I grew up in a small town. That’s not unique…a lot of us did. But not all small towns are nestled on a stunning ridge overlooking the central valley of California on a road that (at the time) ended high up the mountain. I could see all the way across the valley to the coastal hills from my parent’s back patio. There was something special about growing up in a town that celebrated Friday night football, the discovery of a giant gold nugget (Gold Nugget Days) and whose favorite hang outs were A&W Root Beer and El Rancho Mexican Restaurant.
I moved to Chico after high school and later up to Eugene, Oregon. Every drive across the valley and up the Skyway brought back so many memories. I couldn’t wait to see my family and connect with old friends. My heart always knew it was coming home. I wonder about other small towns. Did they have pancake breakfasts, parades, rodeos and snow days? But it wasn’t just the small town atmosphere that was endearing, it was the people. My mom worked at the Sears Catalog Store on Skyway. I would go there after school to help her sort packages. My dad owned a mobile home park, gas station and bait and tackle shop on lower Pentz Road. Between the two of them, they probably knew half the town.
It wasn’t all Wonder Years. It was a conservative place. Our high school teachers were disciplined for showing us pictures of the Holocaust. I was bullied in school and felt out-of-place with some of my more sophisticated and well-dressed school mates. But I found my community in music class with Mr. Jacoby and went faithfully to Saturday orchestra practice at the Community Center (which thankfully is still there). I also joined the political kids to protest the Vietnam War. The nerds united.
I was in a counseling session the morning of the Camp Fire. I looked out the window and commented on the smoke. I had no idea that at that very moment Paradise was burning to the ground. When I got home I immediately called my family to make sure they were OK. We were lucky, everyone was safely out. It took me a year to gather the courage to go up the ridge to see the damage.
I’m not sure if I have words to describe the feeling of losing your home town (almost entirely). There are parts of downtown still standing, the high school made it, plus a few random pockets of homes and businesses. But every place my family lived is gone. The business my father built is gone, along with the church where my mother and I played piano and cello together. I was so numb when I finally made the trip, I couldn’t cry. It was overwhelming. It still is. I haven’t watched Ron Howard’s film, Rebuilding Paradise, because I don’t think my heart can take it. There’s a lost and hollow feeling that may never go away.
I stayed a long time walking around on what used to be my parent’s property. The site wasn’t completely bare, but almost every tree, shrub and flower they planted is gone. The hardiest oaks and pines remain. Because of the fire, the view across the canyon and into the valley opened up. It’s still spectacular. I felt comforted in a strange way knowing that the ridge remains, the beauty of the surrounding land will recover and people will rebuild. It’s called Paradise for a reason.