FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN!
May 22, 2008
The weekend before, I'd closed down the warehouse, moving some computers to a client's
home, the rest up to my digs on the mountain. Several truckloads of crates containing books,
spare parts, odd cables, and computers all came up to the mountain. My professional library
was finally in one place again.|
The winds picked up Wednesday evening. I heard the neighbor's windmill howl at night as the brakes cut in to keep it from spinning fast enough to shed blades. The thought occurred that if we had a fire in this wind, we'd really be in trouble.
Sounds7:48 or maybe 7:54, or some other time in the morning when I was sleeping, a helicopter came in low. Lower than low, the beating echoing. I thought it would crash. It did not, and veered off. A little later, another one did the same thing. What the heck is going on here? And a third. I was awake. Someone was yelling off in the distance. What???
Dressing quickly, I opened the door to see what the heck was going on.
VisionA wall of smoke hung perhaps two thousand or three thousand feet away. Smoke, not fog as a few nights before. I didn't have my contact lenses in, but I could see it and smell it. It was time to go.
A forest fire nearby.
I probably turned on the notebook computer at this point.
While the computer was coming up, I started putting my contact lenses in. One fell off my finger. I froze, not moving till I methodically examined my hands and the wash basin. Without moving my feet, I reached over and picked up the flashlight from my desk, calmly and methodically searching for the missing lens on the floor. Binocular vision helps while driving, especially while one is trying to avoid the falling trees, etc. I thought I might encounter. I really needed that lens. After a few minutes, I found it, washed it, and put it in.
Opening the door again, I saw the the smoke. Now, I could see the flames at the base. Three thousand feet away? Two thousand feet away? Ormsby trail was on fire. Time to Go!
I am told that I sent an e-mail to some friends about the fire. I think I remember it, remember not taking time to fix the spelling or the typoes before sending it and shutting the computer down.
Vehicle!I'd fixed the car the day before, maybe. It hadn't really been tested, and I'd not put the new EGR modulator valve back.
I walked several hundred feet up the rough steep driveway to the spot by the RV where I'd left the car and the truck. And that, I now believe, is where I got the heaviest dose of air pollution. The air was always worse up there.
The car, or the truck? The little 4wd Toyota Tercel can get through tighter spots. And I could sleep in it. The truck... good engine! But... poor gas mileage and a transmission overhaul and other repairs within the next 5,000 - 10,000 miles. So the car, as it should serve me longer.
(The car was far easier to drive! It was the right choice; though it still needed more repairs.)
I drove the car down to the cabin I'd built on a flatbed trailer, started loading some things.
LoadingMost of my books sit in plastic crates, the crates set on their sides, holding the books upright, yet leaving them easy to grab when it comes time to move, be it to the next place, or temporarily to a place of work.
I'd spent six years with increasing difficulty using my right arm in air pollution. This was finally resolved a few months ago, we thought; but it seems the air was exceptionally bad.
I remember calmly looking what I could take, knowing that I could not take much. The two notebook computers went first, I think, then the crate of reference books next to them.
It was likely then, that I took the camera, taking a few photos of the smoke and flames on Ormsby. It was 8:10, some twenty minutes had passed since I'd gotten up.
Some question the calm that I claim. I have low adrenal capacity. I've learned to stay calm so I don't burn through the adrenaline and simply fall over.
I remember looking at the books higher up, thinking I'd likely spill them trying to pull the crates one handed, making it difficult to move about on the cluttered floor. And so, didn't take the book crates from above. I saw the tall green and clear vase. I like that vase. Of course I would take it. I reached up with my left hand and brought it down, putting it on top of one of the crates of books or something else I was carrying out. And there were the expensive web design magazines from England. I got a handful of them, but not all.
I did grab Delta, our fastest computer, the one with the big drives full of data we'd spent months computing and organizing using a cluster of eleven interlinked computers.
I left nine or ten computers behind, most in the RV.
Two voltmeters sat monitoring solar battery voltage and current. Easy! They went out on something.
The solar panels? But time was limited; I would have to find the bolt cutters to cut them loose from the power cabling, then use both hands to move them. And they would only fit in the truck. I had the car. They were out in the clear of the driveway; they would likely survive. And if not, well... I'd chosen civilization anyway.
Much later, I thought I could strap them to the roof rack on the car. If I could find a strap, if I both hands worked.... But time was passing and the fire was moving. I had to get out before the fire jumped the road.
Brain FogAt some point, I started sweating, shaking. Hypoglycemia? It was not from fear, of that, I am certain. I was calm. Calm, but hungry. Something was beginning to get to me. Go now? Or load some more? I was about to go.
My mind could hold only one thing at a time. I saw things I should take, made mental note, then forgot them. They were not important. Nothing was really that important. It was as if my mind was in a straight jacket, my sense of balance had gotten worse, and I was getting hungry. I almost never feel hunger! I often sweat and shake before I feel hunger. I was sweating now; but it was subsiding.
Confusion, forgetfulness, and coordination problems, usually accompanied by or even caused by serious drops in blood pressure are classical symptoms of brain allergies, symptoms I had over and over again in heavy air pollution. We who have MCS call it Brain Fog. Wood smoke is a major allergen for me. I'd gone into borderline anaphylactic shock from heavy wood smoke in a temperature inversion decades ago. Even without the smoke, the air was full of fumes from poorly burning wood.
Then the winds shifted a little, and the air was clearer again.
Some clothes went out, four shirts, a few other things. I left an old suit coat, my shoulders had grown almost too wide for it, and it no longer had matching pants; I'd buy another suit anyway, maybe next week. (I didn't even think of the expensive suits hanging in the RV closet.)
A few more things...I paused a moment, then slogged on with a few more things, though thinking I can only take so much, only take so much, only take so much before leaving. I picked up another crate of books siting at elbow level. I still I felt as if I was looking sideways, a little dizzy and disoriented from the fumes. That was clearing now; but still a problem. I took a few more things.
I went back in, thinking it was for the last time, picked up a bucket, and dumped as many of the old backup CD's in it as I could find. I think there were more; but I couldn't find any more. While looking for them, I dumped some boxes of audio CD's in it, looked again for the backup CDs; but still could not find them. Time to Go! Into the car they went.
The fumes were affecting me again. It wasn't smoke; if the smoke had blown over me, I'd have left right away without bothering to get anything. But even without the smoke, there were fumes blowing down from the fires along the road; they were affecting me. That straight jacket of trying to stay focused, of trying to see in my mind what I was trying to do, and dealing with my worsening sense of balance... Best go now.
MovingThe car started again. The engine was still cold, and it was hard to keep running as I shifted back and forth trying to turn the car around. What if it died, and I had to take the truck, I'd not be able to transfer the load, would I? But the car picked up a bit, I managed to turn it around without pronging the tail pipe into the dirt bank, getting it stuffed with dirt and stalling the car, as I had at other times. It hesitated, I had to clutch, rev up the engine and pop the clutch a few times; but I made it up near the top.
I was Hungry!
There were people up there, several watching the fire, and more than one fire truck. The air was cleaner. I spoke with the watchers, who had been living next door. Would their place survive? Would Barry W's? I said something to the firemen. They said something about the fire having been at Maymen's Flat, at six am, was it? I don't remember. I think someone said Barry W's place was gone.
(It never occurred to me to ask if one of them would like to drive my truck out of the area. The RV was out of gas, had no battery, and had scraped bottom badly on the way in; that with an expert truck driver, not just someone off the street.)
I don't remember much at all, the memory comes almost as still photographs, a few instants where my mind woke up and made a decision or noted something, and I am unsure of their order. But all of those memories have the hunger, the sense of my mind being stuck in a straight jacket stuck unable to explore side thoughts; and the frustration of being stuck in a body that was stiff with more and more difficulty with the sense of balance. I was having more and more difficulty in moving.
As I breathed the better air on the ridge, my mind improved. I began to think. Could I load some more things? Could I drive the car a little distance, then go back for the truck? Do that over and over? But the fire was moving, moving two vehicles would only be as fast as I can walk, and the air was bad, so who knows how far I could walk before I couldn't do anything.
PapersI remembered my passport and my birth certificate. I had just put them in a file last night. I did not have that file. It was as if time was suspended. I had to get my papers!
Should I back the car down, take a few more things? But would the car make it back up that steep driveway? And not taking the car, I'd not spend time loading more.
Everything looked fine now. The fire had not advanced much. But you don't know about fire, it can jump thousands of feet some times. I'd seen that in the Croy fire, seen it leap thousand of feet downhill, not just uphill. And this was moving up hill. Two of the three roads out were blocked. All the fire would have to do, is jump the road. Then I'd be trapped, trap and burned to death. I didn't know where the fire was, where it started, where it had gone. I shouldn't even have loaded the car. But I thought I had some time. I should have asked the firemen. Maybe I did; I remember saying something and one of them saying something to me. All I remember is what I saw. But they didn't know. And the wind was strong! You just don't know.
You just don't know how the fire will move.
Papers! You had to have your Papers! Like an automaton, or maybe an auto-moron, I walked back to the trailer, walked down easily, unlocked it, found the files, piked them up, locked the trailer again.
It never occurred to me to pick up several corporate photo IDs hanging on the book shelves, nor pick up any more of the books. My mind was just too fogged in the bad air.
As I locked the door that last time, I thought locking it was a senseless gesture; I'd likely never see any of this again. Or maybe I would; but as far as I was concerned, nothing in the trailer existed anymore. I locked the door anyway.
As I walked back up to the car, that straight jacket of fumes and carbon monoxide was tightening again. I started zig-zagging on the steep parts of the driveway as my feet grew heavier and my coordination became worse.
HungerBy the time I reached the car again, it was as if the world itself did not exist; my mind was nearly shut down. "Orders" came from the back of my mind. Get inside the car. Huh? Yes. I got in. I sat there. The engine had stalled. Turn the ignition key. Yes. Put it in gear. Moving. The road to the left is blocked. Right turn. Yes. Moving... Yes. Driving. Yes, driving. Nothing else existed. I didn't have any idea what I had in the car, what I had just done, or what was behind me. All that existed was the road ahead, and not that far ahead.
The road widened momentarily near where Ray, Barry, and Zebe had once lived. I sort of recognized the spot, as if I'd been there once or twice before (rather than hundreds of times over the six years I'd lived in the area), and kept going. Actually, I don't remember driving at that point; it was as if I was a mere passenger looking out the window. I'd been in the fumes way too long!
It was time to go. I was going. The only thing that existed was the road, nothing else. I was going, just going down the road. And I was Hungry!
Hunger is one of the classical sign of serious carbon monoxide poisoning, though not all people get it. The body does not have enough energy, so it thinks it must need more food -- Hunger!
Trouble concentrating is another symptom. And those come LONG before any carbon monoxide detector will sound an alarm. I'd had them both before I left the Croy fire, where concentrations of carbon monoxide were reported to be quite high. And twice when my furnace seals leaked. Hunger!
TV InterviewDriving... I came upon the Ormsby Fire Station near the KSBW TV Tower. The road was momentarily blocked by a fire truck backing into the station. A TV news van was stopped in the other side of the road, the reporter and camera man were in the middle of the road. Later, I realized they were trying to look dramatic; but to me then, they were just standing in the way. Another truck was stopped in my lane, completing the blockage.
I stopped behind him. He wasn't going anywhere. None of them was going anywhere. So I got out, I think more to see what was going on.
As the TV reporter was interviewing the truck driver, another truck drove toward us. Some of the cameraman's wires were uncoiled, the loops sticking up into the air on the road. I bent over and pulled them back away from the center lane, so they would not be snagged and drag the camera, and the cameraman down. I think the cameraman glanced down at me. As the interview broke, the camera man looked at me, smiled a huge smile, and silently mouthed Thankyou Very Very Much! Or maye it was Thankyou! Thankyou! Thankyou!
Only then, did I see I had not pulled all the wires, not seeing the main cable running to the van. It was flat on the road. My perceptions were still very, very narrow. Tunnel vision. I was still very much the stiff, unthinking, even unseeing automaton.
When my turn came, I answered that the CDF chopper woke me, buzzing me, sounding as though it was about to crash. I opened the door, saw the smoke and flames. What did I save? 'I got the computers, the data, I'm a computer person, and some other things; but perhaps ten to fifteen thousand dollars of books are likely gone by now.' Still glowing from the thanks of the camera man, I thanked the CDF helicopter pilots for buzzing my trailer, thanked the wonderful, wonderful CDF people for their work. As I spoke those thanks, the cameraman zoomed in close on my face. I was sure my face it will make the news.
The truck ahead of me moved on. I got back in my truck, and moved on. I thought I was driving the truck; but it was the car I was driving.
(Much later, I thought about the books. $15,000? At an average of $40 per inch, that would only be some 13 linear feet. I had several times that! $20,000, $30,000? I simply don't know. All my meticulously kept receipts burned.)
ZebeZebe had moved to a caretaker position on the paved portion of Mt. Madonna road. I stopped at Zebe's new place to see if he was ok, and maybe the two of us could get some things out. But no, he was out, as were all his dogs, all of them. I wondered if he was elsewhere on the property. But the gate is an electric gate. If they cut power, I'd be trapped till I dismantled it. So I left.
Only later, did I realize he must have been evacuated.
(A few days later, he said he'd gone on an early morning shopping run because he'd run out of beer. Such is the entertainment of many on the mountain. They wouldn't let him back in; but later, he snuck in anyway via some overgrown dirt logging trail roads.)
ConnectionsI drove past three blockades, one just after the Summit Road gate, one at an intersection further down, and another at the intersection of 152 and Pole Line Road. stopping at the Inn at Hecker Pass, just West of the 152 intersection, I tried to make a few calls on my EVDO/VOIP telephone system. (My phones run over the internet with VOIP, Voice over Internet Protocol.) It was not good there. I moved the car further, it did not help.
At 9:40, I took a photograph of the smoke pouring from the mountain. It was almost two hours after I woke up. Had I taken that long to get out? how long did the drive take? How long did the TV stop take? How long did I look for Zebe? 45 minutes for all that? An hour? I am just guessing. That's an awful long time.
A few minutes further down the road, I found a better spot, called Dad, Oscar, and Peter; three numbers I remembered because I use them so often. I might have called my good friend Mike B. and Mike J.; but I don't remember for sure.
Seeing the fire behind me, seeing I had made it out unscathed, I started whistling "God Bless America!" That startled me. Then I remembered how all those illegals risk everything to come to America for a small opportunity. I'm already here! I'm a Citizen! I'm an educated, skilled Professional! I've got a heck of a better opportunity ahead of me than they do!!!
Mike J., my mechanic, called me. He was in Brookdale. He'd made it out. He had my other Toyota. I should have taken the truck. But the Toyota he had has a bad engine. We should have done the engine swap LAST week.
I took route 152 down to route 1, hitting Capitola. Food. I wasn't that hungry anymore, but I remembered being very, very hungry. Why the change? That's when I realized the hunger was caused by carbon monoxide, and it had largely worn off. Good I didn't stay longer!
I also remembered Pacifica, and how my encounters with others were strongly influenced by the white shirt and tie I wore when I first came out to California. And so, before doing anything else, I stopped at The Men's Warehouse and bought a strong, conservative yet a little flashy blue rep tie. I would be meeting people, trying to influence them. I had to look as if I was in control of the situation, not like a helpless, homeless refugee. (I almost ordered a suit. Wish I'd done so. But a week later, the opportunity it would have opened had passed. Mistake!)
I'd had trouble with the battery on the car, so I drove to Winchester Auto, where I'd bought batteries and car parts before. They tested the battery and the charging system. Both were ok. I explained the problem with the current draw from the phone setup. A more senior salesman had joined us. They repeated the test, showing me that the battery was fine under a very heavy test load, and thus a new one would not help matters much. An auxiliary battery might help, but I'd need a deep cycle battery; one they would have to order. I thought about the wiring and diodes needed, and how that would limit the voltage, and hence the time that would work. I thanked them.
The tie, I later realized, had just spoken loud and clear. And paid for itself.
On to New Leaf and had two veggie burgers. I asked if there was someplace I could plug my computers while I ate. A gentleman suggested Coffetopia, gave me directions.
The car was still stalling. I put the new EGR Modulator Valve back in. It got better; but not that much better.
Next, a haircut. I was no longer a man on the mountain. The old habits were asserting themselves again. I'm a consulting systems analyst and software engineer, a person who loves solving complex problems in his head. A crisp suit and tie man. And a person use to moving from apartment to motel to apartment across the country. Well, I was moving again. About time after being stalled six years in the mountains.
I tried Coffetopia; but their computers were $0.10 per minute, $6 per hour. I'd be there most of the day. $36? $48? Well... But there was no direct connect so I could not use my VOIP telephone. Worthless!
A young lady and I spoke. She'd been evacuated as well. She was a little shaky, I reassured her. We spoke a few minutes. Oops, I didn't have my business cards.
My EVDO/VOIP telephone setup seemed not to be working anymore, not even in places I'd had no trouble before. I tried setting the computers up in the Capitola Bookstore Cafe. There, I met a lady whom I'd seen at some of the evening book talks. We chatted a while, quite a while, about many things from religion to global warming. She had a spare room; but as we spoke, it came out that it was in a new trailer. Better not, formaldehyde is my nemesis. I ordered some salad while waiting for the computers to come up, so they'd let me use their tables and electricity; but the salad dish turned out to be loaded with cheese and other things I don't eat. I gave it to her. We chatted some more as I waited; but my EVDO internet gear did not connect. It would not connect no matter what I did or where I was till after six.
Yes, the tie was speaking, putting people at ease with me. That's what had changed over the past few years. I'd stopped wearing really good ties, then ties altogether. As I dropped that habit, people had stopped being so nice and polite to me. That's what I had missed! And why! Now, I was becoming my old self, the man I'd been before I moved into the mountains.
I stopped several other places, trying to get EVDO and my VOIP phone to work. Nothing. The VOIP phone box would not get past one blink. No matter what I did or where I set up, there was no connection.
Around 4pm, I stopped at Bobby's Pit Stop, a garage I'd had several cars repaired at before. I explained I had to drive, had been burned out. Tuesday, they said. A mechanic listened, asked for more details, and came out to do a quick check. Carburetor, he said. $150 to $550. But he reset the idle, refusing payment. I thanked him very, very much.
A Place to StayI tried a few motels, but could not get my wireless system to work, and EVDO would still not connect. I was polite, and the clerks were polite. At one place, I paid for the week; but could not get connectivity, so got a refund. In other places, they just held my credit card while I checked the room out with my equipment. I needed a mouse to reset my router. I hadn't packed one. I could not set anything up. Without Sprint EVDO or some other equipment I'd forgotten, I was dependent upon finding a motel with a hard wired LAN connector.
So it's the warehouse again, I thought. The lease isn't up for another seven days. Buy a cot and camp out there.
Around 6pm, the light on the VOIP phone box went solid green again. I had connectivity! The larger world was back out there, and I was a part of it again.
That's when I realized the fire must have brought Sprint's EVDO system down throughout the area. Cables or power lines to the microwave transmission towers on the mountain must have burned.
I called Oscar, he said it was ok to sleep in the warehouse till the 30th, when the lease was up. I also called Sheila and Ginny, who run a rest home north of Half Moon Bay, perhaps two hours drive up the coast. They welcomed me. The warehouse or a real house? I chose the longer trip. Friends, companions, conversation, clean air. They had DSL, too. I'd helped them with it some years back, and helped them over the phone whenever they had a problem.
Just before I left Santa Cruz, some ten minutes after the phone started working, my old college friend Bob called from Connecticut. Why hadn't I called, he asked. He got my morning e-mail and had been trying to get me most of the day. I said Sprint's EVDO internet had been down most of the day. He said it looked as though the line was drawn at Ormsby; that my camp would likely survive. Perhaps it was; but I doubted anything would survive. Then we lost the connection as I drove out of range, heading north on California Route 1.
Driving through the coastal fog and spray, I could see a huge cloud bank sitting north of me. Oh, how we need that on the mountain now! But it wasn't moving, at least as far as I could see.
EVDO didn't pick up in Half Moon Bay, or anywhere on route 1. Nothing...
I thought I should have driven to the warehouse. It had DSL, CONNECTIVITY!!! Craig's list for housing, friends to communicate with. anything, Everything!
But the air there is terrible, and the bay area's air pollution would be very bad from the smoke. Spare the Air days, free commuter trains and buses, anything to get people not to drive. That's what happened in the Croy fire of 2002. I'd spent a week at the warehouse, got nothing done for the air pollution.
Did I pick the wrong place? I thought so till I went shopping near the sea a few days later. Free from the air pollution blowing off San Jose, I had Energy! That kind of energy was so rare for me in this last place. I'd NEVER had that kind of energy at the warehouse!
Time to move on? It was Way Past time to move on!
If I could have that kind of energy, the fire had done me a favor by setting me FREE!
(I was at Lotus Law for about a month, then drove to Clearlake to check out some rentals, came back, and found a temporary place to camp in dryer air west of Skyline Blvd, Los Gatos.)
AshesNews updates show the fire broke out near Maymens Flat, went south and over the road.
Next evening, Bobcat Dan e-mailed me photos of my camp. The trailer was but a flat frame. The truck, a burnt out husk. The RV, a frame with streams of melted aluminum frozen as they flowed past the truck, or maybe from the truck. Melted aluminum. All is gone. All but what I'd tossed in the car. No surprise.
Yesterday is but ashes.
It's little things like this that wake one up and make life interesting again. At least if you have the right attitude.
I went back a week later, raked through the ashes, helped the landlord clean out some debris. Nothing left, no solar power system, nothing but some scrap metal and ash. Just a lot of scrap metal and ash!
Four things of mine had survived. That stinky new diesel generator I'd taken as a trade on a web site I'd not yet built, still sat on the wooden platform Mike J. and I had wrestled it onto from my truck. The old beat up 4wd Toyota Tercel we were going to remove the engine from, sat almost unharmed. The Tercel we were going to put the engine into was with mechanic, so hadn't even been there. And the most unlikely thing of all, an empty 250 gallon plastic water tank sitting next to the landlord's junk truck. The other plastic tank, sitting a mere 30 feet away, had melted, flowed, and burned. Fourty feet in the other direction, were frozen pools of aluminum. But this polyethylene tank hadn't even gotten hot enough to sag.
I laughed! These were the four things I needed least.
What I needed most, if I was to start over, were the solar panels and the truck. But I only had so much time to get out. And I chose civilization.
A few days later, Zebe and I hauled the diesel generator out to his place. I slept there a few nights while we were cleaning up, or as much as I could clean the old place without a truck.
I'd made my decision when I looked at the truck. Civilization!
PastMy parents came to America with nothing but the clothes on their backs after World War II. With nothing but a sense of honor and decency, and a few ideas how things should work, they built a good life for themselves, and for me.
I came out here to Silicon Valley with nothing but a suitcase in 1986, 3/4 dead, wheeled about in a wheelchair. My new doctor rebuilt me with daily 60 gram IV's of vitamin C for two and a half months; perhaps 50 in all. (Plus maintenance IV's several times a year.) Then I rebuilt myself in more ways than one.
As a consultant, I'm use to moving from contract to contract. Most of the time, what does not fit in a station wagon gets left behind. Time and time again, what did not fit in my station wagon was simply given away or thrown out. I left a little more behind than I wanted to... but that's par for the course. The only thing that's missing this time, is the destination.
And the other thing; I designed built that cabin, mostly with my own hands in under a week. It was mine. The act of building it had set me free. It showed me that my actions have value, especially to ME!
If I can find a place, I can do it again, do it in under a week. The more time goes by, the more I want to build another cabin. Because I can. Because I am what I do. Because when I am out there, I can laugh in the middle of the night when I read a funny article, and not worry about disturbing the neighbors.
When I left home, the thing my mother said she missed the most, was the laughter late at night as I read my technical journals and other things. Yes, technical journals, for they chronicle the ideas and inventions of brilliant people, chronicle the "AhA!s" of a growing civilization. Just about all we have, was invented with an "AhA!" And what caused that "AHA!" is often funny to a mind that can imagine that moment.
FutureI am what I DO; not what I own!
I have a few ideas I'd been working on... But the bad air from San Jose had bogged me down. The change of scenery has awakened me. I'd been in the mountains too long.
Ideas are worth more than the books they are printed in. I'd lost the books, not the ideas.
And the ability to have ideas, is worth far more.
I have ideas. I Always have ideas!
So now, the adventure begins anew.
Yes, it is that simple. Change means opportunity. Begin the adventure anew. I did it before with just about every move to a new contract or location. I am doing it again.
The flowing theme song from the old movie "Laurence of Arabia" starts playing in the back of my mind. Just as for Laurence coming to the Arabian Desert, the world has opened up again for me.
The adventure begins anew.
The real challenge is not to fall back to the old expected ways of thinking; it is to keep seeing Change as Opportunities that it presents!
And that, my friends, is why I bought myself a tie instead of going to the refugee center. Opportunity!