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The burning ground of stories

August 28, 2015

My mother used to remind me of the saying “I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.” I had shoes. Today my internalized mother voice might admonish me by saying, “That’s a First World problem.”

We rank suffering. Being killed by a wildfire is worse than losing one’s animals or home, which is worse than breathing the hazardous levels of smoke now enveloping places where I used to live, which is worse than breathing the “unhealthy” levels of smoke on only one weekend where I live now. You get the idea. Still, even when others suffer more, there is sadness for your own loss.

I am not in danger from the August wildfires. But I look daily for updates on fires in places familiar to me from the almost 40 years I’ve lived in the Northwest, most of those years in Idaho. Kim Barnes reminds us that even when artifacts burn, the stories remain. But those stories are grounded in place, and I wonder what happens when the place where a story is grounded burns, turns to ashes, how that changes the story.

On Labor Day weekend, 1980, Carl and I drove east from Riggins, along the Salmon River, to the end of the road where we camped and hiked and harvested yellow plums that we took home and made into jam. We knew our daughter would arrive in two weeks, that our lives would be forever changed, that it would be a long time before we could spontaneously go camping again, just the two of us. Neither of us sees a yellow plum without thinking about that otherwise unremarkable camping trip. That area, as near as I can tell from the limited information I can find, is now evacuated, burning as part of the Teepee Fire.

Further north, the areas north and south of the Selway River are burning, places where we backpacked with the kids and eventually where Carl and I camped before moving out of Idaho, our children grown—the camping trip we couldn’t imagine that weekend on the Salmon.

I read that another fire is within a mile of Wilderness Gateway campground, the first place we camped with the kids, a trip that we remember for too many Oreo cookies. The Wild Women of the Palouse used it as our base camp for hikes to Stanley Hot Springs and Jerry Johnson Hot Springs on a weekend with the kind of rain that area badly needs now.

“Waiter, I want some water.”

I can’t tell you all the stories of the rivers and lakes, or of cross country skiing in the Methow Valley, now evacuated and burning. I know my concerns pale in comparison to the mothers I know whose children are fighting those fires, people whose computers and photo albums are in boxes by the front door. But I still wonder if the Syringa Café is still standing, because when you hike out of the Selway, all you can think about is a piece of their huckleberry pie.

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