Last week I peddled my mountain bike up a chert strewn, sandy trail into mountains that resembled barren mounds some demon had impaled with burnt toothpicks. It was the first time I had ventured into the area know as the Hayman Burn, which, in 2002, was the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history, turning the mountains southwest of Denver and northwest of Colorado Springs into smoke and ash.
Eerie does not describe the feeling that settled on me as I wended my way through both standing and fallen charred pines. Not one left living. The silence fearful. The seared landscape marred the Colorado blue sky as they met above the burnt tree-tops in an ashy gray blend. My breath came hard and dry as I pushed through the dust.
These were the mountains I had roamed and fished and explored as a child and young man. Dee Dee’s parents owned a cabin near there that burned in a 1965 fire but was spared, barely, in this fire. My novel is set in these mountains. The fire blistered not just 215 miles of forest and 135 homes, but also memories and possibilities, each charred acre holding stories of the past and lost hopes for the future.
Now all ash.
Then I noticed something. Splashes of gold. Along the almost invisible creek, trickling life through death, and in odd places off in the distance, young groves of aspen–the replacement forest–had sprung up. Made up of only a dozen or fewer trees in each grove and only standing head high, they shouted hope.
The Hayman Fire was set by a troubled woman who, it seems, was trying to torch her own demons and instead released them on the people and wildlife of the Front Range.
This seems to be the way life is. Most, if not all, tragedy has a human source. “We have met the enemy. And he us,” said Walt Kelly in his “Pogo” comic strip.
And it’s not just the landscape or our enemies we scorch. In his brilliant short-story Every Little Hurricane, Sherman Alexie describes a fight between two American Indian brothers “slugging each other with such force that they had to be in love. Strangers would never want to hurt each other that badly.”
So it is. Human history is littered with pain, hate, hurt. A ride through this landscape is drear.
Then I noticed something.
Splashes of golden grace. Along the way, life trickling through death, and in odd places off in the distance, someone forgives a grievance, another delivers a kiss, a baby laughs, an old woman closes her eyes to begin the journey home, a young couple turn their love into a vow, a man tosses a dollar to another holding a cardboard sign, a Democrat eats with a Republican, friends weep together, enemies call a cease-fire, a parent thanks a teacher, two children laugh and squeal as they trundle down the slide together, a teenager holds the door for a stranger, brothers lower their fists.
These little things shout hope also. These little things are the seeds of salvation. Because mere humans cannot destroy forever what God has eternally created. Just as those aspens are rooted in God’s ever-life-producing soil, though burnt, we too, when rooted in God and his gift of grace in Christ, can spring back to life from the soil of charred lives.
I zipped back down the trail on my bike breathing easier and filled with a melancholy hope. In the midst of this scarred landscape is a golden place called grace, where heaven, blue and clear and descending meets the burnt tree-tops of our lives. Look up!