Reunion on the Trails of a Wildfire

This is Granby, Colorado. It is spectacular as you can see. Last week, two of my brothers and I (there are five of us) met there for our brief and mostly accidental once-a-year reunion. Just a couple weeks before that, the ski town of Granby was at the epicenter of one of Colorado’s biggest wildfires in its history, the East Troublesome.

Bashir who is a year older than me lives in Canada, and Hamid, my oldest brother, in San Francisco. For eight years until Bashir earned his Canadian citizenship in 2018, we hadn’t seen each other. It was pretty challenging to suddenly get separated after growing up in Afghanistan doing most things together: school, play, fight each other and as a team against bullies. The separation was made extra painful when for five years I lived a short bus-ride away from him on this side of the border in Vermont, while attending Middlebury College as an undergraduate. But because neither one of us had a visa sticker on our passports, we relied on FaceTime long before the coronavirus pandemic made connecting virtually a norm, all the while hoping for that one day when we could see each other in person… That moment came two years ago, just before my graduation from college, which Bashir was able to attend. Since then, we have managed to meet on a few occasions including last summer when together with two friends we took the road south from Colorado to New Mexico for a fully-packed 48-hours of mountain biking, hiking, camping, and indulging in all things made with roasted red and green chilis—a signature of New Mexico.

Living 6,000 miles away from home, each in a different part of the continent (another brother lives in North Carolina), we make a point about getting together at least once a year. A reunion with the whole family, after almost a decade, is yet to happen (my parents live in Afghanistan and another brother in Germany). Until then, it is random small get-togethers in anticipation for a complete reunion.

This time, the three of us decided to meet in Colorado because we wanted to spend most of our time outdoors, and because we miss real mountains—the only physical element in exile that invokes a felling of being home (in Afghanistan, we come from a jagged mountainous region, and in Kabul, we grew up surrounded by the mighty Hindu Kush mountains). Like previous reunions, this was also a brief one. I personally like that because the short cap on time forces us to make the most out of it. In 48 hours, we managed to fit in two hikes (one sunrise hike with a glowing view of the Rocky Mountain peaks), a gravel bike ride through the most interesting and desolate landscape I have ever ridden, and more.

To be able to carry both of my bikes, I drove to Colorado from Arkansas—a 15-hr drive that I did in one day going from springtime temperature to navigating my way over the dreadful but spectacular snowy Berthoud Pass in Colorado which goes past 11,000 ft. Riding a bicycle with Bashir feels special in a way we have only experienced here in the U.S. (back in Afghanistan, my parents were strictly against riding, mostly for safety reasons). For this ride, because I had with me the Specialized Crux and Specialized Epic, both of which are perfect for dirt, we wanted to do a gravel ride. I used Strava’s smart route generator which spits out ride options based on filters such as distance, surface type (paved or dirt), and elevation gain (hilly vs flat). We picked the first option that Strava recommended without checking the details (I like the uncertainty and surprises along an unknown path). What we found was more adventurous than we had anticipated, and it made for a memorable ride.

We started on a quiet state highway. The road quickly became a steady climb with breathtaking views of the snowy mountains. But soon, the scenery got taken over by large black spots across the land, remnants of the bushes that had burned in the East Troublesome wildfire. Every now and then, a lone-standing holiday home came into view, appearing unharmed among trees, whose only thing remaining was a blackened bare skeleton. After a smooth descend, I saw on my Stages Dash another long climb coming up, this time on dirt. This being Bashir’s first ever gravel ride, I hoped for something special.

The dirt, wide at first like any country road, soon narrowed to a class-4 type forest service road. The further we went, the more it narrowed and started to look less of a road. At times, dominated by overgrown bush, we wondered if we were off the beaten path. Adding to our suspicion was how unusually soft and powdery the dirt was. We wondered if this was also wildfire impact, breaking down the soil structure, through intense heat, into powder while also replacing topsoil with new and more refined dirt carried through erosion and intense winds (this turns out to be true). Recent snow, a huge blessing to firefighters as they tried to extinguish the fire, had made the soil extra soft. Signs of the fire’s destruction was everywhere: the charred landscape, blackened trees, and the ever-present smell of something burning in the air.

We felt utterly sad to witness this colossal natural disaster (caused by humans). At the same time, there was something thrilling about stumbling, by pure chance, on something in nature that we hadn’t seen before. It was humbling to find ourselves among few humans who get to see such a sudden and significant shift in an ecosystem, caused by our very own demanding (economic) activities that have offset earth’s delicate environmental balance. For as long as the ride lasted, we felt like explorers in some scientific expedition. And the bicycle had allowed that feeling, each pedal stroke getting us closer to the heart of where the East Troublesome had burned. To share those sentiments during the only two-days in a year that I get to see Bashir made it all the more exciting and special.

Upon returning, we picked Hamid and headed to Hot Sulphur Springs, a nearby town to, well, take a dip in the natural hot sulphur springs. The water was surely a remedy to our sore legs, but more importantly, it was our only moment to really slow down time and catch up with each other. As we each claimed a spot in the hot water that smelled like dynamite, with clear and cold skies above, we got caught on where each of us are in life, how we have fared with the challenges of the pandemic, and plans for the future. As the sun set and the stars grew brighter, and we intolerant of the hot water, there was only one thing on our minds: our next reunion… hopefully with the whole family.