I’m waiting in line at the bank. A young fellow dressed in a wrinkled blue tee shirt and cut off jeans clutches a plastic jar full of coins. His dark haired wife has an arm wrapped tightly around his waist.
Another young couple is waiting in line behind them. I hear them ask the people with the coins if they lost their home.
“Yes,” the man says, “I grabbed our can of change and we ran. It’s all we’ve got and we’re going to exchange it for bills.”
The second couple nods and I hear the woman say, “We lost everything, too. The fire came so fast.”
I’m looking around the bank. It’s full of people. We’re all a scruffy looking bunch. Most of us have just been allowed back into the town after five days of being evacuated. We had to fight to return. All the roads into Ramona were closed. Hwy 67, the main road was blocked by the National Guard with rifles because the town was without water. We’re back home now, after media and political intervention, but we still have no water.
Awhile ago I drove around the valley looking for friend’s homes.
Regina’s neighborhood, nestled among groves of avocado trees, was barricaded. Large swatches of burn had taken out many trees and houses. I knew the fire had swept to Regina’s door and burned her husband’s truck and tractor. I knew that because someone had told Regina who told me, “I’ve been crying all day. Bruce died 9 months ago and I just couldn’t have managed losing our home, too.”
She added, “You know the man from Belgium with the victorian house who makes the special soaps, right across from me? His home burned. A lot of homes burned around me. And, you know what Venus? I’m supposed to go to Paris this Saturday and I can’t even get into Ramona.”
Now that I am driving by her area, I stop and call her on my cell phone. I get voice mail. She must have flown to Paris and why not? All the mess will still be here when she returns.
On all sides of me there is devastation. Many homes are leveled and the land is black with twisted trees and vegetation. I drive farther into the hills.
There’s Johnny’s road that leads back to his ranch. I went to school with him. He wears a long braid down his back and when he hurt his hand a few years ago, he had me comb his hair and re-braid it for him.
I can’t get down his street. Everything is burned and a tree is leaning across the dirt road.
The farther I drive the worse it gets. Finally, feeling queasy, I turn back.
I decide to look for my brother Art the Jeweler’s house. I know it burned, but I just want to see for myself.
I drive to the east side of town and park at the beginning of his family’s dirt road.
Houses are leveled. One still stands. I start walking up the hill because it’s not drive-able. I get lost. This can’t be right. Where am I? I’m on the wrong road. I try another road and it’s not right, either. I’ve been to Art’s home many times and now I can’t even identify his street!
I finally give up and drive further to the east. I’m concerned about my art friends Judy and Loretta.
It looks bad. Many houses are down. The fields are black. I round a bend and drive up the hill to where I hope Judy’s new house will be. I’m trembling a bit.
I pull in the drive, hop out of my car and look at the surrounding hills and mountains. To the left, just a small jump across Judy’s narrow road, everything is gone. Utterly gone.
Judy’s husband Joe appears from behind his studio looking dazed. He’s glad to see me and says, “I was in Utah when this happened.”
We look across the street.
“Tom the Potter’s home is gone,” Joe says. He points to a spot in the small valley across from where we’re standing. “And the lady who makes the jewelry. She lived right there.” He nods toward another spot in the distance. “And all the other homes are gone. Susan the Optometrist. Max and his family. He even had a water truck on his property. And all the other houses burned up.”
We’re silent. I’m thinking, “So many of my friends! So many people I know!”
“This tree is bent,” Joe says, as he touches a small tree in his yard. “It looks like the wind pushed it over.”
He’s wandering, like a man in a trance.
I give him a kiss and get in my car.
I drive farther down the Old Julian Hwy. It’s mainly gone. Some houses are left but not many. I can’t remember Loretta’s street. When I call her number, the phone always rings busy. I’m finding that when a line rings busy it means the house has burned. Her home must be gone.
I can’t look any further; I’m feeling despondent and I head back to town.
On the way, I turn down Magnolia Street. I haven’t been able to reach my friend Irene. She’s 83 and makes the most gorgeous quilts in the world.
I’m shocked. The homes on her street are mainly decimated. The farther I drive, the worse it gets. As I approach the park of manufactured homes where Irene lives, I have a dreadful feeling. Her phone keeps ringing busy.
The Park is barricaded but I drive in, anyway. Many homes are still here but the many under the towering oaks are gone.
I stop and ask some Red Cross workers if they know what happened to Irene. They direct me to the Park’s owner who tells me, “Her home burned to the ground. She lost everything, including her quilts.”
He thinks she went to stay with her daughter. I give him my number and beg him to have her call me if he hears from her.
He says, “I lost 50 homes in here.”
I say I’m sorry and that I hope he has good insurance. He says, “Well, I guess I’ll find out!”
My heart is sinking further as I head again towards down-town Ramona. I need to see my brother and I think he will be at his shop.
I’m again aghast as I enter the town. One more skip and the fire would have leveled the little town, itself.
I find my brother Art at the coffee shop next to his shop. He’s wearing a bright red t-shirt with a logo and new jeans with cuffs. I say, “That’s some shirt you have on. You don’t look like yourself.”
He says, “Oh, someone bought me some new clothes.”
Ouch. Of course, he lost his clothes in the fire. Then I notice his wife MaryEllen. She has on a hot pink top with silver designs and spangles! Well. She lost all her clothes, too.
Jimmy and Rath, the couple who own the coffee shop, come over and hug me. I painted a portrait of Jimmy a few years back who gave it as a gift to Rath. I painted ten pictures of Jimmy before I got it right.
Jimmy says, “We haven’t been able to work all week because we have no water, but we’re giving away free coffee and juice. Let me get you some.”
And there’s David. I’ve known him for years. He lost his house in the fire four years ago. He comes over, says, “Gads, it’s good to see you!” and gives me an enormous hug like he loves me.
What I am finding I like about this fire is that people are so open now and vulnerable to each other. The man in the grocery store who always nods at me, this morning stopped me in the aisle and asked how I am and if I am OK and how am I doing!
And, on my drive into Ramona the other day after being away for so long, I was feeling tired and cranky. The cars were bumper to bumper as we all returned home at once and it was taking us hours. Suddenly, close to my street, by the side of the road, at the vineyard, I saw a parked van with three people sitting beside it.
They had a large sign that said, “WELCOME HOME RAMONA! Don’t drink the water. Drink wine!”
It was my friends the vintners! I rolled down my window and pointed at them as they shouted, “Venus! It’s Venus! Welcome home, Venus!’
Immediately, I felt warm and delighted.
Now, at the coffee shop, I am thinking about all the openness and kindness expressed by people during this time. “It’s too bad,” I think, “that after things like this are over, we all close down, again; we fold back into ourselves again, like dying flowers.”
I’ve kissed and hugged my brother and sister in law and my nephews and it’s time to go. Go where? Well, somewhere. I’m not sure where.
My cell phone rings. It’s an older lady, Ruth, a friend of my mothers. She’s calling because she is frantic. Where is our friend Carol?! She wants to know.
Carol is a painting partner of mine. She’s close to 80 and lost her ranch and home, just down the road from my house, in the Cedar Fire four years ago.
I tell Ruth that Carol is fine.
Ruth says, “How can she be? I just called your mother and asked where Carol is and your mother said, ‘…I think she’s dead. No? Maybe she went to Paris?…’ ”
I laugh. My mother can’t hear that well. I tell Ruth that Regina went to Paris and Carol is just back from Panama. She’s not dead.
I get off the phone and I’m laughing. It feels good to laugh, again.
FOR MORE ABOUT THE START OF THE FIRES IN RAMONA AND WHAT WE DID- PLEASE LISTEN TO MY ARCHIVED SHOW: ‘VENUS AND THE WILDFIRES’ on www.hayhouseradio.com “The Dear Venus Show” Oct 26th, 2007.