River Fire Still Burning

With each River Fire report, my mind is flooded with memories of Toro Park.

Wendy and I were Tiger Moms. I admit this now. Wendy, if she were here, would say, “No, we were doing our best.” The thing is we were highly competitive. Not with our children but with each other. Never more so than on the hills.

I used to be a competitive swimmer. I was okay, hung with super fast Olympians, so I was fast by association. It took years to squelch that competitive nature. It’s in my spirit, it’s in my soul, and I cannot turn it on or off. If I run with someone, I strive to maintain pace at their shoulders or get ahead. The latter, of course, is preferable. Wendy, on the other hand, never competed. It was not something her family did, nor did her boarding school offer. But, Wendy would have been top-notch, a beast, number one, had she been given the opportunity. I know this because of how many times we marched up Toyon Ridge, Cougar Ridge, or Black Mountain, really, any of those butt-burning hills. We did a few, including the Big Sur Marathon, but that is another story. This is about our close encounter with a bull.

On this particular day, we hiked up Toyon Ridge–not East Toyon, but the fire road that goes straight up, like 20% grade. Okay, maybe 12%. The entire time, Wendy was asking me questions, and not questions to which I could gasp a simple “Yes” or “No.” No, Wendy would ask, “How do you feel about” questions. Or “What do you think about” questions. Questions I had to answer, because I could not show that I was out of breath or act like I was dying. In fact, I was exhausted, long into anaerobic glycolysis, and accumulating lactic acid in my blood stream, as I panted and puffed my way up the hill always at her shoulder. For her part, she smiled at me, almost laughed, and I know darn well what she was thinking. She was thinking she’s in better shape, and yes, yes, she was. Every once in awhile, Wendy humored me into thinking I was pushing her.

After an hour or more of hiking, we reached the top of Mt. Ollason, enjoyed the view to the coast, and headed the downhill trek to the parking lot. It was still early afternoon when we connected with the Gilson Gap trail, so we decided to veer toward Meyers Loop, adding an additional three miles to our already five mile hike. Easy peasy. It’s still pretty much downhill, and we had plenty of snacks and water, so all was well.

Until, the end of Meyers Loop. There, the trail narrows to a one-way animal trail, with steep canyon walls covered in poison oak on both sides. I was in the lead, practically racing home for a bubble bath and glass of Chardonnay to soothe my aching muscles. Wendy was behind me, and at least two of our daughters (I have no idea which ones went on this walk) behind her. Directly in front of us, on this single-lane track, was the biggest bull I have ever seen, and I have seen a few bulls since our girls were in 4H. We froze. The bull froze. The herd behind him froze. He stared at me. I stared back. What now? No way were we going to back up the hill, and add yet another three more miles to the walk at this point. Wendy suggested sliding down the ravine, damned be any rashes we get. The girls behind us were terrified, trusting in their mothers’ wisdom and instincts.

I was too tired to think clearly. Instead, I responded as real cowboy would (or how I imagined one would). I raised my hiking sticks high in the air, like as lasso above my head, and yelled “Git along, little doggie. Git along.” The bull, along with his herd of cows, responded with terror at this mad-woman screaming and yelling. The cattle turned and ran back down the hill, and we were free to pass.

Sky met a cow for the first time in Toro Park

Looking south east toward Eagle Peak

Beyond the River Fire

Although this blog is about our move and relocation to San Diego backcountry, I realize now how much my heart still resides north of here. These past few days, the mountains of Salinas and Monterey, or the Santa Lucia range, are on fire. Our old neighborhood is evacuating. Friends in the yellow zone, or the evacutation warning zone, are packing up. The Monterey Zoo is relocating animals. And I feel guilty because I am conflicted.

A part of me celebrates fire as an important part of nature (some plants, such as sequoias, need high heat to regenerate), but another part of me fears losing a home and everything in it. I suppose firefighters must feel the same–a mixture of excitement and reference for the untamed beast. I miss our home of thirty-some years, but I celebrate where we live now. We are blessed, and yet. And yet, I feel sad. I feel sad for the neighborhood, our friends, our old home. If you live long enough in California, you know that this land is meant to burn. Our new house is a rebuild from the Cedar Fire in 2003. The hills of Salinas will not be as verdent as they once were, at least for a season, so I remind myself to just breathe and wait. The flowers and greenery will return.

As of the latest report on 8/20/2020, nearly 80% of “my” Toro Park has burned. I cherish memories of hikes through the years (decades, really), and the views from Eagle Peak, Mount Ollason, the Airplane Trail, Cougar Ridge, and Simas Peak. On Eagle Peak with my three girls and friends, we watched two behemoth cows ram their massive skulls into each other, like live colliding bumper cars. We ran and hid behind some trees, fully expecting anyone of us to be their next target. After all, turkeys in the Sycamore picnic area were known to chase people. Who is to say that cattle might mistake us for free hay?

Many times, I hiked alone, if no one else was available, but I always carried my hiking sticks, especially helpful in encounters with mountain lions or snakes. On East Cougar Ridge, one afternoon with my daughter, a three foot rattler warned us and then slowly made its way to the side of the trail. As a biologist, I was intrigued with its coloring, rattle size, and girth. I gave him/her wide berth, and tried to capture him on camera while he slithered away. I excitedly said to my daughter, “Isn’t he beautiful?” only to find she had sprinted back down the hill and never heard a word I spoke.

I often hiked the back side of Toro, off Harper Canyon, with Sandy and our dog-BFFs, Nika and Sky. My dog Sky, a Heintz-57 Variety of a dog, hunted ground squirrels, and there were a few. When we returned home, Sky slept soundly for hours, dreaming of missed opportunities. Nika, a very vocal Alaskan husky, felt her calling was herding cattle. The poor dogs never understood why sometimes they could run wild and free, and then other times, when cows were nearby, we kept a tight leash.

The airplane trail, usually overgrown with poison oak, no doubt is in the fire zone. Many times, I needed Tecnu for days following a hike in that ravine. According to fire fighter Rick, the 1970s fatal crash of the small two-passenger plane, triggered a fire, which likely was the last time it burned. Mountain doves would flit among the tall oaks. Spanish moss concealed nearby predatory birds, like red tailed hawks, who swooped down and plucked their next meal, some poor unsuspecting dove, from the sky.

I remember conversations that accompanied long hikes. One special hike, an eight-miler at least with my best friend, Wendy, took us up Cougar Ridge overlooking Indian Springs and Las Palmas. Past the springs, we headed northeast to Valley View Peak, which overlooks the valley floor (appropriately named) and spotted our homes, looking like tiny match books far down the hill. Black Mountain casts its massive shadow early over our houses–by 3:30 pm in fall and winter–and so our hikes began in morning, by 8 am at least. As we wove our way down the switchbacks, past thick stands of manzanita as far as we could see, I recall saying to Wendy, “Boy, does this stuff need to burn.” Most of the manzanita plants towered like oaks above our heads, indicating they had not seen a fire in decades.

On that particular hike, we discussed hopes and dreams for our daughters–all the same ages and all going through the same boyfriend/girlfriend drama and work angsts of twenty-somethings. I remember the exact place where Wendy told me her cancer had metastized to her spine. She didn’t know how much longer she had. She buoyed me with “I can live a long time with meds, like a diabetic.” And “You’re a good Mom, you know,” when she knew I worried, as did she, about our girls. Ever the nurse. Ever the caregiver. The fires are burning and I am crying, but it’s all about the memories.

Wendy died August 18th. My mom died the very next day, and for some reason, I don’t believe that was a coincidence. My last words to Wendy were, ” I love you,” and those were the same for my mom. We all have expiration dates. My mom’s date was longer–she died in her mid-80s, Wendy–she died at 57, far too young, like a peach that is ripe for just days. Five years ago this week, I lost both my Mom and my best friend, and now I feel as though I am losing my mountains, too, but not really. The mountains have their own times, too. They need to burn. A reminder that everything eventually returns to ashes. For now, as long as I can remember, I will hold on to “my Toro Park,” and all the good times it gave me.

It’s Shopping Time!

When we moved from Salinas-Monterey, we left behind lots of furniture. We sold some things, but mostly donated to Goodwill or to people who were willing to cart items away. A couch, going back years (okay, at least a decade or maybe two) and which we hardly ever used, went away. Actually, it followed our youngest daughter to college, but returned as they often do. Why did it take so long to part with it? I remember feeling a twinge of embarrassment at the few times people sat in the darn thing and they nearly fell to the floor. The cushions had long lost oomph, its arms were thread bare. Yet, it occupied a corner of the house we seldom used, except when we had lots of people and there was nowhere else to sit, and then we needed it. As we pulled off the pillows and cushions, I found hidden treasures, like one of our girl’s paper dolls sweetly tucked, deep inside the couch, and a Polly Pocket or two.

Dale’s baby grand piano, his first retirement project of finishing, polishing, and tuning an 1884 church piano, never played as well as he liked. He gave that away to a family who promised to give lessons to their kids.

Our family room sectional, which I never liked–that’s another story–went to a young couple, who made multiple trips to our house, since the beast could not be tamed into their mini-van.

We held a garage sale, making a few hundred dollars, but really saving us trips to the donation center or the dump. Away went the Tupperware, random vases, place mats, and table cloths for tables we no longer had. We dumped pool toys, broken chairs (why did we keep this stuff?), and books, lots and lots of books from five college-educated people, who kept textbooks (most from that last quarter or semester), all thinking we will need this information some day.

So, by the time we arrived at our new home, we had few furnishings. The bedrooms sets and a few end tables traveled, but the rest stayed behind. Our first month, we watched TV, while camped out on the floor in sleeping bags. First task, aside from unpacking, was shopping for love seats and sofas for the family room and living room. This was fun. This, I could do. Shopping is my forte.

One of the unique features of our new home is the octagonal living room, which has stunning views of the ocean and lake. No standard couch fits these windows, so my solution was two large chairs and a love seat. I spent days exploring online sites, since we were snowbound, and well, shopping for furniture is easier this way. We decided to go with Macy’s, who could deliver within two weeks or once the snow melted, whichever came first.

The leather arms on the chairs and love seat are substantial, like additional seats, so after years of telling my children “to get off the arms and sit on the sofa,” I bought furniture that works. That Thanksgiving, family relaxed on the chairs, the love seat, and on the arms, enjoying the fire. Score one for me.

It’s been awhile, nearly 2 years…

since I have written on this site. It’s not like I haven’t thought about it, but four plus months of quarantine gave me the time. Who knew retirement could be so busy? In the past two years, we completed numerous house projects, traveled to many foreign countries–mostly in Central America, celebrated our newest grandbaby (first boy in years), wrote a book, explored everywhere in our new environs, and planted nearly 100 lavender plants over the septic field. Mostly, 2018 and 2019 was unpacking my life. So, here is where I left off.

February, 2016–The snow lasted for two months. I’d call this real snow as opposed to the realtors’ term of decorator snow. Our Boston girl, who braved the record-breaking storms of 2014, would call this nothing.

Sometime in March, spring rains plus snow melt sent a torrent of water cascading towards our house. Remember our steep driveway? Since water takes the most direct route, the river poured off our ski-run of a driveway into the garage, filling a small lake on the garage floor. We squeegeed and stacked sandbags as a temporary measure, then cut and installed a drainage system further upstream. Thanks to Cal Fire who provided bags and sand. Apparently, many roads and homes besides ours were deluged that winter.

Next, I set to salvaging what I could from soggy shipping boxes—nearly twenty boxes from our old house were stacked floor to garage rafters. Into new plastic containers, I tossed Sammy’s gymnastic attire, 4H uniforms, and yearbooks—assorted momentos from our adult childrens’ childhood. Stacks of plaques, a box of ribbons and medals from swim meets, another box of gymnastic medals—these were moved to higher places in the garage until our daughters have their own garages and can store their own memories.

Then there were the boxes of Dad’s things. Dad received more accolades than his four children (sum total) ever earned. Our loving father was accomplished, a fine man, a leader, but he saved everything—Mom’s cards from anniversaries, Valentine’s, Easter, Christmas, and our Father’s Day and birthday cards. It pains to dump these memories, but who has room for this? None of us are hoarders, neither was Dad, yet stacks of boxes attested to his OCD and his loving heart. I dispatched manuals from every appliance he ever owned. I shredded bank account reports and tax statements—no need to keep after 5 years—although Dad’s file box harkened to the 1960s. But recycling floral cards signed the same way every year for 64 years, “Always yours, John” or “Forever yours, Mary”—that takes a stronger person than me, his daughter. Kan-Mari helped.

One bin held Mom’s art lessons and artwork. Another bin held photos from Dad’s work and travels, another a stack of Dad’s treasures— basically things I couldn’t figure out what to do with. Dad’s awards galore: an inscribed rock mounted as a bookend, an SDG&E glass cap from a utility pole, a framed piece of carpet from the San Diego Civic Theater—all thank yous for a lifetime of public work . Someday, his great grandchildren may want this loot; in the meantime, the treasures rest in moisture-proof bins from Target.

Another conundrum is what to do with our family photos. You know the large framed ones? I tried to follow Kan-Mari’s rule of what “sparks joy” while “thanking” each piece, as I waded through the family history. I solved a space problem by inserting older versions of pictures behind the newer ones, creating a sort of evolutionary history like strata of the Grand Canyon. No doubt some photographer is slapping their head saying, “Noooooo!.” Who has room for this stuff? More importantly, each time we add a family member—child, grandchild, in-law—what happens to the picture before? Our family, like most, has seen its share of deaths and divorces.

Dale installed ceiling racks for the boxes, hooks for the bikes and tools. The garage began to look less like a dumping ground and more like a man cave. Okay, not quite. On to the next project—tackling the inside of the house.