Last week, I spent a few days off of the proverbial grid to go backpacking, camping, and fly fishing with a couple of close friends in the Seneca Creek Backcountry of West Virginia. Every time I venture into wild places I learn something…about myself, about nature, about whatever or whoever it is we call “God.”
On this particular trip, one of the things on my mind was the weight we’re all carrying during a global pandemic in a time of political, societal, and racial tension that feels like we’re living on a knife’s edge.
As I slipped in and out of sleep during a gentle but steady overnight rain falling on the canopy covering my hammock, the thought occurred to me that sometimes when things get very serious we need to give ourselves the grace not to take ourselves too seriously.
To that end, I recalled another time in another place that I wrote about in a humor piece for the EcoTheo Review a few years ago. As I spend this week re-integrating myself back into the flow of work and producing content, I thought you might enjoy this little trip back in time:
The Day We Sang the Songs
Rain drums a steady rhythm on my tent fly. Just a gentle shower by backcountry standards, but hard enough to force me inside to keep myself and my pack dry. How long had it been coming down? Hours? Or just a few minutes, amplified by the time-swallowing solitude of confinement in a space barely larger than my body, with just enough room to sit up or lie down?
Getting stuck in camp by an unexpected downpour is not an uncommon experience for those of us who spend time in the woods and wild places. And there’s a tried and true formula that says the rain will fall in time and intensity in proportion to how far you are camped from where your vehicle is parked.
It’s one of those things we prepare for in the outdoors. But the reality is, there is nothing that induces more boredom than being trapped in a tent during a rainstorm.
Wind Like a Freight Train
I remember the time an old college roommate and I got socked in by a toad-choking deluge on the Cranberry River in West Virginia during an extended car-camping and fishing trip. Our spacious two-room tent, set up just off of the hard-packed gravel road that parallels the stream, had virtually blown in on us overnight when a wind that sounded like a freight train roared down the valley, its sound waking us just moments before stakes came flying out of the ground and wet nylon caved in inches from our cots and sleeping bags.
We scrambled out of the tent and tried our best to survey the damage by flashlight, wind and rain soaking us and everything inside as we finally determined that nothing was broken or torn. We did our best to re-set the poles and stakes by the high beams of my 1984 Ford Bronco II, crawled back in, stripped off wet t-shirts and shorts, and slid into damp sleeping bags to wait out the storm and the night.
The night ended first.
At daybreak we managed to find some dry clothes in the bottoms of our packs and got under a tarp where we could light up the Coleman stove to heat water for instant coffee and cook up a quick breakfast. And then we sat, and watched, as the Cranberry picked up speed and quickly filled its banks, urgent to empty itself of the gallons of extra water that continued to pour from the sky.
We tried as best we could to tighten the sagging tent roof and empty the pockets of water that had gathered over our bunks, then declared it an exercise in futility. With nothing else to do, we jumped back in the Bronco and took a scouting drive up the river to see how other campers in the sites dispersed along the mud-slick road had fared. No serious damage. A few less hardy souls were packing it in, tossing wet and muddy gear into the backs of vehicles. Other more adventurous folks passed us with canoes and kayaks on cartop racks, hoping to make an epic run down the swollen waterway.
We decided to make a quick trip over the ridge to our north to the neighboring Williams River drainage to see if, by the kind of chance that often occurs in this terrain, the storm had been confined to our side of the mountain and we might find fishable water on the other.
No such luck.
But We Could be Fishing By Evening
We rolled back into our campsite a couple hours later and assessed our situation. The rain had let up some, but it was still coming down too hard to get out and try to pack up the tent and all our gear. Besides, we reasoned, it would probably quit anytime. The river drops quickly at this altitude, and we could be fishing again by evening.
After a lunch of soggy bologna sandwiches and the last few pretzels from our snack stash, we decided there was nothing to do but retreat to the tent and try to catch up on the sleep we’d been robbed of the night before.
I’ve never been good at day sleeping, no matter how tired I am. Twenty-minute power naps are about the best I can do. So sure enough, a third of an hour later I was wide awake while my buddy snored away on his comfy cot.
And it was still raining.
I lay there for awhile, trying to convince myself that I should just relax and enjoy the sound of rain on the tent, the crisp smell of a forest washed clean, and the chance to just be still and think.
That lasted about six minutes.
I looked at my watch, something I rarely do when I’m camping or fishing.
Time for a beer.
I climbed out of the tent and popped the hatch on the Bronco to access the cooler full of Bud Light we had brought to enjoy by the campfire after a long day of fishing. But by now it had become clear that neither fishing nor fire was likely to happen anytime soon.
I grabbed one off the top, hopped into the driver’s seat, clicked the key to the accessory position, and turned on the radio.
Finding a station down in this valley was always challenging even on clear days. No FM signal was going to conquer both the clouds and the mountains. Even the hardier AM band could only scrape up a scratchy talk-radio show of some kind, but there was still too much noise to even make out who was talking about what.
I reached into the glove box to see what was in the cassette collection. One tape. But it was a good one. The Big Chill soundtrack. Classic.
About the second time through that iconic album, I saw my camping partner poke his head out the tent flap. I honked the horn, held up my third can of beer, and waved him in.
That was the day we made up new lyrics to every track from The Big Chill in the cab of my truck. To this day I still croon along with Smokey Robinson to “The Tracks of my Beers.”
Somewhere between the 10th and 20th loop, the rain finally quit. The cooler, now in the back seat for easier access, was considerably lighter. Predictably, so was our mood.
We climbed out of the cab, kicking empties out of our way, got a fire started, and began the task of drying things out. The beer had committed us to another night in camp…neither of us was in any shape to drive out of that campsite and up the mountain back to the main road, let alone make the 4-hour trip back home.
So we roasted hot dogs on sticks and hung gear by the fire as daylight faded, re-secured the tent, and drifted to sleep that night with the phantom voices of Aretha, Creedence, and Percy Sledge singing us to sleep with our bastardized refrains.
Considerably Younger and Far Less Easily Bored
And now, 20-some years later, I’m sitting here in the rain, this time in a much smaller tent, many more miles from my Jeep and a cooler full of much better beer.
I’m re-living that day on the Cranberry, remembering fondly what it was like to be considerably younger and far less easily bored.
I look at my watch.
Sing it, Smokey.
Originally published in EcoTheo Review, Nov. 14, 2014