Fire seemed everywhere. You could see it in the sunset, smell it in the air. I was losing hope when the most miraculous thing happened. It started to rain. The Santa Ana winds faded to a whisper, and the mountains turned calm. Throughout Southern California, we lined up in our cars loaded with photographs and pets and began the somber procession home to see what was lost and what remained.
For those of us who still have homes this holiday season, it's impossible not to feel gratitude. It's equally impossible not to feel sorrow, knowing that lives and homes were lost. Since the fires, I have felt wedged somewhere in between.
My wife, Julia, and I arrived in Julian the day after Thanksgiving. Typically it's one of the busiest weekends of the year in the historic mining town about 60 miles east of San Diego. We saw the first scars of the fire just past Santa Ysabel, a community at the crossroads of California highways 78 and 79, about seven miles from Julian.
There were pockets of blackened soil, solemn remains of the largest wildfire in state history. An area more than two-thirds the size of Rhode Island burned in Southern California, 3,600 structures were destroyed, at least 22 people died. Much of that destruction was near Julian in what was known as the Cedar fire.
We arrived about 4 p.m. Although many in the community had lost their homes, the fire had spared the downtown area, and streets were crowded. Christmas decorations were going up, and the mood was festive.
My first impression of Julian was that it smelled good, the air sweetened by the apple pies for which it is well known.
I am not much of a traveler. If I were, I probably would have remembered to write down the name of the bed-and-breakfast where I had made reservations. Julia was not surprised that I had not. As we drove through town, I thought I would recognize the name if I saw it.
But I didn't see it.
After about 10 minutes, long enough to cover most of the town twice, Julia tactfully suggested we park and seek assistance and cappuccinos. Outside a gift shop, I picked up a local publication, fanned through it and, bingo: Villa de Valor Bed and Breakfast, on 3rd Street.
Town's bustle is back
We abandoned our plans for caffeine when we saw that the line at the Julian Coffee House was out the door. The town was abuzz with motorcycles, the sidewalks crowded with shoppers, equal numbers of them pushing strollers or walking dogs, some doing both.
We found 3rd Street, then Villa de Valor. The door was open, but no one was there. Valorie Ashley, dressed in a red San Diego Opera sweatshirt, sweatpants and fluffy moccasins, arrived about 10 minutes later. I was comforted by her appearance, because I dread formality, always a concern in a place filled with antiques.
She welcomed us, and as she showed us to our suite, she described how the house had been owned by Dr. Herman Lee Hildreth, assigned in 1918 by the Department of the Interior to serve residents of nearby Indian reservations. A newspaper article described him as a jolly man who often laughed and slapped his legs as he told stories. Old-timers still know the place as the Hildreth House.
Our suite, one of three, included a small bedroom in front, right off the porch that served as the doctor's office. The living area behind it was the library. Ashley's collection included "The Purpose of Your Life," "Conversations With God," "Closing Techniques (That Really Work!)."
Our room was filled with antiques and antique-like furnishings, a fireplace that burned gel candles, a mantel decorated with pine boughs and twinkling lights, a satellite television and a bedside CD player.
We made coffee and were drawn to the front porch by a sunset the color of ripe persimmons. It reminded me of fire.
It was Ashley's first full weekend back in business since the town was evacuated. There was a notable difference in the feeling of the place, she said. While people were smiling, many were hurting inside, and when they saw one another on the street, she said, they no longer asked, "How are you doing?"
"Now we ask each other, 'Are you all right?' "