Even in the movie theater you couldn’t escape the smell of smoke. But that’s not why my sleeves were damp and snotty after two hours of weeping my way through a movie I hadn’t even planned to see.
California was on fire again, the power was unexpectedly out, and while we were a couple of counties away from the truly scary blazes, our house was dark, cold and depressing as hell which pretty well described much of northern California that Sunday evening.
There was nothing to do but pull on some boots, head outside and wade through the broken oak branches, leaves and general detritus blown into spiky drifts across our driveway. We’d drive until we found somewhere, anywhere we could get a warm meal and a cool drink. Since our cell service was also out, we weren’t even sure where that might be.
We found our answer three minutes later in downtown Walnut Creek which was packed for a Sunday night. In California’s new normal, living in the most expensive state in the union also means occasionally living in the Third World, even if downtown has an Apple store.
I was exhausted. I’d spent the night before lying awake, listening for the hurricane-strength winds to start wreaking havoc with the dozen or so tall trees that hover over our property. I’d spent the afternoon dragging oak branches out of Japanese maples and multiple bags of sticks and leaves from the pool.
At 3 a.m. I was trying to remain focused on my relative good fortune. Our city wasn’t in the fire’s path. Our neighborhood wasn’t even on the list for scheduled 36–70 hour blackouts. Partly, it was the prospect of wind, which always unnerves me. But mostly I think I was channeling the angst of my fellow Californians, especially those an hour’s drive away who for the third year in a row were facing catastrophic loss of homes and lives.
For the first time I understood what it must feel like to live in the path of a hurricane. But if only it were an actual hurricane — at least there would be rain. No, these Diablo winds in the north and Santa Ana winds in the south were forecast to serve as a giant bellows, fanning sparks caused by faulty power equipment onto a tinderbox of bone-dry hills, igniting them into walls of fire.
By 4 a.m. I’d moved on to connecting the fierce pairing of Mother Nature and unfettered capitalism that resulted in this forecast of an historic “wind event.” Let’s be real, I thought: If we were honest, we’d call it what it is — a “climate change event.” Our unwillingness to confront indisputable evidence of global weather shifts has been compounded by a so-called public utility company’s unwillingness to plow its considerable profits into maintaining infrastructure rather than rewarding executives and hedge-fund shareholders. Like Greta Thunberg, I was pissed.
What I was feeling in downtown that night was mostly just relief to be able to see what’s in front of me without my flashlight app. Along with that was a serious desire for mental escape somewhere, anywhere, maybe rainy England. Apparently others had the same idea and ‘Downton Abbey” was sold out. Other choices included “The Joker,” “Zombieland II,” and the usual slate of Halloween horror flicks, which I knew would only add to my despair. My husband balked at “Judy,” which explains how we ended up at “Western Stars” which I’d vaguely remembered from a trailer I’d seen a few months ago at “Blinded by the Light.”
I have loved Bruce Springsteen ever since Clarence Clemmons blew the roof off the 1,200- seat Tucson Community Center playing “Rosalita.” It was 1974, I was 16 and, like most of the country, I’d never heard of him before that night. The only reason I was even there was my friend Jennifer thought this Springsteen guy might be a big deal someday and she needed a ride. The next day I bought his album and for months put myself to sleep wearing oversized headphones and listening to the B side of “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle.”
I was a devoted fan for a while, but eventually moved on, had other musical infatuations and added a lot of other favorite artists to my list. Still, every once in a while I’d see him in concert, or hear a song at the right time and volume and fall in love all over again. The last time that happened was on a road trip up the Oregon coast when we listened to his memoir, “Born to Run.” By the time Bruce got to the part where he describes putting together the E Street Band, I was digging into my iTunes library. My husband and I all but drowned out the waves singing along to “Thunder Road.”
I’m not a fan of concert films, so even though it was Bruce, my expectations were low. But by the time the first song, “Hitch Hikin’,” was over, I knew I’d accidentally ended up in the place I needed to be. The film is set in a barn decorated with twinkly lights and big enough to house a 30-piece string orchestra. For 14 songs, the Boss, the orchestra and a more traditional rock band that includes his wife, Patti, Springsteen did Springsteen. There was no “Downbound Train,” but there was a “Tucson Train.” “Western Stars” is nothing like the stuff I’d fallen in love with as a teenager. I was fine with that. As many musical roads as Springsteen has gone down, what’s consistent is his artistry, his storytelling and his sense of place. In his early years, that was the Jersey shore. After many detours, he’s singing about the West.
It’s possible I wouldn’t have silently wept through most of the film were it not for the firestorm that has taken such a toll on my beautiful adopted state. And I’m sure it had something to do with the lushness that strings bring to the chord shifts. But I think the emotional maelstrom I was experiencing was more about the serendipity of the moment I had stumbled into.
Between songs, Bruce narrates a few sentences, prose poems, really, as he’s walking among joshua trees, or wiping down a horse or navigating a vintage car down an empty road, whipping up a trail of dust. Yes, those are all desert cliches. And yet those images spoke to something deep in my bones. So did the slide guitar. So did the upright piano and the voice of the man who had put these ideas together. He was older, but so was I, and once again I was back in college, drinking Coors and swing-dancing at the Stumble Inn.
As a child, I loved growing up in Tucson with a yard full of saguaros and ocotillos, listening to the coyote howls echo down Pima Canyon. With neon sunsets, an edgy, artsy downtown, it’s one of those cities that was just big enough to be interesting, and just small enough to feel like I belonged.
As an adult, I’ve loved raising a family in Oakland, then Walnut Creek, in a house surrounded by brown hills, gigantic oaks and delicate Japanese maples. I love the Bay Area’s diversity, its open-mindedness and the way that the beach, the Sierra and multiple wine countries are all within a few hours drive.
In some ways they couldn’t be more different. But as the movie played on, something connected them for me in a way I’d never felt before. Listening to music you love when you’re in an emotional state goes to your heart the way drinking wine on an empty stomach goes to your head. The music reintroduced to my old self, the college student who loved her home but had always hungered to live near the ocean. She could never imagined that she’d end up staying there and in a life where she gets to spend lots of time at the beach. Now, 40 years later, I love living in California, and every summer I ache for the smell of the desert after an August monsoon.
Both of them are “the West” to me and every year I take their respective beauty less and less for granted. I love them both, a boot rooted in each state.
After we left the theater, we found a bar where we could get that cool drink and warm meal and finally see the TV news. That’s where we learned the details about the fire we’d driven past en route home from lunch with friends in Berkeley. It had taken out several acres, destroyed a tennis club about two miles away, and resulted in the unexpected power outage that had sent us out into the dark night in the first place.
That’s the thing about California in October. Even lucky folks like us, far away from the headline-making mega-blazes, can never be sure when the power lines will throw off some spark and your home and your life might go up in flames.
By the time we got home, our power was back on and we returned to life in the new normal, and went to bed with our fully charged flashlights at the ready on our nightstands. The next morning I went to a 6 a.m. yoga class, then came home and downloaded “Western Stars,” my first Springsteen album in years. Musically, my favorite song is still “Hitch Hikin,’” but words from the title number have been stuck in my head ever since:
“Tonight the riders on Sunset are smothered in the Santa Ana winds
And the western stars are shining bright again
C’mon and ride me down easy, ride me down easy, friend
’Cause tonight the western stars are shining bright again
I woke up this morning just glad my boots were on … ”
As it turns out, hanging out in the dusty desert with the right musicians — even if it was only virtual — was the very balm I’d needed to sooth my parched, wind-addled soul.