I spent Friday through Sunday making a loop through the middle of California — three hours East, then three hours South, then back West to my home in Oakland.
My wife, my daughter and I decided to get out of town and beyond the smoke from the horrific Camp Fire.
We spent Friday night at a fancy resort in Lake Tahoe with other Bay Area smoke escapees. Kids roasted marshmallows over a propane fire next to an infinity pool. Parents thumbed their phones and drank $16 cocktails.
On the other side of the mountains, nearly 11,000 people had lost their homes.
I held my drink, stared across the lake, and felt like a jackass.
The next morning we headed out, down highway 395, across highway 89, then back over the mountains, westward, over Highway 4, a one-lane slot cut through the top of the Sierras.
8,730 feet. November 17th and not a trace of snow.
We arrived at my cousin’s house in the town of Arnold, about halfway down the mountains, in the late afternoon.
My cousin is a teacher. Her husband works for the Forest Service in the summer, a nearby ski resort in the winter. They came here from the Bay Area five years ago because this is where they could afford a home and kids.
They live in a modest but warm home set among cedars and sugar pines weakened by years of drought. They have two beautiful young children. I kept forcing the thought of the hair-trigger fire danger out of my mind.
Meth labs are a problem here.
They had collected, dozens of them, in the gaps of a massive freeway interchange in Stockton, human tumbleweeds come to rest in a place both fully in view and easily forgettable for the motorists sliding by.
They had no respite from the smoke. No resort to hide out in. We kept driving, an hour from home.
Stockton is a worn-out city in California’s Central Valley that has become swollen with people who can no longer afford to live in the San Francisco Bay Area. The people under the freeways can no longer afford to live in Stockton.
The housing crisis trickles down.
We got home by noon. The air was still bad, but better. The Camp Fire continued burning. November 30th is the projected date for complete containment.
My little trip saddened me. I am a third-generation Californian. What I saw over the weekend is a place that is tweaked out, burned out, dried out and priced out. It was hard to take in, and hard to think about what lies ahead.
I don’t know what to do with this yet.
But I’m pretty clear on what I’m thankful for right now: my home, the people with whom I share it and the comfort this place, my place, gives me upon every return.