Heat quarantine: A personal essay

Illustration of a person watching a forest fire occur while standing behind metaphorical prison bars.
Lucy Yang/File

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It was hot. I mean, I have a very low tolerance for heat, but it was 105 degrees outside in the almost-Nevada sun and the weather showed no inclination to cool itself. Anything above 80 degrees is, frankly, too warm for me.

It’s often surprising to people when I mention my insensitivity to temperature that I grew up in SoCal, the Los Angeles area. My family was always sequestered away when the temperature was anywhere near the 90 degree mark, when we resorted to blasting the air conditioning to the point of almost catching a cold. We were inside most of those days to avoid the heat of the outer world.

It was one of the hottest weeks of the year when my wife and I decided to go to Tahoe after getting our stuff from Berkeley. We, along with so many others, had been indoors for so long and needed to experience something freeing. Lake Tahoe wasn’t that far from Berkeley relative to its location to the Los Angeles area so we thought, why not free ourselves from the indoors? We knew that it was going to be a beautiful sight and were not disappointed, but it was scorching hot.

Temperature is something we can regulate indoors, something we can actually control. It was hot outside, which only reinforced the claustrophobic quality of the tumultuous season. We were used to being indoors for the majority of this year, though growing restless, yet when we finally got out, the heat was not inviting. We desired to be out, but the heat became walls that bound us indoors, furthering our isolation.

Heat rays bent the roads, warping the scenery around us as we drove east on Interstate 80 freeway toward Lake Tahoe. The wind blew dried earth into the clear sky as the temperature gauge on the car never fell but only seemed to climb higher. The car knew how to maintain its temperature, its own thermometer staying below the overheating mark, even in the scorching heat.

My wife and I were nurtured in the confines of our car with the soothing air conditioning on that separated us from the outer heat. But you could still feel heat radiating from the glass of the windows, licking my face then being cooled by the artificial cold. 

The sky was clear as we looked at the scenery that is vastly different from that of the SoCal suburbs. It was so natural; instead of buildings and trimmed lawns, there were towering trees and unkempt lots of land. It was relieving to escape the everyday routine. Wake up. Eat. Zoom for class. Read for class, or try to read but then get stuck on YouTube videos that I had been meaning to watch but never found the time to until I didn’t have it. The trees along State Route 88 absorbed the skyline, walling us off from the rest of California.

The scenery was long needed, a chance to cast our eyes on the natural scene as opposed to the unnatural screens during Zoom sessions and shelter in place. Nature seemed so far away for so long, especially in the suburbs, so the abundance of towering trees was refreshing, mentally — but it was still so hot. 

The air of the car instigated mixed signals as my brain made it feel as if the cool air from the vents was the reality of the outside weather, even forcing my mind to eventually disregard the rays of heat. We were ready to enjoy this experience, the fresh smell of pine engulfing our nostrils even before the windows came down. You can say that it’s all in the mind, and it is. The natural world had become a fantasy. Something that seemed so distant, yet so compelling despite this distance.

We furthered down the freeway, down twisted roads, and passed steep decline signs which showed how far we had traveled from Berkeley. We were going deeper into the trees but to our surprise the sky wasn’t clear anymore. There was a haze. The peaks of the trees were not visible the further we went into the declining slope toward Truckee River. We weren’t sure, but the temperature was dropping so we assumed it was some sort of mist, until we opened the window.

The smoke created a wall, a transient cover through the trees and around us, yet seemed to not move.

It was smoke. We knew about the devastation of the fires, but we didn’t know the true extent. A thick layer of smoke meshed with the trees and displayed a spectacular scale of gradation as the thickness blended as it reached the ground. There was ash falling on us, though we weren’t that close to the fires. The smoke created a wall, a transient cover through the trees and around us, yet seemed to not move.

My wife was worried because I have asthma, but I assured her that I would be fine. My asthma is not that bad, but the air was different here. It was not what we expected. We expected fresh pine and other flora, but the air smelled thick, and a mix of burnt pine filled the air. We weren’t expecting the smoke to reach us, but it did and it covered us. We felt the burning with every breath. 

We saw the remnants of insurmountable loss with every glance. We saw. We couldn’t see clearly, but we could see clearly enough, although always through a fine filter. The filter showed that we were seeing nature, but we were bound by obscuration. We saw the giant trees surrounded by smoke and felt the smell of burnt that consumed all else fill our lungs. It felt off. We wanted to be embraced by the fresh aura of Tahoe and we got the sight, yet still felt enclosed.

Even the lake, massive and transparent in pictures and videos, was obscured. The water was clear and cold and prompted anyone to jump in to find relief from the heat’s grasp. Usually, when in the water, you feel free to swim, with only human-made swim barriers showing where the beach drops off as a limitation. On that day, there was another wall. The other side of Lake Tahoe was blocked by a wall of descending smoke, making the lake seem small in contrast. 

Again, like when we were in the car, when my family was inside our house and how many of us are in society, we were isolated from the rest.

Contact Daniel Orona at [email protected].