Published in issue 71 of 34th Parallel Magazine. Link here.
I had to stop riding my bike into work. It was one of the few pleasures in my life: riding down the hill, around the curve of the park, along the slot canyon of the dry creek bed, and then up through the office spires to my office. This ride each morning and in reverse each night was my release. I craved the sweat, the hard breathing, the gentle burn in my legs, the focus that came from pushing my body toward a singular goal, even if that goal was just getting into work.
It was just a quick little bike ride, 25 minutes, 10 miles. Barely enough time to listen to a podcast.
But the ride had meaning for me—it was time away from social media, from the office, from the house. It was time I could retreat into my own head and just be.
But then what was my release became a torture. I was gasping, unable to pedal up the hill by my building even in the lowest of granny gears.
I’d get back home in tears, gulping air, unable to slow my breathing until I was inside with the HEPA air filter.
So riding my bike? It was over.
I used to ride my bike to the Safeway to buy food for dinner. It was a practical thing, you know? It was green, or whatever. But not any more. I’d think about it on the bus, forcing myself to breathe through a surgical mask.
Riding to the Safeway I would stand up from the seat, pushing my feet down on the pedals revelling in the power of my body. But that joy is gone now. And I don’t know that I’ll ever get it back again. Not while I’m stuck here.
You never really want to think about what it means for your world to change irrevocably. You never want to admit that this moment is never going to repeat again, that things will never be as good again.
I would think about that too: it will never be any better than this. I wanted that to be a reason to feel happy. I wanted that to be a reason to stay in the moment and enjoy the good while it was there. But the future haunted me. I couldn’t escape the trauma I knew was coming. It would only get worse.
The first summer wildfire was horrible: a wall of flame, smoke belching into the sky.
Mae and I sat on the balcony and watched as the hills west of the city hazed into grey, the landscape slowly swallowed in the miasma.
That summer we didn’t think all that much of it. The skies weren’t as blue, and sometimes we couldn’t see the skyline through the haze, but life didn’t change. We still played outside, still sat by the pool, still enjoyed the rooftop bars.
Sometimes, we thought, wildfires just happen. It’s part of nature. Sure, it was an inconvenience but it wasn’t the state of things. Just an aberration. A dry summer, that’s it.
I hadn’t had an asthma attack since I was a kid. It had been so long since I had one, I wondered if it was a condition I invented to get attention or to get out of school sports.
I remember, at seven, my dad pressuring me to try out for the soccer team. I loved soccer but hated the running.
They wanted us to run. It was an eternity, miles and miles, and I was bored. We’d run to the end of the field and back. We’d run in circles around the field. We’d run as a punishment. We’d run as a reward. Everything was running.
Our coach, an elderly British man who seemed to revel in the moans and cries, told us physical conditioning was the secret to winning.
I hated running and I was out of breath. So I breathed heavier and heavier, heavier than the other boys. I didn’t consider that my problem might be my lack of fitness and the fat sticking out of my belly like a partially deflated beach ball. It had to be a medical condition. I heard about asthma and realized I had begun to wheeze.
But as I hit puberty the soccer stopped and so did the wheezing. I switched to lacrosse and took a field position in attack, which came with less running. No more long runs, no more asthma. I told myself I had outgrown it and stopped thinking it was a thing to ever worry about again.
When I was 19, on a mountain bike tour in Jamaica, in the hills above Ochos Rios, I ran out of breath and panicked.
The green of Jamaica was shocking to me, its lushness and alienness. I heard animals I’d never heard of, smelled plants I’d never smelled. I wondered at the people living in tin shanties and cooking outside. When we pedaled past them I smelled the chicken, slathered in jerk spices, roasting over coals.
Everything felt raw and natural. The forest tempered the Caribbean heat and humidity and made it feel invigorating instead of stifling. I loved how sweaty I felt, how cool the breeze felt, how the forest felt.
It was the first time I felt like I loved the heat. Summers had always been oppressive to me growing up. I was ashamed of my body and hated stripping down at the swimming pool. But in Jamaica, with the breeze off the water, the sun’s force blunted by the leaf canopy, my friends and I enjoying the beauty and explosion of life all around us, I felt like I finally “got” what heat could mean. How it could sustain, not just deplete. Forest bathing is real, even if it’s bath-hot outside. Just drink your water and feel the sweat make your body slippery. I didn’t even mind taking my shirt off to swim. It felt earned, like we had all earned the right to splash in the ocean. It restored us.
That bike tour was also the first time I felt like I truly loved a physical activity: the connection of legs to movement felt so much more real on a bike than it did on a track or a field. For the first time in years, I wanted to push myself to go faster, further, longer. I was a kid again, pedaling out past our street, exploring the new development up the road, chattering along trails until our wheels sank into a muddy bank by the creek (we’d throw mud at each other; jumping in and out of the water, and pedal back to our houses filthy just to gross out our mothers).
Jamaica made me feel like a kid again. I pedaled and I pedaled. It was freedom, it was joy, it was life.
I ran out of breath and didn’t care. It was exhilarating!
I ran out of breath and panicked. My chest ached. The oxygen couldn’t fill my lungs. They were empty even as I gulped in air. I tried to slow down my breathing, tried to breathe deeper, and I felt dizzy. I wanted to cry.
I could feel my breakfast of oatmeal and sausage and cantaloupe bubbling up. I vomited. I cried in earnest. I still couldn’t breathe, and no matter how hard I panted the spots in my vision would not go away. I gasped and gasped, and cried, and panicked, and hated myself for doing this to the tour group.
The guide put a hand on my shoulder and told me to stay calm. I couldn’t do it—don’t you realize I can’t breathe?—and groaned between gasps of air.
I fell to my knees, my face hot and red, my eyes filled with tears. He looked around for a moment and then ran into the forest and came back with a bundle of leaves.
“Here, chew these,” he said. Between gasps I asked him what they were.
“We call it leaf of life. It helps with the breathing.”
I had no idea what it was, but it worked. Within moments of chewing, trying not to choke from the gasping, I felt better. I could breathe again, though my lungs and abs ached from the strain. Was it folk medicine? Was it in my head? Did I really have some low-grade asthma lurking in my body? I had no idea. But it worked. I could breathe again, and I could get back on the bike.
When the tour guide led us down the hills toward the beach and a cove lined with cliff rocks and filled with tropical fish darting through crystalline water, when my chest burned and I felt drained from the whole day, I focused on the leaf eating. I swam, and felt good, and my lungs felt relief.
I rediscovered the joy of cycling after that trip in Jamaica. Every hot season I leaped outside to ride for miles and miles, and over the course of several years it became my hobby, my crutch.
Everyone who has had a bike as a kid realizes how fun it can be. I knew it in my gut: cycling was my sport. Cycling replaced Zoloft as my coping mechanism for managing the depression and anxiety.
But that first summer of the wildfires I breathed too heavily. I overexerted myself and felt like I was back on that hillside in Jamaica, gasping and crying. I breezed down a steep hill and tried to climb the next; by the top, my pedaling stopped feeling great and my head got too hot. The nausea crept in. I poured water through my helmet so it could trickle down my neck. I felt my face go red, re-radiating the sun’s energy into hot air where it had nowhere to go. I had to lie down and pour more water over my body. I crawled into some shade and sat and tried to calm down.
I told myself it was some form of heatstroke. I just didn’t manage my ride well. That had to be it.
It didn’t dawn on me that the wildfires meant something. It is built into the American psyche that the future is always bright, that we have something to strive for. We aren’t used to losing things, even as our history is flecked with horrible losses. Unknowingly, I had coped myself into a perspective dependent on environmental conditions that would not remain constant.
Despite that, I kept up my bike rides into work, so much so that when the winter weather forced me to give them up I’d feel the depression well up inside of me, making the dark days darker and the cold drag on and on, unending, even though it was only a couple of months. No indoor bike could substitute for the thrill and joy of riding a bike. Humans are not hamsters and we were never meant to spin our legs inside. I needed the outside to feel joy; I needed to see the landscape change and feel my shirt flap in the wind.
Winter that first year of the wildfires was weird. The ground never froze like it should have. It sleeted a few times and we got an inch of snow once, but winter wasn’t cold like it was supposed to be.
I wondered if I had made a mistake putting my bike into storage because the weather never seemed to get bad enough.
When spring came I jumped on my bike with a renewed vigor. I went deeper into the woods, tackled hills I wouldn’t have dreamed of tackling before, and worked out in the gym.
I still felt the heavy breathing, but pushed through. I drank so much water that I worried about hypernatremia. When it was too hot to push hard, I’d push long and keep going.
April felt like July. High 90s heat, afternoon rain almost every day. Nothing in the weather felt right, but they said on the news that the extra rain would help with the wildfires. They were wrong.
When the real July came it brought with it that same haze, another wildfire fouling the sky.
The first week of August the winds shifted so that smoke blew down the hills and into town. The city put up warnings not to spend time outside, to limit even your time in the car. The air smelled of charcoal and I began to feel like a chainsmoker.
A barometric inversion descended upon the city and turned the daytime sky dark red. The office distributed masks to wear while we commuted. I couldn’t ride my bike and my anxiety spiked.
It was like winter, only the smoke made exercise inside hard as well. Days and days of a constant low grade flight-or-flight gut churn made it hard to eat, and I felt tired all the time.
One afternoon, as I left my car for a networking happy hour, the sky fell. Without warning, lightning lanced the sky thundering loudly and hail cascaded down so hard it stung.
I looked over to the parking lot and saw my car’s windshield crack. The car next to mine lost its sunroof. In minutes the hail piled up so much it felt like trudging through snow. In seconds I was drenched. The phone in my sport jacket went dark as water leaked into the battery.
But even then, it still felt like an aberration. Sometimes you have a run of bad weather, right? The rationalization is easy to come by when you have a vested interest in ignoring a problem.
Who was it that said you can’t convince a man of something when his salary depends on not getting it? I forgot, but I knew what he must have meant: I didn’t want to admit what was happening, so I explained it away as something else. This wasn’t the natural consequence of the world adjusting itself to human pollution, like a planetary sneeze. It was just a fluke that happened a couple of times.
I was just out of shape, that’s why I always noticed myself catching my breath. I just got distracted and forgot to inhale deeply enough. Nothing was really wrong.
While August was weirdly wet, September and October were weirdly dry, so much so that the brief respite of the torrential rain didn’t last any longer than the rain itself. Within a day the ground was dry again, and it was hot, Jamaica hot, and the plants on my balcony began to die. The city issued water restrictions, but I saw people watering their lawns anyway. We went 40 days without a drop of rain.
The months of the inferno had a profound effect on the city. The windows of the office towers looked dingy, as did the sidewalk. The trees, already losing their leaves to the season, began flaking bark. People worried how many of them would survive the winter.
I noticed my lungs more and more, too. It felt like every day I’d catch myself inhaling deeply, as if I had forgotten to breathe. My lungs would burn during a ride, like I wasn’t as fit as I thought I was. Inside, on the stationary bike, I could pedal with vigor. But outside my range was half what it was the year before.
The doctor told me that was normal when there was a lot of soot in the air. He said we were all used to it so we didn’t notice. Particulate concentrations were double what they were the year before and it was going to make us feel short of breath.
It turned out the worry about the trees was overblown. Winter never got cold enough for there to be any danger of a frost die-off. It didn’t frost at all, in fact it rained constantly, almost daily, but never turned cold enough to snow.
For the first week we sat on the balcony and watched wet, sticky rain send rivulets of grey down the roofs of the houses nearby. The gutters looked black.
I felt cooped up. My legs hummed constantly. I felt restless and cranky. I couldn’t stop myself. I gained weight and thought of going back onto Zoloft.
Mae noticed. One night, as I was bitterly complaining about every little inconvenience I’d faced that day, she blurted out: “What is it with your non-stop bitching these days? Is that all you are now? Complaints and resentments?”
I didn’t know what to say to that. Was that all I had become?
But I couldn’t remember when I had last enjoyed anything. It was like any enjoyment had been swallowed up by the fires.
As another summer of wildfires began I tried to ride my bike wearing a mask. It felt horrible. I was out of breath even more than before, and I got that horrible heatstroke feeling, but worse. Pouring water over me did not help me calm down. Riding while soggy is extremely uncomfortable. I had to walk the bike home.
I tried biking inside. I hate exercise bikes, even the expensive ones. But I set up a bike on a turbo trainer. It cost me thousands to do it just right, but even then, even with a large TV showing course progression in the training app, a fan and a hydraulic lift to simulate hills and wind, and a direct drive train to simulate road resistance, it wasn’t the same. This wasn’t freedom, it was training. I stopped riding.
Mae was upset with me. “Can you even sell this? How much are you going to lose?”
I lied to her and said only a couple of hundred dollars.
“Oh, so you mean you blew our food budget for the week.”
But we still had the money to buy food.
“It’s not about that,” she said. “It’s not about whether you have money now. The whole point of a budget is so you have money later.”
I felt angry. How could she know what I was dealing with?
“Oh, get over yourself,” she said. “You think I don’t struggle with things? You think I’m not depressed looking at the sky burn every year? You think I don’t worry about our future?”
That took me aback. I hadn’t noticed her ever worrying. Did she do a better job than I did of keeping it bottled up? Or did I fail to notice something?
“You’re too selfish to realize that life is more than your bike rides,” she told me one night as we sweated in bed and talked over the noise of the fans. “What’s happening to us right now is not just about being able to spend a few hours outside. It’s about whether we’ll have an outside left.”
She was reading something on her tablet by Willa Cather. I had a brief flash, imagining myself as a modern Claude Wheeler giving up his comfortable life to fight a war. But what would that war be? Riding my bike again was a dreadfully shallow thing to worry about.
But that wasn’t it. She wasn’t reading about searching for a frontier to give purpose; she was reading about men on the frontier being corrupted by greed. Bishop Latour and his vicar, traveling the wilderness of New Mexico a century and a half ago, imposing a foreign religion on people who didn’t want it. I couldn’t relate.
Edward Abbey once wrote about the grief he felt at watching the wilderness around Moab being destroyed by tourism developers. I hadn’t read Desert Solitaire since college but I felt like I was getting it as an adult. I used to think of Abbey as a crank, and I saw a lot of myself in his anti-social rants about people and their propensity to destroy things. Yet Abbey wasn’t just cranky, and he wasn’t just grieving—he despaired.
I grabbed his book off my bookshelf. Thumbing through his sadness and loss as the desert wastes transformed around him, as the valleys filled with people and the wilderness turned tame, hit me in a way it didn’t when I was younger. Now I woke up to a brilliant red sunrise backscattering through the smoke in the hills and now I knew, deep down, what he meant.
It struck me that we only learn how vulnerable things can be once they’re about to be gone. Abbey was devastated by the damming of Glen Canyon. My friends happily spend long weekends water skiing on Lake Powell.
I felt devastated by the loss of breathing air, but it wasn’t like I was trying to stop it. If anything, I was making it worse: I couldn’t ride my bike any more, not even into work, and the cars with their filtered air certainly didn’t make the climate any better. I wheezed all the time, and if I exerted myself at all while outside it felt like putting my lungs into a vice. It brought me back to that hillside in Jamaica, gasping for air and feeling shame. I couldn’t deny what was happening around me and how profoundly it was destroying my ability to enjoy life. But I never saw that panicked despair reflected in the people around me. Everyone wanted to pretend it was normal.
The first day of summer that next year had no daylight. I didn’t imagine that was even possible, but the smoke blocked out the sun almost entirely. It was night all day long. Car headlights were lost in the soot. Everywhere you went outside was the lingering stench of burned organic matter.
Mae messaged me a video of Montserrat. I’d never heard of the place, but in the 90s a volcano erupted there and blanketed the island in so much ash they couldn’t see the sun. “See this,” she wrote. “This is how bad the fires are.” It was a bit of an exaggeration, but only a bit of one.
I ran a search on Montserrat and felt yet more dread. The entire country vanished under the ash. Everyone who didn’t leave died. Our city hadn’t been buried under a pyroclastic flow of wet ash, but the same suffocating blanket of burned materials looked eerily similar.
“Insane,” I texted back, unsure what else to say. “I’m worried.”
“Me too,” she typed. I saw the three dots of her typing something else, then they vanished.
The wildfires became normal to us. The news would tell us when we had to wear masks or the city restricted driving. Some assholes sued over that last one, claiming there was no inherent legal right for them to restrict driving. But the air kept getting worse and worse, so I didn’t know where they thought we could improve things.
Adjusting to life indoors wasn’t easy. Air filters were already expensive, and the sudden demand turned them into high value commodities. The ability to breathe normally became a luxury,.
My favorite coffee shop closed down; most of its seating was outside and people just didn’t sit outside any more.
I saw the community slowly dissolving as the smoke killed everything, the grass, the trees, the flowers, the economy. Declarations of emergency didn’t mean anything by then. There wasn’t any money left in the State, and the Feds didn’t have the votes to send us relief.
By now I felt like I couldn’t stay in the city any more. Mae and I had a fight about it. She accused me of giving up. I agreed with her. I was giving up on the city. I didn’t see how it could recover.
She said cities have bounced back from worse, that they need people who believe in them to stay and rebuild. I couldn’t see the point of building when every year the fires only got worse and worse, that maybe next year we’d see the flames crest the hills into the suburbs.
She called me a coward. I called her naive. She refused to budge, and accused me of making her homeless if I left, because she couldn’t afford the rent on her own. I begged her to come with me. She wouldn’t.
I had no idea where to go. The smoke from the fires spread for a thousand miles and I didn’t know whether I could find a job anywhere else.
As I searched and tried to network my way out of the city, I found I wasn’t alone. People were leaving all over the place. The city was dying. It was a gold rush in reverse, a mad race to flee the slow motion disaster before it engulfed us. There weren’t many places left to flee. The feeling of collapse and decay was palpable.
But I was stuck here. After weeks of fruitless searching, the despair sat in my gut like an anchor. I couldn’t ride the bike, not even in the winter, and I felt trapped, constantly on the verge of crying. I sat on the couch most afternoons, not even watching whatever was on the TV.
One night I heard Mae cough. When I looked over, she was staring at me as I sat on the couch, tears welling in my eyes. She didn’t move. I wiped my eyes and they stung. Even inside, you could feel the smoke blanketing and poisoning everything.
She came over to me and sat down. She leaned her shoulder on mine. I touched her hand and she opened her palm. I held her hand in mine and let out a groan. She put her head on my shoulder.
“It’s going to be okay,” she told me. The tears hurt but they came anyway.
“We will figure something out, I promise.”