By 10 a.m. on a Monday this past September, my friend Steve and I had reached the edge of Big Meadows in Rocky Mountain National Park and were surrounded by the kind of wild space that people who don’t live in Colorado seldom see. A soft haze from the early stage of the Cameron Peak Fire blurred the ridgelines as we hiked past beetle-killed lodgepoles along a trail that parallels a creek.
Our plan was to traverse the roughly five wooded miles from the park’s Kawuneeche Visitor Center north to Big Meadows, then to fish Tonahutu Creek on our way back to civilization. We’d told our wives not to expect us back until late.
To our right, Tonahutu presented itself as a tempting puzzle, its meandering miles punctuated by riffles and pools that dipped into and out of the pines. Some sections were crisscrossed by deadfall trees and studded with boulders. Wild brook trout lurked in their cool shadows, and we made mental notes as we hauled our gear up the path.
We had the creek to ourselves. The brookies were hungry and naive. The sun was warm, the snowmelt cold but tolerable. Looking back, a few moments stand out. Finding the bleached bones of an elk. The fish that took Steve’s fly the moment he accidentally dropped his line in the stream. The gray Canada jay that hovered in to investigate my sandwich—then startled me by perching coyly on my outstretched finger.
There was an inevitable magic to it all, the kind that can only take place in our precious wild places. When it was over, we dubbed it simply “the perfect day.”
I was still savoring the memories five weeks later when I noticed a new smoke plume just outside Granby, where I live, like a middle finger rising between the already potent Williams Fork and Cameron Peak blazes. The column boiled up and over our house during the following week, raining ash and getting closer and scarier by the day. It started east of Troublesome Creek, so officials dubbed it the East Troublesome Fire.
On the evening of October 21, driven by high winds, the blaze exploded from a manageable 18,550 acres to an almost unimaginable 187,964 acres in fewer than 24 hours. Friends in its path said it sounded like a runaway locomotive. It was headed north through the lodgepoles at an unstoppable 6,000 acres an hour, passing within about a half-mile of our drought-crisp four acres before devouring more than 300 other homes on its approximately 18-mile run to Grand Lake and into Rocky Mountain National Park. By dawn the next day a half-dozen of my local friends were homeless.
The emergency bulletins told a grim story. While the fire bypassed the business district of Grand Lake, it blew through the relatively dense neighborhood around Columbine Lake and entered the park, heading into the Kawuneeche Valley—straight for Big Meadows and Tonahutu Creek. With each daily update to the burn map, the sickly pink stain depicting the burn area spread like a spilled drink across Big Meadows and that beautiful stretch of creek. It began to creep up the steep canyons toward the Continental Divide and Estes Park on the other side.
It’s gone, I thought as I surveyed the map a week later. All gone.
By then Steve was home in California, where we’d lived together and worked as underpaid newspaper reporters during my first year as a bewildered transplant from back East and where Steve taught me to surf, to understand the physics of waves, to love Tom Waits. I had come to appreciate the significance of our adventure; we were two aging friends committed to stealing a day from our hectic lives and spending it together in a pristine place. We’d cleared our schedules, risen at dawn, packed lunches, loaded our gear into backpacks, and headed off into the wilderness like two truant kids. Because how many times might this happen again in our lifetimes?
I emailed him the U.S. Forest Service maps, showing the burn area completely obliterating Big Meadows and those miles of Tonahutu Creek where we’d hiked and fished. I also found and sent a photo of a nearby section of the Kawuneeche Valley. It looked like some distant and barren planet.
But I didn’t know what was gone for sure. I’d heard that the visitor center survived, along with the nearby Grand Lake Lodge. “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers,” as Emily Dickinson wrote, but to me feathers have always seemed unspeakably fragile.
Two weeks after the fire, still hoping, I drove 12 miles from my home to the park. I planned to hike along Tonahutu and up to Big Meadows to survey the damage. It felt like driving to a morgue to ID the body of someone I loved: Seeing it might bring some closure, but I knew the images might live forever in my head.
I steered around roadblocks to the intact visitor center, where I found a district ranger. I explained my intentions. She shook her head. Crews had only just started to assess the damage on foot. “Too dangerous,” she said, asking me not to use her name in this piece. Trees down everywhere. Trails impassable. Root fires still burning. “Definitely hard-hat stuff,” she continued. Big Meadows? “Impacted.” Tonahutu Creek? “Same,” she said, though the damage got spottier as you moved downstream. A lot of what she knew, she said, was from aerial surveillance.
“When can I get back in there?” I asked.
“Maybe by next summer,” she replied.
The most startling thing she said was that many of the little fish we caught and released during our perfect day may have been killed by the heat of the fire. I thought of the friendly Canada jay that shared my sandwich and perched on my finger. If it survived, where would it live now?
On November 14, the National Park Service released a four-and-a-half-minute video featuring still photographs and aerial video footage of the carnage. The accompanying Facebook post noted that when combined with the damage from the Cameron Peak Fire, about 30,000 acres—or nine percent of the park—had burned.
I know Big Meadows and that idyllic run of Tonahutu Creek are just small parts of what has been lost, but I’m left with a gnawing kind of personal grief. If you multiply that by the millions of people who share my affection for Rocky Mountain National Park, you begin to imagine the depth of the psychic wound to Colorado and the people who love it.
That sorrow poured out in posted reactions to the video—one middle-age man who’d worked on trail crews when he was younger; families who spend precious vacations in the park’s campgrounds; people who summer in Grand Lake just to be close enough for daily hikes. Seasonal park ranger Ashli Adams of Estes Park spoke for them all: “Thanks for putting this out for all of us…. It’s been like a sword through the heart.”
The park service ended its fire-damage video with earnest talk about the important role that fire has always played in the Rocky Mountain ecosystem. It predicted an explosion of new life from soil enriched by the ashes and supercharged by sunlight from the suddenly open forest canopy. It promised improved biodiversity, pointing out that a wide variety of plants and animals eventually would thrive again.
I understand all that. Really, I do. But it may take decades, and at nearly 65, I don’t have many of those left. For now, what I know is that the winter’s hard winds churn the surrounding miles of ash into sickly clouds that trigger anxiety and dark rumors among those of us who fled the East Troublesome Fire. The settling ash turns even fresh snow a distressing gray, and I know those ashes are what’s left of the wilderness I love and the homes of our friends.
At least for now, I have to accept that a million special places—including the one where I spent a perfect day with an irreplaceable friend—will never again be exactly as they appear in our memories. Still, I’m grateful to have those.
Martin J. Smith is the author of five novels and five nonfiction books, including Going to Trinidad: A Doctor, a Colorado Town, and Stories from an Unlikely Gender Crossroads, which Denver’s Bower House Books will publish in April. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.