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A hazy season of fires and recollections

Jul 13, 2012 - By Steven R. Peck

There's smoke everywhere on travel routes from Wyoming to Colorado and back. The fires started too soon this year, and they are filling our skies, and sometimes our valleys, with smoke as the massive weather trends across the region change from day to day.

The hazy days make me think, of all things, about a book.

When I was a little boy I often stared at my mother's full-wall book case. If I ever took down a book from it in those years, I don't remember it. But I knew by heart the pattern made by the array of books. I looked at the wall of books as if it were an abstract painting.

A couple of weeks ago, when we were flying into Denver International Airport at the end of a 25th anniversary trip to San Francisco, smoke from the big High Park Fire near Fort Collins billowed up and past the jet airliner's wingtips. There was a big thunderhead above, and it acted as a reverse drain, sucking the smoke upward and creating a mammoth hybrid cloud, perhaps 40,000 feet above the ground. Our pilot eased his way around it.

I was reminded of one of the books on that big shelf, the Tennessee Williams play "Summer and Smoke." My childhood eyes had registered it a thousand times during my book-gazing on quiet afternoons, but it wasn't until the summer of the big Kate's Basin Complex Fire in Fremont and Hot Springs counties in 2000 that I actually pulled the book and looked inside.

I wasn't exactly expecting Tennessee Williams to have written a play about a forest fire and a doomed smokejumper who falls in love, but the title "Summer and Smoke" didn't seem to have anything to do with the content of the drama. The play concerns a delicate woman more or less overwhelmed by a man, sort of a cousin to "A Streetcar Named Desire," only without Stanley Kowalski screaming "Stella!"

This year, with the fires burning again, and with Fremont County crossing its fingers against the strike of lightning or act of either human carelessness or recklessness that will start a big one close to home, the power of childhood impressions overwhelms what my adult examination of the book revealed.

It's back on the shelf again, untouched for a dozen years, a gray background with darker gray letters against it, the cover forever an internal touchstone to complement the blood-red sunsets this year in our vast Wyoming skies, this year of Summer and Smoke.

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