Josie Kochendorfer was born in Alaska and raised in Oregon. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at The Ohio State University.
Watching the World Burn
By the time I knew about the fire, it spread three thousand acres.
Ten-second videos of flakes falling from the sky. Covering the streets, piling up on car windows. It looked like snow. Snow tainted just a shade darker. Look at all this ash, I heard in the video. Dozens of videos all uploaded overnight. No one was talking about where the fire came from. I guess they didn’t have to. The people looking at their Snapchat stories most likely still lived close by or watched the local news and could see the snow-ash for themselves.
I found out about the Eagle Creek fire after it had burned for twenty-four hours, halfway across the country. A friend sent me an article explaining when and how the fire started. I clicked on linked text within the article and linked text within that article until I found enough news reports, interviews, and videos to piece together what happened on September 2, 2017.
On September 2, 2017, a group of teenagers hike up Eagle Creek. I imagine the group hiking the trailhead, one boy with a backpack full of lunch, water bottles, and firecrackers bouncing with every step. When they get to the wooden bridge right before Punchbowl Falls, they stop. The boy sheds his backpack and unzips the top. A girl takes out her cellphone and starts recording. They all stand on that bridge and laugh together, watching the boy with the backpack take out a smoke bomb, pull the end, and throw it in the air - another boy lobs it down into the trees below. They look over the edge of the bridge, the girl still recording, everyone still laughing.
A woman, a witness, turns the corner behind them as the smoke bomb drops into the woods. She walks up to them and looks below the bridge at the growing smoke. She says to the kids, what are you doing, where is all the smoke coming from? Do you know we’re in a burn ban? The kids stare at her. The girl has stopped recording by now. The boy zips his backpack and tosses it over a shoulder. They continue walking.
I wanted to experience what every other high school girl was posting pictures of every summer: a long hike with your then-love. Photo evidence of a kiss in front of the waterfall. Stripping and swimming in the water bowl. The Punchbowl. I always imagined my first kiss being at Punchbowl Falls. Instead, I got mine outside of humanities class, 7th grade, too much tongue.
I hiked the Eagle Creek trailhead over a dozen times before I ever went in the water. The trail ran through the woods like the lines on my palms – never changing. Muscle memory. My lungs were routinized to the jumps between flatland and elevation. This was the trail you hiked if you wanted to take your dog on an adventure. If you wanted to get away from the city. If you had friends or family visiting. If you got out of class early. If your residence life staff ever planned a bonding retreat. High school, junior year, we get a group of friends together and caravan to the trail for one last adventure before the summer ends.
We pack up on a Saturday morning, ready to drive the familiar hour and a half into Eagle Creek, near Mt. Hood.
The hike itself is two miles, one way. We walk the path single file, with backpacks filled with lunch, water bottles, and towels. We stay flat for a while, surrounded by greens and skinny tree bark. Half a mile in, the path widens to where we can walk side by side. The higher up we climb, the quieter the earth becomes. We’re away from the water, the mini waterfalls, the creek. We were left with the dirt crunching between our shoes and one the shared, audible breath.
As the kids walk up the trail, the woman stays behind, standing on the bridge and looking down into the canyon. This morning, she woke up wanting to hike Punchbowl. To take a swim. To escape the heat. She sees smoke from the bomb, but no fire, no chaos. She keeps walking up the trailhead.
On her way to the water, she runs into a couple leaving. She explains the smoke bomb and the kids, and the couple says they saw the kids up at the falls, lighting fireworks.
Cellphone-less, the woman runs the trail up to the water. She passes over where the kids were lighting firecrackers, the brush now catching bright orange. She keeps running until she finds them. She yells, do you see what’s happening? I imagine her looking down directly into the eyes of each kid. Do you know you’ve just started a forest fire? The kids look at her blankly like they did when she mentioned the burn ban. They look at each other. Their feet grind the dirt below them. The girl who recorded the dropping of the smoke bomb looks at her. Well what are we supposed to do about it now?
@MCSOSAR: We want to say thx to the fire crews on the line fighting this. It’s great to see a little green in the gorge this morning. #EagleCreekFire
@KayDeeMoe: I could care less that he is 15. Stop calling him a kid who made a ‘mistake.’ He is now an arsonist. Call him what he is. #EagleCreekFire
@OPB: An eerie stillness hangs over Cascade Locks as the #EagleCreekFire approaches the edge of town.
@Mpbreen67: Portland providing its own sepia tone filter today #EagleCreekFire
@InfoTech_Morgan: Last night’s sunset was both beautiful and heartbreaking. Welcoming this rain with open arms #EagleCreekFire
@SenJeffMerkley: Discussing ways we can work together to rebuild & recover following #EagleCreekFire. We’ve made progress, but we have a lot more work to do.
Every free moment of my time was dedicated to looking at the Eagle Creek Fire hashtag on Twitter. Pictures on Instagram. Articles circulating on Facebook.
I found links to places I could donate to. Red Cross took donations and bought toiletries and supplies for those whose houses had burned down. This is all I could do when I was two and a half thousand miles from home - donate and read.
The Punchbowl is nestled within the forest. The closer we hike, the louder the rushing water is, until it’s pounding in our ears. We can’t hold a conversation. We can’t hear our breathing. The anticipation is making my heart race, or maybe that’s the speed of the water, too.
We cross over creeks, jumping from rock to rock. The dirt trail has been replaced with water running forward, pointing us in the right direction. When the water gets too rough, we have footbridges - some with visible beams and support, and some that have the appearance of a single plank of wood stuck in mud.
We see it before we can get to it. The trail leads us high above the falls, the water three hundred feet below us. For a moment, we are hovered above this seemingly sacred place. We can’t touch it, but we can smell the earth. We can hear the water. We can see the rush of white falling like a tongue out of a face of moss, and into a pool of blue-green.
The kids look at the woman blankly. No one calls the fire department. Why aren’t you understanding this? They just stare at her. At each other. At the ground.
The woman turns back and runs down to the start of the trail. She yells warnings to other hikers. They keep hiking.
She finds a Forest Service officer at the start of the trail. She tells him what she saw, about the smoke followed by orange glow. She tells him what the couple said, what the kids said. He calls in for firetrucks and a helicopter with retardant. She’s panting, she’s crying. She doesn’t want to sacrifice her land for the stupidity of children. She pictures the brush fire and thinks of how much it could have spread by now. She thinks of the hikers who ignored her. Who decided on an easy hike to close out their summer, who will have to spend the night on the trail before rescuers can get them through an alternate path. A path that isn’t burning.
A minivan drives by the woman and the Forest officer. A girl is in the front seat. That’s all the woman sees.
When I first moved to Columbus, I admired how similar Oregon and Ohio were. I saw trees everywhere. Houses were old and made of brick, and never looked the same. Walking through the Oval on campus, there was an overabundance of lush grass and oak trees, students cracking open books beneath their shade. A larger version of my undergrad quad. When I would get off an exit on the freeway, I felt as though I was getting off the I-5 and 217 - Exit 2B to Beaverton Town Square. To the town where my mom and I lived in six different homes within four years, all within a few miles of one another. Where I knew how to get to each one of my friend’s houses. Where my first serious boyfriend and I searched for elementary school playgrounds after dark to swing and make out. Every birthday party I ever attended, and every backroad drive at midnight with the radio blasted and the windows down. Merge US-26 E. Exit 74 for Market Street. Portland. I’ve worn through too many pairs of shoes walking the Tom McCall Waterfront over the Willamette. The gridded streets with my favorite used bookstores and ice cream shops. Date nights watching local theatre and my favorite Japanese restaurant.
I-71 to Silver Drive in Columbus, Ohio. Exit 112. Turn right onto E Hudson. Turn left onto N High. Your destination will be on the right.
I still expect the three unnecessary roundabouts that take me home.
I’m not home.
People ask me how my transition has been so far. Still settling in, I say after the first week. The second week. The second month.
Everything here is different. The air is heavy, everyone cares about sports, I can’t see mountains when I drive on the freeway.
I’m still adjusting, I say.
The three-hundred-foot descent takes about a half mile, then we are placed in front of two trails. One takes you to the mouth of the Punchbowl, the other hikes up for another aerial view of the falls. We take the left, and our dirt trail is soon replaced with rocks. The further we walk, the larger the rocks and the more water comes our way. The opening stretches long, and comes up to our waists well before we get to the bowl itself.
Feeling with our feet, the large rocks that we have used for stability meld together into one smooth, slick surface. We slip into the deeper river, the water turning from a clear blue to something layered. The initial chill of the water fades quickly, washing off the built up sweat and heat we’ve been carrying. I let my whole body fall underwater, the cold only stinging when I’m back on the surface. We hear people walking the overpass, watching from above, but no one else comes down to the water.
The wind rustles the leaves, but even those are far above us. We’re surrounded by slabs of rock covered in slippery moss. The waterfall is about twenty feet away, but the pressure pushes white foam out in front of us. We move closer, and I reach with my foot to feel the weight of the water. I’ve heard water flowing through falls ends up softening from continued pressure. I want to put more of myself in the falls, let it erode my hardness.
The Forest officer asks the woman to ride with him. The minivan accelerated all at once, leaving tire marks in the parking lot. The officer and the woman follow the minivan up the single lane road until the officer can safely speed up and cut off the minivan right before the entrance to I-85. Can you all please get out of the vehicle and hand me the keys?
The kids stand in front of the van. They stare at the officer and the woman. They stare at each other. They stare at their feet on the cement. State police arrive. An officer tells the kids to separate and write out what happened. To stay separated when they’re done.
Their parents are here. You don’t expect my kid, or me, to be able to pay for this, do you? They didn’t mean to start a fire. They were trying to have fun.
Two boys, one in a tank top the other shirtless. One girl in a sports bra and running shorts. There’s two more we don’t ever see in the blurry videos passersby post on the internet. One boy is laying on his back in the yellow, dried grass. The other is pacing around the minivan. The girl is resting the front of herself on the back-passenger window.
The police officer detains the kids. Drives them to the station.
One of my last experiences of the Gorge was on a drive from Portland to the Dalles. Ninety miles following the Columbia River east, teetering between the Washington and Oregon state lines. The rising sun glinted off the water so that while I was driving, I could still see shiny blue out of the corner of my eye.
The next time I make that drive through the Gorge, it won’t be how I remember it. It won’t be the drive to the Dalles, with the sun rising in front of me and the river as my passenger. It won’t be the last adventure before summer. It won’t be my third-grade field trip to the Bonneville Dam to learn about salmon, or any day-trip I’ve ever taken to float on Hood River. The Columbia River is there, it still exists. The Interstate is open again. Evacuations have been lifted. Cooler temperatures and rainfall have helped contain the fire to forty-eight percent. Forty-eight thousand acres continue to burn. Even after the fire is put out, the Gorge will always be burning. Every day I’m away from it, all I know is the fire and how it is still pushing through the forests I grew up in. The trails I hiked will be replaced with new, fresh trails my footprints haven’t seen. The air I used to breathe has been eaten up.
I wouldn’t be able to do much if I were home, but somehow, this is worse. Disaster can be a passive experience, something that’s too big for any one person to handle. It took hundreds of firefighters to achieve five percent containment, after a week of constant burning. Whether I was at home or here, I just have to watch the world burn in front of me. Through Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter. I know what haze looks like, but I don’t know this haze. I know snow, but I don’t know ashfall.
I saw an article headline claiming that Eagle Creek might just be more beautiful after the fire. People argue that forests need to burn to breathe fresh. Land and houses destroyed are in no way justified by new paths and brighter sunsets, but new plants have grown from the heat the fire left in the earth. Destroy everything and something new might grow out of it. Remove yourself from your home, burn your home to ash, and maybe you’ll grow something new from the heat of it all.
Angel Falls, in Venezuela, is the tallest waterfall in the world. The water here falls for so long that during heat waves, it turns to mist before it ever reaches the stream below. There is a synaptic space between two parts of the earth where nothing exists. I feel myself living in this synaptic space between the falls and the body below. I don’t live in Oregon anymore, I’m not sure I even know Oregon anymore, and I haven’t made a home in Ohio. Everything before the falls has evaporated and everything beneath it is unreachable.
I don’t have much here in my new town. I don’t have a big appreciation or even an understanding of the Midwest. The Pacific Northwest is all I’ve ever known. My memories of my home state, the places I made friends and grew up, were in nature - surrounded by lush green. Now, when I think of home, I think of singed leaves crunching under heavy boots. Ash raining from the sky. Orange flames to gray smoke to black char.