If you had the chance to go back in time, would you? I have always thought, no, why would I want to do that? That is, until I had the chance to do it, at least in a virtual sense.
One evening while I was idly playing around on the internet, I went to Google Earth to “fly around” and see what I could see. I visited the house where I grew up in Wisconsin, the Sipapu Ski area in New Mexico, and then I thought I’d visit Alpine, AZ.
I “flew” over all the places Hal and I like to visit in Alpine, and then started down Hwy. 191, hovering overhead as if I were a bird, following the road as it left Alpine. I saw all the burned trees that looked like blackened matchsticks from overhead, the result of the Wallow fire from 2011. Then I dropped down to the street level view. I moved my finger over the pad on the laptop, then froze. It took me a moment to realize what I was seeing, because what I was seeing was that area, but before the devastation of the Wallow fire! The image dates were from June of 2008, three years before the fire.
I moved my finger, and moved along the road as if I were riding on it. Wow, I thought, this is how it looked before it all burned. I’d been on the road before the fire, but I had only passed through. I don’t remember in detail how it looked.
Then it dawned on me. If this part depicted the area before the fire, a few miles up the road at mile marker 250 must be shown that way, too! That is the place I have been photographing (several times) after the fire to record the various stages of rejuvenation after the fire. Slowly, I virtually made my way south on 191.
As I “rode” away from Alpine, I took my time, hardly daring to believe what my eyes were seeing. It was all there, all the trees, the foliage, the lushness of early summer. I recognized the shape of the terrain, and some rocky exposed sections next to the road. Otherwise, the greenery was not what I was used to seeing. Then, I got to The Spot at MM250. I stopped moving.
MM250 on Hwy. 191, “The Spot:”
Here is how we found it, the first weekend the area was open after the fire:
I sat at the computer, barely breathing. It was an eerie feeling, and I felt a chill run through my body. The morning light in the photos seemed a little too dark, like you would imagine it might be in an alternative reality. I felt like I was actually there, but wasn’t supposed to be. Looking down the road, everything was vividly in front of my disbelieving eyes. I spun around 360°. It looked like the same place, but yet it didn’t. If I hadn’t been so intimately familiar with every now-exposed undulation of the terrain, I would doubt it was the same place.
Prevent forest fires:
Please prevent forest fires:
I felt a plummeting depression as I looked at the details – the mature, majestic trees that had only three years to live at the time of the photo; the “prevent forest fires” sign that would, ironically, be burned black. The fence, made of wood, painstakingly cut, and meticulously constructed by hand, that would, except for one small section, be obliterated by the fire.
What was once the fence:
Right after the fire:
When I turned to face the trees on the west side of the road, my heart was breaking. I saw the tall, dignified trees, reaching up into the blue sky, bathed in the warmth of the summer sun at 8400 feet, and I knew that three years later almost to the day, I would lay down at their roots in the still-warm ashes that would be nearly all that was left of them.
Now, there is nothing, the burned trees near the road have been removed, the trees on the hillside are charred skeletons. The land is barren, and erosion has its way with the soil when the summer rains come.
I wanted to fall into my computer screen, to walk into the woods at that location, find the exact trees that had been left, those I had photographed right after the fire. I wanted to find the one that was twisted in agony, find the one that was charred into a toothpick, find the one that was incinerated to below ground level. I was chasing ghosts.
On the many occasions that I have been there recently, I have often felt the spirits of the living things that were gone. This time in the virtual reality, I saw the haunting apparitions of beings that appeared to be solid but had, in real time, vanished. They were there in front of me, but I knew they really weren’t anywhere anymore. I started to feel cold, as if their ghosts had passed through me, used me as a portal, to what I am not sure.
After a pause, I rolled slowly south, down the virtual road. I looked at everything, then stopped again. I shivered as I imagined the day the forest burned – how black with smoke the sky must have been, and how the wind rushed ahead of the fire. I could see the ashes swirling in the air, and then there was the roaring sound of the fire as it came through the narrow opening made by the road, roaring like a giant blowtorch. The fire climbed, consuming all as it went. It was undoubtedly over in a few minutes.
Looking south; the fire came from here:
I began to extricate myself from the scene. Time was passing as I sat at my computer, and it was getting late. Quickly, I went farther south on the road, and ended at Hannagan Meadow Lodge. I think I went there just to reassure myself that it was still there. I felt the same flood of relief that I had felt right after the fire, when I first saw that the lodge was intact, untouched by the fire. When we’ve recently stopped there at HML, I have seen the frightening night photographs of the glow from the fire, a halo of red behind the lodge. It was only saved because the firefighters made it their base camp.
Finally, I closed the Google Earth window. I was exhausted, and I had to get up early for work. My head was still filled with the images, both before and after the fire, when I got into bed. As I closed my eyes, I thought of the first line of the book, Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again …”
Last night I dreamt of fire again …
Thank you to Google Earth for unwittingly preserving what we will not see again for a long time.
The Wallow fire was started by a campfire that was not carefully and completely extinguished. It became the largest wildfire in Arizona history, burning 534,639 acres.