or, Four Reflections On Water
or, An Incomplete List
The forest closes above and around us like a tunnel in a canyonside. Even though this is just a modestly sized patch of trees in a modestly sized park, and the trees are still skeletal and budless on this Easter afternoon, it instantly becomes quieter as we cross their threshold. The sound of children playing in the park, jumping in the damp, rapidly melting April snow, fades first into muffled murmurs and quickly into silence. The three of us are alone, not five minutes from home.
“Look,” one of us (all of us) (none of us) says, pointing off the trail into the civilized wilderness. The trail, though not paved with asphalt or concrete, is better maintained than a true forest road: well graded, absent large potholes, puddles or rocks. It rises several inches above the average level of the forest floor, and in the liquefied winter we realize we are not in a forest at all but a swamp. A layer of icy water, too chaotically dirty for us to sound its depth, covers everything. In places, it looks like snow, but it is perfectly smooth and flat, better paved than the trail, and it ripples when you touch it.
“I wonder,” aloud, “if that’s just from the melt. I mean, is it just excess runoff that’ll all drain into the pond soon enough, or is this just always swampy?” No one knows. Near the bridge, my praise for the trail is misplaced. The mire has overrun its artificial banks and dribbled across our path, like a bibless baby. We cross anyway.
“It happened again,” I confess to Denny. He is unsurprised. He begins, dismissively, his usual speech: “As the rivers rise and fall…”
I was born in the flat country. Syracuse has hills, it is true, but when you have known the mountains you know the difference. I had heard the phrase, as the rivers rise and fall, I knew that this was supposed to be some kind of seasonal rhythm, like the snow, or the humidity, one more aspect of the water cycle. I may even have noticed that Meadowbrook was slightly higher in spring than in the rest of the year, and attributed this to the snowmelt. But I never understood, not until I moved to Avon, why rivers are worshipped.
I arrived home late in the evening, late in May, exhausted from the drive from Fairfield to Twin, to Snowville to Salt Lake, to Provo where I picked up a couple of French hitchers, to the non-town of Tucker where I dropped them off, to Price through the desert and desert to Junction, to Glenwood and finally up valley to home. After fifteen hours on the road and an entire audiobook entitled The Art of Racing in The Rain— it had not rained— I poured myself a martini, and went to smoke a welcome-home cigarette with my friend-sublessee Andrew on the balcony. But venturing outside, I was struck, as with a fist, by the incredible roar of what I could only take to be the impending apocalypse. “Pray for me,” I asked Andrew. “What?” he shouted back. “I can’t hear you over the river.”
The Eagle River, which I had only known in fall and winter, a rocky, bubbling stream, up to a foot deep in places but usually shallower, had evolved, metamorphosed, risen into something the likes of which I had never seen before. What had in April been a frozen ditch had become a crashing, howling juggernaut, a tornado-green monster, a swollen frenzy of whitecaps. It was neither evil nor ominous; it only impressed upon me the sheer unadulterated strength of an inorganic, unemotional nature. I would later learn that the trail through the canyon was closed near the tunnels, washed away by the force of two counties’ accumulated snowmelt.
For a moment I dared to think that it had all the power of the ocean, but I immediately realized that that was ridiculous, almost blasphemous. Nothing on Earth has the power of the ocean.
We watched the storm clouds roll in, against our mothers’ and mayor’s unequivocal orders, from the pier at the end of North 5th Street, just past Kent, right on the water. We drove there. That should give you some perspective on how unusual the situation was. We never drove anywhere.
We stayed maybe ten minutes. While we were there, it stopped raining and began pouring, the wind stopped gusting and began blowing. I had never, I realized, been outdoors in a true storm before; I had never experienced that wind-tunnel effect, that sensation of constancy, above all that sound, like God blowing in your ear. I remarked to Gabe and Brandon that the wind was blowing west here, just like it was blowing west everywhere north of the eye, thousands and thousands of square miles, it was the same wind here as in Syracuse and in Boston and in Washington, we are all under one wind.
We retreated home just as I began to be afraid.
We spent the night indoors, making pizza from scratch, drinking beer and waiting for the power to go out. It never did. We stayed up until two or three in the morning, laughing, joking, just as if the Storm Of The Century weren’t ravaging outside, hoping it would all blow over and in the morning we would all be alive. I read a little of Schrödinger’s book, What Is Life, which I had decided was my project for the days off, while we listened to records and the old tube radio.
We learned Manhattan had lost power, and heard stories of flooding, but where we were nothing seemed out of the ordinary, except for the wind. Yet when I finally went to bed I remember wishing that I wasn’t alone. It seemed the wind would keep rising all night, rising without limit, tearing the roofs off of houses and blowing up the Con Ed building on 14th Street and knocking over that crane in Midtown and turning us into waterlogged New Orleans, killing everyone. Of course, as I’ve previously written, the storm did devastate low-lying swaths of the city, killing 71 in the state, which is not everyone, but which is 71 people. I don’t wish to revisit that here. But Williamsburg was spared.
Almost a year later, I was driving a four-wheeler on private land in Idaho when a furious storm whipped up out of nowhere, with lightning striking so close to me I could feel my hair stand on end. The two miles down hill to the farm seemed unending, and when we got back I was shaking. The inconsolable terror of thunder that some of us suffer, of being at the mercy of the elements, of the big one, must predate the invention of language. Why else would it be so hard to express?
At 10:11 in the morning on August 28, 2005, the National Weather Service in Slidell, Louisiana issued what is widely considered to be the most strongly worded weather bulletin ever promulgated by the service. It does not take much imagination to read it as a millenarian prophecy of doom. When the government makes statements that could cause panic, as this one surely could have, there is a responsibility to ensure that the statement is justified, that the benefits of warning outweigh the distributed effects of fear. Robert Ricks, the author of the copy, is said to have reread the text he had written several times, looking for anything that was too strong, anything scary that the public could be spared. He found nothing. I reproduce it here in its entirety.
000 WWUS74 KLIX 281550 NPWLIX URGENT — WEATHER MESSAGE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE NEW ORLEANS LA 1011 AM CDT SUN AUG 28, 2005 ...DEVASTATING DAMAGE EXPECTED... HURRICANE KATRINA...A MOST POWERFUL HURRICANE WITH UNPRECEDENTED STRENGTH... RIVALING THE INTENSITY OF HURRICANE CAMILLE OF 1969. MOST OF THE AREA WILL BE UNINHABITABLE FOR WEEKS...PERHAPS LONGER. AT LEAST ONE HALF OF WELL CONSTRUCTED HOMES WILL HAVE ROOF AND WALL FAILURE. ALL GABLED ROOFS WILL FAIL...LEAVING THOSE HOMES SEVERELY DAMAGED OR DESTROYED. THE MAJORITY OF INDUSTRIAL BUILDINGS WILL BECOME NON FUNCTIONAL. PARTIAL TO COMPLETE WALL AND ROOF FAILURE IS EXPECTED. ALL WOOD FRAMED LOW RISING APARTMENT BUILDINGS WILL BE DESTROYED. CONCRETE BLOCK LOW RISE APARTMENTS WILL SUSTAIN MAJOR DAMAGE...INCLUDING SOME WALL AND ROOF FAILURE. HIGH RISE OFFICE AND APARTMENT BUILDINGS WILL SWAY DANGEROUSLY...A FEW TO THE POINT OF TOTAL COLLAPSE. ALL WINDOWS WILL BLOW OUT. AIRBORNE DEBRIS WILL BE WIDESPREAD...AND MAY INCLUDE HEAVY ITEMS SUCH AS HOUSEHOLD APPLIANCES AND EVEN LIGHT VEHICLES. SPORT UTILITY VEHICLES AND LIGHT TRUCKS WILL BE MOVED. THE BLOWN DEBRIS WILL CREATE ADDITIONAL DESTRUCTION. PERSONS...PETS...AND LIVESTOCK EXPOSED TO THE WINDS WILL FACE CERTAIN DEATH IF STRUCK. POWER OUTAGES WILL LAST FOR WEEKS...AS MOST POWER POLES WILL BE DOWN AND TRANSFORMERS DESTROYED. WATER SHORTAGES WILL MAKE HUMAN SUFFERING INCREDIBLE BY MODERN STANDARDS. THE VAST MAJORITY OF NATIVE TREES WILL BE SNAPPED OR UPROOTED. ONLY THE HEARTIEST WILL REMAIN STANDING...BUT BE TOTALLY DEFOLIATED. FEW CROPS WILL REMAIN. LIVESTOCK LEFT EXPOSED TO THE WINDS WILL BE KILLED. AN INLAND HURRICANE WIND WARNING IS ISSUED WHEN SUSTAINED WINDS NEAR HURRICANE FORCE...OR FREQUENT GUSTS AT OR ABOVE HURRICANE FORCE...ARE CERTAIN WITHIN THE NEXT 12 TO 24 HOURS. ONCE TROPICAL STORM AND HURRICANE FORCE WINDS ONSET...DO NOT VENTURE OUTSIDE!
The feature of this text I find the most interesting is not the sentence, “water shortages will make human suffering incredible by modern standards.” Of course, many have remarked on the irony of dying of thirst on a boat, and I have little to add to the analysis of that tragedy. Rather, it is the repeated use of the word, “all.” All gabled roofs will fail. All wood framed apartment buildings will be destroyed. All windows will blow out. You cannot win. It doesn’t matter if you think you are safe. You are not. You cannot win. You can only run. Drop everything and run. That is the power of the ocean.
The bulletin, notably, does not mention flooding; it does not mention the possibility of the levees breaking. We did not yet know how incredible the human suffering would in fact turn out to be.
The new year dawns on me in a state in between wakefulness and sleep, unable (due to a combination of urge to pee, hangover, and the fact that at 6:50 a.m. I have slept past my workday alarm by over an hour already) to return to the dream I cannot quite remember, and stubbornly unwilling to get out of bed before eight on a day I don’t have to. I toss and turn and lie on my arm in uncomfortable yet somehow relaxed positions, for probably an hour, until I cannot take it anymore and go to fry bacon. The smoke alarm, as usual, goes crazy, despite my having opened the balcony door prior to turning on the stove. With the blinds and door open, I can see several fresh inches of snow on the cars outside, and it is still coming down. I am glad I have good tires for the drive to Breck.
I shower, throw everything in the car and get going. The Kelly clan is not arriving from Denver until two at the earliest, but there is no point sticking around the apartment. What will I do there? Browse the internet? It’s a powder day, and New Year’s Day, and I have no excuse for being home after 9:30. By the time I get out of the parking lot the snow has stopped, though, and I can see a few cracks of blue sky peeking through. I am not disheartened: weather changes from minute to minute and mile to mile in the mountains; it may start up again when I round the Junction. And sure enough, it does. There is hard pack on the highway in West Vail and my studs are presented with their first test. They perform beautifully. I feel glued to the road. I do not make any moves that might disillusion me. I can feel the little metal nails piercing the ice like crampons. I am able to go fifty miles an hour on the straightaway with complete control, passing the cautious tourists, still, of course, being passed by the natives.
After Vail I begin to climb the pass. I am going slower now, in the middle of a long single-file line of cars in the better-worn left lane. Occasionally someone passes me on the right, but they cannot get far. We are behind a snowplow and no one in their right mind, not even the hardened Red Cliff backcountry drivers, will pass a plow on a hill in a storm, for at least two reasons. One: the plow is twice as wide as a normal vehicle. Two: being behind the plow is the only thing making it possible for you to drive.
So I turn up the music and patiently maintain my place in line. I am glad I left early. I am only at exit 190 and it has been almost an hour. Finally we round the top of the hill and begin to descend. Just after the summit traffic is shifting to the left. I see a car on the right side, in the drift off the shoulder, level– not in a ditch, not necessarily needing a tow– but clearly stuck. A woman is squatting in front, frantically attempting to dig out the front wheels with a snowbrush, which is obviously an impossible task; and a young man is standing a little too far to the left of the car, a little bit in what might or might not be the right lane (who knows with this coverage), just as frantically waving his arms, I assume to call for help. Without thinking, I pull over about fifty feet in front of them and begin walking back up the hill in what might or might not be the shoulder.
“Stuck?” I ask the woman. From closer, the young man is only about 15 or 16, clearly her son.
“Yes,” she says, “we just” (she is still frantically brushing making her a little short of breath) “went off the road… this snowplow came up behind us and we had to go… we had to go somewhere!” She does not look me in the eye.
“Need some help?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” she says, “I just don’t know.” She is almost hyperventilating and seems on the verge of tears. I decide to take executive action. I tell her I am going to return to my car and get my gloves so I can help dig out the wheels. “You don’t need to do that,” she says. “I hope someone else’d do the same for me,” I tell her, and this is true.
After all, it’s New Year’s Day.
While digging, I ask, just making small talk, I guess, “So where you guys from?” “We live in Denver,” she says, “but we just moved there this fall.” “Where from?” “Atlanta,” she sighs, knowing exactly what I will take this to mean and knowing, also, that I will be right, God damn it. “This your first time driving in a snowstorm?” We are at about 10,000 feet, after all, and a snowstorm here is not quite the same as a snowstorm in Denver, which at 5,280 feet is the bottom of the Colorado ski land. She admits that it is.
“So you were trying to get out from in front of the snowplow and just skidded?” She starts to answer but the son pipes in. “It wouldn’t have happened,” he says directly to me, direct eye contact, “if she knew how to drive in the snow better.” His tone is clearly intended to convey a masculine camaraderie with me. These women drivers, this boy says to me, they’re so stupid. She shushes him but he continues, “I’ve seen a lot of videos of driving in the snow. You just have to–” let me pause the tape right here to remind you that this really happened “–drive like a rally car.” He seems, I swear, completely serious. It’s scary, either because he can say it with a straight face, or because he believes it.
She shushes him again. I keep digging, determined to mind my own business, but then I decide, fuck it. “Not really,” I tell him. “You drive slow. Otherwise you slide.” “It was because she was going slower than the plow that we got stuck in the first place,” he retorts. I don’t push it. Not my problem.
We get the car dug out and they get back in. I get behind to push. She turns the wheel and starts to drive, to try to, anyway, because the tires just spin. “Wait,” I say, “wait! there’s people coming. Just wait and I’ll push.” I am a little surprised and suddenly nervous. If she had been able to get traction, she would surely have been rear-ended by the car coming up on our left, possibly causing a multi-car accident, possibly including my car parked fifty feet ahead of us, which I can see a lot more vividly than I’d like. We wait, a minute, maybe two, until the line behind the snowplow has passed. It is maybe three miles long. Now I push, and the car starts to move, and then it sinks back and stops moving again. The tires squeal.
Mother and son get out and start digging again, as do I, but this time I inspect the tires more closely and make a realization. “Do you know what kind of tires these are?” I ask, cautiously.
“I have no freakin’ idea,” she says, sounding like a Southern belle stood up on prom night.
“I think these are summer tires,” I say, and my brain starts working. I don’t feel confident enough to make any sort of solemn pronouncement, but the evidence is clearly stacked. This car has summer tires. This woman has never driven before in the snow. She is also harried by her completely unhelpful son whom I have already decided I dislike. She has gone off the road once and the snow is continuing to come down. “Ma’am,” I say, “I’m not an expert on this kind of thing. I’d sure hate to tell you you’re stuck and need a tow if you really could get back to Denver fine, and I don’t want to take the responsibility of making you sit in the car for however long. But I gotta be honest with you: if it were me: if I were driving this car, right here, right now, I’d call myself a tow truck.”
“We’re stuck,” she says quietly, looking at the ground, shaking her head.
“Might be stuck,” I sadly agree.
“Well,” she says, “thank you.”
“If you want,” I tell her, “I could give you a ride as far as Frisco.” I am not really thinking, I mean, it’s crazy to invite strangers into my car, especially a brat like that kid, but I am thinking about the time we broke down on the Thruway when I was I have literally no idea how old except it was before cell phones, because Dad had to walk to the gas station to call a tow truck and it kept snowing and he didn’t come back for what felt like a really long time and we thought he might have died, and I also had to pee and I wasn’t supposed to pee on the side of the Thruway for reasons that were then and continue to be unclear to me, and then eventually the truck came and towed us to a restaurant, where we waited for another tow truck for reasons that were also unclear to me but had something to do with state and local jurisdiction, and finally we got back home to Syracuse something like an hour after we were expected in Long Island, and so I tell her that I am not going all the way to Denver, but I could drop them at a café in Frisco. She graciously declines, saying her friend will pick them up.
She gets back in the car and gets on the phone. The son sidles up to me. “Yeah,” he says confidently, “if she’da just listened to my advice, you know, we wouldn’t be in this mess. She’s just gotta learn to drive in the snow.”
And suddenly I can’t mind my own business anymore. I look the kid in the eye as piercingly as I can muster. I have to be stern, I think, this kid needs to know that he and I do not share any kind of masculine camaraderie against his mom, that he is not my equal, and I am most definitely not on his side. I have to say something, just like I had to stop and help: for a moment, it’s not the right thing, it’s the only thing.
“You’re from Atlanta,” I say, just disparagingly enough that I can be sure he will notice it, “is that right?”
“Yeah,” he says.
“Have you ever driven in the snow?”
“No,” he says dismissively, “but I’ve seen vid–”
“It is not as easy as you think,” I tell him, trying to sound like the Colorado native that I most definitely am not. “You don’t drive like a rally car. You drive slow, and you drive careful, and even then you still sometimes slip, especially with tires like you’ve got. It happened to me the other day. So,” I say, “give your mom a break.” Give your mom a goddamn break, I instantly wish I’d said, but I am nonetheless pleased with my tone. I turn away from him and go back to the driver window, where the mother is now sitting, staring vacantly, not on the phone. I tap on the glass.
“I’m gonna go,” I inform her. “You guys gonna be all right? Sure you don’t need a ride to Frisco?”
“We’ll be OK, thanks,” she says, “my friend is coming.”
Suddenly it occurs to me. “You guys have some water? You can get really dehydrated in the mountains,” I say, and you might be here a while, I don’t add.
“No,” she says, suddenly worried.
“Let me give you a bottle.” I go back to the car and fetch my pink Vail nalgene that I got for correctly answering some question or other at orientation, just like everyone else, and bring it back. I offer it to her.
“Oh,” she says, “I can’t take your only water bottle!”
“I have three more in the car.” I am lying to a stranger, I think, and I’m not a hundred percent sure why. “You’ll need it, trust me.” She takes it, thanking me profusely, and I take my leave.
As I descend the pass into Frisco, the snow becomes lighter and lighter. At no point does it stop, and at no point is the roadway clear, but the alpine storm above us has certainly found its gentle side down below. I wonder if the Georgians might have been able to make it down after all, but I honestly don’t think so, and I don’t want to second-guess myself. I did what I needed to do. I replay the situation in my mind all the way to Breck, maybe a little self-indulgently, but whatever. I hope they make it home. It is New Year’s Day, I think, and this fact has immense significance for me at this moment. I feel like I am starting the year off right.