Another June 23, another day of checking for fire updates.
Last year, it was the Waldo Canyon fire. Some friends had come down for the day and we were all planning to see a minor league Sky Sox game. Instead, they helped us pack when our house was put on a pre-evacuation notice. A couple of days later, as the fire rushed down a hillside and toward our house, we were forced out—unable to return for six days.
And we were the lucky ones. We had something to come back to.
|The cabin, near South Fork|
This year, the fires are burning a little farther from our front door, but I’m still following their progress with worry and concern. The West Fork Complex, a phalanx of four separate fires burning out of control in the southwestern part of the state, don’t threaten my immediate home, but they are near my heart and history.
Sometime before I was born, my grandparents bought a little cabin in the woods around South Fork. It’s a tiny place—scarcely 800 square feet, I’d imagine. Probably built in the 1910s, it’s essentially one big room with two lofts, a built-on bathroom and a covered porch to sleep on. A big deer head hangs in the main room, and it’s probably nearly as old as the cabin itself: Our family doesn’t have a lot of hunters.
I probably named that deer head decades ago, though I don’t remember what I would’ve named it. The very earliest memory I have—ever—is my dad holding me up to touch the deer’s coarse, stiff hair. The cabin’s been a part of my consciousness from the very beginning. I learned how to climb stairs there. I might’ve learned how to walk there, too.
Each crevice and cranny holds a memory. In the loft above the front door, there’s a knothole through which you can watch people come and go. Pull part of the staircase out, and you’ll find a toybox, loaded with army men and tiny cows. On the porch we keep a set of plastic poker chips: I’d build with them when I was little, pretend they were money when I was a wee bit older. Grampa taught me how to play blackjack with those chips later on, shuffling cards like a Vegas pro, cigarette in his mouth.
|My son, Colin, and Wendy on the cabin swing,
about 20 years ago
I’ve spent Thanksgivings and Christmases and countless summer weeks at the cabin, watching the chipmunks outside and catching spiders in the tub. My cousin and I would produce elaborate puppet shows from one of the lofts. We’d play baseball by the outdoor grill, using a walking stick for the bat and a pinecone for the ball. When I was 9, I built a miniature golf course in the woods, using old tin cans stuck in the ground as holes. Every time I’m up there, I still find a new hole, it seems—filled with needles perhaps, but ready to use if someone would just come by with a club and ball.
The cabin’s been a part of our family longer than I have. My grandparents are gone now, but the cabin’s there still, a piece of them there in real estate: Their names still hang above the door, their character still lingering in every corner. After Grampa died, I dreamed of him sitting on the tattered cabin couch, assuring me that he was just fine.
The cabin is a precious place for me—perhaps the most special place in the world. And whenever I walk through the door, I become a little kid again.
Eleven years ago, we almost lost the cabin to another fire—a tiny 3,000-acre scorcher that came a quarter-mile from us. We were lucky. It looks like we might get lucky again. The West Fork Complex, though it’s devoured 70,000 acres down there and probably torn through some of our favorite hikes, looks as though it’ll go by us—maybe all of us in the South Fork area. We know we owe a great deal to the firefighters down there, and the direction of the wind. But it still feels, for now, like a bit of a miracle—as if we had painted lamb’s blood on the door jamb and watched the fearsome angel pass by.
|Me on the same swing, about 2008. Colin\’s in the back and
my daughter, Emily, is to the right
But the fire’s still raging down there, and anything can happen. And even if our cabin is saved this time, I’m learning to hold these things, no matter how precious they might feel, a little more loosely. It would be incredibly hard to see this cabin full of memories go. But maybe the important thing is that the memories themselves remain. No fire can wipe those away.
Sometimes, I have a hard time remembering that God’s blessings to us were never meant to be eternal. They are transient, just as we are. They are to be embraced and treasured, but we can’t hold onto them forever. Even if they last 200 years, we don’t. We fade. We move on. Ashes to ashes, as they say.
But we’re told that, even if our mortal selves will falter and fail, the core of our being will not. Even as we crumble to dust, the essential part of us rises to the sky, to meet with the Maker of memory itself.