I wrote this piece on December 12, 2017, after a few days of smoke filled skies. California was on fire (again) and things got surreal. The photo above was taken on December 10, 2017.
I read “Smokey Sky” in episode 32 of my Words of Jen podcast.
Orange light filtered through the windows. I knew it wasn’t due to the sun rising or setting because it was mid-afternoon. I went to sleep on Earth and woke up on Mars, or maybe in a science-fiction movie. There is something uniquely unnerving about seeing the sky turn a color that it simply should not be.
Our cockatiels found this situation disturbing. They are creatures of habit, and use the light from the sky as their “clock”. When the sunlight from the window makes a certain pattern on their cage, they know it is time for bed. On rainy days, some of them tweet at me, asking me to put the sun back on for them.
Today, the sky was dim, and a funny color. They had no idea what to make of it. I closed the curtain at the window near their cage when it was their self-selected bedtime. The sun had a red circle around it that reminded me of the “red ring of death” on an Xbox 360. After the cockatiels were settled, I went outside, just for a minute, to take a photo of this disturbing sight.
The smoke was coming from several fires that were located in other counties in California. Shawn and I, and our cockatiels, were lucky that there were no fires in the county we live in. The nearest one was at the farthest edge of the large county next to ours. We were safe from the fires, but no longer safe from the smoke.
The next day, the sky was orange again, but a slightly lighter shade. I stayed inside the whole day, trying to avoid exposure to the smoke. Shawn was sick with a “flu-bug” that was making him cough a lot. I have chronic illnesses that make it hard for me to breathe when there is too much particulate matter in the air. Maybe we could wait this out.
One day later, and it was clear that the over-the-counter cough medications that Shawn had been taking were not working. He was still coughing a lot and wanted to try a different brand. This was a rare situation where I was actually in better shape to go outside and fight my way through the environmental hazards than he was. I insisted that I go to the store instead of him.
Every year, I suffer my way through Spring pollen season and Fall pollen season. My allergies get really bad, and it makes me tired, and causes my sinuses to burn. If I had to guess, I spend about half the year incredibly sick from pollen. The smoke was making me feel like it was a high pollen day. Going outside would make me miserable, but I was accustomed to that kind of pain.
I made it to the nearest bus stop shortly before the bus arrived. Everyone was silent, staring out the windows at the smokey sky.
Earlier this year, there was a total solar eclipse. Everything I read about it mentioned how strange it was to see the sky turn dark in the daytime. Several people described how silent people got as the light dimmed. That silence was happening now, on a bus that is typically full of chatty people, as everyone looked out at the ominous, odd colored, sky.
It didn’t take long for me to purchase the over-the-counter cough medicine Shawn needed (and to pick up a few other things). After the cashier finished bagging the things I bought, he said: “Have a good day. Or… as good of a day as you can with the smoke. Be careful.”
The next bus wasn’t going to arrive for about fifteen minutes, so I had some time to kill. To the right of me, the sky was a dark, menacing, grey, with a few hints of orange peeking out as the smoke clouds rolled by. To the left… the sky was clear. I stood in the middle of the two extremes.
I took a few more photos of the sky, and then sat down on a bench. The wheezing that I get on a high pollen day had started, and I knew how to measure my breathing and avoid a cough-attack. People passing by were watching the sky, and giving me nervous smiles.
An old man passed by in the bike lane instead of the sidewalk. He was smoking a cigarette, that I could not smell through the smoke in the air. To me, it seemed like an odd choice, to walk outside through the smoke while actively putting more smoke into your lungs.
He crossed the street in the middle, jaywalking, instead of using the crosswalk that was at the nearest corner. It dawned on me that this man had likely been smoking for a long time. He probably had difficulty breathing on days when the air was much cleaner than it is now. A little more smoke wasn’t going to change much for him.
A few tiny, white, flakes fell from the sky and stuck to the black hoodie I was wearing. It wasn’t snow. The sky was dropping ash on me.
The bus arrived, and I got on and found a seat. Again, everyone was quiet. Every so often, someone would tell their friend “Oh my god – look at the sky!” Most of the people on the bus were coughing, and a few were also wiping their eyes. They looked miserable and frightened.
Recently, on Twitter, I saw someone mention their desire for a science-fiction book where something happens and the healthy people have no idea how to cope with it. The disabled people, however, who have already developed the skills to cope with that specific problem, were all set. They knew what to do – because they had already been living that way. The change that freaked-out everyone else was their “normal”.
I was not unaffected by the smoke. My eyes were itching (but have been much worse then they were right then). I was slightly wheezing, and knew how to control my breathing enough to prevent a cough-attack on the bus. My sinuses were on fire, but this was far from the first time that happened. Here was a real-life version of the science-fiction dystopia the person on Twitter was asking someone to write.
The bus came to my stop, and I got off and started walking the rest of the way home. The sun had started to set, and it made the sky even more alien than it had been. I was posting the photos I took of the smokey sky on social media as I walked.
A man with short, white, hair passed by me at a rapid pace. He was in the bike lane, instead of on the sidewalk. The man wore jeans and a black turtleneck. He was jogging. The air was thick with smoke and ash, and this guy decided to go outside and exert himself and suck all that debris into his lungs with every gulped breath. This couldn’t possibly be a healthy choice.
At the corner, was a man that Shawn and I think of as the “traffic director”. He stands on various corners, waves his arms, and yells at cars to go or to turn the corner. Today, he was wearing a dust mask that glowed different colors as the traffic lights hit it while the disturbingly wrong colored sun set.