Solstice party: accomplished. Rain and snow were expected the following day. A perfect time to torch the big burn pile sitting at the south end of the PLAYA residency property. Juniper branches, lawn clippings, cleared brush, twigs from unidentified sources–all were heaped in a deep bowl of a pit. The combustible materials had been gathered over the course of many months–through the busy, grass-cutting days of spring, through the heat of summer (when lighting a fire was unheard of in this dry basin), and into fall, when trees lost their leaves and were collected and carried to this designated destination for all dead plant matter.

We gathered at the crisp, chilly noon hour with hot toddies and thermoses of mulled cider and a can full of a gasoline-and-diesel mix. According to our fire experts, it was the temperature-correct blend of the two combustible substances for the day’s revelries.

We’d cleared our intended blaze with the local fire prevention district. In fact our site manager, Mark, works as one of their volunteer firefighters. He’d notified his excellent colleagues that the smoke they were about to see was intentional. An ag burn standing in as celebratory bonfire, homage to the change of seasons.

Mark sets the dead vegetation pile on fire.

After the lighting, the fire burned fast and hot. Within seconds, flames were consuming not only the spindly twigs but also the fat, round branches. Orange, gaseous plumes climbed to the clear, blue sky, breaking into hot spindles. We stood mesmerized, unable to take our eyes off the spectacle, amazed at how quickly the fire consumed everything from leaves to limbs to the juniper cones we tossed on like little hand grenades. Some of us shared stories about other fires we’d known–unforgettable fires that grew too big too fast or started in the chill of a winter camp and saved us with their heat or never got started at all. It’s amazing how many fire stories there are in even a small group of people. Fire sears itself into memory as few other things do. Ask anyone if they’ve read Jack London, and they say, “Sure, To Build a Fire. ‘Day had dawned cold and gray when the man turned away from the main Yukon trail.'” Bad idea, “man.” Better have more than a BIC lighter in your pocket.

In an hour the solstice burn was over, mostly, and some pyre worshippers worked the remaining, smoking bits of debris down into the pit. Mark decided when we could safely leave the pit on its own, knowing that even so the embers would smolder into the night. Living closest to the burn, I took fire watch, stopping to peer out my window frequently at the hole in the ground that was still glowing and pulsing and acting like a live thing well after sunset. Only around nine p.m., when the damper night air had settled down the east side of the Cascade Mountains into this arid valley, did the pit go dark.

The bomb crater.

The next day the burn pit looked more like a bomb crater, with the constantly evanescent playa blowing salt-dust to the east.

Today snow falls on the pit, our home, the residency cabins. Flakes are light and feathery, like someone broke a down pillow over our heads. The playa has gone gray and white with a fringe of russet marsh plants. A single coyote hunts the wintry ground, pouncing when she finds an edible, full tail straight up, sometimes coming up with nothing, sometimes swallowing a small mammal in two gulps. Along the highway, the resident red-tail hawk sits on his traditional telephone pole, his feathers puffed to double their usual bulk to buff up his insulation.

This is what we came for. This landscape, these creatures, this quietude.

We’re not the only ones. The playa and this valley are like fire, drawing people from around the world with inexplicable charm. At the same time, this place is a well-kept secret, like the desert southwest’s canyonlands and bold redrock domes before the tourist and oil booms hit. Like hidden canyons that no one can drive to and few can walk. Like a solstice blaze that photographs can’t capture. Like the fires people come to from miles around to watch burn.

The winter playa.

May your days be merry and bright!

Find my new book of essays, The Oasis This Time: Living and Dying with Water in the West (Torrey House Press, March 2019), available for presale at Indie Bound, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.