I remember walking in the Boggs Forest with the kids. Trees so thick the forest floor drank only shade. Quiet.
Spongy pine needles everywhere and reddish grayish bark–sometimes that bark showing black streaks from some ancient fire– absorbed all sound.
But kids grew, we moved to the city, became part of the east coast rat-race. We got used to constant abrasive noise.
When I returned to Boggs Forest a decade later–last year–the trees had been recently scorched by an infernal blaze. That fire, among the first of what would become annual conflagrations, sent northern Californians into wheeling screeches of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
And turned the whispering green conifers into skeletal clanking ghosts.
And they do clank against each other in the wind that now howls through, unslowed by needles and leaves.
Bark burned off and fallen, the trees remain nude, seem embarrassed. Their branches, twisted by heat, curl down as if to cover their private parts. They lean into each other for support in these final years of standing upright. It reminds me of the haunting images of nude Jews in line for their deadly showers in Germany.
But, I chastise myself, is that really fair? This is a naturally burned forest. those were victims of the worst form of prejudice known to man. Of greed.
But wait. Isn’t that what we’re talking about? This climate change, isn’t it just driven by greed?
I scrape my mind for optimism as my hiking pace slows.
It takes me awhile to see the beauty. But after hiking among the bare-boned trees several times per week for a year, I see it now. The beauty, I mean.
Forest managers have hastened the regrowth by planting new trees. I am watching the baby ponderosas reach for the sky, compete with weeds, poke away the predators. Clusters of scratchy brush surround the bases of the ghost black oaks, who now stand white against the dark sky.
I see bark burned to hues of black iridescence in the morning light, drinking the rain, shedding the snow.
I see footprints: deer, raccoon, mountain lion.
I see human bootprints every day, one set on what has become my path, my three-mile circle. They are slightly larger than mine and they weave with those of a large dog. I watch for their impressionist but I do not meet anyone on my path.
My path is not a path really, it hangs a left just past the gate, between low branches I leap the same hole, a hole where a tree stood, burned deep. Then my path roams over a low saddle where I often scare up a black-tailed rabbit. Then it crosses a creek. If I’m feeling stable I take a log bridge, if I’ve had too much coffee I forge through the undergrowth to climb again. Past the piles of logs some contracted lumber company forgot to clean up. Then up, up, up through a logged area of bulldozed contours that break my sense of natural peace.
Around the mountain to my favorite place I follow other bootprints.
One day I marvel, placing my foot next to a particularly sharp impression in the mud: Another hiker has exactly my size feet … which at women’s 11.5A is unusual. It takes me several seconds to realize that they are my yesterday tracks. I laugh out loud at myself.
Up, up to my last-trees-standing place, a knob on the north end of the state forest where I can see sometimes as far as Mt. Lassen, some 250 miles to the northeast.
One day in late October, just as I am growing to see the beauty in the burn, I meet a man coming up the trail. My eyes immediately check his feet. Are they just a tad bigger than mine? If so, where is his dog?
The man, slightly shorter than me and dressed from boot to hat in hunter camou (except for his shirt, which has been removed and tucked like a rag into his belt) sharpens his eyes and likewise assesses me.
I slide my foot next to his, unable to explain this sudden intimacy. It seems obvious; I am asking if he is the one who has been sharing my path.
But he’s confused. What is this large woman doing? He is not afraid, just curious. So I start to explain.
But his feet are several sizes smaller than mine.
“Nevermind,” I say.
He has been hiking uphill and seems eager to take a break. I see his eyes focus on a hillside across the valley. ‘You see that water tank?’ he asks.
“My house was right there to the right and below it,” he says.
I look at him, understanding that he is a fire survivor. Something inside me melts.
He tells his story, about watching the flames approach, about being relieved to see it turn away, only to feel the wind change moments later forcing him to race away, no time to say good-bye to the everything he lost.
And about this time, his wife left him; his best friend died; his life became the kind of tragedy he’d only heard about.
He keeps telling his story.
He’d been hiking here for thirty years, recently retired.
His eyes kept sneaking toward the water tank marking his vanished home. There’s no way of describing what it feels to be on that rooftop seeing that wall of fire heading toward you, he tells me later.
It has been four years since the “Valley Fire” that marked the end of life-as-he-knew-it. We talk for almost an hour, there on the side of the burned up mountain.
I think of another hiker-friend who’d wanted to find a trail to the top of a nearby peak.
Selfishly, I realize, ‘this guy might know the trail.’
I ask. The stranger agrees to show me.
A few weeks later, after rescheduling several times, Doug picks me up in his pickup truck, the sibling to my own but younger, with more cylinders and a lower, better gear ratio. And it is bright red, which he needs.
Doug and I clamber over and under dead trees. Up, up, up, up. After two hours the wind hastens and I hear, no, I feel a buzzing around me.
Communication towers with taught-stretched guy wires enclosed by a chainlink fence marr the mountaintop.
Gross red streaks coat the bush, the rocks, the everything for yards and yards on the west side of the peak. I know this was fire retardent dropped just a few weeks ago during the “Kincade Fire.” We stare over the new burn area, our eyes stretching but failing to glimpse the Pacific Ocean in the distance.
“You can see it from Mt. St. Helena,” Doug says, nodding to the peak just south of us.
A new hike is planned.
It’s been more than two months now I’ve been hiking with Doug. I call him “Douglasii” (say it: Duh GLASSY Eye,) after one of the trees he knows so well.
As he speaks of his tragedies now, just this morning a new one–a friend younger than him died from a heart ailment–he also speaks of how useless stuff is. If you don’t use it, get rid of it, he advises. It’s just stuff.
I have gotten to know his living room as I stand waiting for him to find his coat or tie his boots. The walls are decorated sparsely with a rock hammer, a tiny tin Christmas ornament he found in his rubble … a chainsaw holding down a bookshelf.
Among his new tragedies he reports, after being called by his daughter to fix a faucet at her mother’s house, his ex gave him tree ornaments as a Christmas gift.
He’s hurt and angered. ‘She knows I haven’t had a tree for ten years,’ he laments.
“Maybe she thinks you should,” I suggest.
He stares at me, the newness of our friendship stalling his anger.
Soon we are off hiking again, a day or two passes, then hiking again. I tell him my tragedies, my didn’t-work-out loves, my potential new ones.
We hike again.
He tells me that his lady-friends don’t want to be friends when they find out he is still married.
And we hike again, this time along the same trail where we met. Again I see the big boots and big dog tracks. I explain to Doug this is why I wanted to know his shoe size. He stares at me but I think he gets it now. He thinks I’m crazy but he doesn’t say so.
We hike again.
One day he goes for a hike without me and when he tells me about it I feel a burn inside.
But I get it the next day when I head up the hill early, too early for him. It’s good to be solo.
Alone I meander slowly and come across a huge heavy tool unlike any I’ve ever seen. It’s a Pulaski without the point, but with a blade turned 90 degrees. It would be perfect for digging fire lines. But I look at the new trees. It must be for planting trees, I decide. I text a photo to Doug.
“It’s a rock hammer,” he immediately responds.
I carry it back two miles to my truck, shifting the weight from one shoulder to the other.
When he sees it he is surprised. He thought it was smaller. His hand runs down the curved handle admiring it. I give it to him. He’s pleased.
The next day he reports that it’s for digging fire lines, according to his knowledgable son.
We hike together the next day, I show him where I found it, among the ferns in a burned area.
We climb over rocks and along logs.
We hike again.
Every day I hike a new path with Doug.
When I can’t go with him on a long hike he proposes because I have a dentist appointment, I invite him over for breakfast.
He eats the French toast but won’t try the fried bananas, sloppy gray slugs that I know taste like central American heaven.
Won’t try something new? A darkness fills me.
But then we hike.
Doug and I, we just hike. It’s what we do.
I head to the dentist and he tightens his bootlaces. I am saddened when he sends me pictures of the hike without me. We will go again Sunday, he vows.
No matter how many dead trees, I can always find new growth if I look.
‘See you then,’ I say.