Friday, April 23, 2010

To Know When The Storm Is Coming

A few years ago my best friend and I decided to go for a hike through Harriman State Park. It was a place that we had hiked at a number of times and, as we arrived at the gravel parking area that day, we faced an impressive streak of wild moments to uphold. On the previous trek my buddy almost backed his van into a lake when he mistook a thick layer of flowers resting on the water for gravel. I spoke up at the last second and prevented us from having a soggy schlep back home. We joked about this as we exited the van, stretched, and double-checked our packs. We headed into the woods along the path and I stubbed my toe on a rock. Bobby, putting his own cat-like agility on exhibition, proceeded to jump atop a small log as he said, "Be careful bro! If you bust your ass, I don't want to have to carry you back out!" No sooner did he speak than the log rolled out from beneath him, sending him skyward before gravity resumed its mastery and pulled him back--hard--to the ground. Even with the wind knocked out of him he attempted to laugh at the irony. I helped him up and said nothing, more because I was stunned by the fact that he had fallen than I was impressed by the twist of fate. Seeing him fall, for me, was akin to seeing a cat fail to land on its feet, or walking a dog and seeing it trip for no apparent reason.

We continued along on our journey in high spirits, enjoying the serenity of the forest, the beautiful weather around us, and the pervasive calmness of the day. As we headed deeper into the woods we began to lose sight of the blue expanse above us. When we first left the parking area we were traveling beneath a deep azure sky dotted with a few white fluffy clouds; we had no reason to think that we would have anything but perfect weather.

A half hour or so into our hike we decided to stop for a quick lunch break. We had been immersed in conversation, reminiscing about old times and carrying some of our favorite tunes from the late nineties. We found a large, obtuse boulder, roughly eight to ten feet in height and decided that we would undertake the challenge of scaling it. After a few minutes of plotting out our climb, we found ourselves sitting atop the gargantuan stone, enjoying an excellent view of the surrounding woodlands.

As I munched on my peanut butter and jelly sandwich I unintentionally tuned out Bobby as he spoke to me. I noticed a sound that had gone unnoticed the entire time we had been sitting on the rock: complete and utter silence. As I perked my ears towards the hollow echoes bouncing through the forest, I realized that I did not hear a single bird chirping; it was quiet enough to hear a squirrel fart (Disclaimer: though I have never heard the sound I would imagine it would be both faint and dainty...fainty, then, perhaps?) I noticed that the silence felt heavy--a point my mind elected to focus in on.

All at once my brain deconstructed the significance of both the silence and the heaviness. The weight was not merely from the lack of sound but truly pervaded the air itself; there was an electric current running through the forest breeze. I realized the terrible predicament that we were in only a few seconds before it revealed itself to us. I said to Bobby, "Don't animals take shelter before a storm rolls through?" As Bobby attempted to respond his words were overpowered by a deafening thunderclap that shook the forest. Three words came to mind immediately--a couplet and a lone imperative:

Oh shit.



As fast as our hands would allow us, Bobby and I scooped up our lunch items and tossed them back into our packs. Acting purely on instinct, we both dove from atop the enormous rock, hunching down as we landed to disperse the shock on our knees, and, quite literally, hit the ground running. As if on some Hollywood cue, no sooner did we begin our frantic rush along the path than the skies opened up with some of the most violent thunder and lightning I had ever experienced outdoors. After running for a few hundred yards (and, truthfully, with my lungs feeling like they were being dissolved in battery acid), I stopped and realized that we weren't getting wet. It was apparent that a tempest was raging above us but the rain wasn't penetrating the forest's relatively dense canopy. Using this as an excuse to slow down (though truthfully needing to catch my breath before I passed out) I began to walk...until another epic thunderclap shook the forest and I realized that, though I was not getting wet, I was still surrounded by hundreds of trees...during a thunderstorm; the fire was re-lit beneath my feet and I took off in pursuit of Bobby.

By the time we made it to the edge of the forest (where Bobby had taken his fall), the storm had passed. We exited the path and reentered the parking area beneath a crisp cerulean sky shimmering with brilliant afternoon effulgence; the day always seems to take on a renewed beauty after a rainstorm. We surveyed as much of the sky as we could espy and saw not a single dark cloud; there were, in fact, no clouds in the sky at all. We walked back to the van and saw one single raindrop streaking down the windshield like some vagabond tear; we could not believe it--it was as if we had made the entire thing up.

The purpose of my reminiscence here is to provide an example as to why it is important to learn from one's experiences. On Wednesday I decided to take Timmy out for a stroll, having walked twelve miles with him on Monday and rested on Tuesday. Heather had mentioned that the weather might turn later in the day but she wasn't sure. Her words came back to mind as I prepared Timmy for our walk around four o'clock. Looking out through our upstairs window I saw nothing but a vicious obsidian sky roiling outside. Looking through a window on the other side of the house, though, I found myself staring out at a mottled, fading blue swath. This was the direction of the walk and, as I watched the dark clouds, I noted that they were moving away from where I intended to go. "No worries!" I said to myself.

It had been somewhat chilly when I had gone out earlier in the day so I was sure to don a hoodie before heading out. By the time I had been walking for ten minutes or so I was sweating profusely. I was also quite confused. The air was chilly but the mugginess seemed to have its own warmth. The late-afternoon pastel I had seen in the sky was now turning slate gray. As noted earlier, I was aware of the fact that we would potentially be getting bad weather but it didn't seem like anything to be concerned about. I told Timmy that we might have to cut our walk slightly short (as I had intended to do at least two or three laps up the mammoth hill in Clove Lakes Park--now I figured we would do only one or two); still, the skies darkened.

Lost both in thought and in muted conversation with Timmy, I stopped for no apparent reason after turning onto Maine Avenue. All at once my heart started pounding and I recognized immediately both the familiar stillness and silence that had taken over the afternoon. I recognized the single alarmed tweet of a bird in a tree and how heavy the sound fell amid the surrounding silence. I wasted no time, praying quickly for only ten minutes to make it home and promising to run up the large hill upon which our block sat (as if this would somehow demonstrate my appreciation and serve as an adequate sacrifice of physical energy). I knew not to press my luck and knew also that I had my own obliviousness and obtuseness to blame for my predicament (I neglected to mention that I decided NOT to bring the weather shield for the stroller and, worse, that I had actually removed it from the bag prior to leaving the house); I should have realized sooner what had likely been in the air the entire time--the static signature of the coming storm.

Power-walking like a champion, I rushed to the corner and made a right turn, ultimately heading back towards the boulevard I had traversed. The sky rumbled like a hungry giant and I felt a few errant drops of moisture pluck me in the forehead. Echoing Jill Taylor from Home Improvement willing a bowling strike, I closed my eyes and crossed my fingers, muttering "Pleasepleasepleasepleasepleaseplease don't start raining! Just eight more minutes! That's all I need!" I reached the street I had been strolling along only minutes before and I broke into a mad dash, slowing down for the blocks where the concrete was a jagged mess. I kept mentally calculating and re-calculating the number of blocks I had yet to go and the perceived amount of time I had remaining, as if God's acceptance and recognition of my plea was a foregone conclusion; still, the rain held off.

As the number of blocks remaining decreased, I maintained a verbal countdown that meant as much to reassure me as it did to keep Timmy informed; he was, after all, still asleep and utterly unaware of the coming weather calamity. Running the final block to make the traffic light, I made it back to our block safely and, keeping my word (again, as if this was a part of my unwritten agreement with the unseen Lord of the universe) I ran the length of the hill up to our walkway; the precipitation was still holding off. Deciding not to bother with dismantling the stroller and bringing in both it and the car seat separately, I decided to lift the entire unit (the adrenaline was pumping quite well at this point) up the stairs, unlocked the door, and pushed the whole stroller into our narrow entryway. Breathing heavily--almost panting, if truth be told--I set about removing the car seat from the stroller. Having freed Timmy and his seat from the travel unit, I carried him upstairs and took my first deep sigh of relief. Unsure of what to do now, I decided to carry him upstairs in his seat as I saw no need to wake the sleeping child. I came back downstairs to grab myself a glass of water, completely oblivious to what was occurring outside. It was only when I returned to the top floor of our apartment and lay down on the chaise that I realized that the wicked, King Lear-esque storm had truly begun. The fluid fury that was unleashed upon the windows sounded like heavy artillery fire; the wind could have easily been mistaken for a hundred Banshees tearing out their own throats.

As the house shook with repeated bomb-blasts of thunder, I sipped at my water and watched Timmy, laying peacefully in his car seat. My instinct was to pick him up, to hold him tightly to my chest so as to quell his fear and prevent him from getting upset in the face of the weather phenomenon occurring outside. I realized, though, that he was oblivious to the storm; as they say, ignorance is bliss. Instead, I found myself reflecting on what I hope will be scores of future outdoor adventures with my son. It is one of my secret hopes that he will have as much an interest in the wilderness and thirst both for travel and adventure as I do. My wanderlust has caused me to drive (with Heather) to all forty-eight contiguous states, across nearly every stretch of highway on two Hawaiian islands, most of the main island of Puerto Rico, and across eight Canadian provinces; I would re-travel every inch of roadway with my son if only he would say the word.

As I sat and took in the storm, though, it was not Timmy's future interest in traveling that I focused on but rather his instinct in the outdoors. Would he even have any? My gut says that he will simply because I do. I developed a strong communion with Nature from spending so much time outdoors, first riding my bike and going on "excursions" with my Mom (as we called them--hikes around the neighborhood, usually off the beaten path) as well as jaunts into the "Spooky Forest" with my Dad, and then taking longer cycling journeys and going hiking in my teens and early twenties.  The early experiences fostered my intense interest and curiosity in all things outdoors. I always wondered and wanted to know what was around that bend up ahead, or what we would find if only we went just a little bit further along the path. It was only when I had the freedom to go exploring on my own in my teens that I began truly to develop my sense for the outdoors. Bobby shared in both my interest in Nature and my instinctual abilities; it was what made us the traveling tandem that we were and still are today. We both have solid internal compasses that help us along our journeys, as well as an eye and ear for detail (as the storm event had proven).

I reflected on all of this as I watched my son sleep through the storm, showing it neither fear nor respect, interest nor indifference. I think that he will be interested in spending time hiking in the woods, traveling up mountains and through valleys with his Dad. It made me sad to think though that so many other children of his generation and even of my own who have grown up in New York City and have absolutely no relationship whatsoever with Nature (beyond occasional treks to the beach). I always find solace in the woods; it clears my head, much like long solo bike rides would, especially along the water by the Belt Parkway. Instead of tuning the world out with my Ipod or immersing myself in the latest video game craze, I find that tuning myself in, both to Nature and to myself, is how I solve most of my problems and gain the deepest level of serenity, self-knowledge, and countless other intangible things. It is almost as if when I hike I enter a zone of automatic meditation, where something deep within the recesses of my mind and soul comes alive and takes over, helping me to declutter my consciousness and to see whatever it is I need to travel within myself wherever it is that I need to go.

With many of today's children thinking that Buzz Lightyear was the first man to step foot on the moon (albeit these were British school-children--though I do not deign to think that their American counterparts would be immune to such a misidentification), I wonder just what they would think about spending time hiking and finding a new stream or spotting a bird theretofore unseen. My guess is that they would inquire, "Well what can you do there?" if asked whether or not they would like to take a stroll through the forest. The only answer I could offer them would be, "Nothing" but, truly, that nothing, at least for me, often solves everything. I hope that Timmy finds that is one of his truths as well.