Morning routine: Wake up around 6:30 • first things first, feed Muffinhead or there will be hell to pay • make coffee • sip coffee while reading emails.
Sam reads the news online. “There’s a fire about 15 miles southeast of us,” he tells me.
Bummer I think glad it’s not near us.I take a leisurely shower and get dressed for the day. It’s Thursday, my day to spend with Desiree, helping out at the shop.
Cell phone rings, “Good morning Des, you want me to open up this morning?” I ask cheerfully.
An edge of panic cuts through the line, “We are not opening today, the fire is close, we’re getting ready to evacuate.”
I think she might be over-reacting.
Moments later, the clear morning sky darkens to a heavy ominous gray. Adrenaline kicks in. I grab some important papers, my laptop, Sam gets out our suitcases and the cat carrier. I throw in clothing and one small stuffed doll, Dolly-O that Mom made. I send a silent sorryto Scruffy and the other stuffed bears. I think we will be back and send that thought to them.
Then we hear it; the roar, fire driven by wind, a sound like no other. What the hell is that? I look out the window to see bright orange between the oak leaves. Muffinhead howls and I race him to the kitty door. I beat. We literally have to to stuff him into the carrier, prying one claw at a time off the plastic ledge.
We’re taking both the truck and car. I have the thought to stop at the mailbox on the way out of the park. There is an order of flat-back Swavorski crystals I forgot to retrieve yesterday. Near the exit a wall of flame engulfs the house next door, not more than twenty feet from the mailboxes. As if I’m watching a movie I think, I’ll bet those metal mailboxes are hotter than hell.
The evacuation is not going well. I look to the car on my left, it’s my neighbor Cathryn in her small brown truck with a large crate in the back where I am sure her three cats are huddled. I can tell she is in focussed-panic mode, She doesn’t see me and turns into the lane where normally there would be oncoming traffic. It is disturbing to lose sight of her in the smoke and chaos. Sam is in the truck right ahead of me. We sit in our vehicles amidst flames and falling debris. I jump out of my skin at the sound of each exploding window and propane tank. Power lines spark and sizzle, sending a light rain of gooey droplets onto the windshield. Great old pines lean perilously over the road, aglow from within like in an animated Halloween movie.
My cell phone rings, it’s Desiree. I hear the fear in her voice, “Where are you?”
As calmly as possible, I update her on our status and through frantic sobs she tells me to get out and run. The A/C is still working, so the inside of my car feels safer than trying to run throug h the black smoke and flames. Although, a dramatic thought does occur me –a later news report: 40 charred vehicles with the driver’s bodies found sealed into their makeshift tombs.
An elderly woman, driving a small silver car is next to me on the left, a burning car forces her to merge in between Sam and I. We creep past the burning car and just ahead of it I see Cathryn’s truck parked at an angle. She is not in it and the cat carrier is gone. Please let it be that someone rescued her and the cats. They were probably roasting in the bed of the truck.
Something is happening up ahead, activity I can’t really see. It looks as though there are people in the road on foot. We creep forward a little more. A young man appears out of the smoke. He is talking to the woman in the silver car ahead of me. He runs toward my car now and I roll my window down, letting in a blast of heat and smoke.
Okay, this is crazy, but I’m having a hard time hearing what he is saying; I’m staring at tattoos spreading from beneath a white tank top, across lean muscled arms. My eyes move up to sandy colored hair with light facial growth. Sharp blue eyes snap my mind back into focus.
He is speaking to me intently as if these instructions were a matter of life and death, “You need to drive through, It will be scary and it will be dark. You will drive around the burning cars, but just keep going and you will come out on the other side.” He makes sure I understand and runs on to the truck behind me.
I can’t see Sam’s truck anymore and the silver car isn’t moving. A young woman, looking like Ulma Thurman straight out of Pulp Fiction, is leaning down and talking to silver car woman. I want to scream at her to get going. Ulma opens the car door and the elderly woman struggles to climb out, teetering momentarily on stiff legs. Gently, gently, like a slow-motion film, Ulma escorts the shaken woman to the passenger side. As soon as the car door closes she takes on a cheetah-like speed running back to the driver’s side. She looks back at the line of vehicles and waves her arm in an arching follow-me gesture.
She somehow has the mental where-with-all to turn on the flashing emergency lights as she speeds ahead, weaving around burning cars and downed power lines. Suddenly I’m in a dark-grey fog and can’t see her lights. I want to slam on the brakes, but then hear the Tattoo guy’s voice in my head and step on the gas, moving blindly into the blackness. Then miraculously, just as he said, I emerge into visibility. Sam’s truck is pulled to the side, waiting for me. That old truck never looked so good.
Sam and I finally meet up at a gas station in Los Molinos. In the parking lot, we cling to each other in a fierce hug that tells a story of lives stripped to the core of all but what truly matters.
At my sister’s house in Redding I notice the left taillight of my car, bubbled and white, like a sizzling fried egg, frozen in time. It’s then I think of Tattoo guy and lovely Ulma, how they risked their own young lives to help everyone else. They could have just driven on to safety, but they didn’t. They had the heart and courage to run back through the gauntlet of burning cars to save the rest of us. Hugs and love to my two Bille Road Angels. I will remember you always.