Firewalls

Apparently I forgot I update this occasionally.  Anyway, instead of a real update here’s my obscenely long quarter project for my English class.


Firewalls

The sky was bleeding.

My first thought upon seeing this was that bleeding was not a very normal thing for the sky to do.  Even if you want to get metaphorical, the sky can roar with thunder or appear to anger when black rain clouds roll in, but bleed?  I had always thought bleeding was something reserved for those of us with veins and arteries and circulatory systems and all that.

Nevertheless, as I stared at the picture, the sky was bleeding.  I thought maybe it was a byproduct of all the lenses I was seeing it through—my friend Sean had stepped out of his house, looked up to the sky through the screen of a digital camera, taken a picture, uploaded the picture to his computer, and sent it to me via email; I had then opened the attachment and downloaded the picture, and was now seeing it through the glossy matte of my own computer screen in the half-light of a charter bus.  Somewhere in the maze of glass lenses and silicon semiconductors and Boolean logic, something had to have gone wrong.  After all, modern digital computing works on analog approximations.  There’s always that one in a billion-billion-billion chance that there’s too much noise in a circuit, that what should have been a “one” had been sent as a “zero,” that blue had become red and that had to—had to—explain why I was now staring at the closest thing I’ve ever seen to what I imagine the apocalypse looks like.

Because in the picture, the sky was crimson, blood red, and absolutely terrifying—even three hundred miles and several layers of electronic filters away.  The top edges of Sean’s front yard lined the bottom of the photograph, the white stucco of his walls and green vibrancy of his palm trees defiant against the vermilion backdrop.  The sky seemed like it was furiously bearing down on them, trying to consume all that was left in the frame that wasn’t red in a wash of blood.

* * *

Sean first sent me that picture a few weeks before the bus ride where I stared at it with terror and curiosity.  It was late October of my freshman year at Stanford—wildfire season for southern California, where my hometown of Santa Clarita lies nestled between some very dry, very flammable hills.

Southern California has been so terraformed and landscaped that no one seems to remember that it’s really little more than the outskirts of the Mojave Desert.  The lawns of Beverly Hills or Santa Barbara or Malibu might be green and verdant, but that’s thanks to the wonders of irrigation and the far-distant waters of the Colorado River.  In Santa Clarita, too, it’s easy to forget what nature intended the place to look like—but the hills on the opposite sides of the freeways surrounding the Santa Clarita Valley stand unchanged in their majestic, brushy, arid splendor.

But when some idiot throws a lit cigarette out of a car on some middle-of-nowhere route, as seems to happen every few years, people remember.  People remember that the desert is not green and wet, they remember that their fantastic lawns are really just fantastic feats of engineering, and they remember what they gathered for kindling as Boy Scouts (or, in my case, as a more politically incorrect Indian Guide)—brush and twigs and dry vegetation not unlike what blankets the hills of southern California.

While there are wildfires every year, the fires my freshman year of college would have been spectacular if they weren’t utterly devastating.  Infernos blazed throughout the southern half of the state, consuming brush and houses alike.

I remember calling Sean in disbelief after I saw his photo the first time, hoping it was some digital glitch.

“Dude,” he bluntly told me, “It looks like Hell outside.”

* * *

The picture was startling when I first saw it, but the surprise quickly faded.  It was, after all, the first quarter of my freshman year, and I had midterms and problem sets and essays and parties to worry about.  The fact that the atmosphere near my home had been dyed cochineal was something abstract, something happening over there, and the gravity of the situation didn’t really impress itself on me.  Even when I picked up a copy of the New York Times in the halls of my dorm and recognized the hillside that had been plastered across the front page, an ominous orange glow just beyond the rolling crests, it didn’t truly connect.  I was here, it was there.  My friends in San Diego and Malibu were evacuated as ravenous flames bore down upon them and the air became too thick with ash to breathe; I took a multivariable calculus midterm.

And so I set up a wall for myself and hid behind it.  I was safe and secure in the high-tech fortress of the Silicon Valley, far removed from the flames that ravaged the Southland—my own firewall.

* * *

When I left Stanford for Thanksgiving break, however, the hectic schedule of the quarter-based university froze suddenly, and I found myself with time, for the first time, to really think about the situation I was about to go home to.  By then, the danger was over.  Almost all of the large fires had been contained, and though some smaller ones were still flaring up around the drier parts of the state, no one I knew was anywhere near enough to be in harm’s way.  Yet as I was sitting onboard the “Megabus” (think Greyhound, but cheaper) bound for Los Angeles, I still found myself opening up the file Sean had sent me, and staring at the entrancingly blood-red sky.

* * *

“By Tuesday, you couldn’t go outside.”

Kelly comes across as remarkably calm as she tells me about the few days preceding her evacuation from the University of California, San Diego.  She tells me how the smoke was so thick and dark it was as if a dirty cloud had descended to envelop the ground in a grimy embrace, how piles of ash built up all over the campus like sinister perversions of snow banks, how she had to tie a wet cloth over her mouth and nose to make it thirty yards to the cafeteria.  UCSD eventually cancelled classes that week, and Kelly got into her car—completely blanketed in a fine coating of ash—and drove back to Santa Clarita.

“As I was leaving,” she says, “I saw three guys walking up to the cafeteria with gas masks on.”

Her drive home was one of stark contrasts.  Interstate 5, which connects San Diego and Santa Clarita and then travels north past Stanford all the way to Seattle, runs parallel to the Pacific Ocean for a long stretch outside of San Diego.  From the left window of Kelly’s car, the ocean stretched on into the horizon, as blue and serene as ever.  From Kelly’s right window she could see giant pillars of smoke rising up from beyond the hills and disappearing high into the sky, leading her home as if she were an ancient Israelite escaping Egypt.  And the sky itself?

According to Kelly, “the sky looked like it was on fire as the sun caught in the clouds and reflected off the ocean… The whole sky was red.”

The entire scene just seemed apocalyptically biblical, something so massive and so daunting that it could only be described with hyperbole and imagery.  Like God as a pillar of fire plus the Book of Revelation wrapped up in Hell and served with a side of brimstone.

And yet while the End of Days took place outside Kelly’s passenger side window, I worried about my math test.

* * *

My own drive back to Santa Clarita that Thanksgiving break was much less catastrophic.  Northern California was unscathed by all of this fire business, and as the bus trundled through the hills past Gilroy, the faint smell of garlic still lingering lightly in the air, I enjoyed doing absolutely nothing for the first time in a while.  The bus passed trees and grassy meadows as it rounded the bend around the San Luis Reservoir, and headed for Interstate 5.

* * *

I had a bizarre sense of déjà vu any time I thought about the fires of my freshman year at college.  The last time fire season was anywhere near as destructive as that year was exactly four years previous—my freshman year of high school.

My high school closed for a few days during what I suppose I’ll call my first freshman year.  At that point, I was almost as aloof as I was my second freshman year, though not exactly for the same reasons.  The first time, I was just excited to have the day off school—and since the air smelled like burnt barbeque coals and flecks of ash were falling sporadically like snowflakes, I had an excuse to watch TV and play video games all day, even while some of my friends on the opposite side of Santa Clarita worried if the fires would be contained enough to justify not evacuating.

To complete this coincidence, my freshman year at college was also my younger brother Evan’s freshman year of high school.  In his infinite wisdom, my brother decided to play a pick up game of football in the park with his friends while his freshman year fires raged.  They managed to stay outside for ten minutes, then stopped because their throats were burning.

As he walked off the park’s grass field, Evan turned to the southwest.  On the horizon, a giant cloud of dark gray smoke billowed over the hills that surround Santa Clarita, the tops of the fuliginous columns slowly drifting apart in the languid breeze, scattering ash throughout the valley that settled onto manicured lawns like chalky white flecks of dew.

Another in a series of biblical tableaux, this one hanging in the air over my hometown.  In their desert, at least the Israelites got manna.

* * *

The part of the 5 that spans the majority of the trip from Stanford to Santa Clarita is almost two hundred miles of road in a straight line, four lanes of concrete that barrel without interruption through the farmland of the Central Valley.  From the bus I took home for Thanksgiving, I could see almost nothing except for fields.  The Sierra Nevada mountain range sometimes materialized out of the distance in the east, but otherwise traveling down the 5 was much like sailing on the open ocean—nothing but horizon in the distance, and often no ports in sight.

* * *

After two or three hours on this straight line of concrete, I began to get restless—I wanted to get home.  I kept remembering bits of conversations I had had with my family about the fires, mentions of general locations of the flames, and I wondered what Santa Clarita would look like when I reached it.  Would it be different at all?

Part of me knew something had to have changed.  I kept thinking of the very outskirts of Santa Clarita, where I imagined the fires licking hungrily at the city’s doorstep, and one particular memory I had of Santa Clarita’s fringes stuck out vividly.

In the memory, I’m some adorable young age, dressed up in some equally adorable Halloween costume.  I think I’m a cowboy—I know I was a cowboy one year, whether or not it’s this particular year—and I’m buckled securely into a car seat in the back of my dad’s red Jeep.  We’re on our way to Lombardi Ranch, but at that point in my life, I’m just happy to be wearing boots and a funny hat, regardless of the destination.  Apparently we went to Lombardi the year before, too, but I’m far too young to remember back a whole year—at this point in my life, one year is a significant fraction of the entirety of my existence.

When our Jeep finally pulls into the dusty, unpaved parking lot that smells strongly of hay, I am ecstatic.  Lombardi Ranch is, to my young eyes, the closest approximation toheaven I’ve ever encountered.  Fields of pumpkins blanket the ground, arranged in neat rows for easy perusal, and the hills around the ranch are covered in acre upon acre of sunflowers and corn.  We pass through the wooden lean-to that serves as an entrance to Lombardi, walking past barrels of squash and tomatoes and hanging strings of peppers, and I don’t know whether to run to the petting zoo, the train ride, or to the collection of painted wooden boards with cut-out ovals where the heads of the painting’s characters should be.  A band is playing in a tent with hay bales for seats, and there are real tractors parked on a hill nearby.  (Let me reiterate this: I am a small male child, and there is actual large farm equipment within eyesight.  At this point in the story, I am surprised my small brain has not exploded from sheer joy.)

After the giant hollowed-out pumpkin, the pyramid of hay bales that small children are swarming over like it’s made out of candy and Santa Claus, and the swath cut through the cornfields to display all the entries to Lombardi Ranch’s annual scarecrow competition, I am somehow convinced that it’s time to leave this pastoral paradise.  I pick out the perfect pumpkin from among the countless rows, and clutch it to me for the whole car ride home.

Needless to say, the Lombardi Ranch trip became tradition.  Even by the time I was a senior in high school—thoroughly jaded, unimpressed by the bad country music in the tent or the five dollar corn on the cob, and condescendingly declaring to anyone who would listen that the whole place smelled like goat—even then, I still agreed to go on one last pilgrimage to the ranch, if only (I swore) in order to buy a pumpkin to carve.

* * *

As the 5 exits the Central Valley, it snakes its way slowly up the hills that separate the valley from the Los Angeles Basin, a portion of freeway referred to as the Grapevine.  All the farmland disappears and is replaced by rugged hillsides and runaway truck ramps.  As the Megabus swerved through sharp turns and steep ups and downs, on my trip home, I caught fleeting glimpses of the fires’ aftermath—a burnt bush here, a charred tree stump there.

When the 5 emerges through the hills, it explodes into the ten-lane behemoth anyone familiar with southern California recognizes for its sheer inability to move traffic, even at that size.  As the 5 swells, it passes Santa Clarita.  Before I left the freeway, I saw for the first time what the hills a few scant miles away from my house had been reduced to.

On my right, everything was black.  Huge swathes of soot flowed like congealed rivers down the hillsides, and everything that used to be green—or even brown—had been reduced to a burnt-out husk, a hollow shell of blackened carbon with roots that still clung uselessly to desiccated soil.

And on my left, Santa Clarita went about its daily business, seemingly oblivious to the charnel house that now slumbered in its hills.

* * *

Seeing these scorched hills finally broke through my wall.  Suddenly, “there” was actually here.  I immediately worried for the Santa Clarita I had known, immediately regretted removing myself from the entire situation for the last month.

When I got home, I asked my parents if my most persistent suspicion was true.  They told me I was right.  Lombardi Ranch had been right in the path of one of the firestorms.

All I could picture were charred sunflowers.

* * *

The Thanksgiving break of my freshman year of college passed extremely quickly.  I caught up with my family and with the friends I hadn’t seensince we all left for our various colleges in a sort of scholastic diaspora, I ate Thanksgiving dinner, and before I knew it I was sitting on a Megabus again, this time outside of Los Angeles’ Union Station and bound for Stanford.

The fact that everything was so normal in Santa Clarita was comforting.  All of my friends were fine—even those evacuated from UCSD or Pepperdine.  All of their houses were fine.  The sky was clear and cloudless and vibrantly blue as only southern Californian sky can be.

But really, the idea that everything was normal was a bit of an illusion—I chose not to visit Lombardi Ranch.  I had no reason to, I told myself, since Halloween was over.  And besides, the ranch closes in mid-November.  And who knew what was left.

It was a justification I was willing to accept.  Lombardi disappeared back into the ashes of my memory.

* * *

This Thanksgiving break—my sophomore year of college—I decided to visit Lombardi Ranch for the first time since my senior year of high school.  Two years had passed since I had last seen the ranch, and a little over a year had passed since it had been caught in the implacable path of a wildfire—and I didn’t know what to expect.

I woke up the morning before Thanksgiving to the sound of raindrops hitting my window.  As I drove to Lombardi Ranch, I realized that this was going to be the first time I’d come back from the trip without any pumpkins, and even the first time I would be going to the ranch on my own.

The road narrowed from four lanes of smooth concrete to three, then to two, and then finally to a rough one-lane asphalt road, and I began again to see scattered remnants of the fires.  They were scarce, and half-hidden by the rain, but they were there.  I rounded a curve in the road and passed a single blackened tree, standing among tall grass like an abandoned lighthouse, a soggy wooden cross shoved into the ground underneath it.

The parking lot at Lombardi was muddy.  All the dust was gone, beaten down by the rain.  Water pooled in the pattern my truck’s tires carved into the wet ground.

I parked facing the ranch.  The entryway—little more than some two-by-fours erected in a skeletal frame—was still there.  But there were no hay bales, no tent, no music; no train rides or petting zoo; no scarecrows and no sunflowers.  Instead of a clear blue sky sitting atop rolling hills green with new corn, a pale gray sky heavy with rain perched ominously on hills covered in brown weeds and grass, the cornstalks at their feet leathery, tan, and dead.  The entire ranch looked much smaller than it had ever looked when I came years ago and ran joyfully through rows of bright orange pumpkins.

Strangest of all, Lombardi was completely deserted.  My green pickup was the only car present, other than the antique fire engine that had been parked in the ranch since as long as I had come there, and I was the only person.  Me, my car, the rain, and Lombardi Ranch.  I was a castaway, adrift at sea in my Toyota boat.

Every object I looked at seemed to have led a double life in my memory.  I saw now abandoned fences that had once served as the chain-linked walls of the petting zoo, cells full of goats and pigs and llamas.  Empty and lifeless wooden facades stood lonely in the corners, no longer impersonating old-fashioned frontier buildings.  Even the entryway seemed derelict without produce hanging from the eaves or people rushing in and out of it.  I eventually came to the realization that unless I return to Santa Clarita after graduating, I might never see Lombardi Ranch bustling and lively again, another childhood memory interred in the sepulchral recesses of my mind.

* * *

After sitting in my truck for about ten minutes, I stepped out of the cab and into the parking lot.  The mud squelched beneath my feet, and as I closed the truck’s door and gave one last forlorn look at the warm and dry interior, I regretted not having the foresight to grab a pair of boots as I left the house.  I stood in this empty, muddy parking lot in the pouring rain, with no boots, carrying only a notebook and a pencil, for just a few seconds before deciding that it was about time to get back in the car.

As I turned to open the door, I finally looked at the hillside that frames the side of the lot opposite the ranch.  The hill—about one hundred feet away from Lombardi—was completely black with wet soot.  It was beginning to run like mascara in the rain, lachrymose rivers tumbling down the hillside to mix with the roiling mud of the parking lot.  Pieces of charred bark and ash still scattered the hill, funereal mementos the rain clouds’ heavy tears could not wash away.

And on the top of the hill was a giant fake pumpkin, the same one I had marveled at during my first trip to Lombardi eighteen years ago.  Just where it had always been, but now silhouetted against the crying sky.

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