“There’s a big fire in Maui and I’m drawing hibiscuses,” said a young boy while holding up a watercolor drawing of flowers for others to see. He’d drawn yellow, red, and blue circles, then drawn curved lines inside the circles making petals. The child was part of an online watercolor workshop that met four days after the Lāhainā fires had begun on Maui.

My Hawaiian language teachers, Maile and Kapiliʻula Naehu, who have lived in Lāhainā and whose ancestorsʻ graves are there, taught the workshop. Iʻve pursued learning Hawaiian through Ka Hale Hoaka while doing research on some of my relatives who had lived in Hawaiʻi. At one point, that research took me briefly to Lāhainā where I had walked down Front Street, toured the historic Baldwin Home Museum and the Wo Hing Museum, and ate lunch at a beautiful restaurant next to the ocean where sea spray landed not far from my feet. 

I’d gotten an email notice about the class a few weeks before, but because I hadn’t picked up a watercolor brush since I was a kid, many, many years ago, and even then displayed no skill, I didn’t plan to attend. The fire in Lāhainā changed my mind. I thought I’d join the class with my Zoom gallery screen off, and watch the others paint while I packed for a short trip traveling a few hours from my home in Saint Paul. 

When the class began, I changed my mind again and started my Zoom video screen, wanting to be part of this group, to make my face visible in the gallery, quietly. Fifty or so students, older and younger folks, many of them in Hawai`i, listened to the instructions, the teacher—or kumu in the Hawaiian language—telling us to make brush strokes starting with a dot, a circle, shade in the shapes, then draw some curved lines for petals.

After the class, I packed for the trip my husband and I would take the next day, driving to the small town of Grand Marais. Of course, the town isn’t as remote as Hawai`i, but it’s not an easy place to get to. A four-lane freeway stops two hours short of the harbor village. Canada is less than an hour up the shore. Lake Superior, the world’s largest freshwater lake, sometimes called an inland ocean, is on one side of town, and the Sawtooth mountains, remnants of long ago volcanic activity, on the other side. The flowers that grow in Grand Marais are rugged ones, dogbane, goldenrod, and the showy pink wildflower called fireweed that thrives in wildfire recovery areas. 

I travel with paper. I use it to note things down or for a morning’s writing practice. On my bookshelves at home I have a pile of abandoned, mostly empty, notebooks in which I may have written a few thoughts and then torn out those pages and saved them in files or thrown them out, the empty notebooks I then toss into the stack in one corner of a shelf. I packed one of those mostly blank notebooks to write in during this trip. 

As we started to settle into our short-term rental, while unpacking my suitcase, I pulled out the notebook, opened it, and noticed it had a few words written on the first couple pages. In the otherwise empty notebook, I’d written vocabulary my kumu had taught me. Puke Mo’omana’o —“book reflection” or “journal,”“Nani ku’u ola, “Beautiful My Life!” I had written. 

It’s been hard to think straight since the Lāhainā fire. The first morning of our vacation, as I put on my jacket for a walk across the town’s stony beach, and locked the door behind me, I thought, well, what if Grand Marais, in a flash, burned down? Could the emergency crews find me? Would the brave souls doing grim, essential, solemn work to identify bodies see the root canal or the dental implant in my jaw bones? These thoughts did go through my head, as I walked out the door. 

The August Lāhainā fire is now among the deadliest wildfires according to a list compiled by the National Fire Protection Association. On one day last June, the air quality where I live in Saint Paul, thick from Canadian wildfire smoke, was reported to be the worst in the United States.

There’ve been small fires in Grand Marais in recent years, four buildings burned down in two fires. Last spring, a casual eatery selling pizza, gyros, and frozen custard burned to the ground. Three years before that a more formal restaurant, and two gift stores on either side of it, burned. The pizza place has re-emerged this summer serving customers from a metal shipping container on a lot facing the main street’s sidewalk. The more formal restaurant now operates from a food truck on the land where its building had been. There are flower pots and picnic tables nearby. 

Another food truck, on the corner of the town’s only stop light, is run by a young woman who told me, when I stopped by there, that she used to live in Maui. I bought a cup of coffee from her along with a candle in a coconut shell she was selling, a sign near the food truck window said the business was giving 10 percent of its profits to the fire victims in Lahaina. 

I spend hours on most days walking back and forth from the cobblestone beach where I watch kids skip rocks, or take a walk to a book store, or to some place to grab a sandwich, or maybe I take a short hike in order to find a place to sit and write near the jagged rock formations at what’s known as Artist’s Point. 

A week after the Lāhainā fire, a whiff of smoke or a fragrance alive in my imagination, I decided to stop by the Ben Franklin store on the main street, strolling through the aisles displaying first aid kits, hiking boots, and souvenirs. In the middle of one aisle I found and bought what I was looking for—a watercolor kit, in it yellow, red, and blue paints nestled into a plastic tray along with tiny cups for water, pencils too, and a small pad of thick paper. I walked back to where we were staying. 

I want a heavier sweater and more coffee, I think, as I take a seat at the table by the window with a view of the lake. I pick up the brush from my kit, dip it in the water, and then the paint. I start with a dot on the paper, make a circle, shade it in, and then use my pencil to draw petals. Then I do that again, and again. Flowers for Lāhainā.

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Vicki Lofquist

Vicki Lofquist is a veteran journalist whose radio reports and documentaries were broadcast by NPR, Public Radio International, and the BBC. Lofquist wrote and produced the award-winning radio documentary “Leading to Beijing: Voices of Global Women” as well as a series of audio profiles called “Science Lives: Women and Minorities in the Sciences.” At the University of Minnesota, she earned a master’s degree in journalism, worked as a reporter at its public radio station, and then as a documentary producer. She studied philosophy at St Andrews University in Scotland and received a bachelor’s degree from Grinnell College.  Lofquist is the author of “My Chautauqua: An Investigative Memoir.” She’s a member of the Minnesota Working Group.