Editor’s Note: The first in a three-part series
Standing at the Rim of the World Vista about 15 miles east of Groveland along Highway 120, I could see where the fire started at Jawbone Ridge. I had just been through Groveland and past my old house on Hells Hollow Road, places I had not seen since I moved away in 1979.
There is not much to keep most young people in a place like Groveland, but there was one thing I did appreciate about living on Hells Hollow Road, about eight miles east of town. The landscape was undeniably lovely, resplendent with clear blue skies and manzanita shrubs, pine and cedar trees, cold springs, streams, waterfalls and ponds.
On weekends and many days in summer, I rode Dutch, my buckskin gelding, up Hells Hollow until the paved road turned into a dirt path through the Stanislaus National Forest.
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Dutch would carry me to the top of a ridge, where I could see pines and canyons and blue sky stretching for hundreds and hundreds of miles. I’d sit there on Dutch’s back for upwards of an hour sometimes, looking out over the vast horizon while Dutch stomped his hooves and snorted dust from his nose, and while squirrels and mice rustled in the dry pine needles below.
There is nothing else in the world like that kind of stillness and solitude, and it is the memory of those moments that drew me back to Groveland last week. I had to know if the smell of pine sap had been replaced by the odor of charcoal, and if I could still hear the wind through the trees, if I stood alone on a ridge overlooking the forest.
About mid-morning, I stopped at the Iron Door Restaurant to buy a soda and talk to Jane Collier and John Pritchard, restaurant employees who told me that the Iron Door had to lay off forty restaurant employees during the fire, though they were closed only one day. The saloon, however, stayed open and kept all seven bartenders working throughout the fire.
I mentioned to Jane that she was probably tired of talking to reporters.
“Yeah,” she said. “I ducked down behind the counter when the news crews came in.”
Jane told me that the opening of school was delayed by a month, the back side of Pine Mountain Lake was evacuated and Rainbow Pools, a long-revered swimming hole just past the Rim Vista, had been devastated by the fire.
“Have you been up there?” I asked.
“No,” she answered. “I don’t want to see it. Some people I know have been up there and they say it’s all gone.”
But Groveland itself has not suffered any long-term ill effects from the fire. In fact, the entire town seems to bustle with activity. It is today a place entirely different from the one I left in 1980, though the old structures still remain, including the wood-clad building that once housed my father’s feed store — now a church.
Outside of Groveland, I encountered a new Highway 120 that cuts the distance to Hells Hollow Road by half, and I came upon my old house unexpectedly. I continued east on 120. As I passed the Groveland Ranger Station, I saw a Smokey the Bear sign: “Fire Danger Moderate Today.”
And then I arrived at the Rim of the World. I stood and looked out at hundreds of miles of ash and blackened tree trunks. On the day I was there, Sept. 27, the fire was 84percent contained, still burning around Cherry Lake and Hetch Hetchy Resevoir.
The hunter responsible has turned himself in, but the U.S. Forest Service and other authorities are not releasing information about him.
I imagine, though, that he stood at the top of Jawbone Ridge sometime in the early dawn hours of Sept. 17, and he looked out at an expanse of pine trees and granite. Perhaps he felt that perfect solitude, that moment of clarity when one fully appreciates his insignificance in the vastness of the natural world.
And then he kicked dirt over his illegal campfire, checked to make sure the embers were all covered, and started his hike out, completely unaware of what he had left behind.