Idyllwild Evacuation

Idyllwild Evacuation

July 18, 2013

At 6:30 p.m. yesterday, Steve Fraider told all of us who assembled at Bowman Theater at Idyllwild Arts to keep in mind John Wooden’s advice: “Be quick, but don’t hurry.” I hustled back to my cabin and managed to pack everything into my car with a nimble dexterity that I thought had forsaken me 20 years ago.

Not every civilian, however, left Idyllwild last night upon hearing the announcement that fire officials wanted the town evacuated. A couple of men, for instance, were still hammering away on a new dwelling on Marion View Drive as I headed back to campus at 7:15 p.m. to join the convoy to Hemet High School.  One of the main reasons I fell in behind a half-dozen school buses was that I wasn’t in any mood to have a kite-string of pick-up trucks tailgating me on the way down the mountain. The school busses would be under obvious restrictions of taking the curves slowly enough to ensure the students’ safety, and so any traffic behind me wouldn’t feel that I, and I alone, was somehow impeding their escape route. It almost felt like a luxury to be able to “draft” down the mountain at such a casual pace.

Although the evacuation was framed as a precautionary maneuver, it was necessary. Unfortunately, it’s all too possible in the next couple days that winds could rear up and use this conflagration to play razzle-dazzle with another 10,000 or 15,000 acres of chaparral; in that contingency, the firefighters hardly need to be worrying about recalcitrant civilians who fantasized that lingering at the circumference of an inferno earned one the dog tags of valor. I certainly didn’t see staying as a feasible option. Even if I were foolhardy enough to lurk behind and dally in my cabin with its rolodex of cable programming, the air quality was getting sour enough by yesterday afternoon that Long Beach’s diesel-oil saturated air shimmered in my thoughts like a mirage of rejuvenating oxygen.

A fire on this scale in the San Jacinto Mountains is long overdue.  As Steve pointed out at an initial faculty meeting two and a half weeks ago, the mountaintop has a cycle of burning every 75 to 125 years. He mentioned that it had been 150 years since the area Idyllwild is built on has had a comprehensive scouring. From the point of view of the fire, the 22,000 acres it has devoured (as of this moment) are the appetizers at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Despite this context, Steve reassured us yesterday that the odds favor the survival of Idyllwild Arts and that we shouldn’t give up hope that we’ll be able to return and finish this session.

After reconnoitering at Hemet High School with the staff, I decided to head on home for the evening and I arrived shortly after midnight. As I drove on Stevenson Road from Hemet towards Beaumont, David Bowie’s “Serious Moonlight” blasted out of the car’s radio. That may be the last song I ever played on a jukebox. A chain of fast-food stands called Fatburger was just getting started up when this song came out. Fatburger served a paper basket full of chile fries that was the best in Los Angeles at the time. The ricocheting percussion snapping across the rhythmic keyboards and horns backing Bowie’s invitation to dance remains indelibly associated with the taste of those chili fries. I know this sounds like a stereotypical instance of commodity addiction. However, we always have a splendid potluck dinner at Idyllwild on Wednesday evenings, and the sudden cancellation of this weekly festivity meant that I hadn’t eaten since lunch, when I started home at 9:00 p.m. Bowie’s song evoked a repast not so much out of nostalgic fixation, but just sheer yearning for a hot bite of food. Fortunately, the poet Ed Skoog had brought to Hemet High two pans of cornbread he’d made for the potluck, and he graciously let me help myself to two substantial pieces before I headed out. Many thanks, Ed. I thought of that cornbread as I looked up at the waxing moon on my way home to Linda’s welcoming embrace.