Monday, March 17, 2014

130. Surviving an Ice Storm in Your Tent

There are certain experiences that allow you to look at modern inventions, e.g., a house, and realize just how truly majestically magical they are. In the grand scheme of human existence, solidly built houses are just a wink in time. We survived for 1,000's of years?, 100's of years? a very long time living just in piles of mud and sticks with maybe leaves and stuff (?) and it is coming to my attention that I have a significant lack of knowledge regarding human history. What I'm getting at is that we spent a significant portion of our species development without living in these protective roofed cubes. And yet we feel like we need them!

What makes us, in regular life, so scared to sleep outside without a solid structure built around us? Have we really grown so accustomed to this luxury that we've become soft and wimpy? Probably! But not in the way that you might imagine. The truth is that throughout all of human history, we've always been soft and wimpy. All else being equal, in a fight against a tiger, we are basically just noodly flesh bags. But who has two thumbs and an ability to create tools? THIS SPECIES.

So we learned how to use our thumbs to take things apart to make other things, other incredible inventions like houses and irrigation and plumbing and insulation and the Slap Chop.  And although we might not need all of those things all the time, in certain situations they are imperative. At some point we realized that no matter how much chanting, stomping and butt wiggling we tried, we could not control the weather. Living structures are the only way we have found to be more powerful than the weather, and it is a fallible system.

On the Appalachian Trail, we hardly ever stayed in shelters. Dumptruck and I preferred sleeping in our tent, mostly because it cut down on the likelihood of finding ourselves in the middle of an amphitheater of snoring. More honestly: I talk in my sleep, and I felt bad imposing the random indecipherable soliloquies on innocent strangers. I might have mentioned this before, and I'll probably mention it again, but somewhere along the trail in Pennsylvania, I woke myself up singing Sinatra's "Fly Me To the Moon" in full baritone. Meaning: I was singing so loudly that the sound of my own voice is what roused me from sleep.

The only exception to this rule was when the weather was dangerously bad, or just ceaselessly wet, we would opt to sleep in a shelter. Especially when there was snow or ice that would break the trees and drop giant pieces of wood like bowling balls from the sky, we thought sleeping in a wooden lean-to with a roof was probably safer than risking it in our tent.

But there was one night that we were not so lucky. Dumptruck and I were hiking with Whistle, Hotdog and Apollo, though on this particular day, Dumptruck and I had fallen a distance behind. The snow had started to melt, but then a freezing rain had come through, covering the wilderness in a quarter inch of slick, tail-bone cracking ice. The last threads of sunlight were disappearing from between the branches when Dumptruck and I slip-slidded our way up to a shelter. There were a lot of voices coming from inside. Too many.

We pulled back the ripped tarp that made up the 4th wall of the lean-to, and found that the shelter was packed with people. Both platform levels were jammed with way too many hikers already, and the floor was covered in an endless sea of hiking gear. Whistle, Hotdog and Apollo apologized profusely for not being able to save us a spot, but that was absolutely fair. Shelters are first come first serve, and we just didn't make it in time. Dumptruck and I realized pretty quickly that we were, as Charles Dickens would so eloquently describe: shit out of luck.

We dug through the ice and snow just outside of the shelter with our hands, trying to shovel out a spot that was somewhat level. We tried to pick a spot that had the least amount of tree cover, to hopefully avoid wayward branches falling on us. I can't say that I slept very well in our tiny fabric tent, as the silence of the wilderness was punctuated by the sounds of the howling winter wind, and the more alarming sounds of trees breaking and large branches crashing to the ground close by. I passed the time by pretending that I was one of the first nomadic settlers of North America, somehow surviving the endless winter, and not even being able to brag about it to anyone because prehistoric nomads don't put up with that kind of nonsense.

I think the next morning we probably could have set some kind of record for packing up and peace-ing out. Even though it was scary, and we woke up to a lot of new tree shrapnel on the ground that wasn't there the night before, there was something pretty cool about surviving the elements without the conveniences of modern living.

Humans are capable of so much more than we give ourselves credit for. Even if it's just making it through a terrifying night without wetting our sleeping bags.

Clever Girl

1 comment:

  1. You know you had a great trail experience when you're just a bit nostalgic for nights like that! To just survive is exciting...brings to mind the Winston Churchill quote from when he was a correspondent in the Boer War: "Nothing is more exhilarating than being shot at without result!" Love, Mom and Dad