The Station Fire started near JPL on Thursday and went crazy yesterday, expanding to 20,000 then 35,000 and now who-know-how-many acres. Remarkably few structures have been lost.There is a good chance, though, that the little cabin that I lived in when I first arrived at Caltech is now ash (it's NOT! I just got word from an old neighbor that the canyon was saved. so hard to imagine looking at all of the destruction in the region). I might be wrong; in the major fires 15 years ago Millard Canyon was saved when fire skipped over the top of it. But from everything I can see things don't look good. The firefighters started protecting structures in the real city, not crazy cabins up in the woods. The cabin was at least 100 years old and had survived floods and fires that had slowly gotten rid of the cabins throughout the rest of the San Gabriels mountains.
It was a wonderful if somewhat eccentric place to live. I write about it in my forthcoming book (sadly, books take way too long, even after you finish writing them, so forthcoming means perhaps a year), and I wanted to give a little excerpt here, in memory of the little cabin that I fear met its doom yesterday or last night.
When I first started looking for planets, I lived in a little cabin in the mountains above Pasadena. Though I cannot prove it, I am willing to bet that I was the only professor at Caltech at the time who lacked indoor plumbing and, instead, used an outhouse on a daily (and nightly) basis. I worked long hours, and it was almost always dark, often past midnight, when I made my way back into the mountains to go home for the night. To get to my cabin, I had to drive up the windy mountain road in to the forest, past the National Forest parking lot, down to the end of a dirt road, and finally walk along the side of a seasonal creek along a poorly maintained trail. For some time after I first moved in I tried to remember to bring a flashlight with me to light my way, but more often than not I forgot. Eventually I had no choice but to give up on flashlights entirely and, instead, navigate the trail by whatever light was available, or, sometimes, by no light whatsoever.
The time it took to get from the top of the trail to the bottom, where my cabin waited, depended almost entirely on the phase of the moon. When the moon was full it was almost like walking in the daylight, and I practically skipped down the trail. The darker quarter moon slowed me a bit, but my mind seemed to be able to continuously reconstruct its surroundings from the few glints and outlines that the weak moonlight showed. I could almost walk the trail with my eyes closed. I had memorized the positions of nearly all of the rocks that stuck up and of all of the trees and branches that hung down. I knew where to avoid the right side of the trail so as to not brush against the poison oak bush. I knew where to hug the left side of the trail so as to not fall off the twenty foot embankment that we knew as “refrigerator hill” (named after a legendary incident when some previous inhabitants of the same cabin bought a refrigerator and had hauled it most of the way down the trail before losing it over the embankment and into the creek at that very spot; I never lost a major appliance, but I took extra care – and used ropes – one time when I had to get a hot water heater down the hill to install at the cabin; it was rough going, but the new found ability to take hot showers was definitely worth it).
I had almost memorized the trail, but, every 28 days, I was reminded that, really, there is quite a big difference between memorization and almost-memorization.
Every 28 days the moon became new and entirely disappeared from the sky and I was almost lost. If by luck there were any clouds at all in the sky I could possibly get enough illumination from the reflected lights from Los Angeles, just a few miles away, to help me on my way, but on days with no moon and no clouds and only the stars and planets to light the way I would shuffle slowly down the trail, knowing that over here – somewhere – was a rock that stuck out – there! – and over here I had to reach out to feel a branch – here! It was a good thing that my skin does not react strongly to the touch of poison oak.
These days I live in a more normal suburban setting and drive my car right up to my house. I even have indoor plumbing. The moon has almost no direct effect on my day to day life, but, still, I consciously track its phases and its location in the sky and try to show my daughter every month when it comes around full. All of this, though, is just because I like the moon and find its motions and shapes fascinating. If I get busy, I can go for weeks without really noticing where it is in the sky. Back at the time I lived in the cabin, though, the moon mattered, and I couldn’t help but feel the monthly absences and the dark skies and my own slow shuffling down the trail.
Contrary to how it might sound, however, back then the moon was not my friend. The 2 ½ year-old daughter of one of my best friends – a girl who would, a few years later, be the flower girl as I got married, would say, when asked about that bright object nearly full in the night sky: “That’s the moon. The moon is Mike’s nemesis.” And, indeed, the moon was my nemesis, because I was looking for planets.
The moon is nearing full tonight, but it's no longer my nemesis. That honor will now go to the Station Fire which I fear has taken away that place I loved so well.