I crouched on the metal stairs. A few feet ahead lay a line of darkness where the fading evening sunlight from above abruptly ended as if a curtain had been pulled across the path. I strained to hear something familiar. And that’s when I heard it. Soft at first, growing louder as I listened. The sound was like that of lightly crumpled paper with a few clicks and high squeaks. At first I thought it might be coming from somewhere above, but as the noise grew closer it also grew in intensity. “Bats,” I thought and flicked on my headlamp before starting down the stairs into darkness.
When I opened the front door a wave of wind and smoke rushed toward me. The orange-yellow glow had grown and was pulsing against the dark sky like a misplaced sunrise. I jumped into my truck and headed north from Calistoga along Highway 128 toward Tubbs Lane. As I approached the fire I slowed. The flames and smoke leapt hundreds of feet into the air from the nearby hillside and moved with such ferocity and speed that I pulled over and started making phone calls to my friends in the immediate area.
Unencumbered by a seatbelt, I twisted around and peered out the broad back window. I had no idea why we’d stopped in the middle of the road after passing through the Carquinez Bridge tollbooth, but I was sure he was about to give whoever was honking behind us a piece of his mind, or maybe even worse.
“I don’t give a damn what you speak,” Bob interrupted. “In this town we only speak English. And we also don’t allow those burkas, so that’ll need to go, too.”
“It’s not a burka, you moron,” Mohamed said. “It’s a—”
“Who’s the moron?” Bob said as he pulled his shirt up to reveal an 8-inch knife strapped to his belt.
My brother’s voice echoed in my head: “Black widow spiders are venomous with fangs so big and sharp that they can pierce even the thickest clothing,” he’d often warned me, mostly before I headed into some dark, foreboding space. And once I had entered, he might call in added details: “Their poison will liquefy you from the inside so it can suck up your fluids.”
The washed-out trail to the site was precarious but not bad enough for me to use ropes down the cliff. Nevertheless, with my heavy gear and the darkness it was slow going, and I paused often to gaze into the night, the beam of my headlight creating milky stabs of brightness that faded into the distance.
The man glared, his mouth agape, showing his few remaining teeth, yellow-orange, rotten and teetering at precarious angles, each seemingly ready to join its fallen brethren at any moment. A string of saliva hung from his lips and disappeared into his beard. My lunch was now officially ruined, and I hoped my waiter might come around and escort this vagrant away, but no one seemed to notice my predicament.
When I was a teenager in the Napa Valley in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, the local live-music scene consisted of a couple of bars where country-western bands might occasionally play, or school dances at which a cover band would belt out songs from groups such as Journey and Boston, while teenagers swayed back and forth self-consciously. Fast-forward to 2017 and now the Napa Valley is rife with a rich live-music vibe that is poised to grow in the coming years.
The stars splattered the sky above as the moon set and a dark cold enveloped me. The temperature had plummeted to below freezing, and an unexpected snowstorm hours before had coated the surface of the frozen lake with two inches of crystalline dust that hid the smaller surface cracks, making a retreat to my truck impossible in the dark. I pulled my jacket around my shoulders and fumbled with my camera gear, my fingers numb and unresponsive. It was 3 a.m.
I sat down on the soft sand, took a sip of water from my canteen and breathed in the stony aroma. I remembered the words of author Rebecca Solnit, “Never to get lost is not to live,” but come on: I’d been in the desert little more than 72 hours. Becoming lost a few miles from my truck would likely be more embarrassing than transformative.