Photos by Google Earth and California Highway Patrol, courtesy of the Los Angeles Times
The sun beams warm my face as our airplane glides like a gallant eagle above the Colorado flatlands, floating, hovering, in effortless slow motion. We are coasting into Denver International Airport, a brief stop as I make my way home to the California Bay Area after 18 days away. Eighteen long wonderful days I traveled up and down the East Coast feeling seasons change, sun, rains and winds and humid afternoons, the smells of early autumn that are somehow unique to this part of the country. Eighteen days, working and networking at meetings, visiting with friends and family, exploring new and familiar corners of cities as diverse as Miami, Baltimore, and New York. All the while, living as a solitary sojourner for a short stint, my husband — my usual travel companion — back home in Oakland. I am excited to throw my arms around him even as I revel in the last moments of our time adventuring solo these past weeks.
Today as the plane slows over the middle of the country, I gaze at the circles and half circles that make strange otherworldly patterns in the prairie grass below. A song comes through my headphones in just the way that good songs do, putting a soundtrack to my thoughts. Down below me, the corner of Colorado we fly over looks faintly familiar. Twenty years ago, I drove into this state with my older sister, in a car packed with all my belongings. I made my temporary home in this state for one remarkable year, drifting into young adulthood, finding my way in my early 20’s in the space between Boulder and Denver. This place holds deep memories, imprints of my life.
I have been reading this morning with heartache of the fires burning all throughout Napa and Sonoma and Mendocino counties just an hour or so north of my Oakland home. I’m grasping at every article in my news feed. In one story, a set of “before and after” photos are juxtaposed showing the devastation brought on by the fires, a complete community in Santa Rosa wiped out. A woman comments below the story that in the photos she is witnessing at that moment the complete decimation of her childhood home, every memory she holds dear of that time and place in her life completely burned to the ground.
I read the outcry of comments that follow, expressions of sadness for this woman’s loss. And I wonder how I would feel to have that experience, to see my childhood home in Maryland, the simple street in the outer corner of our housing development, the yellow house with the brown roof that held our family memories within for forty years, that and everything around it going up in flames. My heart clenches up.
I was there just 18 days ago. It was Sunday afternoon at the start of my East Coast trip, and I had driven up from Baltimore with extra time I had to burn before I returned my rental car. I drove past our house, now given over to new owners since we had to move mom and dad into a senior home a few years ago. I drove our street, saw the homes where my childhood friends lived, the familiar curve of the hill three quarters of the way up our cul de sac, the trees and the driveways and grassy medians. I spent all of two minutes driving up and down Old Spring Court before I headed back to Baltimore, reveling in the sunshine and the green grasses and familiar landmarks along the way. I only needed two minutes to reconnect with who I was, a brief drive-by of my life, and my whole being was rejoined like a circuit that needed the final wiring to make the light flicker.
I think of the fires in California and how they are burning up memories that I, too, have of that region, the countless pilgrimages I have made to the hills and valleys of wine country often to escape the hum of the city and set my mind on the rolling green slopes and picket vineyards. In the early years when I came to California, I had a route I would often drive, up Highway 29 to Calistoga, then making a sharp left over the mountain range to Santa Rosa, venturing further to Sebastopol and Bodega Bay before taking Highway 1 back to the San Francisco Bay. I can only imagine the scenes along that route right now, charred remains of trees still smoldering, the twisted metal and wood of homes and businesses devoured, grey smoke and ash. I have not lost a home or property or all my life’s belongings, as so many others have so tragically in this fire. But I feel a sense of loss too.
As our eagle plane glides and swirls in the mid-day sun, I look at traces of my life down below in the Colorado foothills. Where else are traces of my life, my presence, my encounters and my adventures still lingering? What if all these traces of my life were to become ash tomorrow, destroyed by some calamity, made unrecognizable? Would I cease to exist? Memories are strange like that. They are touchpoints along the road of this temporal life we live. They may be associated with a place, a time, a person, an object that holds significance for us. They remind us of who we are or were or are becoming. I can’t quite put words to what I felt as our plane came in for a landing. But I was reminded of the power of memories as pave stones marking my steps. And I felt fleetingness of time and people and places in my life, and how it all still holds together somehow in the insignificant me, making my way, a solitary sojourner still traveling.
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