24 nights you flew in dreams of morning dew, and slept, as the fires continued to rage and burn to ash… as the entire mountain continued to smolder you smelled smoke and sun permeating canvas. Time for breakfast and dust. And so you got up. Your expertise prevailed, though heat and dry and flame, bound by allegiance to capricious winds, urged sparks to inhale bufflegrass. Day and fire had broken bright, and another vertical flight, blessed the ground with a hopeful baptism. The fire moved east, the campsite cleared of the hazy iciensio, which had burned on La Iglesia, her overpowering nostalgia lingering beyond Conquistadors. You returned to yourself and camp, and all of you, weary of grime and seared sweat, enjoyed a warm shower, scrubbed worn muscles, washed away your daylight skills… to return to your dreams, until the next ride.
(This picture was taken two years ago. There is a temporary seasonal helipad near my barn. We sometimes use part of the area as an arena when the fire crews aren’t there. We asked permission to ride over and there were no fires or flights that day. The current Bighorn fire began with a lightning strike on June 5, and is now 45 percent contained, though air operations were grounded today due to extreme winds. Bufflegrass is an invasive species that has added to the difficulty in managing this fire. La Iglesia is a rock formation that makes up part of the Santa Catalina mountain range.)
While driving to the barn this morning, I see a spot on my windshield and start to make a mental note to wipe the bird poop off, until I notice that the bird poop is moving and it’s a helicopter, in the distance, flying towards the fires. Eighteen days now of heat, of smoke, of incineration. The firefighting crews are impressive with the helicopters like giant mosquitoes that suck up water through a hanging proboscis, and who then spit a brief waterfall at the xylophagic flames. The pilots skim the sides of mountains in their small airplanes like voracious waterfowl looking for insects or fish to snatch up, but their prey is more dangerous. The planes drop loads of red fire retardant slurry. They look like harpooned sharks of the air, flumes of color floating out behind them, but here, instead of dispersing in pretty swirling patterns in the water, the red descends, blanketing rattlesnakes and saguaro cactus and hard granite rock. The color shows the firefighters where they have been, and the side of the mountain resembles some kind of macabre tic tac toe board, where the player could only mark half an X and the O’s are nowhere to be seen.
Sweet Al calls out to me when he sees me emerge from my parked car. He’s been on stall rest for a few days because of his abscessed hoof. The vet has been out to see him and she managed to extract a tiny hard chip of rock wedged up in his foot. She thought maybe the bar had split and the chip had somehow managed to work its way in. He’s much less lame now, and we go on a short hand walk around the property. Copper, cattle, cotton, citrus and climate. Arizona’s Five C’s. For me it’s all about the copper, which is the color of Al’s fiery coat. After I return him to his stall, I put a few handfuls of timothy pellets in a scarred lavender feeder ball. I place it in his stall. He nudges it with his nose, encouraging pellets to fall out so that he can eat them. While I’m at it, I open one of the bags of peanuts that my husband bought at Costco, toss a few into his stall, and a few more to the mares in the turnout. It’s not yet noon, but the air sizzles, and as the afternoon approaches we’ll tip past the triple digits. Today’s predicted high is 104 F. I think of the firefighters. Sweat travels in rivulets down my back and the air inside my Kn95 mask is hot.
I need the mask. Everyday, every afternoon I gaze at the sky. Blue. Blue. Blue. Completely cloudless. Today, yesterday, tomorrow. Now half the sky is filled with white, but those aren’t clouds. It’s smoke. We smell of barbeque. We are weary. We tire of avoiding the harmful particulates and infectious agents occupying our air. Now back at home, my hair is still damp from my shower and the ceiling fan moves the air around me in intoxicating coolness. I’m joyful. One stone has been removed. One small fire extinguished. One tomorrow will certainly bring the rain. Nature walks alongside us at her own pace and we find her irresistible.