Meanwhile, during those six weeks our telephone landline began to fail. The line became so noisy with static it sounded like we were trying to communicate with someone from Jupiter. We contacted Century Link and the problem was corrected somewhere down the road. Several weeks later the same thing occurred and they allegedly fixed it. When the line began to buzz and crackle intolerably for the third time, I concluded that we must be one of the last houses on the street with a landline, hence under-appreciated as paying customers. I decided to look elsewhere for phone service. Since we’re out in the boonies where cell phone reception is sketchy, we each have a couple of Tracfone smartphones for when we’re off the property or want to take a quick picture. We can text from here, though. But most of the contractors who’ve been through here seem to get a signal on their phones, so I figured it was worth a try to switch to a bigger cell phone company. Our first choice, Consumer Cellular, offered something called a “Home Phone Base,” into which we could plug in our old cordless phones and keep our original number.
“What happens if we port our number over to you and find out we can’t get a signal?” I asked.
“Oh, don’t worry, we’ll get you connected,” the customer service person chirped.
After hours of online chatting with Tech Support trying this and that, they concluded that their service didn’t actually cover our area, sending us several miles down the hill with our cell phones for the next bunch of days when we needed to make a call.
Meanwhile, our well water was running low due to a combination of drought and the ferocious uptick of hemp-growing in the area, so we had to have our storage tank filled. I sat at our porch “lunch counter”—a counter-top and three stools Wayne salvaged from the former Texacali Grill in Austin and refinished—drinking a beer and doing a crossword puzzle while the guy from the water delivery service attached a large hose to the top of our tank. He turned on the water and a few minutes later I heard him speaking to someone on his cell phone from inside the pump house!
“Who’s your carrier?” I asked when he emerged.
“US Cellular. They’re the most dependable in the valley.”
A few days later we were up and running with US Cellular and their version of a Home Base Unit, although I was forced to abandon our old landline number in the netherworld of Consumer Cellular. “Serves them right,” I thought. “They can have all those scam callers.”
Then we got the call from Royal Flush saying they were ready to start the job. The next day they delivered a porta-potty to our front yard., along with PVC pipe, giant rolls of packing peanuts wrapped in what looked like deer fencing, and a big load of gravel.
Monday morning, they showed up while I was at an appointment with my bone doctor. (I’ve had significant success in increasing bone density. Yay! I still have to do another round of Prolia shots, though.)
When I got back they were in full swing with an excavator and bulldozer. It was like a dance—I’ve not seen such precision in synchronized digging and pushing mass amounts of dirt around before, especially considering it’s August and our dirt is near cement. In one day they dug 6-foot-deep trenches from the septic tank bypassing the old drain field, sawed a 3-foot-wide gulley through the asphalt driveway, and looped a small canyon around the front yard. After they left, we explored the area. They’d removed two cedar trees I planted 16 years ago and left them in a pile, along with a woodland mahogany that’s been languishing. That part was heartbreaking. It felt like we’d lost three family members. These pictures don’t fully capture the level of destruction that took place. Part of it was the dry, dustiness under a cloudy, rainless sky, and the temperature that still lingered at 102°. We haven’t had rain for several months, so everything was beginning to look dead anyway.
Then there was The Fire.
The weather had been hot and unusually dry all summer. I mean, we don’t get much rain in the summers anyway, but we do get a shower here and there. This summer, nothing. On Labor Day, the wind began to blow in earnest. The thrashing kind, that sent the wind chimes on the front porch jangling furiously all night. The next afternoon I was on my way into Medford to buy some elastic for the dolls’ pants when I noticed a near traffic jam at our four corners. I quickly realized that it was some kind of detour. Rounding the corner I saw the smoke rising from Talent. When I got down to Pacific Highway, the police had closed the south direction and there was a steady line of cars coming north.
We made sandwiches for dinner and watched a movie on Wayne’s laptop.
All night we could see a sinister reddish-orange glow in the sky, in the notch between the hills over Phoenix, while the wind continued to howl.
The next morning I made breakfast on the gas grill outside. I'm really glad I got the grill with the side burner unit! Since the sky looked clear from here, we drove down through the back end of Talent to see if we could charge our laptops and phones, and possibly get some spring water at the supermarket. Everything looked fine until we crossed the railroad tracks. Then we began to see small, hot-spot fires burning along the sides of the road. When we reached the supermarket, which was closed, of course, we discovered that much of the town on the east side of Talent Avenue had been destroyed, leaving a grotesque jumble of blackened washing machines, skeletal remains of bedsprings, bicycles, wood stoves, chimneys, and cars. Wayne wanted to see if our friend Frederick’s house was still there. We turned onto Gangnes Drive and the entire block was leveled. At some point I started to cry, and then the person in front of us abruptly stopped his Subaru in the middle of the street, got out and started taking pictures. Wiping tears from my eyes I realized we had no business in there, that we had to get out as soon as possible and I couldn’t turn around. So I pulled around the side of the photographer's car and headed out, before realizing that we were driving over a burned-up power line.
“Shit!” I yelled as I floored it, and went over another blackened line before reaching Talent Avenue again.
There was no wi-fi signal or power anywhere in town, so we headed north. We got on 99 and…it was the closest thing either of us has seen of Armageddon. Telephone poles broken in half with wire hanging freakishly off of them. Blackened fields and trees. We kept going until there was a police blockade at the I-5 exit in Phoenix. We headed west and found Sherm’s Thunderbird open, so we filled up with water, did some shopping, and got ice. I also noticed that The Laundry Center was open, so we drove back to the house, packed up the laundry and brought our computers and cell phones to charge while we were there.
Eventually the wind died down and dense smoke filled the valley for days, reaching all the way up to the house. On a good day the sun was merely a fierce, malevolent-looking orange ball. It was starting to get chilly, but we dared not light a fire in the wood stove, and had no electricity to run the wall heater. We began wearing our winter clothes... we watched movies on Wayne’s laptop… we ate a lot of sandwiches…
Six days later the electricity blinked back on. Six days of basically camping at our house. We flushed the toilet manually with water we got from town, and took sink baths. We kept the food cool by putting store-bought ice in metal mixing bowls in the refrigerator and freezer. I cooked on the outside grill. I was reduced to reading and writing in the new alcove we built up in the studio. If it weren't for the misery of so many people losing their homes, I’d think this was a blessing. I finished another revision of Meteor Falls while curious squirrels and deer stopped by the window to study me and Sofie, my writing muse, huddled under a blanket with my laptop until the daylight ran out.
It would be more than a week before non-residents were permitted to drive the section of 99 through Phoenix. When I finally took the “scenic” drive, my jaw remained dropped the entire way. All I could say as I shook my head was, "Oh my god…oh my god…” over and over again. It was nearly a 2-mile, steady swath of destruction.
I'm not much for posting pictures of peoples' properties laid to waste, but there's a 30-minute flyover someone posted the day after: