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This is a continuation of our "Robin Hood" blog where we finally made it back out into the forest for the season. The ranch where we park most of the time is on the edge of town, and a little farther still, is the open forest where men hunt wild hoofed animals, gypsies build encampments, and teenagers hide out from the world and partake in a variety of half-sins and explorations ..
Leaving the house parked in the forest, all alone, didn't go unnoticed by the hypothetical-risk-assessment part of my brain, and each night, and the end of the long road into the dark forest, throwing dust clouds, clicking high beams at deer and elk and jackrabbits, I'd always strain my eyes ahead a bit, waiting for the Winnie's broad shape to appear, safe, sound, ready for her weary honey-drunk dwellers.
She was always there - with a bit of the day's warmth still lingering in her belly and candles waiting to be lit. We had friends and family by to visit, sparked camp fires, cook outs, and early morning meditations sitting on tree stumps and watching the dew glisten in the early morning sun.
We found this grandaddy oak right across from our camp. Flagstaff is predominately forested in pine trees, so it's always a bit of a thrill to see one of these majestic hard woods reaching for the sky. The puzzle-piece shape of the leaves and the protein rich nuts they drop at our bare feet are a delight. And the old branches dropped over the years were hungrily gathered up and stacked near our fire pit for nights when we'd need a good, long burn. (Oak burns much longer than Pine) Most other nights, tip toeing out to the pit after a long day at the roost, fast burning pine suited our needs perfectly .. kind of the sitcom of fires ; )
Cooking acorns takes a little doing .. they have a bitter, somewhat toxic element called tannins, but boiling them for a time will leach this out and make them ready to bake and season ; ) The Native Americans used to put them in a sack and leave them in a running stream for a long while to soak everything out. Note: these are also good ammunition if you happen to have a sling shot lying around .. which you know we do ; )
The big bad Winnie .. from a squirrels view ; )
You can kind of see the quilted bed hanging down in the windshield.
I was told by the guy we bought the Winnie from that those 4 or 5 dents in the right wing of the "W" came from a police baton - rap tap tap - during a late night "sweep" when Winnie used to live on the slanted streets of San Francisco.
I've been behind all these bolts and into the greased back axels and delicate seals .. not fun .. back in there soon as we ready ourselves for some winter travels.
Sid .. he's always smiling ; )
My sister and nieces came over the day we dug this pit (it was the 2nd one .. turns out the first one I dug with my bare hands was butting up to the dried roots of a tree stump .. and they liked to burn underground at night, after I'd soaked the main fire and gone to sleep .. whoops. ).
The girls delighted in helping with the digging, collecting the right rocks and pinecones and kindling. We also found out later that night that the seeded tops of the tall grass could be picked and held over the flames for a snap crackle pop ; ) They were like little fireworks!
The early morning sun comes in so nicely over the hill. We'd normally find a little sunny spot to eat our porridge and drink our tea.
And here's our acorn competition. We heard these little buddies on the roof on a few occasions, scampering around. We were in a pretty far off area, and they might not have seen many of man's machines in the past. I guess this type of squirrel is exclusive to the Flagstaff area .. they have the longest ears, and love chasing each other up and round and round the tall pines. They also like to play chicken with the truck as we're going to and fro . . I'm always the one to swerve away first .. juwels would never stop crying if we nabbed one of these fuzzies.
This is where the story gets a little .. complicated. After living in the forest for a time, at the end of a great morning, one where I'd walked out of the Winnie while working the electric tooth brush to find a giant male elk "bugling" to a pair of females and then chasing them with heavy steps in wide circles around our camp. Breakfast was divine, the sun was warm, and on our drive out we spotted two tan foxes trotting along, a jackrabbit (juwels goes crazy over their long ears and donkey-like tails) and then .. the fire department ??
They were far from where we were setup, but I slowed down and asked, "Everything all right?" The guy smiled and said, "Just a little prescribed burn. You might see some smoke."
We were having such a great morning that my guard was down, and as I said, we were camped forever away from them, and I figured they'd just burn some of the tree piles they chopped up over the season and then put them out for practice.
But the worlds "prescribed burn" struck me a little odd. Didn't they normally call it a "controlled burn"?
But with big smiles on our faces, off to work we went. We've cut back on the late nights that we put in last season, and I forget what had to happen before we left the Roost, but I remember looking at the clock with weary eyes as 10, 11, and 12 o'clock rolled around. Finally back in the forest, I'd almost forgotten about the troupe of firefighters we'd seen 15 hours ago .. that is, until I saw all the smoke. The first stretch of dirt road was clear and smoke free, and we even saw a herd of elk congregating in the dark periphery, but then there was smoke, great clouds of it, and juwels stared to whine in the seat beside me. I tried to down play it, saying we weren't anywhere near our spot, and it was probably just smoldering and on its way out.
There had been quite a few hunter's camps between our spot and town, and juwels spotted a small fire up ahead. The sight of other campers relaxed us both a little, knowing that people were still camping ahead meant that all must be clear up there, but then we saw more fires, too close together to be camps. They were actually tall fires left unattended. I leaned a little heavier on the gas, and we could see that there were tree stumps on fire, and in this fresh area, wide blankets of pine needles were burning as well.
"I don't like this .. . I don't li-ke this .." juwels said.
I tried to ignore her immediate panic, it was just an echo to what was already going on in my own head.
As we kept driving, it was hard to tell where we were. I could just see our head lights looking like scrambled static beams of smoke and cremated particles of what the forest just was, that morning. Blanketing layers of needles and cones, shed tree bark and dead limbs. It was all burning and changing forms to the weightless and air born. That night was a post-apocoliptic scene of odd grey tones and distant fires blurred by the thickness of the air, and the Winnie was out there ... someplace.
I still had my doubts that the fire reached all the way to our floating bedroom on wheels, but it did.
Juwels was not game for my wait-and-see prompting plan of attack. Her unedited stream of consciousness thoughts were stuck on shuffle between “I don’t like this” and “This isn’t o-kay” and “ I hOpe the Winnie’s all right...”
It was her mantra, and the song to the next winding mile into the smoke-screened forest. I turned up the radio a little .. I think we were listening to Radiohead's "Dollars and Cents" (could be a good song to listen to on another tab while you read the rest of this??) I just drove further faster, to get the core of it. And trying harder to calm juwels, I didn't just tell her that it'd be okay, but scoffed at the fire as just a smoldering, dying burn, a nothing that was on its last breath. Oh, and another thing she was chanting was,“We need to move the Winnie, tonight, right now – we need to move the Winnie out of here.”
Although I was already exhausted and a little grouchy when we left work, I wasn’t totally against moving the Winnie. But I wasn't too excited about doing it in the dark - reversing between trees onto the narrow road was something I'd plotted out the day we arrived but didn’t intend on doing at night, in a cloud of smoke with a frantic wife. But remember, I was in full devil's advocate mode with juwels, trying to convince her that I wasn’t in the slightest concerned, so I was actually saying that there was no need to move the beast at night. That we’d just keep the skylights closed, take showers and go to sleep. We could deal with it in the morning.
This was before I saw just how far the fire went… maybe 15 feet from our bumper. As we forked off to our more-narrow camp road, we were still in thick smoke. I slowed a bit on the quick-sand-kind-of patches of dirt to avoid that hydroplaning fishtailing of the back tires, and searched ahead to spot the flying -W-, but we had maybe 20 feet of visibility, so the only visual I had of her was in my mind.
My journals and manuscripts, clothes juwels had handmade, photographs, keepsakes, squirled away money and memories. I ticked off a little inventory through my head, and invisioned just the raw burning platform of our floor atop melting black rubber and red-hot hub caps and rims.
A quote from a late friend back on the Venice boardwalk came to mind. “I never owned anything that I couldn’t afford to lose.” Yeah, sure. All can be rebuilt, but the old girl’s a metaphor and a reminder of freedom as much as she’s the place where we sleep and eat and keep our treasures. I was preparing to go numb ... which wouldn't be easy around juwels if all had gone wrong.
So we were -both- panicked, but then we saw her, safe, but just on the other side of the thin dirt road from the fire. Her side on the road was smokey but still cool and intact, and 12-15 feet on the other side of the dirt dividing road, the fire was all consuming. Large sappy tree stumps burning like torches, and bushy clusters of dead grass flaming and casting light up the blackened charred tree trunks.
Sealed inside the Winnie, I looked around at everything, still perfectly in place, and I saw the smoke stirring around the lights as juwels rushed back and forth packing things away and strapping down cabinets and drawers.
“Do your stuff with the engine, and let’s move. I’ll guide you out,” she said.
Checking back in with the real world: its about 1:30 am on a Tuesday.
I had disconnected some stuff in the engine, so it would be impossible to drive away with, so I rigged the missing parts back into place and cranked the key to warm her up. She’d run great the last time we’d been out, rock star.
The engine came to life, growling, and then, died. Dead. Done.
I tried again and again – sometimes she’d come on then die, but other times she’d just chug- chug- chug- chug and never pull through. Not for a second. Even though the gas gauge was broken and always said we were on empty, I knew we weren't out of gas - we'd filled it up the day we drove off the grid and into the forest. I exhausted my knowledge of engines pretty quickly. Juwels had finished her “drive proof” but hadn’t asked the dreaded question yet, “she’s not starting up?”
I explained the best I could what was happening and what I’d already checked or tried, but she likes to perpetuate my delusions of knowing this stuff (I’ve had my lucky moments in the past) by shrugging it off as guy’s work and congratulating me every time I change the oil or put the gas cap on straight. I need to program her computer brain to this Gear-head mechanics stuff because she could probably rebuild the transmission before I could change a tire.
I was outside again during my diagnosis ( = we’re F-ed ) and I noticed red hot embers softly floating down from the trees and across the road in our direction. All it would take was one of those to keep the fire rolling on our side. Oh, and get this, when we’d first gotten here, Juwels asked me to gather the chairs at the fire pit, and with the chairs, we had two big jugs of water – 3 gallons each – and before I’d even made sure the Winnie would start (she’s been so good lately) I dumped the water into the dirt, so they’d be lighter to carry over and load in the truck. Classic. Just Classic.
“Okay,” I said, “ I think if I just gas the hell out of it when she comes on, maybe we can just keep it running.”
I got it to fire up, clicked it in reverse, and gassed it.
At the same time Juwels said, “Do you want me to go out and spot you?”
Having that moment to think, with my head hanging out the window and getting a decent look in the foggy reverse lights, I thought better of the path and decided that we’d be better off driving further ahead into the forest and cutting a wide left loop back to the road.
“Do you want me to jump out then and make sure there’s no holes or stumps or anything?” Juwels asked.
“No,” I just wanted to get it over with, “I’ve walked through there collecting branches for the fire. It’s a flat meadow. Just get into the truck and follow me out.”
Juwels is super sensitive to the pollutants in the air, but she still walked around the side of the Winnie beside me and tried to spot and guide me out, waving with her right hand and holding a cotton krama over her mouth with the left.
I clicked the headlights on, fired her up, floored it a couple times to get the gas moving, shifted into drive – and it died.
Having looked my path over, Juwels was retreating back to the truck but crossed the road to stomp a couple taller flames out first.
I fired again, and this time actually drove a few feet before she died. With the engine off, I could hear the rusty squeaking of the tires turning another rotation on the downhill, but we stopped all the same. I tried again and again, wondering if I was making whatever was already wrong worse by pushing it. I finally gave up. I clicked the lights off and Juwels ran over and climbed inside.
There was a definite man-goes-down-with-his-ship sentimentality running with my blood. The work and love and spontaneous creativity we put into this place… and that of which to come.
You’d think adrenaline and the second wind would have given me wings by this point, but it hadn’t, not for me. Things had been going so smoothly for so long that I’d lost the disaster-ready mind for the warm bath of late.
I latched the window lock and pulled the keys out, but before I was out of my seat, Juwels said, “We’re kind of in the taller grass now… we were better off where we were. This stuff will burn more.”
That’s -exactly- what I wanted to hear. She was right but, still, an unwanted reality brought to light.
Somehow, I got the engine started again and gassed it in reverse, and died back in our old spot, closer to the fire but out of the tall dead grass.
My final conclusion was that the old engine wouldn’t start because the thick smoke was choking her out, (the carburetor needs fresh air .. I think ??). And I hoped the truck, with its newer engine, would filter through this madness and move. I realized that we had to get our bodies out of there, staying around any longer was just irresponsible.
Holding our breath, and dashing back into the truck, with the engine not yet tried, juwels noticed the short bristled rake in the Winnie’s back cargo carrier. “Maybe we should rake all the pine needles out from around the Winnie?”
I went out, being the bulletproof cockroach of the two of us, and began vigorously raking a void in the needles around the tires and body. I followed up the first section by crawling down and dragging all the needles out from underneath. Even with the bandana, I could feel the grit of dust and taste of smoke on my lips and between my teeth.
I still had this “really???” kind of detachment about the whole thing – like I would wake up any moment, but I didn’t. I wouldn’t find that bed until quite a while later. It was surreal, and I started thinking, “Don’t pass out. Just don’t pass out. Do you feel okay? Listen to your body, don’t go too far."
One voice was telling me it wasn’t worth it and that everything would be fine, and the other was saying, “Yeah, but if you come back in the morning, and you’ve lost it all, how pissed are you going to be for not trying everything?”
Somewhere during all that, the solid bristle part of the rake went flying off the handle into the darkness. I looked all over for it, but finally just got down on all fours and doggy paddled the rest of the sticks and needles out from under the bumper.
I had a pretty good headache starting, but I didn’t pass out, and back in the truck, all was well, and we drove off.
I turned right at the fork in the road, away from the exit road and deeper into the forest. The air was clear in this area. It had literally burned right up to the Winnie but no further, and all was clear beyond ... for now.
“Where are you going?” Juwels asked.
“I just want to sit out here on the edge and watch it. We could just stay here all night and watch it, take turns and make sure it doesn't spread...”
We stayed there for a little while, listening to Sigur Ros, and then I got out and pissed in the dirt, and noticed that the wind had changed directions, blowing the smoke and fire away from the Winnie.
Back in the truck, I said, "The wind's blowing the other way."
Juwels was happy to hear this.
"So," I continued, " I think the air will be clear enough to get her started."
We went back and painfully tried to pump her chest again and again to no avail.
And then, regretfully, off we went, back through doom's day and into town. I felt homeless, detached and stranded. And the realization that we hadn't taken anything with us both times we returned home struck me as both stupid and in some odd way inspiring.
... I'm going to have to leave this hanging for now, part one, because there's limits to blog lengths (I think?) and this story's exhausting me even in the past tense .. I can still kind of taste that smokey after-burn in my throat as I'm writing this. Plus .. holiday orders are a' buzzin, and these bees must get busy ; )
But I will say, the unexpected cause to most of this steams from a strange, vacant, zombie-like young girl we saw walking back through the darkness of the road many nights before and the sketchy camp she belonged to.
More to come ; )