Thursday, March 1, 2012

setting fire to the rain

I still remember the first time I saw fire make rain. We were living out the winter dry season in Florida, a long unhurried series of sharp blue sky days, burning the swamp in order to re-introduce fire to the land. On this particular day, the rest of the fire crew scurried along the trails in swamp buggies and on foot, nursing a black line along the unit boundaries. By then, all of us had flown in the helicopter so much that most were heartily sick of the endless circling and heavy, humid air pressing in on our temples, so I easily won the chance to sit in the back seat.

Back in the day, fire in the swamp.

Straddling the aerial ignition machine, held in by straps and webbing, I leaned out the doorless side, watching the progress of the fire show. Periodically I fed small white balls into the hopper of the machine where they were injected with antifreeze and sent tumbling out the chute to the ground far below. Seconds later they would ignite in the tall prairie grass.

On this day the smoke column gathered so much steam that it rose thousands of feet into the sky. As we buzzed around the fire unit, a distinctive anvil shape appeared and thunder rumbled out of the cloud. Rain dotted the helicopter's windshield. Our fire had created its own weather.

Now, decades later, I live on one of the most dangerous roads in the county. Where our house is, the slopes are moderate and safe, but only a mile up, the canyon narrows. Snow loads the mountains above. Ice lies in thick sheets, spinning the unlucky into the ditches and off the road. Unpredictable weather sends a river of snow and ice tumbling for hundreds of feet. It doesn't happen every year, but when it does happen, it closes the road until summer. To get to my favorite running trail, I will have to climb over a huge mountain of snow and debris. I love that.

Those are my skis. That WAS a road.

When you see an avalanche up close, it takes your breath away. The ones I have seen here are not smooth expanses of featureless snow like I imagined. Instead they are a jumble of ice chunks, set hard like concrete. This one came down so powerfully that it crossed the river before it stopped for good. Trying to climb it, I slid down the face, unable to gain purchase in the ice.

Here's where it crossed the river.

Snow and fire, two incompatible, beautiful, mysterious things. Where once I followed fire across the country, now I follow snow through a smaller slice of time and space. Where I used to burn prairies, I now touch the face of avalanches. The power and beauty of nature is something that will never burn out for me.


  1. Incredible! This isn't the road to your house, is it? Or is it just the road to a trail?

  2. I am envious of you living the life that seems tailor made for you. Hope to meet you one of those days.

  3. Avalanches are scary. When you see all the debris that comes down with them you realize suffocation is not necessarily how you'll go if you're caught in one (duh, I know).


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