For this post, I excerpt the prologue of my memoir, Rough Beauty: Forty Seasons of Mountain Living, a Colorado Book Award Finalist, out in paperback on June 4th. The passage details the cabin fire that claimed all my possessions and most of my writing two months before I turned 40 in the Spring of 2004. The challenges of high altitude spring have been much on my mind as my corner of the Rockies has expierenced one of the the snowiest and coldest in over seventy years. So many changes in my life since this time, including most recently, a change in my solitary status: Greg and I eloped May 1st. –KA
and one knows,
after a long time of solitude, after the many steps taken
away from one’s kind, toward the kingdom of strangers,
the hard prayer inside one’s own singing
is to come back, if one can, to one’s own,
a world almost lost, in the exile that deepens,
when one has lived a long time alone.
Driving home that morning, I glanced up through the slender bodies of lodgepole pine, a silhouette of trees against an impossibly blue Colorado sky. A few crows trailed the hillside, scouting for trouble. The birds reminded me of packs of teenage boys—loud and rowdy and full of themselves. It was early still, perhaps 10:00 A.M., and chilly, the first day of March. I’d built a fire in the woodstove of my cabin, where nighttime temperatures inside dipped into the low fifties, before I’d gone out to deliver mail on a rural route, one of three part-time jobs. Elvis, a handsome blond husky-mix and my constant companion, sat in the seat of the old blue 4Runner next to me, nosing the cold mountain air through a crack in the window.
I was thinking about spring, the change of season. Despite years of mountain living and the fact that I should have known better, my whole body buzzed with thoughts of warmer, longer days, hummingbirds whirring at my deck, the smell of rich dirt rising from the softening earth. The first real glimpse of spring—Pasque flowers shocking the russet landscape with pale purple—would not come for another six weeks, but I allowed myself to be hypnotized by the sensation of thaw.
This winter had been full of firsts: I’d finally settled into a home after too many awkward years of moving from place to place; I’d finished the last of three college degrees; and I was gloriously alone, without the economic necessity and relative instability of housemates. I had only myself to annoy or answer to. After over a decade of the roller coaster of odd jobs and school, I’d come to rest at last. Here, I told myself, was where I would begin. In settling down for the first time in my life, my commitment was not to a person but to a place. Forgoing the possibility of job offers in other states or the economic comfort of a nine-to-five life, I placed my bet on landscape, putting all my chips on wildness.
I’d landed on one of the highest habitable places on the apron of the Front Range of the Rockies that still offered Internet access and a reasonable (fifty-minute) commute to the nearest city (Boulder). The Bar-K cabin stood at 8,500 feet, where the winters were long and the summers brief, but glorious. There were a handful of neighbors spread across the mountain, most settled on one- to two-acre lots kept private by uneven terrain dotted by lodgepole, kinnickinnic, and currant bushes. Another few hundred people lived in Jamestown, four miles down-canyon, where I’d lived for a few years when I’d first gotten Elvis and now cooked at the Mercantile Café, the town’s one and only business. I wasn’t living in the wilds of Alaska, but the relative isolation and solitude of living “up top” suited both me and my semi feral dog, who behaved far better without fenced yards and leashed walks. We were both a bit untamable.
I let the day fly ahead with the crows as I turned my truck onto Crockett Trail and the forest closed in as I glanced toward home. Inexplicably, something glowed on the rise where the cabin sat; the trees nearby were lit by warm light, the same lovely, eerie light a campfire casts in the woods. A voluminous orange cloth covered the deck on the west end of the cabin. Against logic, I wondered if the landlord was fumigating. The cloth swayed elegantly in the morning air, forming scarlet and orange ripples that flicked and snapped.
It took a second for the picture to make sense.
My home was on fire. The thought slammed into my chest. I stomped on the gas pedal and smashed my fist into the truck’s horn.
The first rule of fire is to move away, but the instinct to save both the pieces and proof of my existence was automatic. I ran toward the fire, toward the heat, inexplicably, thinking of the rent check I’d written out that morning and the first new top I’d purchased in months hanging inside my closet with its price tags still on. Fire rolled and tumbled in great waves from the front room onto the deck to the west with the steady systematic roar of a train, the same sound a tornado makes. The house had long north and south faces, and the fire was concentrated in the northwest corner, near the front door and the woodstove, and along the deck on the west side. Flames tongued the gas grill and a half-full tank of propane on the deck. Beneath, a pile of old scrap wood would catch at any moment. The deck burned audibly; the cracks and pops pierced the roar. Inside, a wall of flame advanced through the long tunnel of the house toward the rear and my office.
The last tenant had had a chimney fire, I remembered suddenly, a little sick. They were not uncommon on the mountain, where so many homes were heated with wood. But all winter, my mantra had been “I’m careful.” I’d had the chimney swept in the fall, and my primary fuel—oak—burned clean and hot. Dimly, I recognized my own smugness as part of a collective lie people tell themselves: “That won’t happen to me” is the thin glass between safety and danger, the illusion of control held against a messy, unpredictable world.
I ran to the east end, thinking of my computer sitting on my desk just four feet inside the back door. The fire had progressed only a quarter of the way through the cabin, sending flames into the living room and threatening the kitchen. There was still time. I could save the most important thing. So I opened the back door.
The second rule of fire cautions against entering a burning building. But I was already cataloging what work could be lost: two books of poems, a collection of short stories and a book of essays I’d been working on, countless notes and fragments—all on my computer. Of course, I didn’t have a backup, a fireproof box, a disk stored in my truck or somewhere else. We always imagine disaster happening to someone else. Even though every writer I’d known whispered the horror of Hemingway’s lost stories in shuddering tones, I somehow felt immune to catastrophe—though I’d survived plenty of them in my life.
The door sprang free in my hand and a blast of black smoke kicked me back off the rear porch. I stumbled, coughing, and caught myself on the ground thirty feet away, pounding it with my fist, yelling, “No! No! No! No!” as if I could stop what was happening, as if I could extinguish the fire with the strength of my arm hammering the earth and the will of that one thought: STOP.
This can’t be happening shuddered across my brain. I was sobbing now, great, gut-wrenching cries rising from the deepest part of my body. But there were no tears, only wails surging from me, like thunder, the sound made in the atmosphere as ions and elements rush back together.
Now I had broken the third rule of fire: I’d left the door open, and cold mountain air poured into the house, feeding the blaze. More thick black smoke gushed out, billowing across the dry winter ground. The bird feeders were empty, the sky clouded over. I moved away, back to my truck, and drove it across the road to Chuck and Barbara’s, leaving Elvis inside while I went to watch the fire from my driveway.
An eeriness set in on the mountain. A kind of disjointed silence. The world went perfectly still: Except for the constant thunder of fire, the woods were marked by an absence of sound. No birds calling or squirrels chattering, no shouts, no gathering crowd. I stood alone, waiting for the fire truck. It began to snow.
* * *
Later, when I looked at pictures taken of the fire, I would see a home glowing with contained light. The thick walls and metal roof kept the fire in. From a distance, the blaze through the trees looked radiant—cheery almost—as if my home was a giant woodstove. Indeed, I was told the inside temperature reached one thousand degrees.
My cabin had become a kind of kiln.
Only a few things emerged: a cast-iron fry pan; my favorite pottery mug embossed with the sun, the moon, the stars; and a bear fetish made from pumice. All forged by fire. Nothing else within the two feet of ash and metal inside the cabin’s charred footprint was salvageable—even my computer. I’d hopefully retrieved the steel box, but it was too late: The hard drive had dissolved into a pool of shimmering metal. For days, I puzzled over the shapes and forms I unearthed; I was an anthropologist, sifting through the debris of my life. For months, my home was a giant grave. The site would not be cleaned up until early summer. People from the neighborhood told me stories about charred paper scattered by wind—pieces of my journals, my stories blowing like snow across the mountain. My writing haunted the landscape.
Nearly forty, I’d scrapped and punched my way to the present moment; it had taken me years to build this fire. What remained was misshapen: my own skin and bones, the years I’d spent walking away, mistaking opposition for independence. It had all led me here. Fire had been with me from the start—it had a hand in my own making. Memory and grief were like ash. At first, in the months after I watched my cabin burn, the hard prayer was for survival. Let me live. Only later, after I had retreated further, becoming intimate with rocks and stars, letting landscape cover me, would I see that it was also my return.