Where there’s smoke

It’s Saturday morning. The sun has just come up over a thumb-shaped rock spire and I can see our surroundings here at Solitude RV Park for the first time. It’s crisp outside and feels like fall. There is an eagle or a hawk sitting on a butte looking at me. The badlands around us are still and silent, there is no smoke in the sky, and as far as I can tell we are the only ones out here for miles.

We’ve been on the move lately. We hadn’t expected to be here now in northwest Wyoming, but the beauty of life on the road is that when something doesn’t feel right you can always change course. Last week in Missoula, Montana we were at a grocery store and I mentioned that this whole month of August had felt a little off. Courtney said she’d been feeling the same way. Ever since we landed back in the west after our visit to New York in late July it has felt like we’ve been running from something. Part of it has been the crowds of late summer: the RV parks that are always at capacity, the towns filled with out of towners, and throngs of people on every hiking trail. Part of it has been the heat wave that sent the inland Pacific Northwest into triple digits. But for the most part we’ve been fleeing smoke.

The wildfires in California, particularly the Carr fire outside of Redding, put forth sky-blanketing quantities smoke that seemed to follow us as we rode our itinerary north, from the Bay Area to northern California (Mt. Shasta invisible from I-5), to southwestern Oregon and Crater Lake (erased under smoke by noon each day), and on up to Portland (“huh, we can usually see Mt. Hood from here”).

In Hood River, Oregon Courtney got to experience wildfire season first-hand when a fire broke out across the interstate from our RV park. I was on a hike that day, so Courtney held down the fort on her own, watching planes and helicopters filling buckets of water from the Columbia River behind her and dumping them onto the flames in front of her, so close she could feel the droplets hit her skin. She was put on alert for a possible evacuation that day. That order never came, and the fire got contained, but the universe had sent its message.

We nixed our trip to the Olympic Peninsula and fled the Pacific Northwest and its fires eastward to Missoula, Montana, but were met with the familiar sight of a blood-orange sun behind an oppressive haze and the faint noxious smell of burned living wood. It appeared that the smoke had followed us here too. We made the most of it for a week, until that day in the grocery store when we finally admitted that we’d gotten off track. We needed to get away from the smoke that now covered most of the northwestern US, as well as the brutal heat and the late summer crowds that came with it.

We wanted to go back to our favorite types of places—unexpected towns with higher elevation than population, where you could stay for two weeks and already feel like a citizen, and then stay for two more. So we looked on a map, skimmed some reviews, checked the local weather, and picked a riverside mountain town we’d never heard of called Salida, Colorado. We pulled out of Missoula a week early on Labor Day weekend and began the 1,000 mile journey south-southeast. We crashed at a Walmart in Butte before buzzing through Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, and 4 Continental Divide crossings in 1 day, finally coming out the other side into the badlands of Dubois, Wyoming, where we are spending a rest day before pushing on to Colorado.

We pulled in after dark and a kind man named Adam met us in his 4-wheeler. Courtney had thought from his rough voice on the phone that he’d be a grizzled old cowboy, but he was probably not much older than us, and just happened to be a smoker. He led us to our site and helped us back in, then left us alone in the glorious silence of the open high plains.

I went outside to do some stargazing and enjoy a glimpse of the Milky Way. A pair of headlights from a far ridge swept across the horizon. Then I saw two flashes followed a second later by two muted bangs that echoed off the mountains. For some reason this didn’t alarm me or make me feel unsafe. It was Labor Day weekend, and tomorrow, our host Adam told us, was the first day of bow hunting season. Somehow this comforted me. Summer was ending, the tourists were gone, and the smoke had cleared.

Now this morning looking up at the butte, my hawk has gone too. Other birds are awake now though, and a mountain bluebird has just landed on my bike outside the Airstream’s back window. Courtney is waking up too, so now I shall go and join her in enjoying the solitude of this moment, this divide between the summer we’ve just finished and the autumn that lies ahead.

Post Script: I later asked Adam about the apparent gunshots the previous night, and he said, “oh there was just a concert last night, and a party afterward.” I didn’t totally understand, but he seemed nonchalant about it, so I decided there was nothing for me to worry about either.

—September 1, 2018

Photos by Courtney Doker

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