My birthday weekend was delightful, spent with friends, doing the things I love – skiing, biking, making terrible jokes, eating pizza.

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Delightful, but for the smoke. The smoke from a fire whose name I didn’t know, because it was far away and didn’t affect me. Until it did. I got home from birthday pizza, opened the FB, and firey reality hit. In the Gorge, dumbass teenagers shot off fireworks in a dry ass forest, and on Monday night I watched in horror as more and more photos and videos of the Eagle Creek Fire appeared. Then there was the Norse Peak fire at Crystal Mountain.

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I briefly panicked as I pieced together details of the evacuation of the base area, where many friends – including my best one – live. Both my summer and winter homes were on fire, and I felt desperately useless to help. My morning routine became: wake up, check Norse Peak fire status, check Eagle Creek fire status, make coffee.  Time slowed down. People began exchanging frequent empathetic looks: “This sucks… I know. I feel your pain.” Turns out Birthday Monday (9/4) was the last day air quality was decent enough to play in Hood River until two incredibly long weeks later. I couldn’t do anything outside; it hurt to breathe. Turns out, campfire-smell is only pleasant when it’s temporary. I started wearing a particulate mask outside. I started coughing. By day 5 of sedentary life (I’m not the only one with a low tolerance for this!) I was going bonkers for lack of exertion.

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I had to work in Portland that Sunday, so I threw biking/camping/running stuff into my car to escape westward. My flight led me first to Tillamook State Forest, a place I might never have ventured had my backyard not caught on fire. Gales Creek trail seemed worthy of exploration, and I was not disappointed. My lungs and legs burned, my mind spiraled in a million directions, and I huffed and puffed up that trail. I was overdue for a session of absolution through physical suffering in the forest.

Gales Creek Trail.

I kept going west on Hwy 6/Wilson River Hwy until I hit Tillamook (cheese EVERYWHERE), and ultimately the coast. I stopped a lot along the way, kinda looking for a place to dirtbag camp. Unfortunately the coast knows my type, so almost every parking lot had “NO OVERNIGHT PARKING” emblazoned upon its signs. Despite not knowing where I was going to sleep, I stopped to watch sunset at Short Sands beach, on the recommendation of my friend Beau. I stood there for 45 minutes, wearing glacier glasses (for optimum sun-staring), watching the water ripple across the sand, letting it tickle my toes, and generally marveling at the geometry of the beach – how was it at such a slight angle and yet there were waves breaking and people actually surfing? Oceans, how do they work!??

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I started hiking back as the last bit of sun slipped past the horizon, reaching my car at dusk. I drove north in the dark, to see about a sleep spot. I wasn’t hopeful, as I passed unwelcoming lot after unwelcoming lot. I finally found a simple highway pullout with no sign. Unstoked by the notion of sleeping alongside the highway (I know… who doesn’t love traffic noise lullabies?), I gave in to the “one more mile” entreaty in my brain. The Coastal Dirtbag Gods smiled upon my endeavor, for just outside of Cannon Beach I found the perfect spot. Dead end road. Flat parking area. No flesh-eating demons. Unfortunately, my smoker’s cough kept waking me up. That, and my blood pressure spiked when one car rolled in and immediately out 2am – wtf were they doing? I slept terribly, but was excited to awaken early for sunrise. As I rolled out of my little tree cove, it was apparent that the sunrise I anticipated was no longer on the menu. Also apparent was that my windshield wipers need replacing. Fortunately, not a lot of people are out at 6am, so I could creep along peering through the 5 square inches of windshield not covered in streaks. I located a beachside parking lot, made coffee, and watched as the light went from gray to less gray. It had been so long since I’d experienced chilliness and drizzle that I was actually delighted by it. Haystack Rock kindly gave me something to take a picture of.

I had to be back in Hood River for work at 14:30, so I left Cannon Beach see what was happening in Seaside early in the morning. Shocker: very little. But I remembered that Reid had a friend with a place called Dough Dough Bakery, so I stopped in to sample the goods. Next time you’re anywhere near Seaside, visit this bakery. Seriously. I inhaled the cinnamon roll before even stopping to think about photo’ing it. I will not talk further about how many of my calories that day were comprised of baked goods.

As I continued east over 26, the coastal drizzle-storm transitioned back to blue skies. Thanks, coast range! I decided to stop at the first trailhead I saw to go for a run. I can now state with certainty that Bloom Lake isn’t much for a destination, but the journey sure is nice. I love running through PNW rainforest, and I had it basically to myself. Except for the one guy and his dog who figuratively startled the shit out of me. Two minutes earlier and it would have been literal. As it happened, I was performing the last steps of “leave no trace.” (Bury that shit 6 inches deep, and pack out your paper! Also, I just learned some more LNT stuff here.) Anyway… hey look, pretty green things!

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As highway traffic whizzed by the trailhead lot, I stealthily changed out of sweaty running clothes to continue on my way. After the requisite TJ’s grocery stop, I made my way to WA 14. Highway 84 remained closed due to the Eagle Creek fire, so 14 is a beautiful if not rapid alternative. I felt crestfallen when the first whiff of campfire entered my windows. I was back in the fire zone. I stopped briefly in Stevenson to take photos.

Eagle Creek Fire seen from Stevenson.

Back in HR, I donned my particulate mask and went to work. The smokey hell lasted another long week, when finally, the rains returned. I got a little overzealous on my first ride of rainy season, but that’s a story for another time. It finally smells and feels like our PNW home again. I am grateful.


Postscript

As fire became a very noticeable part of my life, I learned a couple things. Fortunately – as my friend/ USFS firefighter Meaghann mercifully educated me – not all fires are bad fires. Unfortunately, climate change is going to make fire season worse.

It’s easy for me to slip toward a “welp, we’re fucked” mentality. So to combat that, along with climate change, I made a few little commitments. I donate monthly to Protect our Winters. I stopped buying meat. I stopped buying things I don’t need.

If you feel like doing similar things, Outside Magazine has recommendations on  environmental groups to donate to. Also, a Swedish research delved into the effectiveness of individual actions on mitigating climate change. Spoiler alert: have fewer children, drive less, fly less, use renewable energy, stop eating meat. You can check out the synopsis here  or get nerdy with the full article. If we all make small changes in our lives, we stand to make the world a much healthier place.

Credit: Seth Wynes/Kimberly Nicholas, Environmental Research Letters, 2017

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