Gray (April 2020)
The Golden State is gray. I traveled by car from my home in Julian to San Rafael, California, a trip that is just far enough to need two days, but with COVID-19, it’s a necessity to make it in one.
When I left, I foolishly thought that a few miles to the north I would escape the slate air of the Valley Fire. But then I arrived down wind of the Bobcat Fire, then the Dolan Fire, then the Creek Fire, then the Apple Fire and next the Lake Fire. As I freed myself from one, I entered into another, the ash, the color of lead, drifted like singed feathers. The sky moved from one tone of oyster to another, light, dark, lighter, darker.
“It’s the palette of cremation,” I thought as remains of giant redwoods, evergreens, sage chaparral, tawny deer, and unlucky beige mountain lion all succumbed to the pyre.
“What am I breathing? A carbonized ancient bristlecone pine needle? Charred particles of a bear’s intestine?”
I picnicked under stone haze at Tule Elk Preserve, animals brought back from near extinction, now with growing herds.
“For what?” I thought. “To watch as the flames approach and decimate them once again?”
“Shake it off,” I said out loud, “it isn’t Armageddon.” But I threw in a sere aside, “Yet.”
I drove on, through the cinereal Central Valley, the ground, the air, the sky all matched, all blended, into hypnotic hue.
“California is the color of chronic depression,” I thought, recalling days, free of fire that nevertheless looked like this.
I checked into my motel, stylish in its faddish gray paint, black exposed iron, its interior facing windows.
I had seen, now, every possible variation of that mousy, smokey, dingy color and thought this was my fate until the fires passed, until COVID-19 passed, until, if ever, my grief over Ellen passed.
But that next morning, late morning, I woke to a world that was night-in-day and ghoulish dark-room red.
Confused, dizzied, flummoxed and unglued, I proceeded with what now felt like absurd tasks, leaden.
The immigrant worker in the grocery store looked at me, anxious black eyes as she fluttered her hand on her chest. “I don’t know,” she said hand still fluttering, “It hurts in here, this sky, it makes me hurt in here.”
“Me too,” I said, “me too.”