It was during the second day of a solo backpacking trip that I noticed a plume of smoke rising in the distance. I was hiking along the Pacific Crest Trail in the Angeles National Forest, in an area where the chaparral-clad slopes folded so deeply that my cell phone was nothing but an empty vessel for Solitaire. I was alone.

I planned to camp near a decommissioned fire station that evening, so I kept an eye to the horizon and hustled along the trail’s infinite twists until I landed at North Fork Saddle. The wind conspired against me, but I finally wrestled my tent into place and began boiling water for dinner. The property’s caretaker came out to chat, and I inquired about the smoke. He didn’t seem worried, so I pushed fear from my mind.

I had no idea that the distant plume was a sign of things to come.

In California, we have beaches and Disneyland and sunshine, along with something called “fire season,” an incendiary period that typically parallels the exceptional heat and dryness of summer, followed by the annual bluster of fall’s notorious Santa Ana and Diablo winds. Studies have shown that the combination of multi-year drought, unrestricted understory growth, pest-related tree mortality, and the ongoing effects of climate change have left our forestlands even more susceptible to burns.

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As someone who spent nearly two years hiking along much of California’s Pacific Crest Trail for a book project, I’ve developed a sort of intimacy with the land. The scars of fires past act like age rings, telling a story of what was, what is, and what may be. In the trail’s first twenty miles north from the Mexican border, the remnants of several campfire-sparked wildfires offer witness to the struggle of immigrants in a harsh landscape. Continuing along, the aftermath of decades of natural and human-caused blazes intersect the path. Some stretches are still cordoned off, the soils so disturbed or the route so completely obliterated that it’s determined unsafe for human travel. In other places, the passage of time has rendered the burn history nearly imperceptible, the understory now flush with flowers and greenery. Still some areas remain completely blighted, a shadeless, somewhat depressing reminder of the fragility of the land.

Less than a week after I noticed the smoke drift, the destructive and deadly Sand Fire erupted along State Highway 14, not too far northwest of where I stood that day. I watched in sadness as the blaze consumed homes and businesses, then moved deeper into the backcountry, eventually licking the ground I’d walked only a few days prior. I watched with detached horror, wondering what remained of the places I’d just seen, where early morning sunlight filtered through the canyons, lighting the earth’s folds in slow succession as it pushed into each void.

The fires followed me from there.

About two weeks after the Sand Fire began, the Pilot Fire ignited in the San Bernardino Mountains, the next range over. Nearly the same day that fire was brought under control, the Blue Cut Fire sparked only miles away. While both burned across miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, the latter also leveled more than a hundred homes, leaving fractured lives in its wake. It felt apocalyptic, like the land would never cease burning.

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As a decade-long Southern Californian, as a person who has found strength, sweat, and a bit of salvation in these mountains, and as a compassionate human being, I was heartbroken. When the fire-related forest closures began to lift, I knew I would go in to see what remained, what changed – and what was gone. However, as eager as I was to get back out onto a trail that had served as de facto home base for so long, I was also afraid of what I’d see.

I drove into Soledad Canyon on a Sunday afternoon shortly after it reopened following the Sand Fire. The further I went, the more haunted I felt. Many homes and buildings were spared by skilled firefighting, standing as eerily perfect sentinels atop the blackened hillsides. I parked and walked to meet the Pacific Crest Trail, now a faint stripe winding through the pervasive char. My feet sunk into white-grey soot, and unnerved, I turned back toward my car, ash clouds floating around my ankles with every step.

A month later, I decided to walk through the Pilot and Blue Cut burn areas together, to minimize the emotional toll. I parked near the latter’s eastern edge and quietly set off through a county park, looking for the Pacific Crest Trail just beyond. The land was laid bare before me, exposing not just one trail, but many – every single unpaved road, walking path, and animal route that ever wove through the foothills here. I wound through manzanita skeletons and dislodged boulders, watching western fence lizards and stinkbugs make their own way. A few crows drew lazy circles above, and a dog barked in the distance, the place more alive than I’d envisioned. I could see the actual trail working around the slopes above me, so I plunged through ash and dirt, a strange sort of mountaineering, until I reached its path. The last time I was here, I walked hemmed in by thick chaparral; now I earned stunning views all the way across Summit Valley.

I eventually crossed Interstate 15 to enter the Blue Cut Fire zone, landing on the jumbled floor of Lone Pine Canyon, which marks the route of the infamous San Andreas Fault, co-creator of the tall peaks and ridgelines I walked beneath. Memories suddenly flooded back: Uphill, no shade, a heavy water carry. The delight of pine trees – and even snow – once we hit a certain elevation. A pastel sunset. Sitting on a cliff’s edge, feet dangling, laughing and smiling with friends.

I decided to continue north. The massive canyon widened even further as I ascended, and I could see every single fold in the earth, every place the fire licked or left alone. There was a strange sorcery in this unveiling, made even more magical when a single plant or flower strained against the blackened ground to offer a glimpse of hope.

After a while, I stopped walking.

I understood.

I left the canyon that day with my emotions uncluttered, the tangled lot quietly replaced with a sense of peace. I couldn’t see the beauty at first, couldn’t find comfort in the wake of the fire’s violence, but now it was so obvious. The burn scars were just a stitch in time, another chapter in the endless story of these lands. The barren ground was ready for renewal. For rebirth.

As it always would be.

Photo by Shawnté Salabert

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