So I moved to Napa.
Merry and I first came to the Bay Area about 4 years ago and found a cool little apartment north of the city. There was a youth league baseball park across one street from us in one direction, and an undeveloped, green field in the other. We had a big, wrap-around porch outside, and we were surrounded by trees. I don't dislike city living, but like most writers, I tend to prefer a little peace and quiet over the clamor of city life, just because I find it hard to concentrate when there's too much going on outside my window.
Unfortunately the population of the Bay Area is growing by leaps and bounds every year, and housing is always in demand. Last year a new apartment complex replaced the green space across the road, and our own landlords decided they could make more money by cramming more units into our already-cramped community. The result was an ugly wasteland of dirt and machinery, and for months, we had construction crews and cranes 10 feet outside our front door.
We looked around for a new place, but most of the options south of us were pretty old and didn't offer much for the money. Then we ventured farther east and discovered Napa. Both of us more or less fell in love with it. We found a nice, relatively affordable place near town and moved in at the end of last summer.
If you've never seen Napa, it's pretty great. The west side of Napa County is nothing but open fields and grass-covered mountains. Miles of grape fields running through rolling hills, cottage wineries, and organic farms. In the morning, you can see thick, cloud-like fog running over the mountains and dipping into the valleys. The east side is made up of a quaint little town which runs along the Napa River. It's a bit touristy, but the food and the wine are fantastic. The parking is free. And the gym where I work out? Probably the nicest I've been in. Not to mention, we're still only an hour from San Francisco. Cost of living isn't exactly cheap, but it beats waking up to jackhammers at 7a.m., and stepping over ditches to get to my car.
Then, a few weeks after we moved in, the fires hit. We were watching a movie around midnight when Merry smelled smoke. When we walked outside, we discovered the sky was covered in rolling, dark clouds. Twitter was abuzz. The internet was lighting up. But the neighborhood itself? As still and quiet as any other night. We pinged a few of our neighbors, but most people weren't willing to accept the seriousness of the situation yet.
Merry and I figured it was better to be safe. We packed a suitcase, grabbed our 2 cats, and hit the highway. There are several roads that venture north/south, but only one major throughway that goes west into Sonoma County. It was already closed when we drove past. The entrance was surrounded by emergency vehicles. An ominous, orange glow hung against the sky, flickering against the dark clouds.
We drove 40 minutes south to the city of Vallejo - which is just northeast of San Francisco - and got a hotel. We had escaped the worst of the danger but weren't nearly far enough to escape the effects. By the time we stepped into the parking lot, ash from the fires was raining from the sky. It was falling in small, gray flakes. Some of it was still hot.
We checked in and waited out the night, not knowing if we'd have a home to go back to in the morning. Neither one of us could sleep. Our cats were freaked out; both of them paced up and down the room all night as if patrolling for intruders.
In the morning, the news deemed the town of Napa clear, at least temporarily, and we went back. We returned to find the roads jammed. Many of our neighbors were packing their belongings, loading up their cars, and heading off into the yonder. What a difference a few short hours makes. But by then, the fires had grown some measure of predictability, and Merry and I decided to stay at home. It was an easier decision given that neither one of us has family close by, and there were early reports of thieves taking advantage of the crisis by breaking into abandoned homes.
The next 3 days were slow. We confined ourselves to the indoors, glued to the latest news updates. We bought painters' masks but couldn't venture outside for more than a few minutes at a time. Even inside, the air stank. The cats were still freaked out, and no one knew if the authorities would be able to contain the fires.
Then on the 4th day, they evacuated the east side of Napa, which is less than a mile from our front door. Things were getting unbearably claustrophobic. We were waking up every couple of hours at night to check the news, just to make sure we weren't in any immediate danger.
If you're a creative person, I always think it's important to have a way to blow off steam. That might be yoga, video games, running, or anything else. For me, it's always been hitting the gym. After 6 days of non-activity, I was going bonkers. In spite of the evacuation, the air wasn't as bad as it had been, so at 6am that Sunday, I decided to put on my painter's mask and go for a little jog along a nearby running trail.
It was a surreal experience. The trail and surrounding fields were completely deserted. No noise, no lights, no sign of any people. Overhead, thick, gray clouds continued to roll in waves through the sky. But the weirdest thing was the wildlife. The local animal population had been displaced, and there were dozens of rabbits bounding along the trail, hanging out in human-friendly areas they never would have been before. I wasn't 5 minutes into my jog when I saw a coyote come bounding across the field chasing one. Coyotes usually aren't dangerous when they're alone, but the sight was enough to make me turn around. Rural California is rife with coyotes, lynx, mountain lions, and other mid-sized predators, and with the fires raging through the mountains, there were liable to be a lot more animals on the run.
I went back home and toughed it out for another 2 days. By then, the emergency was almost past, and the evacuation ban was lifted. The town of Napa was spared, as were many of the wineries, and thankfully, our home. Not everyone was so lucky, and the damage along the eastern and northern fields was devastating.
It took a couple more weeks for the fires to reach 100% containment. A few weeks more for the air to clear up. I went back to work writing, and our cats finally settled down. By the end of October, life was more or less normal again.
I wanted to talk a little bit more about the positive things to come out of the experience, and what I've been working on since late October, but this post has run hella long. So I'll just say this: nature is a remarkable thing. Not just in its ability to inspire awe with its destructive capability, but with its power to heal itself. People lost their lives in the fires. Homes were destroyed, and a few businesses lost. Those things will never come back. But the green of the mountains and the vegetation along most of the hills is almost completely restored. It rained in late October, and within days, new life had sprouted along the blackened scorch marks and fire scars dotting the landscape. Now, 7 months later, you can't even tell where the fires passed. It's a hell of a thing, realizing how insignificant your life can be, and how nature cares not one iota for your well-being.
Anyway, that's it from me from Napa, for now. Staying safe and writing, writing.