November 7, 2003

Places of the Heart

by  Ernie McCray

This past Sunday as I gazed up at a perfectly blue sky scattered with white clouds delicately tinted with gray, and breathed in what seemed like the freshest air possible, I couldn’t help thinking of our brothers and sisters who lost homes and loved ones under darkened choking skies as the Cedar fire raged relentlessly through their communities. I could never know the depth of their pain but as one who frequents their bucolic environs I know what they have lost. I know the beauty that was scarred. I know the dreams that suddenly became a nightmare. I know the paths along which they fled.

The back country is a place of the heart for people like me.

With my wife and our children I have been to where the fires were headed and where they arrived. We have hiked the rugged beaten paths of the San Bernadino Mountains and swam in its lakes: Arrowhead, Big Bear, Green Valley, Silverwood, Gregory. We’ve watched Aunt Diane’s dog, Delilah, paddle in the muddied Arrowbear Lake where we dare not enter. We’ve raced down the slopes of Snow Valley on innertubes and skis.

We’ve viewed the night-lights of San Bernadino from up high in Running Springs, had our van break down in the snow in Fawnskin and listened to jazz in the gentle soothing breezes of a summer night in Blue Jay.

We’ve walked the weathered rustic streets of Pine Hills with friends who built their dream home there and we’ve trod along the wooded route from Cuyamaca to the Heise campground. We’ve stood high above Viejas on a ridge near where our friends in Descanso live, whiling our time away there feeding horses, raking manure, throwing peelings and leftovers atop piles of rich compost. We’ve enjoyed times away from the hustle and bustle of the city along the trails and streams and waterfalls in the campgrounds of Green Valley Falls and Paso Picacho so many times. We’ve look-ed down at the glorious desert floor of the Anza Borrego Desert from Cuyamaca Peak. We’ve kissed, toasted, and danced with the bride at the Pine Hills Lodge and stroked laps in its chilly pool.

I remember spending a wonderful day with one of my daughters at Spencer Valley Elementary, a hopeful energetic K-8 school filled with children who were visibly at ease and pleased that the arts were at the core of their learning experiences.

Two of my children represented their schools at Anytown in Camp Wolahi, leaving such a wilderness environment with keener insights as to how to create a more just and loving world that is more accepting of diversity.

In the same vein I’ve had the honor of sharing, through my poetry, thoughts of love and of a better world at the Royal Family Kids’ Camp at Camp Fox below Palomar Mountain and at schools whose families were affected by the fires: Dingeman Elementary in Scripps Ranch, Olive Pierce Middle School in Ramona, and Hancock Elementary, De Portola Middle School, and Serra High in Tierrasanta. In those moments, in such places of the heart, we shared the purest of feelings from our hearts.

And my heart goes out to those who pursue their hopes and dreams in the  forests within our cities’ limits and in the woods of the mountain towns of our county and state. I pray that as the leaves fall from what’s left of the trees that they will be reminded of and buoyed by the peace and serenity that was, by the beauty that will rise from the ashes. I trust that after the snows of winter melt and soak into the damaged earth that the spring will bring hope, that flowers will bloom, that healing will be well underway, that the great outdoors will remain for them or become for them, once again, places of the heart.

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