I walk the short walk from house to garage. Afternoon is running to evening; shadows reach out for the remaining light. The late afternoon sun is still strong in the west and it shines now on the corner garden along the short wall of the garage workshop area. We have a raised bed along the south side of the workshop, small, only 14 feet long, maybe 18 inches wide. We plant it with chard and, in the corner, a cherry tomato.
I pass it most every day with hardly a glance but this afternoon in the low angling sun I stop in my tracks, struck by the flash of color in the small garden. The greens stand rich and lush but intermingled are various shades of red; cherry tomatoes. Some in a rosy hue, still ripening. Others strengthened to orange-red.
A few stand proud; blood red and rich of color and potential. There is nothing quite as sweet as a tomato picked off the vine that still holds the life-giving warmth of summer sun.
But more: sunflowers, volunteers all, grown from stray bird feed, stand; a flash yellow as sunlight itself and if I look close I see the leaves at the base of the blossom shaped as flame, framing the sun-yellow of the flower. There is the purple-red stalk of chard in the garden, close to the ground and next to the small bed orange of day lilies, flashing as if woodfire spark.
Across the yard more reds and yellows and shades of violet in the larger garden.
It is near 80 degrees yet it all puts me in a mind of late September; the color, the yellows and oranges and reds, remind me of the blaze of fall leaf now 30 days away. The air is hot; the colors flash; and I stand for a moment and take it all in.
Then I go into the cool garage, take the bike from the stand, pump the tires, settle the helmet on my head and walk it to the driveway. I push off for a short ride into the slanting sun of the late afternoon; I have time to ride for an hour before the sun slides behind tree and dusk comes calling.
There is a stiff south wind this afternoon. Pedaling into a wind is like pedaling up a long hill; the stiffer the wind, the steeper the hill. On this afternoon the imaginary hill is of a moderate slope but I take comfort in the fact that I will ride in a loop and at some point the wind will be at my back.
The forecast is for heat to come down in the next day or two; the south wind gives notice of that for warm weather comes off southerly breezes as cold and dry comes off the north. It is a dry wind; there are no clouds, no hint of rain.
For all the splash of color in my garden the landscape is still green; tall trees, lush grasses, fern and sumac and, on the river, lily pads broken with the white flash of water lily that shines as if spark of light, of star fallen to water but still blazing bright.
I ride the rolling hills and open fields and across the fields. On the horizon, hills and ridges rise and bring shape and form; green against blue sky; Wisconsin in the summertime, hot and dry but still green with life.
I watch the far ridge as I ride; green trees topped with a fringe of late afternoon sun that gives it light and vitality. And in that moment of riding with my eyes on the ridge of green and light my mind jumps to another ridge, another high skyline, more heat and color, another place; Idaho.
My mind settles around a series of photos a friend took a day ago, of the high ridges along a valley that runs north-south in Idaho; the small town of Hailey at the south; a few miles up the road, Ketchum; north of that Sun Valley. It is a tight, narrow valley and on both sides rugged ridges rise to the sky and their shaggy profiles remind me of ancient animals, rough-backed, hunched against the high blue of sky.
We visited there a year ago, when late summer heat knocked the humidity flat and dust rose like talc when we hiked the hills, when grass turned brown and dry as it does in late summer. At sundown the ridges lost color; faded to dark violet then to black even as the sky held deep blue above. On those nights stars blazed bright, pierced the night sky with white light.
Now all has changed and the photos my friend took at night show the black earth of the darkened hillsides and above it all the vast reach of dark sky but at the intersect, where ridge etches sky, at that thin edge there is bright red and deep orange and yellow of flame that rises on the ridges along the thin line of valley.
The sky above is dark not with night but with smoke. The ridges edging the valley are afire in a massive wildfire. All of Idaho seems ablaze
I read about the fire on the news; see it on the TV but the images my friend takes are more real to me, in part because I know him, in part because I know where he is standing when he takes them, in part because I know other people who live there. I talk to my sister who lives in the quiet town of Hailey, who tells of standing in the street in front of her house looking up at the ridgeline and seeing it in flame. Who speaks of the heavy smoke; of evacuation orders coming closer.
The air there is dry and hot and filled with deep smoke. The hills and mountain sides dance with fire. The people live in fear: How can one sleep at such a time?
How can one even consider closing eyes against the peril? How can one not be riveted by skyline in flames and reports and rumors and deep fears?
From my sister’s house it is a short walk, ten minutes maybe fifteen, to the base of a ridge east of town, Carbonate, and from the base a long angling path to the top from which one can see the town. I’ve hiked it, up in the dry air of Idaho. And on a morning this week I see another photo, of flames breaking the top of Carbonate in a rage of fire and the town below cowering in the shadow of conflagration. I wonder what it is like to stand at your door and to let your eyes rise up to familiar ground high above and see the edge of that ground blazing with fire.
I think of this as I ride, as I pedal up the hills that break the ridges here. It’s green all around, summer green, rich and powerful and comforting. I’m a long way from Idaho on this late afternoon ride as evening comes down and the shadows reach hungrily for the sun that remains.
I coast up the driveway, unclip from the pedals,. open the gate and walk back toward the garden. In the light that remains I see the sharp yellow of sunflower, the bright orange of lily, the ruby red of tomato. If I squint my eyes at it all and let my imagination play I see the color of flame; bright red and yellow and orange as if the garden was blazing. Then I open my eyes wide and see if for what it is; a peaceful garden near sundown on a day in Wisconsin, a long way from the maelstrom of sundown in Idaho.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post in downtown Rhinelander. Call (715) 362-5800.