Saturday morning dawned bright and clear. Walking early with a friend, we inhaled Colorado’s beauty as the sun rose, glowed on western ridges, and illuminated Pikes Peak. Usually snow-capped in June, how bare it looked now due to winter’s snow drought. Another outlandishly hot, dry day loomed here in Colorado Springs. We walked among a tinderbox. Trees and bushes, shriveled and brittle, drooped beside wildflowers, wilted and weary-looking, all wavering in the early morning heat. We gulped water as we wandered. Parched landscape looked longingly at us, wishing for rain. At walk’s end, we returned to our own welcoming air-conditioned abodes.
After lunch, my husband, headed out for a haircut. Moments later he called, wondering if I too could see the angry black plume of smoke billowing off to the west. From our back deck, I saw it and shivered, despite rising temperatures. Fires, part of living in the arid high desert out west, are never a welcome sight.
Within the hour, our local television station reported a wildfire in Waldo Canyon. Just up Ute Valley Pass, an easy twenty-minute drive west of town from us, this popular hiking trail lingers along a ridge, after gaining quick altitude above the city. Firefighters hiked up as hikers scurried down as the fire increased.
Gathered here at an overlook above Garden of the Gods’ famous Kissing Camels rock formation, an erratic and aggressive fire grabs our attention with its aggressive regime. Like the square dancers’ do-si-do, winds swirl on remote ridges. We gasp with other gawkers, as flames flare, darting nearer and nearer the subdivision closest to Waldo Canyon. As we gaze mesmerized, the fire grows exponentially, spreading south and west, then sprints suddenly northwest. On one hand, I count the ridges between the fire and our home. Suddenly, I don’t want to be among the gawkers. Our eyes meet. We nod to one another, hop in the car, as my husband steers us home.
The television in the den billows information as dark and scary as those fiery plumes. Meteorologists warn of wind, temperature and lack of humidity conditions. US Forest agents talk terrain from topographical maps. Fire department personnel pose possible plans of attack. Officials talk of evacuations.
Suddenly this is not a fire drill. This is not some question posed to get people thinking about their values. It’s a little too real. I feel as if I’ve had a gallon of caffeine, and I’m not a caffeine person. I’m revved up and a bouncing off the walls a bit. Evacuate? As in, leave because a fire is coming, and maybe come back to nothing? Really? Evacuate?
My mind runs as fast as a wildfire. What’ll I pack if we have to evacuate? What’s important to have with me as the fire potentially threatens to hop ridges, careen across canyons, and whirl on the winds?
I look across the room into those sparkling blue eyes of my husband and my son’s thoughtful brown ones. Here are my two greatest tangible values in this home. I can walk away with these two and I will have lost nothing of great value. It’s that simple. My beloveds, here and afar, are my greatest tangible value beyond God Himself.
The newscaster interrupts my thoughts. “Gather 72 hours worth of belongings to live off of, and be sure to take whatever you want to save.” I may come home to only ashes. That fuels my thoughts further. A task is good to have when your mind is swirling.
I stash my favorite shirt, comfortable shoes, faded hiking shorts/pants, and toiletries into a canvas bag. My old black daypack, once carried on a Waldo Canyon hike, is gadget central: camera, computers, iPhone, and all companioning cords. Memories, vital information, and writing projects reside there. Looking through five boxes of photos, I choose one containing snapshots of my children growing up and some of my recent wedding day to this old/new sweetheart of mine. In my study, my hands linger over the worn leather Bible, its margins thick with faith responses to Jesus’ love notes. I toss it and a blank journal into a bag. That’s it. I’m done. If nothing else survives, I’ll be contented.
I circle back to the den, where the latest news shouts. Voluntary and mandatory evacuations creep closer and closer to our neighborhood. We scan the boundaries of the screen’s map. Where’s the squiggly line of our street? Are we pre-, voluntary, or mandatory evacuation? We decide we are none of the above, yet are just a few smoky miles north of one mandatory boundary. We could be ordered out next. That feels weighty and full of waiting.
“Be sure to gather important papers,” one newscaster says. I’ve not even considered that in my scavenging. “If there’s time,” he urges, “take pictures of each room in the house. That may make the insurance dealings somewhat manageable if all goes aflame.” Another task is good for my still swirling heart. My husband and son agree.
Time is one thing we seem to have. My iPhone in hand, I set off systematically, basement to top floor. Snapping photos, I notice so much stuff that matters so little at times like this.
What leap out are memories. My heart that’s been pounding full force grows calm, full of prayerful gratitude as I go. Smiles, laughter, even tears come. A snapshot on my desk of my three little ones, singing to me in their yellow slickers one long-ago rainy Georgia afternoon. Photographs my daughter gave me one Christmas from the travels we did together in Australia. The wooden cross in the kitchen from a women I’d mentored. A silly line drawing on the bookshelf, created thirty years ago, which one son found and recently framed for Mother’s Day. A woodcut and poem another son wrapped up for my birthday. The place my husband and I gather and pray each morning for our children and grandchildren. . A tiny angel ornament from a friend who’d been in Haiti. A watercolor from a prayer partner. The collage of childhood photos from my children’s life that greets me each morning upon my dresser. A bookcase full of journals, notes from almost sixty years worth of living. The photo of my husband and I at our high school prom and another one of our wedding in 2008. Love notes from our courtship. A few of these join the stash of things I’ll take with me.
If the fire leaps our way, today, tonight, tomorrow, no doubt I’ll miss some of this stuff that won’t fit into bags or boxes. But most of it has no hold on me. I finish taking photos of the last room then wander slowly back down to the den. My husband and son grin at my calmness. I smile back.
What will I take if my house is on fire or, in this case, in the line of a fire? The ones here who are the fires of joy to my heart.
What about you? What would you grab if the fires come your way?
© Lane M. Arnold
June 23, 2012