Craig Allen Heath
May the Bridges I Burn Light the Way
Updated: Jan 20, 2019
The morning of November 8, 2018, about 8:30, my wife and I were beginning our day as we had for years: Workouts, a light breakfast, a shower, sitting down to the day's tasks. A half hour later, we were driving past walls of flame, our dog and a few belongings thrown in the car, fleeing for our lives. A bright fall morning was turned to midnight by the smoke. We felt the flames through the car's steel and glass, oven-hot and leaping as if angry with us. We crawled along in packed traffic like a line of metal animals on nose-to-tail migration, stopping a moment then moving on. It was the earlier stage of the evacuation of Paradise, California, before people began abandoning cars and running with babies and pets in arm, most finding safety, over 80 such people left behind, never able to tell friends and family how lucky they felt to have survived.
We drove on, taking four hours to reach the kennel where Coco stayed when we traveled, a trip that had taken 20 minutes just a week before. We left her with the man we say she calls Uncle Terry, then spent 42 days and nights moving from hotel to hotel every two or three days, every room in the area, from luxury hotels to dingy motels taken up by either thousands of evacuees like us pouring down out of the foothills, or the thousands of first responders going the other direction, their great trucks and SUVs like steel salmon swimming upstream in a river of fire to reach the headwaters and carry out their life's duty. Those first six weeks are a blur in my mind today, the way a performer might look back on a whirlwind tour and have trouble remembering each city visited, so short was the stay and so limited the experience.
At the start of the second week we got a bit of a break, a few days in Red Bluff, and we allowed ourselves an extravagance. We enjoyed lunch at the Sugar Shack - a wonderful cafe in the old downtown, then shopped the upscale boutiques awhile. We were raw-nerved, frightened, knowing nothing of what the next day or week or month would bring. Pat bought a new plush toy, a small, wide--eyed, black-faced sheep. Along with two real cats, we'd left behind a small army of plushies, each with a name and a history and a personality and a voice, and we had no idea of any if them would again be made to talk and laugh and cry by virtue of the lines we wrote and put into their mouths. She cried a bit in the store as I paid, and I realized for the first time that we were, for all our wealth and luck, actually refugees, and likely homeless.
I bought a whisky flask. I would put tequila into it eventually, not whisky, but I couldn't resist the wholly unnecessary expense. Carved into the the plain, square, stainless steel bottle were the words "May the Bridges I Burn Light the Way". It has become my toast, should I ever get another occasion to give a toast, and at the moment I made the flask my own I felt the earth turning under me, knowing without any news that the twenty-year continuity of our lives had snapped like a dry twig and would never be the same. So I toast that time, that life, burned and buried and now washing down the mountain in rivulets of mud as the rains that came too late have come too heavy to be contained on those now barren ravines.
We found a temporary home in Eugene, Oregon, five days before Christmas, and now have enjoyed a full month of relative calm and stability. We're buying back the material of our lives, replacing what can be replaced, grieving the loss of what cannot. In the first 10 days of January I finished my first novel and entered it into two contests, frantically making final edits almost to the hour of the deadline. It is a murder mystery with a working title of For Want of Scripture. The story is set in a small Sierra Nevada foothill town called Eden Ridge, thick with pines and oaks, famous for antique stores and small town attitudes, a shadow of the home town we all lost that day. The book may see print or it may not, but the real town that is gone lives on in the memories of thousands. In the pages of one small book a sketch of it lingers in my mind, and if I am lucky it may introduce others to what I loved best about a place that almost lived up to its name.