Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Atomic City Wildfires - Part 1

Most of the year it feels as though we simply live in a very small community 30 miles from the nearest town.
But during the month of July there was no doubt.
We live in the desert.
The last few weeks of June and throughout the month of July it was endlessly hot and dry.
No rain at all.  
No changes in the weather at all.
Just a seemingly endless series of days that included cloudless skies, fierce sunshine and stifling dry heat.
My least favorite time of the year.
The lush green of May and June was now long gone, only to be replaced with dried desert grasses.
With every day being the same as before, and with temperatures in the mid to upper 90s the world had quickly turned brown.............

One afternoon a few weeks ago we had a storm.
There was no rain attached to it, but rather thunder and lightening that was created in the mountains and resulting from extreme heat.
For a few hours the sky crashed with noisy violence and then it was over.
But during that storm lightening struck the parched ground of the desert and a wildfire was born...................
LC first saw it that same evening while he was out with Kory.
Smoke was off in the far distance but after calling the fire department we learned that they already knew about it and were already on scene..............
Mid-morning the next day I loaded Kory into the back of the Suburban and together we headed out into the desert.
It was mid-July and (as it had been for seemingly endless weeks) the sky was completely blue and clear and by mid morning it was already very hot.
Heading out of town we slowly drove the washboard gravel road until we hit Big Butte Rd, and drove slowly along THAT road trying (unsuccessfully) to miss the teeth-chattering wash boards and deep ruts.
The road was in terrible shape.
A symptom of uncaring truck, and dirt bike, and four wheel drivers traveling too fast on roads meant to be taken slowly and easily.
After passing Cedar Butte without seeing smoke I felt hot, bored and uninspired, and quickly decided that I would find a place to park - someplace open so that my hot tailpipe would not catch parched grass on fire - and let puppy roam for a while.
She had been content to wander back and forth between the back windows of the Suburban for the past 20 minutes, but was ready to run and I scanned the horizon in search of a safe place to stop.
As Kory happily romped in the high grass I looked around me.
God, I hated this time of year.
Too many snakes.  Too much heat.  Everything brown and dry.  The weather never wavering...........
And then I saw it.
Smoke curling up from the brown horizon, and immediately I decided that we would try and track it down...............
I know a lot of this desert.
Know where the caves are, the interesting rock formations, where the natural paths through the lava rock are located, where beautiful cedar trees have somehow managed to survive while reaching for the sun in between the rocks, where the wildflowers bloom in spring, where the cows graze, where the lone male antelope roams, where the gravel pits we use for target practice hide, where the trails are, where the remains of the dead sheep lies, where the fun trails are and so much more.
 But on this day - while in search of a plume of smoke in an undetermined location  - I was reminded of how deceptive the desert can be.
Time and again I thought we were close.
And then the road would curve and suddenly we were moving away from the smoke.
Time and again I thought the smoke might be over one more rise.
And then we would top the one more rise and we were no closer.
By the time Kory and I had reached Big Butte I gave LC a call to let him know where I was and what I was up to.
We were now 18 BLM miles from Atomic City and I had no idea how much longer I would have cell phone reception.
But for the first time in a while, I could tell that we were getting closer................ 
A couple of miles beyond Big Butte the terrain was less familiar to me.
We only came out this way a couple of times each year and I was thankful that the road (now dirt) was in better shape than the gravel roads I had left behind a few miles back.
Continuing on, the smoke became more prominent and so did the cows, and these friendly and lumbering creatures studied us in that poker-face low-IQ way that cows have.
Slowing the Suburban down to a crawl I eased by lone cows and cows traveling in pairs, hoping that Kory would stay put.
She did.....................
Looking back at Big Butte....................
By this time Kory and I had traveled about 23 miles in search of a wild fire.
The smoke was now steadily up ahead of us and I felt like we were finally close.
But i had felt that way a couple of times already during the trip, only to turn one more bend in the road or climb one more rise and realize that that was not the case.
As we slowly continued along the dirt road I made the inevitable decision to give it 10 more minutes.
Enough was enough, and I had not intention of driving ANOTHER 23 miles in search of an elusive fire.
10 more minutes...................
We climbed one more rise and I stopped the Suburban in the middle of the parched dirt road and climbed out of the vehicle.
Kory excitedly danced from one foot to another expecting me to immediately spring her from the bondage of the truck.
No Baby - Stay There. 
We were parked at the top of a shallow hill and I stood beside the Suburban looking out over the terrain in front of me.
About 3/4 mile ahead of me I could see a number of vehicles parked on the right side of the road.
Vehicles belonging to BLM fire fighters who were on the scene.
About 3/4 mile ahead of me on the left I could see the fire.
Could see the flames and the black smoke.
Reaching into the left pocket of my shorts I tried to call LC but quickly realized that I had no reception.
Reaching into the right pocket of my shorts I pulled out my camera.
I couldn't tell how big of a fire it really was, but the flames and the smoke traveled in a long line across the parched ground.
With all the snow we had during the winter and the wet spring we had, the grass was tall and the vegetation thirsty and abundant.
Plenty of growth to feed a hungry fire.
I wanted to go closer.
But I didn't.
The battle to contain the fire was just beginning and it was time for Kory and I to go.
We had another 25 miles to go before getting home..................
These are not great pictures.
The fire was too far away from us and I was zoomed in too far, but it was all that I could get................
Heading back the way we had come................
A mile or two before reaching the back side of Big Butte I stopped to snap this picture.
We had crossed the cattle guard on the way to the fire of course and (although I had been driving slowly) had hit the cattle guard hard.
So hard that it forced a hard landing for the Suburban, threw water bottles from seat to floorboard in the front and threw Kory from the left side of the vehicle to the right in the back.
As I stood looking at this sign I wondered if I had missed a similar sign coming in.
Carefully crossing the cattle guard for the second time that day I watched for a similar sign.
There wasn't one.
Well..........it would have been helpful if they (whoever "they" were) had put a sign up in each direction, rather that leaving folks to their own vehicle-jarring, teeth-jarring devices.................
10 miles from the fire I pulled off the road in a large open-dirt area, climbed out of the vehicle, opened the back door and moved out of the way so that my eager and excited dog could roam while I snapped some quick pictures.
The ever-cliched bullet-ridden sign...................
Boots On A Fence...................
After a long, slow and hot drive out into the desert we finally made it home.
We had no idea how much wildfires would dominate Atomic City (and the land surrounding it) for the next two weeks.....................

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Keeping This Short - Hot, Dry, No Rain In A Month

I have tendonitis in my left shoulder, elbow and wrist, and a sprained right thumb so am trying not to type very much.
So keeping this short.
Very short.
Hot.
Dry.
No rain in a month.
Temperatures above 90 for a month.
Tall grass creeping me out because I can't see what may be slithering around my feet.
Thank goodness for snake boots.....................
“Cress?"
"It's beautiful out there."
A hesitation, before, "Could you be more specific?"
"The sky is gorgeous, intense blue color." She pressed her fingers to the glass and traced the wavy hills on the horizon.
"Oh, good. You've really narrowed it down for me."
"I'm sorry, it's just..." She tried to stamp down the rush of emotion. "I think we're in a desert."
"Cactuses and tumbleweeds?"
"No just a lot of sand. It's kind of orangish-gold, with hints of pink, and I can see tiny clouds of it floating above the ground, like...like smoke."
"Piles up in lots of hills?"
"Yes, exactly! And it's beautiful."
Thorne snorted. "If this is how you feel about a desert, I can't wait until you see your first real tree. Your mind will explode.”..............Marissa Meyer, Cress

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Windshields And Bugs

We had been trying to go camping again for the past four weeks.  The first week we had problems with the wiring between our camper and what turned out to be a huge and unexpected electrical mess underneath the Suburban, which took much longer to square away than either of us had anticipated.  
The second week saw rain and unseasonably cold temperatures.  
The third week LCs' brother called to say that he was coming for a visit from Minnesota.  He showed up the day we had planned to leave and stayed all of two days before turning around and heading back to Minnesota.  He does that kind of thing sometimes (don't ask - we don't know)............... 

Finally the wiring was good, the weather was good, no more family was showing up unscheduled, and LC and I thought that we were good-to-go.  We'd go to Mud Lake.  Boat.  Kayak.  Fish.  Take photos of abundant bird life and (if we were lucky) maybe catch sight of a moose.  
The plan was to leave early Sunday morning, and return late Wednesday (in plenty of time for me to get to something I was scheduled into in Blackfoot on Thursday).  It was all good...........

Saturday early evening I was in Blackfoot.  As I was getting ready to leave town I stopped at the Chevron gas station to pick up an Invasive Species Sticker for my kayak.  
They no longer sold them.  
Went to the sporting goods department at Walmart.  
They did not sell them.  
Went to the sporting goods department at Cal-Ranch.  
They did not sell them.  
Went to the Bingham County Co-op.  
They did not sell them.  
And nobody knew where they DID sell them.   I headed home both surprised and extremely annoyed.............

Once I got home LC and I finalized gear for an early Sunday departure.  And then someone called me.  There were interested in buying our white water kayak.  Could they come and see it on the way home from Utah?  Around 11:30 on Sunday?  
Absolutely.  RULE #1 - TAKE CARE OF BUSINESS.  
They came, they saw, they purchased, they were happy and so were we.  
Ready to blow out of town (next stop Mud Lake) a guy LC had been trying to nail down in Ammon finally called him back.   Yes........the gun safe was still for sale.  Yes.......I'll take your offer.  Can you come pick it up tonight at 5pm?  
LC looked at me apologetically.  It was fine.  RULE #1.  
He had been trying to get in touch with the guy for a while and I knew how much he wanted a gun safe.  
We'd leave Monday first thing.   No problem.............
We headed out late afternoon to pick up a very big, very heavy gun safe.   By the time we all loaded that beast into the truck it was a little after 6.  
HEY!!  Let's stop at Cabelas on the way home and get that Invasive Species Sticker!  
Sounded like a fine idea until we arrived at Cabelas, saw that it had closed at six and finally remembered that it was Sunday.  Of course it was closed.  
We headed home Invasive-Species-Sticker-Free, and called our neighbor when we were close to help us off-load the metal beast and get it into the house and to its final resting place.............

Monday morning came.  
Still busy with last minute preparations for our camping trip I suggested to LC that he call the VA to set up an appointment for his annual physical.  
He was overdue, needed med refills.  I thought it would be a quick phone call.  He was set up at the Salmon VA but had arranged for his appointment last year at a medical clinic in Arco.  It had been a straightforward process last year.  This year.........not so much.  
He made one call, got put on hold, had to leave a call-back number and then wait for the return phone call.  Salmon gave him another number to call.  
Hold, leave number, wait for return phone call.  Repeat the same process two more times.  
After a couple of hours of this nonsense LC eventually hung up the phone in frustration saying "I don't even know who I'm holding for right now!!".  Eventually he called the Salmon VA back, refused to be shuffled off to someone else, and got it all sorted out.  
RULE #2 - BE NICE UNTIL ITS TIME NOT TO BE NICE.  
By that time it was just past noon, very hot, and we were both stressed out and very frustrated.  
In a flurry of last minute activity we finally picked up enough speed to break free from the vortex of Atomic City.  
Enough already!!.........

LC was driving the Suburban with my kayak in the back and was pulling the camper.  
I was driving the Tahoe with the dog in the back and was pulling the boat.  
It was a production, but Mud Lake was only 75 minutes away and we both wanted to be on the water in different ways so it was all good...............

I was following LC and we were traveling about 65mph (speed limit was 70).  About half way between Atomic City and the turn-off to Howe a vehicle pulled up behind me, waited for the straight-away and passed both me and LC before pulling back into our lane.  No problem.  
A few minutes later another vehicle pulled up behind me.   A minute later the vehicle pulled out to pass me.  
I could see a vehicle approaching in the oncoming lane, knew that the passer would see it as well once he got into that lane, and I slowed down the Tahoe to make more room between me and the camper.  
The guy passing me wouldn't have enough time to pass both me and LC (we were at least two vehicle lengths apart), so I knew that the the guy would be pulling back into our lane between us pretty quickly.  Only..........he didn't..............

He pulled out from behind me, I slowed down a little to make more room for him to pull back in, and then watched in disbelief and he continued driving in the oncoming lane.  
"Oh No - he's going to try and take the camper as well". 
He continued in the oncoming lane, I watched LC tried to ease his Suburban and camper as far over to the right as he could to make MORE room for the idiot, looked in the rear view to check that no-one else was behind me and slowed the Tahoe down pretty quickly because I realized that this had the potential to get really bad, really quick.  
The guy pulled in behind the camper JUST IN TIME to miss the oncoming car and missed the back of the camper by what looked like inches.  
At that point I called him every un-Christian-like name I could call him, and I know a lot of names................
 An hour later we made it to the small town of Mud Lake.  
Pulling into the gas station I went in to get worms and ice while LC crossed the road to go into the little store and pick up that evasive Invasive Species Sticker.  I got the worms and ice.  LC didn't get the sticker.  
Something about Fish and Game picking up the machine to check it, and they were supposed to have brought it back but that was two weeks ago and they haven't brought it back yet, and yada yada yada who cares?  
We made one more stop at one last hardware store and then gave it up.  After stopping at seven different businesses in three different towns over three different days, that sticker wasn't happening.  Not on THIS trip. 
                       LC asked me what I would do if I got stopped on the water.   I responded that I would tell F&G what we had been through in an attempt to get a sticker and then tell them exactly where they could put their sticker (and then of course I'd beg for mercy and use the "my husband is a retired law enforcement officer" card if I had to).  
Enough already...................

By the time we finally parked the camper it was about 3pm, it was extremely hot, and we all three were extremely overheated, tired and cranky. 
The dirt road leading into Mud Lake campground proper was horribly rutted out, and the bumps had thrown everything in the camper into disarray (including knocking down two sets of curtains).  
After cleaning up and picking up, we tried to nap in a very hot camper and did for a short while.   
By 5pm Kory was happily playing in the water and exploring around the campground, and LC and I off-loaded the boat at the boat ramp, and were sitting drinking bottled water watching our dog and trying hard to dial back the stress.  We felt better.  A little better.  
As we sat and talked by the water, watched the dog play, watched the various large birds, and as I snapped occasional pictures we began to feel better still.  We needed this SO much and after the various stressors of the past month, were just happy that we had finally made it.  
We were waiting for the heat to subside so that we could take the boat out.  
LC fished briefly from the dock.  I would wait until early the next morning to kayak.  
The sky began to cloud over and by sometime after 6 it was cool enough to head out onto the water to explore the lake a little.  We were both hungry but food could wait until we got back.................

Kory had been dis-interested in her life jacket last year but this year it drove her insane for the first 20 minutes that she was wearing it, and we watched in surprise as she danced around and back flipped in a losing battle to tear the life jacket off her.  She wasn't a happy camper. 
Last year she had loved the boat.  This year she hated the boat and the entire experience as we wandered around small islands, and we watched in surprised as she alternated between standing at the front of the boat forlornly watching the water-world slowly go by and burying her head underneath my knees.  
The water was beginning to get choppy and the sky was quickly building clouds.  We didn't put it all together until later...............
We were only on the water for an hour or so but it had been a good ride, and even though Kory wasn't impressed both LC and I had a good time.  But it was time to eat.   
A quick meal of canned beans, diced hot dogs, and soft buns and we decided to go for a long walk together before it got dark.  
As we finished up dishes Kory suddenly dropped her ears, dropped her head, dropper her tail, and sprinted for the safety of the inside of the camper.  LC and I looked at each other in surprise.  What was THAT all about?  
A minute later we heard the first clap of thunder.   That explained Korys' behavior.  
She had heard thunder long before WE had heard it.  So OK.  A walk was obviously out, since there was no way our dog would want to walk with thunder floating around.  We decided to go for a drive instead.   
As we pulled out of the campground we decided to head back to the town of Mud Lake and pick up bug spray since we had been fighting off mosquitoes ever since we arrived.  
By the time we had a full view of the lake we both looked at the sky and realized that there was a major storm heading our way.  Thunder increased.  The sky was beginning to get ominously black.  And then the lightning strikes began.  THAT was why our dog didn't want to go out onto the water - she had sensed that a storm was approaching..............

The lake was white capping, the sky got blacker, the winds picked up, and thunder and lightning struck with increasing regularity.  We turned around.  Batteries were still in the boat that was still tied to the boat dock. 
All the windows and vents were open in the camper.  We needed to batten down the hatches.  
And then it started to pour with rain.............

When we got back to the camper we left Kory in the vehicle while we ran to the camper to shut it all down, ran to the picnic table to grab various items we had left out that needed to be brought inside, and then pulled the Suburban down to the river to load the batteries and trolling motor in the back. 
The boat would be fine.  
Five minutes after we all retreated to the camper it was over.  
We had had thunder, lightning, high winds, pouring rain in the span of just a few minutes.  It blew over just as quickly as it had arrived...............

Opening windows and vents again, LC and I pulled open the camp chairs, grabbed the playing cards and headlamps, set up the folding table and settled down to play cards. 
Thunder clapped again in the distance and our terrified dog scrambled underneath the bunker of the bed, trying to get as far back in the camper as she could.  
Thunder continued and when we pulled out the bags from under the bed to check on her we realized that our dog was OK exactly where she was and didn't plan on coming out anytime soon.  
Eventually she curled up and slept.  
And I beat LC in our first game of cards.  Beat him like a drum.............
I also won the first hand of our second game and things looked good.  
LC had beat me three games to one last time we camped in Challis about six weeks ago and I wanted payback.  
The trash talk was flying fast and free (as it always does when he and I play any kind of games).  
As he was dealing the cards - and out of the blue - LC asked me if we had turned the coffee pot off at the house.  
I had made a fresh pot of coffee first thing in the morning, we had both drunk one cup each, so the pot had still been pretty full.  
We had originally planned on leaving early and I had left the coffee pot on, thinking we could both bring a travel mug for the road with us.  
That, of course, hadn't happened and it had been early afternoon by the time we had headed out.  "Did we turn the coffee pot off?"...........

There was silence for a minute and I asked "Did you turn it off?"  "Not sure.  Don't think so".  He asked me "Did YOU turn it off?"  "Yes"...............

I was quiet for a minute while I thought about the morning.  I had wandered into the kitchen a few times over the course of the morning and had actively thought "I need to remember to turn the coffee pot off before we leave". 
Had I actually TURNED it off?  "I'm not sure.  I remember thinking that I needed to turn it off, but I don't remember physically doing it"..................

LC and I looked at each other wordlessly. 
I asked him "What time is it?"  It was 10:20pm.  
"Is that spare key outside where we left it?" (I was thinking that a neighbor could check on the house for us).   
LC - "No I gave it to the realtor".  
We looked at each other for a few minutes, both of us weighing our conversation, until eventually we both spoke at once.  
We needed to go home.  
After the chaos of the past few weeks, the stress we had been under, the speed with which we had finally closed up the house and peeled out of town, we knew that there was every possibility that we had forgotten to turn the coffee pot off.................. 

By the time we loaded the boat back onto the trailer and we closed up the camper to ready it for the drive home it was 11pm. 
We arrived home close to 12:30.  
Our camping trip over before it began...............

LC felt terrible because he knows how much I have been chomping at the bit to go kayaking. 
I felt terrible because I knew how much he wanted to take his fishing boat out.  And we both felt terrible because Kory had been through a long, hot and sometimes traumatic day and now we were dragging her home in the middle of the night.  
But it was what it was, and sometimes things just don't go the way you had planned.  
I once drove from Tennessee to North Carolina just for the privilege of taco-ing my front wheel 20 miles into a 60 mile mountain bike race.  
I once drove from Tennessee to Missouri just to blow out my knee three hours into a 36 hour adventure race.  
Thankfully - most of the time - things go according to plan.  
But sometimes they don't, and this was one of those times..............

I am reminded of that old expression "Sometimes you're the windshield, and sometimes you're the bug". 
This time we were the bug.  
Next time we'll shoot for the windshield...............

Oh!  And the coffee pot?  It was off..............