On a Friday night in early August, Jeff, our eldest son Casey, and I pitched our tents on the meadow-y shore of Becker Lake in Wyoming’s Beartooth Range. A low pressure system had delayed our seven-day hike by 24 hours, but now the weather had broken, and we’d decided to go for it.
At 5 a.m. the next morning, we woke to the sound of drizzle stinging against our tarp. It might have been sleet: too dark to see. By dawn, the rain came down confident and steady. Jeff suited up in full raingear and delivered coffee and instant oats to the tents.
Now what? Nothing to do but settle back into into our bags. No way we wanted to pack up and hike deeper into the mountains in a downpour. Jeff had loaded a dozen books onto his Kindle, so he was set.
I had one very slim volume, “The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology” by Thich Nhat Hanh. Mindfulness had been my plan of enquiry for the trip. By 10:30 in the morning, a marshy lake had advanced to the foot of our tent. I made a dash to the “bathroom,” during which I learned that the coating on my raincoat no longer repelled water. A clap of thunder and a bolt of lightning drove me back through the zippers.
For a timeless time, I lay on my back and watched rain drops converge into tadpoles that swam down the slant of the incredibly thin, cross-hatched tent fly.
I further amused myself by imagining what the resident chipmunks and marmots might be doing inside their rock dens. Were they hunkered in a semi-coma like us, smelly, damp and fuzz-toothed, pushing for more space against their companions?
I heard my sister’s voice inside my head: Why don’t you just come home? I think you might need to redefine the word ‘vacation.’ The rain pop-pop-popped against the tarp. I noted how my body curved against the ground. Here you are, I said to myself, exactly where you wanted to be. The wilderness! I experimented with new ways, or different ones, to stack and curl my arms and legs. Did I mention the dimensions of our tent? About the size of a throw rug.
We talked, tent to tent, with Casey. How have you been occupying yourself, I asked. Yoga, push-ups, reading, he said. I felt like a mindful slug. We talked about how easy it is to feel hot or cold inside our frail human skins. Jeff joined in: Humans evolved to handle tropical climates. To live in these northern elevations, you had to find a way to really deal with the elements. Like wool, fleece and down.
The sky lightened. White-crowned sparrows began to buzz and trill. The storm resumed. I floated the idea of hiking out, drying our stuff in a motel, resetting our hike tomorrow. Jeff said: I think we should tough it out.
How long, I asked. How many days of rain could we lie here?
I thought about the months we had spent anticipating and preparing for this precious time in the high Rockies, a place with a few trails, fewer visitors, unending wildflowers, and a very short season to hike between snowmelt (June) and snowfall (September). I had ordered freeze-dried food, planned supplements of snacks and cheese from the Bozeman Food Coop. We had travelled all the way from Florida: a lot of resources expended.
I turned on my right side, back to Thich Nhat Hanh. He said: “We human beings have always singled ourselves out from the rest of the natural world. We classify other animals and living beings as “nature,” thing apart from us, and we act as if we are somehow separate from it.”
Sigh. Okay. We’ll stick it out.
Another downpour drove us back inside. Before dark, we forced ourselves back into the cold rain to prepare a quick dinner, then hung our bear bags from a high rock. What else to do but try for another 12 hours of sleep?! The next morning, 36 hours after the storm began, Jeff woke before me and lay still in the tent, not daring to hope. “I’m afraid to look outside,” he murmured.
Could it really have cleared? Unzip. Yes! The sky had finally run out of rain..
What a happy morning it was, drying our gear in the sun! What gratitude we felt, how vibrantly-colored were the mountains, the flowers, the lake. How joyous we were to shoulder our packs!