Tag Archives: Sonora

A Big Loss, a Big Story

A forest fire is raging through the high country just west of Yosemite in Tuolumne county. As of this morning, 105,620 acres have burned. The six-day old fire tripled yesterday and is only two-percent contained. More than 2,000 firefighters are on the scene, battling in the treacherously steep canyons of the Clavey and Tuolumne rivers. fire

My first job as a reporter included the fire beat at the Union Democrat in Sonora, the county seat of Tuolumne county. It was a busy beat. The county is 85-percent state and federal forests and we grew up to the summer drone of fire-retardant-carrying airplanes and the acrid smoke of far-off flames.

As I follow news reports of this latest blaze, dubbed the Yosemite Rim fire, I hear names of places I know well: Groveland, Big Oak Flat, the Clavey and Tuolumne River canyons, Hetch Hetchy, Jawbone, Cherry Lake. I remember the summer I was 15 and my cousin Jerry Draper, neighbor Andy Crook and I hiked across the top of the Sierra from the Crooks’ ranch near Groveland to Kennedy Meadows: granite peak upon granite peak, lush quiet forests, meadows buzzing with mosquitos. My heart aches for all that beautiful country going up in smoke.

hikers

Were I on the fire beat at the Union Democrat today, most likely I’d be holed up in Groveland, on the edge of the fire. Maybe I’d interview the Crooks. Were they able to get their cattle out? Summers they’d have been grazing them up near Jawbone. Or I might call my nephew in Tuolumne to see if his ranching neighbors are heeding the recommendation to evacuate livestock in the case the fire moves their direction. For sure I’d call Sally Scott, a past managing editor of the UD, to find out particulars about past big fires, including that one, maybe in the 80s, also near Big Oak Flat. The one where the Dad drove his Jeep to the firelines each day to deliver the newspaper, so that people in the area of the fire could get updated fire news. These days cell phones make this kind of effort unnecessary, but I always thought he was a kind of a hero for those daily drives.

Did you notice what happened there? When I put on my virtual reporter’s hat, I was able to go from heartache at the loss of this beautiful, beautiful high country – every bit of it as beautiful as Yosemite itself – to the exercise of gathering the story. All these years of writing has programed my reaction to overwhelming emotion: get the story, dig for more information, shape it into a vessel. Writing objectifies. Making a story provides emotional distance, helps carry the pain, gives you something to do, at least, though there is no understanding such a huge loss.

“We got a monster on our hands,” Lee Bentley of the U.S. Forest Service told CBS News. “This fire is making its own weather. It’s going every which direction. This is one of the worse I’ve ever been on. I’ve been doing [it] for quite a few years.”

My prayers go out to the firefighters and the people of Tuolumne county.

Pay Attention, Report Back

It seems my monthly turn at this blog comes around too quickly. Then I think of my Dad. For 25 years, he wrote a three-times-a-week column that ran on the front page of his newspaper, the Sonora Union Democrat. Three times a week.

A precursor to blogging, Dad’s Sierra Lookout column was a forum for his take on the life and times of his beloved “poison-oakers” in California’s Mother Lode. Dad wrote about his childhood, family, local issues, world news, and rural life, all from the perspective of a self-described “country editor.”

Harvey McGee, 1990

The following column seemed to raise its hand to be included on our Books Around the Table blog because it was written on July 19, 1977. That’s 35 years ago, almost to the day. I think of it as an ode to the Sierra.

     WHEN THE insides of your knees are chafed all the way up to the end of your spine.
When anything you sit in seems to lurch and shake.
When the backs of your hands and ears are chapped and sunburned.

     WHEN YOU can’t get the smell of fish out from under your fingernails and the smell of smoke out of your clothes.
When the porch railing is draped with an open sleeping bag.
When the air mattress that stayed puffed up only long enough to lure you onto it is on the way to the dump.

     WHEN YOU’VE said thanks to Mr. Cutter and his magic mosquito repellant and drained the pollywogs from a glass of Tang for the last time.
When you can smile again without your lips cracking.
When old “Mac” is again munching hay in Willy Ritts’ Kennedy Meadows corral.

     WHEN ALL these things are done you lie on that bed that never deflates and remember –
The gentle plunk of the lure on the long cast.
The dart of a shadow from a deep pool, the splash and flash of silver – then nothing.
Or maybe a solid tug – too soft for a snag, too firm for anything but a lunker.

     OR VAST ranges of granite pocked by blue jewels with revered names – Black Bear, Bigelow, Emigrant, Dorothy, Maxwell.
And in the folds of rock: lush meadows, green groves, clear streams. Far beyond and below, the grey-brown air trapped in the simmering valley.

     SOON forgotten are the lurching chafing and burning of the sometimes rider. Even the memory of Pear Ripple, wet clothes and gin rummy defeats begins to fade.
What remains as clear as the night sky over Bigelow Peak are the steaks, shishkebob and basted eggs by an expert volunteer cook, the sweet meat of camp-smoked trout and the fellowship of others who share an unspoken appreciation of the remote magnificence.

     VISITORS to the wilderness are apt to feel some guilt about the privilege, but that’s the paradox of the place. If it were easily available to more, it would soon be enjoyed by none.         –Harvey C. McGee

Emigrant Basin. Photo courtesy of Susan McGee Britton.

As writers and artists it’s our calling to pay attention and report back. No one sees the world quite the same way. I’m lucky to have my Dad’s columns – his keen observations and amused take on the human condition, his personal stories and opinions – to guide me. Not to mention the gold mine of over 2,500 columns that will come in handy when I’m looking down the trail for a blogpost idea.

Riding into the high country, 1968. L to r: Marny Gorgas, Kate McGee, Laura McGee.