The first thing you see after leaving the one highway for the other is a Confederate flag protruding from a ramshackle house on the north side of the road winding through this seen-better-days town. The view improves, grows rich with green as buildings give way to forest and wildflowers edging the asphalt.
You keep driving.
The road and the temperature both climb. You glance at the familiar pull-outs serving as trailheads to familiar river spots, for a moment consider stopping at the easy places but instead continue on your quest to this new-to-you location, a place that sounds straight out of Lord of the Rings. You laugh at your observation.
As you pass the last town with cell service, you laugh less. The road reminds you now, you are in weed country, landslide country, fire country. After a while – 20 minutes, maybe half an hour – some structures show up alongside the road. A bar. A hardware store. A gas station. You pull up next to a couple guys busy filling up a dozen gas cans and loading them into the bed of their 4×4.
“Excuse me,” you say, and ask them where to find the turn-off to the spot you seek. Your tone is too chipper for this place. They glance at each other and you think they might not answer, but one of them, not the one wearing the “Pray for Dirt, Really Good Dirt” T-shirt, but the other one, gives you the information you seek.
“Keep going,” he says, gesturing. “You’ll get to a place with road work, not the first one, but the next one, there’s a giant pile of gravel like they’re really trying to flatten it out. The turn is just past that.”
“Thank you so much!” you chirp. You drive on, the new Fleet Foxes album soundtracking your drive. You like the Fleet Foxes, a lot, but whoever described these songs as “jangly summer pop” in that newsletter of recommendations you read must have a limited experience of summer. Like, a very sad one. A mournfulness weaves through even the brightest melodies. You pull over, dust flying then settling on your car, the near-vertical hill looking as if it might fall on top of you any moment, and switch to a more upbeat playlist.
The road work sign and the flattened gravel appear and so does your turn. You take it.
Pavement gives way to dirt. You won’t be able to go too far if the road gets rougher, but you’re able to inch the Civic far enough to read the sign: “You are entering a burned area.” As if the last many miles of blackened trees had not been information enough.
And it is disconcerting, the burning, the aftermath, the knowledge everything is dry, dry, dry and no water is coming. But here you are at the edge of the river and green abounds under skier bluer than you’ve seen in months. The warmth and solitude are, right now, a reward, not a threat. You are not entirely alone – you passed a few campers on the way in and right here, around you, butterflies waft overhead, dragonflies skim the water and that might be an eagle overhead.
The river tumbles over rocks upstream and you smile at how the crashing sound soothes you. You breathe in stone and tree and earth and sky and heat and thank the world for holding still, just for a moment – you know nothing is truly still but the impression is enough. Just for a moment.
An exhale and you are in the river, cool water caressing you. You circle your arms and legs, for once going nowhere, your gaze following the branches of the blackened trees as they reach toward the blue, blue sky.
Note: Although nothing indicated this area was off-limits, only dangerous, be advised that it is officially closed for use.