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Losing Everything

It is a writer’s worst nightmare.

True, it is a human nightmare as well, but it resonates especially with those scribblers of words, keepers of journals, and hoarders of paper who call themselves writers.

Technically, Ken Sleight, ninety-one years old with a birthday on the way, has always been more of a character than a writer. Sleight was immortalized by Edward Abbey in his 1975 novel about ecosabotage, The Monkey Wrench Gang, as Seldom Seen Smith, the “Jack Mormon” who broke away from his childhood religion and became a famed river runner known for fighting back against overdevelopment in the American West. Sleight, like his fictional counterpoint, had grown up conservative—he was a member of the John Birch society as a young adult—but later began running rapids and blazing trails that others would follow. By the time he confronted developers on the Colorado Plateau, and rode his horse into a standoff with approaching bulldozers, he was a full-blown eco-hero.

For thirty-five years Ken and his wife Jane have lived and raised livestock up at Pack Creek, a paradise of green at the foot of the La Sal mountains that looks down upon the orange red­rock rim above Moab, Utah. The place is ideally perched: look one way and you see the cool green of the mountains, the other the dry shimmering heat of the desert. During those years, Sleight’s daily commute has been the not-quite-quarter-mile walk from his home around the field that holds the goats and chickens up to what he called his shop, a large two-story Quonset hut. Quonset huts, first developed by the U.S. military during World War II, are lightweight prefabricated structures of corrugated galvanized steel. Ken’s looked like half of a giant beer can jammed horizontally into the ground and made generic by the weather. Three times over the course of the last decade and a half I have visited Ken and every time I found him there, in his shop. Each visit he was in basically the same spot where I’d left him, as if he hadn’t moved since I was last there. He would be sipping whiskey out of a coffee cup or nursing a beer, sitting behind a desk that was cluttered with papers, old computer files and two computers, one defunct or at least unplugged. Despite the heat, he always wore a flannel shirt with a blue dungaree shirt over it, and he always smiled widely upon my arrival. True, he looked a little older each time, but basically none the worse for the wear: shaggy white eyebrows, hunched shoulders, ears that stuck out like jug handles, a big thatch of white hair.

If you have purpose, I’ve come to think, you can endure a lot of pain.

Boxes and files were everywhere in the shop. Records of all his early river trips, photos of the same, transcripts of his many environmental fights, personal memorabilia, minutes from the meetings of the San Juan County Democrats, notes for the book he hoped to write about his friendship with Edward Abbey. In short, all the paper that had made up his life. It seemed like everyone else who had known Abbey had written about their experience, but Ken’s book would be different: he told everyone that one day he would spin his notes into gold and tell the story of his early days as a river runner and a friend of Ed.

Whether he would have or not is beside the point. The point is that the project, never finished, always looming, gave his life a secret purpose. A sense of unfinished mission. If you have purpose, I’ve come to think, you can endure a lot of pain. Basically, what was really stored in the Quonset hut, along with farm equipment, a woodstove, a never-used exercise bike, filing cabinets, and dozens of empty beer cans, was his past. Hundreds and hundreds of boxes of the words and pictures that had been his memories.

The fire swept down the mountain first. The investigators later concluded that it had been the result of an “untended campfire” in the public picnic area above Pack Creek on June 9. This would result in much understandable outrage in the small community, but whatever its cause, the fire had its own agenda. Ken, Jane, and the rest of the members of the neighborhood were evacuated as the flames made their way down the north side the creek. Ken, worried about his twelve goats, unlatched the pasture door before being led away, and for the next two days he had no idea whether their home, or those of their neighbors, had survived the blaze. The early reports, which he heard while waiting at a hotel down in Moab, were not good: orange flame lit up the night sky and it was said as many as thirty houses were lost. Luckily those reports were exaggerated. The local firemen, fighting heroically door to door, saved every house but one on the north side of the creek. By the next morning the fire seemed to have stopped at the bridge over Pack Creek below the houses. The next day federal authorities claimed that it was under control.

They were wrong. Most of us live with some illusion of control, but one thing we know we can’t control is the wind. The wind had pushed the fire down the creek the day before. But on the second morning it shifted. Soon gale force winds had reignited the fire and were blowing it back up the canyon to the east. No lives were lost, thanks to the evacuation, but this time, as it raced up the south side of the creek, it destroyed three houses, and then continued to rage up into the La Sal mountains, where it spread over thousands of acres, and where it burned into the fall. Before it left Pack Creek it jumped the road a couple of times, leaving deep black smears on the asphalt that you can still see today. It also left a black charred landscape along the creek itself, the water that gives the place its name now guarded by a leafless black forest of spindly trees. And, after one of those jumps across the road, it found Ken’s Quonset hut.

“Everything is gone,” he told me when I met up with him a month after the fire. “I lost everything.”

All of it, everything in the hut, incinerated, the fire so hot that even the doors of an old woodstove warped. The Quonset hut now looked like a crushed beer can and to walk through it was to walk through a land of ash. The few items that weren’t reduced to ash had become outlines of what they had been. An old bicycle was now a skeleton of itself.

Of course, Ken and the other Pack creek residents had not lost everything. They had not lost their lives, for instance, like the eighty individuals who had perished in the now-infamous Paradise fire in California three years before. But one thing they had lost, along with all the property damaged and houses destroyed, was any sense of certainty about a place that had seemed a paradise. And what Ken had lost, his neighbors told me, was the spirit to fight on.

In an effort to restore that spirit, the community rallied. On July 14, a little more than a month after the fire, the residents threw a party to celebrate Jane’s birthday, with the secondary purpose of lifting Ken’s spirits. The party was held in the Pack Creek lodge, with about forty people attending. The night before, in the same space, the various government department and fire authorities had issued their final report to Pack Creek residents. I was there and took thorough notes, but the sentence that most stuck with me was that of a young hydrologist, who assured the crowd that, due to the good soil, the “models suggested” that Pack Creek was not particularly vulnerable to a damaging flash flood. Running counter to this statement was the fact that the phrase “flood insurance” came up several times, making me think that I was back home on the hurricane-threatened coast of North Carolina. Few of these people actually had flood insurance; it was fire, not water, they feared. Ken’s main concern at the meeting was his goats, four of whom had been gone since the fire. He wanted to put together a search party to explore the forest in the mountains above Pack Creek, but the authorities were not allowing anyone up there except the firefighters. “Please look out for them,” he beseeched them.

The party went well, the wine flowed, and the cake was delicious. I had the honor of meeting and chatting with Clarke Abbey, Edward Abbey’s widow. For a good half hour I sat with Ken on the couch in the middle of the lounge. Our topics were age, writing, and uncertainty. I told him about a friend of mine, a writer, who had recently died much too young. Though Ken was thirty years older than me, I admitted my own anxieties about losing my ability to write as I aged.

“You are going to be writing until you are ninety,” he said, patting my leg.

What we witnessed next was the most powerful display of rushing water I have seen in my life.

It was then that the rumbling started. Some heard it and immediately went out the glass doors to the patio. They called back in to us and soon we were all outside. What we witnessed next was the most powerful display of rushing water I have seen in my life. For perspective, I have watched a half dozen hurricanes up close, and stood on the shore as a tidal bore ripped by in Nova Scotia. This was different. It was a great powerful rush and churn of chocolate-brown water tearing down the creek bed, which it was boring deeper while we watched. The water was like some primitive tool for scribing, and that was what it was doing right in front of us, digging a deeper trough through which it ran. But it was not quite that precise. A kind of liquid violence, it carried tree limbs and moved boulders, charging through with a deafening noise.

It had been rainy and cool that morning, a fact that we all celebrated after days of unprecedented heat and smoke from the distant California fires that had blurred the horizon. Afternoon thunderstorms followed the cool morning. But the total rain accumulation was less than an inch—actually about three-quarters of an inch according to the locals who kept rain gauges. It didn’t matter. Despite what the models had suggested, the fire had denuded enough of the vegetation near the creek to loosen its grip on the land and to help in creating a raging torrent of the sort that no one, even Ken, had seen before. The water ignored the models. A great brown-red freight train roared down the valley. We all felt awe, but for the homeowners that awe was mixed with fear. Twice in one month their homes had been threatened. First by fire, then by water. A kind of elemental comeuppance.

The fire had come to within ten feet of the lodge, making it an island in a sea of ash. The rain now wet the ash as another resident and I walked down through a kind of ashy mud, close to the edge of the rushing creek. From there we could watch in real time as the creek bed was gouged deeper, becoming a canyon ten feet lower than it had been just that morning. The flood also rendered the bridge that connected the north and south sides of the community impassable, which left a third of the residents stranded and unable to return to their homes. Only later, when the water went down, would one man ferry the rest across in his truck.

The next morning I got up early and walked down the creek to see the story the water had told. Ken’s dog, Boy, barked hello as I passed his house. “I wanted to skip a step,” he’d told me when I asked about the name. The gentle stream of the day before had returned, but it now ran through a much deeper canyon. Boulders that likely hadn’t budged in years had been thrown about, and full trees lay across the water like makeshift bridges. The smell was different. Not quite the burning heat of the day before, but water mixed with ash. A primal smell.

Flood follows fire. That was the story Pack Creek told in the summer of 2021. It was also the story, writ large, being told all over the West that summer. First, the many fires took out the trees and vegetation. Next, the floods swept down unimpeded, carrying the earth with them, taking out whatever stood in their way.

A western flash flood is something to witness. There are flash floods in the East too, or at least floods that are given the prefix flash. But a western flash flood is a different animal. The dry crumbling land is there for the taking and then the water, all in a rush, comes and takes it. And it takes it fast in one great angry surge, a surge that comes from nowhere and ends just as quickly as it came. By mid-July flash floods were running down burn scars all throughout Colorado and Utah, vast torrents gushing down dry, fire-weakened land throughout the two states. One woman was driving down Poudre Canyon outside of Fort Collins and was simply washed away.

The next morning, I walked over to the sunken bridge, where several Pack Creek residents were shoveling thick mud off its surface. They were making little progress.

“We already had the plague for a year,” one resident told me before I left. “Now fires and flood. What next? Locusts?”