The drive up Mount Lemmon from Tucson, Arizona only takes about an hour, but within that hour, you might as well be traveling between different planets. You move north from the dusty city to a seemingly endless sea of saguaro, then into wispy brushland and finally winding your way through rock formations that look created by a team of giants playing a late-stage game of geological jenga. And then you find yourself in a sea of green, coniferous trees. Usually at least 20 degrees cooler than the city below it, the mountain makes for a perfect summer escape for desert dwellers. The little town atop is home to the Living Rainbow Gift Shop, crazy good homemade fudge, and a population of 40 people as of the last census. And it couldn’t be more aptly named: Summerhaven.
The combined average temperature in Tucson throughout July 2020 was 91.5 degrees Fahrenheit. That made it the hottest month on record since the city started tracking it in 1895; at least until August came along, and broke that record in turn. Normally, summertime comes with a certain number of benefits that make even the 110-degree days worth it. July and August are full of monsoons: sudden downpours full of thunder and lightning that can take your breath away if rain is the sort of thing that gets you excited.
But this year offered little relief, with the second-driest monsoon season in the last 125 years of recorded history. And it was a mere .03 inches away from tying for first place. Like so many things this year, this made sure that the tradition in my house of making a cup of tea and watching the lightning move across the sky was a no-go.
When one of this year’s few storms did produce a lightning strike, it managed to ignite a fire that tore across Mount Lemmon and the surrounding southern Arizona mountainside, as if everything wasn’t already blazing and unbearable enough.
When stay-at-home orders began in the United States, I started keeping a journal, documenting the rise of COVID-19 case numbers and death numbers, how the cities and states were reacting, and how I felt about everything. Here are a few examples.
- March 26: There were about 495,000 cases when I woke up. It’s about 5 p.m. now, and we’re at 532,000…. It is sad. It’s all sad.
- April 7: I stopped checking the count every morning sometime last week. It’s just depressing, and not accurate anyway. But right now, it’s at 1,431,000 cases. 82,000 deaths.
- May 22: I don’t know what the global death count is. I don’t want to know. I just want to leave the house.
Obviously, at some point, the numbers just got too big and depressing, so I stopped. The same thing happened with keeping track of the fire’s acreage. It kept doubling in size faster than I could track. 6,000 acres. 15,000 acres. 75,000. In total, it burned just over 119,000 acres. Summerhaven was evacuated. Then, Tucson’s northernmost neighborhoods and parts of Oro Valley, a nearby town, were either given evacuation orders or evacuation warnings. Crews of firefighters were brought into Mount Lemmon from all over.
I wasn’t getting out of the house much, as Arizona faced the dual ravages of COVID-19 and wildfire. But whenever I’d meet a friend for a socially distanced picnic, or go to the grocery store, I could see the fire on the side of Mount Lemmon in the distance. With a look reminiscent of Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings, I felt ever more certain that the world was ending. Maps of the fire’s path look almost unbelievable: it tears its way across the mountaintop, but seems to carefully, almost courteously move around the sweet little town of Summerhaven, leaving it intact. The firefighter crews did an incredible job: The fire burned a total of just under 120,000 acres, but no structures or homes were lost.
When the heat began to wane, and the fire on Mount Lemmon was out, my boyfriend and I took our first trip back up the mountain to see what it looked like in the aftermath of the flames
The bottom of the mountainside is covered in more saguaros than you’ve ever seen in your life – they look like whiskers growing on an unshaven face. A wooden cutout of Smokey the Bear stood next to a sign explaining the fire danger for the day was “high.” That meant it wasn’t “extreme,” which was actually exciting.
It was hard to believe there were still mountain bikers making their way patiently and steadily up the mountain on the narrow shoulder, that the rock formations we always see on the drive up were still intact. It was hard to believe the same turns and viewpoints and signs were all there. For more than half the drive, nothing about the landscape of Mount Lemmon looked different than it did before the fire. In fact, for a little while, the world felt almost normal.
At about 7,000 feet in elevation, Windy Point Vista is one of the most popular places to pull off and get a view. It’s such a popular view that it has a cluster of real parking spaces and even a bathroom. It was about 94 degrees in Tucson that day, but 75 here at Windy Point. . The greeting of the breeze as we exited the car felt like heaven. I thought for a moment about how the summer winds on the mountain had contributed to the fire’s rapid spread, and about how often what humans want is the opposite of what nature wants.
We got back in the car and moved into tree territory. Many of the trees were half dead – orange on the bottom and green on top. A mountain covered in dry, dead needles was certainly fuel for the fire.
I read afterward that this can be a sign of trees dying from the bottom up because they don’t have enough water: the bottom branches sacrifice themselves in order to prolong life for the rest of the tree. The combination of colors looked autumnal, which seemed fitting: a transition, turning over a new — literal — leaf, changing colors, and seasons, and outlooks.
In Summerhaven, there happened to be a little artisans’ fair going on. There were people smiling with their eyes (you can tell even though they’re wearing masks) while one woman explained the pricing for a hand-painted ceramic cooking dish set and another deliberated whether she should buy a necklace for herself or not. In other words, there were people living their lives, out on a Sunday morning enjoying the air.
We skipped our usual visit into the local general store, passed a house where someone had set up a mailbox for kids to drop off letters to Santa, year-round, and go up a road called – ominously enough – Incinerator Ridge. There’s a sign here painted with colorful flames and the words, “Thank you, Firefighters!” It’s a lush area, with many large, beautiful houses peeking out from behind the foliage. On the hills above us, all the trees were burnt to a crisp. Despite the colorful goofiness of the sign, the almost outlandishly beautiful weather, and even Santa’s mailbox, it was sobering to see. Sometimes, especially in the midst of COVID-19, it’s felt like the only way to see the world is to travel far from your home, to places that are exotic and far off and unattainable. This little spot among the trees was attainable, and I hadn’t realized how little I’d appreciated it until it was almost gone. Mount Lemmon has always been special, but it was on that day among the evergreen trees, staring up at the burnt landscape above us, that I truly realized there’s nothing quite like a day trip.
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