Be careful when listening to an epic audiobook while driving lonely country roads. You might neglect your gas meter and drive straight into a fire.
I was thirty-some miles north of Crater Lake when I realized my gas light was on. In good habit, I normally fill my tank before leaving a National Park as I don't always know my next destination. This time, I neglected my mechanical child's basic need, too engaged in Robin Miles' reading of N.K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season that I never so much as glanced at the meter before waving the Park goodbye in my rearview mirror.
One-lane roads curled off in all directions, hundreds of miles of asphalt winding through green, towns scattered far between, no signs listing the distance to the next town, no mile-markers. I passed a wayside inn. I could have should have stopped to ask my location, but instead I kept driving. My map told me I was somewhere between wherever I was and Interstate 5. I love my big, fat paper map. I like highlighting the roads I've traveled and squeezing notes in the margins with lines pointing to favorite campsites and hidden gems, but sometimes maps are blatantly unhelpful. I dug my cell phone out from the bottom of my pack and turned it on. It beeped to life...
When you're alone on an empty road, five miles can feel like twenty. You may not feel lonely, but random signs of human life can be reassuring. Yet when you cannot remember the last car that passed you, and you're low on gas, and the sky ahead of you begins to ooze with a sickly yellow tinge, and you begin to smell a burning like a campfire on the air, and there just there beyond that ridge you glimpse the dark gray plume of a forest fire, and instinct says turn around but you're not sure if your car will make it back to the last inn (let alone the last gas station)... Well.
I consulted my map once more. I had to be close to the next town. The map said so. I've been driving for at least 40 minutes at approximately 35mph. The next town should be right...there. Another inn. I pulled over. On the office porch, a graying man in a tie and cowboy hat rocked in a squeaking chair. One leg crossed over the other, he surveyed the rising smoke to the west.
"How far is the nearest gas station?" I asked.
The man wore round sunglasses and sported a thick fu manchu. He curled a whisker around his finger as he replied, "Err, you want the town of Glide, about three miles."
"Is the road open?"
"Aye. Fire's other side the river, say on radio."
Three miles. Open road. Then why haven't I seen other cars?
"Has anyone else passed this way in the last hour?"
"Err yes! Many ahead a you. It safe, I assure."
Perhaps that was a good sign -- that the road was open and it just looked like I was driving towards an inferno. Or perhaps this man had his facts wrong and those cars ahead of me were now combusted and burning to a crisp? I thanked him anyway. He was an odd character, but he had a sweet smile and sun-kissed cheeks, and apparently I trusted that.
I rolled up my window and drove on. As I rounded the next bend, the west horizon caught fire -- and not of the sunset kind. The last pockets of blue sky vanished behind smoke. I white-knuckled my steering wheel and drove like a hunched old lady, making googly-eyes at the violent scene. Oh, how smoke and fire tint the world’s canvas!
I was tempted to stop on the side of the road -- just for a moment -- to pull out my camera with its 300mm lens and crack my window -- just for a second -- to snap a couple photos. I wouldn't even waste time looking through the viewfinder. I'd just quickly snap snap snap and maybe I'd get lucky and get something good.
Fortunately, common sense won that battle.
There may have been a river between me and the fire, but even through my windows the heat singed my skin. Smoke packed in my throat, as dry as charcoal and yet as heavy and damp as clay. Panic sputtered through my body as firefighters wove me through the barricade. Once I passed them, I pressed down on the accelerator. More. A little more. And more until I was round three river bends and up a hill, holding my breath, not looking back... And when I felt safe enough from danger, I exhaled in a scream and shiver.
Forgetting for a moment I was driving on fumes, I nearly drove past the gas station on my left.