Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Fire up above

Something odd about hiking a mountain in the morning, then watching it burn in the evening. That's what happened a few days ago here in Missoula to many, many people, including me. For us, it was a hike Sheri and I took with friends Dave and Grace Kreulen, in from Michigan. We started to the south and east, in a place called Crazy Canyon, then walked until he we were on the front of Mount Sentinel, a grass-covered slope that sits and watches over the city of Missoula. We crossed the front of the mountain along a fire road to the famous white-washed, concrete M, and hiked down from there. All in all, about 2 1/2 hours to log 6 miles and some change.

While walking the fire road, I mentioned to our guests that in a few weeks people wouldn't be hiking Mount Sentinel anymore. Likely the city will close the mountain, I said, because the fire danger will be too high. These grasses dry out, and if you're up here when they're on fire it can be pretty spooky.

We parted for the afternoon, our friends back to their camper and us to our home. They arrived again for dinner around 7 p.m., and I met them at the door.

"The mountain's on fire!" said they.

And it was. We watched with binoculars as fire raced across the mountain, and sometimes just sat there and burned, as a helicopter flew over head dropping water, as men in yellow shirts dug trenches to stop that flames' advance, as the flame itself stopped when it reached the road we had hiked. A few acres less than 400 when it was done.

I wish I could say what strikes me about hiking a mountain, commenting on it burning, then watching it burn. I'm not sure, exactly. What I do know is that I'm disturbed by more than the coincidence of the events. The hike/burn/watch has something to do with the power we all had when we were children, the ability to imagine something, watch it happen, and then feel responsibility for it. "I wish Barry would break a bone" and then he does and you yourself broke the bone! Magical thinking. When the mountain burned, in a strange way, I felt suddenly tapped into a larger universe, even if I didn't understand it, even if I didn't believe in it. It existed despite me, and that's a little scary, a little exhilarating.

Read more about it at New West, my favorite Rocky Mountain news source.


Troy said...

I was sitting on the bench outside of the Book Exchange when I noticed the small plume of smoke. I thought some house fire with tires in the attic was the culprit.

It was oddly beautiful watching a vast swathe of the mountain light up in under an hour.

That, and my friend Kelly was giving me the blow by blow of how fire services respond to this sort of thing.

Best seats in the town with analysis. It was a fun hour or two watching Sentinel burn.

Downs said...

Thanks, Troy, for reading the blog and commenting. I agree regarding the beauty of the fire. On a purely visual level, it was in its strange way quite gorgeous. One of the local reporters described it as a city sitting around a bonfire, and it certainly felt so. I also thought it beautiful in part because it seemed natural. Yes, the fire was started by someone (boys, lighter, phone book), but it's natural that dry grasses burn every few years. I'm sure the mountain will look better next year for it. Maybe even some of the knapweed died. We can hope.