A little over a month ago on a blue sky Friday morning in June, I was driving north of Durango to take some out-of-town friends for a hike in the mountains. My heart sank when I saw a puffy plume towering beside the highway near the Hermosa Cliffs. One of those deep, belly moments arose, when you're not sure why, but you know this is not good.
As I rounded Shalona Hill, orange flames and black smoke came into view, absorbed with their task of licking ponderosas to charred sticks and busily focused on an uphill trajectory, away from their origin: the railroad tracks.
When I deduced that the sinister puffy plume roaring up the Hermosa Cliffs came from the idyllic puffy plume that chugalugs through Durango each morning on its journey north, I felt sick. But I pressed on, leading my friends on a hike to Spud Lake with their four youngsters as the wind picked up and smoke settled over the Twilight Range above us.
By the time we got out, the highway had closed. They were good sports about the six-hour reroute we'd have to take to get back home, and Tacos del Gnar certainly didn't hurt the day's new adventure. I rushed home to make the Durango Blues Train, wondering how it would feel to ride the train through town into the growing cloud of smoke north of town.
The wondering was pointless, for the Blues Train was cancelled and we rocked in the train yard instead. A strange mood that would become the norm for the next month settled over town. The following nights, we made forays up dirt roads and trails to watch the wildfire move, explode trees, send firestorms into gullies, and rage at will, while tiny helicopters hauled even tinier buckets, reminding us all of our smallness in the scheme of things.
They call it the 416 Fire. A week later, it got a little brother called the Burro Fire, which sparked on the northwest side of the La Plata Mountains. The companion plume looked like small potatoes next to the pyrocumulous cloud looming over town. We had a trip planned to Oklahoma and begrudgingly left Durango. Such a strange feeling leaving your hometown alone in its time of need.
While we were gone, rain dances and prayer circles formed. Grassroots community events sprang up with everything from donation drives to sock piles to shopping blitzes. The Let the Love Rain Down campaign launched. So amazing to be apart of a family that takes care of each other so well. And to have a God listening to the cries of His people. Because what else could explain the weather phenomenon that creeped toward the San Juan Mountains two weeks after the fire started?
Hurricane Bud. What a pal. This unseasonal, surprising Pacific storm brought just the right amount of rain at just the right pace at just the right time. It rained more over the weekend than it typically rains the entire month of June. The moisture brought much needed aid to the firefighters, and a much needed respite to Durango.
By the time we returned, it felt like things were breathing again. The sky was flushed out to blue again, the ground was sopping wet from fat raindrops. Life returned to normal for a bit.
And then the wind and dry heat returned, kicking up the 416 to 52,000 acres as of July 3. It's now one of the top 10 largest wildfires in Colorado history. While homes and neighborhoods are safe for now, the fire is still less than 40-percent contained. Silver linings are growing harder to define, even for the most hopeful of us.
When we moved to Durango in 2013, my first job was guiding yard tours and answering questions at the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum in downtown Durango. In my downtime, I wiped soot from glass cases scattered throughout the museum, taking in the fine details of handcrafted model cars, polished watch fobs, and wooden frames filled with photos of olden days in the San Juan Mountains.
During my shift, I listened intently to the curator, Jeff Ellingson, as he spun tales of miners and hard times, ghost stories and Wild West anecdotes. Five years later, I still revert to Jeff for historical fact checks and insights into a bygone era, and I still love the smell of tar on the tracks, the sound of the whistle steaming through town in the morning, and the puffy plume suspended in the air above the Animas River as the train chugalugs north.
Just as the Animas River is the lifeblood of Durango, the D&SNGR is the monetary pulse that allows us all to live in this remote corner of Southwest Colorado. An estimated $33 million dollars will be lost as a result of cancelled train trips, cancelled hotel reservations, no visiting bodies from Texas, Oklahoma, Germany, and elsewhere eating and drinking and shopping at our local restaurants, breweries, and stores. And that's not even counting Silverton, bless their hearts.
So what to do? How to keep smiling and plugging in when weariness takes over? I don't know. Thirty-three days after the fire started, my optimism sags. My eyes itch. My voice creaks. My head aches.
I think of the Animas City Farmers Market that I launched the week after the fire started with some friends in our neighborhood. We laughed then about how we'll look back on this and shake our heads about the time we started a farmers market during the 416 Fire. I think of my friends with newborns, and those who are soon to give birth, and those who struggle with asthma. I think of visiting family and friends. I think of firefighters far from their homes. I think of business owners. I think of all of the woodland creatures trapped by hungry flames, of the fish suffocating in ashy watersheds. I think of the loss of romance that used to start my day with a little train whistle that I wonder if I'll ever love again. I think of the wilderness ablaze, no thanks to the unnatural cause of a coal-fired train that chose to operate when our forests were in Stage 2 restrictions.
I vacillate between sadness, anger, exhaustion, and, finally, hope. Because at the end of this all - and it will pass - there will be green. There will be newness. There will be a sense of solidarity in the community. There will be redemption through the suffering.
This weekend, we drove north to a friend's wedding in Loveland. The sky grew ominous as the time of the ceremony approached. They postponed for an hour, waiting for the wind to die down. But the afternoon grew colder, damper, and, just as the bride was walking down the aisle, raindrops started to fall. She met her groom and someone handed them a white umbrella to share. The rain turned to a pour and eventually a deluge, leaving just the bride, groom and officiant standing under a trellis of Lillies.
The skies released for as long as it took the couple to share their vows and make a few jokes about timing. Thirty minutes later, the rain stopped, the couple was pronounced husband and wife, and, as soon as the dance floor dried, we made moves to Beyonce and some traditional Bolivian tunes. In a year of drought and Colorado wildfires, a rainy day could not be a more auspicious sign for the newlyweds. More of that please...