Ramble On – Paradise Lost
Paradise Lost (and Hopefully Found Again)
Late in 2018, the state of California experienced three incredibly destructive wildfires, including the worst the state has ever seen: the Camp fire. The epicenter of this horrendous inferno is just a few miles away from a town you probably hadn’t heard of: Paradise, California.
Before the fire wiped out dozens of its residents and fully 95 percent of its structures, Paradise was fairly named: a mountainous, rugged town just north of Sacramento resting a few miles outside Tahoe National Forest. It’s an outdoor enthusiast’s playground, surrounded by oak trees that lent the air the kind of freshness unique to mountain towns (one that I now suspect has been replaced by the dry rancor of smoke and ash).
I know this about the town because I’ve been there to attend the wedding of my best friend from college. Kevin Kopsa grew up in Paradise, and Paradise raised him right by giving him a wacky yet accessible sense of humor, appreciation for just about everyone he meets, and a willingness to pitch in and help whenever he senses a need. Kevin and his wife now live in Arizona, far away from the fire—his family and friends still in Paradise survived the flames, too—but there’s a palpable sense of loss for him and everyone else who calls the town home.
Paradise also imbued in Kevin a love of the outdoors, especially when accessed by a 4x4. And—no hyperbole—it’s because of Kevin that I myself enjoy off-roading. When I moved into that college apartment and met my roommates and future best friends, two of the five of us had off-road machines, and we spent more than a few Saturday afternoons pounding around the Menan Buttes near Rexburg, Idaho. We climbed hills, crawled across talus fields, and drifted through tight corners, driving with the sort of zest you might expect from a half-dozen 22-year-olds split between a pickup and a Jeep.
Keen to slip behind the wheel after a few weeks of riding along, I bought a crappy ’94 Honda Passport with four-wheel drive and Isuzu 3.2L V-6. Though held together by little more than hope, that was the machine in which I learned to properly pick a line, following Kevin’s ’92 Toyota 4x4 through the tricky spots. Although still far from perfect, I am a much better driver off-road because of Kevin’s (and Kyle Hanson’s and Dane Mitchell’s) lessons.
As such, I owe a lot of my love for off-roading to the town of Paradise, where Kevin himself bought his first Toyota and learned to wheel. It breaks my heart to know the town has effectively been wiped off the map, to say nothing of the 42-and-counting of souls claimed by the fire and thousands of people now made homeless. Because of how destructive and heartbreaking the Camp fire is, it’s hard to imagine a happy ending for the town of Paradise. Who knows if it will ever return to its former glory: “a small but vibrant community with mutual concern for each other and appreciation for the surrounding natural beauty and history,” says Kevin.
After reconnecting with him for a few moments and to talk about college and Paradise and off-roading, he said it was nice to sort through some of his old photos and remember growing up in the Northern California town. And maybe that’s all Paradise is now: a collection of memories and skills gleaned from growing up in a place that valued its people and the environment that surrounded them. But he and I both hope for more.
“I just want my home back and better than ever before,” Kevin said. “That the fire becomes not a memory of destruction and despair but an opportunity for improvement and reflection on what’s most important.”