Not far from where I live, dry trees and grass are burning an indiscriminate path through wilderness and civilization alike. It's been quite a summer already -- people here have gotten used to the concept of being evacuated. Everyone I know is thinking about what to take, should it come to that.
Almost everyone: Fifteen-year-old boys are less than panicked, as long as they know where their skateboards are. The handful of homeless people in this increasingly affluent area are justifiably smug. Walter, the guy who traditionally spends his summers beneath a picnic table on the shores of Bear Creek Lake, is there as always, drinking beer and yelling at hikers. Everything he needs fits in his rolling Playmate cooler.
I have chosen this moment to move into a new house, and my days are full of boxes. Before I can decide what to take out, I have to put everything back in. It's a good distraction: Reducing my life to an essential armful of stuff is one of those impossible, self-defining tasks I usually try very hard to ignore.
Most of the people around me, however, abandoned the luxury of avoidance long ago.
"Here's what I know," says Kristie McMullen, the woman who works behind the video counter and has been evacuated three times so far. "Make sure your documents are in order. I've heard of people who don't -- and they kind of disappear. I have the whole thing down to a science. I take my papers and my dogs. If I have time, I take my Gramma's china with the pink rose in the middle and the quilts people made for me. My littlest kid takes a few stuffed animals, my thirteen-year-old daughter takes her Precious Moments figurines. My fifteen-year-old son takes his clothes -- not even special clothes -- and he throws them all in a garbage bag and is happy."
"I don't know that any of it matters much," says Diana Miller, the pharmacist. "I'd take a whole lot of papers and picture albums, but what else? Why?"
"I put 1,600 wedding pictures on my hard drive," says Angie Miller, who works behind the meat counter. "I tell my mother-in-law to do that, but she's not organized, and she may be sorry."
Miller and her mother-in-law have evacuated to each other's houses several times -- giving them a total of six dogs and a lot of wedding pictures with which they can start a new life, although they haven't had to yet. Last weekend, in fact, Miller and her husband bought a $1,600 flat-screen TV. "Which I like," she says, "except that it doesn't matter and neither does any of the new furniture we bought for our new house."
Eric Tischner, the guy who hangs phone wire, seems young enough to belong to the jeans-and-skateboard camp. "Jeans, socks, boxers," he agrees. "I mean, I'd need them, right? Except I'm not near the fires."
Unless the local arsonist currently torching 285 passes by your block, I remind him.
This makes him think not just of his three guitars, but of his prized collection of great hockey-play-off games captured on videotape. "These are good, classic games, going back to 1989," he says proudly. "I'd have to have them. I know the outcome, but I watch them anyway."
"My concern is someone throwing a cigarette butt out the car window on their way past my house," says yoga teacher Kim Evezich. This makes her jumpy, and now that she mentions it, it makes me jumpy, too. "Tonight I heard a bunch of horses whinnying next door, where the people are out of town, and I freaked out -- what were they making that noise about? It turned out it was just a bunch of evacuated horses joining the stable for a while. But you always think they know something."
At the start of this dry spring, Evezich took a load of treasure to her mother's house in Littleton for safekeeping. "My silver flatware and some original Audubon prints and antique jewelry," she recalls. A few weeks later, she put the family photo albums inside the meat smoker, assuming that it would be fireproof, in its own unique way. Then she taught her twelve-year-old to drive the minivan down the mountain switchback that constitutes her driveway. "I figured I'd be driving the horse trailer, and I want her to follow me," she explains. "And that's it -- horses, dogs, kids. Everything else I can replace at Target."
On the sunny side of the valley, the neighbors have gotten organized enough to exchange house keys. They all know where to find everyone else's most precious belongings: recipes, souvenirs of an audience with the Pope, report cards, leashes, a great-grandmother's wedding ring, a father's rodeo belt buckle.
Stuff is either the most important thing in the world, or the least.
Shamed by my neighbors, I start filling a box with documents, all the time wondering if they'll really do me as much good, in the short run, as that half-a-really-excellent-turkey sandwich in the fridge. I don't really think about the long run at a time like this, unless it's a run long before I was born.
Almost everyone can look up his family tree -- sometimes not very far up -- and see a relative in a refugee situation. I'm slammed by graphic images of clueless people ordered to grab their things and get out fast. Some of them lived only a few more days, not really keeping pace with events, in conditions that couldn't be helped by their grandmother's necklace or their favorite poetry book or the nice wool coat they bought last winter. Before long, they were separated from their stuff. Oddly, some of the stuff survived what they didn't.
Compared to that, what do we really have to lose up here but our La-Z-Boys and our California Closet organizers? And even then, don't most of us have insurance? Isn't this really more unsettling than sorrowful?
Yet I continue to move all of this crap into our new home, my eighth Colorado house, knowing that someday I'll have to move it all out -- if, of course, it doesn't get singed to a crisp in the meantime. In light of the time I spend chasing pretty things until I get them, it's shocking how little I now care. Here's the compromise I've reached: These boxes will have a place to live, with the understanding that places are impermanent, fire or otherwise.
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Instead, my loyalty rests somewhere between what comes out of the Colorado earth and what emanates from the Colorado sky. Not so much because this space is beautiful -- although it is, as well as vicious -- but because it's big and open and full of possibility. And it doesn't deal in polite nuance: Even when it's promulgating disaster, it lives large.
So the hell with my sheets and blankets, the pile of empty Tupperware, the jumbo box of laundry detergent, the sofa. More than the sofa, I realize I would miss the shmutz of spare change, ballpoint pen caps and ancient crumbs that have accumulated behind its pillows, the stuff that appears only in actual houses where actual people live. The evidence of life lived.
Even radio commercials, capitalizing clunkily on the situation, are reminding us to live here, now. In light of the threat, their message goes, we should lavish appreciation on the homes we're lucky enough to have in the first place. Has there ever been a better time for carpet cleaning?
Or for simply enjoying everything and anything? If I ever get through these boxes, I plan to go outside and stand beneath the cloud of ash, trying to spot the sun in the hazy sky.