There is ash falling from the sky.
Way back in the 1990s, years before I fell in love with him, my first boyfriend witnessed several other eighth grade boys throwing fireworks through the video return slot of our local hardware store in Corbett, Oregon. The hardware store was a mainstay of the community, renting videos and selling snacks to high-schoolers and hardware necessities to adults. And although it didn’t burn down completely, the structure was so badly damaged that it never reopened. And it was never torn down either. The shell of it is still standing, slowly deteriorating, on the north side of the Columbia River Highway. Its once-painted siding is gray and the whole structure is buckling, listing to one side. One day, it will completely collapse. It could be tomorrow or in 100 years.
I think the boys were suspended, or had to do community service. I don’t remember. I don’t think my ex-boyfriend was ever punished, but I do know he felt a good amount of residual guilt for years.
The fire is moving west and the air is filling with smoke. The sun is bright pink in the gray sky.
Every year on my birthday, my father likes to tell the story of waiting in line to see The Empire Strikes Back the night I was born.
“Ash was falling on our heads as we waited in line,” he says. I like this story too, although it is slightly disturbing: My birth coincided with one of the most catastrophic events in Northwest history—the Mount St. Helens eruption. It would be grandiose to say it was portentous. It would be dismissive to say it meant nothing. Perhaps the only thing it really means is that one day the mountain was there and then one day it wasn’t. And one day I wasn’t there, and then the next day I was.
My father is an avid photographer, and one of the most iconic photos we have in our family collection is a black-and-white image taken atop a skyscraper in downtown Portland. In the foreground my sister Sarah, a toddler, wipes her blond bangs from her forehead. My little bundled body is in an infant carrier. In the background, behind the safety railing on the building’s deck, a huge mushroom cloud rises into the air. The picture is so fantastical that it looks unreal, fake, like a trick of darkroom photography.
But it is real and the mountain did explode and as my mother told me last night over the phone, “It didn’t end us. It didn’t destroy the economy. Even though we all thought it would. We went on.” And the mountain regenerated and the wildlife came back, and even the fish in the ash-covered lakes returned more quickly than biologists had imagined they would.
More than anything, the Mount St. Helens eruption was a line in the sand, a demarcation point of before and after. I don’t remember a time when Mount St. Helens was not a huge rocky summit with a crater on top. I don’t remember a time when it was second only to Mount Fuji in its symmetry. I have accepted the current reality as normal, a fact that is both comforting and frightening.
The ash falls like little white butterflies, like pollen, like tiny bits of snow. I imagine them in my lungs. I imagine the invisible particulate matter in my bloodstream.
There are many barns in my hometown of Corbett that look like the crumbling hardware store—as if a high wind could topple them in one gust, as if the only thing keeping them standing are the swarms of Himalayan blackberry climbing up their walls. The buildings’ metal roofs are completely rusted or caved in. The rafters inside have collapsed on top of each other like the wreck of a ship. Barn cats and field mice weave among the ruins.
I don’t know what the barns looked like in their prime, back when Corbett was mainly a farming community. They’ve been this way for as long as I can remember. And I’m sure some old-timers drive by and sigh, shaking their heads at the barns, seeing them as eyesores, while I think of them as picturesque and quaint.
It reminds me of how landed aristocrats in England, America, and continental Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries used to hire architects to create fake ruins. It was seen as fashionable to have an old, half-crumbled castle or a few Romanesque columns in your garden. It made people feel sophisticated, like their land had history and provenance. These structures harkened back to something ancient. But it was silly, really. Creating something new to look old.
The Saturday the fire started was only slightly smoky. Ash wasn’t yet falling from the sky. To be honest, I barely noticed it. I had heard there was a small forest fire burning somewhere in the Gorge. But I wasn’t concerned. Fires happen now and then, but they usually burn out fairly quickly. The Columbia River Gorge is a temperate rainforest. It’s not fire country here. At least, that is our perception.
My mother and I drove out to Corbett to hold an open house at a historic home on the Columbia River Highway that we’d recently listed.
We used the word “historic” in the way Americans from the West Coast use the word “historic.” The house isn’t that old. It was built in 1938. But it was constructed from old-growth timber and the chimney was made out of reclaimed brick from the Palmer Mill fire in 1936. To us, that’s what makes the house historic: It was built from the history of this place.
Old-growth timber is not available as a building material anymore, and the industry that harvested the old growth, cutting it down from the hills below this historic home in the communities of Bridal Veil and Palmer—that industry doesn’t exist anymore either. After it burned, they never rebuilt the Palmer Mill. There wasn’t enough timber at that point to make it worth their while. Remnants of that community can still be found in the hills above Bridal Veil.
Eventually, logging and manufacturing in that area ended. That was in 1960. Not that long ago.
That means that not that long ago, there were a lot of huge old-growth trees in the Columbia River Gorge. And not that long ago, we were cutting them all down. Not that long ago, salmon jumped the Celilo Falls and Native peoples practiced their indigenous lifeways on the Columbia.
People from the East Coast and Europe may scoff at our idea of “ancient forests” and “historic homes,” their concept of history being so much denser and richer. On the other hand, our sense of history is alive with trauma, the erasure of Native peoples, and no sense of stability. We treasure our recent past, we cling tightly to the beauty that surrounds us, and we don’t know what the future holds.
“Can you believe the size of that timber?” we exclaim. “Can you believe the size of those trees?” we lament, and shake our heads; all we have left are the floorboards now.
We can only imagine and romanticize—a human tendency that’s both a balm and historically toxic.
On the way to the open house, my mother and I drove by the burned-out ruins of the Viewpoint Inn. I groaned and put my hands over my eyes. I shook my head.
“Ugh,” I said. “Every time I drive by that house I get angry. It just gets uglier and uglier. What an eyesore.”
There is a story about the Viewpoint Inn. It’s tragic and nearly epic. The short version is that once upon a time, the Viewpoint Inn was a beautiful historic landmark that housed and fed travelers in the Columbia River Gorge in the first half of the 20th century. When the freeway was built, travelers no longer used the scenic highway as an east-west passage and business ebbed. After that, it was used as a family residence for years.
Then, in the late ’90s, a man came to town from LA. And the man from California tried to start a business at the Inn: a restaurant and bed-and-breakfast that sometimes hosted weddings, too. But for various reasons, including his temperament and his decision to flout the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area’s restrictive laws, the man had many run-ins with his neighbors, the Columbia River Gorge Commission, and his employees. After much hullabaloo, the inn was out of business.
Then, years after, called by some internal siren, the man from California returned to Corbett to attempt to reopen the Viewpoint Inn. According to him, owning the Inn was a lifelong dream that he couldn’t give up on. It was his life’s purpose. And it went okay for a while. But then the Inn caught fire, and it turned out the man from California hadn’t insured the building against fire damage.
And so now it stands with half the roof gone, covered in fraying tarps. The windows have been busted out or boarded up with plywood. The grounds are overgrown. The building has graffiti on it. It basically looks like shit.
I don’t know what the man from California is doing now. Maybe he went back to LA. Maybe he descended into the netherworld from whence he came. The end.
“What a waste! It makes me so angry,” I said again.
My mother shrugged her shoulders. “It’s just a building.”
“True....” I said, and I knew she was right. It is just a building. But it was the man from California’s actions that bothered me deeply. Here was a beautiful building totally destroyed by one man’s irresponsibility. It wasn’t the fire that destroyed the business—the initial damage could have easily been repaired—it was his delusion that destroyed the Inn. In reality, he couldn’t actually afford to run it properly. The story of the Viewpoint Inn illustrates how hubris does us in every time, and how it is always easier to blame outsiders than hometown folks; the man from California “wasn’t from around here,” so he was the perfect villain.
But it also reminds me that we always seem to destroy what we profess to love.
On Monday, the air is getting very hard to breathe. I hear they are evacuating Cascade Locks. My mother and I talk about it and look at each other in surprise. “Wow,” I say.
I show property all day. I get in and out of my car. The air seems like it’s getting bad. I feel slightly sick, but unconcerned. I think about the book I am writing, how it’s going to be good, how I am going to get an agent. I post something on Facebook about how even though the world is going to hell, everything is going to be okay.
Then I go home to the place where I am housesitting, a huge house out in Happy Valley, and I go to sleep satisfied and at peace.
As I sleep the fire spreads. It’s fed by wind and sap-filled trees, and it burns rapidly 12 miles westward along the southern banks of the Columbia River. In the morning, I wake up to nearly 20 texts from my mom and my sister Ana. They’re evacuating Bridal Veil and Corbett. Ana is beside herself. Her fiancé’s family lives in Corbett and Bridal Veil. I go to my mother’s house and she is on the phone crying with my sister Rachael. Everyone is freaking out. I feel physically ill and run-down.
“This is everything!” Ana says, wiping away her tears. “This is our church and our spiritual home. It’s being destroyed!”
I don’t know what to say. I feel numb and in shock. All the waterfalls and gorges and beautiful forests, the places that healed me so many times—they’re burning in red-hot flames stretching straight up into the sky. The air is so thick with smoke the firefighters can’t dump water from helicopters because they can’t see anything. What is happening? It doesn’t make sense to me.
As I sleep the fire spreads. It’s fed by wind and sap-filled trees, and it burns rapidly 12 miles westward along the southern banks of the Columbia River.
During our business meeting, we do our real estate work and my mom and Ana coordinate places for people to stay as they are evacuating. Where will they board their animals? What about their horses?
On Facebook people are posting about the kids who supposedly started the fire. It turns out a couple of teenage boys threw fireworks into the woods on the Eagle Creek trail.
Saturday evening, 140 hikers were forced to spend the night on that trail, while embers drifted down through the trees on top of them. I think of myself in that situation. If I had neglected to bring my meds with me, I would probably have become very sick and a liability to everyone else. They’d probably have to carry me out.
People are outraged about the teenage boys and their irresponsible behavior. People call for their deaths, for their lifelong imprisonment. People call for them to do lifelong community service fighting fires or planting trees.
“They’re from fucking Vancouver,” someone posts.
Everyone hates Vancouver. Vancouver is the worst place ever. Those boys “weren’t even from here.”
The smoke is so thick in the sky that I can’t tell where the sun is coming from.
When I was in the sixth grade, on New Year’s Eve, our playhouse caught fire. The structure was really more like a little cabin, with insulation, a loft area, and a little trash-burner stove. My grandfather and dad built it for us when I was probably about seven or eight. Eventually my huge family used it as a bedroom for my older sisters Ana and Sarah, kind of like overflow parking for the kids.
That New Year’s, Sarah cleaned up the playhouse, lit a fire in the stove, and went into the house to take a shower before her friends came over for a party.
By the time she got out of the shower and went outside, her hair still wet and wrapped in a towel, there was smoke billowing out of the playhouse. The hose was frozen, chaos ensued, and the fire department came and put the fire out. In the end, it was mostly smoke damage and the front wall of the playhouse had to be repaired. But it was scary and traumatic. And it made us realize how unsafe the trash-burning stove had been as a heat source.
Years later, when my parents sold the property, the people who bought it started using the playhouse as a chicken coop. One day, the heating bulbs above the straw caught the building on fire, and it burned to the ground, killing all of the little chicks inside.
At my mom’s house after the business meeting, I try to take a nap in her TV room. But I can’t sleep. I look at my phone. They’ve told Troutdale to prepare for evacuation. Mount Hood Community College, which is being used as an emergency shelter, is basically in the new evacuation zone.
My mother comes into the room and tells me about Troutdale, the exact coordinates of the evacuation notice area. We are on 242nd; the evacuation notice runs east, up until 257th. The first thing I think about isn’t the Gorge or the forest burning or how scary this is to anyone else. I just think about myself. I don’t have my meds with me.
Even though everyone has decided to get together at Ana’s house tonight to commiserate, I decide in a split second that I need to go back out to Happy Valley, to be safe and to be with my meds.
As I drive over the hills, south, into Happy Valley, I can’t see Mount Hood—the smoke is too thick. I don’t know if it’s just my anxiety, but everyone seems like they are driving really fast.
Before bed, I watch a lecture about the collapse of the Late Bronze Age. The professor explains that interconnected civilizations all around the Mediterranean coast collapsed (except the Egyptians) simultaneously within 100 years. It happened around 1170 BC. The whole area went into a dark age. Writing and technology were lost. Whole cultures were relegated to history.
For years, archaeologists thought the collapse was due to the “Sea People,” a group of marauding invaders who came from the west and burned entire cites. As a result, the trade routes among these connected civilizations collapsed and they could no longer function. It was a precarious situation to begin with.
So the story goes.
But the lecturer contends that it was actually a combination of natural disasters and bad luck that brought the Late Bronze Age to an end. There were multiple earthquakes and famines and droughts and invasions of the Sea People that brought the civilizations and trade routes down. There was no smoking gun, just a series of bad choices, dependence on imports, and environmental catastrophe.
I’m not angry at the boys who threw the fireworks into the woods. It was not their fault that my home is now burning as I write this.
The fault lies with all of us. We don’t know what normal is. Our history is one environmental catastrophe after another. How can we know what normal or good is in this situation? As colonizers, we pushed Native people off their land, and the way they managed the environment went with them. I’m not saying we “deserve” this catastrophe. I’m saying that if we are depending on the good behavior of teenage boys to keep us safe and keep our forests intact, we are living in a fantasy world. We are living in a collective delusion.
Teenage boys are stupid. People are stupid. I am stupid.
My forest is burning. The fire is zero percent contained. I feel numb and disconnected. That’s probably why I am even able to write this story down. I feel nothing.
They say the wind is shifting to the east, blowing the fire back the way it came.
The next morning, I wake up to a text from my sister Ana. There was a house fire in Happy Valley last night while I slept. She’s wondering if I’m okay. Of course I’m okay. It was one house fire. And it was obviously in a house I’m not in. But I realize she’s scared. We’re all on high alert. I wonder if she got any sleep. I know I only got about five hours.
“I’m okay,” I reply.
Martha Grover is an author, illustrator, and real estate agent who grew up in Corbett, Oregon, and now lives in Portland. Her book, The End of My Career, was a 2017 finalist for the Oregon Book Award in creative nonfiction.