Fire on the Mountain

yarnell

Fire on the mountain, catastrophic to man, of passing annoyance to the mountain.  I Ching
 

The day after Yarnell, I restocked my tiny travel trailer with evacuation’s irreplaceables: 23 filled journals, my British mother’s 19th Century sepia photographs of people and places long gone, a painting of my heart’s companion, Bo the Adventure Dog, now-deceased. In an enthusiasm of labor, I also fixed the flat on my horse trailer, bought a new spare, finished the dangling wiring, and loaded the hay rack. I stowed a five-gallon water can, full, in the trailer bay, along with saddles, halters, bridles, and whatever other costly-to-replace gear I could manage. I put the horses’ favorite treats in the mangers and set the incentive stick on the wheel well. I should have done all this the day before Yarnell because this is fire country and because I knew it was coming. Just last week I’d said, “It’s gonna burn this year, and burn big.” And then, forgetting, I went home, propped my feet in my small home’s sweet air-conditioning, and basked in the green, irrigated oasis that is Rockville, Utah. But it could, just as easily, have been us.

Yarnell, Rockville, a thousand other small towns throughout the West, remote and compact, aggregated in the only places possible: Rockville where water and irrigable land drew farmers in 1860, and Yarnell where water and gold drew miners in 1865. People stayed long beyond the initial impulse, living a modern life on antiquated townsites, disengaged from original purpose and desert reality. Yarnell, bigger than Rockville, has more than three streets and three times the population, but like most Western towns both grade from watered trees and gardens to brittle, boulder strewn hills with few exit routes where, even in good years, meager precipitation nurses a scruffy fire-prone forest of sage, blackbrush, juniper, scrub oak.

In years past clockwork monsoons relieved summer’s drought, and lightning sparked cleansing fires. Regular burns consumed light accumulations of downed wood and autumn debris, moving slowly through desert grasses, pine needles, and spiny oak leaves. But settlement brought fear: for 150 years fires were doused, wood accrued, and fires turned wild. Increasing summer temperatures, precipitation’s slow dwindling, shifting monsoons, and stockpiled combustibles fuel wildfire’s new ferocity. The last two decades’ combined controlled-burn acreages are small consolation in a West ready to burn. There isn’t much to be done except pack the trailer.

This, if and when it comes, will be my fourth evacuation: twice for fire and once for flood, though I didn’t leave that time, choosing to stay in my darkened town where my horses stood, heads hanging, in improvised day-glow-orange emergency blankets, fetlock deep in mud. It was December and after more rain than I’ve seen in all my desert years, belly-heavy, gunmetal clouds rested like slipped lids far below Zion Canyon’s redrock lip. Upstream, the sodden, earthen dam on Short Creek threatened, and I didn’t know where to take the horses. I do now.

Today, men dressed in crinkly nomex, fire-crew green and yellow, mill about the town fire station, waiting. No one speaks of Yarnell. In this town where everyone has worked, knows someone who has worked, or now works for fire, the 19 are not mentioned. No one says, “Did you hear…?” No one says, “What do you think…?” We all know. It’s as if, like freshly provisioned fire packs sitting by front doors and riding in pickup beds all over town, the news is almost too heavy to carry.

This summer I cannot irrigate, sprinkle, or haul enough water to keep my garden alive. Tomatillos wilt, honeysuckle stunts, pasture grass browns. Having livestock ups the ante: dead grass means hungry horses, costly hay, a more serious evacuation. My tenuous connection with Rockville’s past beats a bit more true, but I can buy my way out of a drought, shop my way past failed crops; I can leave.

Today the acrid smell of smoke fills the canyon, the sun’s odd eclipsed light. The world throbs orange haze. A fire south near Las Vegas, someone says, or north near Minersville puffs signals on strong, hot winds. I look to the travel trailer, askew in the yard, my “I-can-only-pull-one-trailer-at-a-time” plans thwarted by the latest flat. I planned to move it to a friend’s house deep in the Big City’s irrigated green, leaving me free to deal with the horses’ panic and mine. I hate evacuation’s grab-everything adrenalin confusion, the irritating nag of something forgotten. As evening settles, storm clouds grading violet to blue-black thicken over the canyon. Do they bring rain’s release? Lightning’s fire? Slickrock’s flood? Evacuation?

Aprons

I am a firm believer in aprons. Not necessarily the kind meant to keep one clean, but the type with numerous and sundry pockets meant to carry, on one’s person, great quantities of Important Stuff. I have one of the he-man variety firmly stitched of heavy tan canvas complete with thick leather loops meant for hammers and hoof-trimmers, in which I tote paper, pencil, connector bolts for the John Deere, miscellaneous bits of horse tack, my phone, and the indispensable Leatherman® Multi-tool Juice XE6 (pink in my case).

I also have a variety of home—but not kitchen—aprons meant, in actuality, to keep one clean, and cart about the aforementioned valuables. These aprons I make from thrift-store linen shirts and shifts, on which I sew trimmed cuffs and hemmed lengths for the all-important notepad-carrying pockets. This is who I am as a writer: I am never without my notepad and pen. I can easily forget these small, unassuming items, but it’s harder to overlook the bulging apron. It has become my prosthetic brain—easily detachable but increasingly necessary.

When I was a little girl, my mother sewed my first apron, and although I’ve forgotten the color and pattern, I remember the pockets. So practical. She had meticulously machined individual vertical slots for each crayon which, because I’ve always been quite forgetful, I re-filled less meticulously when done coloring. The apron also sported a couple larger pockets for Important Stuff, and a ribbon attached on one end to the apron and on the other to a pair of blunt scissors. I was ready for whatever the day brought. As I am now: I am a writer of little brain who forgets the brainstorm almost before it’s stopped thundering.

Other wardrobe items to which I’m partial are wide-brimmed straw hats (I live in the southern Utah desert of glowing redrock and burning sun); seersucker and linen shirts (heat again); the long skirts of summer (heat yet again—and bugs); tire-tread sandals; industrial-strength hand lotion; and riding boots with spurs. For I also have horses, which explains the need for the aforementioned barn aprons—horses love to wipe their considerable noses on one’s unprotected and welcoming bosom. I also love smocks, and wish I was a painter just so I could wear one.

My British-import of a mother called these practical uniforms, “pinafores,” and just so you don’t assume fluffy aprons mean sweetness and light, know that my mother was a neurotic, abusive mess—as I have been—well, I have been a cowering mess—most of my adult life. All of these things—the redrock desert and all its natural components; horses; my problematic youngsterhood; my war-scarred, disturbed mother; and her very proper Britishness inform my writing in its many manifestations from journal entries to published essays and books.

Because my aprons prevent me from dropping the phone (again) in the stock tank while cleaning it, or the irrigation ditch while watering (also again), my next foray is to create a riding apron. This will keep me from submerging the phone (in a pocket strapped to my leg) in the river while leading the recalcitrant horse, or less expensively but more importantly the notepad along the roadside (so many times I’ve lost count).

In the 1990s, while writing a book on a newly created national monument in Utah and wandering over one million remote acres, I repeatedly asked the photographer, while batting various pockets, my bra and hair (where I clipped pencils) if she had a pen. “Hey,” she’d reply, “you’re a writer, fergodsake; I don’t ask you for film.” From this you may gain two insights: I learned to carry my own pencil and paper, and I’m of a certain age.

apronI was born in the 1950s when real women wore aprons, and I learned to write. There is still something for me about pen and paper—the hand moving and the eyes following that urges me continue down the page. I can also write anywhere and anytime—battery and cord-less (so ecological). While acknowledging computers’ great benefit (my first editing job came before computers!), I find sitting at my desk locked in one position for days on end editing massive planning documents for the National Park Service (it pays the bills) agonizing. I realize I could join the modern age and use my phone to take notes, but I find, after speaking into a recorder, a great yawning silence (where I expect applause or at least rejoiner) that leaves me speechless.

So today, while waiting for the stock tank to fill, great and trifling ideas come unbidden, and the writer I am pulls paper and pen from my he-man apron wiped with immense muddy noses, and captures fleeting thoughts under southern Utah’s embracing redrock cliffs beside the river’s spring-smooth flow. Because that’s what writers do.

The Never-Ending Story

Kate Starling (See more at http://www.kstarling.com)

The following was published in The Joy of Rockville, a cookbook created to celebrate Rockville’s Sesquicentennial (150 years) in 2012:

Kate Starlings’ fabulous cover painting is, to me, the essence of Rockville. Living in our small town may not always be the easy, temperate, and peaceful life Kate’s image evokes, but Rockville can be that, and more. No matter what may be happening, I’m always glad to waken under Rockville’s azure skies and redrock embrace. In this year of little rain, I’m even happier to see rare skies, the color of a kingfisher’s wing, bringing a “three-inch rain.” When the cloud fleet sails the sky, I know it’s July; when burnt umber cottonwoods crisp the day, and that rare sunset glow lingers on cliffs, I know I’m home. I imagine, though we rarely read it in histories, Rockville’s early settlers felt the same. Hearing the Virgin River rush over rock; wading stone irrigation ditches on a scorching afternoon; eating ripe mulberries full of purple; soaking in star-glow on a dark summer’s night, meant the same to pioneer and current neighbor alike: home.

Rockville changed over its first 150 years, as, thankfully, it has remained the same. Kate’s artwork could have been painted in 1862 or 2012. The canyon’s cliffs remain, and they transform. The Virgin brings nurture and devastation. Some of us are old timers, tracing family lines back to our town’s founding; some are what our much-missed Fern Crawford called “middle timers”; some are just discovering Rockville’s special wonder. But no matter our origin, all of us—long past or newly arrived—write another line in the ongoing story that is Rockville.

The Virgin Anasazi, Southern Paiute, and those even more distant, told stories of our shared home we will never hear. Sooner than we know, the future’s unnamed will come seeking a home and story of which we can only dream. May they find the community, beauty, and abundance all those before them found in this green and lovely place called Rockville.

Greer K. Chesher

June 2012

Rockville, Utah