By Ashley Lodato

As is often my habit on Sunday nights, I asked a few people what I should write about in my column for this week. The answer was unanimous: smoke.

To write about the smoke, or to not write about the smoke: That was the question I asked myself as I sat down to write this column on Sunday, Aug. 19. But any thoughts I have about the smoke are eclipsed by the thoughts I have about the three firefighters –Tommy Zbyszewski, Andrew Zajac and Richard Wheeler — who lost their lives in the Twisp River Fire three years ago today, and Daniel Lyon, who was so badly burned. I know that many of us around the valley have been thinking about them, especially on this third anniversary of that heartbreaking day.

Smoke, of course, is what we’re all talking about, all relentlessly monitoring the particulate quantity of, all hoping to escape from, all bemoaning the increased presence of. (Next week we will, perhaps, address the ending of sentences with prepositions, so if your grammarly hackles went up during the reading of the previous sentence, prepare to meet my defense of the prepositional sentence conclusion.) But I find myself with very little to add to the smoke conversation, so instead I decided to write about Aretha Franklin. Because who better to take our minds off smoke than the queen of soul?

I was fortunate enough to spend the past week rafting the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in the smoke-free heart of Idaho’s Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness (spoiler alert — we returned). When we left the river and drove up out of the mountains and regained cell phone reception after eight days without, we learned that Aretha Franklin had died two days prior. From an adolescent church choir gospel singer to the first female to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to the woman who gave us a spine-chilling rendition of “My Country ’Tis of Thee” at President Obama’s inauguration, Aretha was simply a musical luminary.

I was reminded of other times when I emerged from the backcountry to find out that music legends had passed while I was blissfully unaware. The first really memorable one was when I hiked with 10 teen Outward Bound students out of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness in Montana to a trailhead where a food resupply awaited us. As we stuffed our packs with a fresh allotment of trail food, we asked the resupply staff person for news of the outside world. “Jerry Garcia died 10 days ago,” he said.

I was sad to hear the news, but remained functional. The students, however, were almost uniformly bereft. Some sat down on the ground, completely stunned. Others cried. As we hiked back up the trail with heavy backpacks and heavy hearts, the students sang a mournful version of “Shakedown Street,” a ragged little tribute to Jerry.

Another such moment occurred in September of 2003, when a trip out of New Hampshire’s White Mountains gained me the knowledge that the world had lost Johnny Cash. My group of adult Outward Bound students managed their emotions in a more restrained manner than the Deadhead teens had the decade prior, but for the remainder of our expedition all you had to do to elicit at least a few teary eyes in our group was whistle the first few bars of “Ring of Fire.” 

Although the surprise of delayed delivery of bad news is unwelcome, I’m still grateful for offline disconnected time in the wilderness. What author Gretel Erhlich calls “the solace of open spaces” makes ill tidings just a little bit easier to bear.

So farewell, Aretha. Forever you have my R-E-S-P-E-C-T. 

PREVIOUSLY, IN WINTHROP

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