Goodbye to Grizzly Flats
We moved there in very early 2004. Delena was going into middle school and the ones where we lived in the Foothill Farms area of Sacramento where not excellent choices. We prayed for another option and as is so often the case with The Universe, our answer came in an unexpected way. Suddenly our landlord of 3 1/2 years was selling our house and we had to be out within 30 days. Eric had just been laid off from his most recent job and was starting his own business with some partners who – as first business partners often will – turned out to be shady. Not a great year.
Delena was 12, Dylan was 7, and Nathan was 5. I did not see the house until after we signed papers on it. Real estate brokers managed to get us a “NINJA” loan (No Income No Job or Assets). In retrospect, there was so much about that loan that was hinky that I wouldn’t know where to start listing. It was during the housing sweep where they were throwing mortgages at anyone who could sign a paper and we were first time buyers with no clue how the process should go.
The U-Haul with most of our possessions in it drove onto the property and I was behind it in our Jeep Cherokee seeing it for the first time. It took two loads to get everything from the old property and when we got back to the house for the second load, most of what we left had been stolen by the neighbors. The property managers illegally kept our security deposit (they waited far longer than the stated time to give us any kind of reconillation of the process) and we didn’t even fight for it. We were just proud to own our own home.
It was lovely. Far up in the mountains, remote, rural to the extreme. The only buildings that were not houses were the school, the fire station, the church, the post office, the rangers’ station and the water company. Not a store, gas station, or restaurant in sight for 25 minutes of swervy driving. For the first year, Dylan and I vomited every time we went up and down the mountain. We had to take him out of traditional school and home school him because he threw up every day on the bus, the poor sweetheart.
We raised our little ones in that house, charting their growing heights on the door frame by the kitchen with a sharpie pen. One by one, they moved out on their own. Nathan, our youngest, moved out in July of this year (2021).
A month later, the house burned down.
We know where we live. It’s naive to the point of insane to live in our part of California and not imagine that a wildfire is coming for you at some point. I’m a Virgo. I had lists. I had a plan. We had in the past gone so far as to have snowflake sized ash raining down on us for days as other places burned. We had been on standby for evacuation before. It always passed us by.
We watched the Caldor fire for a couple of days. It was mostly moving through vegetation and it was reassuring that the wind was blowing it away from us. It seemed likely that the Forest Service could manage it. What we didn’t know at the time was that there was a huge discussion going on about whether the jurisdiction was with the Fire Department or the Forestry Department and meanwhile, an undermanned staff tried unsuccessfully to manage the fire.
The area where the fire started was rough, so we figure either someone was trying to hide a body or someone’s cook fire got out of control. I don’t think there is yet a determination as to what caused it.
As we got through the day of August 16, Eric and I were off work because the shop was closed. We were staying vigilent, but did not go to any extreme measures. Eric even hired a local guy and paid him a grip of money to cut down five trees near the house at the bark beetles had killed. He was glad we would have extra firewood for the winter.
I repotted two legacy plants. One was an ancient pothos that I had for around 22 years and one was an umbrella plant that was around 20-years-old. They excitedly stretched their little root legs into new soil with more room. You could hear them sigh in ecstatic comfort.
I put off my chores until the next day: laundry, organize the laundry room, and clean the office. I was tired. It had been a demanding week at the shop.
People started to leave out, you know, “just in case.” We waited, staying focused on reports of what the fire was doing. As it started to get dark, Eric suggested that we start getting some things together to take to the shop. You know, “just in case.” We leisurely began assembling a pile of things in the living room floor for him to take in the first trip, then he would come back and get more if necessary. We didn’t want to overload the shop’s back room where we would store the items because the risk did not feel that substantial, but you know, “Just in case.”
He started loading up the car later into the night and seemingly out of the blue, we were alerted that there was an evacuation warning. To my understanding, that meant, “Get your shit together, there is a chance we are going to evacuate you until it is safe to come back again.”
So we worked faster.
I moved through my belongings in a bit of a mental haze. What would I need for a couple of weeks away from the house? This necklace. This one too. My medications. Photo albums. Artwork my kids (who are literally artists) did. I have gone back over those couple of hours a million times in my head. Why did I not pick up this... or that? The Virgo list and Virgo plan was gone, out the window in ashes long before the house was.
Eric was halfway through putting the first load in the car when he came back inside, his face ashen. “We have to go now.”
“No sweetie,” I said. “It’s just warning. They will tell us when we have to go.”
“No,” he said, more urgently. “We have to go RIGHT NOW.”
I grabbed a final few things and started helping him take the belongings we had gathered outside. Everything was silent and motionless. The wind was still blowing against the fire, so there was no smoke where we were. But there was the sound… like a jet engine.
Back inside, I started madly tossing a few more things in the bin. I grabbed by load of semi-wet clothing from the dryer and left the clothes in the washer, still agitating. I picked up my purse from my desk and mindlessly left my passport atop my brand new, used twice, 10″ Kindle Fire right there on the desk. I picked up the dog and he grabbed the cat. I wished the tropical fish well and hoped they made it through however long we had to be away.
I left my Santa Muerte altar on the altar in my office, but first, I went to her and said, “I’ve done all you’ve asked. I built a store and a community in your honor. I have made a place where people can venerate you. Don’t let me down. Save my house, save the beloved things in it. I’m begging you.”
She said in my head, “It’s time to go, child.”
As I went out the front door, I tucked a St Jude prayer card behind the corner of the lightswitch. “We go way back,” I said to him. “I haven’t asked you for anything years, maybe a decade or more. Please save my house, save the beloved things in it.”
In my head, he said, “It’s time to go, child.”
I didn’t look back.
Driving away was eerie. The streets were abandoned. The air barely stirred. We turned right. To the left, we could see an orange curtain coming our way. There was only one reasonable way out of town.
Once we were off the highest part of the moutain, which is approximately 1000 feet covered in a mile or so, we could no longer hear the sound of the fire. We were around ten minutes away from the house when the manditory evacuation order came over the phone. No shit, dude. Thanks.
As we drove further, we saw people pulled over on the side of the road chatting as if waiting for a parade. We kept driving. We got to the shop and realized there was no going back for a second load. We knew it intellectually when we left, but knowing it and understanding it were two different things.
Now, all we could do was hope that it passed us by. Later, my son and his girlfriend came to the shop to stay as well. They lived not even a quarter mile from us in Grizzly Flats.
I tried to sleep in my office while Eric spent time with Josh on the front deck. There wasn’t much sleep going on for anyone. The next day, new began to filter in. Reporters were driving around Grizzly Flats, showing every property except ours. They talked about how some houses were untouched. That it was as though the fire came right up to the driveway and just stopped…like magic.
“Thank you Santa Muerte and Saint Jude!” I thought. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
On one of the reports, they focused on a burned out car.
“Honey?” I asked. “Is that our Maverick?”
“Yep,” he said.
Two deer walked in front of the car and the camera focused on them while we begged for it to “look at the house! look at the house!”
The news LOVED that shot of the deer and the car and kept showing it over and over, across many platforms.
Two tweakers drove quickly through the town on a YouTube video, talking about harvesting the copper in the structures. Then they drove past our house with a quick glance that told us it was not there anymore.
One of my students is a cop and was assigned for patrols in Grizzly Flats. He drove by to check out the house for us and confirmed that it was completely gone.
I would post photos for you here, but I really don’t even want to look at it again.
The house is ash to the foundation. The three out buildings are ash to the foundation. Eric’s boat, Eric’s Goldwing, two classic cars that were his project cars and two Volvos that needed repair are gone. The RV is to the ground. All of the manzanita surrounding our house is completely gone. The chimney and the foundation still stand but the mortar in the chimney is powdered and you can push it over without trying. Eric found that his toolbox in the shed survived, albeit warped, and when he got it open, thousands of dollars of Craftsman tools were completely melted inside. The cast iron woodstove is warped around itself. There is ash almost to Eric’s thighs. Two stories of house worth of ash.
Odd things survived.
Eric was finally allowed to go up last week. I had no interest in going. It was hard for him. He found those few things.
We lived in the shop for just over a week, then moved to a camping resort where a dear friend works. We stayed in two cabins there over the next two weeks, then we managed to find a house to rent only ten minutes from the shop. It’s small, only 1200 square feet, but it meets our needs. It isn’t like we had much to put into the house.
People immediately were aggressive about helping out. We appreciated it, but it was hard when they were almost demanding to know what we needed when we were so shellshocked that we had no idea what what we needed. “…everything?”
We had not once piece of furniture. No clothing to speak of. No pots, pans, silverware, plates, not even a pillow between us. We had a lot of stupid stuff that was only secondarily important because we thought we had multiple trips coming up. I had a half-load of laundry and there was not a single pair of panties to be found in it. I left all of my earrings except for what I had in my ears at the time, all of my favorite clothing, most of our magical tools and statuary.
One entire shed was almost filled with books, many first editions, many out of prints. Most irreplaceable.
Waves of grief hit when you least expect it. You go to grab soy sauce from the fridge which you always have and realize your chicken stirfry you are making is now fubar’d because that was at the other house that you always have soy sauce and you didn’t think to but it here. Then the quicktears come over soy sauce.
You remember yet another precious item you forgot to grab. The favorite little clothes my babies wore, the samples of their handwriting through the years, all the cards they made for me, their baby books, the turkeys carefully traced around a little hand, the crochet hook my late grandfather whittled, my mother’s class ring, photographs from actual 35 mm cameras that were not in the albums, the Amulets of the Goddess that are so hard to find, the green dishes my father bought my mother in Holland in 1958, years of handmade Christmas decorations, so… much… precious… stuff.
And yes, it’s “stuff,” as people are quick to remind me. “You got out safely, that’s all that matters.” “It’s only stuff.” Yes. Yes, I know. The night we had the full scope of the loss confirmed, Eric was on the front deck of the shop looking sad and I said, “Hey! Guess what? I’m not a hoarder anymore!” He had always tolerated but made his frustration known over the stuff I kept from the past. At least it made him smile for a minute.
Sixty years of memories, items from my childhood, things that keep me tethered to the past when my memory is already starting to get sketchy as hell. I do not have any people around me who knew me before my first child was born. Those items reminded me that I was once a little girl and a young woman. That I existed before I was a mother and a wife.
I recently posted on Facebook that this was my first Halloween in sixty years without decorations and I grieved it. Well-meaning people were bubbling that I could start over! I could rebuild! The task of rebuilding a collection of items to use twice a year (Halloween and Christmas) feels extraneous and odious. It’s just gone. “We’ll make new memories.” I’m sixty… how many more memories can there reasonably be to make?
My father died at 51. My mother died at 60. By this coming February, I will have outlived them both.
Eric and I worked hard to embrace the excitement of, for our first time, building a home together for just the two of us. When Eric married me, I already had children and a full house of furniture and memories. He brought his few boxes of belongings and fit them in around us.
People stepped up in an unreasonable and humbling fashion. Within a week, we had every piece of furniture we needed to the point that we had to gratefully and lovingly refuse some because we could only fit so many beds and recliners into such a small house. We had dishes, pots, pans, appliances, silverware, clothing, ritual ware, jewelry, and personal items, all we needed.
Other than the picture we saved going on the wall, the house is all set up now.
I love the house. It has a locked gate at the end of a driveway that is maybe an eighth of a mile long. No one can get in unless I know they are coming or they are family and have the gate code. The gate has a Texas star on it that looks like a pentacle (it even lights up!) and large pieces of quartz in the brick columns that support the gate. In front of my front yard are acres of horses. I am not a horse person, but they are great neighbors. The house has a full raised-bed garden that is in complete harvest flourish. There is a deck in back for Eric’s mancave time. I have a guest room for the first time in my life.
The air conditioning works. The house is one story and my poor knee is grateful. The shower is amazing. The only sounds I ever hear are this symphony of wild animal sounds that remind me of this scene in “PeeWee’s Big Adventure”: (skip ahead to 4:24)
Being this close to the shop is such a blessing. I can get there in 10 minutes instead of 50.
Literally everything in my life is better now that I am off the mountain. And yet, I still feel broken. I am intellectually thankful to everyone who helped us – so many people – but I have trouble feeling anything. I am numb inside. I smile and clean myself energetically and do my work taking care of other people and then I come home and collapse. Right now, I sit at someone else’s desk wearing someone else’s clothes in someone else’s house.
There are no cues to help me to feel like me. Yes, I am evolllllllved and can look into my spirit and see me there. But home is home and the feeling that comes with home is not here anymore than we can really feel at home in a nice motel.
We were very well insured. That is not an issue. Due to Eric’s careful financial acumen, we were over insured. Eventually, he will have his dream of owning many acres with a nice house on it. One thing I can feel is to be so happy for him and so grateful that he took such good care of us. We have a year’s lease on the rental property and there is little doubt that the buyer’s side of the housing market will look much different in a year, so I am sure his dream will be a reality.
I am grateful this didn’t happen when I had to wrangle kids or other pets. I am beyond thankful for the people who showed their love and helped us know what we needed when even we couldn’t think straight about what we needed. I am grateful for the patience of our customers when we had to close the shop on Wednesday and Thursday of each week in September while we did endless paperwork for allowing FEMA to take care of the property and to manage the insurance claim and things like that. This included listing every. thing. in. the. house, assigning it a monetary value, and also showing photographs of the house through the years with all that stuff in it. I thought that would kill me going through those old photos over the past seventeen years. It was a multi-hour, brutal process.
I have lots of trauma responses now that I didn’t have before. Hearing helicopters overhead triggers me. Smoke in the air freaks me right now. For some weird reason, I am also now clautrophobic. Don’t know where that came from. I have trouble caring about anything or attaching anything because there is no longer any kind of sense of permanence. I feel in a daze much of the time. I have racing, intrusive thoughts that are hard to shut down. It only happens at night when I am home. My loved ones are diligent about giving me frequent spiritual cleansing and keeping my energy flowing right so I have the best chance of effectively processing all of this.
Someone I trust recently told me that there are people in the community who are taking credit for my house burning down. All I could do was shake my head. I truly hope they got what they wanted out of that, whether they caused it or not. I cannot imagine being that kind of a person and thankfully, never have to. If anyone indeed ever thought such a thing, much less said it out loud to others, I pray with all I have and all I am that God blesses them to such fulfillment and joy that they are never again so miserable as to have to formulate such a thought. May the heartbreak of another person never again be what brings them comfort, status, and satisfaction.
I confess to a temporary crisis of faith. I went to the large Santa Muerte statue after we confirmed that the house was a loss. I put my arms on her shoulders and looked into her glowing eyes. “You Cabrona,” I said. “I asked you to take care of me. Why? Why didn’t you take care of me?”
In my head, she said, softly and firmly, “Daughter, why in the world do you believe I am not taking care of you?”
- I am no longer chained to an unmanageable amount of stuff I would have to move to leave the mountain.
- I no longer have to worry about all the things the house needed done to it.
- I will not have to go through another freezing, snowy winter in Grizzly Flats.
- I no longer spend almost two hours a day driving.
- I no longer have to make getting a gallong of milk a day trip.
- I am closer to most of my kids.
- I was able to see first hand the appreciation of people for the time, effort, love, and spirit we have invested in the last twenty-five years of service to the local Pagan community.
- I no longer have to go upstairs to go to bed.
Many things that were wrong in my life were fixed in one awful night’s time.
I had a home that looked like a beautiful Pagan temple or museum. I had a home that was an homage to my children and to sixty years of love in my life. I had a home that felt safe and like a refuge from any harm that could come. Everyone who came into the home felt it and often fell asleep in its embrace just because it was so welcoming and comfortable.
Now I just have to wrap my head around the knowledge that all of that is gone. It isn’t just “lost” or “taken.” It no longer exists… at all… anywhere. I have a perfectly lovely little house to live in, but if I am honest here – and why not be? – I don’t know that I will ever feel safe again or at home again. I hope so. I truly do.
Today is not that day.
Tomorrow isn’t lookin’ great either.
People keep asking, “Are you going to rebuild???” No. In fact, I am never going back to Grizzly Flats again. It’s been done. Frogs can only jump forward. I am like Lot’s wife now. If I look back, I will surely get lost in there and be doomed. I will be a pillar of salt, frozen forever looking backward.
I am going to metaphorically wander the earth like Cain and do my best to find something to fill up this empty space where some part of my heart and spirit used to be.
Also, because of who I am, there is a decent chance I will shake my snakes at anyone who tries to subdue me, perchance with my titties out.
This is the equivilent of “I’ve come here to kick ass and chew gum and I’m all out of gum” since I do not have any snakes and will never have any snakes. Snakes and I have an agreement that whensoever we encounter one another, we will run screaming like mad in opposite directions from one another. I have fulfilled my end of that agreement well and presume they have been doing the same. I did not stay to find out.
(Actual footage below)