Renewed in the ashes

Guist uses a sander to shape a heart. It takes him about 45

The day after their house, possessions and 50 acres of
surrounding land dissipated to charred nothingness in the 2002 Croy
Wildfire, Roy Guist awoke in a hotel bedroom alongside his wife
Sue.

I guess we can’t get old,

he told her, good-humoredly.

We’ll be too busy.

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The day after their house, possessions and 50 acres of surrounding land dissipated to charred nothingness in the 2002 Croy Wildfire, Roy Guist awoke in a hotel bedroom alongside his wife Sue.

“I guess we can’t get old,” he told her, good-humoredly. “We’ll be too busy.”

It’s been almost a decade since raging blazes engulfed their home of seven years, along with 3,127 acres on the south face of Bachelor Hill in Uvas Canyon and 31 surrounding residences. In that time, Roy, 83, has fashioned hundreds of sylvan necklaces from the gnarled roots and branches of burned Manzanita trees dotting his rustic property off Croy Road. One hundred percent of the proceeds are donated to the nursing program at Gavilan College.

“I have always been an incorrigible whittler,” says Roy, during a tour of his garage workshop in suburban Morgan Hill. “It’s just always been my thing.”

Squinting as he estimates the number of necklaces completed in the last couple of years, he figures it’s somewhere between 700 to 800. Half he sold; the rest gifted to friends and family.

Irresistibly smooth to the touch, Roy’s earthy jewelry line coined “Manzanita Magic” evokes the essence of renewal and repurpose.

“It loves fire,” said Roy, of the attractive evergreen known for its twisting, muscle-like branches colored clay-red and cocoa brown. “It thrives on fire, for some reason.”

In Spanish, Sue says “Manzanita” translates to “little apple.”

While admiring the sleek owl pendant of polished wood dangling from Sue’s neck – she touches it out of habit as she talks; the origin of her necklace is dubious. On a table in the Guist’s backyard, four stumps larger than basketballs sit side by side.

Coarse and crusty, the objects look like warty ogre heads, giant petrified potatoes or the knotted faces of enchanted apple trees in “The Wizard of Oz.”

In nature’s uncanny way, the Manzanita roots withstood the fire, and – paralleling the once singed hillsides now bursting with vegetation – clean up nicely. A few Manzanitas have regenerated on and near their property, too.

“It’s amazing what seven to eight years can do,” muses Roy.

Hands in pockets, he stands on a grassy plateau. It marks the apex of a narrow dirt driveway crawling 6,000 feet above Croy Road.

An artist herself, Sue is a poet and writer who penned a book chronicling the couple’s journey post-fire. Her memoir titled, “What Happens Next?” captures the couples’ cherished time spent at the “Sunrise House.”

“Twilights were some kind of wonderful – the canyon’s west edge sharp and black, the sky blazing behind it,” she writes. “The air, so clear, so quiet, seemed to bring the sky right down to us. We could breathe in that space.”

The years she and her husband lived there, “we think of them as Camelot years,” Sue said.

The pair still visits their ‘Camelot’ several times a week – landscaping a pond, caring for a sunflower-filled garden or soaking up the view from an isolated, elevated deck with a single bench.

Taking in the vast expanse of wilderness fanning out past the vertical drop-off, there’s nothing but sloping hills and thick shrubbery for miles. After seven days and nights of raging inferno, everything looked white in the first month following the fire, “like it had snowed, or there had been a blizzard,” Roy remembers.

Speculating how expeditiously life returned to the area, he adds, “It’s amazing how nature just won’t give up.”

Equally impressive? How prolific Roy is.

Each necklace takes anywhere from 45 to 75 minutes to complete, requiring contraptions like a high-pressure water blaster, chain saw, table saw and belted disk sander (“those are hair-raising,” Roy notes).

The “fun part” is sanding by hand, he says.

In all, the attractive wood amulets carved into hearts, leaves, owls, circular disks, raindrops and other forms have raised roughly $3,000 for charity. Some $2,500 of that went to Gavilan’s nursing program, which the Guists became affiliated with through the South Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Gilroy. Roy built a portable display case for his creations, which he sometimes brings to local shows. A visit to his home workshop in Morgan Hill can be arranged as well.

Roy is also in the habit of creating ornamental hair sticks, which – for a gentleman with short hair, begs the question – why?

“My granddaughter,” he smiles. “I blame it on her. She used my lathe for a half day making hair sticks, then I got hooked.”

Descended from a line of lumberjacks tracing back to Spokane, Wash., an affinity for working with wood runs in Roy’s family – he worked as a logger until college. Following retirement in 1995 after 30 years as a NASA research engineer who tested “every flying thing known to man,” Roy now embodies the spirit of a “benign, crusty old logger.” He tinkers away in his backyard sanctuary of creativity, which smells like a campfire when the electric saw is running.

As evidenced around the Guist home, byproducts of Manzanita Magic are everywhere: Bowls of “wood-its” – leftover wood chips smoothed in a rock tumbler, then polished with lemon-scented oil – are perched on various ledges and arm rests.

Wood-its?

“As in, ‘wooden-it be lovely,'” croons Sue.

Roy digs his fingers into one of the larger bowls, then lifts his hand. Chips slip out of his palm and fall back into the pile.

The trickling sound is calming.

“If you were to monkey with Manzanita, you’d be intrigued,” he says, holding up a yet-to-be-transformed branch. “It never has any wormholes, it doesn’t decay and the grains are interwoven – so they never split. Every piece you cut is going to be unique.”

As Roy demonstrates the process of sanding and shaping a heart pendant, Sue sits on a stool and looks on.

“I just wanna be where he is, watching what he does,” she says, gaze fixated. “I think he’s so interesting.”

When asked how long they’ve been married, Roy glances at Sue and quips, “60 years … or something or other.”

Walking around their rustic property earlier that day off Croy Road, the Guists admit they would have liked to move back and build a new home.

County code, however, requires all county roads serviceable with a minimum of 18-feet wide, with 3-feet wide shoulders. Parts of the 7900 block of Croy Road, unfortunately, are only 10-feet wide, and don’t have much of a shoulder. The steep slope of the road and the lack of turning radius on some bends also fall below county standards, making it difficult and costly to obtain a building permit.

Despite the sharp turn their living situation took nine years ago, the pair doesn’t allude to bitterness, forlorn nostalgia or self-pity.

They’re simply “happy to be here,” says Sue, coining a favorite adage by author Garrison Keillor.

Rather than pine over possessions lost, Sue sees the canyon fire as inviting them to start life over – from scratch.

“It’s the things you walk away from that make you free,” she says. “Boy, are we free.”

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