Connection to Sonoma evokes empathy for suffering friends

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The Cheetos were tempting and the Chili Cheese Fritos have never let me down. The Cool Ranch Doritos are always a safe pick, but the Just Pop In! Bloody Mary popcorn has always served as a reliable companion. 

Those were my dinner choices: An oasis on the top row of an airport vending machine, left as the last beacon of hope in a terminal deserted, save those awaiting my delayed departing flight at 8:30 on a Thursday night at Indianapolis International. 

The airline agent told me we’d get out that night – as soon as enough smoke had cleared to allow entry into San Francisco. So it came to be that my self-loathing – a pity party including only me and a gate flat screen that flipped between the National League playoffs and “Thursday Night Football” – suddenly shifted to my epiphany. Part of our country’s most gorgeous land was smoldering amidst an untamed rage. Wildfires in California wine country; the Sonoma and Napa areas fighting for their natural state. And to think, for a moment, I’d considered the snap decision of which chips I’d crunch to be relevant. 

Later in San Francisco, I exited the plane in the mental haze that accompanies a midnight flight, only to enter the cloud of a region’s uncertainty. The smell was the first thing to hit me. Having worked in local news for a number of years, I immediately recognize the scent that accompanies a videographer returning from a house fire. It’s the familiar redolence of a cozy fall campsite, mixed with the putridness of someone’s life turned upside down.

California WildfiresAs I made my way to the rental car facility, the persistence of the aroma didn’t fade. Yes, I’d heard about the wildfires, but I hadn’t realized their magnitude. Until then. 

I was traveling to Northern California to work broadcasts for the Pirelli World Challenge and Battery Tender Global Mazda MX-5 Cup races at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, a couple hours’ drive south of San Francisco. It was mildly unfamiliar territory for me, but my cloud of event uncertainty was dwarfed by the haze of the nightmare just north of San Francisco Bay. 

Sure, I’m familiar with wine country. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel with the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network to Sonoma Raceway. Weeks earlier, I saw it crown a new series champion, its picturesque hills providing the backdrop as the curtain fell on another Verizon IndyCar Series season. 

I merged onto U.S. 101 on Friday morning, leaving my airport hotel to make the drive south to the Monterey Peninsula. With the promise of a blue California sky awaiting miles ahead, I couldn’t escape the reality in my rear-view mirror. 

The darkness. The northern skies in the backdrop showed the darkness. Reminders of tragic reality. 

Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear. 

It was a wonderful weekend of racing. Nonetheless, the reminders of the Sonoma situation were ubiquitous. Hotels and motels full of people who’d fled their homes. Traffic, always a constant in the Golden State, was filled, not by convertibles on a weekend joyride, but by SUVs filled with all the possessions folks had time to load. I could see the desperation. I could smell it. No matter how far I drove, I could smell it. 

Indianapolis Motor SpeedwayI realized over the course of the weekend that I felt a sense of kinship with the people of Northern California. I’ve never been a wine enthusiast, and have probably taken for granted the landscape that’s hosted so many weekends of my work. Yet, I thought of the people of the area – the track workers, restaurateurs, the familiar face at the hotel desk. I thought of great California race fans I’ve met. It’s always a delight to see them at a racetrack. I grew up 2,300 miles and, in many ways, a world away. Yet, I grew up with a passion. I grew up with a common bond. 

As we made our approach back into Indianapolis after the weekend – the haze still lingering that comes from a redeye flight – I saw Indianapolis Motor Speedway below and realized some certainties. I can’t imagine the heartache I would feel if I saw the places that have made up my life going up in smoke. 

Through trials, tragedies and heartbreak, we are a country that lets resolve, not adversity, define who we are. Sometimes, when I feel I can’t relate to the struggles of my own neighbor, I come upon the connection that draws us in. 

Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear. 

With good fortune and blessing, I hope to be calling a race in Sonoma next fall, with the hope that it provides an entertaining diversion to the people of Northern California. 

By the way, I chose the popcorn from Just Pop In! It’s local to Indy, after all, and there’s something to be said about the comfort of home. I just wish it didn’t take some things to remind me. 

From the fans