Monday, June 16, 2003

Summer Thunderstorm
Eastern Shore, Maryland

Picture this: in the dark, four twentysomething eastcoast whitekids hunched in shelter. The shelter consists of two tarps and a 1990 Jeep Cherokee. The Cherokee is a dark gold color, and its trunk is open. The front and rear passenger seats are full of equipment, luggage, and a borrowed six-string guitar. Roles being reversed, the hatchback area of the vehicle is not occupied by gear, but by two of the people. The remaining two are crouched on the ground a few feet away. The tarps each measure 9í x 12í and are royal blue. The first tarp rises from the ground, where it is pinned to a carpet of loblolly pine needles by a massive log of the same species. The second tarp is sutured to the first, but oriented horizontally, rising tangential to the raised backdoor of the Jeep. It is an improvised bivouac, open on two sides, closed on four.

The tarps whip as sails will, snapping in a gale. Were this a sloop rather than a Jeep, that would not be metaphorical, but simply accurate. Wind is screaming through the loblollies; encountering Tarp #1 head-on. Rain is gushing over the tarps and the car. Rain is fragmenting in spray as it falls. Rain is gunneling along the seam between the tarps, working its way around the doorframe of the car, pooling around the tires and the feet of the two people on the ground. Every few seconds, the horizontal tarp disgorges a bolus of pooled rain. It fills, flexes, and then ñas a trampoline will ñ rebounds. A terrific splash results, gouging the soil at the corner of the lean-to.

I am one of the people. As the thunderstorm nears its crescendo, I am telling my joke. I only know one joke; and I save it for last in situations like this. To pass time in a thunderstorm, you can ogle the lightning, point out thrashing tree limbs to each other, or you can chat. After we had run through a round of weather conversation, Kathryn told a joke. Then Chris told a joke and Rachel told a joke. It was my turn. My joke is a long joke: one whose humor derives from the fact that it takes five minutes to tell, chock full of details, and ends with a non sequitor unrelated to the whole story. Ostensibly, itís about horses. Really, itís about tricking people into listening to a pointless tale. If you ever go camping with me, you may hear it over a crackling fire, or to pass the time as we shelter from a storm. As I speak, the rain courses down in convex rivulets and forms images of distortion on the windows of the Jeep. In an instant, everything is bathed in pink light. Tree branches are revealed on the ground in their shadows. Individual moving droplets are strobe-lit into apparent stasis; lightning showing their instantaneous position on the tie-lines. Darkness, ìone one-thousand, two one-thous-î, ka-blam. Thunder shakes the campground, reverberates in the woods and glass and plastic sheeting, dissipates, is absorbed by the layer of wet brown fascicles.

From the two open sides of our shelter, we can observe the pitch of the falling drops. The rain describes a trajectory of 45∫ from the horizontal. 45∫ from the horizontal is the same as 45∫ from the vertical. In this storm, the force of the wind is equal to the force of gravity.

Weíd been camping for not quite 24 hours now, in Janeís Island State Park in Maryland. We finished a dinner of roasted cob corn and burritos of black beans, white rice, crimson salsa, and guacamole the luminous color of a nuclear byproduct. As we masticated our meal, thunder sounded from the east at increasing intervals. Birds stopped singing. We battened down our hatches. Chris zipped up his tent. Rachel put food in the Jeep. Kathryn pulled drying clothes off of a line. I hurriedly carved stakes to pin a third tarp to the earth around my tent.

When all preparations had been made, we walked a short distance from site C-85, and stood on the bank of Daugherty Creek Canal, which separates Janeís Island from the Delmarva Peninsula. Over the salt marshes, the storm approached. A varicose vein of a million watts traveled from terrestrial electron source to atmospheric cloud recipient. The jagged bolt inscribed a false-color memory on my retina: it waggled in my eyeball as I jogged back to the site; thunder chased me down the path.

The tempest hit with a blitzkrieg of wind, followed by a barrage of high-yield droplets. After the initial bombardment, the strategy of the storm shifted to an embargo based on fluid dynamics, pinning the besieged campers to their shelter. After twenty minutes of this (culminating in the telling of my horse joke) came seriatim a barrage of new electrical discharges, each louder than the last. It was the stormís second wind, and we watched the world get wet. When this too had passed, the four of us turned our attention to the campsite.

A lake had formed in the site, and regardless of the efficacy of our tarp shelters and polycoated rain-flies, we had problems. When the water falls faster than the ground can absorb it, a flood occurs. I unzipped my tent: the sleeping bag was afloat on an inch of standing water, not a drop of which had leaked through the roof. Like a prairie dog, it had come from below: a chthonic upwelling, a Trojan horse bypassing my best defenses by coming through where least expected. I had been prepared for rain; but this spreading lake had caught me off guard.

The four twentysomething eastcoast whitekids discussed, and opted to break camp and depart. To do so, we waded through our campsite, and snorkeled to find submerged tent stakes. Despite immersion, our headlamps blazed like lighthouses off Cape Cod. We wadded our wet nylon into a ball and tied it to the roof. As Rachel drove us back to her house near St. Michaelís, Maryland, I slept soundly to the susurrus of windshield wipers and tires humming on wet asphalt.

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