Fire season sparks memories of 1964. My grandparents’ home, Glen Eyrie, became collateral damage to a forest fire in Napa County. My grandfather began building that home on 50 acres off of Highway 128, near the Napa Sonoma County line in 1930. He talked often of his labor of love: clearing the land and using all-redwood in the framing. The one-room cabin came first. In 1936, he dug the reservoir and built the shop and garage. In 1938, he built the implement shed. His labor of love continued as he added an orchard, a large garden and a brick patio. The home was completed in the early 1940’s. The chimney of river rock, on whose mantel sat his collection of carved elephants, gathered from his travels, was the centerpiece.
My sister and I spent many hours in front of that fireplace playing Canasta and Chinese Checkers with my grandparents, Fred and Mary. Our bedroom was in the attic where windows spanned the entire north wall above a built-in desk. In the summer, the breeze filtered through those windows, and the sound of the wind in the pines reminded me of the ocean’s waves.
I learned to crochet, tend a garden and can fruit under the watchful eye of my grandmother. I practiced conservation and identified the flora and fauna with precision with my grandfather. Whether winter or summer, it was idyllic. Mitchell’s market delivered groceries. A woodburning stove warmed the kitchen. After lunch on summer afternoons, we retired to the napping porch for a rest before late afternoon chores. Meals were served in the kitchen on a large table in front of a bay window that overlooked the forest where deer often stopped just below the window to partake of the salt lick and vegetable peelings.
On September 21, with little notice, a lightning strike ignited the fire that moved quickly to the property. My grandparents grabbed a canvas sack and gathered what they could. Neighbors hastily picked them up and drove them to safety. Within hours, the house, the workshop, the cabin and a separate garage and their beloved Chrysler Imperial burned to the ground. Nothing remained except the river rock chimney standing like a giant gravestone above the basement foundation below.
Have you ever thought about what you’d take if you only had a few moments before exiting your home? Their bag included: my grandfather’s journal, jewelry, the family sterling silver flatware, my great-grandmother’s two hand-stitched quilts, her hand-painted cream and sugar set, and an 1883 copy of Lady of the Lake by Sir Walter Scott. What was left behind included: 3,000 slides my grandfather, an amateur photographer, had taken of wildflowers across the United States and Canada, a library of first edition books written and signed by writers who’d stayed in the small cabin on the property to write, a hand-blown chandelier from Venice, a twelve-foot square hand-woven Navajo area rug, and a large collection of obsidian arrowheads found on the property.
My mother called me at school to break the news. Shocked, everything seemed to move in slow motion, I couldn’t comprehend it all—Glen Eyrie—gone! My grandfather lived a life full of adventure. He had hiked across the floor of the Grand Canyon with just a bow and arrow, a backpack and three friends. He hiked Bryce, Zion, Mt. Whitney, Mt. Lassen, Yellowstone and Glacier Park. He was the first to explore Mt. Hood and is responsible for naming Eden Park in 1922. My mother’s voice told me my grandfather’s spirit had left. I knew his heart broke when Glen Eyrie burned.
My parents drove north to pick up Fred and Mary as soon as they received the call. They all returned to the property a day later, after the fire raged through, to see if there was anything they could salvage. The ground still smoldered as they searched. Nothing remained. My grandmother, 76, while distraught, remained stoic. She knew the life they once cherished was gone forever. My parents said that my grandfather spoke very little and seemed somewhere else following the fire.
On October 18, my mom and dad drove my grandparents to the university to visit me. In retrospect, the opportunity to see them, hug them and tell them I loved them was a priceless gift. Just two months before the fire, my grandparents sent me on a seven-week odyssey, organized by the university, to see our country by bus and learn its history. They said, “It’s important to know your own country before visiting others.” The classes (Colonial America and Studies in the Westward Movement) started in Los Angeles, traveled east through the Southwest to Georgia, meandered up the Atlantic Coast to Quebec, traveled west via the Oregon Trail and down through Washington and Oregon to Los Angeles. The bus served as our classroom those seven weeks. My eyes opened to our country’s diversity, natural beauty and cultures. We visited the Alamo in Texas, the Slave Market in Savannah, the Lincoln Memorial in D.C., the battle grounds at Gettysburg, the tall ships in Boston Harbor, the World’s Fair in New York, Mount Rushmore in South Dakota and many remote and fascinating places along the way. Fifty days opened us to a world much grander than we could imagine. My grandparents’ visit, on campus that day, afforded me an opportunity to share what I’d learned and to thank them for the gift of travel that has served me ever since.
My grandfather had a great impact on me. He guided by example the importance of caring for Nature, the exhilaration of travel, the joy of photography, the need for order and documentation, and the integrity of spirit. His life modeled a cautionary tale. Frederick Wilson Rockhold had turned 88, September 7, just two weeks before the fire. He was vital, tilling the soil in the orchard and clearing trails. October 25, his journal reads, “My loved one passed away,” underlined in red in my grandmother’s hand. When my mother called that morning, I already knew the purpose of her call, and drove home for the funeral, October 27. Fred Rockhold and Glen Eyrie were one. As a result, his light died out with the last embers of the fire.
As fire season expands in California, I have an overnight bag packed and a list of a few items important to me. Yet, I know if all is lost, there’s still hope. Hope keeps the human spirit vital, and I’ll make sure mine travels with me.