A Suitcase, An Arrowhead, and A Set of Red Underwear
You don’t keep extra clothes when you live in 200 square feet. It’s a question of being able to put your plate down when you eat dinner or owning an evening purse. I haven’t owned an evening purse since 1993, and the one time I needed one since then, I found a perfectly good pearled specimen at a thrift store in New York. It cost a dollar, and I gave it to a bag lady in Grand Central Station after a dinner party at the Knickerbocker Club.
Okay, I confess. If you were to find yourself looking through my underwear box (yes, box— there aren’t many drawers in motor homes), you’d find a red bra and pair of red panties at the bottom. They never move. I haven’t worn them since before I owned an evening purse, but there they are. I can’t throw them away. They’re survivors.
That red underwear, one suitcase, one husband and one dog are the only things I have that antedate the fire that ended Phase One of my life. It arrived with perfect timing. I was 40 years old, and I’d just been wondering if this— a nice house in a nice neighborhood full of nice stuff— was all there was. Just like a jillion baby boomers on the exact cusp of middle age, I was sick of exercise videos and women’s magazines and nylon stockings. I was having a hard time believing that the road to serenity lay in losing ten pounds, highlighting my hair, or giving my kitchen a country look.
And then, only a couple of months before I turned 41, Los Angeles caught on fire and didn’t stop burning for seventeen days. My house was one of the first to go. One day, I had an answering machine and high heels and an eyelash curler. The next day, well, the next day things were different.
The fires were headline news for weeks, as Altadena, Laguna, and Malibu each hosted a conflagration bigger than the last. In dollars, a billion went up in smoke. Over 1,100 houses burned to the ground, and 4 people died. My loss seems minuscule in comparison: just one average middle class woman’s stuff.
Yes, just stuff. That’s all it was: high school yearbooks, photographs, wedding presents, diplomas, my grandmother’s piano. I’d had ten minutes to pack ahead of the firestorm. I’d grabbed a suitcase. I’d grabbed— God only knows why— my red underwear.
I did take one other thing as I left the house. I paused in front of a cabinet filled with silver and wedding china and keepsakes. I opened the door and took out an Indian arrowhead I’d found in Wyoming on Mark’s family’s ranch.
I guess that’s how you pack when you’re off on a new life. You get ten minutes, and there’s no second chance. I can’t tell you why, as the flames roared nearer, I chose red underwear and an arrowhead that would have survived the fire anyway. I can only say this. Where I was headed, I was overpacked.
One Crystal Clear Autumn Morning
The fire started before dawn on October 27, 1993, and like most blazes near populated areas, it was set by a human, a homeless man named Andres Huang. He had hiked into the Altadena foothills during the night. He’d fallen asleep, and when he awoke before dawn, he was cold and shivering. He lit a little camp fire to warm himself up. It was a windy night, and the fire immediately got away from him. Frightened, he fled. Unable to see in the darkness, he fell over a cliff.
At 3:48 a.m., someone called Fire Station 66 at the foot of Eaton Canyon and reported “fire on the hillside.” It was impossible to know it at the time, but that call mobilized the first unit of a force that would grow to include nearly three thousand firefighters from 62 different agencies, 200 fire engines, 15 water tenders, four bulldozers, eight helicopters, and fifteen airplanes.
Andres Huang was found, arrested and taken to a hospital. He was later charged with “reckless setting of a fire.”
Mark and I were sleeping at home, a couple of ridge lines to the east. The telephone rang a little after four. It was Mark’s mother, calling from her house, a couple more ridge lines to the east. She had awakened early and seen a tiny bright spot on the mountain. “There’s a fire above Eaton Canyon,” she said.
Mark and I got up and slid open the glass door that led from our bedroom to an outdoor patio. We could see a tiny, brilliant feather of flame on the dark slope.
We’d seen fires on the mountainside before. We’d grown up here. There were fires every year. Even though we lived in the hills, there were houses and streets between us and the native brush. Our house was nearly a hundred years old, nestled on a slope overlooking a reservoir that held a million gallons of water. The mountainside might burn, but our house? Unlikely, we thought. If the fire got close, we had the reservoir and a pump and a hose. On top of that, Mark used to be a fire fighter for the forest service. Whatever might happen, we’d be able to handle it.
“It’s awfully windy,” said Mark. And then we went back to bed.
We couldn’t sleep. We got up, and I set to work addressing invitations in calligraphy for a friend. Mark went outside to work on the exhibit we were preparing for a fair. He’d cleaned its large red carpet the day before, and we’d stretched it out on the driveway to dry. Mark started to vacuum it, and ten minutes later, he called me.
“Look,” he said, pointing at the rug. “Those are ashes falling on it.”
Maybe the ashes should have warned us, but we couldn’t see any flames. There was no smoke, no noise. Only soft white powder kept landing on the carpet.
“I give up,” said Mark. He turned off the vacuum cleaner. The only sound now was the wind. “It sure is windy,” I said. I went back inside and turned on the television. News reporters had started talking about a fire in Altadena, and they showed pictures of fire engines lined up on streets about a mile west of us. They weren’t doing anything, just waiting. It was quiet outside.
At about seven o’clock, Mark walked down to the end of our street. As soon as he left, I heard a new sound. It was more than wind. It was a roar, not loud, but huge somehow. Then I felt the heat.
Just then Mark ran back. “Get in your car and get out of here,” he shouted. “All of Kinneloa is burning!” Kinneloa is a community of big houses west of ours. “I just saw a policeman drag a woman in a nightgown out of her house!”
Just then Marvin ran out of the house and headed directly for my car. He screamed and scratched at the door. Smart dog, I thought. No sense in leaving on foot when you can have a ride. I let him into the front seat and slammed the door.
I ran back into the house and assembled the items that were to become my only pre-fire mementos. I grabbed some equally useful items for Mark, too: his least-comfortable shoes and a mismatched outfit. He didn’t get any underwear at all.
When I came outside, the eaves of the house across the street were blazing, and the house behind it was engulfed. The roar was loud now, the heat frightening. Mark screamed at me from the roof, where we was wielding a fire hose barefoot. I screamed back at him.
“Leave!” he yelled. “I’ll be right behind you!” Sixty foot flames were swirling down the hill above us. “You’ve got to come, too!” I yelled.
“I will!” he screamed. “Just get going!”
And so I left. As I did, I realized what had seemed so odd. There was no sound except the roar of the fire itself. No sirens, no helicopters. Just that quiet roar and the heat. Two blocks away, life was normal. Bathrobed ladies were just stepping outside to pick up their papers. How could they know that fifty houses were burning less than a mile away? There was no smoke, no sound, and we weren’t on television. It was just a crystal clear autumn morning, and time for a cup of coffee.
You Can’t Go Home Again
I headed for Mark’s parents’ house on Riviera Drive. Overlooking Hastings Canyon, it was square in the path of the fire. I’ll tell you now that it didn’t burn. Firefighters arrived in droves, and the sound of helicopters laboring up the mountainside went on all day. They couldn’t contain the fire, and they couldn’t direct it, but by soaking hillsides and roofs, they were able to save dozens of houses.
It was a slow motion day, a surreal blur. I was mesmerized by the fire as it swept over the mountains in front of me. I watched a whole ridge line erupt in a series of explosions as the flames reached houses, cars and gas lines. Before the sun went down, the flames had blackened every slope I could see.
That night Mark and I lay on a bed in our clothes. Through the window, we could see flames still burning on the mountain. We slept fitfully, and before dawn, we got up. “Let’s go home,” said Mark. We made a thermos of coffee and climbed into his car.
At the bottom of our hill, a policeman was manning a barricade. He was surrounded by gawkers, but no one was getting through. “If you’re a resident, you can go up in a police vehicle,” he explained. “But you have to have identification.”
Identification. I had mine in my purse, but Mark had left home the day before in shorts and a T- shirt. He’d had no time to go inside.
The officer looked at my driver’s license, and then turned to Mark. Was it the sooty shirt, the wild hair? Without a word, he moved the barricade aside and said, “A van will be here in a few minutes to take you up.”
The van turned out to be a paddy wagon, and we climbed into the cage in the back. Another man we didn’t know joined us, and we began the ascent.
Everything looked serene and normal for the first half mile. Dawn was breaking on another cloudless day. Then we saw the first gap, a big black hole where a house was supposed to be. Then another, and another. By the time we reached the top of the hill, we’d counted at least a dozen.
I’d known all day yesterday that our house had burned, but we’d had no actual proof. Now, as we neared the last corner, I wondered. Could it somehow have survived?
The van turned the corner, and we saw our block. The two houses that were burning when I left were still standing. Ours was gone. The driver opened the door and said, “I’ll be back later.” Mark and I stepped outside. The ground was still hot.
“Look, there’s the shower stall,” I said. Black and leaning, it was the tallest thing.
Near the road stood two old chairs we’d set out for the Salvation Army to collect. “Well, that’s handy, anyway,” said Mark, and we sat down. It was time for a cup of coffee.
Archaeologists in Tarzan’s Garden
How many glorious places have gone up in smoke? Athens, Rome, Chicago. As we sat on our cast-off lawn chairs surveying the smoldering wreckage, I thought of Aeneas fleeing burning Troy, carrying his grandfather and his household gods.
No, I didn’t. I can think of that now, but then, I just sat there. We weren’t looking at the ashes of Priam’s palace. Our smoking citadel was only a shower stall. It wasn’t noble, glorious, or even tragic, just a shock.
Even so, the archaeologist in me awoke immediately. “Look at the cars!” I said to Mark. We’d each left in a car, but there had been nothing we could do about two other vehicles parked in our driveway. One belonged to a man who worked for Mark’s property management company, and the other to a friend who’d moved to New York. They had been parked right next to each other.
The Volkswagen Rabbit was incinerated. The engine block had liquefied and poured out of the engine compartment, creating a decorative aluminum bas relief on the asphalt. The body was blackened, the windows were gone, and the inside was devoid of anything except a couple of seat springs and a skeletal steering wheel.
Right next to it, the Chevette looked fine at first glance. Actually, two tires were melted and the paint had bubbled on one door, but two days later, Manny drove it away. “How could the fire be so selective?” I asked. “They were practically touching.”
We spent the morning poking into the rubble and marveling. Most things were utterly gone, but we found a few interesting artifacts. The heat of the fire had delaminated a quarter and puffed it up like a little metal balloon. A can of pennies was now a solid cylinder of copper.
We stood where we guessed our china cabinet had been, the one from which I’d extracted the arrowhead on my way out. Fifteen feet long and eight feet tall, it had been made out thick slabs of Honduran mahogany by a friend whose cabinets were works of art. It must have burned like a dream. The concrete upon which it had stood was completely bare.
“I thought we’d find globs of silver or something,” said Mark, “Melted, like the car engine.” But there was nothing. My grandmother’s tea service was somewhere over Santa Monica in a big black cloud.
We continued our exploration, careful to sidestep smoldering coals. We’d both melted holes in our sneakers by now, and the sun was climbing. It was shaping up into another hot, windy day.
“Okay, here’s the storeroom,” said Mark. The piles of rubble and ash were a little deeper. We’d both picked up sticks, and I poked into a steaming pile. It was a large rectangle of what looked like bedsprings. “We didn’t have a bed in here,” I said. “What was this?” Mark picked his way over and had a look. “It’s the Slinkies,” he said.
The storeroom had housed the inventory of a new retail business Mark and I had started a few months before. Wizards of Wonder, WOW for short, sold puzzles, games, and unusual toys at music festivals and county fairs. Our holiday inventory had begun to arrive, and most of it hadn’t been unpacked. We’d ordered cases and cases of Slinkies, a perennially popular Christmas present.
We picked our way over the rest of the cement slab that formed the footprint of our erstwhile home. My computer had vanished entirely. The only high-tech remnants were the little metal sliders from three floppy disks. Near where my desk had been a filing cabinet was still recognizable. It had cooled enough for Mark to touch, and he pried it open with a crowbar he’d brought along in his back pack. “You never know,” he said. “And it sure would be nice to have our tax records.” It was empty.
Our house was unique. Built nearly a century before by Abbott Kinney, one of Los Angeles’ early land barons, it had served as the livery stable for the Big House. The Big House burned down in the thirties, and nobody knew any more exactly where it had been. The stable building and the stone pump house on the edge of the reservoir were the last remaining structures of Kinney’s estate. The hillside was studded with oaks, palms and eucalypti, and a stream carried water from a spring farther up the mountain to the reservoir, which was home to several hundred blue gill, catfish and bright orange carp. Legend held that there were bass in there, too, but we never spied one.
Mark had created a home inside the redwood shell of the old barn, and turned the pump house into a cozy den overlooking the reservoir. He’d never thought his hillside retreat was big enough for two, but he found space for me when we got married in 1990. He’d lived there for three years when I joined him, but he hadn’t been alone. He shared his jungle with a cat, three ducks, a pack of coyotes, a family of skunks, a raccoon commune, and an occasional mountain lion. Peacocks and a blue heron visited the reservoir, which had grown to look like a natural lagoon. Wild mint and raspberries grew along the stream. It was hard to believe that Tarzan’s dream house existed in the hills above Pasadena. Few people had any inkling it was up there, only half an hour from downtown Los Angeles.
We looked down the denuded hill past the black trunk of a headless palm tree to the old pump house. Built of native stones, it had a brick chimney and a shake roof. A perforated pipe ran along the ridge, and we’d left the water running the day before in the hopes that the roof might survive the fire if it were wet enough.
The pipe was still there, bent and black, but intact. Little puffs of steam burst from the holes. The roof was gone, and we could see red clay floor tiles through the rubble on the floor. We climbed down carefully and stepped inside.
Our eyes fell first on the iron harp of my grandmother’s upright piano. It had smashed tiles when it hit the floor. Then we caught sight of something else. A ceramic vase was standing upright on a broken tile. Chartreuse and hideous, it was also intact and pristine. It looked like someone had just set it there.
“That vase,” I said. “Do you remember how we got it?” Mark couldn’t remember. “It was one of the gifts at the white elephant party we had last year. It was so ugly no one would take it home. I stuck it into one of the cabinets against the far wall. It was on the top shelf. How the heck did it get down here without breaking?”
“I think,” said Mark, “That even forest fires have their standards. It took one look at that thing and said, ‘No thanks. Even I don’t want that.'”
When we arrived back at the top of our smoldering acropolis, we stood near our former kitchen sink, now a dented cast iron relic lying on its side on the ground. A eucalyptus tree nearby burst into fresh flames, and we looked down over the blackened lagoon.
I said, “You know, Mark, this is, in fact, amazing.”
Mark says I said, “You know, Mark, this is, in fact, great.”
However I started out, I continued, “We’re cleaned out. There’s nothing here, nothing at all. We can do anything we want. Anything. Do you know what that means? We can go anywhere, do anything, start over again. Whatever. I think we should think of this as an opportunity. I think it just could be the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to us. I think…”
“Shut up,” said Mark. “Shut up and give me five minutes to grieve.”
View From The Black Gap
I shut up. He was right. I was chattering. I stood at the edge of the concrete slab and looked out over the San Gabriel Valley. I could see all the way to the ocean, which was a big change from the last time I’d stood in that place and looked south. Thirty trees had meant their end, but the view they left behind was terrific.
I stood there and knew I was right. This really was amazing, maybe even great. All my stuff was gone, and that meant I had a clean slate. Yes, it meant that irreplaceable mementos were gone forever, but so were forty years of sediment, a serious buildup of tartar and plaque. Yes, my great grandmother’s wedding dress was vapor, but so were thirty boxes I’d dreaded having to sort. For every item I mourned, there was a corresponding bushel of ballast that had held me hostage.
I felt the lightness immediately. I was a hot air balloon, and my tethers had just been cut. I gave Mark a full half hour to grieve.
“Let’s hit the road,” I said as we waited for the paddy wagon to come and get us. “The timing couldn’t be better. We’ve got no stuff, no business, and no house to worry about. Let’s just start driving and see what we find.”
Mark didn’t say yes, and he didn’t say no. We rode down the hill and drove back to his parents’ house. By this time, people were everywhere, surveying the wreckage. The policeman at the barricade was fending off a crowd of looters carrying shopping bags.
Meanwhile the fire was still burning its way eastward unabated. The winds were still high. My parents’ house in the village of Sierra Madre was in its path. Blocked roads meant we couldn’t go there, but we spent the day watching television and the wind. By midnight, the winds pushed the fire north into the wilderness, and Sierra Madre was left untouched. The next day, the air was still.
The fire did not leave a peaceful wake. Within hours, platoons of insurance agents arrived. Almost as fast came the contractors, carpet cleaners, “salvage experts” and “private adjusters,” vultures attracted by a fresh disaster. On hundreds of scorched lots, men with tape measures and blueprints and clipboards brought bag lunches and folding chairs and stayed all day.
I escaped for the weekend to a meeting I’d planned to attend months before. I had no house, but I did have a hotel reservation. I stopped at a shopping mall on the way and bought some underwear and a shirt and a pair of jeans.
When I got back to Pasadena, Mark had joined a crew of volunteers who were preparing to sandbag the hillsides. Fire in Southern California mountains practically guarantees mud slides as soon as it rains, and they can be just as devastating as fire.
We went out to dinner Sunday night. While we waited for the waiter to take our order, Mark said, “Let’s hit the road. Let’s just start driving and see where we end up.” I have no idea what we ate that night, but we stayed a long time. The waiter filled our coffee cups four times.
Fire. What a thing. Houses, trees, stuff, all gone in a flash. I’d been looking at the black gaps, but now, suddenly, I was looking at the view they’d left behind. I was a balloon, slowly rising over a fresh new landscape. The journey had begun.
The Stuff of Life
If life in the last decade of the century in America is a solar system, stuff is its sun. Our lives revolve around it, and its absence creates a powerful vacuum, the kind nature abhors. If you don’t believe it, try this simple experiment. Divest yourself of all your stuff, and remain stuffless for a month. Okay, I’ll allow you one suitcase, but that’s it. See if you can avoid busting out of it for four short weeks.
Maybe the simplest road to unencumbered success would be to buy a Eurail pass and relive the days when you traveled light and traded paperbacks in youth hostels. Maybe you can find yourself a monastery and embark on a month-long retreat in a cell without closets. One thing’s certain, though. If you stay where you are and follow the stuff-attracting patterns that define American life, your suitcase won’t just bulge at the end of a week. It’ll explode. By the end of the month, you’ll be the curator of a brand new archive. Inexorably following its law, your stuff will have expanded to fill all available space.
Back in the seventies, when the Shah of Iran was sent into exile, hundreds of American expatriates left with him. A friend of mine was a teacher in Tehran at the time. One day while he was at school, he received instructions to drive to the airport, leave the keys in his car’s ignition, and get on a plane. He left a large, nicely furnished apartment full of mementos of a life of travel and an Ivy League education. When I met him in Germany a few years later, it was in the living room of his large, nicely furnished apartment. Conspicuously devoid of Persian rugs, it nonetheless displayed ample evidence of a love of travel, a fascinating life. “Sometimes you have to swap possessions for experience,” he said.
After a disaster, a giant machine mobilizes, and its motto is, “Put Everything Back.” Government agencies like FEMA and the SBA arrive in a blizzard of forms in triplicate. Insurance adjusters explain about “replacement value,” and “policy limits.” Vaporized homes are recreated on paper, and the stuff they contained fills sheet after sheet of foolscap. Everywhere, scores of people began work immediately to do what people do after catastrophes: make everything look the way it did before.
But what if you were thinking, “Well, thanks, but I’m not so sure I want everything back just the way it was. After all, how many times do you get to start over in life? Isn’t this a good time to stop and think a while? Isn’t it a chance to maybe do something different?”
A perfect place to think materialized magically for Mark and Marvin and me. It was a guest house on a secluded estate in the town of San Gabriel. Designed as the ultimate entertainment pad, it had a huge living room, three bathrooms, and one bedroom. Sliding glass doors opened on one side to a camellia garden, and on the other to a large swimming pool. It was beautiful, which made us smile. It had enormous closets, which made us laugh.
Don’t get me wrong. I love stuff. I love the people who brought us stuff when we had none. Family, friends, and strangers gave us clothes, furniture, dishes, pots, books, a bed, a table, food, a computer, and money. We were, quite literally, showered with gifts. Without them, life would have looked awfully bleak. After all, we live in three dimensions, where down comforters feel good on a chilly night, a dining room table is a great convenience, and china plates lend elegance to the simplest meal. I have never appreciated ordinary household stuff more than I did while I lived at the secret villa. It had appeared out of thin air. It was magic. It was love.
Christmas Came Anyway
We lived at “The Villa” for five months, from November, 1993, until March, 1994. One day in December, a package tied with string arrived, forwarded by the post office from our former address. It had German stamps and an illegible customs declaration stuck to the top. At first, I was baffled, but then I remembered.
In 1990, Mark and I had taken a trip to Europe. From Athens, we’d taken a ship through the Corinth Canal north through the Adriatic to Venice. We rented a car and drove through the Alps to Bavaria. In Oberammergau, we stayed with friends who introduced us to one of the master wood carvers for which the town is famous.
Before we left, we commissioned a Christmas creche. Each December, we’d be receiving a piece or two until we had a complete cast of characters. The first Christmas, we got the Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus. By the time everything went up in smoke, we’d added two shepherds, a goat, a cow, a donkey, and a couple of angels.
When Mark got home, I showed him the box. “Do you know what this is?” I asked. He, too, was puzzled for a minute, but then he smiled. “It’s got to be the wise men,” he said. We opened the package, pulled away the excelsior, and there they were, each holding his perfectly carved little gift, each looking intently in the direction of a recipient who wasn’t there.
“Sorry, no baby Jesus here,” I said as I set them on the dining room table. “I’m afraid you guys came to the wrong stable.”
But they didn’t, really. They proved that no matter what happens, Christmas comes. Christmas doesn’t even require a baby Jesus. It comes anyway, and the wise men proved it that year by insisting on arriving at an empty rental cottage.
And Christmas did come. By the time it arrived, we’d celebrated my parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary and my birthday, and we’d announced our grand plan. We’d hung a huge map of North America on the living room wall, and we’d begun sticking pins in all the places we’d always dreamed of visiting.
The wise men stayed on our table through January. Before I packed them away, I wrote to the wood carver to explain what had happened and ask him to start over. “We need a new holy family,” I wrote, “And shepherds and animals and angels. Everything but the wise men.”
Next Christmas, even if we had no table to set them on, the wise men would have something to look at, a reason for bearing gifts. I figured it was the least I could do for them, since they’d traveled 6,000 miles on faith, and arrived just when we needed some.
And now, we were about to follow our own star, with not much more than faith to fund it. We were fairy tale youngest sons, the ones who pack a bandana and leave home on foot to seek their fortunes. Maybe we should have followed their lead, but we were post-Ford children, and we needed something more. Before we could hit the road, we had to find ourselves a vehicle.
The second e-edition to Roads from the Ashes: An Odyssey in Real Life on the Virtual Frontier is now available on Amazon.com.