Aspen Princess: A close call brings us closer together | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Princess: A close call brings us closer together

Alison Berkley Margo
Aspen Princess

I almost had to laugh when I read FEMA's list of things to bring when you are evacuated from your home in an emergency.

Naturally, I read this after the fact. The important items on the list, things like the deed to our home and birth certificates, didn't even occur to me. Oh, no. I was a crazy person, filling laundry baskets and every bag I could find with designer shoes, artwork, photo albums, and a bookcase full of personal journals that date back to 1980. Cheeks flushed and sweaty, I raced around the house, trying to decide what items to protect and what to leave behind. The red Free People cocktail dress that fit even when I was pregnant made the cut, as did the insanely expensive Parisian leather motorcycle boots I bought at Blooming Birds. My wedding dress, (even though I never had it professionally cleaned and it probably still has beer stains on it), was crammed into a suitcase along with the blush pink silk Christian Dior stilettos with bows on the ankle straps.

With the bare walls, open drawers, and clothes strewn about, our house looked like it had been robbed. That our neighborhood was never formally evacuated seemed beside the point.

I may have acted a little hastily. But when we returned home from the Redstone parade on the Fourth of July to find Basalt Mountain engulfed in flames with clouds of smoke billowing into the sky like an erupted volcano, I panicked.

My wonderful in-laws were here, and we had just enjoyed a wholesome morning in an idyllic setting for the kind of small-town parade that invites everyone to participate, even my 2-year-old on his tiny red balance bike. We blew bubbles from oversized wands, ate hot dogs, waded into the Crystal River and sat in the shade while Levi played at the park. We saw our friends, took photos and enjoyed ourselves, even if a part of me struggled with celebrating a country I'm not currently very proud of.

Still, a cloud of fatigue hung over my head, temples throbbing with a dull headache, my eyes dry from lack of sleep. We had seen the fire break out the night before, plumes of smoke visible from our living room. The electricity had gone out, which always sets an ominous tone.

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"Does anyone know anything about that fire on Basalt Mountain we can see from our living room?" I posted on Facebook.

I slept in fitful bursts that night. I woke at 3 a.m. with a start, heart pounding from a nightmare. In my dream, flames surrounded our house. I had put Levi in the car and then worried it might not be safe, or that I left him in there too long as I gathered our things.

Still connected as if we are one being, one body, he woke at the same time. "Mommy?" he called from his room across the hall.

I felt relief at the sound of his voice. Perhaps selfishly, I scooped him out of his little bed and brought him into ours, where his daddy and dog were snoring away, fast asleep. I folded him into my arms and lay very still, listening to my family breathe.

The next morning, the Fourth of July, everything felt relatively calm — until it wasn't.

"Get out of there, Ali," my neighbor said over the phone, her voice shaky. "Grab everything you can and plan to maybe never see your house again."

My mind raced with the possibilities. If Basalt was burning, we may not even be able to get out of the Frying Pan. I thought of what alternative routes existed on the east end of the valley — Thomasville/Eagle Road? Hagerman Pass? The sky filled with so much smoke it was dark inside our house.

"I think we need to get out of here right now," I urged my infuriatingly calm in-laws. "We have a 2-year-old to think about. I don't think we should take any chances."

Pulling the Levi card did the trick. Within the hour, we were packed and headed for my parents' house in Steamboat.

From Steamboat, I checked Facebook incessantly to look for updates. It was interesting how the social media I'd detested turned out to be the only source for real-time information and an easy line of communication with friends and neighbors. Though I still found photos of beach vacations and parties elsewhere jarring — how could anyone be having fun at a time like this?

I watched in horror as photos of El Jebel surrounded by fire were posted to my news feed. I stared in awe of images of the DC-10 jet dropping slurry, so close to the ground, the mountains, the heat, the wind, the fire. I heard reports from neighbors of the helicopters flying over to the Fryingpan for water. I kept in touch with friends who had been evacuated so I knew where they were, and how they were. But I could not shake the images of historic downtown Basalt beneath a mountain in flames, about to be swallowed whole by the dragon.

Like any tragedy, this fire brought us together in incomprehensible ways. It was a startling reminder of our humanity, our community, and the incredible spirit shown by the firefighters and first responders who fought day and night to miraculously save our little town. Never have I felt so much pride for where I live, or more resolute in the decision to raise my son here. Believe it or not, I even have empathy for the kids who started the fire, imagining the shame, regret, fear and horror they must be feeling for the damage they caused. They are human, too.

It's also a reminder of what matters the most in life. What would you take with you? I guess my loved ones just happen to include a pair of Christian Dior shoes.

The Princess should probably own a much bigger suitcase. Email your love to alisonmargo@gmail.com.