Kay Ashley is celebrating her 47th birthday at the Valley Fire evacuation site on the Napa County Fairgrounds. She and a group of her friends, all musicians, set up some amps and microphones in the bleachers at the Calistoga Speedway.
They let Ashley take a few solos first, and she plays one of her songs, “Long Tall Man.”
“My heart is trembling. My heart is trembling,” she sings in a low alto.
On this birthday, gifts aren’t on her mind. Rather, a list of things she’s lost.
“I lost several guitars. A mandolin that my father built,” she says. “A tamboura from India. Ukulele, piano.”
Her friend rescued her cat. But Ashley’s pretty sure everything else is gone. She says playing music out here is helping her keep her sanity.
“Playing the guitar, strumming the strings, feeling the vibration. It’s like, working it out. Moving the energy.”
“Locking in with music is like locking in with the fabric of everything, and it’s a way to stay present,” Ashley says. “It’s a way to not panic about what has happened or what’s going to happen. It’s grounding.”
Ashley knows this emotional landscape. In 2001, she lived in New York City and worked at the World Trade Center. She wasn’t at work on Sept. 11; but many people she knew were and were killed. Ten years later, she moved to Harbin Hot Springs.
“The years I remained in New York I didn’t heal. I was just numb,” she says. “I was shut down in fundamental ways for a very long time. And my healing really started when I got away from New York.”
Now she’s trying to wrap her head around a double anniversary. The Valley Fire broke out on Sept. 12.
“The day after the anniversary. This place I came to heal and grow, Harbin Hot Springs, is ash,” she says. “Just like Lower Manhattan was.”
Ashley says, at the evacuation center, music has been healing for her, and for others.
A guy has been walking around the tent city singing and letting people play his guitar. There have been spontaneous drum circles and Beatles sing-a-longs. Also, a lot of renditions of the Janis Joplin classic, Me and Bobby McGee — especially the refrain, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
Ashley’s taking the cue.
“I feel strangely relieved and free,” she says. “It’s so shocking to have everything go so quickly. And now, I’m free.”
She had rented her house and didn’t have insurance. While others are vowing to rebuild, she’s thinking about moving on.
“I’m feeling like wow, if I can get a minivan, I’m just going to hit the road and just play music all the time, you know, why not?” she says.