Saturday, June 9, 2012
Looking at these two happy rusticators enjoying the peaceful babble of the Rio Ruidoso this morning, you'd never guess that just 15 miles north of where they sat a galloping forest fire was burning people out of their homes. Or that a few hours later, they and their photographer would be refugees themselves.
It's the latest and gaudiest episode in a "heading west" saga that keeps turning awkwardly and sometimes catastrophically away from the path that we planned for it.
Our rental truck wouldn't hold all our furniture. A sharp-eyed foot patrolman lurking near the Lincoln Tunnel cited us for a seatbelt violation just before we made our getaway. The high school graduation celebration we were supposed to attend in Iowa was cancelled for lack of a few credits. The friend's home where Pam was supposed to stay to keep her daughter company while the friend recovered from double knee replacement surgery proved uninhabitable due to cats and asthma.
Pam and Elizabeth flew from Iowa to San Antonio, where another friend was selling us her mom's SUV, ten years old but with low miles and therefore a great bargain. I dropped off our furniture in Ruidoso and turned in the truck in San Antonio where Pam met me with our new ride.
Our cabin won't be done until August, so we've rented a house in Ruidoso not far from the spot shown above. We headed toward it, but with a couple of weeks to kill before we could get into the rental, we decided to drive to the Big Bend on the way. On the long, desolate road that leads to the park, we hit a deer. Our car and that poor animal were probably the only two moving objects within ten miles, but somehow we both ended up trying to occupy the same point in all that space at the same time.
The impact sheered off the grill, smashed the right headlight assembly, crunched the right front quarter panel so the passenger side door wouldn't open, and shredded the bumper. I had to saw off the flapping excess with a Swiss Army knife before we could go on.
The car looked terrible but seemed fine for daytime driving. We reported the accident to our insurance company, cut our park visit to one day and drove straight to New Mexico counting our blessings. But when I got the vehicle to a body shop a few days later, the estimator clucked and murmured solemnly as he examined the damage, much of it invisible and some from prior accidents. Our car, which could still do 80 miles an hour uphill without breathing hard or a hint of wobble, was declared a total loss and impounded as unroadworthy.
Two days ago we bought another SUV at a real world price, only partly offset by the insurance settlement which we're not likely to see for a while anyway. Yesterday we moved into the rental house in Ruidoso's lovely Upper Canyon, where tall Ponderosa pines cover the steep slopes that lead down to the banks of the small stream above. We took a deep breath and figured we'd finally put the worst behind us.
The serene moment was a short one. A bear chased our neighbors out of their hot tub and browsed for edibles around their house, ignoring shouts, barking dogs and the large rocks they pitched at it. Bears are fairly common. But then I looked out our kitchen window and saw a large cougar sauntering down the slope just yards from the deck where Elizabeth and I had been playing with some new toys minutes earlier. Where do people come off thinking New York is dangerous?
Wild animals are one thing. Wild fires are another. We already knew one had been burning for weeks in the Gila National Forest far to the west of us. But as we came out of the Walmart parking lot late yesterday, we were shocked to see a vast plume of smoke rising from behind the summit of Ruidoso's iconic Sierra Blanca.
We monitored the state fire information website throughout the evening and went to bed on edge. By this morning, the blaze had expanded to 10,000 acres, closed the main highway north of town, knocked out the towers relaying all local cell phone and wireless Internet service, damaged three lifts at Ski Apache on which Ruidoso's winter economy depends, and burned at least 20 homes.
High winds were driving most of the smoke to the northeast, but by mid-morning some of it was drifting into Ruidoso and Pam was starting to feel it in her lungs. We re-packed the car and drove south to Alamogordo, where I'm writing this.
Since the fire seemed to be moving northeast and away from the village, we didn't think there was much danger we'd lose our home or our half-completed cabin. Yet shortly after we left, authorities issued a "pre-notification," a sort of heads up, that evacuation of the Upper Canyon might become necessary.
Now we sit in our motel room, catch glimpses of what's been dubbed the Little Bear fire on the national news, and wonder when we'll be able to go back to our new home or what we'll find when we get there. Pam and I are getting a little weary of living out of suitcases. Only Elizabeth seems not to mind.
As we returned to the Best Western from a mediocre Chinese dinner, she smiled and sighed happily as we pulled in at the curb in front of room 102.
"Home," she chirped.