Sunday, July 10, 2011, a month and a half after the start of the Wallow fire, I rode into the heart of darkness, the heart of what had been the largest wildfire of the state’s history.
This fire affected me personally, I suppose, because not only was I sickened by the loss of beautiful forest, its irreplaceable scenery, and the lovely road running through it, but my riding partner, Hal, and I lived with it for the week we were on vacation at the beginning of June. It affected where we rode, how we got to our destination, Glenwood, NM, and then northern NM, and we saw the fear of it in the faces of the people we lived with for that week. I watched the maps on the internet, watched how the fire grew every day, and though the firefighters fought valiantly, it seemed the fire grew unchecked and unstoppable.
Everywhere we rode during that week we saw the giant gray bank of smoke and smelled it, the smell of fire consuming nearly every living thing in its path, the smell of burning mingled with the sweat of those who fought it, and the tears of those who must have felt they would lose everything that meant anything to them. All these weeks later, the fire is finally officially contained, though I can imagine that there are places where it still lives underground, creeping through the seared earth.
When I rode to the 191 from the Phoenix area, I didn’t know what I would find when I got there. Would it be burned to nothing but ash? “It will be more green than you think,” Hal said, encouragingly. I hoped so, but I wasn’t optimistic.
When we neared Springerville on US 60, I looked around for signs of the fire. I could see areas that looked like they’d been shaved, cleaned, but I didn’t know if it was an effort to control the fire should it get that far, or if it was just the unique terrain. The area is a hummocky, rolling volcanic field made from clusters of once-active cinder cones. Occasionally you can see the hardened lava rocks, naked in the sun, where there are tears in the earth from road-building and other excavations. This geological feature is the third largest of its kind in the United States.
As we turned onto 191, the signs of the fire became more obvious, areas that had been back-burned to prevent the fire from advancing, then there were the first signs of charring from the actual fire. Near Nutrioso, to my immense relief, I saw that the vast meadow that had always contained many grazing horses, was still there, untouched, as were the surrounding trees. The horses were munching on grass, unaware of the danger that had mercifully bypassed them.
In many places we saw where the fire had advanced almost literally to the doorsteps of people’s homes. Some of the residences looked like summer cabins to which those who owned them had not yet returned. The closer we got to Alpine, the more damage we saw. We stopped to photograph an area where the fire had climbed, leaving the top of the ridge nothing more than ash, but the valley below it had mostly been spared. During our day’s journey we found several areas where the fire had flashed over the road and roared up a hillside, seeking more oxygen and devouring it as it went up onto the top and into the wind. During the time of the fire, the wind had been relentless.
We were lucky as we rode that the weather was sunny and pleasant. Big white cumulus clouds were building up, however, and we knew we shouldn’t stay late. We’d been warned about the combination of ash and soil that could wash down the unprotected hillsides in the rain and make for dangerous riding conditions.
We left Alpine and began to climb into 191, the curves that are my favorites from Alpine to Hannagan Meadow. I slowed down today, though, looking. Oh, it isn’t too bad, I thought to myself. There were some burned areas, but nothing like I had imagined. However, we came to some of the turns that were particularly pretty last fall and I saw with dismay that they were burned more severely. There would be no swooping through turns this fall and watching the golden leaves swirl and dance in my riding partner’s wake. The aspens were gone, and many of the pine trees were severely burned.
Farther up the road we found several areas that had been absolutely torched. The ash lay deep on the forest floor, and there was little left of the forest but blackened sticks. Scorch marks lined the road, and where the fire had been most severe and hot, the forest looked desolate. I smelled the acidic, pungent, charred smell of burn, a smell with which I was most familiar. Those were the most depressing moments of the trip, knowing it would take many years for the particular beauty for which this stretch of road is known, to return. There was little debris on the road except in one small spot, but a rider could see how easily the hillsides, no longer held by any vegetation, could come down in a rainstorm and make for particularly greasy riding conditions.
During the entire day, we both noticed that most of the people traveling on the 191 were motorcyclists. I had the sense that “this is our road,” and we were all surveying the damage. No one was riding fast and carefree, we were all seeing it with a sense of loss in our hearts. There was little to say or to think except sadness.
We reached Hannagan Meadow Lodge and to our relief, it was still standing. The area around it is still green, the buildings are intact, and the big meadow across the street from the lodge is green and looks untouched. A Harley rider and his girlfriend rode in after we had and we talked for a few minutes. They had started in Springerville, and gone south a few more miles past Hannagan Meadow and had turned around. The little store at the lodge had not yet re-opened; people were inside it, but they weren’t open for business. Probably those at the lodge were recovering from its near loss and had only recently been allowed to return.
The Harley riders left, and soon, so did we. Up the road, they graciously let us pass as they were going much more slowly than we were. We stopped often to get photographs. In one of the areas we stopped, the roadway was down in a canyon that is rather narrow. It looked almost like the fire had been trapped there for a time. The wind had whirled and the flames created an inferno, turning everything to ash. Above us on the ridge, the fire had eventually climbed up and torched everything there, too. I parked my bike and got off, walked into the ash-covered, hallowed ground, knowing I was the first human to walk there since the scathing fire swept through; my boots touched the flour-y ash, I laid face down in it to frame a photograph, became part of it for a moment. I saw holes where there were once trees; the fire had burned down into the ground and consumed the roots as well. I remembered reading the words of one silvologist who warned against walking in recently burned forests, so I stayed near the edge. The tortured shapes of burned trees, frozen in contorted shapes by the fire, were haunting.
Looking at everything on the return trip was a useful experience, to see everything again and really let the damage soak in. It was still heartbreaking, but not in the total way that I had feared. In Springerville, we fueled up, and we chose to take the 60 back to Show Low as it looked like the 260 would soon be under a huge storm that was brewing. We watched it develop off to our left as we rolled on the 60, the sheets of rain became white, and we knew that we’d made the right decision to stay out of it.
After a late lunch in Heber at our favorite place, the Red Onion, we headed to Payson. The weather wasn’t done with us yet, though. We rode right into a black cloud that darted spears of cold rain on us from just outside Heber all the way to Star Valley. After we stopped one last time in Payson, we looked over our shoulders to the east. We saw a rainbow, formed from the storm we’d left behind.
I viewed it as a sign, a symbol. We’d ridden through the storm then emerged on the other side to find a rainbow. I’d come to this ride ready for heartache and depression at the lost beauty and the loss of solitude a quiet lush forest provides, but instead I came away with more hope than despair.