When wildfires destroyed Paradise, California, the town that shaped me went up in smoke | Perspective
Paradise was everything that its name implied and more.
I live in Philadelphia, but Paradise, Calif., was my hometown.
That's not a word I thought I would ever use to describe the town where I grew up. It hurts just to type it.
As flames rushed through California's Feather River Canyon last week, propelled by 50 mile-per-hour winds, the residents of Paradise, including my family, had little or no time to prepare for escape. Days later, at least 50 people are dead, more than 100 people are still missing, more than 7,000 structures were destroyed — and the fire continues to burn.
After high school, I moved around quite a bit, with stops in San Diego and Oakland. I even spent time in Norway when I was in college. But I've never felt farther from home than I did on Thursday when I waited to find out if my father had made it out of the blaze alive.
When I finally got word that my dad, the last person in my family to leave Paradise, was safe, I cried tears of relief. In a group chat with friends from back home, we comforted each other by being thankful that our families were still alive.
Paradise is a town that people describe as a place where everyone knows everyone, and it's true.
My family moved from house to house when I was growing up so I did not have a "childhood home" in the traditional sense of the term. But Paradise was a constant and my heart was cemented across town and in the homes of my friends.
I didn't know it at the time, but Paradise was shaping me into the person I would become.
My first kiss was in a shopping center parking lot on the northside of town between the Kmart and the Baskin Robbins, where my best friend Christa worked when we were teenagers. She would give my friends and me free ice cream.
My closest friends are still the ones I made at Paradise High School. We would all go to Nikki's house during our lunch break and raid her parents' refrigerator. They always had the best snacks, and they never complained about their ever-disappearing food — at least not to me.
Grace taught me how to properly apply mascara and straighten my hair in her parents' home. We destroyed their off-white carpet with years of spilled eye shadow and bronzer.
If you try to picture what it was like to grow up in a sleepy, small, mountain town in California, you wouldn't be wrong to imagine all of the movie cliches. That's exactly what it was like in Paradise.
There was one movie theater in town, a family-owned seven-screen theater. It was one of the first places I was allowed to go without parent supervision. The first movie I saw with friends and no chaperone was Josie and the Pussycats. I still have the ticket stub.
When someone's parents were out of town, we would throw parties, and the whole high school would know about it. On weekends, we would drive around, hang out in the forest, smoke clove cigarettes in church parking lots, tip over trash cans, steal traffic cones, and dream about what it would be like to leave the small town for a big city.
I had dreams of being a writer, of working around NBA teams, of telling stories, of traveling the world. While Paradise had its charms, it is mostly a retirement community with a median age of 50. As an angsty teen, I hated its smallness. I knew I would never achieve my dreams if I stayed, and I couldn't wait to leave.
So I left, and my dreams came true — but I never imagined that I wouldn't be able to come back to Paradise.
In the last few days, I've gone through my Paradise keepsakes, trying to feel connected to a place that no longer exists except in memories. I cried when I found my high school basketball shorts. Playing basketball at Paradise High School changed my life. That was where I fell in love with the game. Without that love, I would never have pursued a career in sports journalism; I would not be covering the Sixers here in Philadelphia.
As I held the shorts, I was hit with a wave of guilt. After the fire, this tangible reminder of my hometown is more than most of my friends can say they have as a memento of our lives in Paradise.
All the homes I lived in as a child are gone. All of my friends' family homes are gone. Most escaped with only the clothes they were wearing. The shopping centers are ash, main streets are unrecognizable. Our town is not a town at all anymore.
Every summer of my adult life I've been able to return to Paradise. The town I left to pursue my dreams was always there for me as a place of comfort, family, friends, and memories. The welcome sign when you drove up the main road read "May you find Paradise to be all its name implies." I always thought it was a corny way to welcome people to a forested town of 27,000 people.
But Paradise was everything that its name implied and more. It was my home and it was my heart, and my heart is broken.
Sarah Todd covers the Philadelphia 76ers for the Inquirer, Daily News, and philly.com.