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Backstory: What Drove a Prize-Winning Reporter From Sonoma County to Seven Days

by

KEVIN MCCALLUM
  • Kevin Mccallum
This "backstory" is a part of a collection of articles that describes some of the obstacles that Seven Days reporters faced while pursuing Vermont news, events and people in 2019.

The story of how my family and I left behind our life in California to make a fresh start in Vermont begins with an image: a photograph I took shortly after dawn on October 8, 2017.

In the foreground are my kids, Emma and Liam, perched on the roof of our home in Santa Rosa. In the background, much of their hometown is burning.

I didn't realize it at the time, but that apocalyptic cloud of black smoke rising from a nearby neighborhood was also the curtain closing on our time in a Golden State tarnished by changing climate.

I've never thought of us as climate refugees, though some familiar with our story have labeled us so. We were lucky. We evacuated safely. Our ranch-style home, built in the suburban postwar boom, survived the Tubbs Fire. More than 2,800 homes — and 24 people — didn't.

And, as a reporter at the Press Democrat, the region's undaunted daily newspaper, I had the story of a lifetime to cover, for which my colleagues and I were awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2018.

But the Tubbs Fire, the most destructive blaze in state history at that time, had also laid bare some inconvenient personal truths.

One was that raising two kids in California's wine country was proving pricier than my wife and I could afford. Mix in crushing student debt and unexpected medical bills, and our grip on Sonoma County was slipping.

Another was that, after a decade at the same paper, I felt less like a change agent than a chronicler of civic standoffs: rising homelessness, a lack of affordable housing, stalled downtown developments, persistent water pollution. I got pretty good at describing intractable public policy problems, but stories of creative approaches and progress were rare.

And, honestly, writing about people who have lost everything is tough to sustain. I did it for almost a year, but only by shutting down my own fears and anxieties. And that's not healthy.

Plus, my daughter wanted an alpaca.

So we pulled the rip cord. We sold the house, bought an aging RV, and told family and friends from Seattle to Connecticut to get ready to have some former Californians camping in their driveways. We also cried a lot.

Our idea was that an open-ended road trip would be educational and unforgettable for our home-schooled kids, restorative for us as a family, and help us figure out where we wanted to settle down.

We had some locations in mind. Even as we headed north to visit long-lost family in Seattle, New England was on our radar. My budding activist daughter is a huge Bernie fan. My son, who has taken to calling everyone "brah," wants to be a snowboarder. And one of their favorite podcasts is Vermont Public Radio's "But Why?" In their minds, if Jane Lindholm called Vermont home, it had to be a pretty cool place.

So when a Seven Days Statehouse reporting job opened up a couple of months into our adventure, I had a great feeling about it.

The only bummer: It would mean ending the trip.

And what a trip it had been. We caught and released steelhead in Oregon. We stalked bald eagles from our kayaks in the San Juan Islands. We explored slot canyons and rode horses with cowboys near Zion National Park. And we volunteered at an animal rescue center in Utah.

We also learned a lot about being kind to each other, even when we didn't want to. With four people and a dog living together in 200 square feet, there wasn't much choice.

But it also was not lost on us that winter was fast approaching, and we were living in an RV with a defective heater and a shower the size of a coffin. The rear end was held together with duct tape, thanks to an ill-advised off-roading incident — a backstory all its own.

And there was also definitively no room for an alpaca.

So when Seven Days brought me in for an interview, it was a family affair.

After I ran the gauntlet of editors, the McCallum clan visited the shops along Church Street, festooned with holiday lights. We took a carriage ride at the Shelburne Museum, marveling at its miraculously marooned steamboat. We went sledding and ate s'mores by firelight in Stowe.

I told the kids not to get too excited. I didn't have the job yet. Some editors, I told them, seemed pretty skeptical of hiring a homeless Californian to cover the Vermont Statehouse.

But I could see it in their eyes — they were home.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Burned Out"