Kage Baker was a fire-chaser. A rather timid one – she’d jump up and crane out the window when fire engines sounded in the streets, complaining if she couldn’t see where they were going. If they came to a stop anywhere near – with that flat run-down WHA-wha of the siren that means they’ve stopped – she’d dash out to see if she could catch a glimpse without actually getting in the way.
She was very good about that – not getting in the way. But if she could get near enough to see the smoke and flames, she was tremendously pleased. As long as no one was getting hurt, nor losing their house, or car, or … what she liked were neatly contained brushfires, I guess, with viewing areas.
You don’t get a lot of those in California. Though we found a few over the years: there was a small fire up near Jade Cove on Highway 1 once, where we sat and watched the action, having already been stopped in the rest area for a picnic when the hillside began to smoke. Kage shared her Coke with the Fire Captain.
And we drove through a few passes actively burning on various highways – Gaviota Pass on Highway 1, the ever-surprising Grapevine on the 5, the long curve from the 5 to the 580 in Altamont, where you enter the Forest of Wind Turbines. Now, that’s an amazing sight, with flames licking knee-high through the yellow grasses all around the tall, humming turbines: really strange smoke patterns.
Gaviota and the Grapevine were especially thrilling, as the way is narrow and the fire was getting pretty familiar with the road – but traffic was getting through, so we rolled up the windows and drove like mad under the arching banners of living flame …
The hardest part was keeping Kage from rolling down the window and hanging out the window like an ecstatic hound. She wanted to stop and stare. Especially when we passed views like a hillside of wild ivy, every leaf a separate perfect shape of fire, a curtain waving in the wind of its own combustion. Or an oak tree, thick with green leaves and acorns on one side, engulfed in golden flames on the other.
“It’s the freaking hand of God!” Kage would wail, pressed up against the window. “Come on, just slow down!”
“You said you didn’t want to learn to drive because I have better judgment,” I would remind her, edging our speed over 80.
“Oh, screw you, you Philistine!”
Lest you think Kage Baker was a barely compensated pyromaniac (though I can just see our sisters and friends nodding in agreement …), she never started fires. She just was tremendously moved to see them. Even a glimpse of an agricultural fire beside the highway – the column of white smoke twisting against the orderly ploughed fields, the glassy transparent flames all unreal at the base, the solemn silhoetted figures around it – would make her point and smile. For Kage, seeing a fire was a glimpse of a familiar wild animal. Just like sighting an eagle, or a deer, or – once and surreal – an iguana crawling unhappily along the verge in Griffith Park (he was an escapee, soon returned to his anxious master): it delighted her to catch sight of it.
It was, I think, an echo of the furnace always blazing in her own skull. When an erudite and patient friend, Stacy Weinberger, gave me a copy of Tom Cowan’s work A Fire In the Head: Shamanism and the Celtic Spirit, I recognized the condition. It was what lit up Kage’s eyes like the candle in a jack o’lantern; it was the voice of the flames that called her always.
Tomorrow: Samhain is a’coming and the barley’s getting fat