“And my ... my ... ?” the lady quietly stammered from the hotel room threshold. My family, pulling our luggage, ducked as we walked down the sidewalk between the lady in the doorway and the man stepping out of his car. “... my house?” she finally asked.

The man silently, solemnly shook his head. The lady covered her mouth and let out an anguished guttural sound as she stumbled back into the hotel room.

Our luggage seemed loud and obnoxious as it bumped and clattered across the concrete cobblestones. We kept our heads down and tried to be as unobtrusive as possible as we made our way to our own room. It was not hard to miss that most of the cars in the parking lot had masks on the dashboards. Making a second trip to our vehicle for miscellaneous items, my husband ran into a man who was walking his two dogs. He had lost three homes in the fire: his own, his daughter’s and a rental. Later in the pool, a lady told us that her grandmother’s house was leveled. The mood of the hotel was not one of boisterous vacationers and busy businessmen. Instead, it was as solemn as the red smoke horizon.

Driving down the highway, charred ground burned all the way to the asphalt. Smoke curled lazily up from blackened fence posts as we continued south through the smoky city of Chico. Police blocked exits off all the roads heading in the direction of the active fire.

I glanced toward the red sky. This was our annual trip south to pick up persimmons, citrus and nuts. As it is close to our anniversary, we usually try to combine it with a fun activity or two — it’s a fun trip that the whole family looks forward to. But this year was different — right from the beginning.

We left in a rush, unable to find matching socks, and forgetting our coats entirely. No time to go back, we’d just make do. Then out in the middle of central Oregon — about the time that radio signals are lost and cell phone service is sketchy at best — there was a little smell. The most terrible little smell — that you ever did smell. (OK, I’ve been singing too many kid songs lately.) Really, it was a bad smell.

“Oh, Bug,” I sighed, twisting around to see in the back seat. “Why didn’t you tell us you needed to stop?”

“I clean, Mommy,” he said pinching his nose as he looked at me.

My nose twitched, and I tried to keep my irritation in check. An accident is one thing, but a blatant lie? Ugh. I sat forward in my chair again and looked at my husband, “I guess we’ll have to pull over.”

We went around corner after corner with not a pullout in sight. The traffic was traveling on at a pretty decent clip, and my husband felt the shoulder was too narrow to pull off safely — especially after having just attended the funeral of his friend who was hit while changing a tire. He finally spotted a wide area and stopped.

I got the wipes while my husband laid down our son on a blanket on the tailgate. The smell said this was going to be a disaster. I was surprised to see nothing had escaped his jeans. I took off his boots and carefully pulled off his pants. They were clean! He was clean! Just like he had said. My husband and I were both stunned. To say the smell was pervasively rank wouldn’t have done a good enough job of describing how horrible it had been.

We redressed our toddler and were quickly back out on the road, and had it not been for what happened next, we probably would never have remembered the incident.

As we rounded the next a corner, dust billowed across the road, and there were cars on the shoulder of the road and some in the middle. An oncoming semi-truck swerved and a black dog darted through the traffic.

“What’s going on?” I wondered aloud.

“I think it’s rubberneckers for the accident,” my husband said, motioning to the car upside down on the side of the road. The car’s tires were still spinning and a smoke billowed from the overturned engine. It took a second before we recognized the vehicle we’d been following before we pulled off for the mysterious smell. Suddenly an arm flung out of the window. We pulled over, and my husband and another couple helped the woman out of the wreck. She was dazed but alive, crying incoherently for her two dogs — we looked ‘til dark, but unfortunately, we only found one.

Back on the road, neither of us felt talkative — both of us realizing that had we not stopped to change “the most terrible little smell” that it would have been very difficult to avoid being in that accident. While telling the story to my cousin the next day, she laughed, “I guess angels really know how to let one out!”

A very bad accident and a very bad fire — just on the cursory edge of each. Not enough to feel the pain that the victims felt, but touched enough by it that it made me feel an enormous gratitude for my life, my family and even our stinky guardian angels!

Be thankful for today. My socks may not match — but my feet are warm.

Brianna Walker occasionally writes about the Farmer’s Fate for the Blue Mountain Eagle.

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