Generally, things in life change a lot. Sometimes we perceive the changes as gifts, and sometimes the changes feel like the end of the world.
Such was the case for our friend Doc Miller when he lost his mountain home during the 2016 Chimney Fire.
When the Chimney Fire first broke out near Lake Nacimiento, the residents in our mountain community were alert but not panicked. The threat of fire in the Santa Lucia Mountains east of Cambria is one of the biggest challenges we face because there’s only one escape route down the mountain into town.
Through all the years Doc has lived here, much longer than we have, there has never been a serious fire threat. In 2016, all that changed. Everyone here on the mountain watched the fire slowly gobble up brush and trees across the ridges and valleys between the lake and the top of our ridge.
It started so far from us that we were sure the firefighters would get it under control long before it reached us. Since Doc had been through some devastating fires in Santa Barbara when he was growing up, he thought he understood wildfires. He was sure his home, far, far out in the backcountry on the inland side of the mountain, would easily survive this fire. Thus, he only moved a few belongings to a safer location away from his home — a charming house he had built with his own hands.
Sadly, the Chimney Fire turned out to be much more unpredictable than any fire Doc had encountered before. By the time he realized no amount of firefighter magic would be able to save his home, it was too late to get anything else out. He ended up homeless, and all but the few things he’d saved early on were gone.
It was a very difficult time for him.
The sense of loss was overwhelming — an ending he never anticipated. No insurance company would ever have sold him a homeowner’s policy, so none of the hundreds of things he lost in the fire were covered or could be easily replaced. Over the months and years, many friends have stepped up with various items to help Doc reestablish his modest, rural life.
Nearly three years after the Chimney Fire raged across the eastern slope of our mountains, new growth is sprouting among the dead trees, giving the area the healthy glow of rebirth. This slow, natural recovery process reflects the new beginning we hope will always follow a tragedy.
Doc has replaced the home he lost with a small but comfortable cabin that suits his simple needs and his concern for leaving a small footprint. It’s still a work in progress, but aren’t all new beginnings?
We worried for a long time that he wouldn’t come out of his tragedy whole and happy. Now we can see that with heart and determination, people can overcome great tragedy, even if they elect to stay in a place where happiness has turned to despair before returning to happiness.
We celebrate Doc’s new beginning.
When Michele Oksen and I began this column in 2007, we had no idea how it would be received or how long we could sustain it. Although Michele, ever the trouper, is all in for continuing Mountain Musings into the future, I have decided to retire from the column, leaving it in her capable and talented hands.
After 12 years, this will be my last column — a happy ending for me after an uncertain beginning that turned into many years of sharing the triumphs, catastrophes and funny aspects of living off the grid in Cambria’s backcountry.
I have no idea what’s next for me on the creative front, but I know this is not an ending — only a shift toward another new beginning of trying to capture the quirkiness of life through writing and photography.