As I sit here in Rockville, Maryland looking out the window at what has to this point been a minor storm, I am given cause for thought. What would it be like to be on the Appalachian Trail right now? Last year we weathered Hurricane Irene in exactly the same position. For us Irene was little more than a windy night. For those in New York it was much different. In the days following saw images of highways in New York flooded, we saw video of Prattsville, NY disappearing under water. The same forces that slowly cut away the Grand Canyon over millions of years can cut away a town in a few hours. It’s awesome in the intended form of the word.
A few months later we set out on the AT in NY for an overnight hike. That’s when it became very real. The forest was literally covered in treefalls. What must it have been like to be here? Were there hikers caught in it? Maybe it’s a bad allusion but the only thought I kept having was that it looked like a battlefield. It resembled what my mind imagines the landscape of Bastogne or Antietam looked like. Maybe it’s telling that the full power of nature can inspire such a comparison to war in my mind. It’s humbling.
I’ve talked before about an idea I have that part of the appeal of hiking and climbing is the triumph over nature. Like surfing, in isolation these acts are quite boring. But when you consider that your true accomplishment is “taming” mother nature it becomes a truly validating pastime. Well it is moments like this where mother nature reminds you that she is letting you do these thing. For when she chooses, you will no longer have such an impression of accomplishment. You are at her whim.
So is it with Hurricane Sandy. Were we hiking the AT this year we would be right around this exact spot. 3 1/2 months in, approximately 15 miles per day (hopefully), that’s around 1200 miles aka Maryland. Were we to have hiked last year, we would have been in NY during Irene. This has led me to one conclusion- there will be a hurricane next year so we better have a plan.
I’m sure most people know well in advance its coming. The AT is pretty well integrated both in proximity to towns and is virtual saturation with wireless access. So we will have plenty advance notice. There won’t be any Deep Impact moments or anything. Get off the trail, find a hotel, wait it out. But there is more to it.
What would we do? Get off the trail certainly. Trust a Hotel Yokel to survive a hurricane? Get a car and head for civilization? Even hiking itself would change. Will trails be closed? Is drinking water more likely to be contaminated? Will there be a greater chance of a tree coming down around us?
Growing up in Arizona we didn’t have things like this happen so I have no frame of reference. I remember in high school (late 90’s) there was a really bad “microburst”. Essentially it is hurricane level winds that arise out of nowhere and are gone just as quickly. It completely shut our town down. Power was out for three days (I think). The Spanish tiles that adorn most houses there had been thrown through windows and into cars. As storms go it probably wasn’t that bad relative to what happens out here. Still for us it was crazy. I remember our neighbors coming over because my parents had purchased something like $30 in McDonalds, the only way we could figure out food, and we all shared Bacon and Egg Biscuits as we took a break from cleaning up our world. It was surreal and even in my memory bears more likeness to a dream than a real event.
It really all speaks to the industriousness of human beings. I’ve spent the better part of the day today looking through images of people making preparations in places like Cape May, NJ. It’s crazy to see a place you’ve been now covered in water. As I see these pictures I just think- this is why we can survive as a species. I’ve always been really drawn to post-apocalyptic movies and I think that is part of the reason. Be it a looming fictional zombie invasion or a realistic historically-significant hurricane, we are a cognitive species capable of extensive problem solving– we will find a way.
In this respect I am also marked by a very unique feeling– I am more capable of surviving than I ever have been before. Our move toward improving our skill at backpacking has put us in a place that if for some reason we ever need to “bug-out”… we probably could. Granted that option isn’t anywhere near in play right now BUT IF IT WERE. Now we certainly are not Les Stroud or even some of my vaunted blogging idols. In fact I don’t even have a “bug out bag” (for those not in the know it apparently is a thing on par with choosing a cook system to develop your own preferred bug out bag that is in place if the aforementioned zombies take flight and can range from minor survival tools to guns and hunting gear). Still, if necessary we are fully equipped and reasonably prepared to walk out our door, head in any direction necessary, and be fine… as long as there is a convenience store open with food (no hunter/gatherer ability here). It’s a small point, maybe not even a fully rational one, but for some reason it gives me the tiniest degree of comfort.
Right now people up and down the East Coast are putting those abilities into action. Their lives are on hold. They aren’t concerned about DVR-ing the latest episode of Glee. They aren’t worried about their love handles. They aren’t ROFL’ing about the latest personification of a cat in a picture online. They are being humans. They are utilizing the same skills that allowed their ancestors to turn a piece of obsidian into a knife. The same skills that brought Europe out of Black Death and two World Wars. The same skills that brought towns like Vernazza, Italy and New Orleans back to life.
Well it’s about 4 hours until everything is supposed to go down around here. Montgomery County is well-known for the weakness of its energy infrastructure. It’s kind of crazy to think that one of most affluent areas in the country routinely sends its residents into hotels due to power outages at least once a year. We are lucky, our worst case scenario is still very bright. Alternatively the next 24 hours could be the worst of some people’s lives.
I hope that all the thru-hikers out there have found a safe place to hole up. If anyone is in the Maryland/WV/VA area and needs a ride to DC or something else give me a shout and we’ll figure it out.
Stay safe everyone. I know we will when we are in this position next year.