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Chasing Fire in COVID-19 to Find our Way Home

As we drove into the final stretch of our five-week camping and hiking trip across the Pacific Coast, the road home caught fire. I may be on sabbatical, but our climate crisis isn’t taking a break. As California and Colorado burn, Texas and Louisiana drown. I’m learning from my 8-year-old son to build confidence and hope as we find our way home through the flames.

I'd love to hear your feedback. How are you impacted by the climate crisis? How are you finding your confidence? And your way home?

Mom: Jen, wake up. The hillside is on fire.

Me: Where? What about the goats? Will the herder release the goats?

Mom: It doesn’t look like the fire is near the goats. But it’s close to the house. Come look.

­­It was 1:45 a.m. on my second night, staying with my mom near Sacramento, California. She had reservations to camp with K at Grover Hot Springs State Park, on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, starting on Monday. K was spending the night with my sister and nephews about 20 minutes away.

The 900 goats I was worried about were fenced in nearby to trim the oaks and meadows adjacent to the wetlands in my mom’s subdivision. The City of Folsom uses sheep and goats to control vegetation instead of manual, mechanical, or chemical methods. Young oak trees and elderberry shrubs are protected from grazing, while invasive Chinese tallow and Tree of Heaven are lunch for the hungry herd. There’s a herder who sleeps in a trailer, and three dogs that keep the goats in line.

The night of the fire, we grabbed our hoodies and shoes and headed out onto the trail behind her house. The entire sky to north of the house was flaming orange. Plumes of smoke filled the horizon. The winds were pushing the smoke away from the house, opposite a four-lane road from the goats. Good sign for us. Good for the goats and the herder and the herding dogs. Not good for the neighbors to the left of the fire. We walked three blocks to an intersection where the local police had several patrol cars blocking all traffic except for emergency vehicles. We counted 15 fire trucks, including Cal Fire. A security guard from a nearby neighborhood pulled up next to us and hopped out of his patrol vehicle. The three of us watched as the fire moved closer to my mom’s home. A truck hauled a bulldozer on a flatbed trailer past the road block, and we looked at each other nervously.

Guard: Never a good sign when they call in the ‘dozer.

Us: Hmmm.

Around 3 a.m., the fire wasn’t out, but it wasn’t spreading. We could smell it now, charred earth, water, and ash. Confident we didn’t need to evacuate, we walked home, both of us worried about the families in the houses on the side of the hill we couldn’t see. From her dining room window, I watched a truck working its way down the hill, spraying water toward the road at 3:30 a.m. The line of flames was much smaller now. We were safe. Time for bed. 

I have lived many places with natural disasters. Texas and Florida had hurricanes and floods. Washington, D.C. had blizzards. Washington State had mudslides. Nevada was blazing hot. But the scariest states for me were California and Oregon. They had fire (add earthquakes to Cali), and fire hits brutally fast.

We’re home and safe now, but the reality is, many of my colleagues, friends and neighbors are not. Former coworkers and family friends have evacuated within the past week—dogs, horses and trailers in tow—along with 100,000 Californians. Leaders in our industry, dedicated to fighting climate change using technology to invest in and save forests, have lost their homes to the recent fires. It’s terrifying. It’s maddening. And it will require each of us to redouble our commitment to addressing our global climate crisis, now. This is not a drill. We don’t get a second chance to thrive. 

As Kai and I worked our way home from Washington's San Juan Islands, we chased fire the whole way south. Near Bend, Oregon, we hiked up Lava Butte at Newberry National Volcanic Monument within the Deschutes National Forest. Geologists believe the caldera sits over a shallow magma body between 2 to 5 kilometers deep. About 7,000 years ago, an eruption created Lava Butte, and a rough-surfaced lava flow that reached and then permanently changed the course of the Deschutes River.

At the top of Lava Butte, there’s an operational fire lookout, which is closed to visitors due to COVID-19. I’d packed a lunch, and after our hike up to the lookout, we found a patch of shade against the wooden structure and settled in for a snack. We’d passed a few hikers and bikers on our way up the trail, but now, it was quiet. After a minute, a man emerged from the lookout and stared down at us.

Lookout: Well. You guys good?

Me: Yeah. Great. You?

Lookout: Yeah.

Me: Are you a volunteer or Forest Service staff?

Lookout: Staff.

Me: Yeah.

Lookout: You guys have masks?

Me: Yeah.

Lookout: Well, come up then when you finish your lunch.

Kai and I exchanged sly smiles and crammed the last of our peanut buttered whole wheat muffins into our pieholes. We passed through a small privacy gate, and then climbed up 50 or so wooden steps to the top of the lookout. It’s a 16 x 16 wooden square with glass windows starting at about waist level. The lookout has a wrap-around balcony with views of the Cascades and the butte's 160-foot deep crater. We stood just outside the doorway, and the lookout (that’s what he called himself), Scott, motioned us inside. Just under the ceiling, the interior walls were wrapped with a 12-inch wide illustration of each visible cinder cone, peak, and mountain along with details of its coordinates and height.

There was water in the corner, throw rugs on the floor, a four-burner range, mini fridge, futon, radio, computer equipment, and not much else. In the center of the room was a large spotting scope atop an Osborne Fire Finder, which Scott explained helped to measure distance and direction to smoke and fire. Although he’s retired from the Forest Service and now a private pilot, he said he routinely gets called to report for fire duty, and lives in the lookout for weeks at a time. His wife, also a (former?) Forest Service employee illustrated many of the mountains on the cheat sheet above our heads.

Many fires here, Scott said, weren’t from lightening or even arson. Human stupidity, he said, was a common culprit. Campers whose fires were too big for too long and cigarettes sent fire crews twice to the same location the day before our visit.

The hike to the lookout from the visitor’s center parking lot is relatively short, but steep. As we walked, Kai and I contemplated why the middle of the Earth is so hot.

Kai: How fast would your shoes burn, really, if you tried to walk on lava?

Me: I think you should never, ever try to walk on lava. Okay?

Kai: Could you make it across a small lava stream if you ran as fast as Superman? Or would your legs evaporate immediately? What if you had really thick soles on your boots? I think I could probably make it.

Me: Dude! 

As we drove south through Oregon toward California, the fires became a legitimate concern. Our visit to Klamath Falls to hike Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge and Tulelake National Wildlife Refuge was cut short. At first, I thought the changing sky ahead might be a summer storm, low on the horizon. When the wind turned, we knew we were closing in on fire, but couldn’t see it yet. By the time we got to the bird watching turnout for Tulelake NWR, we could see the flames burning the opposite side of the marsh. We parked the car and walked toward the water’s edge. We startled an egret and a great blue heron wading among the reeds. American white pelicans tilted and then stretched out their orange feet for a soft landing in the water. Such grace. There’s an old wooden photo blind abutting the water at the end of a gravel path, and as we neared, the wood starts to buzz. Growing up with two bird watching parents, I’m familiar with that sound, and it’s not good news.

We stepped inside the blind and tens of thousands of mosquitoes descended. Fresh meat.

Me: Eek! Out! Out! Kai, protect your face.

Kai: With what? If I raise my shirt, they will just get my belly!

The logic of an eight-year-old fascinates and humbles me. We drove another few hundred yards and came to a yard sale sign, handwritten stating ROAD CLOSED. My stomach churned.

I wanted to go on. This place—Klamath maybe more than Tulelake—was hugely important to my dad. It was here he’d worked on a decade’s-old dispute between advocates for fish, farmers, Native American tribes, and industry. It was here he’d told the New York Times how folks working on the Klamath water issues were on the verge of “one of the most amazing restoration projects in the world.”

It wasn’t the size of the project that drew him in, but the potential to build consensus about how to do the right thing for wildlife and for people.

We stood on the edge of the road, watching the fire meet the water. The waterfowl seemed undeterred by the blaze. A tractor ambled past, and the driver gave me the two fingers on the cap salute. I pulled Kai close, and turned around. It was time to head home.

Field Notes:

The 5G signal at Mount Hood's Frog Lake is just strong enough here to make it through about 14 minutes of a scheduled Zoom video call. What struck us both about this place, in addition to its undeniable beauty and numerous lakeside picnic tables, was how cold it was. Before I made lunch (we eat nothing at this point beyond cook stove hotdogs, quesadillas, carrots and humus, potato chips, and Oreo cookies), Kai and I donned rain pants over our long pants. We added a hoodie for him, fleece for me, and our rain jackets. I tried not to be intimidated by the five-year-old who, after running past us in her bathing suit, threw her body onto a swan-shaped float with glee. But, I was. Dang. Oregonians are tough.

Crater Lake is FUN! Camping there is silty which turns wet ash when it rains. But, still. It is awesome. Several vistas had snow within a short hike. Last summer in Alaska, we had a snowball fight or two, but Kai’s experience with snow is limited. There was a heatwave during our visit to Crater Lake, and the park reached +90 degrees. I imagine we enjoyed some of the last accessible postage stamps of snow, but it was worth it. I’m a good shot. He didn’t stand a chance.

Camp reservations at Crater Lake National Park are operated by an independent concessionaire, which makes booking the camp site a little difficult. We didn’t get to choose our site at Mazama, but our spot was large and secluded. We had no neighbors on either side, which seems odd since the park displayed online as completely sold-out. I’d checked the weather in advance, and saw it might storm. Still, we were late installing the rain guards to our tents. It was hot, and the tents were steamy.

We stored our food and gear in the bear lockers, double checked our backpacks for stowaway granola bars, watermelon taffy (Kai’s, not mine), and set a nice fire in the ring. You are allowed to salvage downed logs at Crater for firewood, as long as you aren’t damaging living trees. There were a few arm-sized logs that appeared to have been cut by the park’s staff some time ago which we lugged over to the edge or our fire ring. We’d played our last round of UNO and were kicking back, listening to the other campers settle in for the night. The fire was crackling when it started to pour. 

Because of the silt, we high-stepped it into Kai’s tent together. I helped him remove his shoes, get situated in his sleeping bag, and we discussed what we would do it if it rained all night. Our tents were on a bit of an incline, and it was possible rain could accumulate on the tarp and drain toward us. I situated Kai smack-dab in the middle of his tent, and crossed my fingers he’d stay dry.

Once the rain subsided, I kissed his now very fluffy head of hair, and surveyed our site. Even after the downpour, our fire was blazing. It was too dark to read, and despite my best efforts to stow our camp chairs, the seats were wet. I doused the fire, said goodnight to the bears, and went to sleep. 

One of the most striking and remote forests in California, Lassen spans more than one million acres and more than 1,800 square miles. This mosaic of lakes, lava beds, forests and streams are worth every second of the drive. We hung out with and thanked a team of Hot Shots near Fall River Mills, and flopped the wakes of Lake Almanor on an inflatable raft big enough for three. My most sincere thanks to a fellow family of quarantine campers for opening their home to us after nearly four weeks on the road. Here, Kai reconnected with childhood friends for the most heartbreaking and honest admission of our journey: this visit was “the only part of the trip he was looking forward to.”

Me: Sob.

Kai: That’s not what I meant. I meant it was the part I was most excited about.

Me: Yeah. I get it. But, man, that hurts.

Kai: Mom, I'm a kid in quarantine! When was the last time I saw my FRIENDS?

Grover Hot Springs, Markleeville, California

When my dad was alive, Grover Hot Springs was one of my parents’ favorite spots to camp. They’d envisioned camping the Lewis and Clark Trail. The crisp mornings would be welcomed with Cheerios and coffee from my great grandma Allie’s steel pot. They’d hike, watch the birds, and recover in the hot springs or the cold pool. Evenings were saved for poker with peanut M&Ms as the bounty. Over Christmas, I drove up to Northern California and picked up a U-Haul trailer to carry some of dad’s things home to San Diego. I brought his dad-sized waders, a wooden chest with a Ducks Unlimited logo he’d either won or bought at an action, his small chain saw, and a tent.

When my mom offered to take Kai camping this spring, Jeremy and I were all for it. We’d contemplated allowing him to fly from San Diego on Southwest Airlines – his first solo flight. COVID-19 changed everything related to travel and adventure, but the state park reservations held.


K is resilient now. He can set up and tear down his own tent, load the bear locker, and read by lantern until he falls asleep. On his hikes, he details the virtual reality game he will invent, and the kid’s version of Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me he wants to host.

In Folsom, I helped pack up my mom's SUV, gave K a huge hug, and watched my mom pull out of the driveway with my sidekick for the last five weeks. My mom’s lab, Donner, nudged my knee and gave a little grunt. I leaned down to rub her shoulders, and then stood to wave goodbye.

And they were off.

Miles Traveled: +3,000

I’m wrapping up a five-week camping and hiking trip with my 8-year-old son along the Pacific Coast. This means that for the first time since high school, I am officially not working. Harvard Business Review assures us resilience is about how you recharge, not how you endure. We’ll see.

To catch up and comment on our journey, here are the posts from Week 1Week 2 and Week 3.


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