It began in Neah Bay, Washington, in the campground by that beach– the one with logs stuck in the sand to look like totem poles and rearing elk, and driftwood like whales rolling one-eyed towards the sun in currents of sand. Rain. Rain all day. Rain dead set on showing off its repertoire, from drips to sloshing bucketfuls tipped over by the wind.
It teased. It darted in and swamped us in its sodden embrace, then retreated just enough for the tents and socks to dry, leaving the dark, brooding drama of clouds on the horizon to bide their time. We thought we knew after that. We thought we were ready.
But our first night on the outskirts of the temperate rainforest, we hit a wall of water, impenetrable as cement. Downspouts, upspouts, falling trees, and waking up afloat in puddles. We’d been forewarned that our Hoh rainforest backpack would be wet. Wetter than wet. The wettest. We thought we knew.
Only then there was a lull– a sweet short run of days when our toes froze but our tents dried. The moisture galloped by in the swollen river, trickled down the gorgeous gouged bark of Douglas firs, and dripped from the fuzzy tips of cattail moss. “It’s coming,” the forecast warned, but the slice of sky you see from a river valley is a trickster. We thought we knew.
On the last day, we awoke in a sky-wide waterfall, too bleary to understand, at first, that we didn’t need to kick our feet and paddle our arms, but just walk to move along. We kneaded the mud in our boots with our unfroze toes and the students sang their silly songs along the trail. We were underwater, but it didn’t matter. We were going home, back to the bus and then, in just a few days, on break. We thought we could walk on water if we had to. We didn’t know.
Not until we came to the end of the trail and dove into our packs for the last soggy remnants of food– a scrap of tortilla, a greasy nub of cheese, and the ranger found us. Her white Jeep rolled to a stop beside our filthy, straggling sprawl and she frowned. “You’re leaving soon, right?” she called, and I stiffened at the ungracious question. We were a little the worse for wear, but surely not the unsightliest bunch of hikers she’d ever seen. “We’re evacuating the whole park,” she explained, and I realized her disapproval was concern. “There are two huge storms headed right this way. This place isn’t safe.”
Reinvigorated by the new adventure and giddy from the zero-gravity feel of no packs to hoist, we piled onto the bus in an explosion of wet gear. We headed for Portland, just beating the leading edge of a dying typhoon still mighty enough to fling hundred mile-an-hour winds at the coast and great gusts of whipped up water.
We knew the rain and wind by now. We knew wet that never dried. We made camp and fell asleep in friendly puddles to the constant lullaby of leaf drip on stretched nylon. “But it will get worse,” they warned. “Stay inside. Stay away from trees.” We looked around at the fir and cedars loosely staked in squishy mud that encircled us, bending in as if to tease, “Will we or won’t we?” We thought we knew. We thought the answer was “Yes”.
We surrendered, de-camped to a couple of motel rooms and ate in an awkward, ovoid approximation of a circle on the carpet just to feel like we were still us. We waited for the crushing rain, the lethal, widow-making winds, but they never came. Leaves pirouetted daintily and blue sky winked audaciously through unexpected openings in the pewter lid of cloud. We slept like Roman emperors and Cleopatras, above ground and swaddled in improbably white sheets. We thought we knew, but we were wrong. We didn’t know, but this time, we didn’t care.