We hiked, it rained, we got wet. We have been wet for weeks and even our mold is growing mold. This is not news. This is the Pacific Northwest in November, and it is exactly what we signed up for. The wet is now just background noise, like the “plock” of leaf drip on a tarp or the drone of leafblowers brandished by park attendants as they shift embankments of sodden cellulose from mossy walkways. Things are shutting down in Parkland, USA, and most often we are the only pack roaming among the bolted-down trash cans and smeary bear warning signage. Who else would be pitching tents on a raw weekday and firing up the campstove for another round of lentils and squash, when the rest of the world already got the memo that it’s hot bath and cozy slipper season?
We’re not completely impervious to the call to hunker down for winter. With only two weeks left of our trip, it’s as much the knowledge that baths and slippers await as each others’ moldy company that keeps us smiling. The lentils take on the extra season of sentimentality, and the damp sock smell of the bus grows stronger in fact, but less insulting in perception. Such is the wonder of presumptive nostalgia.
As per usual, the students spend many of our group meals discussing the finer points of pop culture, quoting TV shows that leave my co-faculty and I staring blankly across the circle, wondering if iCarly is some new gadget from Apple.
The talk runs to favorite foods, denied to us by the budget, ethics, and food intolerances of the bus community. The students sound like prison inmates rhapsodizing about life “on the outside” while surreptitiously fashioning plastic spoons into shivs. We, as their leaders, take no offense. We have our own lists of longed-for luxuries, and as I sit on the concrete floor of yet another dingy campground bathroom for a few stolen moments of dry solitude, the list grows longer still: The feeling of clothing that isn’t quick-dry or fleece, but something silky and impractical against my skin. The firm embrace of a good mattress. The heady rush of an inappropriate joke. Meat. On a plate. At a table.
I’d forgotten what I learned all those years ago as a grad student, living outside for a year and a half. When it’s falling directly on your head, rain can make one day feel like ten, and when the sun shines strongly enough to dry out your socks, it’s easy to see why some cultures consider it a god. So while technically only two weeks remain between us and the realization of our inmate fantasies, it really depends (as all things do here) on the rain.
It won’t blind us to the grandeur of the redwoods or deafen us to the inspiring words of the authors, activists, and academics we’ve yet to meet. But it will cause us to drop into troughs of timelessness during deluge-filled nights, and mornings spent wringing out our polypro. The end is near either way, and we’ll get there somehow. Until then, these empty campgrounds (with their haunted pavilions and unpeopled interpretive trails), belong to us.