll be damned. They're still here. Saved in this writing hut.
Here along this wild and ragged coast we're always dancing on the edge. And it's hard to keep your balance. One of my favorite words for some of the places here is cuchilla. There are ridgelines—and stories here—as sharp as a knife.
Missy lost her home and gardens and studio, too, "...and everything in it: easels, canvases, paint, photos and tools." She lost thirty years of journals. But what was spared were about 60 paintings she kept stored in a Carmel apartment. You can see and hear about her home and garden and studio here and see more of her beautiful work, too.
It's a privilege to be walking through our common loss with friends like Missy.
It's like Missy's friend (and our friend) David Gordon wrote, "Do art. Be kind. The rest is maya."
Two of our own sharpest pangs of loss have come from thinking that the 4 x 6 photograph above was lost. It perches in a small frame in a windowsill in my writing hut. It’s of our daughter Ali and myself and our friend Rob from about 20 years ago.
That was when we had begun looking for a small place of our own in these mountains. We’d already been coming here and hiking and visiting friends (including at the Hermitage in Lucia where Ali was baptized) for 20 years before that.
In the photograph we’re standing near where Curtis and Michelle and Paul live now. And actually—though we didn’t know it then—we’re actually looking up at the spur ridge coming down from Long Ridge where Debi’s studio and my writing hut would later be.
Rob passed away not long after this photograph, and I often pick it up from the windowsill to thank him and to know how happy he must be to know how we'd found this place and to watch the life we'd created here.
This photo was taken from about that time, too. It’s Ali and Cait up on Long Ridge.
And their hair still seems as if it were designed for the gloaming light and madrones here.
And it’s not just Missy’s “Pico Blanco” and the two George Choley paintings and the clairvoyant photograph of Rob that seem miraculously handed back to us.
I keep my home altar here. The Four Winds Council vision statement framed on one wall. St. Romuald’s brief rule. A photograph of two painted hands from Church Creek that look like they’re bent towards one another in prayer.
And prayer cards and other remembrances of friends who have passed. My mother and father. Rob Suarez. Jeannine Benson. Rufina Amaya Marquez. Romuald Duscher. Larry Phayer. Nancy Healy. John Courtney. Renee Hughey. Kevin Dummer. Kuba Materniak. Dennis Gobets. Paul Danielson. Bruno Barnhart.
And there are ashes from Jeff Norman’s homestead Alta Vista that burnt in the Basin Fire here, too.
This is where we pray. This is where we remember the dead—including the old ones who have never stopped living in these mountains where we should ask their blessing and permission for our own work and presence, too.
And this is our Welsh corgi Dylan beside the waterfall.
Steve making the first footbridge at Rocky Creek. It was modeled after the footbridges at Big Creek where Steve often did volunteer work with his friend Feynner Arias and where some of Steve's friends also worked, too.
We've been realizing through the loss of our mountain home how each handmade place has its own community history.
Just as in our case each mountain home has its own community history within the wider community history in upper Rocky Creek.
And upper Rocky Creek within Palo Colorado.
As trees will keep falling.
And winter comes next.
And Palo Colorado within Big Sur.
Just as Big Sur is its own necessary backwoods bohemian culture within the wider culture at large.