Mountain Diary: moths, wildfire and sand storm



Moth Wars -Monday

Two moths came in the door with me Monday night.

It was full dark, so dark that I had had to take the car home and leave the unlighted golf cart behind. The sky up here on the mountain was a dome of stars, uncountable and humbling, the streets, unlit, and the driveway so dark I had to feel my way. Sandy here-rocks must be there, etc. I carried laundry, bottles of spring water and my computer bag to the porch, banging my left leg with the car door in the process. I noted two large moths pressed against the screen door as I opened the inside door into the light filled room.

It was the resident cat, Jazz, who saw the moths fly in. She began scaling tall pieces of furniture and gazing longingly at the ceiling. I thought things would settle down once the lights were out. I was wrong.

I was woken up by a series of loud thumps at irregular intervals. Noisey burglar? Clara looking for a snack? Flashlight in hand, I ventured out of my room. There was the black and white cat on the top of the step ladder – we’re still hanging pictures-  staring at the ceiling. She jumped. Not surprisingly she missed the moth but I gabbed her and carried her to Clara’s room. I scooted her through the partly open door and shut it. Problem solved.

But no. One of the moths was now making passes at my reading lamp. I sat weighing moth-murder against patience. Sure enough the moth disappeared. I waited some more. No action. Good. I went back to sleep.

In the morning I felt virtuous. Moths after all, adore light, even though suicidally. No one seems to understand why. Perhaps it is because they migrate by the moon, although most moths don’t seem to migrate. Perhaps they are drawn by the heat or the wave length which they mistake for pheromones. None of the theories seem reasonable. So I fell back on a more poetic and spiritual explanation. Moths and I aspire to the light.

That lasted 12 hours. Tuesday night, same scenario. Both moths revived, one in my bedroom, one in my bathroom. Both flew into my hair. Some barbarous part of me lashed out, more than once, leaving a lifeless winged being and moth dust.

Fire on the Mountain- Tuesday

Around 4:45 a.m., I woke up to the smell of wood smoke. Had someone got up early for work and lit a wood fire? Some people leave to drive down the mountain to work at 5. Was it the smell of our own fire place, cold as it would be, being pulled in by the furnace. No, the furnace didn’t come on until 6. Puzzling, I fell asleep.

At 7:45, I woke up again. A helicopter was circling fairly low overhead, whining off into the distance and returning. Over and over and over. I was about to snooze again, when I sat bolt upright and sprang out of bed, calling myself several versions of idiot. Wrapped in a thick, hooded robe, I dashed out onto the deck and there it was a fire on the mountain.

It was below Mount Pinos, two peaks below on Sawmill Mountain, part of the Transverse Range, running roughly east/west, unlike the Sierra Nevadas next door, which lie north/south. The fire was uncomfortably close to town.

Billows of white indicated steam rising from where the water had been dropped by the helicopter, while darker smoke on the western edge showed where the fire still burned. The helicopter would disappear down to Lake Fern, actually a pond, just below my other temporary home here, the house in the pines. Then I would hear it rising and soon it would come into view, trailing water as it rose. It flew into the cloud of mist and smoke, emerging and making directly for the rock face of Mt. Pinos. From my point of view, it was about to crash when it turned and flew over the smoke, where it dropped its water.

Another helicopter was cruising along the ridge and dipping down over the fire when the water bearing one left. I wanted more water helicopters.

On the internet, I read that it was a small, 1 acre fire. Clearly, the authorities didn’t want a panic. The large LED sign at the club house entrance apparently described it as “a moderate threat”. I could hear the people in the house next door talking about it as they watched from their windows; otherwise, no one seemed to be noticing.

One summer, in Greece, a wildfire broke out on the slopes above our camp ground. It crept steadily down from the heights until it reached the shrub-covered slope across the highway directly above. Huge bellied planes flew down over the Gulf of Corinth, scooped up water and returned to bomb the blazing hillside. The flames were so close that we could feel them. Ash fell about the camp ground and the smokey air was not breathable. I wanted to get the hell out of there, but I didn’t have a car and my Greek host took a typically Greek attitude. He shrugged his shoulders. We could always walk into the sea, he said. True it was shallow for hundreds of feet and it was warm, but cooler than the mid-day heat compounded by the fire.  I was not impressed by Greek disaster planning, but in the end, the fire was quelled, leaving a blackened hillside and an acrid smell.

Meanwhile back at the Transverse Range, two more helicopters had come in and all three were dipping into Fern Lake, one after the other, deafening nearby residents, but making more and more progress on the mountain. By the time I set out on the golf cart, the helicopters were gone, although a small area was still smoking. My path led me past two fireman standing beside their vehicles watching and listening for radio calls from the site. There were 20 others up there on the slope, one told me. They had had to hike in on an old trail that ran into the Chumash Wilderness. They were there with shovels to put out hot spots and flare-ups.

Kern County’s clinics and health care bureaucrats have not impressed me and at least one hospital ward has appalled me, but their emergency services are excellent, not least their firefighting force. A helicopter pad near us stands ready for emergency evacuations of the injured and there is an intensive education program about evacuation of the population in general, whether because of wildfire or earthquake. The village lies squarely over a fault line, which is what created the rift in the ranges that cradle the town.

As we got ready to sit down to dinner, a cell phone alarm alerted us to the message that a sand storm was imminent.

Wednesday – Sand storm

Hyper-alert to strange noises after the fire, I listened for the sound of heavy wind whenever I woke up in the night. (How can you tell I am much older than you?) Nothing alarmed me.

Before dawn two of our family members left for a  specialist appointment in Van Nuys. Around 8, I phoned our recovering patient to see how things were. In fact she had been woken up by an urgent summons to an office in Bakersfield, although for bureaucratic rather than medical purposes. You have to be healthy to survive illness apparently. Since she still can’t drive, I got dressed and high-tailed it out the door.

What was this? A brown fog hung over the entire mountain range. Another and more widespread fire? Of course not. Something different.

If you can’t go to the Mohave, Mohave will come to you.

I’m getting used to dust. By the time I drive the golf cart from one house to the other, it and I and all my goods and chattels are covered in dust. I have been tempted to wear a bandana over my mouth like a cowboy. I tried to tell myself that way over there the air was full of sand, not here. I didn’t believe me.

I thought things would improve as we drove down, but coming down the Tejon Pass to the Central Valley, I had to turn on the car lights. I have driven through blinding white fog and snowy white-outs, but this was the first time I had driven through a brown-out. On the valley floor, we couldn’t see the mountains that normally stand blue at the edges of the wide valley. It wasn’t windy. I suppose that’s why the sand just hung there. Breathing scoured the nose and throat, even in the car.

We got to the office 15 minutes before it closed. On Wednesdays, it closes at noon, another example of Kern County time, otherwise known as mountain time. You can never tell what weird schedule businesses will keep, closing randomly, like the restaurants in our village. But give Kern County credit: it notified us of the sandstorm




Return to the Reality Hotel

Village in Sierra MountainsWe had to vacate our rooms at the Reality Hotel. There was a big car show up here called “Run to the Pines” and our rooms had been reserved by car show enthusiasts weeks before we arrived. What to do?

“No problem,” said the manager of the three room Reality Hotel. “I’m going away, you can stay in my house.”

She was glowing with pride and generosity. It would be her pleasure to share her home with us. Moreover, we already knew her housekeeper and house-mate, the red-haired Jody, who cleaned our rooms. Now it is true that we are getting cut-rates for our beautiful rooms – mine is about $33 a night, which of course I can ill afford – but Jody is clearly part of the Gudenuff cleaning company. I don’t expect to get my bed changed any more often than I would change my own, but she has changed it three times since July 7th. The comforter, I avoid like the plague, although it’s pretty enough during the day.

So we moved.

Picture us: 163 years old (aggregated) with suitcases, at least 20 shopping bags, pillows, a box of food, a refrigerator bag, a walking stick, a litter box and a cat that has to be medicated to travel. Clara is between houses and much of her stuff is what remained in her ex-house after the movers left. As we carry stuff down the steep stairs from our second floor room, we joke that we will start a moving company called “Slowbutsure: the careful movers”.

At a certain point, Jody has to clean our not yet cleared rooms, so I start throwing money at her and she helps out. She probably would have anyway, but a bill or two makes her happier.

The house is beautiful as advertised, perched on a side hill with a fabulous view of mountains. And a steep set of stairs up to our rooms. Once again the friendly redhead helps out and we schlep our goods in.

However — there are either 3 or 4 additional cats. One is a recluse who lives in the en suite off Clara’s room. Two roam the house and I believe there is another that never leaves Jody’s room downstairs. The smell of cat pee welcomes us in. I can’t even find most of the litter boxes, but I clean the one I find. It is several days before I find the main one, which is clearly in Jody’s domain, but, being Canadian or just too darn cowardly, I do not clean it.

Clara’s girl cat lives in her bedroom, but the boy cats know that and begin spraying EVERYWHERE.

My room has an A.C. unit in the window. I can’t open the window and the A.C. works at gale force.

Clara asks me to open her bathroom window for the cat recluse next morning and I find myself in a cloud of dander and fine cat hair – cat down?. My skin begins to feel hot and prickly. My eyes burn. Tiny cat hairs constantly end up in my mouth. I shower often, only to discover that something -the softened water perhaps – gives me a red rash on my upper arms. In desperation, I ask Jody how to turn the shower head from stabbing to gentle. This she can do.

I was looking forward to watching television. The first time I try, I push what would be the up-channel button on my remote control and lose all reception. Jody doesn’t know how to fix it. Nor does she know the password for the internet, having forgotten it years ago.

No problem. Everyday we have to drive to Bakersfield. Down through the beautiful pine- covered mountains into the scrub-covered mountains, down through Tejon Pass to the desert mountains and then through the flat land of the Central Valley. Foodland. Finally we reach Bakersfield where 90 degrees is a cold snap. It takes an hour and more. As soon as I step into the Prius, my lower back cries, “Not again”, but you know what, out of the house, I no longer sneeze and clear my throat.

One night I stupidly leave my chicken salad on the counter and the long black cat with a white mustache eats it. Clara is having a shower and doesn’t hear the resulting furor, but she confides to a family member that Joyce doesn’t like the cats. That night, I find the same cat with his nose in my water glass. I keep my door shut, but he lurks around the corner and dashes in between my feet. I have to wave a sweat shirt under the bed to drive him back out.

Still he bears me no ill will, asks me to open the door, thanks me and comes when I call. I wouldn’t want the mountain lions to get him. Would I?

For the interim, however, I have a phone with a Canadian long distance plan and I do a mental health call when I wake up to brace myself for another day. It’s not just the cats, it’s living out of a suitcase. Drawers are great. You pull one open and there you see clearly visible clothes in neat piles. A suitcase you have place on a flat surface, a low one in my case since I can’t actually lift 23 kilos. Find the right zipper. Open it. Ah!!!! There they are -neatly rolled clothes in 6 layers. I was sure I put the underwear in this corner. It isn’t there. Carefully I begin removing each layer. Always I have two thirds of the clothes out by the time I find what I need.

“I’m sick of camping,” Clara confides.

On Sunday while I am deeply embroiled in family matters at the house in the pines, Clara arrives to announce that she has moved out of the house because our host returned unexpectedly. Host said she would sleep on the couch, but Clara can’t let her do that.

“Why not?” I think to myself.

So between 5 p.m. and dinner, I hie myself back in the Prius out past the s-curves, up the hill and on weary legs, up the outside stairs and pack. I notice that Clara has not packed our food. I pause, covered in sweat and consider crying. Then our host shows up and helps me carry six grocery bags, two suitcases, the food box, the refrigerator bag….. meanwhile talking gaily about her vacation. I can make no sense of anything she says I am so utterly bushed. I do manage to convince her that her house is lovely and that I am full of gratitude. She replies that we have left a wonderful feeling behind. Okay!

Dinner at the house in the pines somewhat restores me.

Afterwards a beloved family member carries everything in the Prius and in Clara’s car back up to the second floor of the Reality Hotel.

The cool evening air coming down from the mountains blows in one door and out the other, sweet and pure. I put my new tiny plastic hot pot ($13) on and a minute later, I have a cup of tea.

O Reality Hotel, why did I ever knock you?