A cross-country journey to the capital of weirdness in the height of the pandemic turns sideways as the state goes up in flames.
If I didn’t know any better, from where I stood looking west, under the stark orange sky and among those basalt rock gardens, I could have convinced myself I was on an alien planet. Mars, Venus, Tatooine, or maybe Dune’s Arrakis.
Visibility was limited to 100 yards or less. Beyond that, the corroded haze swallowed and obscured the view. No birds flew overhead. No one else stood on the deserted shore with me and my four road-tripping friends. The only noise was the rhythmic rustling crash of the Pacific waves.
We stood quietly, taking in our final destination: the Oregon coast. A place that did not look like its postcards on that weird September day.
“How close are these fires?” I wondered aloud, watching ash rain down around us.
“Either very close or very big,” Gilbert answered. “Probably both.”
I glanced at my friends staring thoughtfully out at the un-Earthly scene, all wearing our COVID-19 masks—though not for any COVID-19 reason this time. Today, they were strictly air filters for our lungs.
Oregon Public Broadcasting would later inform us that, on that particular morning, the state’s air quality had briefly flared to “worst in the world,” surpassing China, India, Bangladesh, and all the others for the title. It was ironic. We’d just arrived bright eyed and bushy tailed from Colorado, fleeing a heinous wildfire season there, ready for beach camping, mountain biking, clear skies, warm weather, and woodsy adventures. And, almost as if we’d brought them with us, very serious fires had sparked to life across Oregon. Fires that were getting worse and wilder. Entire towns had been scorched from the map. Homes, lives, and livelihoods had been lost. And we’d woken up in Cape Lookout State Park on a different planet than the one we’d gone to bed on.
“So much for our beach day,” said Arlo.
“What if we can’t get out of Oregon?”
Lauren’s question hung upon the smoky air between us. We exchanged uneasy side glances. Finally, Gilbert shrugged.
“You’d be stuck here with me,” he replied simply, leaving unsaid: For better or for worse.
Up to this point, our adventure had gone off without a hitch. We’d fled Colorado’s COVID-19 lockdowns, campfire bans, and thick, smoky air on a mountain biking road trip headed west, to meet our old friend Gilbert in his new home: Portland, Oregon. Along the way, we’d ripped up Park City’s mountain bike trails, shredded in Boise, and stopped at Mount Hood to do lift-laps on the volcano’s infamous freeride park.
As we departed Hood, however, driving west along Highway 26, things began to change. A huge plume of smoke rose to the south like a black rainbow; expanding, widening, stretching north from horizon to horizon. I poked my head out of the window as we passed beneath that ominous arch in the sky, watching the sun disappear behind it. The air grew colder, and I pulled my sunglasses off, staring up, my attention fully gripped by the awesome spectacle.
HONK! HONK! HOOONK!
“Will!” Rachel screamed.
I swerved out of the oncoming lane, narrowly missing a semi, tires screeching as I recentered, regripping the wheel, redirecting my attention away from the surreal scene. It was hard to ignore as we passed through it: Huge swaths had been charred black for miles; houses had been reduced to chimney stacks and rubble foundations; forests had been turned to ashen deserts.
Maybe I was innocent or maybe times are changing, but wildfire destruction seemed so novel to me then. Not so much anymore. That level of widespread destruction has utterly devastated our own home state in the seasons since. That same summer was the biggest wildfire season on record in Colorado, with over 1,000 wildland fires burning over 665,400 acres. The next summer, over 337 wildland fires burned another 32,860 acres. And, while the totals aren’t in for 2022 yet, the year kicked off with the Marshall Fire, the most destructive in Colorado’s history.
Wildfire season is growing. According to the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, it lasts 78 days longer than it did in the 1970s—a tangible consequence of a changing climate.
I can’t tell you how many days longer the wildfire season lasts in Oregon than it used to, but I can tell you from experience that September is a tricky time to plan a cross-country road trip there. It’s the worst month for wildfires in North America, and perhaps that should have been obvious—but it didn’t even cross our minds. And so, as we naively approached Portland, we found ourselves driving straight into the peak of that state’s worst-ever September wildfire season.
As suddenly as the wasteland had begun, we emerged beyond the edge of the wildfire’s path, re-entering the Oregon we’d all imagined. The sun rematerialized from behind the huge ribbon of smoke, and we nervously laughed our own apprehension away, replacing it instead with talk of the sights and scenes to come: Portland, Gilbert, the Oregon Coast, good food, great company, and bright, clear skies ahead.
But we had crossed into new territory beyond that black arch in the sky. And the going was about to get weirder.
We arrived hungry in the City of Roses. And Gilbert was eager and excited to show us all his favorite restaurants and bars—the Spots, as it were. But Portland was not at its most hospitable. COVID restrictions remained tight, and the restaurants Gilbert had fallen in love with pre-pandemic had diminished their menus; their only seating was out in the smog and ash; and they all were using disposable plates and plastic silverware.
“This is killing me,” Rachel told me one morning, as we all ate breakfast out of styrofoam to-go containers.
“No,” I told her. “It’s killing the planet.” But I felt her pain. In the shadow of those great fires, it was hard to ignore the implications of our waste.
Simultaneously, the November 2020 presidential election was just a month away. Portland’s daily Black Lives Matter protests were turning into Antifa riots by night; Federal agents had been deployed to violently enforce peace; the city’s center was boarded up, doors were locked, security gates pulled shut, and graffiti was everywhere:
Racists go home
Vote 4 nobody
Eat the rich
This city, known for its weirdness, was feeling weirder than normal, Gilbert told us as we stood in Chapman Square amid the dystopian cityscape. And worse, the restaurants were disappointing him and, as a result, he felt like he was disappointing us.
“Nevermind all this bullshit,” Arlo offered. “Let’s bail on the city and head for the coast.”
We all agreed. It was the right thing to do.
“Besides,” Gilbert added, “We may escape this haze closer to the ocean.”
So we packed up and hit the road. And actually, we did escape: it was clear and colorful and bright in Cape Lookout State Park an hour and a half away. The sun was out, people were playing on the beach, the air was clean, and the tide was high. But it was only a brief reprieve. Eventually the smoke caught up with us, drifting up from the south, over the beach, obscuring all natural splendor in its bleak brownish smog.
It was hard not to laugh at our luck. And, despite the situation, we returned to our beach-side campsite in high spirits, ready for an early dinner. Rachel shucked fresh Oregon oysters, we all opened beers, and I passed around some psychedelic mushrooms for dessert. The sun set somewhere, and the ugly haze faded into a blackness so pitch, so complete and all-consuming, it made the dark ocean glow with neon waves of bioluminescent plankton. We played in the surf, our footsteps lighting up like fairy tracks as we sprinited madly across the low-tide wet sand, giggling, and kicking shallow water up in splashes that flashed like LED screens. The ocean replaced the absent stars and, like untethered astronauts, we lost ourselves in that strange sparkling galaxy beneath the sky.
When we awoke the next morning, rubbing our itching eyes, coughing and wheezing, we were on another planet—on a Martian world with a tangerine sky. We walked the shore and explored the rocks, trying to make something of our beach day. But the smoke was too much to bear. Everyone was ready to move on.
“But where do we go?”
It was a good question. The Forest service was closing campsites and canceling reservations. The national parks, state parks, and Bureau of Land Management were shutting down. Businesses were closing, and evacuation orders were being issued. We’d been foiled at every turn—by fires, disease, and civil discontent. Our options had been suffocated. Our plans derailed.
And yet, the journey hadn’t been objectively bad. Weird, certainly. Memorable, for sure. A unique plunge into the main vein of the zeitgeist of our time.
Where now? The answer was obvious. We made a beeline for the nearest open brewery. Goodbye beers were in order before we packed up for good and parted ways again.
True to the vibe, it was a bizarre farewell in Portland. We hugged Gilbert one by one, mumbling, “we’ll miss yous” and “talk soons,” and then watched our friend grow small in our rear-view mirrors, waving to us as we pulled away. As wildfires quite literally encroached from all directions.
A song popped into my head as we drove off, and I pulled it up on my phone, cranking the volume. The Grateful Dead had never been my favorite band, but suddenly it occurred to me what a perfect song they’d written for just that moment.
“What a long strange trip it’s been,” Jerry sang as we put Oregon and its fires behind us, without looking back.