I went to bed last night scared.
I had ridden from my secret hideout north of Prospect, where the S’Mores Gang holes up, to Butte Falls. From there I’d planned on stopping at Willow Lake, a county campground. Over the course of the morning and early afternoon the weather turned dry, tinder dry, and hot. With an a la carte order of big wind, the short 35-mile day became longer and harder than it should have been.
It was also rolling and uphill. And the day felt weird. In Butte Falls, even two pints of ice cream couldn’t salve the weird feeling.
Willow Lake turned out to be ugly, hot, smokey, and $22. The first three I could have handled. I flagged the campground supervisor, a really nice guy named Jonathan who had jurisdiction over thirteen campgrounds in Jackson County, and he pointed me on to a place called Whiskey Springs, on forest service land.
“It’s just up the road,” he said.
I reflected that just up the road never means the same thing for a 6,000 steel vehicle run on gasoline explosions that it does for a 50-lb. plastic bike run on Oreos, but said only “Thanks.”
Up the road I went for a few more miles, then turned off into the campground, which was deserted. The camp sites, which I didn’t need, cost $20 a night, so I pushed a bit farther back and camped under some giant Douglas firs. The afternoon wore on along with the heat and the throat-splitting dryness. Though the forest cover sheltered me plenty from the heat, the tops of the trees were being whipped by massive winds upwards of what looked like 60 or 70 mph.
A giant branch crashed down about fifty yards away. If I’d been under it, I’d have been crushed instantly.
The day had been smokey and the smell of a big fire somewhere had been part of the furniture, but now, looking up through the canopy I could see denser, darker skies and could smell a sharper, more acrid smell of smoke. I recalled that a wildfire going full gallop could travel at a hundred miles an hour or faster. With no cell coverage I figured that if this was the night I was going to get incinerated, well, at least it was picturesque.
All night the wind howled, branches fell, and around two o’clock I heard the shattering and crashing of a giant tree falling in the forest. If a tree falls and no one hears it, it may or may not have fallen, but when it falls a few hundred yards from your flimsy tent when you are caught between two wildfires, it scares the living shit out of you.
Day broke and I broke camp, quickly. The sky had cleared a little and the wind had died. There was less smell of smoke. I packed up and pointed my bike towards the first of the small back roads I’d be taking to Ashland.
Somewhere between feeling relieved and wondering what I’d been worried about, the wind, the smoke, and the fires returned with a vengeance. A car had pulled over and two people were flagging me down. “Do you want us to take you and your bike? Ashland’s on fire and so is Medford.”
I didn’t know what to do. I’d already decided that last night was as good a day to die as any, and after conferring with them decided to push on. At the turn onto the back road leading to Ashland there was a huge sign: “Road Closed to Fire. Local Traffic Only.”
I looked at it. “I’m local traffic,” I said to myself. What could be more local than going to a tiny town like Ashland? But I was scared. I couldn’t go back and I couldn’t go forward, and even if I could go back, I was out of peanut butter, and even if there was a fire up the road, in Ashland there were my cousins and pork chops. Plus, maybe they’d put the sign up yesterday and now the fire was taking a nap. As bad as things looked, after an hour or so it really wasn’t. The wind shifted and the sky cleared into scintillating, achingly deep blue. The smoke vanished.
The giant wind became larger, only it was at my back, blowing so hard that my hair was blown over my face even though I was pedaling forward. In no time I’d crested the final climb and hit the long, nine-mile descent into Ashland.
My cousins were glad to see me. The Ashland/Medford fire had completely burned out the homes of several of their good friends. But for the wind’s capricious direction it could have been them.
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