Trying to get my daughter to sleep, I drive Mom’s minivan up to Claraboya. At the entrance on Mountain Avenue a painted block wall with metal letters in script proclaims the name of the neighborhood—and a sign tells us to “SMILE—This neighborhood patrolled by video camera.” We turn right just past the sign and cruise past Seven Fifty-Two Valparaiso, my grandparents’ house where my Aunt Jenny grew up, the house where she never returned. It’s for sale. A low white façade with spiral columns faces the street. Beveled windows leaded with a floral pattern have been installed on the street side of the house, the side away from the view. Their effect is to obscure what’s inside.
At the end of the cul-de-sac, we turn around and head up the hill on Mountain again. I’m trying to find a road that will take us up and out, but each one I turn down ends in an asphalt bulbout. The top of Mountain dead-ends at a trail head that leads into dry scrub on this hot October day. NO PARKING ANY TIME warns off anyone who might want to stop and take a hike. More signs telling us (with irony, I think) to SMILE! pepper the neighborhood. Rosie is still wide awake, singing along to an old, muffled tape of James Taylor that I found in a side pocket of the van. We head back down the hill, the only way out; this is a neighborhood of stub ends.
I wonder if my parents will get a call from the Claremont P.D., wondering why their minivan was taped feeling out every cul-de-sac in Claraboya. And finally I comply with the imperative to SMILE!
* * *
Two weeks later, on Tuesday, October 21, 2003, off Foxborough Drive in a scruffy L.A. suburb called Fontana, fire started at the wildland/urban interface and spread through foothills that hadn’t burned in twenty years. The fire started shedding ash and smoke and it looked like the AYSO soccer games would have to be cancelled in Claremont that Saturday. Firefighters called this fire Grand Prix.
On Wednesday, October 22, 2003, the L.A. police reported that Elliott Smith, a beautifully gifted songwriter who had been briefly given the nod by Hollywood and held Celine Dion’s hand at the Oscars, had put a knife in his own chest at home in Silver Lake the day before. Another mystery, another heartbreak, another one who couldn’t do it anymore, I thought.
The two events are linked in my mind because I found out about them on the same day—Friday, October 24—and because of what happened that weekend.
On Saturday, October 25, 2003, the Old Fire started off Old Waterman Canyon Road in San Bernardino. The Playground Fire started near Crestline and joined the Old Fire. The Grand Prix Fire and the Old Fire merged, driven by Santa Ana winds down canyons and through passes, forming a fire front that stretched forty miles east to west. Here is the National Weather Service’s fire weather forecast for that day:
FIRE WEATHER FORECAST FOR EXTREME SOUTHWESTERN CALIFORNIA
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE SAN DIEGO CA
230 PM PDT SAT OCT 25 2003
…A RED FLAG WARNING REMAINS IN EFFECT THROUGH MONDAY AFTERNOON FOR VERY LOW HUMIDITIES AND SANTA ANA WINDS THROUGH AND BELOW MOUNTAIN PASSES AND CANYONS OF EXTREME SOUTHWESTERN CALIFORNIA…
THIS RED FLAG WARNING IS FOR STRONG NORTHEAST WINDS THAT WILL GRADUALLY INCREASE TO 25 TO 35 MPH AND GUST TO 50 TO 60 MPH OR HIGHER NEAR PASSES AND CANYONS THROUGH TONIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING. THE WINDS WILL CONTINUE INTO MONDAY MORNING BEFORE SUBSIDING. IN ADDITION…SUSTAINED RELATIVE HUMIDITIES WILL BE LESS THAN 10 PERCENT IN MANY FOOTHILL AND MOUNTAIN LOCATIONS THROUGH MONDAY.
THE WARNING AREA INCLUDES ALL OF THE MOUNTAINS AND INLAND VALLEYS…AND ORANGE COUNTY.
When my mother went to bed on the evening of Saturday, October 25, it was seventy-five degrees outside and she could see an orange glow on the horizon from the bedroom window. When she woke up at 2:00 AM, it was ninety degrees outside and she could see, when she went out to her front lawn, the flames devouring the hills. Evacuees and the curious loitered in front of the house, on the sidewalk and in their cars, waiting to see where the fire would choose to go. The wind blowing from the north, the foothills, was overpoweringly hot and dry: the wind coming off the firestorm. She saw the fire burning steadily and then she saw it leap to the west in an instant, right at the top of the street. She could hear the fire department loudspeakers a few blocks over: EVACUATE! She woke Tom and they stumbled around wondering what to bring with them until the fire, impatient, had moved on. Sixty-two houses in Claremont burned that night.
Seven Fifty-Two West Valparaiso, overlooking Sycamore Canyon and the valley beyond, burned that night.
Custom built, detached home, single level, 3 total bedrooms, 3.00 total bath(s), Family room, Formal dining room, Living room, Approximately 2664 sq. ft., Gas fireplace, Woodburning fireplace, Wall to wall carpeting, Ceramic tile flooring, Central air conditioning, French door(s), 2 car garage, View, City view, Hill/mountain view, Wooded view, Located on a cul-de-sac.
And that was not the worst, by far. By Sunday ten fires were burning in Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Ventura, and San Diego counties, and people were dying as they tried to get away. Rancho Cucamonga and Claremont were mentioned in the national news, and people everywhere were thinking, again, how you’d have to be crazy to live in L.A. The gods were not smiling, they were winking.
But Elliott Smith was not there to see it. He had opted out, I thought—no more Creator/Destroyer or Coyote for him. No more Kingdom Come, no more Apocalypse (or, as usually happens in L.A., both at the same time). I’m sure a lot of his fans were listening to his songs that weekend, but I couldn’t do it. There was something in them that I didn’t want to touch me anymore. He’d said “’depressing’ isn’t a word I would use to describe my music. But there is some sadness in it—there has to be, so that the happiness in it will matter.” I was afraid that if I listened the happiness wouldn’t matter anymore.
What kind of self-hatred does it take to stab yourself in the heart? I wondered.
I was afraid I knew. I thought Jenny knew.
I thought: we are all chaparral; we are all waiting to burn. Sometimes the fire’s moving too fast to take you. Sometimes waiting to evacuate, wondering what to bring, is the worst part.
On January 10, 2004, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Grand Prix Fire, which had been thought caused by arson, had been ruled by investigators from the San Bernardino County sheriff’s arson unit “accidental but human-initiated.” It might have been caused by a spark from a motorcycle driven illegally off road. They also determined that the Playground Fire had been started by a nineteen-year-old who had driven his old American car into some weeds off the road in order to watch the progress of the Old Fire. His car lit the weeds and was itself engulfed. And a San Bernardino County sheriff’s homicide team had received over 600 tips about the cause of the Old Fire in response to news reports and a sketch of a man who had been seen on October 25 throwing incendiary devices from a van in Old Waterman Canyon.
This news of events that were either accidental but human-initiated or quite brutishly intentional—and it was hard to determine which, and hard to know why in the end it mattered—was still linked in my mind to Elliott Smith, whose death had by now been proclaimed by the L.A. County coroner an open case. The coroner’s spokesman said that the two “penetrating stab wounds” to the chest that killed Elliott Smith “could have been inflicted by him or by another” and that the coroner had “not been able to make a determination.”
The police said they would look into it again.
And I found myself in the same position as the L.A. County coroner: not able to make a determination.
Seven Fifty-Two West Valparaiso had burned, Palmer Canyon had burned, Sycamore Canyon had burned with the rocky hillsides to the east, but by now the rains had come again and the grass and herbs were greening up underneath the exhausted fuel, the stuff the fire barely had time to consume before it moved on. And the only certainty was this: the seed pods would open, the rhizomes would spread, the brittle understory of California dreams would grow back, and someone would build another house at Seven Fifty-Two West Valparaiso in Claraboya.
I hope they enjoy the view.