On a hot night, we drive to L.A. and back. I have never been to downtown Burbank before; it is two hours and a thousand worlds away from where we start. Entire city blocks taken up with lots for shooting films and television shows; the day dims its lights just as we enter the city and we get lost trying to find a single house.
On the drive back, we dip down through the San Fernando Valley—a thousand sparkling lights, my favorite view, as a kid, coming from Orange County to Santa Barbara. We stop at an In N’ Out Burger. I haven’t been to one in years but it tastes just the same, and I remember the night I graduated from high school, and we had fries and milkshakes in cocktail dresses. There are a group of teenagers behind us; one of them, in a green shirt, keeps getting up to refill his soda cup. They say disparagingly about where they live, “It’s Camarillo.” They laugh at everything; they refresh us.
When we get near to Santa Barbara a voice on the radio warns of a fire nearby. Soon I am following a line of ten shiny firetrucks from Ventura; at Glen Annie, the northernmost exit before the netherland between Goleta and Buellton, they turn off and we see great orange flames peeking up over the tops of the hills. The sky, even at midnight, has a strange glow. Ahead of us is the ghost of a car: covered in ash, it cuts through the night looking like a specter.
Today the fire still burns. We taste wine in the Santa Ynez Valley and then take the San Marcos pass to Santa Barbara. Midway through a movie, the power shuts off all across the city. It is strange to see what happens to people when the lights go out. Soon we are all pooled outside in the parking lot being covered by a film of ash. “It looks like you have dandruff,” he says, as I brush some dust from his beard.
At the train station, waiting to pick someone up, we can see the fire. It has spread along the ridgeline. The mountains are alight. Flames crest the hills. It glows red in some spots, orange in others. “Welcome to California,” I say. On the radio, most people are talking about the power outage. A woman calls in to the university radio station and gives her perspective on the fire—“All the traffic lights are out,” she warns. She adds, “I’d like to see the National Guard home from Iraq so they can deal with things like this.”
“Welcome to Santa Barbara,” I say.
Sometimes in a traffic jam I let slip that I hate it here. “I could never live here,” I say, and honestly believe it; but later I doubt it very much to be true. It’s only that I feel a stranger here, sometimes; being in California is like watching one big movie, so that you know the characters but not the actors, and though the landscape is familiar, it feels incomplete, unreal. All that feels real are the places I have touched: the creekbed where I used to leap from bank to bank before the El Niño rains changed the shape forever, the hill at the front of the canyon that we climb to see the curve of the earth from, the hammock hung between two trees that the cows now use to rub their backs against.
I am a stranger even there, sometimes. Driving through the gate that marks the entrance to the Ranch, I am stopped by a guard who asks my name (I used to know all of them, and they me, but not any more), and when I tell it to him, he asks if I’m an owner.
“I don’t know,” I tell him; my ownership is all tied up in legalities and family rights—somewhere, deep down, the paperwork says I am, but all that matters in that moment is whether or not I feel like I own something, and I don’t.
He gives me a visitor’s pass. “It’s just a formality,” he tells me. He’s new at his job and doesn’t want to get into trouble. I see the Ranch with visitor’s eyes. On the back of the laminated pass is a list of rules; “no nudity in common areas,” reads one of them. “I never knew you couldn’t be naked in common areas,” I say.
But once, I was driving along the Ranch road when a rat appeared beside me in the truck, so I pulled over to try to get it out (I thought: if I can get it out, it won’t chew the wires!—they were always chewing the wires). I am a fairly small girl and it was a fairly large truck. I stood beside it on the side of the road, one door open, trying to coax the rat out by telekinesis (I had no better ideas). One of the gate guards came along, in his official truck.
“You ok?” he said.
“Just trying to get a rat out of my passenger seat,” I told him, wondering if he might take pity and offer to help.
“Ah, you’re a ranch girl, you’ll be fine!” he said, smiled, waved, moved on. Then the rat took a flying leap out of the truck and I shut the door before it could rethink the move. That was it: I was a ranch girl.
Now I am a girl who is a ranch girl and something else, too. I don’t know what.
The chaparral burns hot in the summer (50 years since it last burned, they say). And in five hours, on three quarters of a tank of gas, we can go from the wilds of a working cattle ranch to the urbane lots of Hollywood and back.