By Anne Kenner
I didn’t want to live on Sonoma Mountain. I was busy in San Francisco, with my job and my children, our friends and activities. Cities had always been my preferred environment; I like the noise and jostling crowds. But Jim needed more room and fewer people, country vistas and wide-open spaces. He wanted privacy and verdure, bike paths and hiking trails. So I agreed to look for them with him, first in Carmel Valley and finally, one afternoon, by myself in Sonoma county.
The real estate agent selected a few houses that fit our careful budget, and pointed to the first on a map, three miles up Sonoma Mountain from the valley floor.
“That one,” I said, “is too remote.”
“Don’t worry,” she assured me, “we won’t stay long.”
I was resentful as we drove up the winding road, irritable even, until we finally turned left through a low iron gate and parked on a sudden plateau. I sat for a moment in the car, gazing through the windshield. I barely noted the house with its tangled garden, or the grape vines that grew beside it in snarled rows. I stared, instead, at the vineyard’s westernmost edge, which underlooked the vast and glorious mountainside beyond. I felt a smiting. A whammy. A sudden lovesickness for that gorgeous, tumbled land.
“You have to come up here,” I told Jim when I called him from the driveway.
He did, and we bought the property the very next day.
People can love each other and their pets, places and paintings, baseball and music all with an equivalent intensity. Many of our passions are nurtured and developed over time. But we can also find love in the instant. “Humans,” Pliny the Elder explained, “by nature love new things,” and love at first sight is a particularly “potent madness,” a deep and blinding ardor, passion’s holy grail. “Where both deliberate, the love is slight,” claimed Christopher Marlowe, “who ever lov’d, that lov’d not at first sight?”
Whether acquired over time or in the moment, passion is poignantly fragile. The very “magic of love,” however, “is our ignorance that it can ever end.”1
In truth, the place on Sonoma Mountain was a mess, long neglected and brazenly patched to hide its most obvious deficiencies. The week we moved in the water heater failed. Then the dishwasher. Then the refrigerator. Two months later, the flowers and shrubs strategically planted for sale all died, the ancient well pump having at last collapsed and the irrigation system long broken in any event. Years’ worth of garden debris lay discarded under rusting solar panels that no longer heated the discolored pool. Rats tumbled merrily in the attic, water pipes burst under the patio, raw sewage spewed from toilets and sinks, the driveway gate fell off its hinges.
None of it mattered. We replaced things when they broke, and ignored them when we couldn’t. We planted new trees and flowers, and pulled out the old grapes and replaced them with hardier vines. We tore out bathrooms and floorboards, discarded rotting doors and painted-out windows. We trapped the rodents and watered the grasses. We pruned a magnificent old fig tree and rebuilt the sway-backed bocce court. We emptied brackish ponds, and cut back the poison oak and shark-toothed blackberry vines that covered large swaths of the property.
We found orange sofas for the living room, and placed a glider in the garden. We left windows uncovered so we could see the mountain and fields from every room. We painted the cabinets light blue, and the walls a gentle cream. We set a bright red table by our daughter’s bed, a rocking chair next to our son’s. We were smitten, we were dazzled by the chance to stake a claim, to place our mark on this beautiful piece of land.
When my son was in kindergarten, he and his classmates recorded their aspirations on wide-ruled paper, taped to the wall for parents to admire at back-to-school night.
“I want to be an investment banker.”
“I want to be a pilot.”
“I want to be governor.”
My own shy son aimed for work as a bartender.
“Why a bartender?” I asked when I tucked him into bed that night.
He’d watched the guests at parties in our home, he told me.
“Everyone wants to be with the bartender,” he explained.
Human desire and aspiration are intimately connected to our experience of place. The fixed locations we inhabit as children – our homes, schools, parks and playgrounds –shape our earliest ability to recognize opportunity and exercise personal agency. We learn to prefer the places where we feel most comfortable and, in doing so, limn our futures. “Places matter,” notes Rebecca Solnit, “they map our lives,” and often in ways we cannot predict.2
When I was little and my ambit confined, I knew what I didn’t want to be. I didn’t want to be in trouble, or alone in a room with my scary brother. I didn’t want to be lost in the woods or the aisles at Lucky’s supermarket. I didn’t want to disappoint my parents or be friendless on the playground at North Hillsborough School.
As I got older and sensed the possibilities, I wanted to be endless things: a dog trainer, a roller derby girl, an astronaut, Dr. Christian Bernard, president, invisible, an archaeologist, very tall, an Olympic runner, alone for a minute, a spy.
When it came time to choose, I was a lawyer and then a teacher, a wife and then a mother.
Now, having outgrown other aspirations, I want to travel far and wide. Afterwards, though, I want to come home.
The ancient Greeks placed boundary stones throughout their mapped environment. For them, boundary, peras, wasn’t only a delimiter. It was also an invitation, the beginning of experience, the onset of opportunity.
The Agora at the foot of the Athenian Acropolis was once scattered with horoi, marble boundary stones that demarcated the public marketplace. “I am the boundary of the Agora,” read the simple, carved markers that were placed at critical junctures about the commercial neighborhood. The stones barred entry to the young or impious, people guilty of mistreating their parents and other like crimes. For many, however, for most, the markers were a summons to enter, to buy and to sell, to witness and engage with both the fishmongers and philosphers of the Classical world.
For twelve years, during weekends and summer holidays, we shaped and molded, prodded and coddled our eight precious acres on the mountain. The rewards for our efforts were disproportionate: a profligacy of roses and citrus, apricots and grapes. Lotus blossoms carpeted the surface of a recovered pond, and a shot-holed apricot tree exploded with fruit every other year. We grew apples and tomatoes, dahlias and dogwood. In August, we picked figs by the hundreds, followed by pomegranates in October, lemons and oranges in the winter. Friends and family swarmed the place, neighbors sat around the Sunday evening fire pit to share a bottle of wine, our children, our children’s friends, our friends’ children, people we knew and people we didn’t came to eat and swim, pick fruit and make lavender wands.
Four beloved dogs hunted voles in the vineyard, cats came and went, possums and bobcats crept onto the deck at night, fox cubs chased each other around the shimmering cottonwood tree. Turkeys strolled the vineyard, crows roosted in the massive silver maple, red tailed hawks swooped the meadow, and brilliant green hummingbirds buzzed our garden chairs.
It was paradise, it was glory, the place we couldn’t wait to get to, and the spot we hated to leave. It was a revel, it was perfection.
Then the fires came.
* The human brain frequently locks in memory by connecting it to a particular place and time. This process of episodic memory formation is deep and intense. Driving past a family home long after its abandonment, walking down a street where decades earlier you argued with a friend can trigger a vivid, even photographic replay of early events, startling harbingers not of things to come, but of the people and places we’ve left behind.
We might try to “think away things,” Einstein recognized, but we can never bury “the space which they occupy.”
My eighth-grade boyfriend, Bobby Foster, lived on Longview Road in South Hillsborough. His parents were a vaporous presence, his father often away on sketchy adventures in the natural environment, his mother subdued by frequent disappointment and drink.
Bobby’s bedroom, with a separate entrance below the main house, was a large and private space, with twin beds and a wood burning fireplace that matched the one in his father’s den.
“Got to keep the home fires burning,” Mr. Foster remarked on a rare day home, when I arrived to find him carrying logs from the garage.
For most of the year, Bobby and I, Jeannie and Brian, Mary Jo and Bruce would gather at Bobby’s house after school and on weekends. We listened to music on the living room stereo, smoked cigarettes in the garden, and made out for long, whispered hours on Bobby’s beds, the fireplace ablaze and his blacklight posters fluorescing on the walls.
Bobby and I broke up at the end of the year, and I never returned to his house. Fifty years later, though, and long after Bobby died, Brian emailed me. He was in Hillsborough, visiting from Los Angeles and running errands for his own elderly mother.
“I drove Friday afternoon down to San Mateo,” Brian wrote, “and saw a sign that read ESTATE SALE 860 LONGVIEW. Bobby’s house. Of course I had to go.”
The old rooms, Brian said, were much the same. He saw the family photos still hanging on bedroom walls. He thumbed through LPs in the living room cabinet, the same albums we’d listened to incessantly in 1972, many of which Brian bought from the estate vendor.
The vivid spaces Brian described were lost in my long-ago brain, until he mentioned the closets. They were, he wrote, stuffed with dishes and tools, clothing and linens, umbrellas and “Mrs. Foster’s fur coats.” And suddenly I was back in the Fosters’ long hallway, rounding the corner a half-century before where Bobby stopped me, opened a closet door, and said, “Look at the animals.” The closet was full of coats, some of them Mr. Foster’s, but most belonging to Mrs. Foster, a long, brown mink, a fox stole and, most fascinating to me, a glossy leopard skin jacket.
My grandmother had a mink coat, but my mother did not. She wanted one, even in our mild California climate, but she could not afford it. I knew how precious Mrs. Foster’s coats were, at least these three I recall Bobby showing me during that singular year when I learned to kiss and smoke and trust my friends above all else. Mrs. Foster was dead and could no longer grieve these treasures; but I recognized the value of what she had lost.
On a warm October evening in 2017, Jim and I had dinner with friends at a restaurant near our mountain home. As we sat, the winds rose, snuffing the candles on our creekside table and downing the striped umbrella protecting us from a still-bright sun. After the meal, Jim drove on to San Francisco; my friends and I, though, headed back up Sonoma Mountain to spend one final night in the country before engaging the work week ahead.
We fed the dogs, shared a final glass of wine, and sat briefly around the blustery fire pit before heading for bed where I, in mine, fell quickly asleep. I woke in the early morning hours to the sound of my dog chewing a loud bone. Not my dog with a bone, but fireworks booming and cracking across the valley from Napa. Sitting up, I looked eastward, through the bedroom window, where a glowing red bolus filled the dark and distant skyline.
“How strange,” I thought, “for the sun to be rising.”
And then, because I was tired, because I was confused, I lay back down and slept again until shortly after 2:00 a.m., the bedside telephone rang.
“Get out of the house,” my neighbor said when I answered.
“But why?” I asked.
“The valley’s on fire,” he told me.
Every Fourth of July, my father would gather us in the backyard to watch him light his way through a jumbo box of Red Devil Fireworks. He burned glittering Magic Cones and shrieking Piccolo Petes. He lit sparklers for us to wave over the patio, and rockets that topped the oak tree. He set off cherry bombs and Roman candles, magic snakes and Ground Bloom Flowers, every crackling, flashing surprise he could find until the box was finally empty.
“Show’s over,” my father would announce, in the funky, smoky air.
My father lit himself on fire, too, but not on the Fourth of July.
One February when I was ten, we drove the five hours from Hillsborough to Lake Tahoe for a weekend of skiing. The rental house was frigid when we arrived, and my mother could not turn on the heater. My father checked the gas tank in its closet under the staircase.
“The pilot’s out,” he called, and then there was a pop before my father, fully airborne, exploded from the closet and hit the opposite wall. I watched, astonished, as he slid loosely, slackly, from the wall to the floor, still holding a matchbox in his smoking left hand.
“Jerry!” said my mother, “Your eyebrows are gone.”
And they were, as were the lashes around my father’s blue eyes, and the hair on his forearms and the backs of his hands, all of it scorched away by the fire he’d ignited in the gas-filled closet.
The mind, wrote John Milton, “is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” Hell, of course, means different things to believers. Some define it as the absence of God, others as the obverse of heaven. Judaism declines its existence, but acknowledges a potential afterlife that is “dark and deep.” Buddhists claim there is neither heaven nor hell, simply unhappy states of existence produced by unwholesome kamma, or actions. The Christian Bible claims hell is a prison of utter darkness, a pit, a “lake that burns with fire and sulphur.” Milton, however, imagined hell much like I do after that early October morning, “as one great furnace flamed.”
It took long minutes for my friends and me to gather our things, to round up the dogs and pile into our cars. Across the valley and, increasingly, in fields and meadows nearby, the booming, the popping and whooshing, continued, not my dog with a bone, not fireworks in October, but propane tanks exploding as onrushing flames surrounded and ignited them, electrical wires snapping and fizzing when wind-borne embers settled on their surface, summer-dried timber and grasses roaring from the fire that raced through hundreds, then thousands of blazing acres towards our home. Sirens wailed in neighboring towns, and fire wardens now trawled our country road, their bull-horned voices calling residents to waken, to assemble their loved ones, to be immediate, to evacuate.
“Follow me,” I directed my friends, and drove swiftly through our gate down the mountain road toward the town of Glen Ellen in the flats. But halfway there, a horse trailer blocked our way, its owner frantically waving me back.
“Glen Ellen is burning!” she called out, shooing us away.
“Follow me,” I told my friends and the two other cars now in our wake. We drove northwest, toward Enterprise Road which surely would take us to Bennett Valley and, from there, to the impervious highway to San Francisco. But a dancing blue line of fire barred the turn onto Enterprise.
“Follow me,” I assured my friends and the six cars that had trailed me on this second, failed attempt to escape the burning valley. I drove north this time, back up Sonoma Mountain toward Pressley Road and Petaluma, our last available egress. At the turnoff to Pressley, smoke rose from the roadside gutters and to our right, perhaps fifty feet away, a house was fully aflame, its skeleton already visible and encircled by manicured trees, burning like orange torches in the dark. A fire engine barred the lane ahead, and men in yellow jackets and coveralls held a long white hose, fruitlessly spraying the blazing road, the grasses and neighboring hillside with tall arcs of water.
“I’m sorry,” said a helmeted man who came to my window, “but I can’t let you pass.”
“You have to,” I said. “There’s no other way out.”
“We don’t know if the fire’s reached Petaluma,” he explained. “We can’t guarantee safe passage.”
“That’s all right,” I told him, and waved toward the line of cars behind me. “We’ll be all right,” I promised.
“Wait, then,” the man said, and walked away to remove a white canister from the side of the firetruck. He misted the road with orange retardant until the flames alongside it briefly danced away, then he turned back to me and yelled.
“Go!” he said, “go!”
And we did, speeding past the engine in the road, past more rolling, burning hills and homes until, thirty minutes later, our frenzied caravan burst through a final ringlet of fire and onto the highway. The pavement was mercifully clear, although fires flickered in roadside shrubs, and we continued rapidly south, the smoke gradually dissipating as we neared the safety of San Francisco.
The wildfire that menaced Sonoma Mountain in October 2017 was the most destructive in California history, and just one of a dozen large fires that year in Sonoma, Napa and Lake counties. Triggered by a downed powerline in rural Calistoga and encouraged by the night’s strong winds, our fire’s roaring flames created their own powerful updraft, a stream of hot air that was sucked back down into the fire, feeding its continued progress and generating hurricane strength gales that made containment impossible for three full weeks. By the time it was over, the fire killed 22 people, destroyed 5,600 structures, and burned through 36,000 acres of wild and cultivated land.
For a week, my husband and I were unable to cross the evacuation lines to see whether our home had survived. Finally, during a lull in the conflagration, fire wardens allowed us sixty-minutes for a property check.
The road up the mountain was ash-covered and eerily quiet, but our gate opened onto an unburnt landscape. We worked rapidly, masked and weeping from the smoke, to disconnect gas lines, unplug appliances, empty the freezer of rotting food, and grab a few pieces of art and family items we couldn’t bear to lose. I took quick photos, too, of our treasured fig tree, the oaks that shielded our front door, a vast silver maple shading the lawn. I mourned these favored trees, as I did the whole beloved place, certain it would burn when the fire revived. And when, despite all odds, despite the blinking fire maps that predicted the property’s inevitable engulfment, our house didn’t burn, I continued to mourn, anticipating the future fires that would surely come to claim it. In that frantic, mid-fire hour when we worked to save our precious home, I understood it was already lost to me.
The fires returned each fall for the next four years. Sometimes they blazed farther away from our mountain, sometimes closer, some forced us to flee, and others to go without power, without light and water, for long days at a stretch. The Camp Fire in 2018 killed 86 people and destroyed over 19,000 buildings. The Kincade burned almost 78,000 acres across Sonoma county during two fall weeks in 2019. The 2020 LNU Lighting Complex Fire burned for months in Sonoma, Napa, Solano, Lake and Yolo Counties, devouring 363,000 acres and turning the skies red and sooty as far south as San Francisco.
I loved the place, still, but not enough to lose it, to see it burn to the ground, to have to rebuild once it was gone only to have it burn yet again in other fires that were sure to come. A spell had broken, the gift of nature’s benign indulgence had apparently expired. The cherished acres that once willingly granted our intercession, now firmly resisted it. Rats returned to harry us in the attic, and a mushroom sprouted through the living room floor. Poison oak retook the meadow, and cursed me with agonizing rashes. A bat flew into our nighttime bedroom and swooped at our heads for startling minutes before escaping through an open skylight. Trees fell, toppling other trees below them. Grapes shriveled to nothing in the heat. Bees stung. Wild turkeys shat in the pond. Door frames peeled. The roof leaked. Nature, it seemed, was bearing down, sending us a message that it was time to leave. And so we did.
“I have learned,” wrote Beryl Markham, “that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved, leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can.”
We listed the property for sale in March, sold it in May, and moved out during a long week in June. Day after day that final week, friends and neighbors, people who had worked with us in the vineyard or helped plant the garden, stopped by to visit our home one last time and to claim a piece of it for their own: a bowl, a fig cutting, a bunch of fresh lavender, a table, a lamp, an old badminton net, a hammock. One friend carried away my grandmother’s wall mirror. Another my son’s old bedroom set. Gradually, inexorably, we emptied the place of our presence.
God warned Moses that people cannot truly own their homes. “The land is mine,” God explained, “For you are strangers and sojourners with me.”I, however, favor Joan Didion’s opinion that “a place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.”
I can no longer claim my old home, because it belongs to someone else, and I have no doubt he will radically remake it in his own image. But I can remember it obsessively, and I do so, in technicolor, in fever dreams that intrude upon my day.
In one dream, I relive my penultimate day on the property, a frenzy of packing and moving, hauling and discarding, of disbelief and disorientation, briefly interrupted when I discover a bevy of trapped baby quail, six flightless little birds that have tumbled into the deep-bottomed bocce court. From her home in the scrub, their mother scolds and cajoles as the chicks scramble up and down the narrow court, fruitlessly leaping at its steep wooden sides to avoid my unsolicited assistance.
At last, exhausted, the babies huddle together in a far corner of the court, wing over wing like tiny synchronized swimmers, heartbroken by their misguided diversion from home, defeated even as I gently palm them, one by one, out of the court and back onto solid ground.
In a second dream, I stand with my young son and daughter on a narrow upstairs deck, weeks after we move into our Sonoma home. Just beyond the vineyard, in a neighbor’s flat meadow, we see workers furiously prepare for a wedding that evening. A white tent is erected, flowers are arranged, long tables are set, food is prepared, a drum set is assembled. The afternoon hours pass, and cars arrive, guests spill into the meadow and sit in slatted chairs, a bride and groom appear, people eat and dance, laughter and music carry across the vineyard to our home, where my children and I vicariously share our neighbor’s joy, toasting the newlyweds with sparkling apple juice, dancing to their music on our deck until the summer sun sets and the party ends.
The next morning, I watch the tent come down, the caterers dismantle their grills, the chairs fold, the tables flatten, trucks come to cart all the trappings away, and the meadow return to its serene and unremarked self.
How quickly life passes, I muse from my safe and lovely perch. How precipitously happiness comes and goes.
 Disraeli, B. (1845), Henrietta Temple: A Love Story, Baudry’s European Library (Paris)
 Solnit, R. (2008). Storming the gates of paradise: Landscapes for politics. Univ. of California Press.
Anne Kenner’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Gettysburg Review, The Southwest Review, Boulevard, Salmagundi, Columbia Journal, Pangyrus and elsewhere, and has twice been recognized as Notable in The Best American Essays series. She was a 2016 Fellow at Stanford University’s Distinguished Careers Institute, and has been a federal prosecutor, law professor, and high school educator.