Skinny dipping after the evacuation
Winged insects dance on the surface of the reservoir like popcorn kernels in a hot skillet. Schools of baby trout — likely displaced by the fire — arc out of the water, droplets of afternoon sun clinging to their smooth, glistening bodies. At the peak of their ascent, suspended in space and time, they snatch a healthy snack, and collapse sideways into the cold water, satisfied.
The water ripples out in concentric circles, dissipating. Timed perfectly, another set of glistening bodies, a flurry of energy, and a satisfied release.
As a single man, stuck inside my house since the Almeda fire, following eight months of state-mandated social distancing, this idyllic scene is more sensual then anything I’ve witnessed in days; to not participate seems like an insult. I undress and wade in. The sun penetrates the smoky haze above, warming my skin, soothing my spirit, bringing life.
My thoughts drift back to the Tuesday of the fire: Crying children with red bandannas wrapped around their faces. An ungodly wind pushing gray plumes of hazardous smoke in our direction. Packing the red-bandanna children snugly into the back of a minivan like little scared sardines — seatbelt laws and COVID compliance out the window. Terrified parents crackling through tiny cellphone speakers, “I’m stuck on I-5! They won’t let us through! I can’t get there! Please! Can you fit one more?!”
Of course, we can. We are speeding off, away from the encroaching clouds of smoke, away from the impending fire but where? Just away. Then back at a home in Talent. Parents begin to arrive, tears in their eyes, swooping their children up in their arms.
“Mommy, I was so scared. I thought the fire was going to burn me up.”
“It didn’t, we’re here, we’re together, we’re safe.”
Watching the billowing cloud of smoke approaching again. Parents consoling children with raised eyebrows and high-pitched coos. We aren’t safe actually.
“I just heard they’re evacuating Talent.” “Mommy, let’s evacuate! I want to evacuate! We have to evacuate!” More tears.
“Do you have everything?”
“No, I mean, yes. We have to go.”
Back on the road. Black ash, a caravan of cars on a one-lane road. Thank goodness I have gas in my car. No food or water though.
* * *
Fresh creek water laps against my neck, making each hair stand on end; the rest of my body pleasantly numbed by the cold. A hummingbird darts past my head — I wonder if anyone has ever been speared in the temple by a hummingbird. I should look that up when I get home. Reddish brown oak leaves rustle in a gentle breeze. The arrhythmic “bloop” sound of the baby trout dropping back into the water echoes off surrounding rock outcroppings. I lift up my smoke mask to see if I can take in a full breath of mountain air. Not quite, but just for a moment. Just a moment with the dancing insects, the shimmering trout, the rustling trees. One moment together, please.
* * *
The backroads are starting to open up as our caravan heads toward the Applegate store — our second rendezvous point. All southbound freeways are blocked. I can’t go home; not tonight. I make the decision to keep heading north toward Grants Pass, where I can use my cellphone and have a meal. I roll into a relative ghost town of empty streets and smoky orange-brown skies. Luckily, I have friends here, so there are options — I’ve been told all the hotels are booked. I head into my favorite restaurant in G.P., The Twisted Cork, and order a salmon dinner. Everything feels so surreal.
“Hrrr ooo engine yrrr thmmin, srr?”
“Are you enjoying your salmon dinner, sir?”
“Oh, it’s delicious. I couldn’t understand you through your mask.”
“I know, sorry. Anything else ee cun goo woo?”
* * *
I step out of the reservoir and head toward my pile of clothes. The sun feels too good, so I stroll around the grass for bit, as if it’s just another delightful day in Southern Oregon. As if I haven’t been locked away from society and all my friends for eight months. As if COVID cooties, police brutality and political nightmares weren’t the only thing in existence. As if I had a place to focus my creative passions. As if I had a job. As if my life was so predicable that I was bored out of my mind wishing something new and exciting would happen. Time to put on your pants dude. Oh, right.
* * *
I leave the restaurant and arrive at my friends’ house. A naked 4-year-old greets me and escorts me into a living room smelling of boxed pizza and plastic kid toys.
“Have a seat. Want some pizza?”
“I just ate, thank you.”
“So you escaped the fires?”
“Yeah, thanks so much for putting me up.”
“Of course. You’re family. Family is always welcome.”
I start to feel an emptiness inside begin to fill with happiness. Throughout the evening it deepens until I am fully human again — a warm, loving mammal surrounded by a pack of other mammals in the pursuit of good things.
“Here’s a blanket and pillow. Make yourself at home. Eat, drink, relax.”
I head up to my little nest in the attic and fall right asleep. No dreams, just sleep.
Abram R. Katz lives in Ashland.
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