What’s Down the Road

Reflections on the Caldor Fire

When I was my son’s age, I walked ten miles in the snow to get to school. Well, more like three. And if I’m honest, that only happened once before I figured out how to take the bus or hitchhike.

This week, I watched in dismay as the Caldor fire breached the granite walls of Echo Summit and burned through the Lake Tahoe basin. On the map, in the middle of the area shown as actively burning, was the once snow-covered road I walked to school.

Also destroyed in the fire was the stretch of Highway 50 between Placerville and South Lake Tahoe, a road I’ve driven countless times, first as a passenger in my Mom or Dad’s car, and then as a driver. When you were arriving to Tahoe, the hour spent on Highway 50 was when you shed the petty concerns of city life and yielded to the long now of the Sierras. Departing Tahoe, it was a final hour to take that long now with you as you descended into the short now of human civilization.

There used to be an eight foot by six foot hand-painted sign on the side of the road. On the left side was a happy car driving through the mountains. On the right, a car crashed and crumpled. Below them was a simple message. LIFE or DEATH. No corporate or government logo, no “brought to you by your friends at” or “a friendly reminder from.” Pay attention, people. That’s the difference between life or death.

Yesterday, I took my son to the DMV to get the permit that will allow him to practice driving under the supervision of an adult. After checking in at the counter, we were told we would receive a text when it was our turn in, say, two hours. To kill time, we walked to the nearby grocery store to grab a few items. A by-now-familiar sign at the door informed customers they were required by state mandate to wear masks.

Inside the store, there was no visible indication of the global supply shortages you hear about in the news. We found everything we were looking for. In the express checkout line, we were tempted by over 100 different chocolate bars from around the world.

Our checker was a man who, behind the plexiglass shield and face mask, looked to be about 60. My son asked him, “How are you?” and my heart immediately sank at the prospect of feeling the bottomless wellspring of sadness that must surely exist in the man’s heart.

“Fantastic” he exclaimed with an enthusiasm so potent, it was impossible to tell whether he was fucking with us.

“We’re going to the DMV,” my son told him.

“Good for you!” he said.

I thought back to the last time I had worked a public-facing job like this one. I relied on something I called positive negativity. In such a job, you often face a relentless torrent of other people’s negativity, and in my experience, the only way to effectively counteract it was not with positivity, which usually came off as glib, but with negativity that was infused with so much positivity, it somehow transformed the negativity of the other person.

In some fraction of a second, I decided this checker wasn’t doing that. It was more like he had come to realize the fleeting nature of life, and from that point of view, even a trip to the DMV was something to enjoy, if not savor.

We went back to the Sienna and sat with the sliding door open, grateful for the breeze. To kill another half hour, we called Rich, who, it turned out, was taking a class at the community college in which they built a battery pack for an electric car. “A Tesla,” he told us, “uses an array of small batteries so if any one of them goes out, it’s cheap to replace. The ones we’re using are about the size of a paperback.” He addressed the next question to my son, “Do you know what a paperback is?” We then received a short lecture about the dirtiness of the rare earth metals required to make batteries, as well as the promise and danger of semi-autonomous driving features such as automatic collision avoidance. It occurred to me that some measure of the test my son was about to take was already an anachronism.

In the preceding weeks, I attempted to prepare him for the test, and often found myself answering questions about the way cars used to be. The necessity, for example, to pump mechanical drum brakes. The need to buckle the lap belt on those now discontinued automatic seatbelts. How we used to ride in the back of a pickup without a second thought.

The contours of our lives have grown steadily softer with each successive generation since World War II. At least, until the year 2020.

My son isn’t the only teen wearing a mask into the DMV. I’m not the only masked parent milling about the parking lot. We’re all doing our best to ignore the circumstances under which this right of passage is now taking place, like someone suffering from PTSD attempting to ignore the unresolved trauma that sticks to him, remaining ever present as he goes about his day.

I compulsively reach for my phone and check the map of the Caldor fire again. It now appears certain that the fire has destroyed the house of a close friend. I think of his son, a few years younger than mine. A few short weeks ago, we gave them a box of clothes that my son had grown out of, and I wondered if those had gone up in smoke.

I thought of my mother’s ashes, still on the shelf, waiting for me to let go, to take them to their final resting place in the Sierras. The phrase ashes to ashes lingers in my mind before I push it away.

Staring at the map of what’s been burned and what is still burning, I realize there’s an irony in grieving for a road that once led to a pristine wilderness. A road that, by many accounts, was the very reason for the loss of that wilderness. But how else would my mother have found an entrance to the long now? Or carried it back with her? Wasn’t that the real reason she trained and studied for her coveted commercial driver’s license?

My son misses a question about how to best save gas while driving. The correct answer, he’s told, is to make one trip instead of two. “Fuck them,” I spit. “That’s basic life advice.”

When I was my son’s age, there was a hit song with an environmental theme and an incongruous lyric that went like this: Put the message in the box, put the box into the car, drive the car around the world, until you get heard.

I don’t know what’s down the road for my son, or for any of the millions of teens now learning how to drive and heading back to school with their masks on. The Earth is overheating and, being one of her passengers, they’ll have to pay close attention, and ride it out.