One wall in my house holds some of my favorite photos. There's a meadow of wildflowers in the Sangre de Cristos, my husband and our dog at a favorite backcountry campsite, a rainbow that surprised me on a bleak day in Rocky Mountain National Park.
And a paved street, ringed by ponderosa pine trees, with a sky darkened by a dense cloud of smoke.
I took that last picture five years ago this month. I keep it on the wall as a reminder of a waypoint in my life in Colorado. Just before I took that photo, a Woodland Park policeman had driven down our street, using a bullhorn to tell us to be prepared to evacuate. The Hayman fire, which had started 10 days earlier, was moving toward Woodland Park. He didn't have to tell us that we could see the sun-obscuring cloud of smoke when we stepped out our front door. The view to the north, normally a postcard-worthy look at the Tarryall Mountains, was gone, obliterated by the Hayman.
We had been living the fire for 10 days. It started in the Pike National Forest, just off Tarryall Road. My 14-year-old daughter's boyfriend lived near there, and one day, we tried to track him and his family down. The sky glowed orange and pink, and if you were far enough from the smoke, it looked dreamy, like a watercolor painting. We found the family staying with friends, but the sight of flames licking the hillsides near Lake George was startling.
The fire was still miles from our house and our town, but the smoke-filled landscape outside Lake George was too close for us to be complacent.
We started attending nightly U.S. Forest Service updates in Woodland Park High School's gym. There, the people we had gotten to know in this small mountain town gathered. We greeted each other, asked about acquaintances we hadn't seen. We learned the ritual check the updated map, then wait for the announcement.
A member of the sheriff's department would stand at a microphone and read from a paper. We focused on that paper and on the speaker. After a quick update on the fire's boundary, he would read, uncomfortably, solemnly, the names of neighborhoods that had burned that day. Painted Rocks. Trout Creek. West Creek.
The days dragged on: June 10, 26 homes destroyed in our county; June 11, three; June 12, two; June 17, 30 homes.
We were fascinated, horrified. The fire was like nothing we had ever experienced. It charged through the Pike National Forest, consuming not just our friends' and neighbors' homes but also some of our most treasured trails and campgrounds.
It also consumed us. We awoke each morning to walk outside and check the sky. We listened to TV and radio reports, hoping to hear news, and at the same time, hoping not to.
And then, on Tuesday, June 18, the fire turned toward my street, part of a quiet, middle-class neighborhood on the north end of Woodland Park. That's when I took the photograph, and that's when I wandered through our house, gathering up a carload of things photographs, my computer, my husband's guitars, a file box with tax records.
It wasn't much, really. I saw a few neighbors filling rental trailers with couches and TVs, bicycles and appliances. We didn't rent a trailer. What was most important our home, the first and only house we had ever bought; the trio of graceful ponderosa pine trees in our front and back yards; the aspens around them would be gone if the Hayman made its move.
So I filled the car, and we waited. Each night at the meetings, I would hold my breath and close my eyes before the list materialized, as if I could will the fire away from our neighborhood.
And each night, it worked.
When the fire was finally contained, our neighborhood and others within the city limits remained standing. But less than seven miles to the north, others were destroyed.
Beyond that, portions of the Pike National Forest and the Lost Creek Wilderness, where we had spent many idyllic summer and fall days and nights, were gone as well.
I unpacked the car, and gradually, over the next few months, stopped watching the sky for the smoke that I now knew signaled a forest fire. But we still mourned the loss of our neighbors' homes, of millions of trees, and of the forest where we often retreated.
The burned area of the forest stayed closed for a year, and it took another year for us to head out and see if our favorite areas remained. We had pored over forest maps, but weren't sure whether Wigwam Trail still wound through old-growth Douglas fir, or if the dense vegetation that crowded the banks of Goose Creek survived.
Later, we found that Wigwam, a trail that winds through the Lost Creek Wilderness, had escaped the fire. The trail that swings downhill and then winds through the wilderness all the way to Lost Park had a stripe of burned trees about a quarter-mile from the trailhead, but the rest of the forest stood as we remembered.
We weren't so sure about Goose Creek. We knew the fire had swept through there, but we didn't know how much of the forest remained.
Finally, last week, my husband and I headed down the Goose Creek trail once again. We know every inch of it where the creek turns, leaving little pools favored by brook trout; where granite boulders form the perfect shelter from storms; where the forest opens to offer a view of caves in the rocks; where you reach a meadow in which the creek widens and slows.
The fire had taken out forest on either side of the first quarter-mile of trail. Five logs, charred reminders of the years that have since passed, stretched across the trail, creating sooty barricades. Our boots kicked up a gray dusting of ash.
But beyond that stretch of burned forest, Goose Creek survived. This spring, it is almost impossibly, blindingly green and lush. So vibrant and full of life, it seems untouchable.
I know, of course, that it's not.
That makes it even more valuable.
Maybe that's the lesson I learned from the Hayman.
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