By Jeanie Johnson
Five thousand feet above sea level at the edge of the West. Dry, almost breathtakingly dry. Pine boughs dark green with curling edges in various shades of brown. Dusty, loose underfoot, splinters of pine needles and pebbles. Hazy skies, indefinite and shimmering. Air so hot the body’s moisture nearly visible rising into the heat.
Tents and camp amenities were scattered over the curves of a few hills, spreading along a ridge at the very bottom most part of the Black Hills National Forest. The ridge ran down close to the Wyoming border. Perhaps on a clear day decades ago it would have been possible to see Devil’s Tower rising from the ground. Twenty miles back then would have been nothing; the skies would have been clearer, the Earth would have gladly shared her bosom, her hips, her valleys in the blue sky days.
But this year the skies were filled with the smoke of distant fires; Colorado, Wyoming were burning. It wasn’t what she expected as she waited through miles of straight road. As a young girl she would hang out the car window excited to see the first thin line of dark mounds begin to form as her family crossed the South Dakota flat lands. By the time the Badlands appeared as sandstone interruptions in the land falling silently into the earth, their striated colors glistening in the dry air, she was ecstatic. The Black Hills would rise up from the ground and begin to fill in their mysterious darkness. Tall pines of rich dark green unlike her home reached into the sky. The birds were different, the critters that ran through the campgrounds, the lightness of the air on her skin, it was all different than home.
This time it was different in a new way. Things were changing. The land was not simply dry as if it had not rained for a bit of time measured in small amounts, not simply forgotten; no, now it was parched. It was so thirsty it felt sad, angry, in pain. It caused the humans to feel for the earth, at least as much as they could. It caused her to remember wetter days in that country, storms that roared through leaving everyone breathless and fresh, the land damp, plump with water. But now when she tried to stake her tent, the ground was so hard it was impossible to drive the stake and she felt as if she were trying to force something that would no longer open to receive. The tent had to be tied into the tree line. Different. Strange in a new way.
No one spoke of the fires right away. Instead awareness of danger filtered through the camp, especially to the new arrivals, in whispers and softly spoken comments. She finally realized there was concern on the periphery, haunting the edges of camp life. Her nose would occasionally pick up the scent of smoke, she wasn’t always positive but it made the hairs on her arms stand up and she scrutinized the faces of others to determine if they smelled burning, smelled the Mother. Then, on an afternoon, a wind from the furnace of changing climate blew through the camp with a ferocity that caused the humans to forget all the winds they had ever known. She was in her tent with her sister. Their eyes became like saucers as they stood to hold the walls of the tent from collapsing in the fury. Out the window they saw the sky fill with smoke, a tent rear up from its tentative moorings and blow down the ridge, and then, in the midst of the swirling dust and smoke, a rainbow forming in the sky. It could not have, should not have happened, not from the direction of the winds, but it did. She felt a shiver course through her and flow out onto the tent floor. Her sister was silent.
When the winds had passed she and her sister ran down to the main camp. A call had gone out to evacuate the hills and ridges to somewhere safe. They hurried to the tents, hollering to others along the way to get in their cars and leave. Just leave. Leave everything behind, leave all the things bought and brought. For several seconds she stood in the tent looking at the things that meant camping, the table and cots, the blankets and cooler and flashlights and a hundred little items. Not her home, just her tent. Her sister’s face appeared in the window. “I guess there is nothing we need is there? Our lives are more important. Let’s go.”
They scurried down the hill and joined the line of cars rumbling through the dust and smoke to somewhere safe. Twenty cars plus a truck with water and a car with children. Safe was a meadow out in the open fifteen minutes from the camp. With perspective it was worse, the billowing smoke was obvious against a clear late afternoon sky. Everyone gathered in the meadow to breathe and talk. Someone drove further to gain cell phone coverage, to contact the fire marshals, to know something, anything. When he came back a half hour later he had news. The marshals felt the camp was safe but that there was always danger from any storm, any lightning strike. They would remember the people in the camp and make sure to come get them if the winds changed again. They told the man to be alert.
To be continued – Part 2 next issue