Flamebo Searches for the Rainbow

17 08 2008

I used to love rain. Freshman year of college, I remember making a “Rain Songs” playlist on my big Dell desktop that included (among other fab tunes) “Let it Rain” by Michael W. Smith, “When the Rain Comes” by Third Day, and “Bring on the Rain” by Jo Dee Messina (these say a lot about who I was freshman year). At Middlebury, I often went outside when it rained. I loved how rain was God’s way of sympathizing with tears, and the more drenched I was, the better I felt. I had happy rain memories from my summer at Camp Greystone, too, where evening downpours would beat on the tin cabin roof so hard that we’d have to shout over it to be heard giving the devotion and saying goodnight to the girls. Then during my Mission Year in Camden, I took advantage of the rain to go puddle-jumping or just sit on the porch with a cup of tea and talk or think. On the Fourth of July that year, we went to a big outdoor concert without our rain gear and got dumped on for hours. We stayed through the fireworks, though, and then trekked the two miles home singing all the way, the rain never letting up.

This isn’t to say that I never encountered the proverbial “rainy day” in a negative sense. At Camp Illini, a day camp I attended around the age of 8 or 9, the end-of-session campout was the most-anticipated night of the summer. After a long, wet and sleepless night, I remember being shuffled out of our tents and into a picnic shelter, where the counselors held up soggy lost and found items: a lone sock, a pair of underwear, a Barbie…another rough rain moment for me was during my semester in Belize. Though I was there during the dry season, we did have a week or two of rain in which I first experienced the sensation of never really being totally warm or dry. Buildings are not sealed off to the elements, there are no hot showers, and if you walk to work in the rain, you are wet all day. Rain in Juarez, Mexico, another place I’ve felt a connection to over the years, is rare and dangerous. Even the smallest amount of rain floods out streets and homes, and people are often killed. So my love for rain was always framed by a great respect: it was beautiful but powerful, and certainly outside of my control.

Little did I realize, however, that it’s easy to find affection for rain when you are able to escape it. During the last 35 of our 44 days on the trail, I have not been so lucky, and I now have an entirely new understanding of what it means to be wet. On July 8th, the day we hiked Whitecap Mountain in Maine, my journal entry reads, “Rain! First experience…not too fun.” Ha! What did I know??! Over a month later, the freak weather system that has settled in has never granted us a full day without rain since I wrote those words. We have been stranded twice due to high water making rivers impassable and once due to the risk of hypothermia in the freezing rain. Our clothes and shoes are never dry, and each morning we wake up and are forced to don them, cold and dank. Everything smells like mildew – pack, clothes, tent – and everything is caked in mud. Our packs don’t just feel heavier – the sogginess of our belongings probably adds a good five pounds. We probably risk dehydration, because some days the thought of water just makes you rage. We often walk with frozen fingers and toes, and our constantly running noses must be blown on soaking wet handkerchiefs. When we take off our shoes and socks at night, we (Laura especially) have been known to frighten small children with our “Cling-on feet,” eerily wrinkled and gray. Lizzie can’t see out of her fogged glasses half the time, and there’s never a dry ounce of fabric to be found on which to wipe them. Stopping for lunch loses its charm when it means squeezing grape jelly onto a soggy bagel while sitting in a puddle. Sometimes the AT is an ankle-deep stream, though it’s true that that’s better than the sections of waist-deep mud pits. On cold days, we can’t stop or we’ll freeze, and I’ve never been so desperate for a floor and four walls. Mountaintop views are a treat so rare that the slightest hint of a break in the clouds has everyone stopping, shouting for joy, and madly snapping pictures before the moment passes. Gore-tex is little more than a joke.

A caretaker at one campsite introduced us to the phrase, “No rain, no pain, no Maine,” but even crossing the border into New Hampshire couldn’t put an end to the deluge. Many others have told us, “Well it can’t rain forever, right?” to which we respond with a shrug and return to ringing out our socks. I can think of a number of explanations for the relentlessness of the rain we have faced. The first is Divine Punishment. Perhaps because of their religious skepticism, cold manners, or aggressive driving, God decided to wipe out all of New England in a flood, and he forgot to instruct The Vermont Mafia on how to build an ark. Another possible explanation is Character Building. What doesn’t kill us is said to make us stronger, so my comrades and I are being tested to the extreme. The only problem is that instead of making us tougher, this rain is softening up all our callouses and causing us to get blisters again. Of course another logical justification for 35 straight days of record precipitation is GLOBAL WARMING. This brings us full circle to Divine Punishment (we brought it upon ourselves), so I’m going to settle on some combination of all three reasons as ultimately responsible for the onslaught.

Now I am told that every cloud has a silver lining. Let me then attempt to mine the skies of western Maine and eastern New Hampshire for all they are worth. For one, we have re-learned the beauty of music. When we walked out of the rain into our first White Mountain Hut, Carter Notch, to smell baking pies and hear the banjo twangs of Alison Krauss, I felt comfort warm my soul as it hadn’t in weeks. When we climbed through the window of the Wildcat Mountain Ski Patrol hut to escape the storm and wait out the night, thru-hikers Grizz and Earthworm serenaded us on the ukulele with tunes by Phish and Bob Marley. When we were visited on the trail by Lizzie’s cousin Russ and aunt Jude, Jude’s rendition of “Climb Every Mountain” from The Sound of Music made the thunder we were hearing sound pitifully weak. In addition to music, I have also learned to appreciate the silver linings of flexibility and faith. As if walking everywhere weren’t enough, the rain has forced us to slow down even more. Doing less miles and not making planned destinations has – in spite of my initial groans – meant extra time with friends and family and more good stories to tell. Finally, every small blessing has taken on greater meaning – the sun, a patch of blue sky, a pair of dry socks, a four-walled structure, a warm drink. Hopefully I won’t take them for granted anytime soon. So, as I sit here taking a respite in my air conditioned kitchen in Illinois as the sun beats down outside, I must admit that one thing can definitely be said for rain: it makes for memories!

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2 responses

18 08 2008
Nate

Everyday when it (inevitably) rains, I instantly think of my sister and her dear friends, forging ahead through this absolutely unbelievable wet summer of, well; wet… Check that; how about absolutely drenched, dreary, cold, bleak, soaked, ugly, insert any objectionable adjective you can imagine here “summer”? And I think to myself, sitting inside (for the most part) of course; what are they thinking? What would keep you going throughout this misery? It’s be so easy to give up, to just “blame it on the rain.” No one would question this; and YET, they keep on truckin’! It amazes and inspires me to no end, and as the sun has finally emerged consistently the past few days, I can only imagine how reassuring and DRY this must make them feel. I was blessed to spend a (mostly rainy) day a few weeks ago with the mafia at our Cousin Russ’s home; and thought that they were pretty tough, at that point, to have made it that far. I know that they’re enjoying this sunshine hundreds of times more than I, and I hope it reassures and inspires them half as much as they have done for me at this point… See you in Massachusetts, girls! You rock!

23 08 2008
Smokey

Amazed at how eloquent and, well, chatty you are behind a keyboard. Hope you all are doing great! I am loving Vermont (you all told me I would). Beautiful skies and beautiful trails. Currently in Manchester on a nero. Hope to see the Mafia soon!

Smokey

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