Aidan packed the same massive burnt-orange suitcase she took to New York City two years ago, using every square inch. The sleeping bag, pillow, and beach towel took up most of the room. I watched her pull clothes out for one last inventory.
“It gets cold in the mountains at night.”
She nodded and held up two pairs of jeans and a green hoodie. “I’ll be fine, mom.”
“Where is your bug spray and flashlight? Where is your sunscreen? Do you have a hat?”
She showed each item to me. I felt compelled to advise her on application techniques: “Spray your skin from far away and stand downwind. Rub it in, but not too much, not too little. You know what happens when you get mosquito bites!”
“You don’t want that.”
It was time to drive to the church, where she’d get on a bus with her best friend and head to high school camp for the week.
We walked to Vespers through the woods at night, giggling and whispering as flashlight beams stroked the dirt path ahead. The chapel at Camp La Foret was very old and set away from cabins and the dining hall. Inside, we’d hear a short message and sing solemn hymns. The raucous campfire and cafeteria songs weren’t welcome. It was always barely lit—maybe there were candles or one hanging light fixture? It was a moody place. Voices echoed off cold white adobe walls. They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love. Quieted with lullabies we sang to our never-sleepy Lord, we walked to cabins with names like Kinnikinnik and Yucca for a few hours of sleep.
I don’t remember if I was cold. I don’t remember if mosquitos bit me.
On Tuesday morning, Aidan’s camp called with news of a forest fire burning in Rocky Mountain National Park, to the east of their property. The fire is located in a very remote area and was not endangering the camp. If conditions dramatically changed, they’d evacuate. We could see the smoke rising from the mountains. From our vantage, the fire—named the Big Meadows Fire—is to our northwest. I thought about our girl on the other side of the plume and everything I told her between our house and the church lobby. Things about moose and her emergency whistle, roaring run-off rivers and being too shy. Take a lot of pictures! I commanded.
I didn’t say anything about falling ash or shifting winds or how the only photo I had from high school camp was a black and white group shot in front of the grand Ponderosa lodge.
One afternoon, shortly after lunch, some friends and I set out on a hike. We signed up for an afternoon of exploring the land around the camp with a counselor as our leader. We talked and followed the counselor, who was probably not much older than we were. Tall pines on all sides cast shadows that grew long and longer. It was mid-summer hot. Someone proposed we might be lost. Where was the trail? Which way was camp? Nobody knew. The counselor thought we should keep walking. Lost! In a forest! I was quietly delighted.
Our group eventually found a road. The counselor flagged down a pickup truck, telling the driver we were from Camp La Foret. Could he give us a lift back to camp? The man laughed and motioned to the pickup bed. We climbed in and sat down without discussion or debate whether it was a good idea to hitchhike at church camp. The man drove. Wind whipped my hair around. I could have stayed in the back of the pickup forever. The man made a right turn and drove down a short road to the Ponderosa lodge, delivering us. We jumped out, breathlessly recapping the afternoon’s adventures to other campers and to each other. It was near dinner time.
I peered at a map of the Black Forest, studying names of roads. The mandatory evacuation zone is colored red. In the red sits Camp La Foret. It is currently being threatened by the largest wildfire in Colorado history. Close to 400 homes have been lost, but hundreds have been saved. The old chapel stands tonight, but it’s empty. The dirt path isn’t lit by flashlight or even moonlight. Thick smoke chokes, embers fly. The paths are threatened, Ponderosa is threatened, Kinnikinnik and Yucca are threatened. Shoup Road slices through the red tinted map. For the first time in my life, I know the name of the road the man drove to get back to camp. I trace it with my finger.
Today, Aidan returns from camp, coming out from behind a different plume with it’s own ash and it’s own embers. I will hug her when I see her, even more tightly than when she left. I will help her pull the giant burnt-orange suitcase to the van. I won’t ask about mosquito bites right away or if she saw moose. If the winds are right, I will be able to show her where the Big Meadows fire burns and where the Black Forest fire rages and point out we are exactly, precisely, amazingly, in between.