It’s been a good summer, and today is a good day: the outdoor work hanging over my head has been suspended by gentle rains and I woke this morning to discover the low clouds–fog, mist, call it what you will, have confined my visibility–my experience–to a few hundred yards. A gentle wind shakes droplets of water from the trees, a subtle hint of what was and what, as far as the meteorologists are concerned, will be. Rain.
It’s been a cool summer, but not overly wet. Something about that polar vortex thing that had the media’s knickers in a twist this past winter. The Infotainment Industry loves a good nickname. Cold weather is bland, but call it a Polar Vortex like it’s something Captain Kirk and the Enterprise had to keep from destroying Earth, and we’ve got ourselves a story, folks. That’s why we have wars called Operation Enduring Freedom or Noble Eagle instead of more precise appellations, such as Operation Expensive Boondoggle or Operation Enduring Frustration. It used to be that code names for military operations were random words picked by intelligence experts to give no hint of the mission objectives, but now they’re catchphrases selected by publicists and public relations experts. It’s the same with the weather–and that’s why we don’t have “last night’s heavy snowfall”–we have SNOWMAGEDDON. It’s all just a way to get you to watch commercials.
But I digress…(the official catchphrase of this blog, we’ll call it Operation Easily Side-Tracked.
Although…can one really digress from a column that lacks a defined point? Is a spear without a tip still a spear, or is it just a stick? (On the other hand, it’s much easier to club a guy with a stick than stick him with a spear, one just has to get closer to do it–so does the question really matter?)
It’s a beautiful morning–that’s the point–a reverse-beauty that reminds me of camping and hiking. It’s misting now–tires of passing cars hissing on the road. Days like this find me wistful in a way that demands reflection. I think of waking in a tent, holding off getting up as long as possible, then standing around in rain gear, clutching plastic spill-proof mugs of coffee, or tromping through sodden meadows, or scaling rain-slicked, moss-covered rocky trails. One remembers the uncomfortable moments within a lifetime of sunny days and blue skies, and those memories can be warmer and more brilliant than all the picture-perfect weather in the world.
One of the best memories I have of many days at the beach involves my wife and I mired for an entire day at the Oregon Inlet Campground at Cape Hatteras National Seashore near Nag’s Head, North Carolina. We’d begun the day with a swim, then a leisurely bicycle ride down the road to the Bodie Island Lighthouse. I’ve got this thing about Lighthouses–I’m not content to look at them: I need to climb every one I see. It was a great ride, and a great climb to a great view, but as we rode our bikes back south, the rain began to spit–big, widely spread droplets–and a headwind rose up that seemed to push back with double the effort of every revolution we pedaled. The distance back to the campsite couldn’t have been more than about 3 miles, but it took more than an hour and by the time we arrived at the tent we were soaked in perspiration (despite the wind) and rubber-legged.
And then the rain came. It was welcomed at first–our immediate neighbors had both run for it (a sign, in retrospect), allowing us to strip down in what began as a gentle shower and flop into the tent, butt first, so our sand-crusted feet would be rinsed by the weather. Young, naked, and in a tent at the beach–things began well enough, as you might imagine, but after a few hours were were sitting crosslegged, dressed in clean(er) clothes, playing cards. I loathe playing cards, but the backgammon board was in the van 15 yards away and the rain had evolved into a gray translucent curtain. It would continue, through the rest of the afternoon, the evening, the night, and the next morning. At some point, confined to a 2-person, 6’x7′ Eureka Timberline tent, we made a vow: we would buy a bigger tent, and obnoxiously big tent in which a human being could stand–or at least kneel–without pushing against the nylon skin. Late in the second day, the rain slowed to a gentle shower, and we crawled stiffly from our little cell in the sand to find the campground all but deserted–a mere handful of intrepid (stubborn?) travelers had stuck it out, and several of them were wandering around, semi-dazed.
We were, by that time, soaked–the tent, the sleeping bags, our clothes–but after 30-some hours of deluge the light rain was nothing. We walked down to the beach and strolled for hours, the place pretty much all to ourselves, and by the time we made it back to the campsite a light breeze had begun breaking up the low clouds. Cracks of fading sunlight gave way to twinkling stars. We’d stood our tent up on end to dry the floor, and hung our bags on a makeshift clothes line strung between the van and my bicycle, held in place by a few extra guy lines (yes, it was genius). We cooked noodles on the camp stove while the breeze dried our stuff, and stayed up late watching the stars.
In the morning, the sun rose early, hot and somewhat humid. We packed up and moved south to the campground near Frisco, which was equally deserted, and split the day between sleeping on the beach and floating in some of the most gentle, rolling surf I’ve ever been in. We would travel that entire summer, camping in North Carolina, Tennessee, Illinois, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Montana, South Dakota, and Wisconsin, and had phenomenal weather–only one other time in 2 1/2 months were we rainbound–in a gorgeously green South Dakota canyon that had been used as a scene in Dances With Wolves–and the irony, after such a long trip, was that those two days are the most vivid memories in a summer’s worth of adventures.
Is this where I say something about silver linings? Maybe. The truth is, I woke up this morning and wanted to write something about the rain, and I wanted to write something for the blog that actually came our of my head with some semblance of immediacy. After all, this started as a writing blog.