I’ve been in the Bay Area since Monday. I had some work-related obligations but I had planned this trip to do what I loved most from my time I lived here: go mountain biking. It’s been over ten years since I had done this beautiful trail up in the East Bay hills. I had planned this trip so I would have significant breaks for that very purpose and I fell asleep in Brooklyn for a few nights before my trip thinking of the impossible juxtapositions on that trail — the entire bay spread before you to your left, cows grazing to your right, the Golden Gate bridge looking like an eternal occupant of the space even though you know it was created by people not that long ago in a relative sense.
But I haven’t been out on the trails. Instead, I’ve been been loading an ever-worsening air quality map and staying indoors. For the first day or two, I didn’t worry too much about breathing the air. I wasn’t in one of the “sensitive groups” that were advised against breathing it. But as the air quality worsened, I started dragging. Headache, dry mouth, voice growing raspy. I got my hands on an N95 mask and it has become my steady companion. It is an anxiety-ridden companionship. I’ve gone from my usual this-too-shall-pass optimism to an unsteady when-will-we-be-able-to-breathe-like-we-used-to worry.
I’ve been staying in the Berkeley flatlands and the beautiful Berkeley hills that I used to wake up to in the distance every morning in the ten years I lived here have been ghosts on this trip. Every single morning for ten years and I still haven’t seen them once in five days. After a few days, I started to ask myself, “will I see them again?” Writing this now makes it sound more dramatic than maybe it should if you’re not here but there is something distinctly unsettling about not being able to see something you love because it is obscured by noxious smoke that is making it difficult for people around you to breathe, the most basic activity of living. The smoke represents the aftermath of an even greater set of tragedies that are even harder to comprehend. And the smoke keeps coming because the fires keep burning.
I remember the first time I came to the Bay Area and the first thing I noticed was that the light looked different. Everything was brighter and cleaner and the fog came in every night like a cosmic broom to sweep out the day. This is something that the great San-Francisco-born photographer Ansel Adams recognized, too. I read that Ansel Adams’ earliest memories were of watching the smoke of the fires in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake at age 4. An aftershock threw him into a garden wall and he broke his nose. It was never set correctly and his nose remained crooked his whole life. From the destruction of the fire that formed his earliest memories and the very earth he stood on turning on him and smashing his face, Adams spent his life capturing the beauty of the landscapes around him and we were all lifted up by his work. Maybe there’s some larger lesson to be learned from that, but for now, I’m just waiting to see those Berkeley hills again.