When we turned from 172 onto the intercontinental Northern Tier US Hwy 2 from Washington’s Lake Chelan, our view to the east was a plain of nubby sage and a highway cresting toward a smoke-filled horizon. The distant mountains were hidden in the haze. In a field across the remote junction stood a crumbling, long-weathered cabin continuing it’s descent into basalt enriched earth.
Were we about to turn onto a highway into the Apocalypse? Was the deteriorating cabin a metaphor of the future? This tunnel of bluish-gray smoke made us seem like we were hurtling toward a fiery end, and a New York Times illustration posted on a social media site highlighted the wild fires of the West as if this corner of the country was an arm of an 11-year-old with measles.
Two weeks earlier we had left on our trip from Minnesota driving toward the smoke-filled horizon from the other direction; this, after weeks of distressing beautiful sunsets featuring a reddish globe of a sun in the western sky. Smokesets? Through much of our 2,000 miles to the Oregon coast we continued to face into the smoke. There seemed to be no relief. Then we hit Spokane and amazingly, gorgeous blue skies gave us some nice clean air to breathe. It felt like a miracle, like a long, slow rain after weeks of being parched by intense heat. As it turns out, the areas near the coast were the only clear skies we would see … even now that we’re home.
Two summers ago we were here visiting friends who have a home on a mountainside plateau above Lake Chelan and the smoke from the wild fires was as thick as a Minnesota winter fog. We were pleasantly surprised when we arrived this year to find smoke-free skies. That all changed by late Friday afternoon, and by Saturday the smoke was nearly as thick as it was two years ago, likely from the fires in Northern Washington where the well-traveled but temporarily closed Highway 20 meandered through tall mountainous forests aplenty. On a fishing expedition for cutthroat trout Saturday morning the smoke hovered mere feet above the surface of Lake Chelan.
We would not escape the apocalyptic looking skies on the rest of our drive across the country as smoke blanketed us through the plains of Eastern Washington through the Idaho Panhandle. Sometimes you wonder if this will ever end, and I was reminded of my trepidation about this trip while viewing one more reddish global sunset on the eve of our departure. Were we placing ourselves in danger, not just from being caught in a wild fire, but about our ability to breathe healthy air? Should we cancel this trip we’ve planned for nearly a year?
These fires are resulting from a nearly nationwide drought blamed on global climate change. In Lauren E. Oakes’ book, “In Search of the Canary Tree,” she explored the broad scope of deaths of yellow cedar trees within the old growth forests of the Alaskan coast. Global warming had significantly reduced the amount of snowfall, which would blanket and protect the delicate root systems of the yellow cedars. She also concluded from her research that humans, even those most affected by the die-off of the trees, are more willing to adapt than to change.
Apparently the loss of the yellow cedars was no more of an “ah, ha” moment to encourage human-wide change than these smoke-choked skies. As a race, we’re adapting rather than seeking serious habitual change. And, I am humbly aware of my own contribution by driving on a multi-state vacation!
Traveling home we stopped at Beavertail State Park in Montana. In what two weeks before had been a picturesque hay meadow was now a fire camp with countless two-man tents, a tented mess hall, a tented and air conditioned infirmary and ample space for helicopter landings. There would be no escaping the heat for the fire fighters with temperatures still hovering around 96 degrees as the sun, settling into another red ball sunset, slowly slid behind the nearby mountains.
And, there would be no escaping for us, either. All across the 2,000 mile trip home, temperatures would be reaching into the mid-80s by mid-morning, and by noon, into the 90s. There was no avoiding the drought, the heat, or the smoke. We are still facing nearly a half-summer of a nationwide drought and wildfires from the Pacific coast eastward even into Canada. Yet, it seems we are, as a species, still awaiting some magical “ah, ha” moment that will spark actual change rather than adaptation; for us, and for the good of the planet. Driving into the apocalypse does tend to make you wonder.