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Monday, May 23, 2005 | I didn’t want to go. Going back again to our weekend cabin in the Cuyamacas seemed painful and useless. It isn’t there anymore. Nor are the great black oaks, nor the scores of leylandi trees we labored so hard to plant along that rocky hillside to help hold the earth in place. The timber rails that lined our little road are gone, and the bird feeder that hung from the lowest branch of the apple tree, and the apple tree itself.
We had made only three visits since the October fires of 2003. It had been six months since we had braved ourselves to return to the two acres from where we sat on a hillside deck and stared across the valley, spellbound at dusk during the purple hour when those three great Cuyamaca peaks seemed to merge into the sunset sky.
Those thousands of us who lost homes in that terror have toughened up a little by now. The more courageous have rebuilt. For some of us whose loss was a weekend home, rebuilding appeared an ordeal that could be delayed. It was not a fancy cabin, but we could not yet imagine a different one on the site.
On our first visit back, just after the fire, we had taken a large bottle of wine, picked our way through the rubble and let tears flow as we sat in front of the naked chimney and looked out at the three great peaks beyond.
Even the chimney is gone now. As every fire victim knows, that is a mark of progress. The view across the valley is healing too. We cherish the land and its wounds and scars. We treasure mountain memories of family and friends, of parents dead now, of a newborn grandson crawling between a Christmas tree and a crackling fireplace. He is a junior now at Lawrence University. I will love him forever for all good reason, but never more than for the Sunday mornings when he tugged me out of bed so we could get started prying up rocks, digging holes and planting trees.
We set out late on Saturday morning, following our old route through Ramona and Santa Ysabel and up the mountain grade, then wound around the final hills and saw the familiar chain across the familiar little side road. From here, nothing seemed burned; the October fire had wended randomly along our hillside, its blackened trail zigzagging in ways that caused even firefighters to shrug and shake their heads.
But then we turned that final curve and the horrible void of emptiness lay ahead and all around. At least, I thought, we will find that same glorious mountain view.
We stepped out of the car, and Judith was first to cry out. The rose garden was on the hillside above the cabin, less than 20 feet away. And now it shouted a welcome: A score of bushes in full bloom. In an area still blackened by fire, the rose garden was ablaze in life and color.
I watered and Judith pruned and picked. Time flashed back. We squatted on stumps for a picnic, staring first at the roses and then the mountains. The roses came home to San Diego. The view will keep. We won’t decide yet whether to rebuild. But when the images of that mountain cabin cross our minds, as they do so often each day, we will not need to struggle to change the scene. Now we can see the rose garden, ready to welcome us home.