(Note: I wrote this a while back, but it came to mind this morning as I drove out in the dark to look for surf, a proper dawn patrol, except that dawn never came. Instead we paddled out under what felt like dusk, water tinged red, oncoming waves hard to see. Nonetheless I found myself in the right place a few times, especially my last wave, a juicy little right that held up nearly to the beach, a strange moment of glee in these once-again end times.)
The sequins on my dress flash as I drive downtown, refract streetlight beams into sparkles along the dashboard. I think, am I too old for this? For an early morning sober rave organized by 20-somethings, 30-somethings, who-can-tell-with-all-the-glitter-somethings but definitely-younger-than-me-somethings? Pre-dawn yoga followed by two hours of dancing to DJ-provided EDM enhanced by live music in the form of a saxophone player with breaks for breakdancing and giant puppetry?
I find a space in the parking garage, step out of my car, smile at the sparkles dancing across the wall and check my phone once again for directions to this month’s location. It is November 16, 2018, three days after my 49th birthday, eight days after the Camp Fire broke out in Paradise. I stare at the blue dot representing my location on Google Maps and make my way toward Love + Propaganda, 85 Campton Place, downtown San Francisco, no sign of sunrise yet, just the smell of smoke in the air, the scent of urine on the street. There it is, the entryway to Daybreaker, hip-hop edition. I descend underground.
Smoke from the Camp Fire has filled Bay Area skies the past few days, a situation anyone who grew up in California grows accustomed to – a fire breaks out, the wind carries the smoke, ash falls from the sky, the sun glows red, everyone remarks on the apocalyptical nature of it all, the fire fades, the sky clears, we move on.
Only this fire would put to rest the idea of moving on. On November 8, a katabatic wind – named from the Greek word katabasis, meaning “descending”– rocketed down the canyon from the northeast, as it does every fall when high-pressure air parked over the Great Basin seeks a path through the Sierra Nevada to fill the low-pressure voids on the California coast. Like wind, I also seek a path to less pressure.
Inside the club, the only wind is that of the air conditioner’s fans blasting purified oxygen into our sweaty faces. I tuck a coconut CBD bar into my purse for later, scoop up a can of kombucha, pour oatmilk into my organic coffee and raise my cup as the DJ starts another song. We dance.
From news reports:
November 16, the Camp Fire was 146,000 acres and 50 percent contained.
November 16, casualties increased from 63 to 71.
We dance, saxophone over the beat, maté on our tongues. Even under the restroom’s fluorescent lights, my dress sparkles. I love your dress, a 20-30-whatever-something says to me. Thank you! I say. I love your boots! I wash my hands and do not look too long at my face in the mirror.
I scoop up something made of superfoods, rip off the packaging and return to the dance floor, slide into the empty spaces between groups, roll my body from one side to the other. I believe in the mission of the sober rave dance party throwers, I think, even if I can’t wholly embrace the idea of men in animal onesies. I feel the sense of unity evaporate and realize I need to go.
I refill my coffee and head upstairs, exit to the outside. Immediately, I choke. What was a distant-if-strong scent earlier has thickened – I am chewing on smoke. Later I would learn that the Air Quality Index measurements this day were the worst in the 20 years of their recorded air-quality history, but for now, all I know is I cannot see the top of the buildings through the brown haze layered over the City.
I make my way back to the parking garage, past the tents of homeless people, past the homeless people without tents, ash and smoke like blankets. I drive through the end times to where I stay in San Francisco. You have to leave, I tell my housemates because they have a child and children should not be breathing this air. You have to go. They do, in fact, and I stay.
I stay inside and read about people burning to death in their cars or living because they found refuge in a cold river and clung to each other, a manifestation of till death do I part that surely they never imagined. I stay inside and sob, reading. I stay inside except for when I walk down to the beach, surfboard tucked under my arm, because a horrible truth is that the same factors that make for wildfires often make for excellent surf – the warmth, the offshore winds – people are burning to death in their cars and the Golden Gate is buried under falling smoke and ash flashes in the glassy ocean and I am smiling at dolphins and paddling for yet another glimmering wave.