Mother Saddleback is on fire.
Or at least she was. The mountain outside my back window, whose shapes and contours I study every day, was hit hard by something called the Holy Fire. The name comes from Holy Jim Canyon, a settlement of WPA wooden bungalows eight miles into the wilderness from my house. My cop friends carry a pistol every time they mountain bike up that way, saying it is likely home to meth labs. My varsity boys team use it for the turnaround point of their Saturday long run. They like it because the canyon narrows as you go farther into the mountains, until nature presses in so close on both side that you can touch. They also like that the uphill is a hard slog but the return is mostly downhill, making it easier to hit the hard tempo I demand the last four miles of every long run. I have increased their long run to sixteen miles this year because they are ready for it. The change is a challenge, one they grumble over but accept. "The more we suffer," said Vince Lombardi, "the harder it is to surrender."
There were flames and smoke during the team's Mammoth training camp a few weeks back, so that when we came home and experienced more of the same it was as if we brought it with us. The smoke was so thick in Mammoth it was like Chengdu in crop-burning season — an acrid fog that blotted out the scenery and gave me a terrible cough. I hacked in great spasms, as if I'd developed a three-pack-a-day habit. We couldn't schedule workouts at normal times, instead telling the runners to be on stand-by for those random moments when the wind pushed away the smoke and showed blue skies. We'd sneak in a run as quickly as we could, then send the runners back into their condos to breath recirculating air.
The Holy Fire was nothing like that. There was only one day when I thought we might have to run indoors — or, better yet, just transport the entire team to San Clemente to run on the beach. Yet it somehow feels more personal. It might be weird to suggest that a mountain is a constant in my life, but I think that might be true of Saddleback. She is a mile high on Santiago, the tallest of her two peaks. Modjeska, the left side of the saddle from where I stand, is slightly lower but makes for a steeper mountain bike approach. Long ago, I considered Saddleback a mountain of minor significance, not worth my attention. But in over thirty years of studying her daily moods through sunshine, rain, snow, and fire, I marvel at the way her shape seems to change. Deep cuts in her surface make themselves known at times, while disappearing altogether during others.
Yet Saddleback is a constant in my life, a changing but steadfast visage. She has burned before, and I have stood on my driveway in the dead of night to see those giant orange flames leap into the sky. If they look so enormous from that many miles away, what must they look like to the firemen on the front lines?
I had a brother who once fought forest fires. He's been dead a long time, though not because of a fire. The sight of those flames made me wonder what he'd be like if he was still around. I believe Marc would be my boys' favorite uncle, the kind of guy who would earn their popularity by doing whatever it is that is the opposite of a bible study.
If it sounds like the Holy Fire made me melancholy, that is far from the case. I was energized by yet another change in the mountain, knowing that still more change is to come in the form of mudslide from denuded slopes and perhaps new configuration to the mountain itself. It will not all be for the good, nor even for the better. But it will be change.
Summer is effectively over for me. School has started and cross country practices have shifted from pre-dawn to late afternoon. This gets me back into my favored rhythm of writing each morning, while I'm firing on all cylinders. I find that the busyness of the day clogs creativity, so it is good to be back to my routine. I embrace it. I revel in it. I wake up every morning eager to run down to my office and put words on the page.
But I also feel the need to burn down my routine: adopt new habits, stretch myself creatively, push myself to grow up in areas where I am still adolescent in thoughts and deeds. This is the year that all three of our sons have moved out and moved on with their lives, leaving me and Callie to redefine what the next half-century is going to look like. I'd very much like it to be a time of regeneration, like with every fourth week of my team's training cycles and as Saddleback will soon endure.
Burn, baby, burn.