The rock in the above image is from Yarnell, Arizona. I picked it up from the exact spot that my cousin, Andrew Ashcraft, deployed his fire shelter on June 30, 2013. It was tucked into the desert soil, along with tiny bits of silver foil from the shelter that he pulled over himself as a wall of fire came rushing into the box canyon that he and his crew were in.
I didn’t plan on going to the deployment site, in fact, since the fire, I had avoided getting near Yarnell at all, even if that meant adding well over an hour to our drive on trips to see family. I had no idea what to expect, and felt mostly dread as I boarded the bus that was to take us, along with members of the other families, on the 45 minute journey to Yarnell. When we arrived in the town, the bus pulled off the main road, and navigated through narrow, rugged roads, that I am pretty sure were never designed with charter buses in mind. I wasn’t really sure I wanted to look out the window. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to be there. I fixed my eyes on the sky, hoping to avoid seeing the burned out homes and blackened landscape. But as the bus bumped and shook, my gaze was forced down. I saw a small, elderly lady, in a white nightgown and robe. She was standing on her porch, hand raised in a solemn, quiet wave. Her tiny house stood on a street where others had been reduced to rubble. Then I saw she was not the only one. Others were on porches and in yards, standing in quiet respect or giving a small wave as we passed. I couldn’t even fathom what this community endured. The fear. The sadness. The gratitude. The strength. We pulled into the ranch at the bottom of the trail up to the deployment site. I was sure they had to have grown weary of the constant stream of attention that this tragedy brought to their doorstep.
We began our short hike up to the site. I kept my mind busy by focusing in on small details. Desert bugs and their shadows, scurrying off the path, out of the way of our trudging feet. A patch of scorched earth with new, green growth emerging. It was not what I was expecting. My mind had only been able to picture it as desolate, empty, devoid of life or beauty. There was a flag and small memorial set up. The deployment site itself was surrounded by a chain link fence. They had brought printed diagrams to help families identify the patch of ground where each man had been. But before I could even consider the question of where I was to go, I saw my cousin’s wife leave the group, walk with purpose to a place she already knew well, and drop to the ground. As the rest of us reached her, she told us, “His head was here, by this yucca plant, and he was laying legs that way.”
And there we stood. I hadn’t really thought about what I would do once I got to that spot. I’m pretty sure there are no rules or etiquette guidelines established for this sort of thing. I thought I should probably be crying, but I didn’t feel like crying. I felt sad, sure. But there were no tears. Just an overwhelming confusion and emptiness. I had my camera, but didn’t take a single picture. I couldn’t imagine what I would do with any of the images. The heat was oppressive, even with it being morning. The thought of the temperatures mid-afternoon, while contending with the furnace of a wildfire’s flames made me feel a bit queasy. I looked up at the walls of the canyon above me. They weren’t what I had imagined either. The only canyon my mind could conjure up was the Grand Canyon, and I knew that could not be the case here. It may not have been the steep sided chasm of the Grand Canyon, but it was still formidable. Nothing but steep, rocky slopes, reaching into the sky on three sides. It made me very claustrophobic. And that was without the tall, tangled, and dense vegetation that had to be navigated by the men that day. It had all, of course, been burned away. I could hear the saws running and the shouts between the men in my mind. I knew my imagination was not wrong about that. I had heard the last radio contact. I knew better than to let my mind stay there, and my heart broke for the wives and mothers, fathers and brothers, that had to contend with those sounds in the darkness, when everyone else was asleep.
Every death leaves behind a trail of sadness and loss, and I know we are not the only family ever touched by tragedy. But I believe everyone wanting to speak about their grief should be heard. We shy away from death and grief so much in our society. Sometimes healing means details and emotions that are hard to hear come spilling out. Sometimes just getting them out there, into the world, and having someone else know the weight of them goes a long way. I never thought I would share about my visit to Yarnell. Partly because it felt like a private thing, and partly because I didn’t feel it was my story to share. I had not lost my husband or my son. I had “only” lost a cousin. A funny, easy-going cousin, with a huge smile, who was quick to laugh, and even quicker to make others laugh. And his loss is palpable in my family. And I bet that you have someone in your life that is gone and has left a hole behind that can never be filled. And I guarantee you know others that do as well. Maybe they would like nothing more than to speak about someone they are missing dearly. Or maybe they would be honored to hear stories about the person you are missing. This day, two years ago brought sadness to our family and many others, and we can’t help but face that today. But each one of us has many days that bring the sadness of the loss that we always carry with us to the surface. That burden shouldn’t have to be carried alone.
Be kind to each other. Listen. Reach out. Be Better.