Just outside the three-horse town of McCall, in the wilds of Central Idaho, you’ll find Loon Lake. In the vast and splendid wilderness of Idaho, Loon Lake is unremarkable. It’s beautiful for sure, but no more so than hundreds of others. The trail to the lake is about five miles in one direction. It meanders alongside the lake’s drainage and sprawls up ridgelines to the shore. Tucked among the pines along the western shore are several patches of smooth brown earth, wide enough to accommodate a tent and a fire circle. Even in the depths of summer the lake water is cool enough to hold the chill on a collection of PBR tall boys. Its comforts are understated — no outcroppings of craggy grandeur — but it’s not a bad place to spend a weekend.
Its simplicity, though, is not a bulwark against the chaos of random chance. In 1943 a B-23 bomber returning to an airfield in Tacoma, Washington, crashed in a snowstorm along the shores. The frame of the plane still lies at the far end of the lake, a historic curiosity being slowly swallowed by the natural world and converted into an epic collection of graffiti by visitors from the unnatural world.
In the summer of 2007 arbitrary chaos again visited the lake as a wildfire ripped through this part of the Payette National Forest, burning ten of thousands of acres and scarring a section of the Loon Lake trail.
I first visited Loon Lake the spring after the fire. The surrounding peaks were dusted with snow and the Secesh river still surged with spring run off as we made our way past, and across it, on our hike up. Most of the trail is hemmed in by tall pines but the last mile or so circles across the hillside where the outer reaches of the fire had burned out.
If you’ve never walked through a burn area, it’s a surreal journey — the cycle of life and death cut apart and pasted right on top of itself in haphazard fashion. Bone white tree trunks with peeling blackened bark stand upright but list slightly. An unsettling amount of blue sky wedges itself between the trunks. The ground was still coated with heavy, powdery ash and faint clouds rose up to mark each step.
Within two years the greenery would begin to return and a thick understory would fill up around the skeletons of the pines. Those first thrusts of knee-high new growth are unusually thick and uncontrolled, waiting for the confines of forest ecology to begin the natural selection in earnest, slowly doling out the limited resources for survival.
Fire hollows out the life from an area and as it recedes, vitality swells in wild tumult, scrambling to fill the void.
Injuries are intricately woven into the history of basketball. Bill Walton and Sam Bowie. Grant Hill and Bernard King. Willis Reed.
It’s a physical sport, understood with the mind but only after it’s implemented by the body. When those bodies break, struck down by random chance or unable to fulfill the demands of unending repetitive use, it sends ripples not only across the league but backwards and forwards through time. Sam Bowie’s knees devoured an era of Trail Blazers basketball, but they also inflated the legend of Michael Jordan, added layers of tragedy to the story of Greg Oden and affected how draft prospects are evaluated and perceived up to this day. The Grant Hill era in Orlando was mostly just a dream sequence. But it was also the epilogue for a certain iteration of Grant Hill and simultaneously another chapter in the story of the Phoenix Suns training staff and the dwindling of Steve Nash in Phoenix.
The history of basketball is a tangled web. Grab any string and follow it. Eventually you’ll find a path to any other point on the web. No route is smooth and at some point along each path you’ll find a place where the string was broken — a ruptured achilles, a torn meniscus, plantar fasciitis — and knotted back together so that the path could continue.
The NBA is an ecosystem, with elements bonded in all dimensions. Players, coaches, writers, trainers, families, ball boys, fans, mascots, analytic directors and fake twitter accounts; they all overlap, balanced upon one another. If you zoom in too close it all seems horribly precarious: an arrangement of knife edges stacked upon knife edges. But catastrophic events are part of this ecosystem, and this system grows when it flexes and reshuffles, accommodating change and instantly reforming into a new structure.
All it takes is an instant to completely change a natural landscape. Heat lightning, a spark shooting off an improperly secured trailer hitch, a campfire not thoroughly suffocated or (Smokey’s personal pet peeve) a carelessly tossed cigarette. Combustible material is everywhere but it takes a precisely random confluence of events to produce incineration. In the wilderness fires come big and small. But in the locations they burn, scale is of no consequence. Heat is heat, flames are flames, and organic material is converted in the same way.
While fire at first appears to wipe clean the superficial trappings of a landscape, those changes run deep. Soil, once held together by understory and the roots of sky-scraping pines is now subject to rapid erosion. The pines themselves find their way to the ground, much faster than you would expect. Some accumulate in rivers where they cause massive logjams and completely change the seasonal flow patterns of some of the largest rivers in the West. Stone, the very underpinnings of the landscape, can crack and split, cleaving off the most remarkable of visual landmarks and changing the shape of the ground underneath your feet.
All it takes is an instant to completely change the landscape of a season. A wrong step. An injured knee. A broken bone or torn connective tissue. A fractured hand, the result of making a private statement about your toughness by doing pushups on your knuckles instead of on your palms like a rational person. These injuries can have drastic consequences for a team — consuming championship aspirations, snuffing out legacies and resetting the process of rebuilding.
It feels like this season has been an embarrassment of riches for orthopedic surgeons and team training staffs. Injuries have carried over from last season and the winds of competition have swept them up and sent them in new directions as well. Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose, Danny Granger, Kobe Bryant, Brook Lopez, Marc Gasol, Jeff Taylor, Steve Nash, Tyson Chandler, Patrick Beverly, Jason Terry, Andrei Kirilenko, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Danilo Gallinari, J.J. Redick, Steve Blake, Quincy Pondexter, Carlos Delfino, Ersan Ilysasova, Chase Budinger, Nerlens Noel, Russell Westbrook, Al Horford, players to be named later.
Somewhere in this conflagration, beauty — both rare and unexpected — will appear. An opening will be created for some young player to step forward, consuming newly available minutes and shot attempts for which competition has been suddenly removed. We will be treated to a rare flowering, but it may seem like paltry spiritual compensation for all the other talent which will be stalking sidelines, shrouded in suits of fine silk.
Look around the league in any direction and you can find fires burning as players and teams battle back, still covered in the ash of fires past. These injuries feel drastic, catastrophic even, and they often are. The landscape in Chicago has been fundamentally changed. If and when Derrick Rose returns it will likely be to a team that is only faintly recognizable. The Lakers were just starting to cultivate the first sprouts of new growth, only to have fire sweep through their landscape again. The integrity of the entire Nets and Grizzlies rosters has been put into jeopardy by the inability of a few key bones and ligaments to maintain their own integrity.
But from the ashes something wonderful can rise as well. Not just a rich, full, invigorated replica of what was there before, but something that might have never appeared otherwise. Two years after a burn, on the first warm sunny day after a hard rain, you’ll be begin to find morel mushrooms dotting the scarred landscape. Edible bliss and as rare as an Alpha Black Lotus, they poke up around the bodies of fallen trees, coated in fine ash. The mechanism of their growth and their exact relationship with fire is not completely understood
At an elemental level fire is supposed to be cleansing, devouring the detritus of existence and providing a clean template from which to begin anew. But a physical, tangible level fire is anything but. Detritus is consumed but residue is left. The soft, fine ash of a forest fire coats everything. If you stay long enough it will cover your clothes, your skin, you’ll taste it at the back of your throat. But if you stay much longer the steady march of existence will wash it away and the world will regrow around you.
As the flames rage and the last embers slowly burn out it’s natural to be caught by depression and despair. What was is no more and never will be again. The knowledge that regrowth is inevitable brings comfort, but paltry and thin. The cycle will continue and soil will again nurture life, but never in precisely the same configuration. Time dulls longing. Landscape begets landscape and timelessness again becomes the dominant narrative, stomping out the memory of the rapid change we bore witness to.
But always lurking, in the back of our minds, is the knowledge that change comes in an instant. The cycle will repeat, it’s the nature of nature. The fire will return.