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.

Fire on our Mountain

I’ve been traveling for work and pleasure, and finally returned to our family home on Lake Cuyamaca. It’s an early fire season, and it seems earlier each year. When I taught biology, I joked that California has four seasons—winter, spring, summer, and fire. So, it’s mid-July with four uncontrolled burns in Southern California. When we bought this house, a rebuild after the Cedar Fire, we knew what we were getting into. We knowingly, willingly risked life on wilderness edge at whim of Mother Nature. Our house is surrounded by Cuyamaca State Park and Cleveland National Forest—and prime forest ready for a burn. Native Americans used fire to care for their lands. They understood. Our government is learning.

In fall 2003 when the Cedar Fire roared through San Diego County, we lived in the Monterey-Salinas area (another fire-prone area), and our oldest daughter enrolled as a freshman at San Diego State. We were new to this—sending kids off to college—and secretly delighted that Meghan visited her extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins on weekends. That November, a raging fire changed everything for thousands of San Diegans. Initially, SDSU cautioned students to stay inside as the fire hopped, skipped, and jumped canyons towards Lakeside and Santee, close enough to campus you could taste it. Ash swirled in the air coating cars and sidewalks, landing on lips and tongues of beachgoers miles away. Meghan’s grandparents picked her up, so she could escape the smoke. By the third day of burning, fingertips of flames licked nearby hills and Interstates 15 and 805. SDSU cancelled classes for the rest of the week.

A flare set by a lost hiker created the conflagration that took everything in its path. In the beginning, the Santa Ana winds pushed the inferno towards the Pacific Ocean, racing through dry scrub, sage, and Manzanita, scaling the tops of Eucalyptus trees. Then winds shifted, and the shore breeze blew hot embers in the opposite direction. That’s when our area of Cuyamaca went up in flames. It was a perfect firestorm of events—where nature and people converged in not a good way.  Under scant resources, fire agencies protected the town of Julian, home of 2600+ people; meanwhile, Mount Cuyamaca, Middle Peak, and our mountain, North Peak burned.  In the aftermath, amid the ashes of homes, once stately Sugar Pines, and wildlife, people pointed fingers of accusation. Over a decade later, people in the backcountry still point fingers.

On our unpaved fire road, Lower North Peak Way, just four of twenty houses survived the fire. If I hike further up the mountain, more empty plots with brick chimneys, china remnants, broken bits of glass, twisted metal exist than do rebuilds. Our house is in fact a rebuild. The people before us completed the house within five years of the fire, but walked away at the peak of the “real estate bubble”—another tragedy of circumstances.

During fall and winter, when black oaks are dormant, it’s difficult to tell a viable oak from a scarred skeleton of an oak. Some oaks wear a skirt of charred bark, yet leaf out in spring. This year, black oaks and pines that sprouted after the Cedar Fire stretch as tall as the dead trees. The forest is returning, and with it, wildlife. I’ve seen mountain lion scat and tracks, as well as raccoon, deer, coyote, bobcat. Scrub jays fight over the Supreme bird feed I buy from the BirdWatcher Store in town.  And, this spring, a resident bald eagle from neighboring Lake Cuyamaca perched on a utility pole on our property. I saw a glistening from our deck, grabbed binoculars, and sure enough, there he or she roosted. With each turn of its head, light beamed off its head–a signal that all is well.