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Out From Under the Ashes

Columnist: Christina Julian
December, 2017 Issue
Columnist

Christina Julian
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Today is the first day in a week that I’ve sat down to write on my computer. This says something for someone who is incessantly tied to her devices and has been called a laptop whore on more than one occasion. I started this column a week ago on the heels of my twins’ fourth birthday bash in October that was held at Old Faithful Geyser in Calistoga, a fixture of an establishment on Tubbs Lane, which happens to grant locals a 50 percent discount on admission. This is a score when you are hosting a party for twins as the number of toddling tots can skyrocket quickly. I’ve always appreciated this gesture, so we often frequent this spot with friendly farm animals, a spouting act of nature and manicured grounds that are perfect for picnicking. I heralded the place for its commitment to locals in a land that at times has felt like it prefers to cater to visitors more than its own valley dwellers. 

But as I picked up this piece where I left off, one week after the Napa and Sonoma wildfires ravaged our land, my tune has changed. I returned late last night to my home in Calistoga four days after being evacuated. I now realize how off I was in my thinking about Napa County and its catering to the all-mighty tourist. The reality is, our valley is filled with countless resilient souls dedicated to serving not only tourists, but its people and land. Tourism may be our bread and butter, but the meat between the slices are the locals. The grapes may be what draw visitors, but it’s the people that live here that keep folks coming back. 
I’ve been lucky enough to live through some devastating disasters. There were my days living in Manhattan before, during, and after the September 11 attacks. Where smoke and the smell of burning buildings and life lingered for way longer than any city or country should ever endure. There was the Napa Valley earthquake and most recently the wildfires. These diverse communities, one filled with millions of faceless strangers, the other, a place that’s more like the bar on the TV show Cheers, where everybody knows your name. 
As I drove back from Minden Nevada, where my family stayed when Calistoga was evacuated, the closer I came to Napa, the more smoke materialized. As I headed North, I rolled down my window, something I've delighted in doing every year come harvest time, to sniff the sweet scent 
of harvest hanging in the air. Except it was smoke and not the smell of crushed grapes that ignited my senses. It was a hard drive to stomach as I climbed from the southern tip of Napa, through Oakville, where out my driver’s side window, the mountain top was still ablaze. I shut my window and kept on driving. Parts of town that I flew through felt ghostly and empty while others, like St. Helena bordered on lively. As I neared Calistoga the smoke felt thicker, the skies were not as clear, and I was hit with a wild range of emotions that started with elation to be headed home and ended with devastation at the thought of the thousands of people who were not so fortunate. 
On the night the fires began, I woke in the middle of the night when the power went off and the twins cried out. They piled into bed with me and my husband and off to sleep they went. As I tried to do the same I heard Facebook messenger ding. A friend in Santa Rosa wrote, “Are you guys ok?” I thought: As okay as we could be with two kicking bed hogs squashed between us. Because the winds that night were so crazy and out of place, reminding me of my time in Florida when a tropical storm was brewing, I looked outside to make sure everything was all right. When I opened the door, an egg-shaped plume of fire blazed not so far in the distance. I knew in that instant life would never be the same in our valley.
Last night, when I hit the blinking traffic light that signals entry to the town of Calistoga, there were two rinky-dink signs on either side of the road. One was hand-painted and read, “Welcome home” in English; the other read the same, in Spanish. The simplicity and kitsch of those signs that stood as a gateway into the city, embodied the spirt, heart and sentimentality of our town, a place I am fortunate enough to still call home. I pulled into my driveway peppered with soot and walked up and into my sweet little home, smoky—but still there—exactly as I left it—standing. 
 


 

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