Every summer when I was a child, my family would take a car trip from our home in Oregon down to California to visit my parents’ parents and siblings and their families. It was our annual ritual and only family vacation, one that we kids eagerly anticipated all year and which my parents probably dreaded more each year as our bodies grew and our luggage expanded to fill every square inch, it seemed, of our little Chevy Nova. My mother heroically held my sister on her lap for most of that trip when Terry was a baby, but eventually she had to move into the back seat with my brother and me, and oh man, was space tight. We struggled to entertain ourselves and not kill each other over the hours of driving through 100-degree heat with no air conditioning. We all got carsick if we tried to read in the car, so the entertainment options were few. The traveling was no treat. For us, it was all about the destination.
We would make the rounds from one family to the next over the course of a week or two, bedding down on their floors and couches, from San Francisco to Sacramento to Chico to Paradise and many other towns around and in between as our family members moved from year to year. We always saw my grandmothers, and my mother’s older brother on his ranch where we got to know our cousins Leo and Mike. We’d stay a few days and visit, then drive on to see the next family.
When I was born, my mother’s parents lived in Paradise. Heading south on Interstate 5, we’d exit at Red Bluff to head down Hwy 99, then turn left at Chico and take the Skyway out of the central valley through the brush and pines into the Sierra Nevada foothills. We thrilled to see that friendly wooden sign with all the badges of the local churches and civic groups welcoming us. It was then, as now, mostly a retirement community, quiet and safe and friendly. It was a beautiful little town.
My grandfather, a retired farmer, kept a little garden in their backyard that he would let me help him tend with a set of plastic toy gardening tools he bought for me when I was a toddler. I’d follow him around through the tomato plants and squash vines, doing whatever I could. Grandpa’s health did not hold very much longer, unfortunately. He went into care about the time I started grade school and he passed away when I was 10. Grandma moved away from Paradise after he moved to a nursing home, so my sister never knew their house in the pines.
Paradise was a woodsy town, woven tightly into the natural landscape. Every home and business, it seemed, was surrounded by pine trees. One of my earliest and deepest childhood memories is the smell of those trees, resinous in the summer heat.
Those trees proved to be the town’s ruin, however, when utility lines possibly sparked a brush fire northeast of town early on the morning of November 8. Within a matter of hours, it overran the city and is, as of this writing, uncontained and still burning over more than 100,000 acres.
Nobody in my family remembers where in Paradise my grandparents’ house was located. It is likely gone forever now, along with not only dozens of lives (and counting, sadly), but also the homes and businesses, schools and churches, gas stations and supermarkets, banks and hardware stores, medical clinics and car dealerships, offices and restaurants, parks and road signs, and everything else the people who lived there built and held dear. My uncle’s ranch just south of Chico is not, right now, at risk. My cousin Mike’s house in Magalia is perilously close to the northern edge of the fire; he and his family were forced to evacuate and have not yet been able to return. My other cousin Leo and his family are safely to the west in Orland. Other extended family members in Paradise have lost their homes. I cannot imagine how civic life can or will resume there given the scope of the devastation. Even for those whose houses still stand, what remains that makes a place worth living in?
Knowing I can never return to that place to feel the summer heat and smell the pine sap in the air, and feel like a child again, if only for a moment, is a small loss in the grand scheme of things, I know. But it is one I will feel for the rest of my life.