This is a photo my husband took last Wednesday evening, May 14, 2014.
He captioned it "the road home," which it was, but it was familiar in many senses and anything but in many others.
The smoke was still thick and everywhere we turned it appeared that another inferno was coming to life. The streets were eerily quiet in a time when commuters are usually racing for home and pockmarked with flashing lights at road blocks and detours along the way.
What lay ahead of us on that road was uncertain. It was frightening. It was humbling.
The day had started like any other. We knew about a fire in a neighboring town, talked about how thankful we were that it was far away, and went about our morning. We dropped our kids at school and I started on the long journey up to Los Angeles for some client meetings that would keep me there all day and into the evening.
Once I got there, around 11, I got a text from my husband.
"Call me, please."
You know when you hear a message like that and you know there is so much wrapped up in those simple little words and your heart immediately drops??
My son's preschool, which sits less than a mile down the road, had been evacuated due to a raging fire in the canyon that backs up to it. The same canyon our house sits on just down the road.
"OK," I said. "Go get him and call me back."
The next message didn't come via text, but by phone. He couldn't get to our son, or his beloved school, because there was a wall of fire in between them. Firefighters and emergency crews were everywhere and for a moment, he feared there would be no way to reach him.
"You need to come home right now," he said.
I turned the car around, never even setting foot in Los Angeles after the 90 minute drive.
The fire was growing quickly and fiercely with alarming proportions, crossing over busy six-lane roads, tearing through dry brush and rolling through the community we call home.
I started on the long drive back, waiting anxiously for updates from my husband as he worked his way through detours to get to one school, headed to a dear friend's house to regroup, and then moved on to find our evacuated daughter and her schoolmates next. When the friends' home they had sought refuge in was called for evacuation soon after they got there, they all headed to another friend's home further inland that was seemingly safer (a massive fire actually sparked there later in the night and continued into the next day).
We found a moment of solace once it seemed that the winds had led the fire to take a sharp right at the corner to our community and venture west instead, but it only meant it was headed straight for my parents' home.
We talked quickly about what he should grab from the house if he could get back to it. The list was unbelievably short. One folder with paperwork that includes the kids' birth certificates, passports, etc.
"That's it?" he said.
"That's it," I said. "Just get the kids."
Once I got the call back that he had both children, none of it mattered.
Not the winds, not the damage, not the house or the schools. Not one other thing mattered (and truthfully, the paperwork didn't really either -- he never made it back for it until it was safe later that night). Not one photo album. Not one piece of jewelry. Not one memory that wasn't already safe and sound in my mind and in my heart and in those two little people he had by his side.
That night when we finally came home, the house smelled like old campfire. The smoke from yet another fire encompassed the views from our living room, thick, black mountains of it clouding the evening sky. My kids asked if the fire would come and get them in their bedrooms, scared and tired from a day of seeing and hearing too much. The news continued to update in real-time and we watched it late into the night, showing the streets that are so familiar to us, the harrowing images of burned structures and charred landscapes.
The fires seemed to roar on for days.
We had an already planned escape to Palm Springs in the works and chose to leave earlier than scheduled due to questionable air quality and a much-needed mental health break. We spent three days in the sun, swimming in the pool, sipping on cocktails, letting our kids have "candy pie"... just because.
And on our final evening, we followed that same road home.
The sky was blue and only marked by the odd wispy cloud. The air felt lighter, cleaner. The streets were adorned with handmade signs thanking the firefighters and first responders who protected our community with such incredible devotion and strength. The kids were happy to be home, visions of candy pie and the swimming pool dancing in their heads. They crawled into bed, feeling tired but safe. Sun-kissed and serene.
The road had cleared. And along the way, a clear perspective came with it.