today i drove eleven hours to northern oregon. fires have been burning in northern california for nearly three weeks now, and from san francisco to crater lake the whole sky was a yellow haze. this is kind of what happens for the average observer whenever california burns: a layer of smoke simply appears. in san francisco it appears and then fades away each day as the fog rolls in and out off the ocean. in sacramento it appears and sinks into the valley and just stays there; it gets so thick you can barely see oncoming traffic and farm workers choke on it while picking all the nation’s vegetables. in south oregon today it was just there and didn’t so much hang in the air as replace it entirely and i was driving along upper klamath lake and the water shimmered into the smoke like there was no boundary at all.
around bend the sky turned blue again, and then as the road turned out of town i looked up and saw mt. jefferson on the horizon and in front of it was an enormous white cloud rising straight up into the air, and from it came a thick gray blur smeared east across the sky. i didn’t know what it was at the time except that it was fire but i just googled it and turns out it was the lionshead fire, which as of today is at nearly 15,000 acres burning and about 30% contained. here is a picture of it that someone on reddit took this morning, which is pretty much exactly what i saw except that when i saw it the sun was just beginning to dip behind the long mass of gray and so the thin edges of it were swirled pink and gold.
i had never really experienced wildfire smoke as such a concrete thing before, something that can be seen from sixty miles away where the sky is clear and blue and then only experienced sixty miles later when the road passes under its shadow. as i got nearer i could see the whole atmosphere underneath soften into something thick and golden and constantly shifting like liquid fire in the sky, and then i would look out my side window and see blue on green farmland as if the road ahead went to a completely different world that didn’t exist at all to this one. it is impossible to really capture what that felt like but here is a picture i took (illegal, unsafe, sorry, had to take just one) through the dead bugs on my windshield.
when i was a kid i had this recurring dream, or maybe it wasn’t a recurring dream but just felt like one the single time i dreamt it, where i am driving with my mom in an open-door jeep (? why) on the highway home, and we round a turn and suddenly a volcano is just there a few miles in front of us, rising up right through gigantic fissures in the road, and lava is spewing everywhere and cars are honking and swerving and everyone around is panicking, and then i wake up. i don’t really know why i had that dream but today seeing mt. hood in the distance bathed in atmospheric fire was the closest i have ever come to it in real life.
by the time i got to the deschutes river canyon the sun was starting to set for real, by which i mean it’d sunk low enough that it was a pure red molten drip on the bottom edge of the smoke mass, and as i wound my way through the canyonlands with nobody on the road in front of me the smoke seemed to draw the substance of the sun up into itself so that the whole belly of it smoldered pink from the inside and the sky around it was gold and glowing from the radiance of the smoke. i have seen a lot of sunsets in a lot of places and they all have their own textures and qualities of the sublime but none have ever felt so tangible, so present, like something alive and ancient and holy occupied that sky above that canyon at that moment on this day.
after the canyon the road opened onto a flat land covered in trees burnt black and twisted from an older fire i think and i couldn’t see the sun anymore and the red glowing smoke was above me and in front of me the sky on the horizon was just this brilliant blinding white. a few months ago i was playing this game gris and the first level is a monochrome red desert in which every few minutes or so a monochrome red sandstorm suffuses the gleaming white sky and that’s what i felt like driving through this aftermath of the sunset. by this point i was in a full-blown crisis trying to figure out what music to play. i’d had some kind of country/dad rock blend on, which works during normal drives through the middle of nowhere but felt wholly inadequate in this completely insane landscape, and after cycling through all the human and alien sounds i could think of the only thing that sounded good ended up being some sparse and unnerving bombed-out electronica of what genre i have no idea.
i’m not really sure what i wanted to say about all of this except that i am about to pass out from exhaustion and i felt the need to preserve the images of it somewhere before going to bed. i had a brief crazy moment where i thought you know, this is how we should always do it: every year we do one perfect wildfire and we all gather round and watch one perfect pyrochemical column of smoke suck up the light of the sun itself and release it thick and burning back into the sky. no more multi-cluster lightning complexes, no more yellow hazes that simply appear, just one day in one place where some god touches heaven and earth and sets them both perfectly aflame. could be nice i think.