I lay in my tent in the dark. As the sun set, a bank of clouds had drifted overhead, so there was no moonlight. The campground had settled in for the night, thank god there weren’t any late night campfires with that infernal ring of yakkers getting increasingly drunk and loud as hours of sleeplessness clock by. It helps to be a large group with a shared daylight activity. During the day we drove upstream to paddle different sections of the Flathead River in Montana. In the late afternoon we returned to the small campground next to the river and after dinner we were tired and ready for bed an hour or so after sunset.
We had 4 little girls, around 10 years old. They had formed a troop and had set up their tent on the edge of the campground, away from their mothers. A 5th girl, about 14 was in a separate tent, also away from the adults.
Things got very quiet. No mysterious rustlings in the grass, no sad breeze sighing in the pine trees, no hard thumps of things falling to the ground. The silence felt solid, like cotton in my ears. I thrashed around as quietly as I could, I didn’t want to wake up Charlie by bumping into him but the tent was a tight fit and the sparks of static electricity I threw off as I moved sounded like distant gunfire. Eventually, even I settled down.
Don, our trip leader, in his tent nearby, fell into a deep sleep and sent out a deep contented snore. I like to hear him snore. I know that snore from many years of hearing it on many different rivers and it is as familiar and comforting to me as the sound of my husband’s breathing next to me. It means all the hustle and bustle of keeping twenty people organized is done for the day. I feel like his relaxation is so deep that there is some spare left over for me. I sighed and stopped listening for the mysterious sounds of the night.
I lay on my back and closed my eyes and started breathing in time to Don’s snoring. A bright flash of light penetrated my eyelids. Oh, no, a car, a late arrival, be good and pick a spot away from us so we don’t have to hear you stumbling around in the dark, setting up your tent.
There was no sound of an engine. Curious, I sat up, unzipped my door, but I couldn’t see any swinging headlights. Maybe they already had a site and they just went to bed. I lay back down and closed my eyes. I listened to Don snore.
Another flash and a long time afterwards a bass rumble. I sat up. A storm? I waited, got bored with it, started to lay down again, fidgeted with my sleeping bag and night cap instead. Suspense was overwhelming my desire to sleep. Another flash, yes, lightening. I started counting to see how far away it was. 21,22,23,24,25…Is it miles I am counting? How fast does sound travel? Rumble. Finally.
More lightening, counting, thunder. Each flash was followed closer and closer by the deep rumble of the thunder.
Charlie woke up, “What’s happening?”
“Sounds like a storm is coming.”
The girls. Are they going to be frightened, will they think of closing their rainfly? I put on my jacket and climb out of my sleeping bag, put on my shoes without socks, I can’t find them mixed in with all my clothes at the foot of the bag. Damn, all this stuff! It tires me out, just keeping track of everything.
I find my flashlight and crawl out of the tent and stand on the soft duff of the forest floor. The campground has turned into Fairyland, dark with lights floating everywhere. All the tents are lit like Japanese lanterns; a blue dome with a golden strip, a glowing green one and a warm orange one. People search for their rainflys, shove gear under picnic tables and fling tarps over the kitchen gear. A chorus of zippers opening and closing. The footsteps of the other campers is muffled by the red duff filling the paths. I join the dancing lights with my flashlight, I seem to be the only person who knows where the girls put their tent and even I am not sure I can find them in the dark. I move in their general direction, cautious about branches snapping in my face. The flashes of light and the rumbles are rushing to meet each other. I count to 10, then 7, then 5 as I run.
I find them, tumbled in a pile like puppies, sound asleep, smelling like apples. “Hey, wake up, there’s a storm coming. You need to get your stuff out of the rain.”
Tallulah’s head barely rises above the tangle of nylon sleeping bags, “Whaaa?”
“There’s a storm coming.”
“Oh.” Deep, exhausted sleep has drowned them, I am not going to be able to pull them up. They are on their own. I zip up the screen and the rain fly, circle the tent collecting loose gear. Their PFD’s and paddles and drybags are outside but rain won’t effect them one way or the other, they are already wet from the day’s paddling.
1,2,3,4,5 a rumble that lasts 30 seconds and rattled my ribcage sets me running back to my tent. I am chased by a rush of small hail. The trees are whipping the sky up in the darkness and small branches and leaves fall with the hail. By the time I get to the tent, rain has taken over and big fat drops whack the back of my head and shoulders. 1,2,3, crash. I unzip and fling myself into the tent without taking off my wet things. 1,2,3 crash, rumble, crash.
Charlie reaches for me, “Lie down, lets cuddle.”
I can’t. I am too excited. 1,crash. 1, rumblecrash. Then there is no time to count. The flashes of lightening are the sound and the sound is the flash. The storm is hitting the high ridge on the other side of the river. The flashes of lightening are going off like cannon and I imagine huge boulders being chopped off the cliff face and falling into the river. I hug my knees. I can barely stay in place. I am dancing inside. I want to howl like a wolf. Wind and rain beat the walls of the tent. I think momentarily about falling trees and stop that thought, I can’t change that, there is no place to get away from or to. Listen to the storm, feel the storm, feel the lightening through my eyelids when I blink.
Then the lightening separates itself from the thunder. 1,2. Then 1,2,3,4,5. The rain softens. Then 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10. The rain is replaced by the pocking of large drops falling on the taut fabric of the tent, then patty patty patty patty pat pat. 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10…20…30. I get bored with the counting but there is nothing else to do in the dark. The lightening is far away, now, dim and barely visible. The thunder that reaches us is long and deep, subsonic, disassociated from the sky and the lightening, more coming from the ground, trolls digging for gold or Chinese workers blasting a train tunnel.
I can hear the river for the first time – it must have risen a bit from the rain and is racing across the cobbles on the beach.
Don, like the last note of a symphony, starts to snore.