The following is the first entry in Our Land’s summer travel series, the aptly named “A Summer of Unremarkable Travels.” Enjoy.
It can’t be expected that every vacation will turn out to be a life-changing revelation, but the least one can hope for is to not be trapped inside a tent during a vicious thunderstorm. I should have known better. The forecast called for heavy rain during the two nights we were scheduled to stay at James Island State Park in Charleston. Yet I assured my wife that everything was going to be alright.
“Those weathermen, they don’t know what they’re talking about half the time,” I said. “It’s a miracle most of them still have jobs. Everything is going to be fine. Trust me.”
So we loaded up our two dogs and headed toward what’s known as Low Country, looking forward to a couple nights of bliss in the South Carolinian marshlands. Everything was not fine, of course, and thus my wife learned to never trust me when it comes to making decisions with inclement weather on the horizon. The drive in — from the mountains of Western North Carolina, where we live, to the Spanish moss-lined roads of the nation’s eighth-oldest state– was peaceful enough. Sunny, even. And it remained relatively nice out until 10 minutes after we arrived at our campsite. That was when a cool wind, followed by a quick onset of ominous clouds, cast a grim picture of what awaited us.
Give us credit, though: we were resilient in the face of almost certain failure. We pitched the tent, hoisted the EZ-Up and went through the usual motions of setting up camp. Yet the anticipatory excitement that usually accompanies such rituals was non-existent. In its place was an air of depressing inevitability, a feeling that fate didn’t give a damn about our efforts, that it was only a matter of time until we were absolutely pummeled by Mother Nature — old bitch that she is.
It is here that I’d like to issue a formal apology to meteorologists everywhere. Your job is not an easy one — weather, by its very nature, is wildly unpredictable — so for a layman like myself to belittle your profession due to a perceived lack of competence is misguided at best. Plus, if I simply would have heeded your warnings to begin with, I wouldn’t have been stuck outdoors in the marshlands with an absolute beast of a storm moving in. So let me say it again: my sincerest apologies to all the weather people out there.
When the rains finally came, our dogs — already confused about why we were in the middle of a forest so late at night– grew even more perplexed at our immense stupidity. They cowered under the picnic table* like soaked rats, unable to fathom why we weren’t snuggled up inside of a house somewhere. In their defense, I couldn’t understand it either. One of them, an Australian Shepherd/Pit Bull Mix named Willow, gave me a look as if to say: “You used to love me.” I thought: Poor pup. But there wasn’t much to be done. She, like us, would just have to wait it out.
We sat at the picnic table for as long as we could stand the torrential downpour, deciding to retire to the tent around 8:30 p.m. — which might as well have been 1 a.m. for us aging Millennials. Ah, youth: it goes by so fast, doesn’t it? One day you’re 22 and peeing in the streets of St. Augustine (inside joke, sorry), the next you’re 30-plus and hitting the hay before 9 o’clock with no alcohol in your system. This prudishness isn’t a bad thing, of course. In fact, it’s probably for the best, in the long run — for health, for sanity, and all that good stuff.
If we did nothing else right during our ill-fated camping trip, it was the way we arranged our air mattress for maximum comfort. We covered it in a clean sheet and an unzipped sleeping bag (for extra padding), then topped it with a fluffy down comforter. It was a perfect cocoon. The fact that our sturdy tent was protecting us from the torrent outside only made us feel accomplished. Indeed, therein lies the beauty of camping: this idea of being immersed in the elements, while simultaneously being sheltered from most of the danger. To hear the rain pummeling the top of the tent, the wind bending the trees — et cetera and so forth — makes one appreciate the simple joy of shelter. It’s a primal satisfaction, one that our ancient relatives must have experienced on a nightly basis, back when living in close proximity to the elements was the only mode of existence.
To hear the rain pummeling the top of the tent, the wind bending the trees — et cetera and so forth — makes one appreciate the simple joy of shelter. It’s a primal satisfaction, one that our ancient relatives must have experienced on a nightly basis, back when living in close proximity to the elements was the only mode of existence.
All of that being said, satisfaction is not what I felt when I woke up at 3 a.m. to one of the brightest flashes of lightning I’ve seen in this lifetime. It was followed by a grumbling of thunder that seemed to originate directly under our tent. My wife had also been woken up by this brilliant strike, and we briefly considered corralling the dogs and spending the rest of the night in our Prius, where we’d at least be safe from deadly electrical currents. My wife Googled the chances of being struck by lightning inside of a tent. One set of data said one in 100,000. Another said one in 3,000. I wasn’t fond of either of those chances, so she tried to ease my anxiety.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “It says here that lightning only strikes whatever allows it to get to the ground the fastest.”
“But we’re surrounded by trees,” I said, confused.
We fell asleep without saying another word.
I dreamt that a clown was repeatedly punching me in the face. I was just standing there taking hit after hit, my head snapping back and forth as though it were on a string. The clown was smiling, obviously enjoying himself. “Would you stop pounding me in the face, sir?” I asked. He shook his head: no, he would not stop. Then he socked me again. He hit me a few more times and then disappeared. In his place, a mirror came into view, and for the first time I caught a glimpse of myself: I, too, was a clown, with a bloody nose and two bruised eyes.
I awoke the next morning around 6:30 a.m. to a thousand bullfrogs croaking — a noise that sounded identical to an Animal Collective song. It was as though this band of musical frogs was on mushrooms and I was an accidental (albeit entertained) witness to the impromptu concerto. In those moments, all was peaceful. The sounds of nature were soothing our souls after a night of utter punishment. Our sense of wellbeing was ruptured, however, when we glanced through the tent screen and realized we were surrounded on all sides by what looked like one of the Great Lakes. This was not surprising. But disheartening? Extraordinarily so. Even the trail that snaked through the woods to our car was completely flooded over — so high, I’d soon found out, that it nearly reached my kneecaps. It was, as the kids call it, a shitshow.
The sounds of nature were soothing our souls after a night of sheer punishment and anxiety. Our sense of wellbeing was ruptured, however, when we glanced through the screen and realized we were surrounded on all sides by what looked like one of the Great Lakes.
The dogs, however, found much to love in this excess of precipitation — for the first time all trip, they were enjoying themselves, frolicking through the natural mote like furry mermaids. “Good for them,” I thought. “Those two deserve a good time.” Nonetheless, the wife and I resolved to pack up as quickly as possible: the forecast was calling for more rain in the near future, and we didn’t want to deal with the wet stuff any longer. We booked an AirBnb in Savannah, Georgia — about two hours south of Charleston — and started assembling all of our wet, dirty camping gear. As my sandaled foot sunk deep into the muck, my wife alluded to the possibility that we’d gone soft, that we were no longer “camping people.”
“What are you talking about?” I said. “Nobody’s a camping person when they get caught in a violent thunderstorm and wake up surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean.”
During one of my trips to the car to pack up camping supplies, I emerged from the woods while wading through shin high water — dog bed in one hand, tent in the other. On a paved trail in front of me was a man in his 60s walking a very small, very ugly dog. The man seemed startled by my abrupt emergence from the forest. He looked at me like I was some sort of abused clown. “God good,” he asked. “Are you camping down there?”
“We were camping down there,” I said. “Kind of got flooded out.”
“I can see that,” he said. “Well, I guess you see why they call this the Low Country now.”
The man and his ugly dog walked on without saying another word. Later that day, the clouds unexpectedly broke, and we — my wife, the two dogs and I — found ourselves walking along the beach at Kiawah Island before driving to Savannah. It wasn’t where any of us expected to be, given the previous night’s debacle. But then I took off sprinting with Willow on a leash by my side, and to see her tongue flapping in the seabreeze reminded me that, on some level, I was still following the right path.
* Which was under the EZ-Up, which was beginning to leak because it was only water resistant, not waterproof. Go figure.
Reflections on fatherhood and family history.
We spent a lot of our free time throwing rocks at cars. That’s just sort of what you did growing up in the sticks with not a lot of stuff to keep you entertained.
When I was in my early 20s, I took a bus to New York City for no reason other than to do it.