Yesterday morning, I went to the gym and then stopped by Rachel's house to say good morning to her and the the boy. After a few minutes I decided that I may as well keep my heart rate up and go for a bike ride, my first since returning to Sonoma.
Everywhere on the established bike paths and all along the roads people were unusually courteous and happy to offer their, Good Morning! It was similar to what New York was like upon returning after 9-11. This will, of course, wear off, but everyone seemed to enjoy being nice for the time being, which begs a basic question about humanity, but I'll leave that for another time.
I hadn't yet seen most of the burned out sections of Sonoma, and I figured that I might as well take a look. I tried to do my regular/almost daily Lovall Valley ride. I had heard horrible things about what happened up that road, so the eyes want to see. The police had the road leading up the hill blocked off and I am too old to make up an on-the-spot lie for the cops that doesn't somehow involve my own self-preservation. I turned and rode the other way, recognizing a missed opportunity to trick a cop. They love the same game, so why not me? The only way to be good at something is to practice it. I know this, but I just didn't have it in me yesterday. Right now everybody is high on first responder catnip, and you can't really blame them when you look around. There is no point in being stupid when other options are available.
What I saw on the way there was encouraging. I had been looking at the fire maps, with their bright red and burgundy circles getting nearer and nearer to many of the streets and houses and wineries that I know well, the path of some of my favorite valley rides. I never questioned the authority of those circles, nor did I question the stated assertions from Rachel about what we should expect as the fire moved closer. The evidence was grim and growing. From the distance to which we escaped, and seeing the fires burning along the hills all around Sonoma, it seemed perfectly plausible. In fact it seemed certain that many of the places we had known had burned to the ground.
Now, I'm not so sure, at least for the city of Sonoma. I'll come to what happened up the valley in a few paragraphs.
There were burned out areas all along the hills, delineated from the green trees by what seems to have been a purely random pattern where the fire stripped most everything, leaving the hills black. Though some of the surviving trees have already started to change colors and others have started to lose their leaves, so the lines were not as pronounced as I would have guessed in some places. I had to really look to see where the fire had been along the mountain lines. I had not worn my glasses, which mitigated a full visual appreciation of the spectacle. I imagine that the Spring will mark the affected areas more, when the new growth is everywhere but there.
I rode to Buena Vista, the winery where Rachel and I vowed things, but the gates were locked. I could not see all the way up to the old building, but from my vantage point at the end of their drive all seemed well. I did not stop, I only did a turnaround loop at the gates. The fires had eaten up some of that property, apparently, and the adjoining Bartholomew Park, which was also closed. I rode on, and turned out towards Schellville to the south, though not taking Denmark Road over to Gundlach Bundschu, for reasons that I was uncertain of after my ride was over. I suppose I was out to ride as much to gawk. Perhaps Nietzsche was whispering in my ear about the effects of peering into darkness, or the abyss, and the chasm's gaze back towards you. Or rather, me.
As I rode along 8th St. East the fires that had come down the hills from behind Gundlach were the most pronounced that I could see. They were and are visible from pretty much anywhere in the valley. The hills draped with a scorched blackness, the thin trees that remained standing stripped of the signs of life. Much has been written about the funereal nature of a forest after a fire, and yes, it is a very stark sight, trees seeming as small wooden crosses at a distance, made perhaps for buried pets in the depth of the backyard. The image of scorched stones appears in the mind, burned on one side, the bottom side untouched, once upturned.
I knew that I was not out on this ride just to experience "fire porn," but the fascination should run at least as deep as the fear, or what is the point of feeling, of being alive.
At the intersection of 8th and Napa I turned back towards home and checked my watch. Not being able to ride up the Lovall incline had shortened the time of my ride substantially. I considered adding some new portion to the return journey but inwardly resisted, riding somewhere between Dorothy and Kansas, or Ulysses and home.
No, it was not that. It was just a ride home. I do have a practice when riding out to a point, that upon making my return to go home I will attempt to question the premises I have thought of on the ride outwards. Particularly, I attempt to undermine or discredit anything vile I have thought on the first part of the ride. If I fail at that then I'll sing Horse With No Name in my mind.
No, that part is of course bullshit. I just wanted to somehow include the word "journey" to this post, because I slipped and obliquely referenced Oz and the Odyssey and I had yet to find a way of calling myself a Hero, but wanted to plant the idea of the heroes journey in the piece somehow.
Again, bullshit. Writers are always liars, sometimes looking for truths.
After that we all went over to Petaluma and ate In-N-Out Burger for lunch, followed by Coldstone ice cream. Yes, I know readers. I know. It is part of why there are no new self-portraits appearing here. We then went to Target to try and find things that will help us live more comfortably.
We were just about to hit the turn to arrive home when Mom asked if we would mind driving up the valley to Kenwood, to see how far they'll let cars go. To our surprise, the roadblocks and evacuation areas had mostly been lifted. We were able to drive all the way there and back on the two lane highway. This is where my assessment of the damage changed. There were houses and farms and barns and rows of vines that had burned to completion. The smell of their demise was everywhere. The areas that were spared seemed equal in space to those that were gone. Every curve of the road was a revelation in destruction.
They would not let cars turn to go into Glen Ellen unless, I presume, you could prove you had a reason to be there. These roads were blocked by the National Guard, as were many entrances to some of the larger vineyards, or roads that led to away from the highway to them. If I was looking to stare into devastation this was the place for it. Hemingway might have loved this sort of thing. From the edge of the road and high up into the hills the evidence of the fire could be seen. People wandered properties with teams of firemen or private contractors or other civil servants who had arrived in squads of official vehicles. There were large teams of P,G&E trucks along the sides of the roads, wherever there were spaces for trucks to congregate and orchestrate their recovery efforts.
Rachel pointed at a cop along the side of the road checking speeds and he laughed as we passed, raising his notebook, the thing he was pretending to use as a speed gun. Even the cops were all smiles and laughs now, and why not?
Because this is an agricultural valley the heavy machinery used to clear land is in abundance. Most vineyards have tractors and things of that nature. They are accustomed to creating order from the chaos of nature. They have workers to do so. The cleanup was already well under way in some places. Piles of burned branches and wooden and metal structures were being made. Insurance adjustors, I presume, everywhere. There were so many people inspecting the ruin that it was pointless to try to separate the civil servants from the citizens. Everybody seemed happy, though that is not always an easy thing to assess when passing in a car. The postures of despondency or joy seem apparent enough, most all else becomes abstract or dull, meaningless.
We passed one place that was all ash. A single horse stood in the distance behind it all, its rider wandering what was left dressed in yellow rubber boots that seemed designed for just such an activity. The horse's head dipped, the smell of ash and cinder filling its nostrils, I'm sure. There were few portions of the ride that did not offer that carbon scent. The stories of the horses needing evacuation some ten days ago or less still jumping out as horrific postcards in the mind. The images of horses in terror somehow embodying the sensation better than others, with more truth and urgency, though that is perhaps communicated by their size, their inability to escape their stables. The reports of farms needing help evacuating were among the most troubling that we heard. The idea of terror does not leave one quickly. Humans at least, it seems, have some luxury in reasoning these feelings away. The newspapers do not often headline the death of animals.
We showed the boy that his school is still standing, that was part of the point of what we were doing. We assured him that he would return to it soon. Though more and more it is looking as if mom and dad will be making some changes to our daily/weekly schedule. The road, Trinity, that Rachel uses which allows passage from Sonoma to Napa, suffered tremendously. It was not in the best shape before the fires. Rains had washed out portions of it, leaving it one-way in a couple of places. The barricades and stop signs attempting to create order where the county commission could not. It is a frightening road for those not used to driving it, and for those passengers whose drivers try to do so too quickly. I do not suspect the fire has improved the experience at all.
I didn't take any pictures. It would have required a wide angle lens to capture the scope of it, and I had only brought a 50mm with me. We never got out of the car, nor did we stop. It was just a casual drive up the valley to give our child a glimpse into death. He seemed okay with it.