2021 was the year I grieved California.

2020 was a year of global grief, overwhelming in all there was to process and witness.  In that landscape of grief, when the sky turned orange with wildfire smoke that September day in San Francisco, it was just another dystopian day, stranger than the last.  I remember that morning, confused by the dim light at 11am, that unsettling eerie orange darkness.  It wasn’t right.  But it was 2020, so it was to be expected.  As were the following months where for weeks at a time we couldn’t go outside for long because the air quality was so bad.  It cut off the main coping mechanisms I had for mental well being – exercise, nature, and socializing outside with friends.  But it was small in the context of what the world faced in that moment.  It was not a time to grieve California.  There were too many more immediate crisis at hand.

In 2021, there were beginnings of hope.  Vaccines rolled out, and with it a complicated mix of apprehension, burnout, excitement, trepidation.  I was privileged to have saved some money before the pandemic, with the intent of taking a road trip.  One year later, those plans finally came to fruition, and in June I set out on a road trip to the sierras with my newly vaccinated status, full of anticipation.  I decided to visit some of my favorite remote spots in June, as given the year prior, wildfire risk would only increase from there.  I started my trip in the foothills of the sierras, and pulled off the pavement with excitement.  One hour and 5 miles down a one lane rutted dirt road, the view opens out to a panoramic view of Emmigrant Wilderness.  I had been dreaming of this moment for a while, and got out to breath in the evening air.  Then, mosquitoes.  Swarms of them.  Right, June.  This is why I don’t camp in June.  Having camped in July and August most of my life, I’d forgotten why that was.  I cooked dinner jogging in place, and dove into my car to eat in peace.  Well, at least tomorrow midday might be tolerable.  I went to bed, considering how times have changed.  Fire season.  That wasn’t a term until the past few years.  Of course there were fires, it’s California.  But I went to the sierras every year of my childhood, and only once do I remember there being a fire nearby.  Never was smoke an issue in the Bay Area.  September through November was historically San Francisco summer, the best weather all year.  Now it’s fire season.  The California I knew and loved was changing before my eyes.

At 3am I woke up to smoke.  It could have been a nearby campfire, just making it’s way to me on shifting winds.  Chances were it wasn’t a forest fire.  But what if it was?  One car with a flat on that road and we’d all be trapped.  In 2020, I knew people evacuated from the backcountry during the catastrophic Creek Fire.  Some of them could have easily not made it, were they not incredibly prepared with spot beacons, backup batteries, and excellent backcountry skills.  I couldn’t get back to sleep.  At 4am, I packed up, got in my car, and drove back down that 5 mile dirt road to the pavement.  To relative safety.  And in that moment, I grieved the California I enjoyed as a child, and the knowledge that there is no going back.

Since that trip, I’ve traveled extensively around the West.  It has involved the new normal of checking the smoke report every morning.  Purple Air vs AirNow vs Windy.  Learning how to make educated guesses about smoke predictions, whether to go for it on a trip or cancel.  How high an AQI is too high.  None of these words or tools were in my vernacular until the last few years.

I made it as far as Montana later in summer of 2021.  I waited for weeks to embark, as the California fires that started in July had shrouded Montana in smoke.  By August, the winds shifted and brought that smoke to Idaho and Utah instead.  I waited for a clear passage to Idaho that never came, and eventually left anyways through the dark sierra skies.  Smoke dictated my route.  As such, I had some brilliant days, and some where I stayed in my car with a mask.  There were easeful nights and sleepless nights, wondering if I was too remote, if the smoke I saw in the distance was a campfire or the beginning of a fire, if I should move.  I passed many burnt forests on this trip.

Along the way, I learned a few things.  That smoke collects in big open basins.  That deep narrow valleys off of those basins can offer refuge.  That even tree cover seems to mitigate the oppressiveness of the smoke, although it could be psychosomatic.  And most of all that wind is your friend.

The coastal winds I’d resented growing up, I now welcome with deep gratitude.  San Francisco clears smoke faster than the central valley, and the fog layers can serve as a buffer.  The alpine mountain winds provide the same benefit.  They may blow heavy smoke into a narrow valley, but they will also push it out quickly, rather than letting it languish.  Towards the end of my trip, I drove down hood river, a well known wind corridor.  I was shocked at how one side of the river was brown with smoke, the other clear blue sky, as if cut with a knife.  Understanding these patterns is something I expect to be a new way of life for those who live in the West.

At this point, I feel like I’ve come through the stages of grief to acceptance.  We are living through the discontinuity of a trans-apocalypse.  The way I look at California is forever different.  Every summer trip is a maybe, and any wilderness adventures are layered with added caution.  The rest of my life here will only become more unstable.  But California is still my home.  I hope I can find my small way to fight for the place that I love, so future generations might be able to enjoy the California I once did.

Photo notes: Burned trees in CA big basin and ID sawtooths.  Smoke in the eastern sierra CA, hood river OR, sawtooths ID, and the San Francisco bay.  As much as I loath the smoke, it does make for some dramatic red sunsets.