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Finding Hope in Unexpected Places

Susan Tweit

One recent week, my husband, Richard, and I headed to California to celebrate “our” Molly’s 30th birthday (she’s Richard’s daughter and my step-daughter) and cheer her on as she ran her first marathon.

Watching Molly, a thyroid cancer survivor, run 26 hilly miles from Calistoga to Napa in the rain, and finish soaking wet and smiling renewed my hope for our future.

Imagine losing your thyroid gland and one of your vocal chords, and going through chemotherapy so toxic that you are radioactive and must be isolated. And then once you are healthy again, taking up running and completing your first marathon just days after your 30th birthday.

That kind of miracle requires equal doses of determination, luck, and faith.

On that same trip to California, Richard and I drove the Big Sur coast, hands-down my favorite stretch of ocean edge anywhere. Along one stretch of Route One, we passed mountainside after mountainside blackened by last summer’s Big Sur fires.

These blazes swept through 163,000 acres of drought-crisped redwood forest, oak woodland, and sage-scrub, destroying houses and leaving behind charred redwood trunks, burnt ravines, and cliffs gray with soot. The aftermath was sobering.

Then we rounded a curve into a valley where the fire had blown over the ridge so hot that whole slopes were denuded and the underlying rocks themselves splintered by the heat. Instead of black though, these mountainsides blushed new green as burned grasses and shrubs sprouted from ashy soils watered by recent winter rains.

Atop that joyous film of new life were patches of gold: the state flower, California poppy. The fires had cleared the soil for these symbols of the state’s native grasslands to return, and now they bloomed bright as the flames that had inspired their sprouting.

At my exclamation, Richard pulled over on the verge of the highway. While traffic zoomed by, we got out of the car and stood open-mouthed, astonished by the poppies blooming high above.

As we took in the sight of those swaths of golden wildflowers springing Phoenix-like from burnt mountainsides, a huge black shape soared out over the ridgetop on wide wings with its wingtip feathers outstretched like the fingers of a hand. And then another huge black bird, and another, until six endangered California condors floated on the ridgetop winds.

Ocean waves crashed against the cliffs below us. A golden eagle drifted by on a seven-foot-wide wingspan; the nearby condors made that eagle seem small.

Richard and I turned to each other, grinning. California poppies blooming with California condors soaring high overhead.

Last summer’s fires seemed to have destroyed the spectacular beauty of Big Sur, yet two of the coast’s signature species had returned. Another miracle.

I won’t forget watching Molly, soaking wet and still smiling as she ran her first marathon, or the surprise of California condors soaring above carpets of wild poppies in the aftermath of Big Sur fires. So often, we find hope where we least expect it.

Copyright 2009 Susan J. Tweit. Originally published in the Salida Mountain Mail.

Award-winning writer and commentator Susan J. Tweit lives and gardens in Salida when she’s not on the road promoting her new memoir, Walking Nature Home, which inspired one reviewer to write, “You simply must read this book.”