Walking through a forest of tragedy

Highway 89 through South Lake Tahoe was virtually deserted when my family and I drove through the canyon of casinos during one of the area's historically busiest weekends. Yet the evening after the usually frenzied and full Fourth of July, only a handful of tourists ambled about. A few boats lounged lazily on the water. And a solitary parachutist tumbled from a slightly hazy sky.

The absence of people was as shocking as the fluid traffic. In three decades, I had never seen this lack of visitors to the Blue World, especially during Independence Day.

Often while traveling, I look for what's isn't there, like car dealerships in Maui or the children in Manhattan. On this trip, the contrast was striking; America's Playground was abandoned. Where was everyone?

The ashes on our windshield offered a clue. Days before, a wildfire had ravaged through the mountains, destroying homes and causing mass evacuations. But it was completely contained by the time we'd arrived. Surely, the fire wasn't the reason for Tahoe's desolation?

It was.

As we stood in the lonely checkout line of a supermarket, the grocer painstakingly arranged our cherries and chicken strips in a bag. According to him, business hadn't been this bad in the 39 years he'd lived in Tahoe. He shook his head, noting the 12% profit the supermarket had lost over 96 hours. Then he encouraged us to stay for a few days, to pump some money into the fragile economy, which depended heavily upon the holiday weekend.

Several miles away, a firefighter dropped a steaming pile of pancakes into the trashcan. Curt Mulkey, a volunteer with the Meeks Bay Fire Department, claimed that the breakfast had the lowest turnout he'd seen at the Volunteer Firefighter Association's annual fundraiser.

Although concerned about their native economy, both locals could understand why visitors were keeping their distance.

My family and I had our own doubts about taking the trip. We considered the safety element. After all, our rental cabin was in the Tahoe Keys, a subdivision that had been voluntarily evacuated just before our stay. And then there was the irony of vacationing in an area still tender from Mother Nature's vengeance.

But in press releases, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger all but guaranteed our safety and urged tourism. Upon confirming our reservation with the cabin owner, we received a 20% discount for keeping our agreement. That was enough to seal the deal.

So, in Tahoe fashion, we hiked, biked, and swam. We watched the sun set from the Angora Fire Lookout, as a slight breeze lifted an American flag above charred bushes and skeletal trees. The kids counted makeshift signs along the generally bumper-to-bumper highway: 42 "Thank Yous" to firefighters, utility crews, and law enforcement. Red Cross banners hung in shop windows. And beside the Festival of Fine Arts, a carwash raised donations for victims.

Although entire neighborhoods had burned to the ground, handmade signs rose from the ashes. Gratitude was plentiful; despite its devastation, the Blue World didn't seem blue at all.

Tourism is integral to the economy of vacation destinations, especially those affected by disasters. Every cent helps the area recover. This time, pennies we paid for the cabin rental, park fees, gas, and groceries all contributed a small part to Tahoe's revitalization.

In return, my family received the usual gift, the same one we have found in Yosemite's drought, in Mexico's poverty, in Canada's high unemployment, in the gaping holes at Ground Zero. It is the opportunity to see and appreciate the world in its imperfect but true state. And to celebrate its resilient and resourceful people.

is a freelance writer, editor, and instructor of writing at Rogue Community College. She is currently finishing a young adult novel.

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