Why we left California and just kept driving east

Editor’s Note: Tess Taylor is the author of the poetry collections “Work & Days,” “The Forage House” and most recently, “Rift Zone” and “Last West: Roadsongs for Dorothea Lange.” Views expressed in this commentary are solely hers. Read more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

This is how you live during a fire season during the sixth month of a pandemic: One day at a time. Our bags had been packed for a while now, our canned goods and go-boxes at the ready. We’d already been through a couple of red flag warnings this year, and we expect more. And: Everyone around us is living this way. Everyone is weary, and everyone does their best to have a stiff upper lip.

Tess Taylor

Still, last Wednesday, the horrible dark Mordor-red sky threw us. The blood-red, non-dawn, all-day smoke darkness felt newly extreme. I moved as if in a trance. I just wanted out. I was packing the kids’ bags even before I knew it. I was throwing the contents of our fridge into a cooler.

Just to set the scene: We were already in the fourth fire and smoke season in a row in the Bay Area. This fire and smoke season has already been severe: It has already arrived early; it has already gone on a long time. The air had been unhealthy for the better part of a month Where we live, what that means is: We’ve kept our kids in, even when it was hot. We’ve kept the windows closed against the ash and smoky breezes. We’ve felt stuffy and lonely and grumpy inside, and dizzy and headachy and light-headed outside. After so much smoke, our lungs feel phlegmy and my daughter complains of sore throats. And: Nobody has real school, nobody can go to anyone else’s house, everyone has already done every craft they remember. We are sick of screens, tired of online yoga, aware of each other’s fragility. It’s already been hard, getting through the pandemic, for six months. It’s already been a rough season on top of a hard season on top of a bad one.

Still. We had kept finding some joys. We’d been getting by: if we did find that there was a pocket of good air, we’d drive there. Under the smoke, we still live in a place of astounding beauty: and if the air seemed good we’d rearrange things, and drive to the beach or the ocean or a trailhead and find a good hour or two. We’d find a patch of blue sky, or a place where we could smell the sharp smell of bay or let the breezes play on our skin. And we’d be grateful, and inhale, and come back with some strength for being happy.

Despite the horrible air last Wednesday, packing felt almost normal: We had already been planning to leave that weekend. In another year, we would have gotten away to savor the golden light of September, gone camping at the beach, tried to hang onto the sweetness of summer. This year, my only goal was—Just get someplace we can see the sky. Just get someplace where we all can breathe. And that is how last Thursday we hit the road, hoping to stop on the eastern side of the Sierra, hoping to perch in a small cabin my friends sometimes rent out.

However: that was not to be. I did not realize the full magnitude of the smoke blowing down from Oregon. By the time we arrived, the mighty Sierra Nevada Mountains, generally acknowledged to be a geological feature of great magnitude, were completely obscured by falling ash. The air (which is unhealthy after 100) was 353. We had already been driving through smoke for four hours. My husband and I looked at each other. We could not bring ourselves to drive home. We bought some hot dogs at a forlorn-looking stand in South Lake Tahoe. And then we floored it, further east.

We had been driving for eight full hours before the smoke cleared somewhere just outside Fallon, Nevada. Emerging outside it was a bit like being in that scene where Dorothy arrives in Oz, and the world flips back to color. I marveled at the reddish sand, at the delicate sage, at the wide cobalt blue of the sky. The kids got out and were delighted simply to play with rocks at a tumbleweed-filled pullout at the side of the road. We felt awe as the air, like some mysterious, sweet elixir, sank deep into our lungs. And we looked back at what we had just left: a wall of smoke and haze that extended behind us north and south as far as the eye could see. Eventually we got in the car and kept driving east. The wall of smoke receded behind us for hours.

That night we made it to Salt Lake City; the next day, to my in-laws’ farm in South Dakota 1,200 miles east, where we could spread out, do laundry, regroup. On the one hand, this seemed like an extreme choice. On the other hand, the air we left stayed bad all week, and has only just cleared, hopefully for a while. And driving away, far far away, just like a far extension of how life goes these days. I thought about how last year, we’d wanted to go to a friend’s house for my birthday, but had been evacuated because of fire. And how the year before that, we’d abruptly driven into some other mountains above the smoke zone to wait out the air.

I thought about how forests I love are burning right now, how scientists I know have been tracking the rise in temperature on the old growth forest floor to 1 degree centigrade per decade since 1970. As our human habitat sprawls into increasingly dry western ranges, I thought about how it’s a lot to ask all of us — plants and animals, cities and wild spaces—to absorb that change. While I thought about those things, more than 40,000 people were evacuated from Oregon; and the New York Times ran a piece on climate migration in America.

Sometimes we might hear the term “climate refugee” and think of someone already on a long, perhaps semi-permanent journey, somebody whose home place has already become deeply unlivable. We might think of families living on an island that is already sinking; farmers leaving fields where crops no longer grow; of young and hungry people fleeing a place where environmental collapse and political instability have already fused in a dangerous alchemy that makes continued civic life impossible.

And, as for my family: No, we are not there. No, that is not us. We can go home later this week, and hope the good wind holds. I do not know if I can say the same for the people evacuated from Oregon.

As for us: we had a hard month in a bad year in a series of bad years. We just knew that where we live every year has become more exhausting, more smoky. And we were simply so fatigued by this year’s version of the horror show that we drove half across the country to a place where we knew that we could reliably inhale and exhale.

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    I keep thinking about that enormous wall of smoke, filling the whole sky, receding behind us for hours as we crossed Nevada. I do not know how to explain the urgency and sadness I feel about losing our climate to those who can’t be convinced or do not care, or the creeping despair of watching new and continual cycles of devastation overtake the place I love and call home. I know that for so many it is so much worse. But this year, watching the smoke-filled sky recede for hours, the margin between our exhaustion and wider collapse felt as thin as it has ever been.

    An earlier version of this article included an inaccurate estimate of the number of Oregon residents told to evacuate from fires. The correct estimate is more than 40,000.