Friday, October 06, 2006


Flashback fragment (sorry, no pics)

September 13:

I’m writing from a motel in Medford, Oregon, after spending two days in Eureka. Well, two nights and one day in Eureka.

We finally left Paradise on Monday, Sept. 11. Packing the car for the trip was both easier and more difficult than we thought. It took the whole day Sunday, yes, but we wound up with a sliver of rear window visible in the mirror—a lot more than I expected. It was dark when we finished packing, though, so we slept the night at home before leaving.

As we were driving out of Paradise Monday afternoon, Val said, “This is the last time for a long time we’ll be driving down the Skyway.” I realized it was true as I looked out the window at the excavators making a mess of the formerly wooded stretch of land west of Neal Road. I’m wondering how long it will take the quilting stores that invariably set up shop in these places to go belly up.


We drove to Redding and took Highway 299 to Arcata. This was the same road we tried to drive at the end of July for a camping trip. That time we were turned back at Weaverville by an immense wildfire, forced to divert to the intestine-like (and intestinal) nightmare that is Highway 36.

This time the road was open and we passed through without incident, though smoke hung heavy in the air and the still-high sun was a dull red disc. Highway 299 curves through a river canyon, and as we rounded one downhill curve toward the bottom, we were confronted with a face of sheer, jagged rock blackened by the blaze. We had plenty of time to admire its dissonant majesty as we followed the Forest Service fire truck down. At the bottom of the canyon we found all the fire camps, dwelling places for the firefighters who extinguished the wildfire. There was still plenty of activity, many tent villages and trucks. It reminded me of the week I spent during one childhood summer at a fire camp when my father was working as a dispatcher. The details are hazy, but I remember there was a “Creek” in the name of the settlement (Brush Creek, maybe?), and I remember staying at a pleasant house belonging to a local family. I can remember sitting on a swing in the backyard near the dense treeline, eating Reese’s Pieces for perhaps the first time in my life.

So much time has passed since I was sitting on that swing. I remember hanging out at the camp during lunch, watching the grimy firefighters come in for their picnic sandwiches and sodas, thinking, I can be one of them someday. Back then I think part of me felt a career with the Forest Service was inevitable. I had a blood tie to these environments. At some point, though, I turned nerd.

Driving down the road Monday, watching the rows of dome tents whiz past my window, I thought about being a firefighter: where you have to train for it, how you get hired, and what the age limit is. I thought about my chances of ever doing what I had anticipated as a child. I don’t think they’re spectacularly good.

I could still do it, I’m sure. I’m smart enough to learn, and my body is intact (if untrained). But I’d have to crave it enough to focus, and that’s hard. I just read The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean, which is a book just as much about wanting to feel passionately about something as it is about pretty flowers. I recognize Orlean’s longing, and kindle a small fear of forever being a dilettante.

But while I think about the satisfaction that might come from mastering a certain field and satisfying the child who dreamed about donning the yellow Nomex suit someday, I also think about sacrificing my potential to do other things.

It’s an ironic stasis I’ve created around myself. I’m too scared of wasting my life on any one thing to actually do anything, so by default I’m wasting my life.

We finally got to Eureka after 8 p.m. Val said her friend recommended a Chinese restaurant along Highway 101, just as we drove past the parking lot. Though I had only been driving for five hours (and certainly would drive more in coming days), I felt fatigued and afraid of a long, fruitless search for an appealing-looking restaurant. I turned the car around—a left turn and then another left onto the divided northbound lanes of 101—and headed back, only to find there were no left turns for miles. Silently we drove toward Arcata, waiting for any kind of opportunity.

Ten minutes later, we were at the restaurant. It was cold outside. I was tired, keenly aware of the fact that my most important worldly belongings were packed in a compact car in a strange town. We walked in, sat down, and ordered some very disappointing Chinese food. Mongolian beef is supposed to be spicy. And completely cooked.

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